I’ve been puzzling over what to say about the National Research Council’s latest report on NASA’s human space flight program – Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, released June 4. It’s a good report, very meaty – so meaty that I’m guessing only a few dozen policy wonks like me will actually read much beyond the summary.
NASA can’t get people to Mars unless it gets a considerably bigger budget, the study group that produced the report concluded.
It’s not the first time a blue-ribbon study group came to this conclusion (see, for example, Augustine 1990, below).
For NASA to continue on its present course of human space flight “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” the group asserts in its report.
We’re already well on the way to this place.
At a June 25 House hearing on the new report, study co-chairs Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine called for “realism” in space policy and planning – about public opinion, risks, costs, technical challenges, and historical rationales. And they urged NASA to adopt “principles and decision rules” that will help it map a pathway to landing humans on Mars, eventually.
Political realism is necessary, too.
House Science Committee Democrats said in a statement following the hearing that Daniels and Lunine “emphasized the need for sustained investments in the U.S. human space exploration program over multiple Congresses and Administrations in order to commit to a pathway approach and successfully achieve a human mission to Mars. Specifically, both Governor Daniels and Dr. Lunine emphasized that if budgets continue to only increase at the rate of inflation, the goal of landing humans on Mars will never be attained. The co-chairs also made it clear that regardless of the pathway that is adopted, there needs to be consistency over a long period of time that survives the changing U.S. political landscape.”
They’re right, of course. However, the reality is that without changing our system of government, it does not seem possible to protect human space flight plans and goals from changes in the political environment.
The study group examined all the various rationales offered for investments in human space flight and found each one of them flimsy at best. For example, “the level of public interest in space exploration is modest,” the report notes, “relative to other public policy issues” (see Chapter 3 for details). And “any defensible calculation of tangible quantifiable benefits” of human space flight “is unlikely to ever demonstrate a positive economic return on the massive investments required” to sustain it. “Arguments for Apollo program spending – national defense and prestige – seem to have especially limited public salience” today.
Will the space community stop claiming that everybody loves NASA? Will the space community stop trying to project the cash return on every dollar invested in human space flight? Will human space flight advocates stop trying to invoke “the spirit of Apollo” 50 years after the fact?
As noted in the new report (p. 1-11), “all the blue-ribbon and advisory panels formed to recommend a course of action for human spaceflight…have focused on a set of key goals that are surprisingly uniform across the decades, especially since 1969” – that is, back to the Moon and on to Mars….
…At least until the Obama administration’s baffling embrace of the idea of sending humans to asteroids and helping to incubate an asteroid mining industry. Study co-chair Daniels said at the hearing this week that his study group “had testimony from leaders of every major space program and they lack enthusiasm for [the] Asteroid Redirect Mission” (thanks to Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online for her Twitter stream from the hearing, out of which I lifted this quote).
What will come of this latest NRC report?
I’d guess not much – same as with the NRC’s 2009 report, America’s Future in Space:Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs,and the NRC’s 2012 report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus (a report on a study of rationales and goals of the U.S. civil space program).
For that matter, what has come of the last 30 years worth of reports on long-term goals for space exploration, which this latest NRC study group considered in some way or form (see p. 2-18)? The Paine commission report (Pioneering the Space Frontier), 1986; the Ride report (NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space, 1987; NASA’s 90-Day Study (the Space Exploration Initiative), 1989; the U.S. Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program (a.k.a. the Augustine report), 1990; the Synthesis Group report (America at the Threshold), 1991; the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation), 2009? What was wrong with them?
The new NRC report identifies two “enduring questions…that serve as motivators of aspiration, scientific endeavors, debate, and critical thinking in the realm of human space flight”: “How far from Earth can humans go? What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?”
What this study group was NOT asked to do is consider whether human space flight is necessary, whether human space flight serves the public good.
As Daniels testified at the hearing, his study group came down in favor of continuing the U.S. human space flight program saying, “because we became convinced through lengthy discussion and analysis that a combination of what we call the pragmatic and aspirational rationales, including the human impulse to explore and search for new knowledge in places we have never been, justifies the cost, risk and opportunities associated with sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.”
I’m not convinced.
The estimable Rep. Johnson has put the burden on Congress to effect change. “As Members of Congress, the ball is now in our court…. We can choose to continue to argue about which President or who in Congress is to blame for the current state of our human space exploration program, but I earnestly hope that we won’t…. Our focus needs to be on how we proceed from this point forward.”