Until this year, America’s civil space policy — and the budgets that derive from it — were still shaped by the political imperatives of the past and by the romantic fiction of spaceflight. Human spaceflight was an important part of the Cold War contest, proving that market democracies could surpass scientific socialism. The point has been made. New priorities should shape our national plans for space.

The over-long commitment to the shuttle ended with the administration of President George W. Bush, but it was replaced with a quixotic effort to recapture the orbital glories of the Richard Nixon years.

A long series of miscalculations left the United States with a fragile and fabulously expensive space transportation system. It will take years to recover, and some goals, such as a voyage to Mars, are simply unachievable absent major breakthroughs in physics and other sciences. A return to the Moon is possible, but at tremendous expense. NASA would need perhaps another $150 billion. There is no doubt that a return to the Moon would bring prestige to the U.S. and that if another nation such as China was to get there beforehand it would be interpreted as another sign of U.S. decline, but years of static space policy have put us in this uncomfortable situation.

The problem has not been a lack of money, but how it has been spent. Since 1989, NASA has received $385 billion, with $189 billion in the last decade. With these funds, a focused, well-managed program could have put people back on the Moon. Instead, the money went to activities that offered a low return for science and security. Let’s face it, low Earth orbit is boring. The space PR machine cranks out tales of cutting-edge science, but if there was anything interesting to do on the space station, it was done years ago, and adding a sun porch doesn’t change this.

So a reconsideration of manned spaceflight and our larger civil space policy is a good idea. First, whether or not you believe that commercial spaceflight will succeed, the risk is low. If it works, we are better off, and if it doesn’t, we are no further behind than we were in 2008 and we’ve only lost a little money. Second, an increased emphasis on unmanned missions for Earth observation and space exploration would produce greater returns to the national interest. Third, an expanded R&D effort might provide the new technologies we need for space. The Obama administration’s approach to civil space is long overdue and exactly right.

The new priority for space should be climate change. There is unequivocal evidence, despite careless mistakes and noisy protests, that Earth’s climate is warming. While the effects and implications of this are subject to speculation, there is no doubt that the world faces a major challenge. However, there are important shortfalls in data and analysis needed to understand this challenge. Inadequate data mean we cannot determine the scope or nature of change in key areas, such as the extent of Antarctic sea ice. Long-term changes in daily temperature are not well understood, in part because of limited observations of atmospheric changes. Our understanding of how some man-made influences affect climate change is still incomplete. These shortfalls must be remedied, if only to overcome the skepticism and doubt that hamper our efforts at mitigation.

Many independent reviews have found climate change to be a national security problem. Climate change poses serious risks to regional stability, national security and economic health. Earth observation is crucial for national security and the economy; manned spaceflight programs provide prestige. Climate change now occupies a central place on the global political agenda, and the United States should adjust its policies and funding priorities for civil space to reflect this. 

We need a robust space capacity for monitoring the climate. But many missions for collecting climate data are at risk of interruption. These include measurements of ocean color and biomass, and data on the role of forests in the carbon cycle. The most important shortcoming involves the monitoring of carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases. Reduction and regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is part of every discussion of how to manage climate change, but the 2009 crash of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite left the world essentially bereft of the ability to make precise measurements to assess emissions reduction. OCO cost approximately $280 million — about 2 percent of NASA’s annual budget for manned spaceflight — but it was not until this year that the decision was made to fund a replacement.

Satellite observations serve an indispensable role and provide unprecedented knowledge of inaccessible regions. Of the 44 Essential Climate Variables, which are necessary to support climate negotiations, 26 are dependent on satellite observations. Even climate skeptics might agree that collecting long, consistent data sets on key variables is essential. Satellites do this best.

If we want a space program that supports the national interest, Earth observation is more important than human spaceflight. In practical terms, this means spending less on human spaceflight in order to fund a sustained program of satellite-building for a robust climate monitoring space system.

The United States must make climate-monitoring satellites its near-term priority in civil space. Earth observation data are critical, but the paucity of satellites and sensors in orbit to measure climate change is disturbing. We do not have a robust infrastructure for monitoring climate change. Until this changes and an adequate space infrastructure is in place, satellites specifically designed and equipped with advanced sensors for monitoring climate change should be the first priority for civil space spending.

Civil space policy is, of course, not an all-or-nothing issue. The United States can fund a range of space programs, manned and unmanned, for exploration and for Earth sciences. It is a question of priorities. Funding for Earth observation should increase, as it is more important now for the national interest to monitor and manage climate change, even if that means a slower pace for other worthy programs, such as the return to the Moon, until a robust Earth observation system has been put in orbit.


James Lewis is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.