Artemis astronauts
NASA is emphasizing the science that astronauts will be able to do on the first Artemis lunar lander missions, but there are questions about how many samples they will be able to return. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A new National Space Council report argues that the exploration and development of space must be an integrated effort that involves not just NASA but other government agencies, as well as international and commercial partners.

The report, “A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development,” released July 23 by the White House, is intended to outline how various government agencies will play a role in implementing national space policies, including a human return to the moon and eventual human missions to Mars.

“Although NASA is, and will remain, the primary United States Government entity for civil space exploration efforts, other departments and agencies have increasingly important roles to play in space,” the report states.

The report builds on existing policies, in particular Space Policy Directive (SPD) 1, which called for a sustainable return to the moon led by NASA with various partners, as well as a 2018 National Space Strategy, a broader space policy document that called for “peace through strength in the space domain.”

A senior administration official, speaking on background, said that the new report was intended to emphasize an integrated approach to space exploration and development. “A lot of people weren’t aware of how our approach on space was not just about NASA, not just about Space Force,” the official said. “The point of the report was to build on SPD-1 and also to paint a whole-of-government picture about what we were doing.”

The report describes three major areas of effort in that overall space exploration strategy: commercializing low Earth orbit activities, returning humans to the moon permanently and then sending humans to Mars. Those elements, the report says, also support science and education.

To carry out that strategy, the report identifies five major roles for government: promoting a “secure and predictable” space environment that involves both addressing space traffic management as well as regulatory reforms, supporting commercial activities in space, funding research and development of key space technologies, investing in private space infrastructure by being a “reliable customer” and backing space-related scientific activities.

The report is not intended to set new policy or direction, but instead outline how existing policies will be implemented by NASA and other agencies. One appendix in the report lists ongoing programs at various agencies that support space development, including those at NASA as well as the Departments of Commerce, Defense and Transportation, among others. A second appendix does the same with proposed programs.

“It’s not a binding policy document, but is something that indicates the exploration rationales for our priorities as we go forward,” the senior administration official said.

That can be useful in discussions with other countries about international partnerships, the official said. Representatives of those nations are looking for additional details beyond policy documents like SPD-1 about the administration’s plans as they consider potential cooperation. “This is hopefully a useful communications tool for dialogue with other space agencies, expressing strategic intent,” the official said.

The report was requested by Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, at an August 2019 public meeting of the council. The report, originally due to be completed six months after that meeting, was developed by space council staff, but the official said that there was an interagency review to get feedback from NASA and other agencies. The council’s Users’ Advisory Group also reviewed the report prior to release.

Those reviews did shape the document, the official said. The Users’ Advisory Group argued for more attention about the role of academia in the strategy that was later incorporated into the report. NASA feedback led to more discussion about LEO commercialization.

While the report emphasizes commercial partnerships in implementing the strategy, it is subtly critical of those who seek to move ahead, in the report’s view, too quickly. “Some people argue that humanity is destined to develop space settlements and become a ‘multi-planetary species,’” the report states, invoking a phrase often used by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and advocate of human settlement of Mars. Achieving that, the report states, requires both technical knowledge about how to use space resources as well as economic rationales to sustain such settlements.

“At present, we do not yet know if any of these conditions are possible,” the report concludes. “What we do know is that we will not be able to determine the answers without a space exploration and development effort that reaches beyond low-Earth orbit.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...