Since the issuance of U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Space Policy on June 28, the administration has left in place, for now, the George W. Bush administration’s targeted policies on space transportation, remote sensing, and positioning, navigation, and timing. Revision of these policies is expected to begin in the next year. In contrast, the previous administration’s space exploration policy was rescinded, but there is no indication that a replacement is forthcoming. This would leave a serious gap because the language on this topic in the National Space Policy is insufficient to guide NASA’s flagship activity through the decades ahead.
The Bush administration’s exploration plan took the traditional destination-driven approach and made only token mention of the role of international partners and the U.S. commercial sector. It made the critical error of artificially separating space exploration and development — two parallel activities that draw on the same knowledge base, operational experience, and technologies that will enable us to extend our reach across the solar system. There are hopeful signs that the Obama administration is disinclined to repeat this error.
In contrast to the way exploration and development evolved in the Cold War era, the U.S. government should not be expected — and in fact, is not able — to fund, develop and operate a majority of the projects and infrastructure. The new National Space Policy recognizes this, which is a step in the right direction, but it still falls short of a coherent long-range plan with clearly defined purposes. Before setting dates for human missions to an asteroid and to Mars orbit, the U.S. needs to define the purpose of such missions as part of a larger strategic plan in the national interest. A plan of great scope and duration is extraordinarily difficult to formulate, gain approval for, and sustain, but enduring success in a resource-constrained environment demands that we undertake the difficult process of formulating and winning approval for a plan to expand human and robotic activity throughout the Earth-Moon system and then to other parts of the solar system.
In recent years, there has been a tendency for government officials and other advocates to make compelling but unsupportable statements about “our destiny” or national pride, and emphasize side benefits such as creating technology spinoffs and inspiring our young people. A stronger rationale lies in the motivations that have always driven humankind toward major undertakings in unfamiliar and challenging environments:
- Space is where the resources are.
- Space will provide new avenues to help us solve problems, improve the human condition, and possibly ensure the continuation of our species.
Humans in search of knowledge, raw materials and energy have explored the most hazardous environments on Earth, including the ocean floor, the polar regions, treacherous terrain and underground mines. Valuable discoveries have spawned economic booms and determined human migration and settlement patterns. Someday, this will be repeated in space because the resources of the solar system are abundant beyond our foreseeable ability to fully exploit them. Although hostile, the space environment offers potentially useful properties such as microgravity, vacuum, continuous solar energy and isolation from Earth.
Avenues to problem-solving also are significant motivators. History has given us many examples of communities of people moving to escape political or religious persecution or a deteriorating environment. The initial movement into space to look for solutions started decades ago with more machines than people. The problems we’ve sought to address have included political and military tensions between nations, the need for faster and more comprehensive communications, mitigation of the destructive forces of nature, and measurement of the effects of our actions on the health of the planet.
These efforts will persist, and will continue to depend primarily on machines. But space tools and facilities will grow in size, number and capabilities, drawing sustenance from the extraterrestrial energy and material resources that will be developed in parallel. New problem-solving missions will become feasible, such as moving environmentally damaging activities off the Earth, or averting the destruction of an incoming asteroid.
If the space accomplishments of the 21st century are to evolve in this direction, we need to transition away from the way we’ve planned and prioritized our space activities in the past. Principles that should be articulated in a new presidential directive on exploration and development include the following:
- Space exploration and development shall be undertaken for the purposes of increasing scientific knowledge, improving stewardship of Earth, adding value to the global economy, enhancing international cooperation, and in general, extending human activity into the solar system for peaceful, beneficial purposes.
- U.S. government exploration and development missions will include humans when their presence is expected to yield cost-effective benefits or otherwise uniquely contribute to mission success and/or the national interest.
- Government-funded space infrastructure projects shall have applicability beyond a single mission or short-term series of missions.
- New operational capabilities and infrastructure created in U.S. government space development programs shall be designed for transfer to operational entities in the U.S. government, private sector or nonprofit sector.
