Tucked away in last year’s NASA authorization act is a provision calling for an independent study about human spaceflight:
SEC. 204. INDEPENDENT STUDY ON HUMAN EXPLORATION OF SPACE.
(a) IN GENERAL.-In fiscal year 2012 the Administrator shall contract with the National Academies for a review of the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight, using the goals set forth in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, the goals set forth in this Act, and goals set forth in any existing statement of space policy issued by the President.
The study’s scope, timeframe (the legislation calls for “findings and recommendations” for fiscal years 2014-2023), and use of the National Academies has caused many people to liken this to the decadal surveys used in various space science disciplines, such as the recently-released planetary science decadal survey. But would such a study for human spaceflight be effective?
That question was debated last week during the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation “Living in Space” session, part of the Satellite 2011 trade show in Washington. While the session was sparsely attended, with no more than about 15 people in the audience, the event featured a good debate about whether such a study will make much of a difference in shaping the long-term future of human spaceflight.
“Part of the problem, the reason why we’ve been going around and around and around, is that we have not been forced to reach a consensus” on the goals of human spaceflight, said NASA’s Phil McAlister. “This is why I believe in this Academies-like study that will allow the human spaceflight community to come together, like the science community has done for years and years, effectively.”
“With that kind of document and blueprint… then finally, maybe, we can get the long-term consensus required to actually finish one of these programs,” he said. “That is my sincere hope.”
Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com, who previously worked at the National Academies, is more skeptical of the utility of a human spaceflight decadal survey. One concern she has is the scope of such a study. “You don’t do a decadal survey for ‘space science.’ The communities are too diverse,” she said. Instead, there are separate decadals for astronomy, planetary science, and other fields, narrow enough to make it likely to achieve consensus on goals. “I do not believe you can do that with human spaceflight, and I have been encouraging everyone I know to not call this thing that Congress is requesting a decadal survey.”
Scientific decadal surveys also benefit from strong leadership from scientists universally accepted by the community, such as Mars scientist Steve Squyres in the recent planetary science decadal or Roger Blandford in the astronomy and astrophysics decadal released last year. Smith wondered if there was a person with similar standing in the human spaceflight community to lead this study. “The human spaceflight community is so fragmented, and there are so many groups that want to do this, that, or the other, I cannot think of a single individual” with the standing of a Blandford or Squyres, she said. Anyone selected, she suggested, should be somewhat younger than chairs of past space studies like Norm Augustine and Tom Young. “I don’t know an individual who has that kind of support in the human spaceflight community, whatever that is,” she said.
Smith added that while decadal surveys look good to outsiders, they have their flaws and drawbacks as well. Well-connected scientists, she said, can do end runs around the surveys and win funding for their own programs regardless of their standing in the surveys’ final reports. Last year’s astrophysics decadal survey generated controversy when, instead of recommending one of the many mission concepts presented to it as the community’s top priority, it created a new mission called WFIRST. “There is this myth that somehow decadal surveys solve all of your problems,” she said.
McAlister, though, saw a decadal survey, as imperfect as it might be, as better than the current state of affairs. “I don’t see any plan for getting this community together that even has a hope or a chance as good as the decadal,” he said. “Noting its issues, that, to me, that has by far the best potential for bringing the community together.”