Thursday evening the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University hosted a panel titled “Lost in Space: The Need for a Definitive U.S. Space Policy.” (The event was webcast, and the video of the event is on the institute’s website.) The panel was predicated on the belief that the US doesn’t currently have a clear national space policy, particularly when it comes to guiding NASA’s activities, and sought to “discuss the need for and the elements of a definitive national civil space policy.” At the end of the over 90-minute event, though, the panel came away with no clear answers of what that “definitive” space policy should be.
While the title of the panel appeared to address national space policy in general, it was clear that the emphasis of the discussion would be not just on civil space policy, but specifically on civil human spaceflight. “For an American astronaut, the road to space is really through Star City and Baikonur and Kazakhstan,” lamented George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center and moderator of the panel, in his opening remarks. “It will be that way for a long time to come.” (Abbey also claimed in his remarks that this July “it’ll be two years since an American spacecraft has been up to visit that station.” In fact, last year two American spacecraft—SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicles—visited the station, and by July at least one more Dragon, plus likely the first Cygnus cargo vehicle from Orbital Sciences, will have visited the ISS. None of them, of course, carry crews.)
As to how to change the current situation and create a more definitive national space policy, particularly for human spaceflight, the panelists offered a range of options, but also little optimism that things would change in the near term. “I’m not very optimistic, at least in the short run,” said John Logsdon, who described the current situation as “an uneasy and unsatisfactory compromise.” “The perception of the need is there, but it’s not a widely shared perception. And it’s hard hard to change things in our system of government.”
Neal Lane, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the latter years of the Clinton Administration, said he recalled complaints from the space community during his time there asking why the president didn’t make space a higher priority. “I think you could argue that no president except Kennedy has really placed the space program high enough on the list of priorities to be sustainable,” he said. “I still hold out the hope that, someday, our space program will excite the public to the degree that presidents and members of Congress will place it higher on the list of priorities. But it’s not happened yet, and it can’t happen in my view very quickly.”
To Rice University professor Eugene Levy, that long-running challenge to come up with a more definitive policy for human spaceflight in particular is not surprising. “The failure to articulate and mount a program of human piloted missions to deep space, rather than being a crisis, rather than being a bungle of leadership and political process, represents a triumph of rationality and success in the political process,” he argued. “No convincing case has been made for mounting a program of deep space piloted missions.” He added he’s not opposed per se to human space exploration, only that the reasons given don’t justify the expenditure in an era where NASA “is getting about as much of the national resource as it is likely to get on any time horizon worth planning for.”
One way to achieve a broader consensus for space policy is geostrategic considerations, offered Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. She said while there was no space race between the US and China, there is the “perception of leadership” that is at stake if there is no continued clear direction for national space policy. “The connotation of space is regarding the future. Leaders go into the future. And if we are seen as ceding that leadership to other countries, it will have larger geostrategic implications,” she said.
She and another panelist, former astronaut Leroy Chiao, advocated for more cooperation, rather than competition, with China. “For the United States to maintain its leadership position in human spaceflight,” he said, “that’s where we need to focus our efforts and get over the xenophobia and take the lead position in making it happen.” Johnson-Freese noted that if the US doesn’t increase cooperation with China, it risks being left out of future partnerships. “The danger of not working with China is that everybody else is,” she said. “I’m afraid we’re going to be standing there with our football and everybody else is going to be playing a different game.”
Of all the panelists, Mark Albrecht, the former executive secretary of the National Space Council in the George H.W. Bush Administration, took the broadest view, expanding his scope beyond human spaceflight and NASA in general to look at the broader national space enterprise. “We have a weak national policy” for space in general, he said, with no “overarching theme”; instead, he considers it more of a “guidance document.” He saw a number of problems with national space efforts today, from the military’s return to the “Milstar era” of very big, expensive satellite programs to diminished market shares for commercial satellites and launches by US companies.
Space policy excels, he argued, when it’s part of a broader national strategy, such as defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. “But right now, we don’t have a national strategy,” he argued. The only way to change space policy, he said, “is to have an overriding national policy for the United States for which a different kind of space policy would fit in.”
The panel ended with no clear view about how to change national space policy (let alone broader national policy) or what to change it to, and no optimism that we’ll see any significant changes of any kind in the near future. “With economics and the fiscal cliff looming in the future, one of the options for policymaking is called ‘muddling through,’” said Johnson-Freese after making the case for a renewed geostrategic emphasis on national space policy. “And that’s where we are and that’s where we’re going to stay.”