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 October 4, 1957, flight of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1— the first human-made satellite—was a turning point in the Cold War. The event startled the world and prompted great alarm in the United States, which had believed itself the world’s leader in space technology and missile development. The surprise Sputnik launch and the failure of the first U.S. satellite launch attempt on December 6, 1957, provided an unwelcome wake-up call. The crisis spurred a number of U.S. initiatives, including the National Aeronautics and Space Act (Public Law 85-568), signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. The legislation created NASA, the civilian agency responsible for guiding the nation into the space age.

The Soviet Union followed the triumphant flight of Sputnik with other equally successful space missions, culminating in the flight of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961. Nearly a year later, in February 1962, the United States achieved its first manned Mercury orbital flight, when John Glenn orbited Earth. Nine months prior to that flight, and immediately following American astronaut Alan Shepherd’s suborbital Mercury flight, President John F. Kennedy had, on May 25, 1961, challenged the nation to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

Such a feat would establish the United States as the world’s unquestioned technological leader. The Apollo program, which will go down in history as one of the greatest human achievements, was on its way. In a little more than seven-and-a-half years, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. The following year, six months later, Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface. The Apollo program captivated the imaginations of thousands of young people who would go on to become the nation’s scientists, mathematicians, and engineers—a brain trust for U.S. industry that fueled American progress for decades.

The United States would expand its record of leadership in space with both manned and unmanned orbital and exploration missions. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 spacecraft successfully landed on Mars, followed by Viking 2 less than two months later. The results from the Viking experiments provided the most complete view human beings had ever had of the “red planet.” Volcanoes, lava plains, immense canyons, cratered areas, wind-formed features, and evidence of surface water were all apparent in the Viking orbital images. The exploration of Mars continued with Mars Pathfinder, the first mission to carry a rover to a planet. The rover, Sojourner, landed on Mars on July 4, 1997, and went on to execute many experiments on the Martian surface. Two other successful Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have continued to provide useful data on the planet almost continuously since their landings in 2003.

These and other planetary and astronomy missions, including the enormously successful Hubble Space Telescope, have completely changed our understanding of the universe in a human life span. The U.S Shuttle Transportation System, commonly referred to as the space shuttle, is the longest running, most successful fleet of manned space vehicles ever made, despite setbacks, including the tragic Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents. The ISS, which involves close partnerships with Russia and thirteen other nations, is an incredible accomplishment. When the ISS is completed, it will represent the largest international cooperative technological project in history.

By and large, these were all programs of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Today, NASA, with VSE as its focus, has become an agency that is all about— some would argue only about—human spaceflight to the moon and Mars. Any other initiative has great difficulty being funded by NASA. By contrast, the NASA that achieved the great accomplishments of the past had a vision that sought to expand the frontiers in human and robotic space exploration, as well as in basic science and aeronautical research. The agency pursued this vision by encouraging and benefiting from strong international cooperation.

If we were correct in our earlier paper to assert that the space program and NASA were at a critical juncture in 2005, in 2009 the future of the U.S. space program is very much in doubt. The narrow vision of the Bush administration in launching VSE and its subsequent failure to fund the effort adequately have led to serious questioning of the nation’s commitment to space and, consequently, to a steady erosion of NASA and the aerospace industry that supports its missions.

NASA has been trapped by expectations it could not meet and promises not kept. Morale at NASA is at a low point, many of the agency’s most experienced workers are retiring, and NASA, as well as U.S. aerospace companies, faces dire manpower challenges. President Barack Obama’s early decisions regarding NASA will determine whether the United States continues to lead in space or cedes that position to other nations.

In the following sections, we again address the four serious barriers discussed in our 2005 paper. In our view these barriers need to be overcome if the United States is to realize the enormous potential of space science and exploration. Each issue is examined in light of the events of the last four years that have made the challenge more difficult and the need for change more urgent.

In our 2005 paper, we noted that the four barriers to progress in the U.S. space program need not—indeed should not—remain obstacles to future U.S. efforts in space commerce, science and technology, and human exploration of space. However, overcoming these barriers has been made more difficult by the lack of progress during the past four years. There is an urgent need to develop strategies to surmount these barriers if the nation’s civil space program is to move forward.