Space Abhors a Policy Vacuum; The NRC Report and The Need for a Broad National Space Policy

NOTE:  This is Part one of a two part post….

In December of 2012 the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, in response to a congressional mandate, conducted a study and published a report entitled; NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. The mandate for their deliberations and report was as follows:

…..Notably, the committee was not asked to deliberate on what should be NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy; rather, it was asked for recommendations on how these goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated…..

The question put before the committee was not what NASA should be doing but rather how NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy might be established, presumably in a manner that will gain the support of stakeholders, including the public.

Vignettes from the Study…

The committee began by referencing the enabling law for NASA for guidance on what the agency’s role is in government.  Their evaluation was;

For the United States to be a leader in space, as required by the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, it must be a country with bold ideas, science and engineering excellence, and the ability to convince others to work with it in the pursuit of common goals. Leadership depends on the perception of others that whoever is in the lead knows the way forward, is capable of forging the trail, and is determined to succeed despite inevitable setbacks…..

So NASA is supposed to be a (as opposed to the) leader in space.  However, NASA’s role is not to develop the strategic direction itself as it is a federal executive agency, it is the United States (presumed by the NRC committee to be the government) that must come up with the bold ideas, science, and engineering excellence and then convince others of this and lead into the future.

The strongest statement of the committee is that the government has not come up with a strategic plan that provides this leadership or that has the support needed to be successful. Their first conclusion and recommendation is;

Conclusion: There is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA. Absent such a consensus, NASA cannot reasonably be expected to develop enduring strategic priorities for the purpose of resource allocation and planning.

Recommendation: The administration should take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA’s future that is stated in terms of a set of clearly defined strategic goals and objectives. This process should apply both within the administration and between the administration and Congress and should be reached only after meaningful technical consultations with potential international partners. The strategic goals and objectives should be ambitious, yet technically rational, and should focus on the long term.

So there is no consensus on our strategic direction and objectives for NASA and thus the agency will continue as it has for a while now, muddling along with the various stovepiped interests within the agency continuing to fight for their individual agendas.  The recommendation is that the administration and congress should work together to develop one a strategic plan but in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the current relationship between the branches of government this will be difficult.

This is obviously a recipe for continuing floundering because as the report also observes, NASA does not have the money (as the Augustine report also noted) to do what several presidents and NASA have said is the most important goal (not strategy, goal) for the agency which is the human exploration of Mars.  So the question becomes, is there a means whereby a consensus can be developed that comes from the outside of the government but is adopted by the government?

Where the NRC report Went Wrong

Referring back to the mandate of the NRC committee, its mandate was to establish how this national consensus and strategy might be established and communicated.  In their recommendation that a space policy be developed there is a continuing flaw in the philosophical underpinning that equates space with NASA and the development of a strategic direction as sole the province of the government as it relates to the civilian space agency.  Here is what the report says in this area….

…….If the United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner.

The above sentence in its implication says that a scientifically justifiable space program is the only means to continue its international leadership in space.  This has been the underpinning of all NASA related strategic thinking for the past thirty years but is it still tenable, is it still complete to say so?  It is my opinion that the answer is no and indeed it has never truly been the case and to think of space through this narrow lens is actually the reason that we have been unable to come to any kind of national consensus on space.  The key word in their mandate is national consensus, not just a presidential fiat or even a consensus between the congress and the president.  If we are to move forward toward a national consensus we must look beyond the scientific justifications for a space program and look at the broader aspects of national interest to underpin our reasoning.

Toward a Spacepower Theory of the Space Economy

In the years 2005-2008 I was associated with a research and writing effort carried out by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU).  The result of this effort was a multivolume book called Toward a Theory of Spacepower. The book was a set of carefully selected essays on the subject of spacepower theory, which is the theory of how the environment of space is a realm for the actions of nations  and non national actors toward furthering their own interests.  The book was commissioned by the Secretary of Defense and is constructed taxonomically in the same vein as Clauswitz’s Landpower theory, and particularly in the vein of Mahan’s seminal book on Seapower theory called The Influence of Seapower on History 1660-1783.

