Four meetings in Washington, D.C. over this past week addressed the future of space exploration, but no unified message emerged. There was a focus on the role of the entrepreneurial NewSpace private sector and public-private partnerships, but also on the traditional model of government contracting with major aerospace companies.

Integrating what all of the prominent individuals involved in these events wanted the public and policymakers to hear is challenging. That is not to imply that the organizers – a potpourri of government and non-government institutions — intended there to be an integrated message from four separate events, but in an era when a cohesive rationale for and approach to space exploration is needed, such an outcome would have been helpful.

Instead, it was more of a scattershot experience. Four events featuring a variety of new and established players arguing in favor of space exploration from various viewpoints. Here’s a quick rundown.

Beyond Earth: Removing Barriers to Space Exploration

Tuesday morning, three organizations joined forces for an event at the Newseum, a popular museum about the news located a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Bill Gerstenmaier, head of the NASA’s human exploration program, and representatives of four major contractors building NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft – ATK, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing and Lockheed Martin — made the case for SLS/Orion, which is being implemented through traditional government contracting methods.

The event was sponsored by the George C. Marshall Institute and TechAmerica’s Space Enterprise Council. The two often co-sponsor discussions about a broad range of civil, commercial and national security space topics. Joining them this time was the Coalition for Space Exploration, a group representing the major traditional aerospace companies (the four listed above plus Astrium Americas and Northrop Grumman).

The meeting’s basic messages were: SLS and Orion are progressing well, but sustainability is key – stable funding is needed; SLS and Orion can meet a variety of goals, not just sending people to Mars; and international cooperation is critical for exploration, but the United States must lead.

NASA-Bigelow Aerospace Media Availability

Tuesday afternoon, Gerstenmaier appeared again, this time with millionaire Robert Bigelow, President of Bigelow Aerospace (BA), in a hotel a few blocks from the Newseum. The purpose was to release a report written by BA, one of the NewSpace companies partnering with NASA using non-traditional mechanisms. This report, for example, was written as part of an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA.

The report presents Mr. Bigelow’s personal views on the government/private sector relationship in space exploration and the need for clarity on the issue of property rights in space, a discussion of the value of NASA’s commercial cargo model for future human space exploration, and a set of charts summarizing U.S. and foreign space systems already available or in development to implement human space exploration.

Two messages came across. First, BA wants to partner with NASA in space exploration, but its major interest is the Moon. BA is building inflatable modules that could be used as habitats on the lunar surface with the primary objective of mining the Moon. The second message was that BA plans to ask the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to begin a process to clarify, domestically and internationally, what the rules of the road will be for commercial activities on the Moon. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty precludes national sovereignty in space, meaning that no one owns the Moon, thereby raising arguments about whether commercial activities generally, or lunar resource extraction specifically, are precluded.

NASA, of course, is not planning to send people to the lunar surface, so the relevance of this report and its property rights theme to NASA’s goals is not entirely clear. Separately, however, NASA and BA have an agreement to attach one of BA’s inflatable modules to the International Space Station as a test, and the modules could be used for purposes other than lunar surface operations.

NASA Press Conference on the Success of COTS

The third event was Wednesday’s NASA press conference on the success of the commercial cargo (COTS) program. Officials from NASA and its COTS partners, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, gave themselves and each other a pat on the back. The overall theme was that this new public-private partnership paradigm is working.

Space Exploration: How and Why

Fourth was a meeting entitled “Space Exploration: How and Why” sponsored by Arizona State University (ASU) at the National Press Club on Friday. No current NASA officials were among the seven panelists, but four were former NASA officials who mostly have moved on to NewSpace companies or academia. The theme of this discussion was that the government cannot and should not do it all. Partnerships within and among government, the private sector, philanthropists and academia are needed to navigate the road ahead.

One of the former NASA officials was Lori Garver, NASA’s Deputy Administrator until two months ago. Unlike the others, she did not go to NewSpace or academia, but now heads the Air Line Pilots Association. Steve Isakowitz, Laurie Leshin, and Jon Morse were the other former NASA officials. Isakowitz was NASA’s Comptroller and later Deputy Associate Administrator (DAA) for Exploration; he is now President of Virgin Galactic. Leshin is another former DAA for Exploration who is now Dean of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Morse is the former Director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. He also joined RPI (he and Leshin are married), but left the university recently to found the BoldlyGo Institute to raise private/philanthropic funding for space science research. The other three panelists were the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Alex Saltman, Ball Aerospace’s Debra Facktor Lepore, and ASU Professor Ariel Anbar.

