The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Pioneering the Space Frontier
More than 20 years ago, a report offered a view of the future of spaceflight that is still relevant today.

Seven generations: a re-evaluation of the Paine Report

President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)—recent renamed the “United States Space Exploration Policy” but still commonly called by its original name—is under intense pressure in this era of tight budgets and presidential electoral politics. Jeff Foust reported here in The Space Review a few weeks ago that this is the critical year for the survival of VSE (see “The Vision’s critical year”, The Space Review, January 14, 2008). He indicated that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin commented that NASA has had to absorb almost $12 billion in budget reductions over fiscal 2005 to 2012, the critical period of VSE implementation, making it very difficult to successfully achieve the stated goals.

Even though NASA has issued key contracts, especially in the Constellation program, it is doubtful whether VSE can survive an administration change, especially given the lukewarm support of space initiatives from both sides of the political fence. A Republican would be sorely tempted to throw the bone of VSE to detractors, in exchange for increased funding for the war in Iraq or other pet projects. It is also an easy, visible method for the new Republican president to distinguish himself from the old administration and appear as a reformer. On the Democratic side, It would be very easy for a president-elect to bask in the glow of elder statesman and Nobel Laureate Al Gore and divert any space spending to Earth observation and seek ways to mitigate global warming. Science and robotic missions would be emphasized at the expense of crewed activity. No matter what the outcome of the presidential elections, VSE is an easy target.

NASA tends to become a political football, with each new administration desiring to put its stamp on the direction of the agency. NASA activities are highly visible, and ever since Kennedy’s dramatic speech, have been viewed as one of the best ways for a president to try to make his stamp on history. Politics can often overshadow the vision, however; even before we achieved Kennedy’s grand vision of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the ‘60s, NASA’s budget had begun to be eviscerated.

Even though NASA has issued key contracts, especially in the Constellation program, it is doubtful whether VSE can survive an administration change, especially given the lukewarm support of space initiatives from both sides of the political fence.

Space spending is a highly visible and easy target, especially because the public at large does not see the immediate relevance of space development, or how it can augment other desirable activities, such as environmental monitoring and job creation. Moreover, NASA and the space advocacy community on the whole do a rather lackluster job of communicating these benefits to a wider audience. The result is that space spending is usually in the front of the line for the budget guillotine. A Harris Poll conducted in April 2007 listed respondents’ answer to this question: “If spending had to be cut on federal programs, which two federal program(s) do you think the cuts should come from?” The space program received the sharpest blow of the hypothetical budget ax, at 51%, followed distantly by welfare and defense at 28%. This is the state of public perception, even though NASA’s fiscal year 2007 federal budget allocation was less than 1%, while defense came in at 19%, and unemployment and welfare registered 13%. It is nearly impossible to establish stable NASA funding in this political and cultural climate.

There is a potential route out of this morass of presidential politics and public apathy for space development. In 1986, the National Commission on Space released an astounding document, Pioneering the Space Frontier, also known as the Paine Report, after Dr. Thomas O. Paine, chairman of the commission and former NASA administrator. While this report was overshadowed at the time by the Challenger tragedy, it nonetheless remains an excellent roadmap in to the future for space development. The commission was broad-based, bipartisan, and drew from many fields, including science, public policy, and the military. The commission spent many months conducting wide-reaching surveys and public forums to determine the public’s true interest in space development. It is interesting to note that many of the currently most active space advocates are listed as participants in the public forums and as letter-writers. Even today, more than 20 years later, the report contains clear, coordinated, and innovative approaches to developing America’s space future.

Many concepts are advocated in practical detail within its pages that have not advanced much since that time, due to the afore-mentioned nature of space politics. These include earth observation and environmental monitoring, public-private sector cooperation (we are just now seeing COTS be haltingly implemented), development of space enterprise, reusable vehicles, self-replicating factories, closed-loop life support systems, lunar and asteroid resource utilization, tethers for transportation and power generation, solar power satellites, and many other innovations. It contains a detailed economical phased approach to space development that will lead to sustainable development and many benefits flowing back to Earth.

One passage is especially striking, and indicative that perhaps it is time to seriously re-examine this document, in light of the battles over VSE:

Should the United States choose not to undertake achievement of these economies in launch and recovery capability, then the Nation must face the probability that other nations will rapidly overtake our position as the world’s leading spacefaring nation. The competition to get into space and to operate effectively there is real. Above all, it is imperative that the United States maintain a continuous capability to put both humans and cargo into orbit; never again should the country experience the hiatus we endured from 1975 to 1981, when we were unable to launch astronauts into space (109).

A re-engagement of the recommendations of this amazing and comprehensive document could go a long way toward short-circuiting the partisan politics surrounding space development raging between Republican and Democrats, crewed versus robotics advocates, and environmentalists versus champions of economic development. The commission was carefully and conscientiously balanced, and many of the political stakeholders of the day have since passed from the stage. The recommendations of the report are cogently conceived, acknowledge a broad spectrum of agendas, and are eminently achievable.

Another looming travesty brought to light by re-examining this document is the loss of the opportunity of putting Space Shuttle External Tanks (ETs) into orbit as useful resources. The report, along with many other early ’80s space documents, is a strong advocate of such an approach:

In addition to these natural resources, there is a potentially valuable artificial space resource that is now going to waste: the shuttle’s external tanks. At present, with each successful flight of a shuttle, an empty tank with mass greater than the full payload of the shuttle itself is brought to 99 percent of orbital speed and then discarded to burn up in the atmosphere. The shuttle fleet’s flight schedule suggests that over a 10-year period about 10,000 tons of that tankage will be brought almost to orbit and then discarded. At standard shuttle rates, it would cost about $35 billion to lift that mass to orbit. There are reasonable arguments, involving potential hazards and the costs of maintaining tanks in orbit over time, against saving this resource, but we feel that so great a resource cannot be ignored, and propose that a new look be taken. We cannot set limits now on what uses could be made of shuttle tanks in orbit; ingenuity and the profit motive might produce useful ideas. One obvious use is as shielding against radiation; another possibility is mass for tether anchoring. We therefore recommend that: The potential value, risks, and costs of stockpiling shuttle external tanks in orbit be reviewed again in light of increased orbital activities to determine whether preserving a large tonnage of fabricated aluminum, steel, and other materials is desirable in the next 10 to 15 years (84).
Taking a broad view would not only be incredibly inspirational, especially coming from the mouth of a presidential candidate, but would also go a long way to stop the inter-party, inter-agency, and inter-constituency bickering over space policy.

While Gene Meyers and the Space Island Group are still active, more than likely the Space Shuttle era will pass without one ET in orbit. This, in years to come (if not now), will be perceived as one of the greatest squanderings of opportunities to have ever occurred in American history. This has happened because of a lack of a comprehensive plan to develop space, exacerbated by the above-reviewed political landscape.

George Santayana tells us “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, and the Iroquois Confederacy councils us that “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”. A renewed appreciation of the gift of the Paine Report from the previous generation will help us focus on building a sustainable future for the following seven generations and beyond. Taking such a broad view would not only be incredibly inspirational, especially coming from the mouth of a presidential candidate, but would also go a long way to stop the inter-party, inter-agency, and inter-constituency bickering over space policy. The alternative is to watch the VSE expire by the proverbial “death of a thousand tiny cuts.”