Commentary | Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

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Most thoughtful people believe that the across-the-board U.S. budget cuts known as sequestration are bad public policy. If there is a will to make cuts in public expenditures — including in space programs — they should be made selectively rather than cutting everything by a fixed amount. Otherwise, vital programs can be damaged, public safety put in peril, and obsolete or redundant programs continued when they should be halted.

Yet sequestration-related cuts do, in fact, help open the door to reviewing all of the U.S. space programs critically. This could start a new process to define the key goals and objectives for the future. 

Neither NASA nor the Defense Department has asked for advice on how to identify the most essential programs or which projects might be terminated with minimal damage, but here goes anyway. At least, here are five basic question areas that might help set some space priorities:

Space and Combating Climate Change

In light of the fact that the Earth’s global atmosphere reached a new danger point in May with over 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide concentration — something that has not happened in the last 3 million years — a key question is whether critical new space programs are needed to address climate change, global warming and rapid energy build-up in the atmosphere. This increased energy now gives rise to violent weather and billions in storm damage. Should not human survival be at the top of the list in all governmental programs, including space activities?

Crashing ISS into the Pacific 

Is serious consideration being given to the ultimate disposal of the international space station (ISS) after 2020? In light of the nearly $200 billion of  global investment in the ISS so far, could not the ISS be — at least in part — intelligently reused?

Planetary Defense

Should there not be a global game plan related to a variety of cosmic hazards? Should not the world’s space agencies and defense ministries devise and back such a plan? Could a globally brokered, longer-term plan be achieved among the space agencies? Sub-questions here include the following: 

  • Why did the B612 Foundation have to embark on the $400 million Sentinel spacecraft program on its own in order to create a space capability to warn us of potentially hazardous asteroids? Only after the recent Siberian explosion have people begun to pay heed to this very real threat. 
     
  • Why is the problem of space debris actually continuing to get worse?
     
  • Are we prepared for a coronal mass ejection like the 1859 Carrington Event, or could such a catastrophe wipe out our satellites, our computers and our modern telecommunications and bring us back to the Stone Age?
     
  • Are there actually “cracks” appearing in the world’s protective magnetosphere and if so what can be done about it? 

Shifting the Load to Commercial Space 

In light of the fast-evolving new commercial space capabilities, could not more projects, activities and space transport systems be further privatized or streamlined and shifted from NASA, the Defense Department, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, etc., to be done by private enterprise? Could this achieve lower costs with program results being achieved faster? A sub-question is: Does competition from Space Exploration Technologies and Sierra Nevada also make Boeing, Lockheed Martin and EADS more efficient? 

Global Space Initiatives

Could not some of the most ambitious and expensive space exploration programs, such as the James Webb Space Telescope or solar research spacecraft programs, have been better achieved as global space projects? Could not smaller satellites such as three-unit and six-unit cubesats be effectively integrated into global space research initiatives related to space weather research, for instance? Also, why not explore opportunities related to small satellites and hosted payloads to allow more global space cooperation involving Argentina, Brazil, Israel, South Korea, Pakistan and Turkey as well as commercial and university initiatives such as the Surrey Space Technology Centre and Utah State University? 

One could go on to ask a number of other questions about priorities related to the Defense Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other space agencies around the world, but the larger issue here is: Why is there not better strategic planning, better methods of setting top space priorities and creating more effective international space cooperative programs? Would not such a strategic review and new goal-setting activity better leverage space investments and remove redundancies? The fact that there are at least six satellite navigation systems now in place or planned that are highly overlapping and economically inefficient represents but one clear example of needless space redundancy. 

NASA and the Defense Department could ask an honest broker such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics or a leading university to host a workshop to come up with not only a list of 20 critical questions, but perhaps a list of recommendations that would make U.S. and perhaps international space programs more productive, less redundant, more commercially leveraged and better targeted to strategic goals.

The final question is, what would be the harm in trying to make our space programs more productive and more cost-efficient?  

 

Joseph N. Pelton is the former dean of the International Space University and the author of some 40 books about space and technology in modern society, including the recently released “Space Debris and Other Threats from Outer Space.”