Status Report

Sustainable Space Exploration and Space Development – A Unified Strategic Vision

By SpaceRef Editor
February 27, 2009
Filed under ,

[Name removed at author’s request]

Feng Hsu, Ph.D.
Sr. Fellow, Aerospace Technology Working Group

Ken Cox, Ph.D.
Founder & Director
Aerospace Technology Working Group

February 20, 2009

Copyright (c) F. Hsu, [Name removed at author’s request], K. Cox 2009, All Rights Reserved


Sustainable Space Exploration and Space Development — A Unified Strategic Vision


This paper presents and recommends a strategic and Unified Space Vision (USV) for comprehensive human space exploration and space development endeavors in the 21st century, through extensive analysis of complex space policy issues, to the new U.S. Administration, the NASA transition team and the broad domestic and international community. The proposed USV is a new paradigm of space policy that aims to rectify or replace the current Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), including its implementation plan, which has been pursued via the NASA Constellation program since its announcement by George Bush in early 2004. We strongly believe that if adequately adopted, the USV should serve the long-term economic, diplomatic and exploration interests of this nation and others around the globe.

1. Introduction

In this chapter, the authors attempt to express some fresh thoughts or viewpoints, through honest, in-depth analysis of and discussions on a wide range of critical issues relating to strategic vision, national and international policy about human space exploration, and space-based economic development. The topics and general views presented in this chapter originated from a series of interviews and topic discussions between Dr. Buzz Aldrin, the primary author, and Dr. F. Hsu, the co-author, who represents the Aerospace Technology Working Group (ATWG), and is the responsible author of the manuscript. The purpose of the interviews and topic discussions between the authors and members of the ATWG was to achieve consensus, through rigorous and candid debate on many critical strategic and space policy issues, to delineate a comprehensive and strategic vision on key strategy and policies pertaining to human space endeavors for consideration by the new U.S. administration. The space policy issues discussed and analyzed herein are based on a thorough assessment, not only looking at the current status and future perspectives of the U.S. space enterprise, but more importantly, through in-depth probing into the organizational and political causes beneath the lessons drawn from the major successes and failures of NASA programs in its 50 decades of history.

Key issues addressed in this chapter include:

  • Why could NASA–in its present form of political and organizational paralysis–hardly deliver the kind of profound success achieved in the Apollo era?
  • Why does the current Constellation program under the Bush VSE already have major schedule delays and cost overruns, and is increasingly at risk of repeating the past failures of NASA, such as the Space Shuttle program?
  • Why is there an urgent need for realignment of America’s space policy related to the proposed reform of NASA, its international policy and political governance?
  • In particular, why does there need to be the establishment of a cabinet-level government entity, such as a “White House Advisory Council on Space” that serves as the overall government space authority, before evolving into a formal “Department of Space” (DOS) cabinet?
  • Why is such a White House Advisory Council on Space (or a DOS) of paramount importance for providing leadership on all strategic space policy directions, overseeing NASA on Space Exploration programs, supporting industry, incubating private space technology sectors, and devoting its main focus on promoting and leading the nation’s effort for dpace development or space-based human economic and commercial infrastructure advancement?

We firmly believe that a new paradigm of the strategic and unified space vision (USV) and related policies recommended herein, which have been drawn from candid and extensive discussions on above issues with members of ATWG and across the space community, will serve the long-term economic, diplomatic and exploration interests of this nation and others around the globe.

2. The Need of a New Vision for Transforming America into a Spacefaring Nation

There have been heated debates in the public as well as within the space-science, industry and technology communities regarding the wisdom of the current Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), and its proposed implementation, as crafted and set out by the previous administration. More than 5 years have now gone by since its announcement in early 2004. It has become increasingly apparent that the thoughts and rationale that went into the formulation of the existing VSE and its implementation were quite problematic, and perhaps even lacked a strong strategic merit, to say the least. In fact, many of us in the space and intellectual communities find the VSE’s lack of strategic vigor not much of a surprise, especially considering the rudimentary decision-making apparatus and processes of the previous administration, which led to many other lackluster major decisions on national and international imperatives.

In our view, there were several fundamental problems with the Bush Vision and its implementation for Space Exploration inherited from the get-go:

(1) Due to the lack of well-informed debate, engaging a broad range of the space and science community, policymakers, and the general public, the Bush VSE was crafted without the thorough reviews and studies necessary at the strategic space policy level. And in particular, such an almost-Apollo-style, huge national program of long-lasting impacts on national resources and sustainable space development was imposed to the American people, without learning the lessons of major program failures, successes, and key performance history of NASA since the Apollo era.

(2) The VSE lacks strategic merit, which can only be built upon a sufficiently vetted decision-making process of logic and analytic rigor. Especially, such process should have been scrutinized through hearings to engage the American public and politicians. Instead, the Bush VSE was a product of a blind and near-childish emotional response to a series of domestic and international geopolitical events that occurred in 2003, such as the launch of China’s Shenzou-5 manned spacecraft on the 15th of October and the STS-107 (Columbia) Space Shuttle disaster in early February.

(3) Most notably, the political motives behind the sudden announcement of VSE by the Bush White House were severely undermined by the fact that the American public and politicians alike were largely distressed by the then chaotic situation of the war in Iraq, in which our nation and the executive branch were confronted with huge financial and political burdens from the two ongoing and costly wars in the Middle East.

