In the time machine: the Paine Commission

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Those of us with home offices don’t get the day off when it snows…. But our snow days can be quiet, which prompted me to pick up Pioneering the Space Frontier, the final report of the National Commission on Space (1985-86), appointed by President Reagan to develop a long-term plan for U.S. space exploration.

I served on the staff of the commission, focusing on a series of “public forums” – town meetings of a sort – designed to gather public input on the U.S. future in space.

What we heard from people from meeting to meeting (see the report’s chapter on “The American people and the space program”) is that they wanted to know more about what was going on in the space program and also wanted to participate in mapping its future. We heard that the U.S. should be expanding cooperation with international partners – the Soviet Union and China were mentioned. People told us they didn’t want NASA to pursue another “one-shot foray or a political stunt” like Apollo.

The “pioneering mission for 21st century America” that the commission recommended was “to lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.”

(Dear readers, you can read my critiques of space-frontier rhetoric in previous blog posts.)

Looking back, I’m not at all certain that this recommendation encapsulated the public comments we gathered. It did encapsulate the desires of the space community – industry and other advocates. And almost 30 years later, we’re still attempting to execute this mission.

And – was it foreshadowing the Obama administration’s Asteroid Initiative? – a chapter on “space enterprise” envisioned extraterrestrial mining on the Moon, “Earth-crossing asteroids,” Phobos and Deimos, and in high-Earth orbit and featured illustrations of an automated spacecraft flying past an asteroid and an astronaut departing a transfer vehicle for a close-up look at an asteroid.

I wonder: have we yet to execute the Paine Commission’s vision (a vision, by the way, that’s been replicated by many a blue-ribbon study group) because it’s unaffordable or otherwise undo-able, or because, ultimately, it does not serve the public interest?

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