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 First Barrier: The Impact of Export Controls on Space Commerce

Implement the recommendations of the NRC’s January 2009 report, Beyond ‘Fortress America.’ Beyond ‘Fortress America’ presents a clear case for changing the present export control rules. The report calls on the new administration to revise export control policies promptly, by issuing an executive order that affirms “a strong presumption for openness.” The report’s twenty pages of recommendations should be implemented at the earliest possible date if the United States is to overcome this barrier to realizing the great potential of its present and planned activities in space, as well as strengthen the nation’s university research activities and the nation’s aerospace industry.

At a hearing of the Committee on Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 25, 2009, the witnesses and members discussed the findings and recommendations of Beyond ‘Fortress America,’ which states, “As currently structured, many of these controls undermine our national and homeland security and stifle American engagement in the global economy, and in science and technology.”44 During the hearing, Committee Chairman Bart Gordon noted:

Our nation’s export controls were supposed to help strengthen our national security, by protecting America’s sensitive technologies from falling into the wrong hands. However, in recent years there has been a growing chorus of concern that the current system of export controls is undermining our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy, undermining our science and technology enterprise, and weakening our national security—not strengthening it.45

The Second Barrier: The Projected Shortfall in the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce

Implement the recommendations made by the NRC reports Rising above the Gathering Storm and Beyond ‘Fortress America.’ Rising above the Gathering Storm probably best defines the problem facing the United States. The report and its recommendations were presented to the administration in 2005, and funds were authorized by Congress to implement the report’s recommendations; however, only recently—with the FY2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and the FY2009 regular appropriations—has Congress begun to appropriate the necessary funding. Beyond ‘Fortress America’ supports the visa policy recommendations of Rising above the Gathering Storm, stating that the present visa policy is seriously flawed, inhibiting collaboration with foreign experts and the absorption of foreign students into the United States workforce. Some encouraging signs suggest attention is being paid to the visa problem, but for those whose applications require “administrative review” the process is slow. The consequences for the future of the United States of failing to take prompt actions could be grave.

Pass an updated version of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, providing financial aid for education in the United States at all levels, both public and private. The present state of the U.S. educational system and the shortfall in engineering and science graduates coming out of U.S. universities should generate the same concern that was felt by the nation fifty years ago when the Russians launched Sputnik. The United States should be as motivated to solve today’s problem as it was in 1958.46

Working with the nation’s universities and drawing on their knowledge and expertise, NASA should provide support for a large, strong, and effective graduate student program. The National Defense Education Act, originally instituted in 1958, ensured the security of the nation by developing the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. Key features of the legislation included a student loan program for colleges and universities to increase the flow of students into science, mathematics, and foreign language careers; a National Defense Fellowship for graduate study toward a college teaching career; and a wide array of programs to enhance precollege teacher training and public understanding of science and technology. Combined with an active and meaningful partnership between NASA and the nation’s universities, establishing a new National Defense Fellowship program could help to address the potential shortage of young U.S. scientists and engineers.

A key stated objective of all NASA research and technology programs should be to excite a new generation of scientists and engineers and rebuild scientific and technical expertise within NASA and across the nation. NASA’s research center structure should be reestablished with this objective in mind, creating a strong link to the nation’s universities.

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

NASA should dedicate itself in the first term of the Obama administration to proving its relevance in the post–Cold War world while restructuring its human spaceflight objectives. We propose a new direction for NASA, a five-point plan that can be carried out with existing capabilities and realistic budgets.

Restructure the human space initiative, keeping the space shuttle flying until 2015. Extending space shuttle flights through 2015 would reduce reliance on Russia for transportation to the ISS and would provide the large up-and-down mass capability needed by all space station partners. The Constellation program should be restructured by canceling Ares I. Ares I, if successful, does not offer much of an advantage over other Earth-to-orbit launchers, and its development will take too long and use valuable funds. In addition, canceling other lunar surface-related work—including the lunar lander, the space suit, the rover, and other habitat and surface systems work—would focus the NASA workforce on immediate challenges. The cancelled activities could be resumed at an appropriate time in the future.

Postponing serious human-to-Mars discussions would be a pragmatic statement that recognizes the incredible challenges of a Mars mission. Robotic missions to Mars should be flown exclusively at least for the next decade, with extensive surface exploration by rovers.

The present Orion program should be restructured to reduce the size of the new spacecraft to a three-member crew, Apollo-size vehicle, or an X-38 lifting body vehicle with land-landing capability. The smaller-size vehicle could be flown on an Ariane 5 or Delta IV launch vehicle, with a planned 2014 or 2015 launch to the ISS. Moving to one of these launch vehicles allows a more rapid deployment by decoupling the new spacecraft from the development of a new launcher such as Ares I. Development of the new spacecraft would be accelerated by reducing the crew size and the need for weight efficiency and by taking advantage of previous Apollo and/or X-38 development. This would significantly reduce the technical risk in many key areas, such as thermal protection and parachutes. Weight and technical risk could be further reduced by designing the service module for space station service missions, making the module simpler.

