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STS-135 launch
In the hazy post-shuttle era, having an interagency coordinating body like the National Space Council can help support a strong value proposition for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts. (credit: J. Foust)

An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight (part 5)

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Taking stock

In Part 3 of this series I noted that NASA human spaceflight (HSF) is a powerful component of US national security, enhancing prestige, demonstrating technical achievement, and engaging in activities evocative of national pride to which other countries can aspire (see “An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight (part 3)”, The Space Review, August 22, 2011). At the same time, the capabilities on display and the national commitment necessary to maintain them sends a message to enemies or potential enemies. On the international stage, investment in space coupled with demonstrable progress, particularly in human spaceflight, “buys a seat at the table of influential nations.”

Space is an important component of Chinese soft power and national security.

As if to drive home the point, last week the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China released a white paper describing China’s progress since 2006. It laid out a five-year strategic plan for continued development and achievement of the Chinese space program. The opening paragraphs are instructive:

Outer space is the common wealth of mankind. Exploration, development and utilization of outer space are an unremitting pursuit of mankind. Space activities around the world have been flourishing. Leading space-faring countries have formulated or modified their development strategies, plans and goals in this sphere. The position and role of space activities are becoming increasingly salient for each active country’s overall development strategy, and their influence on human civilization and social progress is increasing.

The Chinese government makes the space industry an important part of the nation’s overall development strategy, and adheres to exploration and utilization of outer space for peaceful purposes. Over the past few years, China’s space industry has developed rapidly and China ranks among the world’s leading countries in certain major areas of space technology. Space activities play an increasingly important role in China’s economic and social development.

The authors could have added that space activities also play an important role in China’s attractiveness as a trading partner, in advertisement of their capability in the development and/or application of advanced technologies, in promoting their image as a country capable of getting challenging things done, in upholding their achievements as inspiration to others, and so on. In other words, space is an important component of Chinese soft power and national security. Space activities play a role in positioning China on the global stage, with a growing economy, vast resources, and a military that understands the implications of an active space program, particularly with regard to communications and especially human spaceflight.

If it executes to plan, then within the next five years, the white paper states:

China will launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant fueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.

China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.

Meanwhile, the US human spaceflight program appears to be, as the New York Times put it last week, “in retreat.”

False dichotomies

Whether or not the US HSF program is actually in retreat depends on one’s point of view. But, as long as the US is not flying humans into space, that point of view is largely irrelevant. What matters in this discussion is the point of view of other nations—and from where they sit, the US suffers from diminished prestige relative to earlier times. It is also seen as a labile partner in cooperative HSF efforts.1

The hole in US space policy suddenly revealed by the joint occurrence of the end of the Space Shuttle program, the cancellation of Constellation, and the shift to new vendors and procurement processes was not caused by the change in policy, it culminated in it.

The global response to the release of China’s white paper—evident within 24 hours—suggests there is widespread understanding of (and in some quarters, concern about) at least some of the implications therein. The paper details a methodical approach that builds on what has come before.2 By contrast, when looking to the US for leadership in space, for almost two years other nations have borne witness to a community and a government stuck in a squabble about the merits of “commercial spaceflight” vs. “government spaceflight” or about “Shuttle” vs. “future programs”, or even about “whether government should be involved in spaceflight at all,” a point of view that can only be seriously considered if one is willing to dismiss foreign policy as part of the bargain. Other valuable components of the Obama Administration’s space policy, such as technology development and a focus on capabilities—also with positive implications for soft power—are generally lost in the noise.

Seen from a national security perspective, these arguments are mostly spurious. The roles played by NASA and commercial spaceflight providers are not the same. From the point of view of other nations, there is a major policy statement and a variety of implications inherent in a government commitment to a national space program (NASA), particularly HSF: the very Value Proposition (VP) this series has focused on. The same VP does not apply to commercial efforts. They have Value Propositions of their own.

A key issue underlying these struggles is lack of clarity within the government as to how—or perhaps if—the United States will balance capabilities and responsibilities resident in private and public civil space sectors, in the interests of national security. In the opinion of the author, this was a major reason for Congressional resistance to the policy shift brought forward by the Obama Administration, although certainly not the only one.3 Pundits have been quick to point to jobs, “pork”, and re-election—and only a naïve observer would disregard those realities—but the hole in US space policy suddenly revealed by the joint occurrence of the end of the Space Shuttle program, the cancellation of Constellation, and the shift to new vendors and procurement processes was not caused by the change in policy, it culminated in it.

This had a significant impact on the thinking of at least some members of Congress. It raised an alarm—hopefully to salutary effect—as to whether the nation was backing away from capabilities and expertise essential to national security (and other national interests) without due consideration either of alternatives or consequences. That trend had been playing out for decades, but it took this confluence of events to surface the realities in compelling ways. In response to the immediate circumstances, a “compromise” emerged in the form the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. However, the larger issue remains.

In addition, commercial entities are increasingly active in investment, development, and operation of space facilities and transportation systems. In the United States, the success of the entire sector is in the national interest. The behavior of the government necessarily will be impacted by commercial aims and considerations. For example, management of space debris has direct implications for the evolution and eventual stabilization of space markets. Similarly, increased commercial activity in low Earth orbit (LEO) creates pressures steering toward international cooperation and treaty, rather than militarization. And so on.

