Commentary | NASA at Another Crossroads
The American space program is at a perpetual crossroads. Every few years, policymakers reach some sort of consensus about the future. Contested though it may be, NASA creates programs to move in that direction. The science community plans for it and sets research priorities. Budgeteers begin identifying resources, and engineers start bending metal. Sometimes the vision persists long enough for the United States to achieve something great in space: the Apollo Moon landings, the space shuttle, the international space station, the Hubble Space Telescope.
Then things change. A multiyear program reaches its logical end. There’s an accident. There’s a budget crisis. (It seems there’s always a budget crisis.) Developing new technologies proves harder and more expensive than anticipated. A new set of policymakers comes along and scrambles the consensus.
NASA is in just such a place today. After the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, policymakers in the White House and both parties of Congress embraced the Vision for Space Exploration, which involved retiring the space shuttle and establishing a lunar base from which to proceed to Mars. Citing budgetary problems, in 2010 the Obama administration proposed canceling that agenda and shifting the national focus back to low Earth orbit. A Democratic Congress rejected the administration’s change of direction, leading the White House and Congress to compromise and pursue both goals: human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and an expanded human presence closer to home. Predictably, there are not enough resources for both. For the last three years, the White House and Congress have been caught in a low-intensity political struggle between futures that satisfies no one.
A growing chorus is calling for policymakers to reach some sort of productive consensus. The 2012 National Research Council report “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus” diagnosed NASA’s problems and, naturally, recommended the formation of a new, and undetermined, consensus. Just a few months later, a private group, the Space Foundation, offered a similar recommendation: “NASA needs to embrace a singular, unambiguous purpose that leverages its core strengths and provides a clear direction for prioritizing tasks and assigning resources.” Then, near the end of October this year, another arm of the National Research Council solicited public input via Twitter for its study of the human spaceflight program’s future. In November, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) raised the possibility of doing away with NASA’s human spaceflight program altogether.
While consensus has benefits, it may also have costs. In truth, a consensus of sorts already exists. Splitting the difference among policy preferences is a common outcome in the democratic process. It avoids creating winners and losers. Unfortunately, it is also a formula for an indecisive status quo and widespread dissatisfaction. Without specifying the shape of the future the space program should pursue, policymakers face the same dilemma: disagreement about the direction our space program should take.
The American space program’s challenge today is not to build a consensus about the future, but to consider the strengths and weaknesses, risks, costs and payoffs of various alternatives. For that reason, one should welcome CBO’s decision to raise the issue, even as we deplore the possibility.
Fortunately, we have a wealth of alternatives with a range of strengths and weaknesses. Examining tradeoffs among them is critical. A strategy of promoting commercialization, for example, might be best suited for using space to contribute to economic growth even as it conflicts with the goals the United States seeks from international cooperation. A destination-driven approach, such as reaching Mars by a date certain, could expedite efficient decision-making at the expense of building the infrastructure necessary to create a persistent human presence in the solar system. Before we seek consensus through compromise, it would serve policymakers’ interests to sharpen these kinds of differences among options in order to understand the opportunity costs of choosing one future over another. We can only make these tradeoffs when we assess the pros and cons of each honestly. Consensus for its own sake is not an effective strategy. We have some homework to do first.
The American inventor and engineer Charles Kettering once remarked, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” While it would be presumptuous to expect, and possibly counterproductive to wish, the government to define that future, there is no doubt that government will play a significant role in laying out America’s destiny in space. In that case, we would do well to heed the advice of groups like the National Research Council and Space Foundation to build a consensus about what lies ahead. But concern in this case requires more than consensus; it demands that we first consider the trade-offs among options. The alternative is a dissatisfying status quo sure to please no one.
Eric R. Sterner is a Fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute and editor of the forthcoming book “America’s Space Futures: Defining Goals for Space Exploration.”