Over the last 25 years, as a result of the success of programs like Apollo, Skylab, Viking, Voyager, and the Space Shuttle, the American public has come to expect this country to lead the world in space science, space exploration, and space enterprise. But during the 1980s, membership in the once-exclusive club of spacefaring nations has grown, and our leadership is being challenged in many areas.
In today’s world, America clearly cannot be the leader in all space endeavors. But we will be the leader in very few unless we move promptly to develop a strategy to regain and retain leadership in those areas we deem important.
Leadership results from both the capabilities a country has acquired and the active demonstration of those capabilities. Thus, the strategy we choose must lay a strong foundation of scientific research and technology development, and must include visible, significant accomplishments that demonstrate the successful pursuit of our stated goals.
To stimulate a discussion of the future of the U.S. civilian space program, four potential leadership initiatives were developed. Each fits comfortably under the umbrella of NASA’s charter, each contains visible milestones within the next two decades, and each requires a solid foundation of technology, transportation, and orbital facilities.
It would not be good strategy, good science, or good policy for the U.S. to select a single initiative, then pursue it single-mindedly. The pursuit of a single initiative to the exclusion of all others results in leadership in only a limited range of space endeavor.
A strategy for the U.S. space program must be carefully selected to be consistent with our national aspirations and consistent with NASA's capabilities. It is not NASA's role to determine the strategy for the civilian space program. But it is NASA's role to lead the debate, to propose technically feasible options, and to make thoughtful recommendations.
It is in this spirit that we suggest the outline of one strategy — a strategy of evolution and natural progression. The strategy would begin by increasing our capabilities in transportation and technology — not as goals in themselves, but as the necessary means to achieve our goals in science and exploration. The most critical and immediate needs are related to advanced transportation systems to supplement and complement the Space Shuttle, and advanced technology to enable the bold missions of the next century. Until we can get people and cargo to and from orbit reliably and efficiently, our reach will exceed our grasp; until we begin the technologies proposed by Project Pathfinder, the realization of our aspirations will remain over a decade away.
The strategy emphasizes evolving our capabilities in low-Earth orbit, and using those capabilities to study our own world and explore others. With these capabilities, we would position ourselves to lead in characterizing and understanding planet Earth; we would also position ourselves to continue leading the way in human exploration.
According to the NASA Advisory Council’s Task Force on Goals, “Recognized leadership absolutely requires the expansion of human life beyond the Earth, since human exploration is one of the most challenging and compelling displays of our spacefaring abilities.”
We should explore the Moon for what it can tell us, and what it can give us — as a scientific laboratory and observing platform, as a research and technology test bed, and as a potential source of important resources. While exploring the Moon, we would learn to live and work on a hostile world beyond Earth. This should be done in an evolutionary manner, and on a time scale that is consistent with our developing capabilities.
The natural progression of human exploration then leads to Mars. There is no doubt that exploring, prospecting, and settling Mars should be the ultimate objectives of human exploration. But America should not rush headlong toward Mars; we should adopt a strategy to continue an orderly expansion outward from Earth.
The National Commission on Space urges 21st Century America “To lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.” The United States space program needs to define a course to make this vision a reality.
An informed public is essential to both the near-and long-term interests of the nation's civilian space program. The public needs an appropriate base of knowledge of scientific and technological issues in order to make educated decisions on space-related goals. Additionally, today's educational system must produce the high caliber scientists, engineers, technicians, social scientists, and humanists that will actually manage the large-scale space programs that are now envisioned. This means capturing the imaginations and interests of young people at an early stage in their educational careers and encouraging them to pursue studies that will prepare them to actively participate in the space program.
“Unless the youth of this nation are strongly motivated to seek their careers in the often difficult fields of science and technology — of which space is a particularly exciting and rewarding constituent — no amount of federal program emphasis can by itself sustain a long-term leadership role for the U. S. in civil space activities.” U.S. Civil Space Program: An AIAA Assessment, 1987
“As revealed in a recent national survey of student achievement, an estimated 90 percent of America’s high school graduates may not be capable of accomplishing even the most routine high-technology tasks in the future. While up to 90 percent of high school graduates in other countries enjoy a proficiency in math and science, a mere 6 percent of U.S. graduates attain the same aptitudes. ... This challenge exists at every level elementary through graduate education.” Pioneering the Space Frontier, 1986
“Thus, a strong educational system is an essential component of a vital science without which scientific progress would come to a rapid halt. It is most important to ensure that students are being broadly educated concepts and skills which will be useful throughout their careers.” The Crisis in Space and Earth Science, 1986
“The future of space biology and medicine will depend on the quality of the young people attracted to the field. NASA should expand its fellowship programs to encourage predoctoral and postdoctoral training at Universities, research institutes, and NASA research centers. Even in a period of reduced flight opportunities, there is exciting important research to be done in ground-based laboratories.” A Strategy for Space Biology and Medical Science, 1987