Moderator Jim Bell, an ASU professor and President of the Planetary Society, asked the seven panelists to respond to two questions. The first, “what is the value in exploring space,” directly flowed from the meeting’s title. The second question and the majority of the discussion dealt with the topic more indirectly, focusing on what academia should be doing to train scientists, engineers and other professionals for the space program of the future.

Garver responded to the “value” question by saying that the government’s job is to return benefit to the public because it is the public’s money. She cited Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s explanation that the country agrees to spend the kind of money needed for human space exploration because of “fear, greed and glory.” The government needs to invest in technologies to enable the private sector to flourish, and as for those who argue that politics should not play a role in decisions about the space program, she said the best way to get politics out of space is to open up markets.

Several of the panelists talked about the inspirational value of space exploration. Some reiterated the long standing argument that space exploration inspires young people to study STEM fields, which is important for the nation’s economic future. Isakowitz and Saltman, however, suggested that the NewSpace sector is inspiring people today more than NASA. Saltman said there is a sense in his generation that the space program has become “stale” and a growing recognition that NASA no longer is the only place to do innovative things. It is not about what excites “us,” he said, but what excites the 18-, 21- and 25-year-olds. Today’s paradigm where the government dominates the space enterprise is a Cold War artifact, he argued. Building telescopes to understand the universe were not government activities prior to the creation of NASA, he asserts, and while NASA is doing great things and should continue to do so, it is timely also to reinvigorate the prior model of relying on foundations and philanthropists.

Lepore, Leshin and Garver debated the importance of inspiration as a rallying cry for investing in space. Lepore proposed that inspiration be taken as a “given” and the focus instead be on explaining “why does what we do matter.” Leshin, a geologist who headed ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies before joining NASA, disagreed that inspiration should be taken for granted. She told the story of how the announcement that a Martian meteorite might contain fossils captured headlines in 1996 and inspired many scientists to study meteorites, previously a niche field, and inspired people around the world. Garver, who was an adviser to NASA Administrator Dan Goldin at the time, countered that it had been a headline for only one day and the next day everybody went back to what they were doing and it made little difference. Leshin rejoined that it changed the way scientists study Mars.

Other interesting sound bites from the event:

  • Lepore: “Curiosity is natural and we do an excellent job of squashing it.”
  • Anbar: “NASA was not able to capitalize on [the Martian meteorite announcement]. … It took three years for NASA to create the NASA Astrobiology Institute. … NASA as a government agency … is very slow to be able to do these things…”
  • Leshin: “The question for universities is — are we are going to be able and willing to think about different funding models [for science] where we are not just going to the government. … Are we going to be willing to fund raise … or bring our own resources to the table to partner [with others].”
  • Garver (in response to an audience question about whether NewSpace is just a “giant bubble” like the bubble, which “blew up”): “I’d love for us to be as successful as the bubble. … That took us to another level. While certainly there were winners and losers as there will be in commercial space, it takes you to another level and I think that’s the exciting point where we are at today.”
  • Saltman: “We are faced with a huge diversity of goals. We all … live in the shadow of Apollo,” a single goal that was led from the top. That is not the case now. “Some might see that as … a weakening of our collective will, but I think it’s a strength.”
  • Morse: “Space is the 21st and 22nd and 23rd Century laboratory for understanding where we are, where we came from, how did we get from the Big Bang to people, how does the universe work at a fundamental level…How did life begin on the Earth and evolve to modern times and, of course, are we alone in the universe.”
  • Isakowitz: After giving a speech at UCLA recently, “a young man came up to me and said ‘I knew I wanted to get into this industry when as a little kid I saw SpaceShipOne’.” (i.e., not because of Apollo, signaling a generational change)
  • Lepore: Industry and academia need to be partners “early and often and throughout” the life cycle from education and training of students through their careers.
  • Isakowtiz: Academia needs to develop an “exciting curriculum … in a very multidisciplinary way…. Whether you’re a widget expert or a policy maker, I do think people who have a big picture view are highly, highly valuable.”
  • Garver: “Innovation happens at the nexus of different fields,” which is why academia needs to focus on interdisciplinary approaches.

Marcia S. Smith