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Review: Becoming Spacefarers

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Becoming Spacefarers: Rescuing America’s Space Program
by James A. Vedda
Xlibris, 2012
hardcover/softcover/ebook, 214 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4771-3092-6

It’s been two a half years since the Obama Administration unveiled its revised space exploration program, cancelling the existing Constellation program in favor of a new approach that emphasized technology development and greater reliance on commercial partners. The battle over that approach, which lasted for much of 2010, has died down, and the focus more recently has been on the implementation of the compromise Congress approved that supported some technology development and commercial crew funding, but also called for the continuation of the Orion crewed vehicle and a new heavy-lift launcher, the Space Launch System. Unless Mitt Romney wins the presidential election this November and decides to change course yet again—he has offered few details to date about his space policy beyond a desire to create a blue-ribbon commission to develop new goals for NASA—that is the likely direction NASA will continue to follow for the next several years. But is it the right one?

“Still missing was an enduring purpose for the whole enterprise that was worth the price of admission,” Vedda writes of NASA’s current plan. “It still needed a justifiable focus, beyond short-term job creation.”

In Becoming Spacefarers, space policy analyst James Vedda argues that the problem with the redirection in NASA’s human spaceflight program proposed by the Obama Administration is that it didn’t go far enough. Vedda had previously written about space policy in Choice, Not Fate (see “Review: Choice, Not Fate”, The Space Review, February 8, 2010), which came out just weeks before the Obama Administration’s 2011 budget proposal, where he argued for a capabilities-based approach to spaceflight, rather than the destination-driven model that dated back to Apollo. That capabilities-based model is what the administration originally proposed for NASA in the 2011 budget, only to fall back within months to a more destination-driven approach, as President Obama himself called for a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025, and a human mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.

Vedda remains a supporter of the capabilities-driven approach to spaceflight, and he explains why this is important in the book. Much of the first part of the book is a review of the policy developments over the last several years, primarily since the publication of Choice, Not Fate, including the extensive debate about the Obama Administration’s proposal and the eventual adoption and implementation of a compromise. Vedda is clearly disappointed with that compromise, which to him looks not that much different from the Constellation program. “Still missing was an enduring purpose for the whole enterprise that was worth the price of admission,” he writes. “It still needed a justifiable focus, beyond short-term job creation.”

In the last part of the book, Vedda makes the case again for a capabilities-driven approach to human spaceflight, developing technologies and services that enable greater use of space, particularly in the cislunar realm between the Earth and Moon. In his view, we are still in “Stage One” of a three-stage process of space development, where we still treat space as a training ground. More capabilities, from satellite servicing to orbital debris remediation (tied together by the core enabling technology of proximity operations), are needed to advance to Stage Two, where space becomes an industrial park; only then can we think about advancing to space advocates’ ultimate goal of settlement in Stage Three. He also calls for greater cooperation between the public and private sectors, drawing historical analogies from other modes of transportation, from steamships and railroads to highways and aviation, as evidence that this is hardly a novel approach.

In Vedda’s hypothetical space policy, as outlined in the book, government-developed infrastructure and capabilities would be transferred to the private sector as soon as possible, turning NASA into primarily an R&D agency with limited operational duties. He acknowledges the challenges such a redirection poses, noting the pushback to the Obama Administration’s changes that were “far more modest” than his own. Such a change is necessary, though, he argues, citing the growing capabilities outside of NASA to build and operate space systems; “ultimately NASA must embrace that which it helped create.” As recent history has demonstrated, a radical change like that will be difficult to implement, particularly if it’s done all at once; but at the same time, history has repeatedly shown that trying to replicate Apollo, from the Space Exploration Initiative two decades ago to the more recent Vision for Space Exploration, has also failed. A sharply different approach like that which Vedda advocates may be what’s necessary to, as his book title states, put us on the path to Becoming Spacefarers.