Space Policy Experts Point to Continuing Uncertainty for Civil Space As a Challenge

Space Policy Experts Point to Continuing Uncertainty for Civil Space As a Challenge

Just four days before an election that may directly impact the recently agreed upon plans for NASA and the human spaceflight program, the George Washington University held an event discussing implementation challenges of the 2010 National Space Policy (NSP). Stakeholders from industry, academia, government, and the military included the outcome of the election as one of several elements increasing the sense of lingering uncertainty, a challenge in implementing the guidelines laid out in the NSP.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, which co-organized the event, described the NSP’s section on space exploration as problematic. He said it reads like President Obama’s April 15, 2010 speech in Florida where he fleshed out his proposals for NASA that were revealed in the FY2011 budget request, and reflects that integration is still “a work in progress.” Issues of implementation, said Pace, would come up at the interfaces between policy, programs, and budget: “problems happen at the seams,” he added.

Where the policy is clear, as in the direction it lays out for the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), implementation has already begun. Mary Kicza, Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services at NOAA, lauded the policy for providing more clarity and direction to the agency. Already, NOAA has been engaging countries, like Japan, China, India, Canada, and others, in data sharing and other initiatives.

Participants also mentioned elements like the push for increased international cooperation as a positive and implementable aspect of the policy. Not only an opportunity for government agencies, international engagement may also provide a boost to U.S. industry, suggested Marion Blakey, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. “International business opportunities may be our industry’s best and only opportunity for growth,” she said, and mentioned India and South Korea as two potential markets. Opening up the U.S. industry further to the international market would require changes in export control rules, also an important priority for the Administration. Participants discussed recent developments in the move to reform export controls with optimism. Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation, said that in this area “implementation is happening very rapidly.” Blakey added that the elections next Tuesday add an element of change, but that maintaining good discussion and engagement with newcomers and those already in Congress should be enough to keep momentum going for reform. It will take advocacy, she said, but there is a real opportunity for change.

Where the policy is less clear, on the other hand, implementation issues abound. Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation, for example, praised the policy for its initiatives towards securing the sustainability of space, but pointed to several lingering questions. The possibility of space arms control measures is back in the policy, which states that they would be considered if they prove to be equitable and verifiable – elements she pointed out have yet to be defined.

Some aspects of the NSP are the cause of considerable disagreements. With regard to the new direction to NASA about the commercialization of crew transport to low Earth orbit, a fundamental aspect of the policy, participants repeatedly brought up differences of opinion on what constitutes “commercial.” Pulham, for example, believes that something that is government funded is not commercial and will not be until a “Rockets-R-US” for the commercial launch industry exists. He offered that “things that are too hard, too risky” ought to be governmental, but provided no specific examples.

The human spaceflight (HSF) aspect of the policy, which has been a focal point of the heated debates this summer, remains unclear despite the approval of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act this month. John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of the George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, said that in contrast to other aspects of the policy, there is “no agreed-upon policy to implement” the HSF portion of the NSP. He described the environment of the discussions today as “the most confused situation” since December 1960, when President Eisenhower announced the country would no longer have a HSF program – an announcement that was reversed the next year in President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech that initiated the Apollo lunar program. Logsdon described the 2010 authorization act as an “uneasy compromise” and said that in the next 6 months there would be either “more clarity or more compromise and uncertainty.”

Keys for success are program stability and funding security. Robert Dickman, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, referred to a common idiom, saying that “policy with resources is vision, but policy without resources is fiction.” With the potential that the Republicans may take over Congress on Tuesday, some fear that the resources to implement these programs may not materialize. Charles Baker of the Office of Space Commerce at the Department of Commerce said that “the unknown” of agency budgets was tied to future economic performance. If the economy performs well, he added, there would be fewer ventures dependent on government money.

Until that day comes, clarity, direction and stability are essential for the implementation of the NSP. “What’s the endgame?” asked Dickman early in the discussion. Several participants agreed that without a long-term strategy in space, lack of clarity could stall or doom many initiatives, hurting the U.S. space program in the long run. Phil McAlister, Special Assistant for Program Analysis at NASA Headquarters, agreed that “we’d be moving farther faster if there was a little more strategy.”

An interesting discussion at the end centered on the idea that a priority-setting process akin to the National Research Council’s science Decadal Surveys could bring such needed direction to the HSF program.’s Marcia Smith, former Director of the NRC’s Space Studies Board that produces many of the Decadal Surveys, was in the audience. She offered reasons why a Decadal-like NRC study might not be successful in setting an agenda for HSF that would be any less subject to the political winds than the many studies already published. She said that it was “an interesting idea,” but “not a panacea.” She questioned whether the hard-to-define HSF community would fall in line behind the recommendations of such a study as do the well-defined academic research communities affected by the current Decadal Surveys. She also pointed out that the NRC issued a report about the rationale and goals of the HSF program last year, but it received little notice because the Augustine Committee review was ongoing at the time.

The day’s discussion, reflecting a wide variety of views on this very issue, suggests that consensus on the future of HSF indeed will be difficult to find. Nevertheless, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act includes a provision requiring NASA to request such a study from the NRC in FY2012. Time will tell how successful it is in setting 10-year HSF priorities that stand the test of time.

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