NASA human spaceflight has been politically vulnerable since the success of the Apollo program 50 years ago. Shifting priority from space exploration to economic development is the surest way for the United States to build a growing and sustainable human presence in space.
Political patronage and human spaceflight
A powerful political imperative drove the Apollo program to demonstrate the superiority of American culture and technology by beating the Soviets to a landing on the moon. Apollo was a spectacular success, but in the rush to land on the moon within the decade, the program built no foundation for future development. It created neither a space station nor an economical space transportation system. Apollo did not set the stage for any immediate economic returns.
With the Moon Race won, support for the program immediately dwindled. Human spaceflight retained broad residual popularity that did not impose any specific goals, leaving political patronage as the primary source of support for NASA human spaceflight. Political patronage came from two value streams: presidential and congressional. The dynamics of these value streams have driven many of the arguments about NASA human spaceflight over the last 30 years.
Presidential patronage depends entirely on the interests of each president. When interested, they generally start a new human spaceflight initiative like President Kennedy did when he started Apollo. For President Reagan, it was the space station program, which was the last presidential startup that succeeded. For President George H.W. Bush, it was a Mars mission that was declared dead on arrival in Congress. Without an external mandate for a long-term commitment from the executive branch, priorities have shifted from Mars missions to the moon missions to Mars missions and back again. Why not?
Likewise, without an external mandate, congressional patronage devolves to their natural function as conduits for money to their constituents and campaign donors. Congress can be counted on to deliver space program funds to the same states and contractors unless driven by a more powerful force to do something different. Again, why not?
Patronage-driven objectives created value propositions in which neither goals nor actual performance mattered. Between 1990 and 2010, NASA canceled a dozen programs intended to replace the space shuttle. These programs spent about $20 billion in total. From the National Aerospace Plane through the X-33 to Constellation, NASA canceled these programs without ever accomplishing a mission.
Presidents were satisfied with bragging rights from announcing new programs. Congress directed money to their constituents and donors, and was thus satisfied. They accomplished nothing else, and no one cared. If anyone had cared, $20 billion of fruitless cancellations would have generated national scandals with outraged congressional hearings and speeches denouncing government waste. No such outrage occurred.
The only significant change in human spaceflight value streams came when President Reagan invited international partners to join the space station program. Foreign relations then provided an external value stream that at least demanded long-term commitment. It helped the space station survive a close Congressional vote in 1991. President Clinton then doubled down by bringing Russia on board as a full partner just in time to save the space station from a congressional vote in 1993 that preserved the program by only one vote.
Scientific discoveries and practical results
In contrast, strong external value streams in addition to presidential and congressional patronage support all parts of NASA other than human spaceflight. Scientific communities and universities that depend on NASA data support the planetary science and astronomy programs. We can count on them to break down the doors of Congress if those data flows are seriously threatened.
The Earth science and heliophysics programs have similar scientific community support plus they provide economic returns in areas like weather forecasting, climate forecasting, land-use planning, ocean industries, and space weather reports. To complete the pattern, the little-noticed aeronautics research program supports economic returns in the powerful aviation and airline industries, and thus earns their support.
Only political patronage and international partnerships support NASA human spaceflight, so it is more vulnerable than it may seem. A powerful competing demand for funding and technical talent, a serious effort to balance the budget, or even a change in political sentiment could wash it away in any budget cycle, as almost happened in the 1990s.
A sustainable, win-win path forward
The way to assure a sustainable future for U.S. human spaceflight is clear, and it extends beyond NASA. U.S. human spaceflight needs to develop value streams that don’t depend solely on political patronage.
Ideal value streams would provide the most value to the greatest number of parties to drive a maximum level of political support. They would also be symbiotic with human spaceflight, so the human spaceflight program would share the support. The new value streams, therefore, need to be enterprises that employ large numbers of people in space. Fully automated systems such as today’s communications satellites do not provide crossover support to human spaceflight.
“Space industry” in this context means an industry that employs people in space. The focus here is on “industry” defined as “systematic labor, especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value.” To make the distinction clear, commerce is defined as “the exchange or buying and selling of commodities on a large scale involving transportation from place to place.” Commerce does not necessarily imply creating value through labor.