(4). The budget necessary to fulfill Bush’s VSE and the planned implementation for Space Exploration has far exceeded any financial resources available to this nation, as indicated by a recent GAO report. Therefore, many escalated budget cuts to earth monitoring, space science and robotic exploration programs may be inevitable in order to compensate for the extremely costly Constellation program, which was sold to congress in a hurry, with such unbelievable timing.

(5) The VSE falls short of addressing the national and international needs of human endeavors for space development objectives. Especially, the Bush VSE missed (or lacked) almost entirely any strategic vision and goals for supporting and enabling space-based human economic expansion or industrialization in space. Such critical aspects of human space activities are fundamentally unique, and are quite different kinds of challenges from the space exploration activities undertaken by NASA.

(6) The current thrust of the Bush VSE to return humans to the Moon (and to build a costly lunar post without international participation and support) lacks political resonance. The American public and its political constituency in the U.S. congress is largely uninterested in supporting such a costly Apollo-all-over-again national program: “Been there, done that” rules apply. As a result, after receiving less than adequate funding from the Administration that proposed it, the Bush Vision for Space Exploration is unlikely to get more support from any new Administration, much less a chance of getting continued support from an Administration (like President Obama’s) that is largely surrounded by visionaries and leaders with strategic and intellectual strength.

Undoubtedly, change must be brought about to rectify the Bush VSE and its implementation plan. And more importantly, a renewed or unified space vision–one addressing the comprehensive needs for sustainable space exploration and space development and that has high strategic merit, strong political support and financial affordability strategies from the American public–needs to be brought to light.

3. A Unified Vision for Concurrent Space Exploration and Space Development

We propose herein, and call for such a strategic and grand unified vision for both space exploration (VSE) and space development (VSD). This new unified space vision (USV) should be a comprehensive and balanced approach that addresses the long-term concurrent needs of space and science explorations, as well as the needs for space-based human economic development, which will benefit all of humanity while fostering world peace. It is a new paradigm of space vision with four critical strategic components:

(1) A vision of sustainable and affordable space exploration efforts that aims at probing for and discovery of unknown (or known) planetary destinations beyond the earth-moon system. Under this foresight, the space-access developments within LEO (low Earth orbit), including major elements of the constellation program from the Bush VSE, need to be regarded as space (economic) development activities to be achieved via international partnerships.

(2) A vision of space exploration that is fundamentally based on the concurrent development of an affordable LEO space-transportation infrastructure that will not only allow sustainable space exploration endeavors beyond low earth orbit, but more importantly, enable the rapid human economic and commercial expansion into the Earth-moon system.

(3) Such a vision of space exploration and space-based economic development must be achieved and supported by the commercial and private sectors, along with broad international participation, using human collaborative endeavors in space as a strong catalyst or mutual bond for fostering world peace, thus collectively resolving humanity’s profound energy and climate change challenges.

(4) Recognizing the distinctive strategic goals and objectives in both aspects of space exploration (VSE) and space development (VSD) activities. Therefore, restructuring and realignment of NASA’s role is necessary for maximizing its potential in achieving technology R&D and space exploration objectives, whereas a separate government entity is needed in promoting economic-infrastructure achievement in space.

This is a grand strategic vision for concurrent or unified space exploration and space development goals and objectives, one in which space exploration endeavors can be largely funded, embraced and sustained by tapping into the financial and international resources through human economic, technology and commercial development in the LEO environment. To fulfill such a unified space vision, America must maintain its leadership in the implementation of such a strategic space vision through sharing space development and infrastructure build-up responsibilities, sharing technological and financial resources. That will allow for fostering a culture of shared responsibility with all international partners around the globe by utilization of human collective intelligence.

Mankind has achieved horizontal exploration and economic expansion around our own planet in the recent 500 years of human history. It is now time, at the dawn of the 21st century, for humanity to embark on vertical and outward expansion into space–not only for explorations to challenging planetary destinations, but more importantly, for revolutionary space-based economic and commercial development and space industrialization to the high frontiers. It is therefore imperative that we lead the march for transforming U.S. into a truly spacefaring nation, and for all of humanity to become a space-faring civilization in order to prosper peacefully and forever survive in this planet and beyond!

4. Space Development vs. Space Exploration–What NASA Can or Cannot Deliver

The U.S. space program and NASA have had astonishing successes back in the Apollo moon-landing era nearly four decades ago. Unfortunately, such astonishing success were replaced rather quickly by frustrations and a series of failed programs, severe cost overruns, project cancellations, and decimated achievement of program goals, as represented by the costly and risky Space Shuttle program, along with many other short-lived programs ever since the early 1970s. Most of us within the space technical community would understand that development of affordable access to space, or low-cost space transportation capability, is the stepping stone not only for humanity to expand our economic presence in low earth orbit, but it also allows us to explore new destinations beyond LEO in a sustainable manner. However, many in the public, some even within the space advocacy community, find it hard to comprehend why such a change of NASA’s fortune or track record occurred so dramatically–from the profound successes of the Apollo project to the devastating failure and disastrous and wasteful fate of the Space Shuttle program.

