4 – What the Space and Aerospace Commissions said about America becoming spacefaring

In January, 2001, a Congressionally-directed
Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization released its report on recommended changes in U.S. space management.  This was followed in November, 2002, by a second Congressionally-directed Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry.  The former is now referred to as the Space Commission and the latter is referred to as the Aerospace Commission.  Both of these commissions reached important conclusions about America’s future as a spacefaring nation.


The Space Commission had thirteen members and was chaired by the Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld, until shortly before the report was issued. (He withdrew as chairman when he was nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense in the new Bush administration.)  Of the twelve remaining members, six were retired four-star Air Force, Army, and Navy officers.  One was a retired three-star Air Force general.  One was a retired senator.  A key observation is that this was not an outsider’s look at needed changes in the way the military addressed national security space. 


The Aerospace Commission had twelve members and was jointly chaired by the Honorable Robert S. Walker (retired member of the House of Representatives) and the Honorable F. Whitten Peters (previously served as Secretary of the Air Force).  In addition to Dr. Buzz Aldrin (member of the Apollo 11 crew and one of elite few who visited the Moon), the remaining members were a broad representation of the aerospace industry, aerospace workers, investment bankers, and space science community.  Like the Space Commission, these members had significant aerospace experience.


Commissions such as these are a very important part of the national decision process.  They can be the first official Congressional response to citizen complaints (petitions) to Congress about important problems that need to be addressed.  Unfortunately, the important conclusions and recommendations of these two Commissions were OBE’d by two unexpected events. 


While the Space Commission’s recommendations regarding Department of Defense organization were partially implemented–Rumsfeld did become the Secretary of Defense, after all–the events of Sept. 11, 2001 brought an immediate change in the focus of DoD.  As the military shifted to a warfighting stance, long-range planning weakened, especially with respect to investment in new technologies for future weapon systems and related logistics infrastructure.  As a result, most of the Space Commission’s findings regarding technological and operational capabilities were not effectively addressed. 


A similar tragic event befell the recommendations of the Aerospace Commission, at least with respect to space.  This was the early 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew–less than four months after the commission’s report was released.  As with the aftermath of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, all government attention was focused on discovering the details and underlying causes of the loss.  The nation’s needs for its future in space–the focus of the Aerospace Commission–became irrelevant to the discussions of what to do in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy.


With this understanding of the nature of the Commissions and the subsequent events in mind, it is important to look back at what spacefaring-related findings and conclusions were made by these two Commissions.  These conclusions are just as relevant today.


Space Commission:


In the Executive Summary, immediately after the paragraph explaining the purpose of the Commission, the report states:


“The Commission unanimously concluded that the security and well being of the United States, its allies and friends depend on the nation’s ability to operate in space. (Emphasis added)


“Therefore, it is in the U.S. national interest to:

• Promote the peaceful use of space.

Use the nation’s potential in space to support its domestic, economic, diplomatic and national security objectives. (Emphasis added)

• Develop and deploy the means to deter and defend against hostile acts directed at U.S. space assets and against the uses of space hostile to U.S. interests.”


In the first section, A New Era of Space, the first paragraph is:


“The first era of the space age was one of experimentation and discovery.  Telstar, Mercury and Apollo, Voyager and Hubble, and the Space Shuttle taught Americans how to journey into space and allowed them to take the first tentative steps toward operating in space while enlarging their knowledge of the universe.  We are now on the threshold of a new era of the space age, devoted to mastering operations in space.” (Emphasis added)


In the subsection, Toward the Future:


“Mastering near-earth space operations is still in its early stages.  As mastery over operating in space is achieved, the value of activity in space will grow.  Commercial space activity will become increasingly important to the global economy. Civil activity will involve more nations, international consortia and non-state actors. U.S. defense and intelligence activities in space will become increasingly important to the pursuit of U.S. national security interests.”


In the subsection, U.S. Objectives in Space: “How the U.S. develops the potential of space for civil, commercial, defense and intelligence purposes will affect the nation’s security for decades to come.”


In Section 4, Advance U.S. Technological Leadership:


“To achieve national security objectives and compete successfully internationally, the U.S. must maintain technological leadership in space.  This requires a healthy industrial base, improved science and technology resources, an attitude of risk-taking and innovation, and government policies that support international competitiveness. In particular, the government needs to significantly increase its investment in breakthrough technologies to fuel innovative, revolutionary capabilities. Mastery of space also requires new approaches that reduce significantly the cost of building and launching space systems. The U.S. will not remain the world’s leading spacefaring nation by relying on yesterday’s technology to meet today’s requirements at tomorrow’s prices.” (Emphasis added)


When I first (eagerly) read the report in early 2001, the two points that jumped out to me were the opening paragraph’s conclusion about the need for the nation to have the ability to “operate in space” and the following statement, “We are now on the threshold of a new era of the space age, devoted to mastering operations in space.” 


While the Space Commission’s report addressed many important issues related to the management and organization of national security space, when I read these two I was very encouraged that the opening comments were, in my interpretation, about future spacefaring logistics capabilities. The key phrases–“operate in space,” “use the nation’s potential in space,” “mastering operations in space,” and “mastery of space”–all address future spacefaring logistics capabilities. 


I concluded that the Commission members recognize that the U.S. is not yet a true spacefaring nation.  Further, they anticipate a new era of the space age, led by those nations working to become truly spacefaring.  Finally, the Commission members recognize that, for the U.S. to remain a leader in space, this requires a national investment in new technologies and capabilities, with reducing the cost of building and launching space systems being among the first in terms of priority. 


Aerospace Commission:


 While the Aerospace Commission’s focus was on the aerospace industrial base, like the Space Commission report, the Aerospace Commission also reported a key overarching conclusion about the nation’s future in space:


“The Commission concludes that the nation will have to be a space-faring nation to be the global leader in the 21st century—our freedom, mobility, and quality of life will depend on it.  America must explore and exploit space to assure national and planetary security, economic benefit and scientific discovery. At the same time, the United States must overcome the obstacles that jeopardize its ability to sustain leadership in space.”


As discussed in blog entry 3, four years later these views about America’s important future as a spacefaring nation were captured in the updated U.S. National Space Policy.

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