The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

A2100 satellite
The Abbey-Lane report claims that, among other things, export controls have led to the “near demise” of the US commercial satellite industry, yet American-built spacecraft, like the Lockheed Martin A2100 series (above) continue to rack up sales in the global market. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

A stroll down Abbey Lane

<< page 1: scientists, scientists everywhere

Backing shuttle and station

The third barrier to a strong US space policy described in the Abbey-Lane report is what it perceives as “inadequate planning” for the future of NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration (which the report calls simply the “NASA Plan”.) Calling the Vision “bold” but “incomplete and unrealistic” the authors worry about the effect of the Vision on science:

It is incomplete, in part, because it raises serious questions about the future commitment of the United States to astronomy and to planetary, earth, and space science. It is unrealistic from the perspectives of cost, timetable, and technological capability. It raises expectations that are not matched by the Administration’s commitments. Indeed, pursuit of the NASA Plan, as formulated, is likely to result in substantial harm to the U.S. space program.
The language about shuttle and ISS in the Abbey-Lane report is similar to what is in the Senate version of NASA authorization legislation.

That might be interpreted by some as a partisan attack on the Vision, but the focus of their criticism is a bit more subtle. While the report mentions concerns about astronomy, planetary science, and earth sciences in passing, much of the focus of their criticism is on research performed on the space station and supported by the space shuttle. Abbey-Lane claims that plans to focus ISS research on human effects to spaceflight is “shortsighted” and that the shuttle is required “to accomplish meaningful science”. The report goes so far as to make this recommendation:

The Space Shuttle should return to flight once the recommended safety improvements have been made and should continue to fly until a new space vehicle with the necessary up-mass and down-mass capability has been designed, tested, and placed into operation.

Compare those statements with the following provisions in the Senate’s version of the NASA authorization bill (S.1281), introduced last month by Sen. Hutchison:

The Administrator shall develop an implementation plan for the transition to a new crew exploration vehicle and heavy-lift launch vehicle that uses the personnel, capabilities, assets, and infrastructure of the Space Shuttle to the fullest extent possible and addresses how NASA will accommodate the docking of the crew exploration vehicle to the ISS.
[The Administrator shall] restore and protect such potential ISS research activities as molecular crystal growth, animal research, basic fluid physics, combustion research, cellular biotechnology, low temperature physics, and cellular research at a level which will sustain the existing scientific expertise and research capabilities…
In order to ensure continuous human access to space, the Administrator may not retire the Space Shuttle orbiter until a replacement human-rated spacecraft system has demonstrated that it can take humans into Earth orbit and return them safely, except as may be provided by law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act.

All this in a bill introduced by a Republican who is a staunch ally of the President. This section of the Abbey-Lane report is less a partisan attack on the Vision than an effort to protect the shuttle and station legacies, arguably the central part of the Clinton Administration’s space policy but one also embraced by members of both parties. What this also makes clear is that the future of research on the ISS by NASA is still a topic open to debate within Congress and the scientific community.

Space weaponization rears its head

The final barrier cited in the Abbey-Lane report is a belief that the United States is less open to international cooperation than it has been or it should be. “Whatever path the United States chooses to follow with its policies, America does not have a future in space—human exploration, space science, or commercial space activities—without considerable international cooperation,” the report concludes.

However, it’s hard to think of a time in the last couple of decades when there hasn’t been some kind of criticism about US cooperation with international partners (particularly Europe) on space projects.

Part of their concern goes back to the previous discussion of export controls (although, as noted earlier, not in great detail). However, Abbey-Lane goes further, and suggests that “the issue most threatening to cooperation may well be a growing international perception that the United States intends to control space militarily.” Proof of this, they claim, is US efforts to deploy a missile-defense system and discussion about deploying defensive systems to protect satellites from potential attack. They then leap from defensive to offensive weapons, saying that “offensive weapons in space would be a cause for alarm throughout the world and, in the context of the issues addressed in this paper, would create a major obstacle to international cooperation in space.”

Of course, space weaponization is a hot topic today, with perceptions often outrunning reality. (See “General Power vs. Chicken Little”, The Space Review, May 23, 2005.) However, it’s hard to think of a time in the last couple of decades when there hasn’t been some kind of criticism about US cooperation with international partners (particularly Europe) on space projects, ranging from the International Space Station and its precursor, Space Station Freedom, to robotic space missions. Interestingly, one of the most successful recent examples of US-European cooperation in space efforts, the NASA/ESA Cassini/Huygens mission, is not discussed in the Abbey-Lane report.

Salvaging some good from the report

After reading all this one might conclude that the Abbey-Lane report is not worth the paper (or electrons) it’s printed on. Yet, despite the poorly-supported arguments and dubious claims made in its pages, there are a few good recommendations worth salvaging from it.

One key recommendation involves a liberalization of current export control policies:

The United States should identify satellite technologies and processes that are unique and vital to national security interests, hence appropriate for licensing by the State Department under ITAR. All other exports of satellites and satellite components and technologies should be licensed by the Commerce Department.

It’s not clear at this time that Congress is willing to go that far in solving the export control problem, but in recent months some members, like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, have suggested changes that could make it easier for US companies and individuals to work with counterparts in friendly nations, where the adverse implications for technology transfer are limited.

The report also backs some efforts to ensure strong science programs within NASA, including calling for a servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope (the report authors do admit near the end that current NASA administrator Michael Griffin does appear to support a shuttle servicing mission to Hubble.) The report also admits that NASA has been taking steps to promote international cooperation in the Vision, including holding a meeting for potential partner nations, including China, in Washington late last year.

Finally, while the Abbey-Lane report doesn’t make a good case for the existence of a “shortage” of scientists and engineers, it does offer some good advice on getting students interested in pursuing space-related careers:

[T]he most important requirement is probably a truly exciting national vision, laid out by the leaders of this country that offers young people the opportunity for adventure that first inspired Americans to build a great nation. Space should play a large role in this national vision, just as it did during the Apollo days. If young people see exciting careers ahead in science and engineering, they are likely to pursue them with passion.

Many already believe, and perhaps all can hope, that the Vision for Space Exploration will do just that.