The Case for Becoming a Spacefaring Society:
Proposals for an Integrated US Space Policy
by Jonathan Goff and Ferris Valyn
Throughout history, mankind has learned to master the environments around itself—developing new technologies to harness the elements to better our lives, improve our health and wellbeing, protect ourselves from others, and learn more about our position in the universe. In the past, mastering new environments, such as the developing of seafaring or aeronautics, has lead directly to substantial benefits for those nations which have chosen to take the lead.
While we have started to explore the next great environment—outer space and the planetary bodies of our solar system—such exploration by itself will not lead to a spacefaring society. The development of a truly spacefaring society—one that can master and tame this new environment, and harness its resources—is a more compelling vision than exploration alone, one that holds the potential for far greater benefits to our nation.
We strongly urge the new administration to make the development of a spacefaring society the focus of our nation’s space policy.
What is a Spacefaring Society?
A truly spacefaring society embraces a much grander scope of space activity than currently exists:
• Ease of Travel: A spacefaring society has the capability to transport large numbers of people, goods, and materials to and from the earth’s surface, and between various in-space destinations, in a much safer, more frequent, and substantially more affordable manner than is current available.
• Personal Accessibility: In a spacefaring society, average people, not just the wealthy or highly trained astronauts can travel, work, and live in space. Such a society entails large numbers of people—eventually thousands—not just visiting space briefly, but actually living there, working, and raising families.
• Resource Utilization: A spacefaring society uses off-world resources and the characteristics of the space environment to provide materials, products, and services for the economic and social benefit of both earth-side and in-space communities.
• Off-world "Local" Economies: As our nation becomes a spacefaring society, "local" in-space markets will be developed and strengthened, providing a more robust and diverse space economy, which will provide more benefits earth-side as well.
What are the Benefits of Becoming a Spacefaring Society?
There are many benefits to our nation not just from becoming a spacefaring society, but also from the very process of getting to that point:
• Energy and Material Resources: In addition to current uses of space for earth observation, telecommunications, and national defense, the space environment potentially offers energy from space solar power, platinum-group metals for use in fuel cells, microgravity manufacturing, and many other resources to help solve terrestrial problems.
• New Jobs and Industries: Mastering the space environment and harvesting its resources will create high-tech jobs and new industries for serving both terrestrial needs and, eventually, other in-space markets.
• Technology Development and Affordable Space Science: In order to master the space environment, many new technologies will need to be developed, which will also have useful terrestrial applications. Those capabilities will also make space science missions more capable and more affordable.
• International Engagement: The process of becoming a spacefaring society will allow us to engage a number of other countries, with the potential to reduce international hostilities.
• Broadening Horizons: A spacefaring society can expand our horizons just as an Information Age society already has.
Spacefaring—Not Just a NASA Effort
Unfortunately, our current policy, with its over-reliance on NASA and under-reliance on private enterprise, does not encourage large-scale human space development.
• America cannot rely only on NASA: The challenge of becoming a spacefaring society is bigger than NASA by itself can manage. NASA should continue to play an important part in such efforts, but putting all our eggs in that basket will not lead to a spacefaring society.
• Private Initiative: A truly spacefaring society will only be possible as private investment and private commercial activity becomes the primary driver of space development. There must be room for innovation by private individuals and organizations.
To enable the development of a spacefaring society, the Obama administration should embrace the following key concepts to guide policy development
• Active Presidential involvement: The president and his senior staff must take an active role in space policy. The president must be prepared to use his bully-pulpit to galvanize the nation to become spacefaring, and be prepared to spend political capital to ensure that space development remains the primary focus of our civil space policy.
• Opening markets and encouraging private investment: The US governmental space policy should be to open markets and encourage private investment. This can be done via technological development (using prizes, research and technology maturation programs, and programs like COTS and COTS-D), competent regulation (like ITAR reform), direct public investments, and private investment incentives (like transferable tax credits or other economic tools).
• Buying Commercial: Policies should be implemented or, where existing, reinforced, requiring NASA and other government agencies to preferentially buy commercial goods and services wherever possible, rather than developing their own in-house solutions. The burden of proof should be on the government to explain why it cannot buy goods or services commercially, before it is allowed to use public resources for in-house capabilities.
• Broader Department involvement: Major departments within the Federal government outside of NASA must be engaged in space development. For instance, the Office of Space Commercialization should be fully funded and staffed, and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation should report directly to the Department of Transportation.
• Legal System: Increased investment in space will benefit from an improved legal framework for defining space property rights, contractual relationships and the allocation of risk.
• Public forum: Becoming a spacefaring society will require input from all parts of society, in a format that is directly accessible to the public. Therefore, we recommend re-establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council, making sure it is fully funded, and has the authority it needs to operate.
• Space Infrastructure Development: The national space policy should focus on encouraging the commercial development of infrastructure in space such as propellant depots, and other facilities that can lower the cost and increase the capabilities of future operations.
NASA will still have an important role within a government that is focused on becoming a spacefaring society:
• Principal Scientific Investigator: NASA’s science programs have produced incredible discoveries. These need to continue and be expanded.
• Advanced R&D: NASA’s focus must be on pushing the level for key spacefaring technologies to the point where private industry can commercialize them.
In addition to these recommendations, the recommendations submitted by the Space Frontier Foundation and X-Prize Foundation would fit well within a national policy that encourages large-scale space development. Also, many of the ideas proposed in the CAIB report and Aldridge Commission are also worth revisiting.
Refocusing both US space policy in general, and NASA’s role within it, will allow us to begin the process of becoming a spacefaring society. President-elect Obama ran on a change mandate. By extending that change mandate to include a change towards becoming a spacefaring society, President-elect Obama would enable space to better help the US and society at large.