- Operations beyond limited-duration science missions and engineering test projects shall not be assigned to NASA or other U.S. government research and development (R&D) organizations.
These principles establish a philosophy and work environment that facilitate the concurrent evolution of space exploration and development employing partnerships between government, nongovernment and international players, each performing the roles most appropriate for them. The next step is to set ambitious but achievable goals that progressively add space capabilities and contribute to global solutions.
The new goals must be more precise than in past policies that have simply called for advancing U.S. interests and expanding human activity into the solar system. That does not mean they must be restrictive or lacking in ambition. In fact, the opposite is true — the goals must be flexible and bold. They should be viewed in two different timeframes: short- to medium-term (2010s to 2030s) and long-term (2040s to the end of the century). Also, they should be national goals that should not (and cannot) be achieved solely through government programs and investment.
Short- to medium-term goals should seek to develop enduring infrastructure, skill sets and experience that will be essential for living, working, establishing communities and creating value in the inner solar system. These goals are capabilities — not destinations — that will be essential for creating a spacefaring society that can expand its knowledge, economy and sustainability. They include developing the technologies, processes, expertise and infrastructure for:
- Utilization of the unique characteristics of space, such as microgravity, vacuum, prolonged solar exposure and isolation from Earth, to produce useful knowledge and products.
- Harvesting and processing extraterrestrial materials and energy resources.
- Building large structures in Earth and lunar orbits.
- Building installations on planetary surfaces, constructed to the greatest extent possible with local materials.
- Advancement of space robotics to minimize the need for human presence in activities that are hazardous, remote or strong candidates for automation, and to provide direct assistance to humans where human involvement is required.
Achievement of these goals should lead to the following long-term goals starting around mid-century:
- Construction and operation of large structures that minimize their dependence on supply lines from Earth, designed for science, commerce and other purposes.
- Aggregation of large space structures into industrial parks at locations deemed valuable for their proximity to space resources, Lagrange points or other attributes.
- Realization of significant contributions to the terrestrial economy through energy and manufactured products for use on Earth and in space.
Note that none of these goals specifies a planetary destination. Certainly, the Moon and near-Earth objects will be early destinations due to their close proximity and the broad range of contributions they can make to the goals. What comes next, and when it should come, should be driven by progress toward the goals, the rate of technological advance, the lessons of experience and the availability of resources from all participants.
If the principles and goals, as suggested above, tell us that ongoing operations should be kept out of R&D organizations, and that our top priorities are advanced knowledge and useful capabilities rather than specific destinations, we can begin to piece together a strategy that will put us on a path to our goals. At a minimum, such a strategy would require the following:
- Redirect NASA to focus on R&D and shed its operational duties, other than limited-duration science and engineering mission operations that support its R&D programs.
- For operational and infrastructure components created by U.S. government space development programs, establish the identity and relationship of the intended system operator at the beginning of the program. The intended operator may be an operational entity of the U.S. government, the U.S. private sector, the U.S. nonprofit sector or an international consortium, but not an R&D organization.
- Set target dates for achieving capability milestones. Plans for reaching planetary destinations shall flow from the achievement of relevant capability milestones, not the other way around.
Principles and goals should be designed to endure, while the strategies and programs supporting them should be allowed to evolve. A document providing top-level policy guidance, such as a presidential directive or authorizing legislation, should not get into specific programmatic decisions, which must be allowed sufficient flexibility.
The political and organizational difficulties of executing a significantly altered U.S. civil space policy should not be underestimated. This was clearly demonstrated by the strong negative reactions from parts of the space community (and particularly from some members of Congress) prompted by the Obama administration’s relatively modest proposals for change at NASA in the 2011 budget request. However, before dismissing nontraditional options for the future of the nation’s space efforts, it is appropriate to recall a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
James A. Vedda is a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corp. in Arlington, Va., and author of “Choice, Not Fate: Shaping a Sustainable Future in the Space Age.” The opinions expressed here are his own.