Space Policy Experts Discuss Goals for Human Spaceflight Program

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Publication date: 
30 January 2004

It is not only the Bush Administration that has wrestled with the question of where the nation's human spaceflight program should be headed. Congress has held hearings on this question, and several months prior to President Bush's proposal to return to the Moon and then send humans to Mars, a group of experts in space policy held a workshop to air their views. Although the workshop was not intended to develop consensus recommendations, there were a number of comments that received broad agreement: Since the end of the Apollo program and the Cold War, the role of the U.S. human spaceflight program has been uncertain; the program needs a clear long-term goal developed by a national dialogue, with a progression of smaller missions leading toward that goal; it needs to use NASA's space and Earth science programs as successful models and must move beyond competition between human and robotic exploration by taking advantage of the benefits of both; sending humans to Mars is a likely long-term goal; and fundamental changes will be required on NASA's part to achieve such a goal.

The November 12-13 workshop was held jointly by the National Research Council's Space Studies Board and its Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, with other invited guests. A prepublication version of a report on the workshop, "Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S. Space Program," breaks out seven themes around which there seemed to be general agreement among participants:

Theme 1. Successful Space and Earth Science Programs: According to the report, the U.S. space and Earth science programs are generally considered productive and successful, and benefit from the "constructive tension" between NASA, which implements the program, and independent stakeholders - members of the science community - who set and periodically revisit the program's goals. Numerous independent missions of varying sizes enable the programs' continued progress, momentum, and political support. Many workshop participants felt that the human spaceflight program could benefit by applying "lessons learned" from NASA's science programs. In particular, it was noted that the human spaceflight program lacks independent stakeholders.

Theme 2. A Clear Goal for Human Spaceflight: There was consensus among workshop participants that the human spaceflight program lacks - and needs - a clear long-term goal. "Without such a long-range goal," the report states, "the human spaceflight program's reason for being is hard to articulate," as is the justification for components such as the space station and shuttle. The suggestion was made that, with the end of the Cold War, there is no longer a need to demonstrate U.S. technical prowess in space, but a long-term human spaceflight goal could help the U. S. demonstrate leadership and goodwill in cooperation with other nations. It was thought that the goal would be determined through a national and international dialogue.

Theme 3. Exploration as the Goal for Human Spaceflight: Many participants believed that the primary goal of the human spaceflight program should be exploration, in order to satisfy a basic human drive and to contribute to the acquisition of new knowledge. "Exploration is a legitimate form of science, if properly conducted," one of the participants stated. Others commented that human explorers can take advantage of "unanticipated learning" opportunities for learning in a way that robots cannot, and humans can communicate to others what it is like to experience outer space. Some participants felt that human exploration of Mars was an appropriate long-term goal.

Theme 4. Exploration as a Long-term Endeavor to be Accomplished via a Series of Small Steps: Some participants argued that it would be premature to specify a date and the cost of a long-term human spaceflight goal, and that the nation should pursue the larger goal through a series of smaller missions as NASA's budget allowed, in a "buy it by the yard" approach. This approach could help sustain momentum and political support, and would allow many opportunities for the involvement of international partners.

Theme 5. Synergy Superseding the Humans-versus-Robots Dichotomy: Numerous participants called for moving beyond the view that human and robotic missions must compete for funding, and instead crafting a human spaceflight program that exploited the synergies of using both. Many agreed that, if long-term human space exploration is the goal, the benefits of both will be needed, and the mix of the two will depend on the ultimate goal chosen.

Theme 6. The Long-term Goal Driving All Implementation Decisions: Warning against repeating the mistake of the shuttle and space station programs in making "too many promises to too many people," workshop participants stated that the chosen long-term goal should drive all related decisions. For example, the goal of achieving long-term human exploration, it was noted, could provide "a very clear justification" for the configuration of, and research aboard, the space station, and the design of the next space transportation system.

Theme 7. Institutional Concerns: A successful human spaceflight program, it was felt, would require significant changes in NASA. Workshop participants cited a number of concerns with the current situation, including the lack of independent stakeholders for a human spaceflight goal, the decline of the U.S. space industrial base, changes to NASA's mission since the Apollo program, a lack of management competence exemplified by repetition of the same mistakes, a lack of technical competence reflected in NASA's use of old technologies for the human spaceflight program, and a lack of openness and honesty in NASA's justification of many of its programs. Some also felt that the human spaceflight program would have a better chance of success if the broad science community expressed support for it and contributed to making it an effective and productive program.

The report on the workshop, "Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S. Space Program," which runs nearly 100 pages with appendices, can be requested in pdf format from the Space Studies Board at ssb [at]

Some of the suggestions raised at the workshop appear in line with Bush's proposal for human spaceflight (see FYI #7), but how many will be incorporated into NASA's future plans remains to be seen. Two days ago, at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, senators expressed interest in the President's plan for the Moon and Mars, but were skeptical about the potential cost. More details on the Moon/Mars proposal will be revealed when the FY 2005 budget request is released next week.

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