The Future of Human Spaceflight: Objectives and Policy Implications in a Global Context


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David A. Mindell, Scott A. Uebelhart, Asif A. Siddiqi, and Slava Gerovitch
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

The United States stands at the threshold of a new era of human spaceflight.1 In its first term, the Obama administration will make the most important decisions in a generation about this endeavor, including:

  • When should the United States retire the space shuttle?
  • How should the nation utilize the International Space Station?
  • Should the United States return to the Moon? If so, how and on what
    schedule? How should future plans balance missions to the Moon,
    Mars, and other possible destinations?
  • How do U.S. human spaceflight projects fit within the global context?
  • What should be the nature of U.S. international collaborations in
    human spaceflight?
How should these decisions be made in the best interests of the country? Ultimately, the decisions derive from the larger question, why fly people into space? To answer these questions we rethink the objectives for government-funded human spaceflight and then address current policy questions in light of those objectives.

We define primary objectives of human spaceflight as those that can be accomplished only through the physical presence of human beings, have benefits that exceed the opportunity costs, and are worthy of significant risk to human life. These include exploration, national pride, and international prestige and leadership. Human spaceflight achieves its goals and appeals to the broadest number of people when it represents an expansion of human experience.

Secondary objectives have benefits that accrue from human presence in space but do not by themselves justify the cost and the risk. These include science, economic development, new technologies, and education.

In this paper we describe these objectives in detail. We then examine the human spaceflight programs of other countries—notably Russia, China, India, Europe, and Japan—with a focus on how each articulates its own human spaceflight program. Returning to the U.S. context, we then examine the implications of primary and secondary objectives for a selection of policy issues. Finally, we present a series of recommendations, including:

  • NASA should continue to fly the space shuttle to complete the current manifest and then retire it.
  • The United States should develop a broad, funded plan to utilize the International Space Station through 2020 to support the primary objectives of exploration.
  • A new policy should direct the balance between the Moon, Mars, and other points of interest in future explorations.
  • NASA should restore its support for fundamental research in the new technologies that will enable these explorations.
  • NASA should aggressively employ robotics not only as precursors but as intimate partners in human missions.
  • The United States should reaffirm its long-standing policy of international leadership in human spaceflight and remain committed to its existing international partners. The United States should continue existing partnerships within the International Space Station, including the sustainable partnership with Russia, and begin to engage on human spaceflight with China, India, and other aspiring space powers.


1. The present paper is a revised and expanded version of MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group, The Future of Human Spaceflight (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group, 2008), We are grateful for the contributions of John Logsdon, Jeffrey Hoffman, Laurence R. Young, Dava Newman, Charles Oman, Zakiya A. Tomlinson, and Wilfried Hoffstetter to this publication. Our work was made possible by a grant from the L. Dennis Shapiro ’55 Fund at MIT.