Commission Unanimously Supports Space Exploration Vision

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Publication date: 
28 June 2004

"The Commission fully supports your vision and finds that this journey of exploration will sustain vital national objectives here on Earth." - letter to President George Bush from E.C. "Pete" Aldridge, Jr., Chairman of the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond

A presidentially-appointed commission has just issued its report on how to effectively implement President Bush's Space Exploration Vision. The President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, better known as the Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond, declared in a June 16 report that it "unanimously endorses this ambitious yet thoroughly achievable goal of space exploration." But the commission also warns that to succeed, NASA's management, culture and operations "must be decisively transformed." The commission envisions a substantial role for a private-sector space industry that "today...does not really exist," and calls for a re-evaluation of NASA's scientific priorities to better align with the exploration objectives and opportunities.

President Bush appointed the commission (comprising nine members from the sectors of industry, government, academia and the military) in January of this year, with the charge to make recommendations on how best to undertake implementation of his space exploration vision (see FYI #20). The commission responded with a report that lays out eight findings and 14 recommendations.

In its report, the commission emphasizes three "imperatives for success:" sustainability, affordability, and credibility. To be sustainable, the report says, the exploration initiative "will require a steady commitment from current and future Administrations, Congresses, and the American people." The commission acknowledges that "public ownership of this agenda must be broad, deep, and nonpartisan," and suggests new and innovative approaches to marketing - from IMAX films to video games - to generate that support.

Regarding affordability, the commission notes that annual NASA budgets are likely to be "roughly the same level as in the past," so exploration must be accomplished in incremental steps "executed on the basis of available resources." Demands for an up-front accounting of the entire cost, the commission says, reflect "a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of this discovery-driven and multi-phased journey." The commission believes that significant private-sector and international investment will be necessary. It recommends incentives and monetary prizes to encourage the growth of a private space industry, and states that "commercialization of space should become a primary focus of the vision." Issues relating to ownership and property rights on extraterrestrial bodies should be addressed early on, the report says, or the "uncertainty could strangle a nascent space-based industry in its cradle." The commission also "finds that international talents and technologies will be of significant value" to the initiative. "How our international partners will participate," the commission adds, "will depend on the specifics of the architecture that will be established by the United States."

Credibility would be achieved, the commission suggests, by "an unyielding commitment to safety, yet clarity regarding risk." Noting that "currently, NASA's organization chart is not wired for success," the commission places major emphasis on restructuring the agency. It recommends adopting "proven personnel and management reforms," establishing new entities to address cost estimates and technical challenges, converting NASA centers to Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and reorganizing NASA's structure to be "more focused and effectively integrated to implement the national space exploration vision." The report also calls for a permanent, multi-agency Space Exploration Steering Council that reports to the President.

Proclaiming that the exploration initiative "will enable compelling scientific opportunities," the commission also urges NASA to work with the National Academy of Sciences and the scientific community in a re-evaluation of its scientific plans and priorities, to exploit opportunities created by the initiative. "While favoring an inclusive future science agenda for the nation," the commission says, "we recognize that attempts to implement a sweeping program consisting of even the most meritorious science could potentially defocus the vision to the detriment of all science. If it is determined that the inclusion of specific highly regarded science programs hampers the implementation of the vision," the report continues, "then such programs...should be transferred to another government agency or organization that could capably implement them."

The commission clearly believes in the wide-ranging potential benefits of an exploration initiative: "The long-term, ambitious space agenda advanced by the President for robotic and human exploration will significantly help the United States protect its technological leadership, economic vitality, and security," the report states. "This ambitious path of exploration and the achievements made along the way will inspire the nation's youth, yield scientific breakthroughs, create high technology jobs, improve our industrial competitiveness, demonstrate America's leadership, and improve prosperity and the quality of life for all Americans." One of the areas the commission highlights is math and science education and the preparation of a high-skilled workforce for the future; "The space exploration vision can be a catalyst for a much-needed renaissance in math and science education in the United States," it says.

The full report, "A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover," which spells out the commission's findings and recommendations in detail, can be found on the commission's web site at

Responding to the release of the report, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said, "the recommendations released today by the commission will influence our work for years to come and will help guide us through a transformation of NASA.... While we have indeed accomplished a great deal in NASA's 45-year history, in many ways we are at the beginning of the age of space exploration. We now have the foundation on which NASA can build a vibrant, safe and sustainable journey." As one of the first steps in transforming the agency, on June 24 O'Keefe announced that NASA's current "enterprises" will be reorganized into four "directorates:" Exploration Systems, Aeronautics Research, Space Operations, and Science, with Earth and Space Science programs to be combined in the Science Directorate.

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