This was a fascinating effort and I learned much about how people outside of NASA think about the subject of space.  Its about worldview and whenever the word “NASA” is used a certain worldview is imposed that then further defines all discussion on space.  However, if you impose the worldview of power theory and then look at space, something vastly different emerges, something that could be useful in developing a national consensus regarding space.  The reason that this can provide a firmer foundation is that the military theoretician, especially those that take the viewpoint derived from Mahan that actions of states (and private economic interests) to proactively operate in and protect their interests at sea (in our example space) helps to build the economy of the nation, which then increases the wealth of the people and thus builds a firmer foundation for the state itself.

The first essay in the “Toward a Theory of Spacepower” by Jon Sumida goes to the heart of building a workable premise for a national discussion on space policy. This premise formulated on the basis of a Mahanian political-economic outlook, which is far beyond simply building a strategic plan for a federal agency like NASA and helps to reformulate Mahan’s seapower theory questions into the space realm.

In his essay, Sumida reformulated the Mahanian seapower questions and concerns into their space analog as follows:

•  What is the economic significance of the development of space activity, and to what degree does future American economic performance depend upon it?

• What are the security requirements of space-based economic activity?

• What role should the U.S. Government play in the promotion of space-based economic       activity and its defense?

• What kind of diplomatic action will be required to support space-based economic activity and its defense?

I would posit that the mandate of the NRC study of  how the [national] goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated…..  is best addressed by answering the questions formulated by Sumida and not by an a-priori statement that a scientifically justifiable space program is the basis for the administration and congress to deliberate our future in space.

Brevity a posting in this type of format precludes going into these questions in this missive, but the follow on posting this will go into Sumida’s questions, using my own chapter in Toward a Spacepower Theory as the basis for my argument.

(you can read ahead if you want as the link to the spacepower theory book of essays is linked above).

How would you the reader answer these questions?

Part II, Broadening the Scope of a National Space Policy///


11 thoughts on “Space Abhors a Policy Vacuum; The NRC Report and The Need for a Broad National Space Policy

  1. Great questions to frame the problem!

    For me the space program was always supposed to represent our best efforts at the very edge of our abilities. Spaceflight is extremely hard and unforgiving and encompasses practically every field of human endeavor on a grand public scale. Therefore its scientific, engineering, cultural, and political impact should be huge. It should demonstrate in a visceral way what it means to be human: that we are built to explore and that the whole Universe is our birthright – that we have even broken the environmental shackles of evolution. To me, just the basic fact of us being a spacefaring species is worth at least some tiny fraction of our national treasure.

    Economically, America does best when it is constantly innovating. A vigorous government-funded space program, mostly solving difficult problems at an “oblique angle” to earthbound concerns, is a unique benefit to our country’s overall engineering capability – as long as there is a clear and direct flow from government efforts at that extreme edge back to industry. The goals should be so compelling that, especially, young creative minds will be drawn to the challenge. I would like to see NASA create small, competing engineering groups – hothouses – that design, develop, and *fly* systems which demonstrate the best paths to sustainable space exploration. This and a forward-looking national mindset are the chief economic benefits of an *open* national space program. There are good business cases for many areas of activity in space, which will grow as the technology becomes more robust and viable, and those should be pursued by private industry and be protected. But to let private vested interests bend our best national efforts to simple defence of those interests is a terrible mistake and, I believe, at the heart of our current malaise.

    Regarding defence and diplomacy, these areas are quite straightforward if the US is confidently driving ahead, unconcerned about our “standing” on the world stage. A strong country can afford to make the mistakes which are necessary to really push into the Universe. A strong country can be generous in sharing the fruits of this effort, especially the symbolic and cultural ones, devoid of propaganda. A strong country will not need to be obvious about its ability to protect its spacefaring assets, especially if the better part of the international community sees a benefit from those assets and wants to more directly share in them.

    Fundamentally of course we are all, all life from the beginning, brought into existance as travellers on a spaceship (as Buckminster Fuller wrote) – a magnificent orbiting ball created in the hell of the Cosmic Rain. A profound understanding of that fact is vital to our survival and perhaps the chief benefit of a proper space program. It would give me hope that ultimately we can steer ourselves outbound to flourish rather than stay behind to eventually perish.

