Status Report

AIP FYI #8: Space Policy Experts Discuss Goals for Human Spaceflight Program

By SpaceRef Editor
January 31, 2004
Filed under ,

It is not only the Bush Administration that has wrestled with the
question of where the nation’s human spaceflight program should be
headed. Congress has held hearings on this question, and several
months prior to President Bush’s proposal to return to the Moon and
then send humans to Mars, a group of experts in space policy held a
workshop to air their views. Although the workshop was not intended
to develop consensus recommendations, there were a number of
comments that received broad agreement: Since the end of the Apollo
program and the Cold War, the role of the U.S. human spaceflight
program has been uncertain; the program needs a clear long-term goal
developed by a national dialogue, with a progression of smaller
missions leading toward that goal; it needs to use NASA’s space and
Earth science programs as successful models and must move beyond
competition between human and robotic exploration by taking
advantage of the benefits of both; sending humans to Mars is a
likely long-term goal; and fundamental changes will be required on
NASA’s part to achieve such a goal.

The November 12-13 workshop was held jointly by the National
Research Council’s Space Studies Board and its Aeronautics and Space
Engineering Board, with other invited guests. A prepublication
version of a report on the workshop, “Issues and Opportunities
Regarding the U.S. Space Program,” breaks out seven themes around
which there seemed to be general agreement among participants:

THEME 1. Successful Space and Earth Science Programs: According to
the report, the U.S. space and Earth science programs are generally
considered productive and successful, and benefit from the
“constructive tension” between NASA, which implements the program,
and independent stakeholders – members of the science community –
who set and periodically revisit the program’s goals. Numerous
independent missions of varying sizes enable the programs’ continued
progress, momentum, and political support. Many workshop
participants felt that the human spaceflight program could benefit
by applying “lessons learned” from NASA’s science programs. In
particular, it was noted that the human spaceflight program lacks
independent stakeholders.

THEME 2. A Clear Goal for Human Spaceflight: There was consensus
among workshop participants that the human spaceflight program lacks
– and needs – a clear long-term goal. “Without such a long-range
goal,” the report states, “the human spaceflight program’s reason
for being is hard to articulate,” as is the justification for
components such as the space station and shuttle. The suggestion
was made that, with the end of the Cold War, there is no longer a
need to demonstrate U.S. technical prowess in space, but a long-term
human spaceflight goal could help the U. S. demonstrate leadership
and goodwill in cooperation with other nations. It was thought that
the goal would be determined through a national and international

THEME 3. Exploration as the Goal for Human Spaceflight: Many
participants believed that the primary goal of the human spaceflight
program should be exploration, in order to satisfy a basic human
drive and to contribute to the acquisition of new knowledge.
“Exploration is a legitimate form of science, if properly
conducted,” one of the participants stated. Others commented that
human explorers can take advantage of “unanticipated learning”
opportunities for learning in a way that robots cannot, and humans
can communicate to others what it is like to experience outer
space. Some participants felt that human exploration of Mars was an
appropriate long-term goal.

THEME 4. Exploration as a Long-term Endeavor to be Accomplished via
a Series of Small Steps: Some participants argued that it would be
premature to specify a date and the cost of a long-term human
spaceflight goal, and that the nation should pursue the larger goal
through a series of smaller missions as NASA’s budget allowed, in a
“buy it by the yard” approach. This approach could help sustain
momentum and political support, and would allow many opportunities
for the involvement of international partners.

THEME 5. Synergy Superseding the Humans-versus-Robots Dichotomy:
Numerous participants called for moving beyond the view that human
and robotic missions must compete for funding, and instead crafting
a human spaceflight program that exploited the synergies of using
both. Many agreed that, if long-term human space exploration is the
goal, the benefits of both will be needed, and the mix of the two
will depend on the ultimate goal chosen.

THEME 6. The Long-term Goal Driving All Implementation Decisions:
Warning against repeating the mistake of the shuttle and space
station programs in making “too many promises to too many people,”
workshop participants stated that the chosen long-term goal should
drive all related decisions. For example, the goal of achieving
long-term human exploration, it was noted, could provide “a very
clear justification” for the configuration of, and research aboard,
the space station, and the design of the next space transportation

THEME 7. Institutional Concerns: A successful human spaceflight
program, it was felt, would require significant changes in NASA.
Workshop participants cited a number of concerns with the current
situation, including the lack of independent stakeholders for a
human spaceflight goal, the decline of the U.S. space industrial
base, changes to NASA’s mission since the Apollo program, a lack of
management competence exemplified by repetition of the same
mistakes, a lack of technical competence reflected in NASA’s use of
old technologies for the human spaceflight program, and a lack of
openness and honesty in NASA’s justification of many of its
programs. Some also felt that the human spaceflight program would
have a better chance of success if the broad science community
expressed support for it and contributed to making it an effective
and productive program.

The report on the workshop, “Issues and Opportunities Regarding the
U.S. Space Program,” which runs nearly 100 pages with appendices,
can be requested in pdf format from the Space Studies Board at

Some of the suggestions raised at the workshop appear in line with
Bush’s proposal for human spaceflight (see FYI #7), but how many
will be incorporated into NASA’s future plans remains to be seen.
Two days ago, at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation
Committee hearing, senators expressed interest in the President’s
plan for the Moon and Mars, but were skeptical about the potential
cost. More details on the Moon/Mars proposal will be revealed when
the FY 2005 budget request is released next week.


Audrey T. Leath

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094


SpaceRef staff editor.