National Academies Press: OpenBook

United States Civil Space Policy: Summary of a Workshop (2008)

Chapter: 2 Assessment of the Current Situation

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Suggested Citation:"2 Assessment of the Current Situation." National Research Council. 2008. United States Civil Space Policy: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12202.
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Suggested Citation:"2 Assessment of the Current Situation." National Research Council. 2008. United States Civil Space Policy: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12202.
Page 12
Suggested Citation:"2 Assessment of the Current Situation." National Research Council. 2008. United States Civil Space Policy: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12202.
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Suggested Citation:"2 Assessment of the Current Situation." National Research Council. 2008. United States Civil Space Policy: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12202.
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2 Assessment of the Current Situation The first two sessions of the 2007 workshop were intended to promote discussion of the current state of the U.S. civil space program and consideration of how civil space exploration fits in a larger national and international context. Each session began with remarks from panelists invited to address several framing questions for the session (see Appendix B), after which the session was opened for general discussion by all workshop participants. The first session—on situational assessment—was moderated by Space Studies Board (SSB) member A. Thomas Young (Lockheed Martin Corporation, retired); the panel members were Bretton Alexander (X Prize Foundation), Fiona Harrison (California Institute of Technology), and James Zimmerman (International Space Services, Inc.). The session focused on identifying key developments and changes with respect to the U.S. civil space program since the 2003 SSB-Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) workshop. SSB member Charles Bennett (Johns Hopkins University) moderated the next session—on the national and international context for space; the panelists were journalist and author Guy Gugliotta, Joan Johnson-Freese (Naval War College), and Roger Launius (National Air and Space Museum). Both sessions brought forth several common themes to which participants often returned for discussion and elaboration, both during the two sessions and later during the workshop. Throughout all the discussions, few speakers voiced opposition to several core views—namely, that the civil space program has been effective and important in the past in spite of its problems, that human space exploration is and will remain an important element of U.S. civil space policy, that space and Earth science and aeronautics are also essential central responsibilities of the civil space program, and that while each of these segments of the program has its own unique problems, human space exploration is now especially vulnerable. Key aspects of the recurring themes that were highlighted during the discussions are summarized below. ROBUSTNESS Many participants expressed the view that the Vision for Space Exploration (the Vision) had not progressed as it was presented or as people in the space community had expected when the Vision was announced in 2004. Speakers argued that neither the administration nor Congress had sought the resources that would be required to accomplish the Vision. A significant consequence of this situation, people noted, is that resource shortfalls in budgets to support the development of new exploration systems integral to the Vision are having major disruptive impacts on other parts of NASA’s programs. One speaker captured the spirit of the discussions by noting that the situation is “like a game of musical chairs, but we are more than just one chair short.” In analyzing the robustness of the program, speakers identified several concerns. First, there was concern that there was little substantial follow-up by the administration after the initial announcement of the Vision. One speaker contrasted the situation with that following President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of the Apollo Program in which the president was explicit about the need to commit the 11