By not investing in a unique Ares I Earth-to-orbit human launcher, NASA would be positioned to take full advantage of emerging commercial Earth-to-orbit transportation services, should opportunities develop in the 2015–2020 timeframe.

In our restructuring approach, the shift in near-term focus from the moon to the ISS would be followed by building a capability for a deep-space asteroid or comet intercept based on an Ares V heavy-lift vehicle. The Ares V heavy-lift launch capability is critical to any further deep-space exploration. By canceling Ares I, NASA should be able to focus all its launch vehicle development capability on designing the one launcher needed by the nation for future deep-space work and not anticipated to be provided by the private sector. All options for providing an Ares V heavyweight launch capability should be studied, including liquid boosters and liquid fly-back boosters, and international cooperative options. This should include the evaluation of options such as those proposed by the Direct Launcher concept, which makes use of most of the existing shuttle hardware, including the two solid rocket boosters and the external fuel tank, the only key modifications being an Apollo-like capsule at the top and an engine at the bottom of the external fuel tank. Although Ares I also uses shuttle parts, it is essentially an entirely new rocket.

The ability to fly to an asteroid would give the United States a lunar capability, should one be needed in the future. A deep-space mission, such as a human asteroid or comet intercept, would effectively demonstrate American leadership in space, should that be a concern in the face of a possible Chinese landing on the moon. Arguably, an American lunar return would do less to bolster U.S. space leadership than a more aggressive goal of performing a human asteroid intercept mission.

To advance this and other concepts, a joint NASA-Department of Defense propulsion research program should be initiated because propulsion is a limiting factor in space exploration. An aggressive program focused on innovative advanced propulsion development has been needed for a long time.

A restructured human spaceflight exploration initiative should involve and be supported by the capabilities of other U.S. federal agencies, universities, and industries, and be fully international in scope. The proven international partners from the ISS—Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia—should be invited to participate in a restructured human space-exploration program.

Deliver short-term (within four years) payoffs in energy and the environment, especially climate change. The implementation to deliver short-term (within four years) payoffs in energy and the environment, especially in the area of climate change, takes advantage of the unique capabilities and skilled workforce of each NASA center. The efforts and unique capabilities of the various NASA centers should be refocused and assigned responsibilities commensurate with their expertise. The short-term payoffs would involve initiatives to fully understand and optimize the aerodynamics, structures, and mechanisms of large-scale wind turbines; to fully understand and optimize high-efficiency, large-scale solar cells and small-scale fuel cell technology applications; to improve aerodynamic and propulsion efficiency of general aviation and commercial aircraft; and to develop and evaluate alternative aviation fuels and aircraft power plants.

Initiatives should be implemented to fully employ NASA’s ability to monitor, model, and predict long-term climate, utilizing NASA instruments, aircraft, spacecraft, computers, and communications. This effort could include enhanced use of the ISS for monitoring Earth, as well as expansion of the current EOS, and would require close coordination with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), supported by the NSF through the president’s National Science and Technology Council. The NRC’s 2007 Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (a report of the Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future) provides a national strategy for the implementation of a program of scientific discovery and development of applications for the next decade that forms an excellent foundation for needed research that will significantly enhance our understanding of our global environment. The report recommends additional missions over and above the present planned program.47

In addition, robotic exploration should be implemented to compare Earth to sister planets, a project that could lead to a better understanding of the climate history of Earth. Breakthroughs in all of these areas, as well as the development of better solar and fuel cells and improved knowledge of the environment and planetology, are essential to future exploration activities.

Deliver longer-term payoffs (within four to eight years) for energy and the environment. The implementation to deliver longer-term payoffs (four to eight years) for energy and the environment as a potential long-term energy solution could involve an effort to demonstrate—initially on a small scale—wireless power transmission from orbit to Earth using the shuttle and the ISS. Full implementation of a space-based solar power system requires a larger and less costly launch infrastructure than is currently available. Such a system will not be feasible until launch costs can be reduced. However, a low-Earth-orbit demonstration, potentially based on the shuttle or the ISS, would help scientists and engineers understand the problems and required efficiencies. This concept has made major strides since its initial inception with the realization that constellations of smaller, more efficient solar collectors in medium-Earth orbit can provide the same capability as larger, high-orbit satellites. Demonstrating space-based solar power on a small scale would help scientists and engineers better understand what needs to be done to utilize this concept for supplying electrical power needs. Additional small-scale efforts could be initiated to demonstrate other potential technologies for healing the planet that are tied to NASA’s ability to monitor, model, and engineer large-scale complex systems.

