On Friday, the National Research Council released the list of committee members for a new review of the US human spaceflight program. This review was mandated by Congress back in the 2010 NASA authorization act, which called on NASA to contract with the National Academies in 2012 for “a review of the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight” based the goals set in various legislation dating back to the 1958 Space Act. The provision in the 2010 act called for a “broad spectrum of participation with representatives of a range of disciplines, backgrounds, and generations, including civil, commercial, international, scientific, and national security interests.”
The committee list does appear to meet that “broad spectrum” criterion. The co-chairs are Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University; and William Perry, the former secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration. Other members include former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Cartwright; Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center; and Ariel Waldman, founder of Spacehack.org who has also been, among other things, “a sci-fi movie gadget columnist for Engadget.” A diverse group, indeed.
The composition of the committee has raised a few eyebrows—and questions—from observers. There’s a strong emphasis in the committee in the area of surveys, with several other members besides Kohut with expertise in that area. There’s a mix of people from the physical and social sciences as well. Notably absent, though, are any representatives from the aerospace industry itself (one member, Franklin Martin, is a consultant who provides “independent review services for NASA spaceflight projects”), either from the major aerospace companies or the smaller entrepreneurial firms. There’s also only one person on the committee who has flown in space: former astronaut Bryan O’Connor, now an independent consultant. The absence of such people can be seen as a weakness, or a willingness to take a different approach to such a study. (There is a public comment period on the committee’s membership that is open until Thanksgiving.)
There’s also the question of how useful the committee will be. The study, according to the committee’s website, will provide “findings, rationale, prioritized recommendations, and decision rules that could enable and guide future planning for U.S. human space exploration.” Similar language in the 2010 authorization act gave the perception that this is a “decadal” study for human spaceflight analogous to the ones done in the sciences. The usefulness of such a study has been debated in the past, with mixed opinions about how well it could guide future programs. The committee’s final report is due out in May 2014.