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A new report promotes more international cooperation in space, but is it for the right reasons? (credit: MIT)

The problems with “The Future of Human Spaceflight”

’Tis the season for space policy initiative reports, and our Christmas stockings have been stuffed with them—of all shapes, sizes, levels of sweetness and/or complexity, with or without guaranteed satisfaction or your money back.

One significant contribution to this cosmonautical cornucopia comes from the MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group, titled “The Future of Human Spaceflight”. With an impressive list of contributors and coordinated by lead author David Mindell, the 15-page report is a preview of some much longer treatments to be published in coming months.

There is a lot to like in this report. It stresses the need for both basic science research in space and technology development to lay groundwork for future capabilities for more ambitious goals. Its attempt to define a logical metric of “goodness” for space policy vis-à-vis well-defined goals is a worthy effort. Both its broad perspectives and some specific recommendations are of great value.

But on the bigger policy picture, it promotes some non-historic and deeply troubling myths of space policy that have led to grief in the past and, if accepted for future decisions, could serve as a roadmap for frustration and disaster.

Fundamentally, the sense of the report remains torn between opposing goals: using space in the “best interest of the United States”, and using space in the best interests of the world as a whole.

First, it falls for the classic wish-fulfillment fantasy that playing nice together in space—forming partnerships on significant space projects—can actually compel terrestrial nations to become more friendly to each other despite deep-seated conflicting goals. Second, the report promotes the view that the cost of large space projects can only be afforded if they are shared by an international alliance—contrary to all experience, including that of the ISS, that splitting national responsibilities for integrated projects makes them more expensive, not less. And thirdly, it promotes a dangerously diversionary and dead-ended theory for the root cause of space disasters such as the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew: that there was just not enough money, a factor that can easily be fixed by budgetary largesse. Using such views as foundations for policy decisions in the coming years can only result in more waste, more losses, and a lot more tears.

There are also lesser issues, which can be dealt with in a follow-on review. Fundamentally, the sense of the report remains torn between opposing goals: using space in the “best interest of the United States”, and using space in the best interests of the world as a whole. While not a zero-sum game, “space leadership” does tend to benefit those who have it over those who do not, mainly in curtailing options to the secondary players and compelling dependent status on them for important space functions (think GPS). And while selling a policy aimed at benefiting the paying country (the US) may have domestic political value, too nationalistic a sales job at home could make selling it to potential partners more awkward.

Internationalism does appear to be the report’s preference, and in particular, expanded national partnerships on joint projects. But to argue for this strategy, the report utilizes some highly questionable “history” when it asserts: “Human spaceflight is sufficiently difficult and expensive that international collaboration may be the only way to accomplish certain goals… International partnerships in human spaceflight represent the best use of science and technology to… bring nations together around common values, hence they are a primary objective.”

This statement is not a conclusion of analysis, but is a simple declarative fiat, a strategy not chosen on any rational balancing of plus and minus arguments. It represents dogma, not debate, so as a foundation for future space policy decisions, it has no more gravitas than any whim or wish of past policy proposals.

This is worrisome because the stated historical background to this view is slanted. The example given, Apollo-Soyuz, allegedly occurred “at a time of tension between the nations”, but was “an effective instrument of global diplomacy.” This interpretation is, at best, silly, and at worst, 180 degrees away from reality. The Apollo-Soyuz followed, and did not cause, a period of US-Soviet diplomatic relaxation, and even as the mission occurred in mid-1975 the world was moving into renewed tensions over Soviet military adventurism in Africa and Afghanistan. Moves that led even a president such as Jimmy Carter (who had started out warning against “an inordinate fear of communism”) ordering that ASTP follow-on missions such as a Shuttle-Salyut docking be rejected. Diplomatic tensions ultimately faded, and Russian joined the existing International Space Station partnership, not because of any symbolic space feel-goodness but only after a fundamental shift in the Moscow regime.