necessary resources to the program and subsequently walled off the resources so that they would be protected. Inadequate implementation was a second factor cited as having compromised the robustness of the Vision. One speaker noted that, in contrast to the presentation of the Vision as a new direction, there exists today a business-as-usual sense about a program that will be neither affordable nor sustainable. The idea of portraying the Vision as “Apollo on steroids” was cited as being particularly unsustainable. Initially it had also been expected that there would be significant public participation in crafting and executing the Vision, but these expectations have not been borne out. Another speaker commented that the Vision’s “new direction” was also to have included a role for the commercial sector, but that too few opportunities had been provided to this sector. Additional discussion about the potential emergence of commercial space capabilities to support the Vision asked whether these capabilities could develop beyond serving only government (for example, commercial resupply services for the International Space Station) to serve private markets (such as space tourism). A speaker suggested that the “window” for new commercial space transportation companies focused on tourism was a limited window perhaps 3 to 5 years. That speaker also commented that if the private spaceflight market succeeded, then “everything changes” in terms of the perception of the commercial sector’s role in space. Several speakers were critical of the “go-as-you-can-pay” approach that was a premise for executing the Vision. They argued that such an approach is not realistic or feasible for carrying out complex technical tasks, because such efforts will lack the necessary flexibility to deal with technical developments and obstacles along the way. While the go-as-you-can-pay approach might be useful when initial decisions are being made, that is not the case afterward. A third factor creating concern about robustness was that NASA is inadequately funded and that it is unlikely that political decision makers will relax the overall funding limits for NASA in the near future. That is, flat budgets are not likely to go away soon. Speakers argued that continued operational costs for the International Space Station, delayed phaseout of the space shuttle, costs of pressing near- term development of the next-generation space transportation system, and unbudgeted operational costs to achieve announced goals will all make the Vision unaffordable. One consequence of this dilemma, several speakers noted, is that NASA’s programs in space science, Earth science, and aeronautics are being affected in ways that will have serious long-term consequences. One speaker described NASA’s science program as being “in retreat,” citing recent program changes and management turbulence, the effects of which rapidly propagate across NASA and undermine intra-agency, interagency, and international planning and cooperation. Thus, while NASA is still reaping the scientific and public-image benefits from investments in science programs made 10 to 15 years ago, the speaker argued that the “free ride is about to end.” Participants also acknowledged that some of the problems with the robustness and balance in the science program are of the program’s own making, because of the impact of unrealistic past project cost estimates and significant cost growth. Participants from within and outside the scientific community voiced agreement that the scientific community will need to exert leadership and share responsibility with NASA to make tough decisions about controlling the science program costs. Further discussion of these points was wide-ranging. There was reference to whether a “base realignment and closing” strategy could be used to trim or realign NASA centers, discussion of the difficulty of outsourcing external to NASA centers given consolidation in the aerospace industry (there are too few companies to which to outsource), and the question of whether another aspect of “robustness” might consider whether the nation and its space activities have become too “risk-averse” in willingness to try new technologies or more creative approaches. In summing up participants’ comments, a speaker noted that there are three essential elements of an endeavor goals, a strategy to achieve the goals, and the means to implement the strategy but that for NASA the means are lacking, thereby making the goals “a fantasy.” Citing a 2006 report of the National Research Council which concluded that “NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too 12

little,”1 speakers argued that NASA’s program suffers from a lack of resources, budget realism, and budget stability, thereby making the Vision unsustainable and unachievable. INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT In contrast with the 2003 workshop, at which international considerations were mentioned but did not play a pivotal role, issues regarding international collaboration and competition were frequent discussion topics at the 2007 workshop. Several speakers noted that at least two factors inhibit international relationships in civil space programs. One relates to the Vision’s statement of support for international participation “to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests”2 and its emphasis on long-range goals at the expense of nearer-term opportunities for international cooperation, and to the fact that military space activity rather than civil space has received the attention of the current administration. Speakers noted that by failing to emphasize international cooperation in using the International Space Station for near-term enabling research in support of human exploration, an opportunity to engage international partners in early implementation of the Vision was lost. The other notable impediment mentioned was the implementation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and current U.S. government emphasis on military space activities, which were described as having a chilling impact on current and future cooperative relationships with foreign space partners. Speakers also focused on the growing ambitions and capabilities of other nations’ new national space programs, especially in China and India. Participants commented that there is an expanding level of capability in space activities across the world and that more nations are acquiring capabilities that make them strong collaborators and/or competitors with the United States. In addition, new arrangements are excluding the United States or Europe. China and India are forming their own respective alliances, such as cooperation between India and Israel in launch capability and between China and Brazil for Earth observations. Space-faring countries abroad are no longer considering the United States or Europe as default partners for collaboration. Some participants also noted that international cooperation provides a means to share the costs of large, expensive programs and thereby to make them more affordable for individual countries. However, others noted that international cooperation as a means of reducing costs needs to be considered with care. First, international collaborative projects do not always result in reduced costs, especially when the separation of partner roles and responsibilities is blurred. Second, although international cooperation can make an expensive project affordable, it also can translate into yielding the country’s international technological lead when other partners are brought in to the enterprise. Citing the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a speaker asked if a “GEOSS-like” arrangement would be useful or workable for space science. Finally, workshop participants devoted considerable attention to the emergence of China as a major player in space. Some speakers described China as presenting two alternative choices for relationships. If the United States sees China as a threat or as mainly a competitor, then cooperation may be difficult or even out of the question. Alternatively, the United States could seek engagement with China, in which case space exploration could gain a new strategic purpose as an element of engagement and cooperation. Speakers noted than even during the Cold War, when relationships with the Soviet Union were especially tense, there was continuing cooperation in space research. Several speakers argued that a decision about cooperation with China will not be a matter of “whether” but of “when and how.” One speaker introduced the concept of the United States as a “benevolent hegemon.” That is, there is an opportunity for the space program to become transformational as a means to exert U.S. leadership in 1 National Research Council, An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 2. 2 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2004, p. iii. 13

