What will be the significance of the NRC’s human spaceflight report?

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.

13 comments to What will be the significance of the NRC’s human spaceflight report?

  • One report after another have been ordered by Congress over the years — and promptly ignored.

    Yet another paper exercise.

  • James


    The more things change the more they stay the same – no matter the brilliance of this report.

  • josh

    Insignificant. SpaceX matters. The rest, not so much.

  • numbers_guy101

    The war is over. We lost.

  • The committee claims to be a ‘diverse panel of experts’. Looking at the membership it looks like them members are predominantly from academia. Political scientists? Sociologists? Historians? Where are the engineers? Where are the blood and guts NASA ops people? This doesn’t sound promising to me. Expect and other tainted report friendly to the incompetent administration.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      Political scientists? Sociologists? Historians? Where are the engineers? Where are the blood and guts NASA ops people?

      We don’t lack technical ability per se, we lack a reason. And not just any reason, but one that can be supported by some significant amount of U.S. Taxpayers, and one that can be understood and supported for decades to come by the politicians that have to find and support the funding.

      Until there is a reason, and the funding to support it, engineers are ops people are not yet needed.


    The report should make for some good reading by Hillary for her administration. The Big ‘O’ has goose-egged space for the rest of his term. Thanks for eight years of nothing, Barry. Too vad you didn’t understand that in about the same amount of time, you can go from zero to Luna.

  • Coastal Ron

    Sort of related, I wanted to give a shout-out to our host Jeff Foust for being prominently mentioned in the conclusion of NASA’s final report on COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, A New Era in Spaceflight). That paragraph says:

    Throughout the first five decades of the U.S. space program, the space transportation systems NASA depended on to pursue its goals of exploration were owned and operated by the government. Space policy analyst Jeff Foust observed that, “For a long time … we’ve seen a lot of promises and PowerPoint presentations about proposed (private) spacecraft,” continuing, “Now we’re seeing those PowerPoints turn into actual hardware.”

    Let’s hope the NRC report recognizes the value for NASA to “buy a ticket, not the vehicle” like they are with cargo and crew transportation, and pretty much what the rest of the USG does for moving any type of mass to space. Plus, in the final accounting, NASA only ended up paying for 47% of the total cost for the SpaceX system, and 43% of the Orbital system, and only 5% of the total COTS budget went to overhead costs (typically 10-15% for other NASA programs). Outstanding taxpayer value!

    If we’re going to be able to afford to do more in space, we have to lower the cost to access and do things in space. COTS is a proven model now, and the Commercial Crew program is following in it’s footsteps, so again let’s hope the NRC report recognizes that innovation can still happen in aerospace, and it doesn’t have to come from the entrenched players.

  • guest

    “Political scientists? Sociologists? Historians? …Where are the blood and guts NASA ops people?”

    I think too much emphasis on ops and not enough on systems research, development and planning is what got NASA into trouble over the last couple of decades. NASA phased into this during the Shuttle of the late 80s and it carries over to the ISS today.

    The NASA operators are great at establishing their mission rules and following their checklists, but they do not establish a plan, a process, or the rationale. That is what is missing.

    NASA needs to get back to strategizing, planning, researching and developing; those are the proper roles of the government. The contractors can take the subservient role of operating the service. In human space flight NASA forgot what DDT&E was all about. Mr. Musk is showing everyone how the job could be done.

    I hope the forthcoming report will address NASA’s and the government’s role and value. I hope it addresses how NASA can best contribute to maintaining US space leadership and the importance of maintaining a strong civilian space agency. Because NASA has not figured these things out on their own.

  • Hiram

    The charter of this committee was NOT to develop transportation architectures and ops plans. So much for the engineers and technologists and ops people. Their statement of task was as follows …

    1. Consider the goals for the human spaceflight program as set forth in (a) the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, (b) the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Acts of 2005, 2008, and 2010, and (c) the National Space Policy of the United States (2010), and any existing statement of space policy issued by the president of the United States.

    2. Solicit broadly-based, but directed, public and stakeholder input to understand better the motivations, goals, and possible evolution of human spaceflight–that is, the foundations of a rationale for a compelling and sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program–and to characterize its value to the public and other stakeholders.

    3. Describe the expected value and value proposition of NASA’s human spaceflight activities in the context of national goals–including the needs of government, industry, the economy, and the public good–and in the context of the priorities and programs of current and potential international partners in the spaceflight program.

    4. Identify a set of high-priority enduring questions that describe the rationale for and value of human exploration in a national and international context. The questions should motivate a sustainable direction for the long-term exploration of space by humans. The enduring questions may include scientific, engineering, economic, cultural, and social science questions to be addressed by human space exploration and questions on improving the overall human condition.

    5. Consider prior studies examining human space exploration, and NASA’s work with international partners, to understand possible exploration pathways (including key technical pursuits and destinations) and the appropriate balance between the “technology push” and “requirements pull”. Consideration should include the analysis completed by NASA’s Human Exploration Framework Team, NASA’s Human Spaceflight Architecture Team, the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans (Augustine Commission), previous NRC reports, and relevant reports identified by the committee.

    6. Examine the relationship of national goals to foundational capabilities, robotic activities, technologies, and missions authorized by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 by assessing them with respect to the set of enduring questions.

    7. Provide findings, rationale, prioritized recommendations, and decision rules that could enable and guide future planning for U.S. human space exploration. The recommendations will describe a high-level strategic approach to ensuring the sustainable pursuit of national goals enabled by human space exploration, answering enduring questions, and delivering value to the nation over the fiscal year (FY) period of FY2014 through FY2023, while considering the program’s likely evolution in 2015-2030.

    These are questions that, quite frankly, have never been asked before in a formal way. So if they do their job, the report won’t be ignored. I do have to suspect that the temptation is going to be preservation of the status quo, which is the old and tired arguments (exploration!, inspiration!) for human space flight. If they do that, it’ll hit the circular file pretty fast. It will be interesting if this committee manages to think outside the box, or just cuddles up inside of it.

    Part of the pathos of the HSF community is its chronic inability to separate transportation architecture from rationale and value proposition. We’ll see if this committee can pull that off.

    • Egad

      Part of the pathos of the HSF community is its chronic inability to separate transportation architecture from rationale and value proposition. We’ll see if this committee can pull that off.

      Nicely said, Hiram. Indeed, we’ll see tomorrow if they moved in that direction.

    • Justin Kugler

      Because of certain requirements by Congress in the 2010 Authorization Act, the committee operated under some assumptions regarding the status quo. Even within those constraints, though, they tried to speak truth to power. I suspect a careful reading will make everyone uncomfortable in some way, which means they did their job and it will not be ignored.

  • Had a lengthy debate on the significance of this report on Facebook with some spaceflight enthusiasts last evening. Sorry to take the cynical route but we have had so many reports and so many “road maps” and followed nary a one for any length of time. They made for some great PowerPoint slides and fantastic sources for academic papers in space policy but that’s about it. Part of me WANTS to believe this report will be looked at by an incoming presidential administration in 2017 but the cynical side looks at our track record and I suspect this will join the others and become fantastic resource material for those pursuing a Space Policy Masters or Doctorate. But that will be about it.

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