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Forum panelists
Speakers at the ASA’s forum in the House Science Committee’s hearing room on Capitol Hill. (credit: J. Foust)

Vision revision

There are plenty of ideas, but no consensus, on the future of US space policy. Does this mean nothing will change?

A lot has been said and written in recent weeks about the desire, if not the necessity, for an overarching new policy, or vision, for US space efforts (see “The vision thing”, The Space Review, November 10, 2003). A lot of people, in Congress and elsewhere, have spoken of the need to give NASA in particular a bold new goal that can give the space agency a focus during a time when many perceive the agency to be without direction. The fact that the Bush Administration is currently carrying out a secretive internal space policy review, with results that could be announced within weeks, has emboldened those calling for a new space vision.

However, as we reported last month, there is little consensus in the small space policy community about what that vision should be. A key example of this indecision was a forum titled “America’s Future in Space: What is the Vision?” held on Capitol Hill on November 18. The forum, organized by the Aerospace States Association (ASA), brought together a range of people, from NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and several members of Congress to the leaders of several space organizations and even a high school student. The purpose of the event was, in the words of the ASA, “to provide a venue for articulating a range of space vision perspectives from a cross-section of the nation’s space community and general populace.” The forum succeeded in that respect, but it also showed that with little consensus on where the US should go, and how, in space, it will be that much harder to craft a vision that can be accepted by all the key stakeholders, including the general public.

O’Keefe’s vision

Arguably the most anticipated speaker of the ASA forum was O’Keefe. The NASA administrator had stayed relatively quiet on the issue of a new national space policy or vision, other than to disclose during a Congressional hearing in September that the White House was carrying out a space policy review. In his remarks, he suggested that the time was ripe for a new space vision.

“This is a rare moment in our history,” O’Keefe said. “Right now has never been more opportune. In the course of the last 30 years we’ve seen very few instances where it’s lined up this carefully.” O’Keefe didn’t elaborate regarding what combination of events led him to think this was an opportune time to develop a new space vision.

“This is a rare moment in our history,” O’Keefe said. “Right now has never been more opportune” to develop a new space vision.

The problem, he said, dates back to the end of the Cold War-driven space race between the United States and Soviet Union that cumulated with the Apollo landings. During that time the US had a vision for the space program that was accepted by most of the American public. “That was an objective everyone could get behind, motivated by a national imperative,” O’Keefe said. “It kept people really focused on the objective. At its core, that was the fundamental reason we did it.”

“Now, how do you find something that everybody can rally around, that would be equally agreed to, unanimously, not just as a majority viewpoint?” he asked. He didn’t directly answer the question, but did point to research that showed that the great expeditions in human history have been motivated by national pride, sovereignty and the preservation of it, economic opportunity, or a national security imperative.

O’Keefe didn’t shed any light on the current Bush Administration policy review, one that has been wrapped in a veil of secrecy. “The President is working through a lot of different options and alternatives right now” is all O’Keefe would say. “That’s what he is deliberating on.”

Crafting a vision

O’Keefe pointed out one of the current problems with drafting a new space vision. “There has always been unanimous agreement on the proposition that we must have a vision for what that next set of objectives should be, and no two people can agree on what it ought to be,” he said. That disagreement played out during the forum on issues both large and small.

“To be successful, any vision will have to be concrete and financially sustainable, and it will have to have broad and deep support within the Administration, Congress and the public at large,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science Committee. “We all need to take this opportunity to put NASA, and the nation, on a path that will be challenging, exciting and probing, and at the same time realistic, sustainable and productive.”

Much of the debate regarding a new space vision has been what goal the nation should pursue. That goal has usually been defined in terms of a destination, such as the Moon or Mars. “We also believe that it’s important to develop a long-term space exploration architecture,” said Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society (NSS). “We believe the first step should be a return to the Moon. That is the next stage in our exploration process.”

On the other hand, Marc Schlather, president of ProSpace, is opposed to defining a vision based on destinations. A destination-driven policy, he argued, “presents a very real danger that we will confuse destination with purpose, and that having somewhere to go is somehow the real reason we should expend precious treasure and human capital on space.”

Calling destinations the “absolutely wrong place” to start a discussion on space vision, he said the real place to start is the purpose of sending humans into space. That purpose, he said, is not going to Mars or building a space station or even doing science. Borrowing a phrase from the NSS playbook, he said the purpose should be “to create a spacefaring civilization.” “It is that simple a statement,” he said, “and it should be that simple.”

Schlather said the danger of a destination-driven vision was “that we will confuse destination with purpose, and that having somewhere to go is somehow the real reason we should expend precious treasure and human capital on space.”

Any new space vision also needs to take into account the abilities and needs of the US aerospace industry. “We are not investing nearly enough today to sustain our global position in space,” concluded John Douglass, president of the Aerospace Industries Association. He called for more funding, saying that otherwise “we’re not going to be able to move forward and do the things that we have to do to sustain our space infrastructure and national security.” In that event, “we will let the technical capability to do this die off, and to reconstitute that is enormously expensive.”

Perhaps more important than industry, though, is getting the public interested in a new space vision and willing to support one, particularly one that requires billions of dollars of new investment—a tough sell in a time when the nation is recovering from a sharp recession and ringing up hundreds of billions in budget deficits. Troy Thrash, a program manager with the Futron Corporation, compared the success of Kennedy’s vision to land humans on the Moon with the failure of George H.W. Bush’s vision to return to the Moon and go on to Mars.

“So, why the difference?” Thrash asked. Conventional wisdom, he noted, argues that the Cold War served as a catalyst that strengthened Kennedy’s vision, while the end of the Cold War doomed Bush’s vision. “I argue, however, that the polar opposite outcomes of these visions were due to a much more fundamental reason,” he said. “Kennedy was able to get the public backing for his vision because each member of the public had a vested interest in the successes and failures of each Apollo mission. Bush, however, was not able to do that, so his vision was really doomed from the start.”

Public support, he concluded, is the “fundamental key” for the success of any future space vision. “These visions will stand a much better chance of succeeding with public relations, public involvement, public knowledge, and public support in mind. The vision that is laid out for us by the President of the United States, whatever that vision may be, must be made to be about the people.”

“The biggest question is not what is to be discovered but how important that discovery is,” said Casey Bonner, a high school student from Mississippi invited to speak at the forum. “The average American is more concerned with the fact that their children might not have enough money or might not have the opportunity to lead the life they deserve.”

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