Op-ed | Building Consensus on the Future of Space

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On Feb. 19 and 20 a diverse group of over 100 space leaders from academia, government and industry came together at the Pioneering Space National Summit in Washington. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and several other space-related nonprofit organizations were also present. Why was this a remarkable event?

The space industry in the United States has been in a state of unrest over the last few years; change and uncertainty, coupled with new paradigms for procurement and increased private-sector activity, have all played a part. The result has been a community divided, with most of the conversation focused on the endless debate about destinations and launch vehicles. We were focusing on our differences and those were keeping us apart.

The Pioneering Space Summit was conceived as a means to bring together these many disparate parts of the community to find out whether, instead of highlighting our differences, a conversation about our common interests might lead to a high-level consensus about the U.S. human spaceflight program.

This was a very daring goal — bringing together people who in the past had passionate disagreements about policy and implementation, who rarely talk to each other, and who had little shared interest in even being in the same room. It was not clear at all what was going to happen when they all came together.

Ronald Reagan Building interior
The Pioneering Space National Summit took place at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. Credit: Library of Congress

The hope of achieving a “whole that is greater than the sum of its parts” will always be for this community, one that believes in the greater good and long-term benefits of the space program, a powerful dream; so people came. The hope was justified. After much discussion, debate and seemingly endless wordsmithing, the group reached a consensus on the human spaceflight program. The consensus reads:

“The long-term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.

“This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.”

In and of itself this may not seem to be an Earth-shattering or remarkable statement. There will be critics who dismiss the outcome as trivial and scoff, pointing out this is nothing new. As a matter of fact, our statement parallels the bipartisan language in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act:

“The long term goal of the human space flight and exploration efforts of NASA shall be to expand the permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international partners.”

The actual statement, while important, is not the most remarkable achievement of the summit. The most important result is the process used to reach consensus. By focusing on our shared interests rather than past disagreements, by listening to each other and exchanging frank viewpoints, the community found that it had much more in common than imagined. People who had never been in the same room with each other found themselves having dynamic and interesting exchanges of viewpoints. Relationships were being built that never would have had a chance to flourish. Finally, bringing so many diverse perspectives together to discuss common issues shed new light and opened up conversational avenues that otherwise could not have happened. This is the high-value output of the summit — the establishment of powerful potential and forward momentum for the space community as a whole.

Our consensus statement is at a high level. We know that; it is intentional. We all acknowledge that in many ways this was the easy part. As a community we have a lot of difficult work ahead of us to find common points of intersection on strategies, tactics and timelines. Discussions about what approaches are best will be much, much harder. There are still fundamental disagreements; those other conversations have not disappeared, but rather have been put into a different context. We will all not agree; we will have our arguments. We may decide to agree to disagree and move on. But with the foundation established at the summit and the relationships forged there — if carefully nurtured and grown — we can and will continue to find ways to focus on areas of overlapping interests and work as one to achieve those goals.

Thanks to summit organizers Rick Tumlinson and Mary Lynne Dittmar for getting this process started. At AIAA, we are committed to being actively engaged — and the voice of aerospace professionals — as this important conversation continues. This summit was an amazing first step. The next steps will be more difficult as we work to define the strategies that move us toward our goal. But let’s keep the conversation going — together!

 

Sandra H. Magnus is executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.