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

Threshold of a New Era

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

The year 2008 marked NASA’s 50th anniversary and began a series of half-century commemorations of such events as Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital flight and John Glenn’s 1962 orbital flight. This year, 2009, marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s first landing on the Moon, one of the watershed events of the 20th century. What was once the essence of the future—human ventures into space and to other worlds—is now a part of history. But what of human spaceflight’s future?

Despite the exciting record of accomplishments, questions remain about human spaceflight. Why should we have a government-funded program to send people into space? What are the objectives for an expensive program in a time of economic crisis, tight budgets, and competing priorities? Similar questions have surrounded human spaceflight since its beginning, but the answers have changed with each generation. Early on, Cold War competition against the Soviet Union provided a sufficient objective; later, the goal became to develop routine access to space with the promise of commercial benefits. More recently, only the loftier aims of exploration seem to justify the risks and costs of sending human beings into this hostile environment.

Events of the past six years, since the tragic breakup of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, have thrust NASA and the country into a major transition in human spaceflight. The transition has begun, but how it evolves remains undefined. Within a deep recession the Obama administration will make the most important decisions in U.S. human spaceflight in a generation. This paper seeks to provide guidance on these decisions by rethinking the major objectives of the endeavor and outlining some policy implications.

The Current Moment in U.S. Space Policy

A number of factors define the current moment in U.S. human spaceflight policy. The space shuttle, a mainstay of U.S. human spaceflight for the past thirty years, is scheduled for retirement in 2010, although proposals exist to extend its life by a few missions or even by several years. NASA is building or planning a series of new rockets (Ares I and V) and spacecraft (Orion and Altair), together known as Constellation, to carry human beings into orbit and to the Moon. Assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled to be completed in 2010, but questions remain about how best to support and utilize this $100 billion asset. (Some modules will reach the end of their service lifetimes as early as 2013.) The Bush “Vision for Space Exploration” (hereafter the “Bush vision”), which in 2004 laid out plans for the retirement of the shuttle and the development of Constellation, remains underfunded. The period between the shuttle’s last flight and Constellation’s first crewed operations will last at least several years, leading to a gap where the United States will rely on other means, including Russian launchers and spacecraft, to provide access to the ISS. Meanwhile, as of summer 2009, a new presidential commission chaired by Norman Augustine has been tasked to evaluate the U.S. human spaceflight program and potentially reconsider NASA’s current direction. Some believe the committee will recommend abandoning the Bush vision and canceling Constellation entirely; others hope the committee will affirm currently planned vehicles and destinations2.

Meanwhile, remote and robotic science missions have yielded astonishing new discoveries on and about our solar system and beyond. These vehicles have generated proof of water ice on Mars, detected organic material venting from a moon of Saturn, and led to discoveries of exoplanets outside our solar system. Despite the technology employed, none of these missions is “automatic”: each is controlled by, and sends data to, human beings on Earth.

NASA’s budget has remained essentially flat with inflation (just over 2.1 percent average annual increase from 2005–2008, to $17.3 billion in fiscal year 2008), and the agency has attempted to support its new programs by rebalancing its priorities, leading to fierce debates about appropriate allocations between human spaceflight and science, aeronautics, remote missions, and Earth observation.

Official policy statements from Russia and China suggest that both nations are considering landing human beings on the Moon in the next twenty years. The European Space Agency (ESA) is beginning cargo flights to the ISS and exploring options for a crewed spacecraft. India has recently committed funding to develop a crewed spacecraft to be launched on an indigenous rocket. The Japanese are considering initiating a similar program. In late 2007, a Malaysian flew into space for the first time, followed six months later by the first Korean astronaut. Both flew to the ISS on Russian Soyuz capsules.

Space continues to attract broad public interest, although it must compete for attention in an increasingly diverse, overheated, and unstable media environment. Surveys show that a majority of Americans supports the exploration program (69 percent in a 2004 survey), although that support drops to 18 percent for human missions to Mars. Survey participants overwhelmingly indicate that “NASA was marketed poorly or very poorly” and that “much more could be done to promote NASA and the space program.”3 The space program struggles to attract the attention of young Americans, with less than half even aware of the exploration program in a 2006 survey.4 This generation is divided in support for the Moon program (34 percent in favor; 33 percent opposed), even as younger Americans show great interest in the Martian rovers.