Frankly, we believe that the causes of such a tragic phenomenon were rooted deeply in the very reasons that led to the creation of such a U.S. space agency called NASA back in the late 1950s. In other words, the change that occurred in NASA, as indicated in its track record, was inevitable and destined to happen, due to the very nature of its organizational or political governance, which was mainly created to respond to the challenges of the space race during the cold war era. Indeed, the lackluster performance of post-Apollo NASA was predetermined nearly from the day it was created. Yes, it was a unique organization extremely capable of taking on urgent national challenges like the Apollo, and in winning the space race, NASA did exactly what it was supposed to achieve!

It would be hard to believe that NASA could fail to achieve success of the Apollo project, given the fact that it enjoyed full public, political and budgetary support throughout the entire project, and that the NASA budget back then was more than 10% of the U.S. GDP, a factor of 5 or more greater than the post-Apollo era. Furthermore, such solid societal support of NASA had never blinked, even under circumstances such that our first Apollo mission was launched eight months after the Apollo-1 fire disaster, and that Apollo-11 was launched some three months after the near-miss anomaly of Apollo 8–a profound spirit that America had back then that has since been lost for taking risks and constantly pushing the envelope of engineering and science in the new frontiers!

It was evident that NASA’s fortune of managing successful programs took a sudden dive for the worse right after the Apollo-17 mission was completed in 1972. Some might believe the obscure budget level and weak political support of NASA was to blame for the downturn of the agency in the post-Apollo era. However, while there was some skin-deep truth to such blame, the real truth lies deeply beneath the geopolitical complexities of the inherent NASA governing paradigm under which the agency was created: a military entity converted for the purpose of winning the space race. In other words, the space agency was much like a child born prematurely out of a C-section to satisfy tactical needs during the space race, rather than a well-structured government institution created for meeting America’s strategic goals and its national or international interests. This was something of uttermost strategic importance that had never thought about or debated back then, due to historic reasons, and we owe it to the nation, the American people and all of humanity to do the needed rethinking, and therefore reforming of NASA at this pivotal crossroad!

America’s national strategic goal or interests should include strengthening the U.S. and world economy, enhancing our leadership in science exploration and technology development, ensuring national security, and promoting world peace for sustainable human development. We need to understand that our political systems and the general public within our democratic society tend to respond to urgent needs very decisively and effectively when competing against an external threat, but they perform poorly during peace time, when there are no apparent or imminent external threats or perceived enemies. Yet, often, such “urgent needs” of national interests are either short-term objectives or responsive tactical goals without much of strategic value. In fact, the several major U.S. national labs created under the DOE are excellent examples of how government institutions could be adequately established and transformed to deliver strategic value in terms of science and technology advancements for the nation.

Clearly, due to the space race, the Apollo program started without much strategic vision or planning from the get-go, so America’s space program was destined to lose direction soon after winning the space race. And this explains why the hardware and launch & crew vehicle systems were created, either without any strategic values, or they simply lost any such long-term applications (if there were any) immediately after the completion of the program. In fact, the lack of documentation and well-managed institutional and corporate memories on critical technologies from the Apollo project speaks for itself. Because of this lack of memory and well-kept technical heritages within the space agency, NASA and its current Constellation program has experienced great difficulty in the past few years in trying to understand and benefit from some critical technical achievements (such as the Saturn-V launch vehicle systems, etc.) that were successfully dealt with back in the Apollo project.

As a nation striving to prosper and build our financial and technological strength during today’s post-cold-war times and under an increasingly globalized and mutually dependent world economy, America cannot (and must not) afford another such huge spending space exploration program–one that might end up winning (or even provoking) an unwanted space race, or winning tactical space goals (such as beating others in building a costly lunar post first), but ultimately end up failing the nation in skyrocketing debt, or hurting America’s long-term interests from wasteful space programs of little strategic and economic values.

Obviously, given the existing status quo and the political governance paradigm of the U.S. space agency that evolved from the space race era, what NASA cannot deliver are any successful, affordable or sustainable space programs (especially any space transportation or infrastructure development programs) without severe budget overruns or schedule delays during a post-cold war international geopolitical environment. That is why under such a systemic paralysis of NASA, huge cost overruns or schedule delays have become the rule rather than the exception. That is also why some of us within the space community have been either reluctant to accept or very much against any ideas of a broader international collaborations strategy in human space exploration or development endeavors.

Furthermore, with the existing NASA structure, we tend to amplify or exaggerate the threats of any space achievements from other nations, such as when the launch of China’s Shenzhou-5 was perceived as a big threat, and became the primary drive behind the quick sale of the Bush VSE. So the lack of strategic vigor is almost destined to repeat the failures of the agency and thus ultimately hurt our strategic interests. Has anyone imagined why we needed to even respond to a “space race to the Moon” when America won the race four decades ago?! Has anyone imagined what the Bush’s VSE or the Constellation architecture would look like back in late 2003 had the Changhe-1 of China been designed to be a Mars Lander, instead of a lunar orbiter? We believe that a responsive vision for space exploration with independent wisdom and strategic merit is good for America, but a responsive space vision largely influenced or misled by external events without strategic merit can be detrimental, not only to America’s long-term interests, but the interests of all humanity as well.

