United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray


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George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

The election of President Obama and the arrival of an administration with a progressive agenda presents NASA with a unique opportunity to demonstrate that it is every bit as relevant in the post–Cold War world as it was in the days following Sputnik. By focusing the agency’s legendary capabilities on some of the nation’s most critical needs while restructuring its human spaceflight objectives and establishing a more balanced overall set of programs that retain science as a top priority, NASA could emerge a stronger agency than at any time in recent decades. We propose a new direction for NASA, a plan that can be carried out with existing capabilities and realistic budgets.49

In the short term, NASA’s deep-space human spaceflight efforts can be rapidly redirected from the moon and Mars to focus again on the ISS and on science and the technical issues related to energy and the environment by placing greater emphasis on research on Earth and in low-Earth orbit, including enhanced satellite Earth-observation systems. At the same time, NASA can—and should—plan, with international partners, including the present ISS partners and China, for a truly visionary cooperative space exploration program beyond Earth orbit. Such a program would serve to inspire the next generation of engineers and explorers as we seek new and challenging frontiers in space.

Energy security and threats to the environment—particularly climate change and its impact on Earth’s ecology, land surfaces, oceans, and people— will be one of the most significant challenges humankind will face in the next fifty years and well beyond. National and domestic security, foreign policy, the economy, and social equality will be increasingly dependent on how the United States responds to these two challenges. NASA has three great resources to make significant contributions in these areas: its ability to operate in space and air; its decades of experience in modeling and managing large-scale scientific projects; and its extensive engineering experience with alternative fuels and energy systems.

Since the launch of the first Landsat satellite in the 1970s, NASA has provided an extraordinary vantage point for and played a critical role in observing Earth’s environment. Unfortunately, NASA has been reluctant to significantly publicize its efforts, in part because of the political controversy surrounding global warming and climate change. Today the global threat of climate change is much clearer than it might have been even a decade ago, thanks to recent progress in climate science, observations, and climate modeling. With the new administration committed to playing a leadership role domestically and globally in mitigating climate change, U.S. policy-makers must have access to the best available scientific information—much of that coming from satellite observations. NASA is the only federal agency that has the scientific, engineering, and technical capability to design and launch the satellites that are needed for Earth observations.

NASA’s decades of experience in modeling and managing large-scale processes and projects is another asset, one coupled with tools such as sophisticated computer modeling, large-scale high-performance computing, modern aircraft, and communications (satellite and ground). A strong partnership among NASA, NOAA (which has major responsibilities for weather and climate predictions), the USGS, and NCAR, supported by the NSF, is critical to future U.S. capability in weather forecasting and climate projections. The required level of coordination and collaboration on specific projects will require an unprecedented degree of agency-to-agency cooperation. That, in turn, will require the encouragement and active support of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, and other offices of the White House.

Finally, because of its unique mission, NASA has developed extensive engineering experience with alternative fuels and energy systems, such as wind turbines, solar cell arrays, batteries, and fuel cells. NASA is the primary federal agency with the experience to improve the fuel efficiency of all types of aircraft. These capabilities have not been in the public eye but, nevertheless, have been essential to the success of NASA missions since its creation immediately after the launch of Sputnik. These capabilities need to be publicly acknowledged so that the larger value of NASA’s contributions over the decades can be appreciated by the American public and their elected representatives in Congress.

We recognize that we may seem to be encouraging an already stretched agency to extend itself even further. In fact, what we are recommending is to optimize what NASA already has the ability to do well. We are recommending a relatively low-risk but high-payoff vision for NASA that would place it high on the list of America’s current priorities.

By capitalizing on its substantial expertise, accomplishments, and capabilities, NASA can demonstrate its importance as one of the nation’s leading science and technology agencies in helping to resolve two of the major challenges facing the United States today: energy security and climate change. At the same time, NASA can reassert its international leadership role in space science and exploration as it restructures its human spaceflight activities and reembarks on a balanced program of space-based science and aeronautics research.

Many of the recommendations in the 2005 NRC report Rising above the Gathering Storm and in the 2007 America COMPETES Act would be supported by a NASA encouraged to pursue international cooperation and redirected to focus on a sound and balanced civil program of space science, exploration, environmental research, and aeronautics research and technology. Moreover, the result would be a civil space program that would allow the United States to maintain the leadership envisioned by President Kennedy in his historic Rice University speech in 1962:

[T]he vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.50

Today, with the Cold War far behind us, the United States can be the leading spacefaring nation by making the necessary investments in research, education, and human space exploration and by leveraging those investments through meaningful cooperation with other nations.51


49. In addition to the present paper, see also, George W. S. Abbey, Neal Lane, and John Mura-tore, “Maximizing NASA’s Potential in Flight and on the Ground: Recommendations for the Next Administration,” James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, January 20, 2009.

50. Kennedy, “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort.”

51. The authors would like to acknowledge John F. Muratore for his contributions to the assessment and recommendations concerning the future of NASA and the U.S. civilian space program.