To have a positive return on investment while employing people in space, the new space industries will have to produce tremendous value for people on Earth. To provide support that is stable over time, they also need to create value only producible in space and uniquely enabled by the space environment. These benefits by their very scale are likely to be transformational for human civilization.
Space industry possibilities
People are beginning to develop several new space industries, including expanded biomedical and materials research, production of biomedical treatments, space manufacturing, satellite assembly and servicing, space mining, space tourism, and space-based solar power. The International Space Station has begun to produce experimental results that point toward new products to be made in space, such as superior quality fiber optics and custom-grown replacement organs. These possibilities necessarily omit the unknown opportunities that we might discover as we go.
We should view the quest for high value from space as a form of exploration. Just as we explore physical spaces, we can also explore value spaces. Moreover, the quest for value can be as inspirational as physical exploration. It is, first of all, uncertain. As with developing new cures for diseases, there is no guarantee that any of the new space industries will succeed, but successes can bring huge returns. The only way to find out is to try.
A quest for value or pursuit of political bragging rights?
The quest for uncertain value could “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” as John F. Kennedy said in his Rice University speech. Can proponents of a mission to the moon a half-century after the first landing make the same claim?
A quest for value could also attract more popular support than people might expect. Two surveys conducted in 2019 give some clues on the priorities of the American public. One by C-SPAN and Ipsos estimated that 27% of Americans thought conducting experiments on the International Space Station was a top priority versus 18% for a manned mission to Mars and 8% for a manned mission to the moon. Another by The Associated Press and the NORC Center estimated that 68% thought monitoring objects in space that could impact the Earth was very important and 42% thought funding the International Space Station was very important versus 27% for sending astronauts to Mars and 23% for returning astronauts to the moon.
Public opinion clearly favors practical benefits over human exploration these days. Note also that these two surveys did not include any of the more visionary of the potential benefits of space, such as carbon-free solar power from space or replacement organs grown in space. The public might strongly favor the full potential of practical benefits if we presented them with the choice.
NASA and space industrialization
NASA human spaceflight can expect transformational benefits from space industrialization. Government enterprises that transition into commercial industries typically achieve 10-to-one cost reductions within the first two product cycles, followed by still more cost reductions. SpaceX is demonstrating this process for space launch. It’s reasonable to expect that a proliferation of commercial space stations would produce similar cost reductions for many systems that are also needed for space exploration. What might the current space exploration budget accomplish if many of its cost drivers cost a tenth as much as they do now? Space industrialization is a very good investment for human space exploration.
To make this investment succeed, however, NASA will need to embrace a supportive role similar to the one the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics played in the early days of the American aviation industry. NASA has an in-house role model in their own Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. It is heir to the NACA and should be able to help the human spaceflight program support new space industries.
NASA will not be alone in supporting the new industries. In ways that are again similar to the early days of aviation, the Defense Department, the Transportation Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department will each have roles to play. Supporting the growth of new industries is a whole of government enterprise.
Living where you work
We need one more ingredient to accelerate the growth of new space industries — a goal. Space industrialization is a great purpose, but it’s a bit like Horace Greely’s “Go West, young man!” How far west is the West? What are the milestones? The purpose needs a goal to focus the effort in the way that the moon landing did in the 1960s. Space settlement should be that goal.
Space settlement is not as arbitrary a goal as the moon landing was. Communities in space will be a natural and inevitable consequence when space industries grow large enough to employ large numbers of people. Planning for these communities should be a part of any plan for growing space industries.
Many people desire space settlement for a variety of reasons, including economic benefit, expanding civilization, saving the Earth, and “We just want to go.” Space settlement has been a recurring theme since President Reagan’s National Commission on Space produced its report, “Pioneering the Space Frontier.” They declared a bold pioneering mission for the United States: “To lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlement beyond Earth orbit.”
One thing is certain — the first economically successful community in space will mark a point at which space industries will be providing huge benefits to humanity and will have earned substantial self-sustaining momentum. Space settlers will be paying their own way. Greely’s full quote reads, “Go West, young man, and grow up with your country,” an appropriate call for young people in today’s world. If you are young enough, you could be among those enterprising space pioneers.
Gary Oleson is a senior aerospace engineer a member of the board of directors of the Space Frontier Foundation.