United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray


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George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In 2004, with his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), President George W. Bush established a new course for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and America’s civil space program.1 VSE presented a bold plan to complete the International Space Station (ISS) and phase out the space shuttle fleet by 2010. The VSE program also envisioned designing and building a replacement for the space shuttle by 2008, flying it by 2014, returning human beings to the moon by 2020, and preparing for missions to Mars. In response to Bush’s new vision, NASA quickly reset its priorities, pushing science, including environmental research, further down the list.

Critics of Bush’s plan expressed a range of concerns and called VSE bold but incomplete and unrealistic. First and foremost among the critics’ concerns is the mandate to stop flying the space shuttle in 2010. Grounding the shuttle fleet means the United States will depend on Russia for human access to space for at least four years, but more realistically for a decade. Bush and NASA also made clear that VSE would be an entirely U.S.-led effort.

In our paper, United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005, a year after Bush’s announcement of his new vision, we spoke of U.S. space policy as presenting a paradoxical picture of high ambition and diminishing commitment.2

We contended that, to achieve the president’s proposed manned spaceflights to the moon and to Mars, the United States would need to bolster the competitiveness of its commercial space industry, expand international cooperation, and refocus on basic science both in the space program and in the broader economy. We stated that the Bush administration’s commitment to these elements had not been clearly expressed, and we identified some of the challenges facing the U.S. space program—notably, a decline in the competitiveness of the U.S. space satellite and launch industry (due, in part, to an overly restrictive policy on export controls) and a projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce.

Under Bush’s ill-defined space policy, government leaders made decisions about space policy that affected not only national security but also the ability of the United States to compete successfully with other countries in the commercial use of space and to maintain a leadership role in space exploration, science and engineering, and technology. These decisions have had ramifications for the health of the U.S. space industry, which is crucial to all aspects of the space program and fundamental to the future of American efforts in space. Furthermore, these policies were being made without adequate consultation with foreign partners, whose participation is essential to future U.S. space efforts.

Our 2005 paper addressed four serious barriers that would need to be overcome in order for the United States to realize the enormous potential of space science and exploration: 1) the negative impact of U.S. export controls on U.S. space commerce and international cooperation; 2) the projected shortfall in the future U.S. science and engineering workforce; 3) inadequate planning for NASA’s future; and 4) the erosion of international trust and cooperation in space.

We stressed the importance of balance in NASA’s programs, including the need for strong science, engineering, and environmental (for example, Earth-observation) research components—as well as human space exploration —and expressed concerns about the danger that the research programs would be cut back to make progress on VSE. We felt it was critical to the nation’s future civil space effort that NASA not become a single-mission agency.

That was four years ago. Today not only are those barriers still standing, they are even more daunting because the significant political and economic changes that have occurred since our paper’s publication in 2005 make the task of overcoming these obstacles even more challenging.


1. George W. Bush, “Remarks by the President on U.S. Space Policy,” press release, January 14, 2004, http://history.nasa.gov/Bush%20SEP.htm.

2. George Abbey and Neal Lane, United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005).