Fall 2004 Update
U.S. commitment to human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit still in doubt
In “A Sustainable Rationale for Human Spaceflight” (Issues, Winter 2004), I forecast that President George W. Bush would soon propose “a guiding mandate for future human spaceflight.” The president on January 14, 2004, did that and more. He announced a new and open-ended vision for space exploration focused on “a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond,” which would “extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.”
In order to focus its future efforts on carrying out this expansive policy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was told that it must retire the Space Shuttle from service as soon as the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) is complete, with 2010 as the target date for doing so, and that it must focus its research aboard the ISS on those areas of inquiry related to human exploration. No longer would NASA invest substantial sums in advanced space transportation technologies; those resources would instead be devoted to developing systems to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit.
The Bush proposal represents a profound shift in U.S. policy for human space flight, which for more than 30 years has been focused on activities in low-Earth orbit. Even the possibility of planning for missions to the Moon or Mars had been put on the back burner by the Clinton administration’s 1996 statement of national space policy, which had said only that the ISS “will support future decisions on the feasibility and desirability of conducting further human exploration activities.” The new policy was responsive to the August 2003 criticism in the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board of “the lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.”
Although trumpeting a bold new agenda for the U.S. space program, the Bush administration, faced with a growing federal budget deficit, a sluggish economy, and the need to finance the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, did not propose meaningful new resources for NASA to carry out that agenda. Even though NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe forcefully argued that a multibillion-dollar budget increase was needed over the next several years, he was not successful in that argument. Thus the transition from a program dedicated to returning the Space Shuttle to flight and completing the ISS to one focused on the next generation human-carrying system, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), will be slow paced. The first flight of that vehicle with a crew aboard is tentatively set for 2014. Among other implications, this means that for the several years between retiring the Space Shuttle and the initial CEV flights, the United States will have to depend on Russian spacecraft to carry astronauts to the ISS. In NASA’s initial plans, the first human flights to the Moon are scheduled for the latter years of the 2015-2020 window set by the new policy.
At the time he announced the new policy, the president also established a blue-ribbon President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Exploration Policy, chaired by long-time aerospace leader Edward “Pete” Aldridge. That commission released its report on June 16, 2004. In response to the question “Why go?”, the commission argued that “the long-term, ambitious space agenda advanced by the president . . . will significantly help the United States protect its technological leadership, economic vitality, and security,” while also inspiring the nation’s youth and improving prosperity and quality of life for all Americans. The report contained a number of recommendations for substantial revisions in the way that the country organizes for space exploration, including creating a much larger role for the private sector and converting at least some of NASA’s civil service laboratories into federally funded research and development centers. It noted that if the vision is to be accomplished within a NASA budget roughly at the same level as it has been for the past three decades, “the journey will need to be managed within available resources using a ‘go as you can pay’ approach.”
My earlier article noted that the president’s proposal would “have to rest on a convincing argument of why it is in the nation’s interest to make and sustain such an expensive commitment.” To date, it is fair to say that the arguments put forward by the White House, the Aldridge Commission, NASA, or the various ad hoc support coalitions financed by the aerospace industry have not been convincing. Congressional and public reaction to the president’s vision for space exploration has been tepid. Whether NASA will get even the modest FY2005 budget increase requested to get started on developing the CEV is not clear as this update is written. One of the quirks of the congressional appropriations process is that NASA’s funding is in the same budget bill as that for veterans, making it particularly difficult this year to give NASA additional money.
There does seem to be congressional agreement in principle that exploration beyond Earth orbit is the appropriate focusing goal for human space flight. Presidential candidate John Kerry agreed with this perspective in his pre-election space policy statement, although he was critical of the way that the proposed focus on exploration might unbalance the overall NASA program. Thus, the possibility of resuming human flights beyond Earth orbit will survive the election.
In my original article, I suggested that “American citizens appear willing to support” a space program “that provides the promise of continued scientific payoffs, that serves as a vehicle for U.S. leadership in carrying out missions that have sparked the human imagination for millennia, that excites young people and attracts them toward technical education and careers, and that would serve as a source of renewed national pride.” Despite its several problems, the proposed vision for space exploration in its broad outline is such a program. Coming as it has in a time of national division over U.S. overseas involvements and a bitterly contested presidential election, it is likely that the full political and public debate that is needed to determine whether the United States has the political will to undertake a long-term commitment to space exploration will have to wait until the next administration takes office.