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A symposium last week examined the findings of a 2009 report by the National Research Council on civil space priorities given the developments of the last eight years.

Revisiting America’s future in civil space

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There were two major reports about American civil spaceflight in 2009. The one that most people remember is the final report of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, better known as the Augustine Committee after its chairman, Norm Augustine. That report, chartered by the new Obama Administration, laid the groundwork for the administration’s later decision to cancel the Constellation program and set NASA on a “flexible path” that would take humans to Mars, which led to the Journey to Mars plan that NASA has been following in recent years.

“I would offer that these priorities have not changed,” Lopez-Alegria said. “I think we would all agree that all of those are still very much what we are trying to achieve.”

The other report of note is “America’s Future in Space,” prepared by a committee established by the National Research Council and chaired by Les Lyles, a retired Air Force general. It sought to examine the purpose of a civil space program, including “top-level goals” and “the connection between those goals and broad national priorities” needed for a sustainable long-term program. That report identified six strategic goals for the space program, from Earth science and the search for life beyond Earth to inspiration for future generations and “global strategic leadership” for the country.

Eight years later, what has changed? That was the focus of a day-long symposium in Washington last Tuesday at the National Academies, titled “America’s Future in Civil Space.” An audience of government and industry officials spent the day discussing what has changed, and what hasn’t, in the last eight years.

“A lot has changed since then,” Lyles said to kick off one of a series of panels at the event. He and fellow panelist Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut, touched on the obvious ones: the retirement of the shuttle, the completion and continued operation of the International Space Station, and the rise of commercial space ventures, among others.

But the underlying goals for the space program, outlined in that report eight years ago, remain in place. “I would offer that these priorities have not changed,” Lopez-Alegria said. “You can argue about the order of them—I’m not sure they were presented in any order in particular—but if you look through them, I think we would all agree that all of those are still very much what we are trying to achieve.”

Few at the event seemed to disagree with that: the underlying goals of the civil space program in 2017 are the same as those in 2009. There was, however, less of a discussion about how to implement those goals, and whether they should, or will, be done differently by the new administration.

“Now, another administration later, it seems that what used to be a bad word in the halls of NASA—the Moon—is now back in some favor,” Lopez-Alegria said, discussing a loss of focus cited in the 2009 report. Whether the Moon should receive new focus, though, largely went unaddressed in the discussion.

One topic that did receive much more attention, though, was the use of public private partnerships (PPPs) to meet national space goals. Such partnerships were already in use at the time of the 2009 report, principally in the form of NASA’s commercial cargo Space Act Agreements with Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, and the success of those agreements have led to growing use, including in the commercial crew program. A panel discussed the historical use of PPPs, from the transcontinental railroads to more recent NASA efforts.

“What I learned from this is public private partnerships are extremely hard to do correctly. They’re easy to mess up and not do well,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, after a series of presentations. “But I would also say I learned that they’re absolutely required for what we’re doing going forward. If we stay with the same model, where the government does everything, and we don’t leverage the best out of public private partnership activities, I think we’re doomed to failure.”

“One of the things that’s changed is that this phrase, ‘public private partnerships,’ has become a religion,” said Logsdon.

One audience member said PPPs were important for more than just helping NASA. “This isn’t just about how does NASA get done what it needs to get done,” said Jim Muncy of PoliSpace. “The reason why public private partnerships were used so often throughout American history, especially in the West, and should be used in space, is because that’s how going to actually expand civilization there.”

There was, though, a sense of fatigue about the use of PPPs, or at least talking about the use of PPPs, at the meeting. “One of the things that’s changed is that this phrase, ‘public private partnerships,’ has become a religion,” said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “If everything is a partnership, then nothing is.”

“I don’t even use the term anymore,” said panelist John Donahue of Harvard, citing the widespread growth of the use of “PPP” for a wide range of initiatives, inside and outside of the space industry. “It’s a term that’s kind of gone from obscurity to meaninglessness without passing through an interval of coherence.”

Earlier in the day, the rise of commercial space ventures posed a generational challenge to one panelist. “I’m a huge fan of Millennials,” said John Grotzinger, a Caltech professor of geology who served as project scientist for NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover until 2015.

“But there’s an interesting thing that’s happening as a result of SpaceX and Google, I hate to say it,” he added. “As soon as these guys have their first victory as a young engineer, there’s a big incentive to go leave for a bigger paycheck, and there are other opportunities now besides NASA.”

That was a concern to him because of a potential loss of institutional knowledge as people leave the agency. “NASA used to be sort of the ‘roach motel’: you show up there early on in your career and you stay forever,” he said. “And the problem is now that there are other career pathways.”

NASA officials recognized the need to retain talent, regardless of generation. “Often we think about technology and talent as two separate things. I don’t think we should be doing that,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “That talent walks out the door, so does the technology.”

Gerstenmaier took a more technical approach, calling for the development of infrastructure and technical standards that can streamline development. “We need to come back a little bit more and look at this resilience piece, look at this infrastructure piece, look at this standards piece and figure out a way that we create an environment that allows this new entrepreneurial Millennial generation to just run fast and do exciting things,” he said.

Attendees also embraced the role space plays in international cooperation. But one person raised a question during a panel discussion: does the rise of nationalism, as seen in events ranging from the UK’s decision to leave the European Union to the election of Donald Trump, pose a risk to further international cooperation?

Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES as well as president of the International Astronautical Federation, was not worried. “It is clear that exploration, which is in my opinion the next step after the space station, will be global,” he said. He acknowledged the rise of national space programs, but concluded “space will be more and more global.”

“The goals we have today are largely the same, but it’s quite clear from the discussion that the environment in which we’re working has changed significantly,” said Harrison.

That was particularly the case in science. “Regardless of the political situation, science is global,” said Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University. He cited scientific cooperation between scientists on either side of the Iron Curtain during even the worst times of the Cold War. “While I think no one on this panel wants to see things return to that sort of political situation, it is a case that science provides a tremendous relief valve for these kinds of political tensions.”

The event concluded with a summary of highlights from the discussions but, by design, no specific recommendations for the new administration or others. “The goals we have today are largely the same, but it’s quite clear from the discussion that the environment in which we’re working has changed significantly,” concluded Fiona Harrison, chair of the Space Studies Board, which held the symposium in cooperation with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.

One wonders, if a similar panel convenes in four or eight years at the beginning of a new administration, how different the environment will be, and both how relevant the goals of the original report remain and how much progress the country has made achieving them.