It is not only the Bush Administration that has wrestled with the question
of where the nation's human spaceflight program should be headed. Congress
has held hearings on this question, and several months prior to President
Bush's proposal to return to the Moon and then send humans to Mars,
a group of experts in space policy held a workshop to air their views.
Although the workshop was not intended to develop consensus recommendations,
there were a number of comments that received broad agreement: Since
the end of the Apollo program and the Cold War, the role of the U.S.
human spaceflight program has been uncertain; the program needs a clear
long-term goal developed by a national dialogue, with a progression
of smaller missions leading toward that goal; it needs to use NASA's
space and Earth science programs as successful models and must move
beyond competition between human and robotic exploration by taking advantage
of the benefits of both; sending humans to Mars is a likely long-term
goal; and fundamental changes will be required on NASA's part to achieve
such a goal.
The November 12-13 workshop was held jointly by the National Research
Council's Space Studies Board and its Aeronautics and Space Engineering
Board, with other invited guests. A prepublication version of a report
on the workshop, "Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S.
Space Program," breaks out seven themes around which there
seemed to be general agreement among participants:
Theme 1. Successful Space and Earth Science Programs:
According to the report, the U.S. space and Earth science programs are
generally considered productive and successful, and benefit from the
"constructive tension" between NASA, which implements the
program, and independent stakeholders - members of the science community
- who set and periodically revisit the program's goals. Numerous independent
missions of varying sizes enable the programs' continued progress, momentum,
and political support. Many workshop participants felt that the human
spaceflight program could benefit by applying "lessons learned"
from NASA's science programs. In particular, it was noted that the human
spaceflight program lacks independent stakeholders.
Theme 2. A Clear Goal for Human Spaceflight: There was
consensus among workshop participants that the human spaceflight program
lacks - and needs - a clear long-term goal. "Without such a long-range
goal," the report states, "the human spaceflight program's
reason for being is hard to articulate," as is the justification
for components such as the space station and shuttle. The suggestion
was made that, with the end of the Cold War, there is no longer a need
to demonstrate U.S. technical prowess in space, but a long-term human
spaceflight goal could help the U. S. demonstrate leadership and goodwill
in cooperation with other nations. It was thought that the goal would
be determined through a national and international dialogue.
Theme 3. Exploration as the Goal for Human Spaceflight:
Many participants believed that the primary goal of the human spaceflight
program should be exploration, in order to satisfy a basic human drive
and to contribute to the acquisition of new knowledge. "Exploration
is a legitimate form of science, if properly conducted," one of
the participants stated. Others commented that human explorers can take
advantage of "unanticipated learning" opportunities for learning
in a way that robots cannot, and humans can communicate to others what
it is like to experience outer space. Some participants felt that human
exploration of Mars was an appropriate long-term goal.
Theme 4. Exploration as a Long-term Endeavor to be Accomplished
via a Series of Small Steps: Some participants argued that it would
be premature to specify a date and the cost of a long-term human spaceflight
goal, and that the nation should pursue the larger goal through a series
of smaller missions as NASA's budget allowed, in a "buy it by the
yard" approach. This approach could help sustain momentum and political
support, and would allow many opportunities for the involvement of international
Theme 5. Synergy Superseding the Humans-versus-Robots Dichotomy:
Numerous participants called for moving beyond the view that human and
robotic missions must compete for funding, and instead crafting a human
spaceflight program that exploited the synergies of using both. Many
agreed that, if long-term human space exploration is the goal, the benefits
of both will be needed, and the mix of the two will depend on the ultimate
Theme 6. The Long-term Goal Driving All Implementation Decisions:
Warning against repeating the mistake of the shuttle and space station
programs in making "too many promises to too many people,"
workshop participants stated that the chosen long-term goal should drive
all related decisions. For example, the goal of achieving long-term
human exploration, it was noted, could provide "a very clear justification"
for the configuration of, and research aboard, the space station, and
the design of the next space transportation system.
Theme 7. Institutional Concerns: A successful human spaceflight
program, it was felt, would require significant changes in NASA. Workshop
participants cited a number of concerns with the current situation,
including the lack of independent stakeholders for a human spaceflight
goal, the decline of the U.S. space industrial base, changes to NASA's
mission since the Apollo program, a lack of management competence exemplified
by repetition of the same mistakes, a lack of technical competence reflected
in NASA's use of old technologies for the human spaceflight program,
and a lack of openness and honesty in NASA's justification of many of
its programs. Some also felt that the human spaceflight program would
have a better chance of success if the broad science community expressed
support for it and contributed to making it an effective and productive
The report on the workshop, "Issues and Opportunities Regarding
the U.S. Space Program," which runs nearly 100 pages with appendices,
can be requested in pdf format from the Space Studies Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the suggestions raised at the workshop appear in line with
Bush's proposal for human spaceflight (see FYI
#7), but how many will be incorporated into NASA's future plans
remains to be seen. Two days ago, at a Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation Committee hearing, senators expressed interest in the
President's plan for the Moon and Mars, but were skeptical about the
potential cost. More details on the Moon/Mars proposal will be revealed
when the FY 2005 budget request is released next week.