NRC Human Spaceflight Committee Kicks Off Deliberations

NRC Human Spaceflight Committee Kicks Off Deliberations

The National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Human Spaceflight held its first public meeting yesterday.  In addition to hearing from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, the committee listened to other top NASA officials, congressional staff, and other experts on the past and present of the space program and what NASA and Congress are hoping to get from the report.

Congress requested the report in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bill written by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.   Senate committee staff members Ann Zulkosky (D) and Jeff Bingham (R) and House Science, Space and Technology Commitee staffer Dick Obermann (D) briefed the committee both on what Congress had in mind back in 2010 when the law was written and what they would find most useful today. 

The key message from the staffers was that the NRC committee should not assume that Congress will remain as supportive of space exploration in the future as it has been in the past.  Zulkosky said “don’t assume anything” and explaining the value of the space program to taxpayers is an “important part of the conversation.”  Bingham agreed, adding that simply because the President’s 2010 National Space Policy lays out principles and goals for a strong space program that does not mean Congress is in agreement.  “The National Space Policy is an Executive Branch statement of policy and I say ‘thanks for sharing,'” but Congress has “a separate and equal responsibility to make policy — we call it law.” 

Like Zulkosky, Bingham stressed the need for the NRC committee to explain the “value proposition” of the space program to make the linkage between space spending and people’s daily lives. “Excitement is easy to generate, but not sustainable,” he argued.  Obermann pointed out, however, that in the 1960s less than half the public thought the Apollo program was a useful expenditure, so he was not as certain that public opinion is a key element in such decisions.   All three stressed that sustainability is essential.  Zulkosky said that the country needs to stop planning in 4 or 8 year increments (referring to the length of 1 or 2 presidential terms) and look at the longer term. That is what she hopes the NRC committee will do. 

Committee co-chair Jonathan Lunine talked about what he sees as a dichotomy in public reaction to individual highs and lows associated with particular missions like the Mars Curiosity rover — which he referred to as an “AC signal” — and the longer term contribution that is in the background of such missions — the “DC signal” — that sparks a different type of public reaction.  Bingham said he hopes the study will recognize that dichotomy.  Obermann said that it also would be helpful if the committee could illuminate whether the space program in its entirety, not just human spaceflight, is sustainable or should be sustained.

Investigating what the public sees as the value proposition for the human spaceflight program was also championed by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.    Like Bolden, she read a prepared statement (neither has been posted on the NASA website yet).   The NRC committee had asked her to address what NASA would find most useful coming out of the report.  She urged committee members to focus on the “unique task” it has been given to reach out to the public to determine its views on the human spaceflight program — what the public believes it gets in return for its investment.

The NRC committee is, indeed, focusing considerable effort on that aspect of its task, with one-third of the committee members coming from backgrounds in public opinion polling.  The committee will be supported by two panels, one of which will have additional expertise in public opinion polling.  The members of that panel have not been named yet.   The membership of the other panel, on Technical Feasibility, was announced last week. 

Because so many of the NRC committee members are new to NASA issues, Bolden, John Grunsfeld (head of the Science Mission Directorate), and Greg Williams (deputy associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations), presented primers on what NASA does.  There was little newsworthy other than Bolden’s comments about sending astronauts to an asteroid and that NASA will soon stand up a Space Technology Mission Directorate. 

The NRC committee also heard from a panel of two space historians — Roger Launius (National Air and Space Museum) and Howard McCurdy (American University), a space economist — Henry Hertzfeld (George Washington University), and an English professor — Betty Sue Flowers (University of Texas-Austin), who edited “The Power of Myth.”  

Launius presented data showing that contrary to the memories and assumptions of most Americans, the Apollo program was not particularly popular with the public in the 1960s.   He traced the factors that led to the Apollo program’s approval by President John F. Kennedy and Congress — essentially Cold War politics — and concluded that Apollo was “unique to its time and won’t be repeated in our lifetimes.”  He believes that exploration can be sustained only when it leads to something of value.  In the Apollo program “we didn’t find anything of value.  We sustain exploration only when we do.”  He showed data from the 2010 General Social Survey of where the public preferred to make cuts in federal spending.  Space exploration was second on the list, just behind defense.   He pointed out that it is one of only three on the list of 18 types of federal spending where more than 50 percent of Democrats and more than 50 percent of Republicans want to cut (the other two are foreign aid and welfare). 

McCurdy argued that “robots are winning the space race” because they are more cost effective than sending humans into space.   That will remain true, he said, until investments are made in new propulsion technologies, such as nuclear propulsion, to reduce the cost of launching people.  Politicians are not interested in making those investments, he contends.   Hertzfeld agreed that “no cost-benefit analysis will justify human spaceflight.”  He argued that because human spaceflight programs are expensive and long term, three things are needed:  technical knowledge, a fiscal surplus or at least not a large deficit, and an external political motivating factor.  “And all three have to converge at the same time,” he added, but one cannot predict when that might happen.

The NRC committee is co-chaired by Lunine and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry.   With few exceptions, they were the only members who asked questions during what turned out to be a quiet day that seemed at odds with the roiling controversy over the future of the human spaceflight program that has enveloped the space community for the past three years.

The committee’s next meeting is January 8, 2013 in Stanford, CA, but it is closed to the public.

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