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

No set of principles or objectives will inherently define a program of human spaceflight. Nonetheless, the United States needs a program that is coherent, from presidential leadership and national policy to the details of architecture and flight operations. Without some set of guiding objectives for what the United States hopes to accomplish with human spaceflight, and how those objectives might translate into operational plans, NASA’s programs are likely to remain mired in vagueness, contradiction, and risk. Debate will surely be held on what constitutes primary and secondary objectives, what their implications are, and what architectures and operational plans they imply. Less open for debate, however, is the idea that the United States must have a coherent and clear national program worthy of the cost and risk.

Our examination of primary and secondary objectives concludes that the U.S. human spaceflight program should accomplish goals that are not achievable any other way and that are worth significant risks to human life. Because human spaceflight makes the broadest impact when it expands the realm of human experience, the U.S. program should focus on exploration. The definition of experience is changing, however, so the program should incorporate a mix of physical and remote presence and human and robotic explorers, because today’s cultural values hold remote presence as a critical complement to “being there.” Congress and the White House should reduce the “too much with too little” pressure on NASA by ensuring that resources match expectations, and by initiating a public conversation on the ethics and acceptable risk of human spaceflight at current levels of support and ambition. Finally, the United States should retain its global leadership in human spaceflight but should lead in innovative ways.

In the international arena, space endeavors are complex, controversial, and not without risk, both technical and political. But international relationships— whether cooperative or competitive—have always been a primary objective of U.S.human spaceflight. The United States’ standing among nations and its image in the world are among the few goals deemed worthy of the cost and risk. Given uneven public enthusiasm for human spaceflight around the globe, cooperation is more in the U.S. interest at present. For this reason, the Obama administration should see human spaceflight as one tool of diplomacy and initiate and continue to build cooperative relationships with other nations that seek to emulate U.S. accomplishments in space.

Human spaceflight has been the great human and technological adventure of the past half-century. By putting people into exciting new places and situations, it has stirred the imagination while expanding and redefining human experience. In the 21st century, human spaceflight will continue, but it will change in the ways that science and technology have changed on Earth: it will become more networked, more global, and more oriented toward primary objectives to justify the risk of human lives.

A new U.S. policy for human spaceflight must be based on realistic objectives. A new policy should clarify the objectives, the ethics of acceptable risk, the role of remote presence, and the need for balance between funding and ambition. As the nation and its partners return to the Moon, venture to Mars, and travel to points between and beyond, human spaceflight will succeed, as it always has, when and if it embodies the human drama of exploration.218


218. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of members of the MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group: Anne-Marie Corley, Ephraim Lanford, Misha Leybovich, Javier de Luis, Lawrence McGlynn, Teasel Muir-Harmony, Sherrica Newsome, Rebecca Perry, John Tylko, Annalisa L. Weigel, and Danielle Wood. Special thanks to Dean Cheng at CNA Corporation; Steve Squyres at Cornell; William B. Bonvillian, Claude Canizares, Edward Crawley, Alison Fox, Daniel E. Hastings, Carl Kaysen, Nancy Leveson, Leo Marx, Alvar Saenz-Otero, and Maria Zuber at MIT; Mark Uhran at NASA; Daniel C. Burbank at NASA and the United States Coast Guard; and Mark Craig at the Science Applications International Corporation. Thanks also to this paper’s anonymous reviewers.