Young Americans increasingly experience remote and virtual presence as part of their daily lives and may not accept older arguments about the importance of “being there.” Exploration in other realms, notably the deep ocean, faces a similar set of questions as engineers, scientists, and policy-makers debate the appropriate mix of human and remote presence in our digital world.5

We start with the assumption that, given current political and public support, U.S. human spaceflight will continue and NASA’s human spaceflight program is unlikely to be canceled outright. We recognize that some believe the future of human spaceflight in the United States is in doubt—indeed, political support, public interest, and budgetary realities can change radically. Our report does not address whether, ab initio, the United States should have a human spaceflight program (that existential question should perhaps be asked, but it would be the subject of another paper). Rather, given our assumption that the United States will have such a program, we consider what its objectives should be and how the United States can fashion a coherent, long-range policy at reasonable cost that meets national interests.

We begin by reviewing the history and background that led to this moment of decision. We then articulate a new set of rationales for human spaceflight, classified in terms of primary and secondary objectives. We next examine the objectives that motivate programs in other countries: Russia, China, India, Europe, and Japan. Finally, we examine impending U.S. policy decisions in light of these objectives and propose some considerations that can lead to revitalized U.S. global leadership in human spaceflight.

This report addresses the future of human spaceflight, that is, the exercise of physically placing human beings in space and on other planetary bodies. This is only one aspect of U.S. space activity. NASA’s budget represents just under half of total U.S. government expenditures in space, and of this amount the budget for human spaceflight is only about 60 percent of NASA’s top-line budget. Other aspects of space policy relating to the commercial satellite industry, national security, climate monitoring, export policy, and a host of other issues provide necessary context and are intimately linked to the issues we address, but they are not our focus here. Rather, we examine those issues unique to human spaceflight.

Fifty Years of Human Spaceflight

We can divide human spaceflight into three historical phases. A first, “experimental” phase in the 1960s began with the first human beings to ride rockets aloft and within the same decade landed men on the Moon. After the spaceflight of Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, Americans perceived a crisis in international prestige and rocket technology, resulting in President Kennedy’s call to go to the Moon. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs took place within an era of Cold War competition and intense public interest, and achieved technological advances with astonishing rapidity. In the urgency to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon, NASA’s budget peaked in 1966 at more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The Moon program sought to represent U.S. national strength and prestige with a major civilian engineering accomplishment.6

The experimental phase ended in 1972 with the last Moon landing of Apollo XVII (or in 1975 with the end of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint activity between American and Russian spacefarers in orbit). As a next step, President Nixon chose the least expensive option presented to him by NASA: he elected to build the space shuttle to usher in an era of “routine” access to space and twice-weekly launches of low-cost flights. A second, transitional phase of human spaceflight in the 1970s witnessed a nearly six-year gap with no U.S. human access to space (July 1975 to April 1981).

The third phase, the shuttle era, began in 1981. While the vehicle never would achieve its design goals for inexpensive, frequent, and reliable access to space, the shuttle nonetheless demonstrated impressive capabilities for orbital operations. Metaphors for the shuttle included the orbital laboratory, orbital tow truck, and flying service station for satellites. The 1980s saw a series of deployment, servicing, and salvage missions, displaying the drama of astronauts flying with jet backpacks, deploying military payloads, and grappling satellites in the shuttle payload bay for repairs or return. Extravehicular activity (“space walks”) figured heavily in these missions and was an effective, visible way to demonstrate human capability in space.7 For the early shuttle flights, science was a secondary focus, occupying only four of the initial twenty-five flights. The 1986 Challenger accident, in which seven astronauts including a teacher died, was primarily a mission to deploy a tracking and relay satellite and a pay load of automated scientific instruments.