At the same time, soft power and national security considerations will continue to be important in government space policy formulation. If only for that reason—and it is not the only reason—NASA HSF should not be going away any time soon. Bloated cost and management structures, on the other hand, are already gone or soon will be.4

Given the rapidly changing “spacescape”, including the emergence of new assets and a shift in who controls them, commercial actors eventually may need to be brought into decision making at the intersection of space and national security policy. A strategy is needed that accommodates changing roles and responsibilities and takes into account the rapidly accelerating proliferation of space capabilities across the globe. It is an open question as to whether the government will accept or reject such an approach, and when. Defining the mechanism(s) by which these issues may be debated and addressed is of considerable importance.

The path forward

Throughout this series I’ve advanced the proposition that the primary VP of NASA HSF is its contribution to national security. The draft VP as written is: “NASA HSF contributes directly to US national security by advancing American technical achievement, enhancing US prestige, and magnifying our presence in the global arena through US leadership in space.”

Without something like the National Space Council, it is difficult to envision how strategic management of US space capabilities can occur at a high enough level to overcome the stovepiping and inertia that has built up over years.

Perhaps more than most agencies, NASA does important work in a variety of fields with implications for multiple government initiatives, business sectors, scientific areas of inquiry, and national security. At present there is no formal mechanism anywhere inside the government charged with managing national space policy and its cross-functional VPs. The closest we currently have is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on the one hand and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on the other. However, neither of these are set up to consider planning, policy and funding implications associated with a VP such as the one proposed here in the context of initiatives and ongoing implementation across all relevant agencies.

Once upon a time, however, there was such a thing. The most recent version was called the National Space Council and was implemented during the Presidency of George H. W. Bush (see “A new space council?”, The Space Review, June 21, 2004). Chaired by the Vice President, the Council was made up of senior players from other agencies and entities, including the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, and Transportation, among others. Strategic issues such as soft power, capabilities, planning, and funding, were considered by the members within a “multidisciplinary” context across the government.

In the case of the national security VP, for example, NASA’s role could be considered in light of what is known by State, Commerce, and the DoD about US soft power initiatives. Questions like those raised in the previous section about the role of commercial space entities and how to manage commercial aims with soft power could be considered by the council. Where possible, the efforts of the agencies could be used to leverage initiatives. Communications about agency VPs and aligned cross-agency VPs addressing broad-based government functions could be better coordinated. One recommendation, therefore, is for policymakers and legislators to consider whether the time has come to create the National Space Council anew. Without such a body, it is difficult to envision how strategic management of US space capabilities can occur at a high enough level to overcome the stovepiping and inertia that has built up over years.

In the legislative branch, multiple mechanisms exist that might be used to better educate members of Congress and their staffers about NASA HSF’s national security VP (and other VPs), as well as to explore the intersections between commercial space efforts and the national interest. Mechanisms such as hearings, caucuses, etc., might be used to encourage members in different committees and subcommittees to come together and explore synergy across the various government functions. These sorts of approaches could help mitigate the “spreadsheet-driven” segregation of planning, policy, and allocation that characterizes authorization and appropriations efforts.

In closing

This series of articles constitutes a collection of thoughts, observations, opinions, and ideas about NASA’s VPs, in particular one concerned with NASA HSF programs and national security. The series is no substitute for a formal value discovery process, representing as it does an informal viewpoint rather than the outcome of a methodical approach. Nonetheless, in the opinion of the author, the issue of NASA HSF’s national security VP is a pressing one. Each day that goes by without the ability of US astronauts to access a US facility (the American portion of the ISS) or to explore deeper space enhances the prestige of other countries (Russia and China) who have somehow managed to retain or develop that capability at the same time, at our expense.

It is unclear what the net effect of the policy and funding decisions that led to the current circumstances will be. However, one only need look at the number of countries currently allocating funding to space-related efforts or agencies to understand the role that access to space plays in the strategic plans of other nations. At last count there were 66 countries in that category. Many of these have HSF aspirations, even if they do not yet have infrastructure to support them. If space has little relevance to national prestige and/or security, it is impossible to understand the broadbased investment in space initiatives taking place with increasing frequency across the globe. Given increasing budget constraints, the domestic debate over policy and funding is likely to continue, and decisions may become ever more narrowly focused. For the sake of the nation we would be well advised to resist these tendencies, and to consider the role of NASA HSF in the larger, global context.


1 As a part of another effort in which I have recently been involved, I spoke with many colleagues in the international space community. My comments in this section are informed by those discussions.

2 It should be pointed out that the Chinese program benefits from a government and military willing and able to enforce adherence to central planning – the outcome of a political system built on tight control.

3 Another issue was and is what the nature of NASA will be in the future, and whether it will retain primary responsibility for development or operation of any HSF systems. The two issues are interrelated, but not identical, though they are often treated as such in policy debates.

4 This is an important distinction. Ending NASA HSF because of organizational dysfunction and poor cost management employs the same “logic” one might use in deciding to end the Air Force because of the waste and mismanagement that has characterized the DoD, sometimes for decades. Both miss the bigger picture.