United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray

The Third Barrier: Inadequate Planning for the Future of NASA and the U.S. Civilian Space Program

Back to table of contents
George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

From John Glenn’s Mercury flight to the Apollo moon landings to spectacular planetary, astronomical, and Earth-observation missions—culminating in the ISS—the United States has maintained a proud record of leadership in space with a balanced program of manned and unmanned orbital and exploration missions and science and engineering research. The space shuttle program is the longest running, most successful fleet of manned space vehicles ever made. The ISS, upon completion, will represent the largest international cooperative technological project in history.

The successful Viking spacecraft landings on Mars provided the most complete view ever of the planet. Exploration of the “red planet” has continued with Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover and, more recently, with the highly successful Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. NASA’s Earth Observation System (EOS) missions have contributed not only to increased scientific understanding of Earth’s surface and atmosphere, but have been critically important to weather prediction, hurricane tracking, and responding to natural disasters, among many other societal applications.

NASA’s aeronautics research and technology program has also produced significant advancements in aeronautical design, including the low-drag cowl for radial engines and the “Coke bottle” to reduce transonic drag rise. More recent aeronautics advancements—including multi-axis thrust vectoring exhaust nozzles integrated with aircraft flight-control systems; fly-by-wire flight control technologies; high-strength, high-stiffness fiber composite structures; and tilt-wing rotorcraft technology—have been achieved in partnership with NASA’s research and technology programs. Aeronautical capabilities are important to the U.S. economy. Today the aeronautics industry is faced with the challenge of an increasingly competitive world and a declining share of the world aerospace market.

The agency that achieved so many incredible advances during its first fifty years did so with a balanced program of activities in science, engineering, and exploration, utilizing both human and robotic spacecraft and cutting-edge aeronautical research, all built on a sound foundation of research and technological innovation.

In 2004, a year before the publication of our earlier paper, President Bush chose to establish a new course for NASA and the civil space program. He announced VSE, a bold plan to complete the space station and phase out the space shuttle by 2010. Under VSE, a replacement for the space shuttle, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, was to be built and tested by 2008, and the first manned mission flown no later than 2014. Human beings would return to the moon by 2020 and prepare for missions to Mars. Bush’s VSE was to be led by the United States.

In our 2005 paper we spoke of the need for an American vision in space that would be challenging but realistic, and we expressed the view that, although returning to the moon and going to Mars are worthy long-term goals, they should not be the only important, or even the most important, goals of the space program. We argued that science, including the highly successful missions to the planets, the dramatic robotic exploration of the surface of Mars, the development and deployment of Earth-observing satellites, as well as many missions still in the planning stages, should be among the highest priorities for NASA. New scientific knowledge and the development and application of revolutionary technologies to support scientific and exploration missions have been the tangible products of the nation’s investment in space and the key to NASA’s accomplishments and well-deserved reputation for excellence and creativity throughout the world. We expressed the view that a commitment to not diminishing the priority of science in any new program was vital to NASA’s future, and we argued that the Bush administration should make clear its commitment to science at a time when NASA budgets were being reallocated to show progress on the president’s vision of returning human beings to the moon.

A great deal has changed since 2005. A rapidly changing social and political environment, a series of decisions that affect the nature of the challenges to the space program and create new ones, and four years of inattention to many of these issues have resulted in the bar being raised even higher. Perhaps the greatest change is in NASA itself. NASA is becoming an agency all-too-focused on a single mission. If your activity is not about returning people to the moon and going to Mars, you will have difficulty getting your activity funded.

Important research that was previously being done by NASA has been terminated. The traditional NASA research centers Langley, Glenn (Lewis), Ames, and Dryden have become program management centers, and much of the nation’s research that had been supported by NASA is not being done.30 The first A in NASA has always stood for “aeronautics,” and NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, had a rich heritage of aeronautical research going back almost a hundred years. The nation’s civil space and aeronautics program, traditionally a balanced program, is becoming more and more a program that places its emphasis on just one activity.

