Many visions for our future in space have been presented in government and academic proposals (from NASA and other organizations), business plans of companies (e.g., Bigelow Aerospace), and, of course, science fiction (of which 2001: A Space Odyssey is a famous example). There is an abundance of visions, but having any of them catch on to the point of gaining the support needed for successful implementation is a challenge. Some visions have been quite grand, in the hope that the needed support could be rallied, while others have been more modest, in the hope that sufficient support would be easier to obtain. So far, none of the visions for major utilization of space (in particular, human presence beyond low Earth orbit) have achieved the needed support. A good question to ask is: Why haven’t any of these visions for space caught on? A related question is: Why should we implement any space vision?
In March 2011, Buzz Aldrin (the second person to walk on the moon) and Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist and author) joined forces to promote a Unified Space Vision to continue expanding our presence in space to “ensure the perpetuation of the species” with a schedule of increasingly ambitious missions, but utilizing current technology rockets so that extensive development programs are not needed. An alternate vision, presented in a 2009 report by George Abbey (former director of the Johnson Space Center) and others, recommends that NASA focus on energy and environmental concerns. These efforts are seeking to develop a compelling vision to obtain the necessary support. What is clear is that they haven’t quite succeeded in doing so.
The visions that are presented tend to address how we might go about performing the tasks necessary for the vision, giving cursory attention to addressing why we might want to achieve the vision. Speaking as an engineer, this is understandable considering that most of the visions are devised by engineers and we like to figure out how to do things, so determining how a vision might be accomplished is the most fun part. While determining how is a necessary part of implementing a vision, and showing that it is feasible, without a clear statement of why it is important and what concerns are addressed by that vision and how it addresses them better than other visions, it will be difficult to acquire the support needed to accomplish the vision. This, I believe, is the crux of the matter. Let’s consider the Apollo program and the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The motivation was clear–the threat felt by the US–and President Kennedy presented his proposal at the end of a long speech to Congress about national security. The vision was to definitively show that the US had greater capabilities than the USSR. So, Apollo addressed a broadly felt concern, and did so in a way that avoided a direct conflict, a real possibility at the time. Those who suggest that a new space race–this time perhaps with China–or the threat of an asteroid impact should be the basis of a new vision for space are attempting to use the same basic motivation that was successful for the Apollo program, fear of an imminent threat. While Apollo successfully relied on this motivation, a serious drawback was also revealed, namely, with our success the motivation ended. In other words, fear can be a Vision 20 reviews successful motivation for a short-term achievement. But space proponents want long-term, ongoing development of space-and that is how we can attain the greatest benefit-so a vision based on a different motivation is needed. Finding clarity for such a vision is the task we face.
When President Bush presented his Vision for Space Exploration, in 2004 in the wake of the shuttle Columbia accident a year earlier, he based it on a motive which is open-ended: “the desire to explore and understand” to bring “tangible benefits that improve our lives in countless ways.” This motive is much more supportive of a long-term vision, but gaining the needed support proved to be difficult.
There is another factor that provided a framework for the Apollo program, which seems to also be vital for such successful achievement. Kennedy’s pronouncement that advancing into space “deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again” expressed a higher purpose. The thrust (pun intended) of the program was oriented around peaceful cooperative pursuits (even though in a competitive “race”) and that higher purpose guided our actions, including the final Apollo mission to link with a Soyuz spacecraft of the Soviet Union. Four decades after Apollo 11 landed on the moon there is just as much need for peaceful cooperation. While current issues can provide motivation, a clearly-understood higher purpose helps to focus and guide our efforts. This is also evident in the survival of the space station program, which was almost canceled by Congress in 1993, but survived with the inclusion of Russia as a partner. The higher purpose was the promotion of peaceful interaction with Russia following the end of the Cold War.
So, what can we learn from all this? For the greatest chance of success for endeavors such as advancing into space in a long-term, ongoing manner, the vision must clearly address broadly-felt concerns of the public, in ways that provide benefits that other approaches do not. The motivation for the vision must promote long-term efforts, and the vision must incorporate a higher purpose that guides our actions and calls us to express our best. Peaceful international cooperation remains a desirable higher purpose for a vision of space development, though other purposes may also be well-suited to guide our efforts, but cooperation to do what? Public concerns that may provide a suitable basis, and approaches to international cooperation that may enable the greatest advances, are addressed in the next article in this series.