New paradigms in human spaceflight policy

As the shuttle programs ends and NASA’s future direction remains uncertain, it’s clear that there will be changes in how NASA and the nation approach human spaceflight. In an essay in this week’s issue of The Space Review, Roger Handberg argues that the US will have to take a different approach to international cooperation. In the past, the US was clearly the lead partner, dictating the direction of projects like the ISS and the roles of partners, but also paying the bulk of the costs of projects. “The historical pattern is simple: the US is willing to join international space projects as long as it remains the project leader and is relatively, if not completely, unconstrained by the international partners when the US decides significant changes are required,” he writes.

That approach is unlikely to continue given the apparent unwillingness of the US to spend the money sufficient to take such a dominant role, he argues, requiring more equitable international partnerships. “What this means is that the US must become comfortable with such close cooperation, as unilateral decisions with no prior consultation with partners will end,” he writes. “The advantage is that true cooperation translates into greater equality in terms of budget share—the US will no longer operate as the funder of last resort with the unpleasantness that situation generates. One downside is that projects will move more slowly (although in truth no one may notice, given the delays common presently) due to the need for effective consultation among the partners before programs are initiated and necessary changes are made.”

Meanwhile, the current situation offers an opportunity to ask the question of why do human spaceflight at all. “Is there a future for humans in space?” asked Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in a talk last month at the Applied Physics Lab in Maryland. The answer to that question depends, he said, on two other questions: whether humans can live off the land in space, and if they can do anything useful economically. “Spending a small amount of money to answer those questions is a legitimate activity of a great power, and in the course of doing so there are geopolitical and technical benefits that accrue to us,” he said.

How, though, do you structure a human spaceflight program that can answer those questions? Pace suggested taking a page from the astronomy community, which performs decadal surveys to identify the missions they believe are most important in terms of the science they can generate—an approach that has since been adopted by planetary and earth scientists. “I can imagine a decadal-like group getting together” to examine what missions or concepts, like research into in situ resource utilization, would best answer those questions, he said. “We seem to have commissions on human spaceflight ever ten years anyway, why not make them routine?”

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