The ISS, involving close partnerships with Russia and thirteen other nations, has been a great accomplishment, the largest international cooperative technological project in history. In 2008, the European and Japanese research modules were installed on the station, and the partners are now in a position to gain a return on their substantial investment. But with the United States ending its support of the space shuttle program, its partners’ planned research is in jeopardy, and they will have no access to the new VSE program.

Indeed, the decision to stop flying the space shuttle signaled that the United States no longer had much interest in the ISS, and that after 2010 other nations would be more or less on their own. NASA plans to buy trips to the space station on Russian Soyuz and Progress (cargo) spacecraft, but with relations between the United States and Russia at a low point, Congress has already questioned this arrangement.

If the space program and NASA were at a critical juncture in 2005, today the future of the U.S. space program is very much in doubt. Despite continued great accomplishments, the bold pronouncements by the Bush administration in launching VSE, followed by inadequate funding, 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.

President Bush presented his vision, but, as the saying goes, vision without funding is a hallucination. No cost estimates were presented for returning human beings to the moon or for sending them to Mars. The president committed to adding $1 billion to the NASA budget each year for five years, with another $11 billion to come from reallocations—amounts far short of what would actually be required to build a new space vehicle and prepare for a return to the moon. The cost of the Apollo program was approximately $135 billion in 2004 dollars, but the president did not request even the small increases he had promised, and NASA has had to reduce other ongoing activities to support the new vision. Former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn of Ohio has called the Bush VSE program “one of the biggest unfunded mandates that we have had in all of government history.”31

In our 2005 paper, we stressed that it was vital to NASA’s future that the priority of science not be diminished in the new program. As NASA has scraped to find the money to fund the VSE program, science has paid the price with large cuts in NASA’s research programs and space-based science missions, including Earth-observation satellites needed for weather and climate change observations. Other equally important activities, such as aeronautical research, have suffered a similar fate. A comprehensive look at President Bush’s budget for research and development in FY2009 shows that NASA’s budget grew by $497 million, or 2.9 percent, to $17.6 billion, but that the science portfolio was cut by 5.6 percent and aeronautics research by 13 percent.32 Fortunately, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, will provide funds to begin to address some of the cuts in NASA’s space-based science and Earth-observation missions.

A prime example of the differing priority given to science by NASA under the Bush Administration was the decision not to fly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). In 1995, Samuel Ting, the Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist, proposed to use the ISS to examine the depths of the universe for antimatter. The experiment would sift cosmic rays—the high-energy particles from the sun, other stars, and even galaxies in outer space—with unprecedented sensitivity and precision, opening a new window on the universe. By looking for the opposites of ordinary matter, the experiment would shed light on why the universe appears to be made overwhelmingly of matter—although the laws of physics suggest that matter and antimatter should have been born in equal amounts. The discovery of antimatter from some distant antigalaxy would have great scientific significance. The experiment might also, among other discoveries, detect signals from the mysterious “dark matter” that accounts for 25 percent of the universe.

The experiment is now almost complete after ten years of development at a cost of $1.5 billion; it has been developed by a team of more than 500 scientists from fifty-six institutions representing sixteen countries, including both China and Taiwan. The governments of these countries have all helped to provide the funds for the AMS, which would be among the most expensive international space instruments ever built. The experiment has been reviewed by a blue-ribbon panel of physicists and judged to have the potential to make “fundamental new discoveries.” NASA signed an “implementing arrangement” with the U.S. Department of Energy in 1995, agreeing to fly the AMS experiment on the station to the ISS if the department built it. But as NASA increased its emphasis on implementing the Bush VSE with inadequate budgets, it made the decision that other planned activities that supported VSE would be assigned a higher priority and the AMS would not fly. NASA’s cancellation of the AMS must stand as one of the most bizarre scientific policy decisions of the Bush administration. This experiment alone, with its potential to probe the foundations of modern physics, provides a major justification for the U.S. investment in the ISS over and above the value of its life-science research. But even research in the life sciences has fallen under the ax of VSE. The Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, chaired by Norm Augustine, was established in 1990 to advise the NASA administrator on overall approaches NASA management could use to implement the U.S. space program in the coming decades. In its December 1990 report, the committee determined that “the Space Station is deemed essential as a life science laboratory, for there is no Earth-bound substitute.” The committee’s report went on to say:

