From the defining event of Sputnik in 1957, I would contend that there have been five major themes—and only these five—that have been effective in justifying a large-scale spaceflight agenda:
- Scientific Discovery and Understanding
- National Security and military applications
- Economic Competitiveness and commercial applications
- Human Destiny/Survival of the Species
- National Prestige/Geopolitics
Specific aspects of these five rationales have fluctuated over time but remain the only reasons for the endeavor that have any saliency whatsoever.
The first and most common rationale for spaceflight is that an integral part of human nature is a desire for discovery and understanding. At one level, there exists the ideal of the pursuit of abstract scientific knowledge—learning more about the universe to expand the human mind—and pure science and exploration of the unknown will remain an important aspect of spaceflight well into the foreseeable future. This goal clearly motivates the scientific probes sent to all of the planets of the Solar System save Pluto. It propels a wide range of efforts to explore Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn projected for the twenty-first century. It energized such efforts as the Hubble Space Telescope, which has revolutionized knowledge of the universe since its deployment in 1990.
From the beginning, science has been a critical goal in spaceflight. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA stated that its mandate included “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” This idea has continually drawn verbal and fiscal support, but it has proven less important than the pursuit of knowledge that enables some practical social or economic payoff.
A second rationale of national defense and military space activity has also proved useful for spaceflight advocates. From the beginning, national leaders sought to use space to ensure U.S. security from nuclear holocaust. For instance, in 1952 a popular conception of the U.S.-occupied space station showed it as a platform from which to observe the Soviet Union and the rest of the globe in the interest of national security. The human spaceflight enterprise also gained energy from Cold War rivalries in the 1950s and 1960s as international prestige, translated into American support from non-aligned nations, found an important place in the space policy agenda. Human spaceflight also had a strong military nature during the 1980s when astronauts from the military services deployed reconnaissance satellites into Earth orbit from the Space Shuttle.
The third rationale of economic competitiveness and commercial applications also represent a useful role that the public accepts for spaceflight. Space technologies, especially the complex human spaceflight component, demand a skilled and well-trained work force whose talents are disseminated to the larger technological and economic base of the nation. The Apollo program, for example, served explicitly as an economic engine fueling the southern states’ economic growth. In recent years, the economic rationale has become stronger and even more explicit as space applications, especially communications satellites, become increasingly central for maintaining United States global economic competitiveness.
One of the key initiatives in this effort for human spaceflight is tourism, a major aspect that envisages hotels in Earth orbit and lunar vacation packages. While this has yet to find realization, it remains a tantalizing possibility for the twenty-first century.
The fourth imperative for spaceflight has revolved around human destiny. With the Earth so well known, advocates argue, exploration and settlement of the Moon and Mars is the next logical step in human exploration. Humans must question and explore and discover or die, advocates for this position insist. There is also a terrifying aspect to this rationale; humanity will not survive if it does not become multi-planetary.
Finally, national prestige and concern for geopolitical relations has dominated so many of the spaceflight decisions that it sometimes seems trite to suggest that it has been an impressive rationale over the years. Yet, there is more to it than that, for while all recognize that prestige sparked and sustained the space race of the 1960s we too often fail to recognize that it continues to motivate support for NASA’s programs. The United States went to Moon for prestige purposes, but it also built the Space Shuttle and embarked on the space station for prestige purposes as well.
Prestige may well ensure that no matter how difficult the challenges and overbearing the obstacles, the United States will continue to fly in space indefinitely. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, when it appeared that all reason for human spaceflight should be questioned, no one seriously considered ending the program. Instead, support for the effort came from all quarters.
Are these sufficient rationales to sustain spaceflight indefinitely? While Americans want the endeavor’s fruits too many are unwilling to invest in it. The rationales, as real as they might be, do not seem compelling enough to sustain an expansive program indefinitely and the effort has been stumbling. What compelling rationales do you see?