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NASA’s Future May Depend on Collaboration

An independent report addresses tough policy questions faced by the new administration.
December 16, 2008

In a report called “The Future of Human Spaceflight,” MIT’s Space, Policy, and Society Research group has produced some clear advice for the next president regarding manned space exploration. The report addresses such pressing issues as the retirement of the space shuttle, use of the International Space Station (ISS), and strategies for reaching the moon and Mars.

An astronaut is anchored on the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s robotic arm and is preparing to be elevated to the top of the Hubble Space Telescope during a servicing mission in 1993. Credit: NASA

A key message is the discrepancy between NASA’s current funding ($17 billion per year) and the ambitions outlined in President Bush’s vision for space exploration from 2004. “Trying to do too much with too little is exactly what caused the last two shuttle accidents,” says lead author David Mindell, a professor of engineering systems and director of the program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. But a lack of funding is hardly a new problem for NASA. So perhaps the most significant aspect of the report is its call for greater international collaboration, most notably with China.

The report states that the U.S. needs to reaffirm its international leadership while remaining committed to international partnerships. Specifically, the MIT team says that we need to begin engagement with China, as this could yield “enormous” benefits for both sides. Cooperation, the report says, “could encourage the Chinese to open their space program and help end speculation about their intentions in space.” The report adds that doing so could help avoid a potentially dangerous space arms race.

The comprehensive study comes at an ideal time for president-elect Barack Obama. Once he takes office in January, he’ll have just 100 days to determine the fate of the U.S. space program, which is facing its biggest crossroads since the end of the Apollo era in the 1970s. (To complicate matters, the Orlando Sentinel is reporting that NASA administrator Mike Griffin is refusing to cooperate with Obama’s transition team, although Griffin has denied the accusation.)

The MIT report was written by engineers, policy analysts, and even a former astronaut. It starts by defining primary objectives(those that can only be accomplished by having human beings in space and are worthy of the risks and costs) and secondary objectives(benefits that accrue from human presence but do not themselves justify the cost and risk). The report also includes some specific recommendations for the new administration.

To start, it says that the U.S. should continue flying the Space Shuttle until the ISS is finished, even if that slips somewhat past 2010. Retiring the shuttle after this date will mean relying on international partners, particularly the Russians, for transportation to the ISS, but the report says we need to trust the Russians’ commitment to the project.

Second, a “major question facing the new administration” is how to utilize the $100 billion space station. The report suggests that operations should be extended to 2020 and should support the primary objectives of exploration: “research in the physical sciences, life sciences, development of technologies to support moon missions and long duration Mars flights, and as a laboratory for space technology development.” Already, NASA is testing a water-processing system, workout equipment, and living quarters that will turn the ISS into a six-crew vessel instead of a three-crew one by May 2009.

For the moon and Mars, the report calls for a strategy that first establishes the size and duration of any U.S. lunar presence and balances this with reaching other destinations, such as Mars. Overall, it argues that the policy should be more, not less, ambitious, but it also makes a strong case for employing space robotics.

The report will be published in greater depth and detail by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in early 2009. Let’s hope the Obama administration reads through it carefully. Reportedly, the transition team has already “enthusiastically received” it.

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