National Academies Publishes Pathways to U.S. Human Space Exploration Report

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Publication date: 
13 June 2014
Number: 
107

The National Academies of Science published a human spaceflight study to review “the long-term goals, core capabilities, and direction of human spaceflight and make recommendations to enable a sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program” as mandated by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.  The Committee on Human Spaceflight tasked with authoring this report was co-chaired by Jonathan Lunine, David Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell University and Mitchell Daniels, President of Purdue University.  The report addresses questions including “how far from Earth can humans go” and “what can humans discover and achieve when we get there” while also identifying rationales for human spaceflight. 

The report provides an overview of the rationales for human spaceflight while recognizing that the level of public interest about the space program has dwindled since the Apollo program in the Cold War era.  There are a set of “plausible goals for human space exploration in the foreseeable future, the most distant and difficult of which is a landing by human beings on the surface of Mars,” the committee concluded. Rationales include economic and technology impacts, national security, defense, international relations, education, inspiration, scientific exploration and observation, survival and shared aspirations. 

Regarding funding for the space program beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the report states “the current program to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft for flight beyond LEO cannot be sustained with constant buying power over time, in that it cannot provide the flight frequency required to maintain competence and safety, does not possess the ‘stepping-stone’ architecture that allows the public to see the connection between the horizon goal and near-term accomplishments, and may discourage potential international partners.”

“To continue on the present course – pursuit of an exploration system to go beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) while simultaneously operating the [International Space Station] through the middle of the next decade… all under a budget profile that fails even to keep pace with inflation – is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” the report concludes.

The report concludes that “the nation’s near term goals for human exploration beyond LEO are not aligned with those of our traditional international partners” who expressed to the committee that their near-term goal is to undertake lunar surface operations.  Those partners indicated they need to rely on the U.S. “to play a leadership role in human exploration of the Moon.”  While they were interested in the Asteroid Redirect Mission, their concerns were that such a mission would divert resources away from Moon research.

The committee found operation of the ISS beyond 2020 “will have a near-term effect on the pace NASA can sustain in exploration programs beyond LEO,” and “also affords an opportunity for extended studies related to long-term exposure to microgravity.”

While the report addresses China’s first robotic rover mission to the Moon, the authors note that the Chinese program is progressing in a direction that may result in it taking a leading role among nations with space programs.  “The prohibition on NASA speaking to Chinese space authorities has left open opportunities for collaboration that are being filled by other spacefaring nations,” the report states. 

The report also considered public interest and concluded that it “is relatively low when compared to that in other policy issues” and “at any given time, a relatively small proportion of the U.S. public pays close attention to space exploration.”  While the public has a favorable view of NASA, “most Americans do not favor increased spending on space exploration.”   Polls which were aimed at determining public interest in human versus robotic missions concluded that the public opinion shifted towards robotic missions once cost was mentioned in the questions.  The report also included stakeholder input, the overwhelming majority of whom prioritized “expanding knowledge and scientific understanding” as the top rationale for the space program.    

Also addressed in the report is a strategic approach for human spaceflight.  For a human exploration program whose goal is Mars, the report recommends that NASA focus on entry, descent, and landing technology; in-space power and propulsion; and radiation safety.  The report also provides recommendations for pathway principles and decision rules.  These principles included engaging international partners, defining steps that foster sustainability and maintain progress, creating risk mitigation plans and establishing pathways to develop technical capabilities.

“National leadership and sustained consensus on the vision and goals are essential to the success of a human space exploration program that extends beyond LEO.  Frequent changes in the goals for U.S. human space exploration waste resources and imped progress.  The instability of goals for the U.S. program in human spaceflight beyond LEO threatens our nation’s appeal and suitability as an international partner,” the report stated.

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