The aftermath of the Challenger accident in 1986 raised questions about whether satellite deployment and repair were worth the loss of human life. One advisory committee on human spaceflight declared it “inappropriate in the case of Challenger to risk the lives of seven astronauts and nearly one-fourth of NASA’s launch assets to place in orbit a communications satellite.”8 The U.S. Department of Defense reassessed its plans for shuttle utilization and switched to the use of expendable launch vehicles. NASA limited shuttle missions to research and science and to eventual space station assembly and servicing, as opposed to launching commercial and military satellites. Nevertheless, the shuttle has carried more than 330 people aloft (more than 65 percent of those ever to fly in space) and expanded the ability of people to live and work in space.9 Twenty-five missions with components from the international Spacelab were flown between 1983 and 2000, utilizing instrument pallets and a laboratory module built by the European Space Agency. Perhaps the best-known accomplishments of the shuttle have included the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and subsequent servicing missions to mitigate a fabrication flaw and to upgrade its instruments. The shuttle has also served as the workhorse for construction of the ISS, which has required twenty-eight missions to date to assemble its massive structure, with remaining flights required to complete the task.10

The end of the shuttle era began in February 2003 with the tragic Columbia accident, which set off a series of events leading to the current moment of decision. In an effort to force NASA to focus on safety, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) called for the recertification of the shuttle by 2010 and its retirement “as soon as possible.”11 The CAIB report also echoed earlier studies in noting that NASA was trying to do “too much with too little,” with too many ambitious programs, expensive facilities, and not enough financial support from the White House and Congress.

The CAIB broadened the scope of its final report beyond the immediate technical and organizational causes of the accident to discuss how the “lack of a national vision for space” had affected NASA since the Apollo program. With the absence of a strategic vision and lack of government commitment for improved U.S. access to space, “NASA usually failed to receive budgetary support consistent with its ambitions” and was left to rely on the space shuttle with no realistic alternative on the horizon.12

The agency that had defined the cutting edge of innovation in the 1960s had grown bureaucratic and conservative. “NASA remained a politicized and vulnerable agency,” read the CAIB report, “dependent on key political players who accepted NASA’s ambitious proposals and then imposed strict budget limits. . . . Policy constraints affected the Shuttle Program’s organizational culture, its structure, and the structure of the safety system. The three combined to keep NASA on its slippery slope toward Challenger and Columbia.13 The CAIB report argued that a constrained policy context, management failures, and inadequate funding contributed to the deaths of American astronauts.14

The Bush administration used the CAIB report’s 2010 recertification date as a hard deadline and opted to retire the shuttle instead of recertifying it. In January 2004, months after the CAIB report’s release, President Bush announced his vision. Less a vision than an ambitious, if vague, plan for NASA’s next fifteen years, the Bush vision had five key elements:

  1. Continue to fly the shuttle until 2010 to complete construction of the ISS (six flights remaining in 2009 and 2010, including the congressionally mandated mission to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer).
  2. Develop a new system of human space transportation hardware (later dubbed “Constellation”) by 2014.
  3. Focus ground and ISS research on exploration goals, with emphasis on understanding how the space environment affects astronaut health.
  4. Return to the Moon by 2020 and “extend human presence across the solar system and beyond.”
  5. Support a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond, and promote international and commercial participation in NASA activities.

As announced in January 2004, the government would pay for the Bush vision by increasing NASA’s budget 5 percent each year for the first three years after the announcement, with smaller increases thereafter.15NASA would augment funding for the development of Constellation vehicles by freeing operating costs of the space shuttle after its retirement in 2010. From the beginning, the Bush administration decided that NASA would not receive a large, Apollo-like increase in its budget. Rather, the agency would employ a “go as you can afford to pay” policy. NASA would accomplish its goals with modest budget increases over a long period of time and fly missions as funds become available (delaying them otherwise), rather than planning for major increases up front.

After announcing this vision, President Bush never mentioned it again, signaling lukewarm support for his own proposal. Congress affirmed its support for the exploration program in the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorization Acts, declaring in 2008 that it supports “the broad goals of the space exploration policy of the United States, including the eventual return to and exploration of the Moon and other destinations in the solar system.” But both Congress and the Bush administration never provided significant budget increases to support the Bush vision (NASA’s budget remained flat at about $17 billion in 2008 dollars).16 Indeed, NASA’s exploration budgets have seen reductions and additional costs during fiscal years (FY) 2005–2012 (as much as $12 billion by the agency’s own estimates). NASA’s science and technology research programs in both space and aeronautics have undergone deep cuts and in some cases have been eliminated. President Obama’s proposed FY2010 budget does provide an increase for exploration through FY2011, but the budget flattens (and even decreases) after that.17