The inability of NASA to efficiently handle space exploration programs aimed at peaceful discoveries is precisely because during the “peace-time” environment, all the needed budgetary and political support to sustain the operations of the ten-plus NASA centers and organizations was largely diminished, and replaced with the complex issues of fierce competing battles to survive (fund) within NASA organizations. Given such organizational deficiencies of NASA hierarchies as it was created, it simply became a organization severely incapable of planning or doing anything with strategic vision or value. The post-Apollo NASA, as it has been for the past 40 years, simply became a visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing in space infrastructure development, especially in the effort for reusable or affordable launch-systems development.

Indeed, this explains why in the past, numerous NASA programs or proposals with excellent design concepts were discarded, whereas wasteful projects with costly or unnecessarily complex and risky designs survived. To name just a few: the Shuttle II, Shuttle-C, and the National Launch Systems (NLS) were replaced by the current architecture of the Space Shuttle; and the X-30, National Space Plan (NASP), the X-33 Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO), the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), and OSP (Orbital Space Plane) were cancelled one after another.

It is quite clear that without adequate reform and without long-overdue overhaul of NASA’s organizational and political governing infrastructures right after the completion of Apollo project, NASA was destined to deliver wasteful or failed programs. In fact, the selection of the Space Shuttle system design concept and configuration was heavily influenced by NASA’s internal and inter-state politics, a textbook case of such organizational deficiencies. That’s why we believe that the current Constellation program is at high risk of repeating the post-Apollo “track record” of NASA and we strongly urge the reform of NASA and recommend, as elaborated in the following two sections, how the nation’s space enterprise should be adequately chartered, managed, and guided by the proposed USV, to take on the concurrent challenges of fulfilling the strategic goals of space exploration and space development.

5. A Critical Path for Achieving the Unified Space Vision (USV)

We believe that NASA, as a space agency of the U.S. government, is an adequate and rightful government institution for conducting the nation’s space exploration programs and projects, which primarily aim at explorations, including earth- and space-science discoveries and a planetary defense effort. However, as discussed earlier, NASA does need serious reform or significant organizational overhaul, with respect to institutional governance and enterprise structures, to become capable of conducting successful large-scale space exploration programs and projects.

Particularly, NASA needs reforms on the distribution of funds and budgetary approach for effective governance and operation in this post-cold-war and globalized modern era, in which there is no strategic need for engaging in any type of Apollo-like space-race programs. Although an efficient and functioning NASA is critical to conduct the nation’s space exploration programs successfully, NASA and its space exploration (manned or robotic planetary science) effort can represent only part of the large picture of America’s needed human activities in space. In other words, there is a much broader category of human space activities (referred in this chapter as the VSD, or Space Development category) that cannot be handled or managed effectively or successfully by such a government agency as NASA.

In our view, even with adequate reform in its governance model, NASA is not a rightful institution to lead or manage the nation’s business in Space Development projects. This is because human space development activities, such as development of affordable launch vehicles, RLVs, space-based solar power, space touring capabilities, communication satellites, and trans-earth or trans-lunar space transportation infrastructure systems, are primarily human economic and commercial development endeavors that are not only cost-benefit-sensitive in project management, but are in the nature of business activities and are thus subject to fundamental business principles related to profitability, sustainability, and market development, etc. Whereas, in space exploration, by its nature and definition, there are basic human scientific research and development (R&D) activities that require exploring the unknowns, pushing the envelope of new frontiers or taking higher risks with full government and public support, and these need to be invested in solely by taxpayer contributions.

Therefore, NASA by its very existence, like many U.S. national research laboratories, is supposed to be a logical R&D organization that should mainly dedicate itself to exploration, planetary research, scientific discovery and technology development programs. Likewise, the proposed cabinet-level U.S. Department of Space (DOS), as discussed earlier, should manage and take charge of the government functions of supporting and incubating space-based industrial capability and transportation infrastructure development. Unlike NASA, the key role of the DOS should be to support and foster strong government-business partnerships (much like the current NASA COTS program, but at orders of magnitude increased scale) with space industry and the private sector to promote space infrastructure development. This directly benefits the national and world economy and brings investment returns to taxpayers, not just by creating more high-tech jobs, but also supporting NASA on more ambitious space exploration programs.

We firmly believe this is the strategic approach or Unified Space Vision (USV) that will ultimately achieve its goal of sustainable human space explorations and spread of mankind’s presence beyond Earth. Again, the rationale behind such a proposed space policy (i.e., USV, a concurrent VSE & VSD approach with VSE largely supported and embraced by VSD, and the VSD goals and responsibilities largely separated from NASA and placed under the leadership of DOS) lies within the principles of organizational management theory. The programmatic principles or management culture applied in handling R&D projects (space exploration) are fundamentally different from the principles and organizational culture that are effective in managing space development programs, So NASA should not be too conservative in exploring new frontiers and unknowns by accepting just an adequate level of technical and programmatic risks. However, DOS in its space-development efforts should manage projects based on strict business, cost-benefit and market principles in order to develop products (such as high-reliability launch vehicles) that are affordable for commercial space applications, thus contributing directly to economic human expansion into the Earth-moon system.

Likewise, if a space exploration project like a manned Mars mission is managed by bean counters who fear taking even a moderate level of technical risks, this will not only make space exploration missions far too expensive to afford, but also render our likelihood of achieving any kind of exploration successes comparable to the Apollo project. Therefore, we suggest that such problematic management policies as full-cost accounting, or most ITAR restrictions being widely applied to NASA should be removed to enable the full potential of the space agency in its space and science exploration activities.