Apollo-Soyuz followed, and did not cause, a period of US-Soviet diplomatic relaxation, and even as the mission occurred in mid-1975 the world was moving into renewed tensions over Soviet military adventurism in Africa and Afghanistan.

It’s not surprising that NASA likes to boast of how Apollo-Soyuz laid the groundwork for ending the Cold War (see “The real lessons of international cooperation in space”, The Space Review, July 18, 2005). Every rooster likes to think it brings the sun up; every robin enjoys the idea that its song brings the spring. Delusional self-aggrandizement such as these words from a NASA astronaut in 1998 after his third visit to the Mir space station typify the mindset:

So I just think that the fact that we’re cooperating with so many countries, eventually perhaps on the new Space Station, it will provide the psychological impetus for politicians to force themselves to find an agreement to disputes that otherwise they wouldn’t, because they’ll look up there and say, “Well, we have an investment in that, too. We have to keep this relationship going in a proper direction,” rather than doing something rash. So I think it’s the right way to do business.

The man was a highly competent astronaut and totally trustworthy at the controls of the space shuttle. But to allow him and those who think like him anywhere near the controls of diplomacy would be an enormous mistake.

The MIT report’s reference to the expense of certain projects requires that costs be shared among different nations is, perhaps, the most cosmic-scale misconception in the entire study. Experience has shown that there have indeed been good reasons for international cooperation on large projects such as the International Space Station (see these MSNBC articles how the ISS benefits from a “dual” design approach and a description of the current “reluctant but stable co-dependence” situation for ISS.) But as for making the project faster, cheaper, or better in terms of promised goals, none of these promises were fulfilled.

In one case, that failure of first promises turned out to be a blessing, another unexpected benefit. The long delays allowed US modules to “stack up” in the launch queue at Cape Canaveral, where engineers took the unplanned opportunity to run hardwired interface tests—tests that had been eliminated from the original “ship and shoot” mentality that assumed all equipment had been built to designs that guaranteed perfect interconnection once they met for the first time in space. As it turned out, the ground tests uncovered a plethora of interface problems, some so serious that they might not have been fixable if they hadn’t been discovered until actual space assembly.

The report’s treatment of spaceflight safety is inexplicably muddled, considering the talent available to the group. Regarding the consequences of the 1986 Challenger disaster, the report writes that “the Department of Defense began to reassess its plans for Shuttle utilization,” when it had actually—long before Challenger was lost—conducted a bitter battle with NASA in Congress over maintaining independent space access. It refers to the optical problem of the Hubble Space Telescope as being a “design flaw” when it actually was a “fabrication flaw” compounded by a “management flaw” in failing to adequately test the final product.

Most serious is its conclusion that it was lack of money that led to the Columbia disaster, the mistake of trying to do “too much with too little.” This conclusion ignores the space teams who, through sound management and good operational leadership, have ridden the perpetual creative tension between resources and schedules to fly safe missions when needed and delay inadequately-funded missions when unavoidable. The space work force, at its best, knows how to do this, and disaster strikes not when the money is inadequate, but when the team forgets what it used to know: how to keep hazards at bay.

The appearance of such policy reports is a positive step toward national debates over space policy, but merely waving wish lists isn’t enough.

At my request, a member of the CAIB reviewed this report alongside my concerns over its missing the basic point of the report, and he concurred that blaming funding levels was “simplistic”. He continued: “The key [cause] regarded the managerial complacency—that was what allowed the normalization of deviance and closed ears to questioning/dissension that was present at Challenger, and that re-emerged for Columbia. Additional funding would not have prevented those mindsets… Budget was a contributing factor, but far from a determining factor—a minority one at best for people who should be driven to excellence. To say otherwise… constitutes another dodging of responsibility (and accountability).”

The appearance of such policy reports is a positive step toward national debates over space policy, but merely waving wish lists isn’t enough (the report’s goals are more ambitious, and laudable—just not yet achieved). A consensus, however, is needed on the factual foundations of future decisions. This report has helped highlight how far, in terms of both astronomy and actuality, we still are from such a requisite foundation.


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