As of mid-2009, NASA remains on schedule to complete assembly of the ISS by 2010 using the space shuttle, although with little margin for launch delays. Both the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the Ares I crew launch vehicle are being developed, with all major contracts awarded, but NASA will likely miss the goal of first crewed flight by 2014. Budget shortfalls prevented the agency from meeting an early launch date of 2013, and NASA, at least publicly, aims for a crewed launch in March 2015. Lastly, NASA is performing design studies of the Ares V heavy-lift cargo launch vehicle and the Altair lunar lander, both designed to return human beings to the Moon. Major expenditures on these programs will not take place until FY2011. Given the funding shortfalls, the 2020 target date to return human beings to the Moon is considered optimistic.

Meanwhile, this decade has also seen the beginnings of commercial human space transportation. Since 2001, six private citizens have flown to the ISS on Russian Soyuz taxi flights, paying $20 to $30 million for the experience. In 2004, a team led by Burt Rutan and funded by Paul Allen won the Ansari X PRIZE, a $10 million award given for the first repeatable (twice in two weeks), privately funded suborbital access to the lower reaches of outer space. Bolstered by the new and more accessible technology, a variety of companies are beginning to develop the suborbital space tourism business.

If this industry is successful, it will likely attract popular interest, but major technical hurdles remain to go from suborbital flight to orbital flight. Given the costs and the scale of the endeavor, the United States will have a government-run human spaceflight program for the foreseeable future, though one increasingly complemented by efforts in the private sector as private human spaceflight moves from suborbital to orbital capability.

Given this exciting, if uncertain environment, how should the United States government proceed in human spaceflight? What justifies the risks and costs? Given that support for such programs is ultimately a political decision, what are the stakes for human spaceflight?


2. Human Space Flight Committee, “Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee,” n.d.,

3. Mary Lynne Dittmar, “Some Results from Dittmar Associates’ Market Study of the Space Exploration Program,” AIAA-2005-2554 (paper presented at the 1st Space Exploration Conference, Orlando, Florida, January 30–February 1, 2005).

4. Mary Lynne Dittmar, “Engaging the ‘18–25’ Generation: Educational Outreach, Interactive Technologies, and Space,” AIAA-2006-7303 (paper presented at Space 2006, San Jose, California, September 19–21, 2006).

5. David A. Mindell, “Between Human and Machine,” Technology Review, March 2, 2005,; and Stefan Helmreich, “Intimate Sensing,” in Sherry Turkle, Simulation and Its Discontents (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 129–150.

6. John Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970); and David Mindell, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).

7. Valerie Neal, “Framing the Meanings of Spaceflight in the Shuttle Era,” in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius (Washington, D.C.: NASA History Division, 2007), 74.

8. Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, December 1990), 3.

9. NASA, Astronaut Fact Book, NP-2005-01-001JSC (Washington, D.C.: NASA, 2005),

10. NASA, “International Space Station Assembly—Past Flights,” n.d.,; and NASA, “Consolidated Launch Manifest,” n.d.,

11. Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report: Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2003), 210;

12. CAIB Report, 209. Previous attempts to develop new spacecraft included the National Aerospace Plane of the late 1980s and the X-33/VentureStar in the mid-1990s. The technological advances required for both of these vehicles escalated their costs, and both projects were canceled. An Orbital Space Plane, with capabilities limited to transporting crew to the ISS, was proposed months prior to the Columbia accident.

13. CAIB Report, 197.

14. “The obstacles these engineers faced were political and organizational. They were rooted in NASA history and the decisions of leaders that had altered NASA culture, structure, and the structure of the safety system and affected the social context of decision-making for both accidents”; CAIB Report, 200.

15. NASA, The Vision for Space Exploration (Washington, D.C.: NASA, 2004),

16. NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Public Law 155, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (December 30, 2005); and NASA Authorization Act of 2008, Public Law 442, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (October 15, 2008).

17. NASA, NASA FY 2010 Budget Request Summary, May 7, 2009,