There are limited financial resources from the U.S. government, which is now struggling with unprecedented high budget deficit and is confronted with extremely costly ongoing wars. So it is nearly irresponsible to impose on the nation and its people an Apollo-like, huge spending lunar-based space exploration program. There is neither significant (or short-term) science value nor space exploration and operation value in revisiting an earth-orbit destination that was explored by mankind four decades ago. Given today’s decimated American economic condition, we must adapt a concurrent and comprehensive space exploration and space development strategy that is not only affordable but can be mutually supported.

In particular, we recommend adapting a strategic Unified Space Vision (USV) by which space and science exploration goals (VSE) are to be achieved, funded and compensated not only by limited government investment, but more importantly, supported by promoting space development projects that enable low-cost space transportation capabilities. Such affordable space capabilities can only be achieved by encouraging extensive private and entrepreneurial investment and government-industrial partnerships for space-based commercial and economic infrastructure construction and industrialization (as proposed in VSD). Some detailed and key elements of space exploration activities, within the framework of USV, are envisioned and can be achieved through the following recommended critical path for affordable and sustainable space endeavors:

(1) The U.S. should adopt a renewed vision for space exploration (VSE) that aims at returning the U.S. to the forefront in space and leading humanity’s space exploration challenges tonew frontiers, rather than repeating what the nation and mankind did with the original moon landings. Under this vision, we recommend reform of NASA, the establishment of DOS, and adoption of a strategic and unified vision for a comprehensive and concurrent effort in space (implementing both VSE & VSD) for the nation’s space endeavors. In this strategy, we propose that the current NASA effort of returning to the moon should be regarded as part of human Space Development, to be managed by DOS, which is a key element of overall space transportation infrastructure development activities for human economic and commercial expansion into the Earth-Moon orbit systems.

(2) We must adopt a unified strategic vision and related space policy in both space exploration and space-based economic development activities for engaging the international community and all industrial and private sectors by providing leadership and assistance to other nations, especially in developing countries, for lunar exploration missions, thus establishing an international presence for lunar science exploration, andconduct necessary space technology tests for risk reduction of a manned mission beyond the earth-moon system. Major investment on lunar transportation and surface systems development should be based on international resources, and any U.S. investment in lunar missions should be assessed by its necessity and technical relevance and risk reduction benefits of manned Mars explorations, or any other manned explorations beyond the Earth-Moon confinement.

(3) A new paradigm or change of mindset in international collaboration of space explorations must be adopted on the part of the U.S. government and its general public. We must educate the public and our politicians to realize that human space exploration must be a global effort that is shared and supported by all of humanity. We should avoid, even a hint of arrogance and abandoning the old way of U.S.-led international space collaborations where we dictate all technical and programmatic outcomes. Most importantly, we must use space as a strategic tool of U.S. diplomacy not only to strengthen relations with our allies, but also for enhancing mutual understandings, diffusing and transforming confrontations with all other nations on earth, especially developing and non-democratic nations, with the ultimate goal of spreading democracy and the American democratic values. We must avoid provoking any new space race, as it has a high risk of getting everyone involved in a loss-loss combative cycle. The history of the U.S.-Japan and U.S. China relationships during and after WWII should shed light on our strategic thinking on this critical issue. Wars and confrontations could always be diffused and avoided, just as the former friendly and hostile nations were transformed or altered throughout American history, and outcomes all depend on collective human wisdom.

(4) The U.S. space exploration goal should focus primarily on exploring unknown and new destinations by use of robotic exploration as much as is practical. However, the new vision (or VSE) must be more of an interplanetary-exploring nature, with a manned mission to NEO or staging at, and returning from the sun-Earth L2 libration point, as preparation for a precursor mission to Mars’ moon Phobos, followed by manned missions to land on Mars. To achieve these goals, the U.S. should develop a Deep Space Habitat (deep space experiment module or station beyond low Earth orbit), complete with artificially produced gravity, for use in flying to destinations or to reside at various libration points (such as the moon-Earth L1 or sun-Earth L2 staging points), or to orbit various NEO destinations. This experiment module or habitat could be used as part of the “fly-by” and orbit program mentioned above.

(5) With the success of a manned NEO or L2 staging mission, a manned mission to Phobos can be carried out prior to a manned mission to Mars. Also, a one-way manned mission to Mars can be considered, with sufficient Mars crew Hub capacity and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) capabilities delivered prior to the arrival of the first manned Mars mission. We also recommend an R&D effort and demonstration projects on space-based solar power (SBSP, which offers a great potential for electric propulsion and power resources that can be utilized for deep space exploration missions. But more importantly, its key technology components can be shared or used by many other space applications, including future supply of baseload power from space for terrestrial electrical energy demands.

(6) The above exploration goals (lead by NASA and the international community) can not be achieved unless a cost-effective HLV (heavy launch vehicle) or affordable LEO transportation infrastructure is developed first, or developed concurrently by DOS and its global collaborators. Such as low-cost crew LV (launch vehicle) and cargo HLV system development should be the task of highest U.S. short-term priority in space development, as they are not only crucial for supporting all strategic space exploration goals but also imperative for space-based economic and commercial development, such as development and demonstration of SBSP and space tourist infrastructure system capabilities.