working with China for the betterment of the world. In any case, some speakers noted that a decision about how to engage China will not be based solely on space policy but will depend on much larger geopolitical considerations. Several speakers posed questions such as these: What roles can international cooperation play in solutions to problems with the civil space program? Do we need a new paradigm for partnerships? Should international relationships be more central and more often on the critical path? Should the United States be more proactive? A frequent response was that international aspects cannot be ignored and that space activities offer a natural vehicle for establishing connectivity between nations, which in turn is an essential element of globalization and, therefore, a necessary priority of forward-looking nations. PUBLIC INTEREST AND SUPPORT During the session on national and international context and often in subsequent discussions, participants turned to an assessment of the degree of contemporary public interest and support for space exploration. Providing some historical perspective, speakers indicated that there was considerable public apathy during the Apollo program, with less than a majority of the public supporting sending people to the Moon. Instead, Apollo drew much of its strongest support from its links to political goals and priorities driven by the Cold War. Additional discussion centered on a longer-term problem: once we return to the Moon, it will “cost a lot to stay on the Moon,” and once we get to Mars, it will “cost a lot to stay on Mars.” In the case of Apollo, once we got to the Moon, we terminated the program. One speaker described public support for space exploration as “a mile wide and an inch deep” and attributed some current public apathy to changes in public attitudes and expectations over the past decades. That is, people now have shorter attention spans and expect to have a more participative experience than is now offered by much of space exploration. This perspective was reinforced later in the workshop by citation of survey data that had been prepared for George Mason University,3 indicating that today the greatest degree of enthusiasm for human space exploration rests with the 45- to 64-year-old age group (the Apollo generation) but that support is weak in the 18- to 24-year-old age group. In contrast, other speakers argued that people do care about space and that members of the lay public respond especially to the “wow factor”—that is, programs such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars exploration do capture public interest and support. However, a speaker commented that if the NASA budget is not viewed to be particularly large, the need to have a “wow” factor to sustain public support becomes less important. Speakers also noted that the level of excitement over space exploration appears to be much higher in countries abroad than inside the United States. The workshop discussions drew out several competing views about what aspects of space exploration are most relevant and effective in engaging public interest. Participants discussed whether factors that were important in the past remain so today or whether new arguments and attributes will be more important as the country looks to the future. These ideas were explored in more detail in later sessions. (See Chapter 3.) 3 M.L. Dittmar, Engaging the 18-25 Generation: Educational Outreach, Interactive Technologies, and Space, Dittmar Associates, Inc., available at 25%20Generation%20Update~web.pdf. 14

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In 2004, the NRC released a workshop report about the future direction of the U.S. civil space program. At the same time, the Administration announced the Vision for Space Exploration, and in June 2004, it issued a report that articulated a balanced space program for human and robotic exploration and science. Subsequent NRC reports, however, have noted that NASA has not been given the resources to carry out this broad-based program. This challenge, along with others faced by the U.S. civil space program, stimulated the NRC to form an ad hoc committee to organize a second workshop, held in November 2007, to address the space program's future directions. The workshop's goal was to air a range of views and perspectives so as to inform discussions of these questions by policymakers and the public. This book presents a summary of the workshop.

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