The National Academies announced Friday that it will release the long-awaited report on human spaceflight, titled “Pathways to Exploration—Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration”, on Wednesday morning, with a briefing by committee members scheduled for 11 am Eastern time Wednesday. The emphasis here should be “long-awaited”: the report was requested by Congress as part of the NASA authorization act of 2010, and work on the report by a committee established the National Research Council started in late 2012. The committee held a number of public hearings, although in recent months has een focused on the report.
When plans for the report were first announced, there were high hopes in some corners of the space community. Some thought the report could serve as the human spaceflight equivalent of the “decadal surveys” that guide NASA’s science programs, by establishing priorities for human space activities in Earth orbit and beyond. Others, though, have been more skeptical, given the differences between human spaceflight and science.
If nothing else, the timing of the report fuels the beliefs of skeptics about its importance. If the report recommends significant changes in human space exploration, it’s not clear that the Obama Administration, nearly halfway through its second term, will be interested or even able to make a major shift in its current policy. While some in Congress have expressed their doubts about NASA’s emphasis on its Asteroid Redirect Mission, for example, they have already played their hand by including provisions regarding the bill in a NASA authorization bill awaiting consideration by the full House. A report that endorses ARM may not change their minds.
If the report does have significance, it may be in shaping longer-term debates about the role of humans in space exploration. Those debates won’t have an impact necessarily on this year’s policy and budget debates, but could become more prominent in 2016 and beyond.