A quarter-century ago, a small group of space activists created the Space Frontier Foundation. Now a new generation has picked up the torch, because despite a lot of progress, humanity still doesn’t have a free and open space frontier.

This failure reflects many problems, but central is a continuing failure of U.S. government space policy.

Civil space certainly struggles with many of the same circumstances that aggravate most public policy issues, but those only mask our core challenge: an endless debate about proper goals. President Barack Obama has embraced the idea of visiting a near-Earth asteroid before pursuing Mars. Many Republican congressmen believe that returning to the Moon should be our focus. Still other leaders, including many scientists, say that Mars itself is the only proper objective.

The problem with these claims that one favored destination is “the goal” for our civil space enterprise is not that the choice is wrong, but that the entire question is at least premature, if not misguided. We shouldn’t be asking why (or why not) go to A instead of B, or before B. We should be asking why we should go anywhere. Why send humans into space at all?

Sure, we offer vague platitudes and intangible benefits, but we seem afraid to assert the obvious answer: because humanity is going to live in space someday. It’s almost as if we’re terrified that if we admit that our real purpose is settling the solar system, we’ll be laughed out of the room, and shortly thereafter America will disband its human spaceflight endeavors.

Perhaps we’re afraid that we can’t settle space, at least not in any reasonable timeframe using available resources and graspable technology. But avoiding even the question of choosing our real purpose, and avoiding at all costs measuring our progress against that real purpose, leaves us fighting over tactics without a definition of victory, let alone a strategy to win.

The Space Frontier Foundation believes that space settlement is the real reason to have a space program, and therefore we insist on measuring every policy or project against that purpose. To that end we have created the Settlement Enabling Test, a series of metrics to determine whether an idea or initiative advances us toward our fundamental goal. It can be applied to everything from the Asteroid Recovery Mission to the life extension of the international space station or any other proposal or decision.

Fundamentally, this test is rooted in America’s twin values of individual free choice and the sharing of a common vision. An abridged version is presented below. Please read through the questions, and think about what each one means to the future of our space enterprise. Use them when considering a space policy issue, whether you are an elected official, a company president, an engineer, an investor or even a recently graduated student. And know that we will be using this test to measure, and both praise or criticize, the programs and issues that NASA proposes.

Aaron Oesterle is space policy director and James Pura is president of the Space Frontier Foundation.

 Space Frontier Foundation’s Settlement Enabling Test

1. Societal Values

a. This proposal is consistent with the values the Space Frontier Foundation believes are necessary for a free and open frontier in space.

b. This proposal maintains budget transparency, and therefore supports honest decision-making.

c. This proposal includes rigorous and independent oversight.

d. This proposal has a reasonable implementation plan, budget and schedule so that it is likely to be properly executed.

2. Expanding Human Access to the Frontier

a. This proposal encourages or allows a greater number of nongovernmentally funded people to fly or operate in space.

b. This proposal encourages and supports a greater diversity of people who are able to fly or operate in space.

c. This proposal enables or encourages more people to increase the longevity of their stay in space.

3. Ensuring the Sustainability of Space Settlement

a. This proposal encourages the use of resources that do not require launching mass from the surface of Earth.

b. This proposal uses or makes available the resources of space in a smart, sustainable way.

c. This proposal enhances or encourages the reuse and recycling of terrestrial materials carried into space.

d. This proposal maintains or increases the usability of the space environment.

4. Creating a Pro-settlement Policy/Legal/Regulatory Environment in Space

a. This proposal develops a regulatory environment that fosters settlement, utilization and/or commercialization.

5. Creating Value/Profit from the Space Environment that Supports/Catalyzes Settlement

a. This proposal encourages the creation of items (goods and services) of value that derive most of their value from space.

b. This proposal encourages additional investment of time, money or talent into frontier-enabling activities.

6. Developing Space Capabilities

a. This proposal identifies and prioritizes key strategic space capabilities (not technologies) that directly enable, enhance or accelerate space settlement in a broad, inclusive manner.

b. This proposal includes in its implementation plan a viable path for an idea to emerge as a commercial product or service that delivers a key strategic capability.

c. This proposal makes full use of existing or planned commercial capabilities (i.e. goods and services) to achieve one or more strategic space capabilities.

d. This proposal would sustainably achieve the desired strategic capability.

e. This proposal creates no governmental hardware that harmfully competes with private-sector approaches in meeting a desired strategic capability.

f. This proposal creates government-furnished hardware in a way that it can be adapted for commercial use once the strategic capability is achieved.

7. Return on Investment

a. This proposal provides a good return on investment to taxpayers in terms of enabling space settlement.

Aaron Oesterle is space policy director of the Space Frontier Foundation.