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Review: Choice, Not Fate

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Choice, Not Fate: Shaping a Sustainable Future in the Space Age
By James A. Vedda
Xlibris, 2009
hardcover/softcover, 216 pp.
ISBN 978-1-4500-1348-2/978-1-4500-1347-5

When the White House unveiled its fiscal year 2011 budget proposal for NASA last Monday, most of the strongest—and generally negative—reactions to the proposal revolved around its wholesale cancellation of the Constellation program. The elimination of Constellation meant that NASA was giving up on its goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2020 (nevermind that it was looking increasingly unlikely the agency could achieve that deadline given recent budgets). The United States, many complained, was abandoning the Moon to the Chinese, Russians, Indians, and whoever else might think about sending humans there. The fact that the new plan contained no similar goal—no specific destinations for humans beyond low Earth orbit, in fact—exacerbated their concerns that NASA’s human spaceflight program was now “directionless”.

“Continuation of the destination-driven approach, which has dominated thinking for a half-century, is a persistent non-vision we cannot afford,” Vedda writes.

The agency and supporters of the new plan countered that NASA instead was developing the capabilities needed for human spaceflight to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the solar system. The budget includes funding for development work of heavy-lift launch capabilities and other essential technologies for human spaceflight beyond LEO. That’s a sharp break from the destination-based paradigm for space exploration that dates back to race to the Moon in the early years of the Space Age. It’s also a necessary one, James Vedda argues in his new book, Choice, Not Fate.

Vedda, a senior space policy analyst with the Aerospace Corporation, makes it clear in the book that he is not a fan of destination-based approaches like Apollo and the Vision for Space Exploration. “Continuation of the destination-driven approach, which has dominated thinking for a half-century, is a persistent non-vision we cannot afford,” he writes. “Programmatically, human landings on the Moon and Mars are treated like the finish line in a race, and planners have insufficient motivation and resources to think beyond that point.”

Vedda instead argues for a capabilities-based approach, one that arguably is even broader than what NASA has proposed in its new budget. NASA should focus on capabilities that can help life on Earth: something that includes, but is not limited to, Earth sciences work. For example, he sees a role for NASA to help develop space-based solar power, as well as supporting development of manufacturing capabilities beyond Earth. He notes that existing rationales for human spaceflight, like prestige, discovery, and inspiration, appeal to the “self-actualization” portion of Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy of needs, and thus struggle for support among the public that is often concerned with lower-level needs. Instead, he argues, space should serve those more fundamental levels: it should no longer be “special” but instead clearly serve more basic, and thus more essential, purposes.

A key challenge Vedda identifies in the book is the difficulty in long-term planning in our society. Civil space policy has been far more focused on dealing with short-term problems, an issue exacerbated by the annual budget process, electoral cycles, and an ever-quickening pace of the news media. These short-term problems, he argues, would be “substantially alleviated” if there was an understanding of long-term purpose of spaceflight and the steps needed to achieve that. Achieving concurrence on those long-term goals, though, is a challenge, and Vedda offers only limited guidance on dealing with those budgetary, electoral, and media obstacles to long-term planning.

Choice, Not Fate is ultimately an optimistic book: Vedda sees a path for making human spaceflight more relevant, and thus more sustainable, by serving the needs of the Earth, with NASA working in cooperation with private-sector “astropreneurs”. “Our species is at the earliest stages of a transition that has recurred throughout our history, each time changing us forever by pushing back physical limits and putting new sources of materials within our reach,” he concludes. NASA’s new plan, which emphasizes capabilities over destinations, might turn out to be an essential step in that transition.