America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs

A Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program


From its inception in 1958, much of the U.S. space program was driven by opportunities to serve national interests in a geopolitical environment heavily colored by Cold War threats and fears. Originally, the true potential of space activities was largely speculative. In the ensuing decades, however, early expectations for discovery and technological accomplishment have been richly exceeded. Without a doubt, the first 50 years of the space age have been transformative. Astronauts have stood on Earth’s moon while millions watched. Commercial communications and remote sensing satellites have become part of the basic infrastructure of the world. Satellites support worldwide communications, providing a critical backbone for commerce—carrying billions of global financial transactions daily, for example. Direct broadcasting beams television signals into homes globally, delivering images that bring unprecedented awareness of events occurring throughout the world. Military global positioning satellites provide ubiquitous signals that support a stunning variety of services, from assisting in the navigation of civilian airplanes, shipping, and automobiles to transmitting timing signals that enable cell phone and power grid switching. Remote sensing satellites obtain high-resolution images of Earth’s surface, available now on the Internet for people worldwide to view and use, and provide critical information to monitor changes in our climate and their effects.

Our understanding of every aspect of the cosmos has been profoundly altered, and in the view of many, we stand once again at the brink of a new era. Space observations have mapped the remnant radiation from the Big Bang that began our universe. We have discovered that the expansion of the universe continues to accelerate, driven by a force that we do not yet understand, and that there are large amounts of matter in the universe that we cannot yet observe. We have seen galaxies forming at the beginning of the universe and stars forming in our own galaxy. We have explored the wonders that abound in our solar system and have found locations where life might have occurred or might even now be present. We have discovered planets around other stars, so many that it is ever more likely that there are other Earths comparable to our own.

What will the next 50 years bring? Today we live in a globalized world of societies and nations characterized by intertwined economies, trade commitments, and international security agreements. Mutual dependencies are much more pervasive and important than ever before. Many of the pressing problems that now require our best efforts to understand and resolve—from terrorism to climate change to demand for energy—are also global in nature and must be addressed through mutual worldwide action. In the judgment of the Committee on the Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program, the ability to operate from, through, and in space will be a key component of potential solutions to 21st-century challenges. As it has before, with the necessary alignment to achieve clearly articulated national priorities, the U.S. civil space1 program can serve the nation effectively in this new and demanding environment.

In its initial discussions, the committee concluded that debates about the direction of the civil space program have too often focused on addressing near-term problems and issues without first putting those issues in the context of how a disciplined space program can serve larger national imperatives. In the committee’s view, characterizing the top-level goals of the civil space program and the connection between those goals and broad national priorities is necessary as a foundation on which the nation (both now and in the future) can devise sustainable solutions to nearer-term issues. Therefore, the committee focused on the long-term, strategic value of the U.S. civil space program, and its report does not address nearer-term issues that affect the conduct of U.S. space activities other than to provide a context in which more tactical decisions might be made.

NOTE: “Summary” reprinted from America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2009, pp. 1-8.


The committee considered “civil space” to include all government, commercial, academic, and private space activities not directly intended for military or intelligence use.

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