National Commission on Space

In 1981, after the initial flight of the Space Shuttle, NASA began to formulate plans for its next large human spaceflight program. During the next two years, the space agency laid the foundation for a presidential decision in support of a space

station. NASA Administrator James Beggs regularly justified the station as the “next logical step” for the civilian space program. When policy makers outside the space agency inquired what an orbiting laboratory was a step toward, NASA officials answered that there were a great many missions that a space station could support. NASA, however, resisted pressure from President Reagans Science Advisor, George Keyworth, to link the station with an eventual human mission to Mars. Beggs, remembering the negative outcome of the STG s endorsement of an expedition to the red planet, decided that the timing was not right to associate the space station with such an undertaking.[67]

In 1984, Congress adopted legislation requiring President Reagan to appoint a National Commission on Space to develop a long-term agenda for the American space program. In March of the following year, Reagan chose Thomas Paine to lead a commission that included Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, and UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick. The selection of Paine, who had spent the past 15 years arguing in favor of an aggressive space program, almost ensured a report that supported an expansive future for NASA. The 15-member commission, which held public hear­ings to solicit ideas, worked for over a year to prepare its report—which was com­pleted a few days after the 28 January 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident. This unfortunate coincidence limited any potential short-term impact the report might have had. In May 1986, Bantam Books published it in a glossy volume entitled Pioneering the Space Frontier,[68] Subtitled “An exciting vision of our next fifty years in space,” the report of the National Commission on Space was dedicated to the seven astronauts that had died in the tragic Challenger disaster.[69] That catastrophe had focused much attention on NASA’s shortcomings at the same time the commis­sion was offering a bold new vision for the future of the space program. Despite a skeptical reaction to the study from Congress, the media, and the public, the report had a significant impact on human spaceflight strategic planning in the years after 1986.[70]

The members of the National Commission on Space stated that the primary goal of the study was to provide a rationale that would set the American space program on a path to “lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advanc­ing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.” To achieve those objectives, the commission put forward specific recommendations that outlined a logical approach for the future of the space agency. These proposals supported three overarching national goals for the civilian space program: earth and space science; human exploration and settlement of the solar system; and the development of space commerce.[71]

The section of the report dealing with exploration, prospecting, and settling the solar system set out a coherent phased approach for human spaceflight in the 21st century. The first phase entailed sending robotic probes to discover and characterize resources that could be used for later voyages to Mars. During the second phase, more sophisticated missions would be sent Marsward to obtain and return samples to Earth. The third phase would involve robotic and human exploration of the red planet. During this final phase, permanent Martian outposts would be established to support ongoing exploration. The overall tenor of these recommendations sug­gested that human extraction of chemical and mineral resources on the red planet would be one of the primary long-term goals of the space program.[72]

To support its bold vision for the future of the space program, the commis­sion recommended the establishment of seven demonstration programs to advance key technologies for expansion into the solar system, including: flight research on aerospace plane propulsion and aerodynamics; advanced rocket vehicles; aero-brak­ing for orbital transfer; long-duration closed-ecosystems (including water, air, and food); electric launch and propulsion systems; nuclear-electric space power; and space tethers and artificial gravity. The report further stated that the most impor­tant action the government could take to open the space frontier was to drastically reduce transportation costs within the inner solar system. The group advocated completing a new space transportation architecture—including an aerospace plane, cargo vehicle, and space transfer vehicle—that could replace the Shuttle fleet by the turn of the century. A next generation aerospace plane would be capable of provid­ing flexible, routine, and economical passenger service into low Earth orbit (LEO). A large cargo vehicle would be capable of delivering payloads into LEO at a cost of $200 per pound. Finally, a space transfer vehicle would be “developed to initiate a ‘Bridge Between Worlds.’”[73]

The National Commission on Space concluded that following its fifty-year stra­tegic plan for the future of the space program would have three tangible benefits, “‘pulling-through’ advances in science and technology of critical importance to the

Nation’s future economic strength and national security.. .providing direct economic returns from new space-based enterprises that capitalize upon broad, low-cost access to space, and…opening new worlds on the space Frontier, with vast resources that can free humanity’s aspirations from the limitations of our small planet of birth.”[74] The commission calculated that to accomplish the goals its report advocated, the annual NASA budget would have to increase threefold—to approximately $20 bil­lion a year. John Noble Wilford wrote in his book Mars Beckons that Pioneering the Space Frontier received a frosty reception because “its far-reaching proposals seemed to bear too much of a resemblance to science fiction to be embraced by political leaders. And the more modest recommendations tended to get lost in the ‘Bridge Between Worlds’ imagery of Buck Rogers spaceships.” During the mid-1980s, the American public was not highly receptive to long-range, costly space endeavors. As a result, both the White House and Congress largely disregarded the report of the National Commission on Space.[75]

Despite the negative reaction to the study, momentum began to build for a presidential decision making exploration of Mars the next objective of the human spaceflight program. One reason for endorsing this goal was the increased mission planning that the Soviets were undertaking to set the stage for an expedition to the red planet early in the 21st century. In the coming year, a dozen major publications advocated setting Mars exploration as the primary future goal of NASA—ranging from the New York Times to The New Republic. Support for Mars exploration was far from unanimous, however, with prominent space policy experts arguing for more limited programs aimed at better space science, earth science, and a permanent return to the Moon. In the face of these conflicting viewpoints, NASA decided to conduct its own study of options for the future of the space program.[76]