Fundamental uncertainties remain with respect to the feasibility of long-duration human spaceflight, uncertainties that revolve around the effects of solar flares, muscle deterioration due to weightlessness, the loss of calcium in human bone structure and the impact of galactic cosmic radiation.These basic issues need to be resolved before undertaking vast projects by means of long duration operations involving humans in space. We thus arrive at what we believe is the fundamental reason for building a space station, to gain the much needed life science information and experience in long duration space operations. Such information is vital if America is not to abdicate its role in manned space flight.33

Nearly twenty years later, the committee’s recommendations are still valid. But as NASA redirected its priorities to support VSE, the committee’s recommendations appear to have been given little consideration, and the life science program has suffered significant reductions.

Beyond studying the long-term effects of zero gravity on human physiology, NASA historically studied other important life sciences and related technologies that could benefit people living on Earth. These efforts have been terminated as VSE has pushed aside NASA science. A good example is the Bioreactor, a cell culture device developed as part of space medicine research at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. The Bioreactor could potentially allow scientists to better test new treatments for cancer and viruses without risking harm to patients. The rotating-wall Bioreactor mimics the effect that weightlessness might have on cell cultures by incorporating a rotating cylinder to hold the culture. The rotating vessel does not really cancel gravity but maintains cells in continual free fall similar to that experienced by astronauts in the microgravity of space. With rotation, pressure points on the growing cells are relieved, allowing the device to grow three-dimensional, highly accurate tissues, unlike previous culture experiments that allowed growth in only two dimensions. This ensures that the fluid rotates without shear forces that would destroy the cells. It spins a fluid medium filled with cells. Already being commercialized, the device has been used to grow more than thirty-five cell types, and no cell type yet tested has failed to grow well in the system. In 2005, despite plans well underway to devote a research facility on the ISS to advance this much-needed research, the program was eliminated based on the conclusion it did not support going to the moon or Mars.

We expressed concern in our 2005 paper that Bush’s VSE plan would redirect NASA’s science programs, placing them at lower priority and making deep cuts in research funding. Science has been fundamental to NASA’s success in advancing human understanding of the universe, the solar system, and Earth, and in providing the knowledge and technology that enable human exploration of space. Any truly visionary plan for NASA’s future should specify science, including robotic exploration of space and satellite observations of Earth, as one of NASA’s principal goals. Otherwise, the unique contributions that NASA can make to astronomy and to planetary, earth, and space science will be lost. America will cede its traditional leadership role in these frontier areas of science to other parts of the world. The last four years, during which science has continued to lose ground in NASA’s budget decisions, have proven the validity of those concerns.

Our 2005 paper also raised concerns about ongoing space transportation aspects of NASA’s plan for implementing Bush’s VSE, including the decision to retire the space shuttle in 2010, presumably after the European ISS module Columbus and the Japanese JEM module are taken to orbit. We suggested that the ISS would not be able to realize its potential without the space shuttle, because the station requires both up-mass and down-mass capability (to take large objects to the station and return obsolete items to Earth) that can be satisfied only with the space shuttle. The proposed space shuttle replacement, the Constellation space vehicle—an Orion crew exploration vehicle that rides to space on a new Ares I rocket—would not have that capability.

Moreover, progress on developing the Constellation space vehicle has been delayed because of significant technical design problems. As a result, the Constellation will not be ready before 2015 and, realistically, probably much later. Even if all of the problems can be solved with considerably more time and money, the capabilities of the new system fall far short of the space shuttle in many ways. The Orion capsule, a larger version of the 1960s Apollo capsule, does not allow for extravehicular activity, cannot stay long in orbit, carries no payload up or back, and must land in water. In the meantime, if the United States is to continue to play a role in the ISS, its only access will be by purchasing rides on the Russian Soyuz. This creates a good deal of uncertainty about the United States’ continued involvement in the ISS and the nation’s ability to meet international commitments to its partners.

