25 years after Apollo — what next in space?

25 years after Apollo — what next in space?

Space Policy 1994 10 (3) 180-182 Editorial 25 years after Apollo what next in space? 1'Modern wonders: the Age of the Thing', The Economist, 25 Dec...

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Space Policy 1994 10 (3) 180-182

Editorial

25 years after Apollo what next in space?

1'Modern wonders: the Age of the Thing', The Economist, 25 December 1993-7 January 1994, p 51. 2Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the US Space Program, Washington, DC, December 1990, p 2.

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25 years ago last month Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface of the moon. The Economist recently selected the Apollo 11 outpost that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind on the moon Tranquility Base - as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, defined as something that would 'stun any person from any time before the current century. '1 Indeed, the Apollo 11 mission, and the whole Apollo programme, was a wonder. It was also a product of a specific time and set of circumstances, and had little to do with a sustained commitment to exploring the Solar System. I believe that this year is the time for the USA to stop celebrating Apollo anniversaries for a while, and get on with being part of the process taking place in all spacefaring countries of deciding what kind of space programmes make sense for itself and its cooperative partners in the next century. Perhaps the next major celebration of an Apollo anniversary should be on the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, in 2019. By that time, I believe, humans will be living and working on the moon on at least a semi-permanent basis, and it will be quite appropriate to celebrate the time when people first journeyed to Earth's offshore neighbour. What standard should be applied in evaluating current and possible US directions in space? This is not a simple question to answer. The 1990 Augustine Committee, in what is still the most penetrating diagnosis of the ills of the post-Apollo civilian space programme (the term itself is indicative of the standard of comparison) found that 'most Americans do support a viable space program for the nation - but no two individuals seem to agree upon what that space program should be. '2 What is needed, and is beginning in the USA this year, is a discussion of how to shape a consensus that would narrow, if not eliminate, such disagreements. By the time this editorial appears, the US Congress will probably have completed its consideration of whether to approve the space station programme. This year, more so in the past, that decision will be taken in the broader context of the USA's future in space. I assume the decision will be positive, and attention can now be given to the overall content of future US space efforts, on the assumption that the station programme will go forward as planned. A broad debate on space would not be possible without the sense that N A S A is once again becoming a fully capable organization, and can be entrusted with new missions. N A S A reform efforts began under the Bush administration and have continued since President Clinton and Vice President Gore came to the White House. The leader of this change is, of course, N A S A Administrator Dan Goldin, who for over 0265-9646/94/030180-03 © 1994 Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd

Editorial

'NASA reform is not sufficient to prepare for the future'

SPACE POLICY August 1994

two years now, has devoted his considerable energy to reconstructing NASA into an agency that delivers high value for taxpayers' money. The 'post-Apollo' NASA of the last 20 years is quickly disappearing; exactly what will replace it is not yet clear. NASA reform is necessary, but not sufficient, to prepare for the future. There is a grudging but increasingly broad consensus among those in industry and academia with direct interest in space that a new way of doing business is long overdue. From the former Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, a small group of innovators is demonstrating, with their Delta Clipper and Clementine 1 efforts, that there is indeed a different way of operating. Any consideration of how to reshape US activities in space must include a broad examination of the best organization and content of the overall government space programme, including both its civilian and national security elements. The current programme structure dates from 1958, and was inspired by a set of Cold War concerns that no longer exist. The issue of which structure best serves the new situation has not yet been addressed in any systematic fashion, but must be if a 'modern' approach to US space is to emerge. N A S A has drafted a strategic plan that neatly makes an important point. That plan divides NASA activities into separate 'strategic enterprises'. These include 'Mission to Planet Earth', 'Human Exploration and Development of Space', 'Scientific Research', and 'Space Technology'. Each of these undertakings meets different national needs and serves a different clientele. As US efforts in space mature, they can have no one overriding justification. This is another difference from the Apollo era, when across-the-board preeminence in space was highlighted by being first to the Moon. A thoughtful space policy debate would evaluate the merits of each 'strategic enterprise' in the US government's civilian space programme separately, and reach a decision on which priority and resources to assign to it. This, I recognize, is a rather unrealistic statement, but surely the kind of programme that serves the country best is unlikely to emerge from forced tradeoffs within a fixed budget level and between quite different programme elements and the separate constituencies that support each; yet that is the 'normal' space policy process. Transcending that process is another reason broad scale consideration of the future in space is needed. Even so, it is impossible to ignore the existing political coalition that provides 'close in' support for space. During the Apollo buildup a large N A S A organization and aerospace industry base was created, as well as a vocal group of space scientists who expected that their ideas would be supported by the government that nurtured them in the first place. The USA has made a series of commitments to other countries for cooperative space efforts that has a transnational political foundation. Making dramatic changes in the programmes that serve the economic, regional, scientific, political, and foreign policy interests of the current pro-space coalition is not realistic. The result of drastic change is likely to be, not a better space programme, but rather a diminished effort that serves nobody's specific interests well. Rather, purposeful adaptation to the new realities of the 1990s should be the order of the day in space. Both NASA and the White House seem intent on following a path that pushes change rapidly, but not precipitously. Last year's changes in the character of the space station

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programme are the most visible example of this approach, but similar adaptations are underway in the space science and Earth observation parts of the agency. There is a second, much less articulate, source of political support for the US space programme. This support comes from the general public, which in my view was conditioned by Apollo to expect excellence in space, and voices its displeasure when it gets a poor performance instead. The US public has almost run out of patience with NASA's past mistakes, but it is not ready to abandon space, and space exploration in particular. I believe that the general public would not accept a multi-billion dollar space programme without human spaceflight, and it is that judgement that convinces me that the space station will go forward. The station promises new experiences and multiple benefits; a programme of repetitive, short-duration shuttle flights holds much less promise. But the space station is not an end in itself; it makes sense only as part of a long-range commitment to some day once again journey beyond Earth orbit. Making the station fully international, with its key partners the only two nations that now can put people in space, is eminently sensible, for future space exploration is certain to be carried out on a mulilateral basis. It is this belief in the political - almost cultural - support for continuing human spaceflight that leads me to think that there will be people working on the moon as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo. As The Economist notes, 'if the moon is settled, Tranquility Base will be its Plymouth Rock. '3 Perhaps that is a thought for the future which is most appropriate for this year's anniversary.

John Logsdon North American Editor

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SPACE POLICY August 1994