6. Propel Humanity’s Outward Expansion into Space-based Economic Frontiers

As discussed in the previous sections, a space agency without reforms, as it still exists today, born out of the cold war era half a century ago, worked well for the space race, but is unlikely to deliver space-development achievements that benefit our national economy. It is also more likely to resist international participation, or even likely to exacerbate external threats and provoke an unnecessary or detrimental space race. What the U.S. and the international community urgently need in the 21 century, under a globalized world economy, for confronting the global climate change, energy and economic challenges is, however, opening the new frontier of economic and commercial development in space, especially industrialization in the Earth-moon LEO system. The recent history of the profound leap-forward of human economic development, triggered by the opening of commercial air transportation capability, must shed light on how we should embark on the next giant leap of humanity’s economic and commercial expansion into low earth orbit.

Technology innovations have always lifted human society out of the economic gridlocks, and have led mankind from many of the worst economic crises to vast industrialization and enduring prosperity and growth. The history of human civilization has shown that technology innovations and human ingenuity are our best hope to power humanity out of any crisis, and especially a U.S.-lead human economic development into low earth orbit that will not only lift us out of the current acute global depression, but will most certainly bring about the next economic and industrial revolution beyond the confinement of Earth gravity. Commercial aircraft transportation and operations in the past 100 years since the Wright Brothers’ first successful test flight have advanced significantly in all areas, and have contributed tremendously to the world economy and modern civilization.

Nonetheless, space access capability and associated LEO infrastructure has generally not advanced in nearly half a century. Particularly, as elaborated in the previous sections, given the current plans under the Bush VSE for the next generation of human space transportation being pursued by NASA, there exists little hope of making any substantial improvements in safety, affordability, or commercial operations of any LEO transportation infrastructure for another generation.

With the impact of the upcoming termination of Space Shuttle operations, as guided by the Bush VSE, it is very clear that the U.S. needs substantially improved crew and cargo space access capabilities, and such improved space access capabilities are largely represented by a two-stage, fully reusable launch vehicle (RLV) system (in the short- to mid-term). An evolutionary infrastructure buildup of such a RLV system that is largely based on existing heritage or capabilities should be a key element of a reliable and low-cost cargo/crew space transportation development. Indeed, development and government investment in such an affordable space transportation infrastructure in the Earth-Moon system is of paramount importance; it’s all about the crossroads the U.S. is at with the current economic crisis and how Space could be a key part of the answer.

A key component of a sound strategic space vision that was missed almost entirely by the Bush VSE is the vision for space development (VSD), or a space-based economic and commercial expansion into low earth orbit. Such a vision should be to place the highest priority on embarking on a national and international strategic space development goal that will ensure the technological, and with it, the economical leadership of America for the 21 century and the next few hundred years ahead. Otherwise, we risk continuing on the course of the Bush VSE, allowing it to drift into the back waters of history.

Investing in space infrastructure development–such as low-cost RLV systems or fully reusable, two-stage (or ultimately single-stage) space access system developed as an extension of safe and reliable airplane operations or investing in SBSP (space based solar power) and space tourism infrastructures as a significant part of the national space economy and energy programs–is the choice of a strategic space goal that certainly will re-ignite the American spirit and jump-start its high-tech manufacturing sector. It will send a profound message to the world: that America is still a nation where great bold endeavors are the order of the day. , Or else, it will be a message that we will allow the nation to continue its drift into obscurity and signal that America’s greatest days are in the past.

Yes, there may be those who are against any space-based economic development, such as developing a low cost RLV capability, a stepping stone that could enable a whole host of private space industries, such as space tourism and space energy industries. Many of us may also argue that RLV or SBSP are too expensive or too hard to be realized. However, as Americans, we must not forgot what makes a nation and its people thrive and prosper are not based on what they do for easy or short-term gains; it’s largely based on what the nation and its people do that most others dare not to do or cannot do!

This nation created the Manhattan project more than 60 years ago when we had only a rudimentary idea back then of how nuclear power could be tamed for electricity generation that can be competitive economically. We decided to take on the seemingly sci-fi Apollo project when we lacked definitive ideas of how to even get to the moon, much less knowing how to return humans safely. We sent a Lewis-Clark team on the expedition of the western frontier more than 200 years ago, against the fierce resistance of the bean-counters within the U.S. congress. We believe no one would argue the facts of the profound benefits this nation has received from these bold projects and of strategic investments in all economic, scientific and social fronts. We did all such great human endeavors in the past not because it’s easy, but precisely because it’s hard!

We recommend a new paradigm of a strategic vision for space development (VSD) be considered by the new administration, consisting of the following key strategic components, as a viable roadmap for propelling America and humanity’s vertical expansion into space-based economic and commercial frontiers:

