The current debate over U.S. civil space policy makes for fascinating reading, but recurring political chaos about the nation’s space exploration goals benefits no one. Leaving aside for a moment the merits of President Barack Obama’s proposal to redefine the human spaceflight program of NASA, we as a nation should ask: How should our country best make such judgments and, perhaps more important, how can we establish a process that would avoid the kind of instability we are experiencing and lead to better results?
As we know, NASA originated in post-World War II geopolitics for the purpose of developing space systems that would help us master outer space for domestic and international benefits. The political decision to extend our mastery of new territory outside Earth’s orbit was a relatively easy one; at the time, the Soviet Union’s actions made clear the political and technological costs of not acting.
Political choices about the space program today are not so obvious, and it is increasingly clear that the United States needs a better way of setting priorities, goals and missions for human space exploration than was used during Cold War conditions. By rough count, since 1969 there have been 24 presidential blue-ribbon panels and agency evaluations of NASA’s human space exploration direction, 22 attempts by Congress to terminate the international space station program and cancellations of at least 10 projects related to a space shuttle replacement.
While NASA’s budget for human space exploration is approximately 0.5 percent of the total federal budget, these aborted projects represent billions of dollars that could have been spent achieving something for America. The programmatic churn results not only in a price tag for unrealized projects but also in the well-documented erosion of our aerospace industrial base, decaying infrastructure and the disengagement of our brightest young minds. We should add to this cost the country’s loss of credibility and stature when we derail the plans of our international partners and abandon leadership in one of the few remaining areas where we truly are pre-eminent. In short, churn carries many opportunity costs.
The United States deserves a sustainable human space exploration effort that is responsibly planned and given the consistent support necessary for a complex technical effort to succeed. In this age of record deficits, unemployment and troubling geopolitics, we — or rather our elected leaders — could choose to proceed differently this time around, with a vision for policy stability.
The key challenge is that reconsiderations of space policy seem to match the length of the presidential election cycle, or sometimes even the annual appropriations cycle. We need to provide greater intellectual continuity to these reviews if we are to have any hope of policy stability.
Policy stability is not an unheard-of feat; examples exist where a prioritization process stabilizes long-term national plans while still enabling political accountability for public resources. For example, for the past 40 years, the space science community and, more recently, the Earth science community have managed an inclusive, deliberate process to determine the most important questions and missions of their disciplines for the decade to come. Their process sets 10-year research and technology priorities, taking the guesswork out of the scientific ends that the government should support, thereby reducing and even avoiding the annual churn otherwise created by the U.S. government’s legislative process or election cycles. The executive branch and Congress accept the scientific communities’ priorities and goals and determine the amount of public resources available. While funding and schedules can and do change with the budget process, the goals and destinations in space do not.
It is time for human space exploration to be put on similar footing so that the political decisions are less about what the priorities, goals and missions are, and more about how many the country can afford at a given point in time, especially relative to other national needs. A managed and regular prioritization process should replace episodic, ad hoc presidential commissions in order to ensure that the compelling questions for human space exploration are asked and answered with an enduring consensus in an accountable way and that diverse and iconoclastic views are considered.
Similar to the way the science community does it, an external, independent review body would be managed to assess human space exploration’s relevance to stakeholders and to develop priorities for a six- to 10-year span. The process would produce assessments of relevance and priorities, not instructions on how to execute them, and would be organized thematically around major, compelling questions about humans’ future in space. Central, compelling questions such as, “Can humans ‘live off the land’?” and “Are there commercially valuable resources?” could serve as organizing principles for the activity since a questions-oriented approach makes it easier to keep stakeholders engaged and committed to the undertaking.
While year-to-year appropriations may vary, the human space exploration priorities would not change, and NASA would then develop programs and projects that would be responsive to those questions (thereby retaining civil leadership in the systems engineering and government-funded portion of space architectures). The outside group, selected by the president and Congress, would involve scientists, engineers and industry representatives, public interest, education and labor groups, as well as scientific, technical, national security and foreign policy organizations. In essence, this outside group, like the space scientists’ peer-review community, would provide national representation and continuity of intellectual leadership for human space exploration, reduce churn and provide outside validation on NASA’s progress in human space exploration.
Longer-term congressional authorizations embracing the results of this process would provide the legislative buy-in necessary to institutionalize these outcomes. The next NASA authorization bill provides a perfect opportunity. A process that bridges election cycles can be the prescription for ensuring that human space exploration priorities and goals are relevant to America’s broader national interests, consistent with our self-image, and, most of all, sustained for the long-term benefit of the nation.
Chuck Atkins is former chief of staff to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology. Elizabeth Newton is director for aerospace and defense policy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.