I met with 15 other people in Austin on July 18th to conduct an Obama for President Space Policy Platform meeting, right after our Space Policy panel at Netroots Nation Convention. Our crew included Netroots activists, aerospace enthusiasts from the Austin area, and even former NASA officials. After several hours of debate, and dozens of follow-up emails among the group, we honed in on three space policy platform planks for the DNC / Barack Obama Campaign.
While there was not complete consensus within our group on the three policy planks below, we got really close, and I feel very good about what we came up with… It captures what I personally believe our space policy should be based upon under the next Administration.
From the glory days of Apollo to today’s Mars rovers and the International Space Station, the United States has always been a global leader in the peaceful uses of outer space. This leadership is now in jeopardy, and US space policy must be overhauled as space becomes a vital and increasingly competitive new economic frontier. Specifically:
1. Space and NASA are vital to dealing with the intertwined problems of energy independence and climate change, including both monitoring and finding solutions.
NASA collects more data about Earth’s environment than any other single entity on our planet. NASA has also historically incubated new technologies that are vital to clean renewable energy such as solar cells, batteries, and lightweight composite materials. The resource of space solar power may even offer us a long term, large scale solution to the problem of energy independence. However, under the Bush Administration, the “Earth” was removed from NASA’s mission statement and the findings of NASA’s leading climate change researchers were censored. Going forward, NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth must be fully funded, and the NASA must be explicitly called upon play a central role in our nation’s understanding and mitigation of climate change.
2. The United States, in cooperation with other nations and private industry, must reduce the cost of reliable access to space in order to secure national infrastructure, unlock new economic opportunities, and enable sustainable human exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit.
The US space program has been an incubator for new technologies and industries and a catalyst for technical education and inspiration since its inception. A renewed commitment to human spaceflight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will provide our nation with access to vital new resources and economic opportunities, enhance our understanding of our planet and ourselves, and engender a new era of peaceful cooperation with other nations. In order to unlock these opportunities, our nation must direct more of its existing investment in space to the development of far cheaper and more reliable access to LEO than we currently have, catalyzing innovation by private space entrepreneurs, and must work in close peaceful partnership with other nations in renewing human space exploration beyond LEO.
3. The President and Congress must have direct and independent advice on space and science policy issues.
Too often our nation’s space and science policy has been determined more by political lobbying by competing stakeholders than by technical merit and the National interest. The President’s space policy should be informed by regular and direct input from a panel of experts capable of balancing the complex overlapping interests, roles, and policy agendas of civilian, military, and commercial space actors. Further, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should be appointed an assistant to the president, and given the access and attention commensurate with that rank. Finally, the Office of Technology Assessment should be reestablished to provide unbiased input to Congress on scientific and technical issues.
Commentary about Plank #1:
There was nearly ubiquitous consensus that the contributions that our space program can and has made to meeting the challenges of energy independence, understanding and mitigating climate change need to be paramount in terms of funding and attention in the space policy of the next Administration. However, there was considerable debate about whether that work should continue be done under the auspices of NASA itself (as well as other Federal Agencies), or under a new umbrella Federal “Earth Systems Engineering” organization that draws resources from NASA, DoE, NOAA, etc., as has been suggested recently by a number of former Federal officials.
Commentary about plank #2:
I’m a proponent of sustained human exploration beyond LEO, though I defer on judgements about whether Earth –> Moon –> Mars or Earth –> Asteroids or Earth –> ISS –> Mars etc. are the optimal architecture. What IS important to me is that human exploration beyond LEO does not supersede the Mission to Planet Earth budget and focus, and that the human exploration effort generates significant return in terms of inspiration, education, and technological innovation. The best way I see to do this, to my mind, is to a) design an architecture that has a limited budget and thus requires requires significant technological breakthroughs in order to succeed but that therefore once it succeeds, is sustainable, and b) aggressively employ COTS type incentives so that it doesn’t just become a jobs program to maintain large payrolls for large aerospace contractors with no assurance of success, and c) by committing to conducting exploration beyond LEO in partnership with China as well as Russia and other nations.
Commentary about plank #3:
The three major areas of policy concern for the group appeared to be: 1) CATS (Cheap Access to Space), 2) renewed focus of our space industry’s resources on the Earth’s environment, and 3) efficient human exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit. Even among our small group it proved DIFFICULT to It is DIFFICULT to harmoniously come up with a policy to achieve these goals concurrently, and we didn’t even give much consideration to military space. Hence our recommendation that the next Administration create or revive a body like the National Space Council to work through the complex policy agendas of the myriad stakeholders in civilian, military, and commercial space, in order to arrive at a more coherent and effetive integrated space policy strategy from which the President and Congress could draw.