      1. The soaring rhetoric reflects the basic reason for doing spaceflight. For me it should be a public demonstration of of how we tackle really hard problems at a great frontier. The goal of developing cost effective and robust spaceflight systems that open the solar system to human endeavors should be compelling for young engineers. Flying frequent missions that test these new technologies, developed by competing hot house engineering groups within NASA for moderate budgets, could be done in a very exciting way. Lots of outreach and the resulting technology made available to industry. You’d need to use effective management techniques so that nearly all the money was in the rocket (or ship or engine or “Refuelor” or Martian Resource Extractor or whatever). It might look like Space X except with twenty times the budget and not secret – done in a fishbowl. NASA would be a great place to work. You could do really risky things for a great cause. (But it might not be a permanent posting.) The few human missions flown would also be at the frontier of human experience so we could see what we are made of. Curiosity rovers would not fly unless they cost less than half a billion. Many much smaller missions would do more science than what we have now. This may seem like the disgraced “Faster, Better, Cheaper” but it is more like what the New Space companies are demonstrating: “Smarter.”

        Smart cats like you would have this dim sum of techniques to open up the solar system for profit, answering only to your shareholders. But the broad public would have its piece of the action – at the cutting edge where the soaring rhetoric belongs…

  2. I will add that the arguments in Mahan’s book “The Influence of Seapower Upon History 1660-1783”, in my opinion, are not only valuable but vital for intelligent discussion of U.S. national space policy. I’d always meant to read it but when Augustine came along, finally did, and it was a significant influence on my thinking.

    The language is dated but the thoughts are clear and very relevant to our current difficulties. And it is again in print and in electronic editions:

    1. Jeff

      Absolutely, there is an intimate relationship between economic power and military power, which is what Mahan was talking about. Interestingly his position that a nation is incomplete without the private sector on the sea is where we are at with space. However, just like the Panama Canal, the National railroad, and the early canals, there is a role for government for what used to be called “internal improvements” that facilitate commerce.

  3. Dennis,

    Good piece. I agree that a “scientific rationale” is inadequate for a civil space program. We need to articulate the compelling national interest for civil space. I think it is to establish the USA as a user and trailblazer in space utilization. We already have that for robotic satellites in cislunar (LEO, MEO and GEO) — such needs to be extended to human missions in cislunar space.

    Many do not want to acknowledge that if we are not present on the new frontier, we will have no voice in setting the rules. NASA’s Mars mania has kept us planning and dreaming imaginary human missions there instead of actually accomplishing and doing real missions in cislunar space. It is not a question of obtaining ever greater amounts of money — it is a question of long-term vision and the will to execute it.

    In contrast to current opinion, there is a genuine space race today — one to determine how society will be organized beyond low Earth orbit. It is long term, not a crash effort. I discuss it here: and in the “Spacepower” book you reference above.

  4. I don’t think you can answer those questions in the context of NASA. NASA is only one piece of national space policy, that of the civil space program. You can’t meaningfully address the important issues you raise concerning a broad national space policy (with accompanying goals and strategy) if the organization involved is tasked with only a small part of it.

    To do so runs the risk of finding ourselves in the same situation as our friends to the north in Canada. Their civil space agency, CSA, has the leadership role for all aspects of Canada’s space activities. So for example when the Canadian military wants to develop a satellite, historically it had to work through CSA and CSA would be the one running the show. The problem is that while CSA is given the job of coordinating all space activities, it doesn’t have the mission to conduct all space activities and its sight picture and culture is solely focused on things like exploration, science, and human spaceflight. Thus it doesn’t always execute to the best of its abilities when it is “leading” on projects outside of its sight picture, such as national security.

    So in my mind, you cannot ask NASA to come up with a “broad national space policy” and answer those questions because it does not represent all of the aspects of national space policy. You could task NASA with coming up with a national human spaceflight policy, or exploration policy, but if you wanted it broader you need to work with all the other space actors across the US government.

    1. If you talk to the wide swath of the American people, NASA = Space. It is only in the wonky world that there is any discrimination on this point. If you read my missive carefully, and the NRC report I agree that NASA does not come up with space polity at all. As an executive agency it executes the policies that the nation chooses, either through the administration, the congress, or both in consultation. We have no danger of the Canadian situation here. What we do need is a space policy that is more than a generic fluff ball that can give the agency the tools by which it can develop a tactical implementation for spaceflight goals.

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