Ensure an ongoing and effective robotic space science program. Spectacular scientific discoveries and advances have been one of NASA’s major achievements since its founding a half-century ago. Today, NASA supports an outstanding community of researchers interested in continuing to make pathbreaking discoveries about the workings—past, present, and future—of the universe, solar system, and Earth through space-based telescopes, observations, satellites, and planetary rovers. That community needs a commitment from NASA that researchers will not be left in the lurch if they bet their careers on instruments that, through peer review, are judged to be excellent and that can be accommodated within NASA’s budget.

Reinvigorate and pursue an effective aeronautical research program, with particular attention to low-carbon fuels and efficiency. Aeronautical capabilities are important to the U.S. economy, but the aeronautics segment is becoming increasingly less competitive. The U.S. share of the world aerospace markets has declined significantly since the mid-1980s. In the past, the NASA aeronautics research and technology program has produced significant advances in aeronautical design. The low-drag cowl for radial engines and the “Coke-bottle” to reduce transonic drag rise are but two examples of the benefits gained from NASA’s aeronautical research program.

More recent aeronautics advances—such as 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. Modern aircraft are complex “systems of systems,” and advances in one discipline, such as aerodynamics, may require an advance in another discipline, such as structures, before they can be applied in a new aircraft design. A NASA fundamental aeronautical research and technology program, not tied to specific development projects, would be an essential element of the reinvigorated aeronautics initiative and would provide the foundation for future advancements.

Government aeronautical test facilities are another area of concern. Many facilities have been or are being closed. U.S. aircraft companies are going overseas to perform wind tunnel testing of new U.S. designs. A reinvigorated and more effective aeronautical research program must include a review of the present status of the nation’s aeronautical test facilities and should identify the upgrades and new construction needed to ensure the support of a revitalized aeronautical research program.

Our proposed five-point plan takes the agency in a direction that will significantly contribute to the future in two vital areas: energy and the environment, particularly climate change. NASA will continue to fly humans in space, complete the ISS, meet its commitments to the United States’ international partners, and reestablish a balanced set of activities featuring science, engineering, aeronautics, research, and technology. NASA should also build a foundation for a human space-exploration program that involves other agencies and the nation’s universities and is based on international cooperation.

As a part of this restructuring, greater authority and responsibility should be returned to the directors of NASA’s research centers. The full cost accounting constraints that require projects to pay for personnel, and for all personnel to be paid by projects, would be removed. Personnel would be funded from a common pool as they were throughout NASA’s history prior to recent times. Full cost accounting requires each engineer or scientist to be supported by a program and does not allow for an organization of engineers and scientists devoted to research and development, a constraint that all but eliminates the agency’s ability to build and retain its technical and scientific expertise.

The Fourth Barrier: The Erosion of International Cooperation in Space

Restructure the goals of the human space exploration initiative by de-emphasizing an early focus on the U.S.-led moon and Mars program in favor of enhanced support for the ISS and a clearly stated objective of peaceful cooperation in space based on scientific research.

Extend space shuttle flights through 2015, thereby reducing reliance on Russia for transportation to the ISS and providing the large up-and-down mass capability needed by all ISS partners. NASA studies have shown that the space shuttle could be safely flown, at a reduced flight rate, through 2015. This would preserve America’s independent access to space and would also preserve much of the current workforce and provide a smoother transition between programs. These flights would provide essential support to the ISS and would allow the United States to meet its commitments to its international partners.

Change the focus from an early moon and Mars mission to enhanced support of the ISS past 2015. A clearly stated rationale for the ISS, such as continued international cooperation on the peaceful uses of space, scientific research in particular, would be important.

Encourage participation in a restructured human space exploration initiative by other federal agencies, the university community, and scientists in other nations —including the U.S.’s ISS partners but expanded to include all interested countries, such as China. China has joined the United States and Russia in having the capability to fly human beings in space, and China is planning for its own space station. As Susan Eisenhower has outlined, the benefits to the United States of cooperation in space with Russia and of working with it and the other international partners on the ISS, could be extended by making China a partner on the ISS, thus encouraging and turning China’s aspirations in space toward cooperation and the peaceful use of space.48 As a prelude to such discussions, the United States should initiate discussions with China on the use of a common docking system that would enhance and enable space rescue missions. The successful docking system used for the ISS is an enhancement of the system developed and demonstrated on the Apollo-Soyuz mission of July 1975. We understand that both the United States and China have strategic national security interests in space. But, in our view, the peaceful uses of space should be the ultimate goal of both nations, and the surest way to achieve that objective is to begin serious discussions on cooperative scientific and human space-exploration activities that the two countries, in cooperation with other nations, can plan and carry out in the coming decades.


44. National Research Council, Beyond ‘Fortress America.

45. House Committee on Science and Technology, Impacts of U.S. Export Control Policies on Science and Technology Activities and Competitiveness, 111th Cong., 1st sess., February 25, 2009.

46. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (Public Law 85-864) provided aid to education in the United States at all levels, both public and private.

47. National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2007).

48. Eisenhower, Partners in Space.