O'Keefe: time is right for new space vision

Posted: November 22, 2003

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Credit: Jeff Foust
Now is the best time in the last 30 years for the United States to craft a new vision for its space program, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said this week.

O'Keefe, speaking Tuesday in Washington at a Capitol Hill forum organized by the Aerospace States Association (ASA) on the need for a national space vision, said that a confluence of events made today one of the best times since the end of the Apollo program to reshape the nation's space program.

"This is a rare moment in our history," O'Keefe said when asked about the development of a new national space policy. "Right now has never been more opportune. In the course of the last 30 years we've seen very few instances where it's lined up this carefully." O'Keefe didn't specify what combination of events led him to think this was an opportune time to develop a new space vision, but the Columbia accident and the soul-searching in its aftermath is thought by most observers to be central to the debate over a new space policy.

The need for a bold new national space vision has been a major topic of debate and speculation within space policy circles in Washington in recent weeks. Last year the Bush Administration started a "phased review" of national space policy, looking at specific areas of the existing national space policy. To date, though, that effort has generated only a single new policy, on commercial remote sensing, issued in April.

There have been indications, though, that the Bush Administration is pushing development of a new overall space policy. O'Keefe first mentioned the existence of an interagency group working on this policy during a Congressional hearing in September, and mentioned that Vice President Dick Cheney was leading that effort. Few other details about the new policy, including both its content and when it will be released, have come out since then, although some rumors suggest that the group is looking at taking national space efforts in a bold new direction, including possible human missions to the Moon or Mars. An announcement could come as soon as next month, at the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk.

One of the problems with developing a new vision for the space program that can serve as the basis for a new policy is that there is little consensus about what direction the space program should go. "There has always been unanimous agreement on the proposition that we must have a vision for what that next set of objectives should be, and no two people can agree on what it ought to be," he said. "This has been the continuing debate that has dominated society for 30 years."

Many have cited the Apollo program as an example of a vision that guided the US space program in its early years. O'Keefe pointed out, though, that this vision, and the broad support it received, was motivated by the Cold War confrontation with the former Soviet Union. "That was an objective everyone could get behind, motivated by a national imperative. It kept people really focused on the objective. At its core, that was the fundamental reason we did it."

"Now, how do you find something that everybody can rally around, that would be equally agreed to, unanimously, not just as a majority viewpoint?" O'Keefe asked. He didn't directly answer the question, but did point to research that showed that the great expeditions in human history have been motivated by national pride, sovereignty and the preservation of it, economic opportunity, or a national security imperative.

While President Bush is not believed to be actively engaged in the formulation of the policy, O'Keefe suggested in his comments that Bush is considering some space policy alternatives. "The President is working through a lot of different options and alternatives right now," O'Keefe said. "That's what he is deliberating on."

Congress is eagerly awaiting whatever vision for the space program the President signs off on. "To be successful, any vision will have to be concrete and financially sustainable, and it will have to have broad and deep support within the Administration, Congress and the public at large," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science Committee. "We all need to take this opportunity to put NASA, and the nation, on a path that will be challenging, exciting and probing, and at the same time realistic, sustainable and productive."

Meanwhile, NASA and the Administration will continue to get advice, solicited or not, about what the vision for the space program should be. Tim Huddleston, executive director of the ASA, said his organization has been working on its own concept of a national space vision, which it plans to release by the end of the year. "We're not just going to slide this under somebody's door," he said. "We're going to go out there and sell this thing. We're going to go around the country and sell a national vision. We are going to do our part."