A Proceedings from the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board
Since the National Research Council released the report America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs (the 2009 report),1 numerous changes have occurred in the civil space arena. In May 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a workshop on America’s Future in Civil Space with several objectives:
- Review the history of U.S. space policy and how it might form a broad policy basis for twenty-first century leadership in space.
- Examine the balance and interfaces between fundamental scientific research in space, human space exploration, robotic exploration, earth observations, and applications of space technology and civil space systems for societal benefits.
- Discuss the value, purpose, and goals of international cooperation in space.
- Discuss the role that the evolving commercial space sector could play in fulfilling national space goals and the role of the government in facilitating the further evolution and success of new actors and new modes of working with the commercial sector.
- Highlight the challenges in maintaining the sustainability of outer space activities (including the role of space traffic management).
- Highlight options for government attention to address and potentially resolve problems that might prevent achieving key national goals.
The workshop participants sought to capture what has changed, determine how to harness new opportunities, and decisively inform and encourage bold and timely implementation. To start these discussions, four speakers—Dr. Dan Mote, Dr. Alan Epstein, Dr. Fiona Harrison, and Robert Lightfoot—gave preliminary remarks. The president of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Dan Mote, welcomed the participants and recounted the history of the Academies providing NASA and other government agencies with advice in the space arena—a history going back to 1958. He noted that this event was being held as part of the 2017 50th anniversary of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and as a precursor to the 2018 60th anniversary of the Space Studies Board (SSB). He thanked NASA for the close relationship with, and support of, the ASEB and SSB. The chair of the ASEB, Dr. Alan Epstein noted that we are in the most exciting period of space since the Apollo era, when the ASEB was established, owing to the breadth and depth of activity in space. Dr. Fiona Harrison, chair of the SSB, noted the unprecedented opportunities in the space sciences when we are exploring our solar system, peering back to the earliest moments of our universe, and discovering worlds around other stars. Robert Lightfoot, acting NASA administrator, noted that the agency still refers to the 2009 report—for instance, in the preparation for the recent political transition. He noted the “N” in NASA is key—with the agency providing a national capability and leadership in space and space exploration. Lightfoot stated that over the years, NASA has been able to push forward with a constancy of purpose—in fostering new discoveries and science with robotic and human exploration, pursuing global engagement and diplomacy, supporting the nation’s economic security and industrial base, addressing societal challenges (including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] workforce development and technology transfer to human challenges on Earth), and providing leadership and inspiration for the nation as a symbol of American leadership.
NOTE: Introduction and Summary Discussion reprinted from America’s Future in Civil Space: Proceedings of a Workshop—In Brief, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2017, pp. 1-2 and 11-12.
The symposium participants then turned their attention to discussing the following three themes: space in support of national and international challenges, the future of exploration and discovery, and public-private partnerships in pursuit of national space priorities.
During the wrap-up discussion at the end of the symposium, John Olson, from the ASEB, and SSB chair Fiona Harrison identified some of the key themes that they discerned from the day’s discussions. Olson stressed that his and Harrison’s presentation was by no means a consensus view but personal assessments of the days’ key themes and issues. In summary they noted the following:
- The goals for our national civil space efforts from the 2009 America’s Future in Space report are still largely valid today, although the environment in which we pursue those goals has changed.
- We need to consider that participants a number of times asserted that the public knows little of the actual goals of our nation’s space endeavors.
- Nevertheless, NASA remains a symbol of American leadership at home and around the world and can continue to be a tool of international policy, power, and diplomacy.
- Scientific discovery in our space program is transformational because it changes our collective perception of reality.
- The year 2028 is a key date for ISS and will drive decisions and actions now, while there was also a strong message from a number of participants that we need to continue to plan for a NASA program that goes beyond ISS and beyond low Earth orbit.
- Many asked the question about what new paradigms will get us out of low Earth orbit and how can we leverage off ideas like repurposing existing spacecraft to establish an infrastructure (including an Internet-like backbone) on which to build new private and government activities. New paradigms are also likely to benefit from advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and human-machine teaming as enablers for staging, operations, and sustainment.
- New paradigms will also require the development of a new culture in NASA and the advancement of multigenerational teams while retaining institutional knowledge and expertise.
- The right motivation for partnering with private industry needs to be identified and then policies and incentives need to be established to bring industry into contributing to the public good at the core of the program under consideration. Nevertheless, one size does not fit all.
- Among what has stayed the same in recent years is that Mars has remained the horizon goal for exploration. What also has not changed is that NASA has too much on its plate and many constraints.
- What has changed includes new international actors in space—including an impressive space program from China. These new entrants and new industry players and new ways of doing business with established industry provide many new opportunities.
In conclusion, Harrison mentioned that many commentators at the symposium noted the need for focus and that making choices is vital for the success of our space program. There is a sense that we need to focus more on the overall objective rather than only on the next step. She noted that participants asked if there is something that will significantly alter the current progress and direction. Perhaps it is reusability that will change the cost model—she noted the symposium heard enthusiasm and skepticism on this idea. Perhaps it is the idea of better integrating humans and robotics to accomplish missions. Perhaps it will be a new policy and program objective from the new administration. Perhaps U.S. civil space will be motivated by international competition (maybe with China) or collaboration (maybe with China and other new and established space-faring nations)?
Olson noted that in addition to the archived webcast of the symposium and the publication of a Proceedings in Brief, the lasting impact of the symposium will be the continuing dialogue on these issues.