Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S. Space Program: A Summary Report of a Workshop on National Space Policy

Status Report From: National Research Council
Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2004

On behalf of Rad Byerly and the space policy workshop staff, I am pleased to provide you with a copy of the report, "Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S. Space Program: A Summary Report of a Workshop on National Space Policy," which captures the essence of the November 12-13, 2003 workshop discussions.

The workshop was intended to explore aspects of the broad question "What should be the principal purposes, goals, and priorities of the U.S. civil space program?" As you will recall, the goal of the workshop was not to develop definitive answers but to air a range of views and perspectives that can serve to inform later, broader, public discussion of such questions.

While workshop participants were not asked to reach a consensus and the report is not meant to be taken as a consensus report of the SSB, ASEB, or National Research Council, we were impressed by the extent to which participants did voice broad agreement about many issues about which they held shared views. The enclosed report highlights several key themes that emerged from the workshop discussions, including the following:

1. U.S. space and Earth science programs are currently productive, progressing steadily, and of continuing importance. There are a number of factors that contribute to this success that should be applicable also to the human spaceflight program.

2. The nation's human spaceflight program currently lacks a clear long-term goal, but such a goal is needed for many reasons.

3. The primary goal of human spaceflight should be to explore, which requires that we extend human presence beyond low Earth orbit with Mars as a likely long-term destination. Exploration is a part of our culture; it responds to basic human drives; and it can contribute to the acquisition of new knowledge.

4. A long-term goal of exploration is best pursued via a series of small steps. A sequence of relatively small steps will enable us to learn without committing prematurely to an uncertain path. They can be evaluated for how they progress toward the goal; they afford a series of successes that create momentum and sustain political support; and in the end the accumulated successes make achieving the goal inevitable.

5. While there has been a history of separation and competition between human and robotic efforts now is the time to put the dichotomy behind us and to find and exploit synergies between the two.

6. The chosen long-term goal should drive all implementation decisions. Thus the essential elements along the path to a goal for human exploration would very likely include the following: (a) the continued robotic exploration of our solar system followed by the development of capable human-machine interfaces and teleoperators, (b) research on the International Space Station focused on addressing the questions posed by human exploration away from low-Earth orbit, and (c) development of a space transportation system to replace the shuttle, all directed towards facilitating the eventual human exploration of some destination beyond low-Earth orbit.

7. Successful pursuit of a long-term exploration goal will require potentially fundamental changes in NASA as an institution with respect to how it involves external human spaceflight stakeholders, defines its own role, communicates and justifies its objectives, and develops management and technical competence. There are also crucial roles for the scientific community in helping replace the old robotic-versus-human dichotomy with a new science-exploration synergy.

We were particularly pleased that the workshop was characterized by open, frank, and articulate discussions that went far toward achieving the goals that we had set for the event. We will be distributing the report widely to key government officials and to other interested parties over the next few days. On behalf of Len Fisk and Bill Hoover, I want to thank you sincerely for the time, energy, and thought that you invested. It made a genuine difference.

Joseph K. Alexander Director, Space Studies Board National Research Council
500 Fifth Street, NW Washington, DC 20001
Ph: 202-334-3477
Fax: 202-334-3701

Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S. Space Program: A Summary Report of a Workshop on National Space Policy, National Research Council Space Studies Board Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (Pre publication copy)

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