NASA's Decadal Planning Team and the Policy
Formulation of the Vision for Space Exploration
By Stephen Garber and Glen Asner
In the spring of 1999, approximately five months after a budget examiner at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) took the unusual step of adding $5 million to NASA’s budget for long term planning, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin formed what came to be known as the Decadal Planning Team (DPT). At the most basic level, Goldin intended the planning group to generate a slate of space architecture options for the new presidential administration that would take the reins of government following the 2000 election. He sought to ease the presidential transition and to position NASA for increased funding should the budget surpluses of the Clinton years continue. Goldin hoped, furthermore, that in the process of devising a more ambitious space exploration agenda, the DPT would find a way to overcome the cultural barriers that divided NASA and hindered collaboration between the human spaceflight and robotic space science communities. Goldin also sought to change the way NASA and its supporters understood the Agency’s long-term mission and conveyed that mission to the public. The public deserved a solid, practical and/or scientific justification for human exploration instead of the sloganeering and appeals to emotion that many space advocates promoted.
Goldin organized the DPT as a small, confidential planning group composed of personnel from NASA’s Field Centers and Headquarters. The group reported to NASA’s Associate Administrators for Space Flight and Space Science, Joseph Rothenberg and Edward Weiler respectively, both of whom took a strong interest in the team’s work. The team quickly established that its plans would be driven by scientific priorities and would be “technology enabled,” meaning the development of certain key capabilities such as nuclear systems and advanced in-space propulsion techniques would enable journeys to places in the Solar System that are distant and physically hostile to humans. While many discussions in early meetings focused on sending astronauts to Mars, the team rejected the concept of “destination-driven” exploration. That is, priority technology investments should be made so that astronauts could travel to whichever destination was a priority for scientific, commercial, or policy reasons, rather than investing in technologies that would limit exploration to a single location. In practical terms, this meant that the DPT seriously analyzed the potential scientific payoffs from sending humans to the Moon and libration points. It also meant that the team avoided defining the goals of exploration in terms of reaching a single destination within a set timeframe, an approach most prominently employed by President Kennedy in declaring the goal of the Apollo program as sending an astronaut to the Moon before the end of the 1960s. To avoid the pitfalls of “destination-driven” exploration and to enable future exploration without enormous budgetary expenditures, DPT recommended a “steppingstones” approach in which each phase of the plan would build upon prior accomplishments and would not be activated until both the financial resources and advanced technologies necessary to complete the phase were available.
The team did far more than define and recommend the broad outlines of a grand exploration strategy. A great deal of the team’s time and budget were spent on finding solutions to such perennial hurdles to long-term space exploration as the adverse human health effects of space radiation, the need for revolutionary in-space propulsion technologies, and the need for nuclear systems to provide electricity and in-space propulsion beyond the Earth-Moon system.
After two years, an expanded DPT was renamed the NASA Exploration Team (NEXT) and acquired a new team leader. Late in 2001, Goldin left NASA and Sean O’Keefe took over as NASA Administrator. O’Keefe took a strong interest in nuclear technologies and the team’s work in general.
The NEXT planning effort suddenly and unexpectedly took on added significance after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident on 1 February 2003. Almost immediately, the accident prompted a great deal of reflection within NASA, the Bush Administration, and the public about NASA’s strategic direction and the proper role for space exploration in our society.
One result was that the White House and a host of individuals from other Federal agencies became involved in the process of charting a new course for NASA. Basically led by a National Security Council staff member, this process involved high-level officials from NASA and Cabinet Departments, such as the Departments of Defense and State. The ensuing debates over NASA’s future and that of U.S. civilian space were channeled through a prescribed national security policymaking process. While NASA worked to recover from the Columbia accident, the effort to find a compelling long-term plan for space exploration gained urgency. Within NASA, many of the same people who had worked on DPT and NEXT were called upon to advise this circle of policymakers. The Administration’s policy formulation process culminated in a briefing to the President on 19 December 2003 (two days after the centennial of flight anniversary). The briefing went smoothly and staff members obtained President Bush’s concurrence on a new space policy.
On 14 January 2004, less than a year after the Columbia accident, Bush came to NASA Headquarters to unveil what became known as the new “Vision for Space Exploration.” The Vision called for NASA to safely conclude the Shuttle program, finish the International Space Station, and develop a long-term program of human and robotic space exploration to send humans back to the Moon, on to Mars, and beyond.
Below are links to some key DPT documents, as well as a short essay by Harley Thronson, senior scientist for DPT and NEXT, about this topic and these files. Historians Glen Asner and Stephen Garber are currently writing a book-length history of the DPT and the policy development of the Vision.