The hard requirement to retire the space shuttle in 2010 has created another concern. A limited number of approved shuttle missions remain. The artificial retirement wall puts tremendous pressure on the schedule to ensure all the missions are flown in the remaining months. This, in turn, puts enormous pressure on the system and its personnel and could create major safety issues. The situation is further aggravated as the shuttle workforce seeks employment elsewhere because of the impending termination of its positions. What are these talented people, who have devoted their lives to the shuttle, supposed to do after 2010? The plan for retiring the shuttle, if indeed it is to be retired, should not be based on an arbitrary calendar date. Rather, missions should be flown when they are ready to fly.

Because of budget and personnel shortfalls, NASA is unable to provide firm cost estimates for VSE. Meanwhile, tight White House deadlines created by the Bush administration continue to put pressure on both the Ares I and Orion projects. Both projects are likely to continue to experience substantial schedule slips and growth in costs. The best advertised estimate of when the Constellation might fly is 2015; realistically, its first flight could be much later. All the while, science will continue to be held hostage unless a change in direction is made. The present direction—set by VSE and NASA’s resulting planning and implementation—has adversely affected NASA’s programs for scientific research, including research focused on using space to better understand Earth’s environment. The current course has also had a serious negative impact on international programs such as the ISS.

In our previous paper, we acknowledged the success of Russia’s space program, including its excellent space technology, skilled workers, considerable experience in orbit, and an admirable safety record. However, we expressed the opinion that it would be a mistake to be completely dependent on any one nation’s space program (whether that of Russia or another nation) when human lives are at stake. We stated that the space shuttle should be returned to flight once the safety improvements recommended in the Columbia accident report had been made and that the shuttle should continue to fly until a new space vehicle with the necessary up-mass and down-mass capability has been designed, tested, and placed into operation.34 We also recommended that the long-planned space shuttle upgrades, including those recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board following the 2003 Columbia accident, be implemented to improve shuttle safety and reliability. The long-planned space shuttle upgrades were canceled by the Bush administration even though they had successfully passed their qualification tests at great expense and were ready to be installed.

All of this says to us that the United States should rethink the national strategy for human spaceflight. The current single-focus approach NASA has adopted in order to implement President Bush’s VSE is unsustainable, could lead to the nation losing its capability to fly human beings in space for a considerable period of time, and continues to hold scientific research and aeronautics hostage to inadequate budgets. Moreover, uncertainties in the cost of VSE continue to be large, making planning of any kind unnecessarily difficult. Furthermore, no effort has been made to ascertain the willingness of the American people to pay the large costs of returning human beings to the moon.

We applaud President Obama’s recent decision to convene an independent panel that will conduct a comprehensive review of NASA’s human space flight program. Norman Augustine has been named to chair an independent review of U.S. human spaceflight plans. During the course of the review, the panel will examine ongoing and planned NASA development activities and potential alternatives in order to present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable and sustainable human spaceflight program following the space shuttle’s retirement. The committee is planning to present its results in time to support an administration decision on the way forward by August 2009.


30. NASA administrator Michael Griffin said in an email in 2006, “We are not, any longer, a technology agency to any significant extent. Wishing otherwise is nice, but irrelevant”; “Is NASA Glenn in This Fight?” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 16, 2006.

31. Brian Berger, “John Glenn Calls Bush Space Vision an Unfunded Mandate,” Space News, July 31, 2008, http://www.space.com/news/080731-glenn-bush-space-vision.html.

32. American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Preliminary Analysis of R&D in the FY2009 Budget,” February 7, 2008, http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/prel09p.htm#hi.

33. 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.: NASA, 1990), http://history.nasa.gov/augustine/racfup1.htm.

34. Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Report, vol. 1–6 (Washington, D.C.: NASA, 2003), http://caib.nasa.gov/news/report/default.html.