  1. Set the goal of space transportation infrastructure development within the Earth-moon system as the highest priority by the new administration in its space policy, based on a strategic vision for space development (VSD), to be implemented by the proposed DOS. To be successful, the U.S. should build strong support and wide participation from the international community.
  2. In this effort to achieve the proposed VSD, the U.S. and its international partners should focus heavily on the development of RLVs, such as crew & cargo transport and launch vehicle systems with top-level requirements of low-cost, low system complexity, and aircraft-like reliability, maintainability and operability.
  3. Develop and establish an international Fuel-Depot and Orbital Staging or Service point (station) in the LEO environment that supports and services commercial space-transportation traffic needs or capabilities, such as space tourist flights, Lunar and earth orbital transfers, and commercial satellite services.
  4. Promote and support the establishment and construction of Space port infrastructure development in several strategic locations within the U.S. and around the globe, which will be utilized to meet the emerging demand of increased commercial launch and space-transport economic activities.
  5. Develop enabling space infrastructure and observation and tracking capabilities for planetary defense. In particular, develop ground and orbital systems, in close collaboration with international partners, for monitoring, tracking and deflecting any asteroids, comets, and other cosmic objects in near-earth orbit, which are at credible risk of threatening the safety of our home planet.
  6. Invest in space-based solar power (SBSP) research and development, by first funding a series of space-to-space or space-to-earth SBSP demonstration projects. Technology demonstrations, such as wireless power transmission (WPT), high-efficiency microwave beam generation and control, system safety and reliability, on-orbit robotic assembly technology, and deployment of large-scale orbital solar structures will help reduce risks, thus triggering large-scale investments by private industries, and ultimately lead to great potentials of harnessing solar energy from space to alleviate our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating global climate-change risks.

7. A New Space Economy with a Transformed Global Collaborative Paradigm

History has brought mankind to the brink of an unprecedented era of crisis and challenges. However, crisis and challenges encompass new opportunities for all of mankind, as implied in the Chinese word for “crisis,” which also means “opportunity.” Our crisis in the world economy, energy resources and global climate change are dire, but our opportunities for science, technology advancement and human economic expansion in space are enormous. Having evolved and survived on earth for millions of years, through constant struggle for change, we humans must once again, expand and adopt new economic spheres, and elevate from an Earth-bond civilization to a spacefaring civilization in the face of crisis. Much like our ancestors learned to adapt using fire and tool-making skills, and evolved from primitive tribal-based societies into the collaborative agricultural civilization; from isolated regional economies to a globalized world economy. Now is the time for humanity to develop space and industrialize the Earth-Moon system, making it a key part of global economic revitalization for a whole new sustainable and elevated human civilization.

Many of us believe that mankind must solve all our crises on earth before expanding into space can be achieved successfully and peacefully. In fact, humanity isn’t going to solve all its problems here on earth, ever. While resolving some of our crises, humanity always creates more. Regardless, mankind goes into space for reasons that our ancestors had historically gone elsewhere: for adventure with unknowns, resources, freedom, and better lives. The recent human history of industrial revolutions, along with the current collapses of the world’s economy and energy and financial markets, has taught us a harsh lesson: that merely manipulating financial capital and producing services has failed to build a sustainable global economy for mankind. Instead of fighting over what’s limited and restricting human development on this planet, we must now expand our horizons, and look upward and outward for resources, embarking on economic and commercial development into space.

Bold strategic vision supported by strong government and global leadership in technology and infrastructure development has always brought humanity out of our economic and political crises, much like the bold vision of the transcontinental railway systems supported by president Lincoln in the mist of the civil war crisis, or like the infrastructure buildup of the massive U.S. interstate highway systems called for by president Eisenhower in the aftermath of the great depression back in the 1930s, or like the government investment of Internet technology and information infrastructure buildups in the early 1990s supported by president Clinton. Now is the time, more than ever, for yet another bold vision and for America’s strategic leadership to bring humanity out of our crisis by promoting and investing heavily on the final frontier of human development in space. Indeed, whether to make space industrialization an integral part of our strategy, and a key component of a stimulus for our economic recovery is all about the crossroads the U.S. and the rest of the world must decide on in the face of the many crises humanity has encountered.

Mankind, in the current stages of our single-planet civilization, may feel compelled or threatened to fight over resources and living space on the surface of the earth. However, such an inherent condition and competitive human psychology (deep in our consciousness) will most likely change by expanding the human horizon outward into space. As evidenced by human experience as astronauts, the “overview effect” will be the most profound nature bond for humanity to cherish one another, when we first looked back at our obscure blue home planet from the deep space.

We must not underestimate the paramount importance of expanding human habitats outside the earth confinement as a critical benefit contributing to the acceleration of human conscious evolution, and hence bringing about transformed geopolitical governance, and ultimately leading to sustainable and peaceful human development back on earth. Much like a political vacuum existed in the New World some five centuries ago, which allowed early American settlers to experiment with more efficient and just forms of government, there is little doubt that humanity’s expansion into space will help us develop healthier and more peaceful societies on earth.

A bold strategic vision and strong leadership always require one to think outside the conventional paradigm and learn from the history. Both house of the U.S. congress have been debating fiercely on the huge economic stimulus package proposed by the new president. But it’s quite disappointing to see that only a small fraction (about 5 billion dollars) is allocated for the buildup of new infrastructures, such as a mass transit system for America. Much of the allocated investment is limited to repair of bridges and existing highway systems, without a hope, in our view, of seeing any major investment in space infrastructure buildups, such as affordable RLVs or other space transportation systems development.

What America desperately needs, beside short-term unemployment rescue measures, is to open up whole new commercial and economic frontiers, and with it, waves of technological and industrial innovations. Space industrialization, alongside with renewable energy and mass transit infrastructure development, are key sectors of the emerging economic and technological revolutions that will lead humanity to the whole new realm of prosperity and sustainability. Unlike investment in a short-term stimulus project, the jobs and opportunities in space development that will benefit the U.S. and the world will be enormous, and will likely dwarf anything mankind has ever seen in the past. So we strongly urge the new administration and the U.S. congress to consider the strategic policies, as outlined below, to support the development of a transformative space-based global economy:

  1. Consider significant portion of the stimulus package to be allocated for supporting space development projects. In particular, supporting and incubating technologies and entrepreneurial partnerships of space projects for commercial orbital transportation
  2. Support development of the space tourism industry, making it among the top priorities of space development projects. Help establish and enable the commercial tourist market place in zero-G, suborbital, and orbital environments.
  3. Obtain a sizable portion of the funds by redirecting resources from the costly Ares launch vehicles and lunar base projects, to allow NASA to focus its resources and human capital on renewable energy R&Ds, including development of affordable solar, wind and geothermal energy systems and products, and cost-effective energy storage technologies. ISS, lunar base development and lunar science explorations should be the major focus on international collaborative programs.
  4. Support earth and space science R&D projects to enhance earth and environment monitoring capabilities, and develop strategies and technologies to help mitigate and avert risks of natural disasters and catastrophic climate change, while protecting our natural environment.
  5. Invest in space solar power research and demonstration projects, wireless power transmission and electric propulsion technologies, including related cost-effective and highly efficient electric engine systems applied to ground transportation vehicles, commercial airplanes, and space propulsion systems

Frankly, if we really wish to revitalize the U.S. economy and make it the most powerful world economic engine for centuries ahead, we must try not to put another 25 billion into saving the troubled auto industry, as it would only postpone the death of a key element in the obsolete U .S. economic base! Why not think about spending 10 billion on space infrastructure development, and another 15 billion in building the new mass transit infrastructure, such as high speed MLV transit network systems, which could change our economic model, which has reached its peak?! Has anyone seriously thought about the problems or sustainability of our car-based economic model, beyond the current fossil-fuel crisis? How much time do Americans need to waste on the roads every day before we start thinking outside the old economic realm?!

Average Americans spend about one whole week time each year waiting at traffic lights, not to mention the horrible road jams, and collectively we waste a total of more than $78 billion per year sitting in cars without moving an inch. Clearly, the key for strategic recovery is to create new economic and business frontiers, and expand human presence and activities into space. Spending massive amount of borrowed money to “fix roads and bridges” may provide some short-term stimulus, but it may not be the best strategic idea for the future of America. Yes, it could put many folks to work temporarily, but it is not going to sustain them, simply because we are not creating anything new, but rather attempting to recover from the obsolete economic base by following the old tracks of a failed economy. Investments made in a mindset based on the existing economic paradigm will likely lead us to where we were before, and we will sooner or later find ourselves in the same traps.

Space industrialization is essential not only to the continued wellbeing of humanity on earth, but as a key step to assure the continued survival of the human species. We cannot continue to prosper and survive for long without tapping into the unlimited resources of our solar system. We urge the new president and the U.S. congress to support engaging broad international partners, provide U.S. leadership in both space development and space exploration endeavors, and promote human commercial and economic expansion into space, following the unified strategic space policy elaborated in this paper.

Finally, we envision with confidence, by the turn of the next century, that if we adequately implement such a bold and unified space vision (VSE/VSD), along with realizing other aspects of strategic goals of renewable energy development and environmental protection, the various earth orbit destinations, and luxury hotels and attractions on the Moon will be among the choices of travelers or tourists on Travelocity. Humanity will experience the profound reality of witnessing business executives or ordinary travelers boarding a space flight leaving New York or London in the early morning hours and arriving back home for dinner with families after several hours of meetings in Shanghai or Tokyo!

What better strategic vision can there be for the future of human space exploration and development than leading humanity on a solid track to becoming a spacefaring civilization?


Louis Friedman, Jacques Blamont, A New Paradigm for a New Vision of Space, The Planetary Society, Pasadena, CA. Nov. 2008.

William Claybaugh, Owen, K. Garriott, Michael Griffin et. al., Extending Human Presence into the Solar System, The Planetary Society, Pasadena, CA. July, 2004.

George Abbey, Neal Lane, John Muratore, Maximizing NASA’s Potential in Flight and on the Ground: Recommendations for the Next Administration, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, January 20, 2009.

Feng Hsu, Ramny Duffy, Managing Risks in the Space Frontier, Beyond Earth–The Future of Humans in Space, Apogee Books, 2006.

Buzz Aldrin, Fly Me to L1, The New York Times, 5. December 2003

Adriano Autino, et. al., For a Politics of Support to Space, The Space Renaissance Initiative, SRI, Nov., 2008.

Feng Hsu, Harnessing the Sun–“Embarking on Humanity’s Next Giant Leap”, Proceedings of International Conference, Energy Challenges, Foundation For The Future, Seattle, March, 2007.


The authors are deeply indebted to many of our colleagues at ATWG for their tireless support and help in editing this paper. Special thanks are dedicated to Mr. Rick Elkcamp, Dr. Sherry Bell and Dr. Langdon Morris for their invaluable comments and suggestions in the edit of this manuscript. Our heartfelt thanks also go to Mr. Adriano Autino and Dr. Raymond D. Wright of the Space Renaissance Initiative for their insightful comments, which have helped make this paper a much better document, and to Amara D. Angelica, for copyediting this document.

SpaceRef staff editor.