Although I quit my professional space career a while ago (4 years), the flame of space exploration still burns strongly in me. And will always will as stars are certainly mapped in my DNA. But now more even so after the recent set of events surrounding the arrival to Mars and the first steps on its surface of the life-seeking rover “Curiosity”. In the midst of such excitement, I found out about the National Academy of Science being conducting a public consultation, as an independent body, in order to improve NASA’s strategic direction for the years to come, as well as its communication strategy in the eyes of its stakeholders. Of course this gave me a wonderful chance to contribute again to the cause with my own view of how NASA can seize the opportunities arising in front of it, take space exploration to the next level and get us all a bit closer to our Dreams of Space 😉
Here I share with all of you, my friends, my inputs to NASA:
In the FY2012 appropriations bill that funds NASA, Congress requested an independent study of NASA’s strategic direction. The study is being conducted by a committee of the National Research Council.
The study statement of task directs the committee to “recommend how NASA could establish and effectively communicate a common, unifying vision for NASA’s strategic direction that encompasses NASA’s varied missions.” Strategic direction can be thought of as the steps NASA needs to take over time to accomplish its vision and mission.
NASA’s Strategic Direction Committee is reviewing a large amount of published material, including the law that created NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, most recently amended in 2010) and NASA’s 2011 Strategic Plan, which begins with NASA’s statement of its vision and mission.
The current NASA vision is “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind”, and its mission is to “drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.” The NASA Strategic Plan also states that NASA’s current direction lays “the groundwork for a sustainable program of exploration and innovation. This new direction extends the life of the International Space Station, supports the growing commercial space industry, and addresses important scientific challenges while continuing our commitment to robust human space exploration, science, and aeronautics programs.”
The Strategic Directions Committee is listening to a wide variety of experts in aeronautics and space science and technology, space policy and programs, and communications strategy, and it wants to hear from other stakeholders, including the public, as well.
The committee invites your responses to the nine questions listed below.
This website will be available for comments only through August 17, 2012. The response to each question is limited to 300 words so that the committee can efficiently collate and analyze your responses. To gauge how much you can write, this introduction totals 342 words. The responses each person submits, along with the author’s name and institution will be available for viewing at the NASA’s Strategic Direction Committee website.
3. NASA’s Vision, Mission and Strategic Direction
What is your understanding and opinion of NASA’s current vision, mission and strategic direction? If you think NASA’s vision, mission and strategic direction should different from the above, please state what they should be and why.
There are many parts that I like about NASA’s vision, mission and strategic direction: that it will benefit ALL humankind, that it focuses on applicable science and technology that can really help us improve ourselves and our relationship with Planet Earth. Given the current alarming environmental state of the world, we really have to direct our efforts to finding alternative lifestyles as individuals and species, and there the findings from space can help a lot. I think NASA stays in a privileged position to apply all it discovers out there (e.g. compared planetology) down here (fighting Climate Change, preserving biodiversity…), as well as to show the beauty and marvels of Earth to kids and everybody else so as to raise awareness and trigger action. These are the scientific challenges we really have to address, but for that, the perspective from space is vital. In this way, I’d orientate NASA’s mission towards our Earth, but using knowledge from Space. It could read like: “contribute to the environmental protection of the Earth Ecosystem by applying the science and technology developed in the exploration of Space”. Consequently, the field of Earth Observation and Earth Sciences in general could increase its importance within NASA’s mix of realms. I also like the part where it refers to supporting the private space industry. This should be emphasized more as the challenges ahead will surely demand for a mixed private-public partnership and business model. Lastly, I’d state explicitly clear in the vision and mission that NASA’s main target is the exploration of Space, especially by humans. If preserving our miracle planet should be the ultimate mission of NASA, the pathway there must be found in the stars and planets and it must be walked by us, curious humans.
In your opinion, should NASA’s annual budget (currently about $18 billion) be substantially increased, be substantially decreased, or remain at about the current level – and why? [In responding to this question, assume that an increase in NASA’s budget would require reduction(s) elsewhere in the federal budget and, conversely, that a decrease in NASA’s budget would enable increased funding elsewhere in the federal budget.]
Overall, I’d increase the budget for science in general (maybe double?) and that includes NASA’s but also other agencies’. If I had to reduce it then from elsewhere, my pick will undoubtedly be first, the military and then fossil fuel subsidies. If, as mentioned, we are to give our own world a priority, given the magnitude and complexity of the environmental issues we are facing (and related social ones), we are going to be needing multidisciplinary approaches only to be achieved by a diverse pool of experts. So I’d reinforce the cooperation among agencies and disciplines in pursuit of such mission. NASA should more work hand in hand, for instance, with climate experts, biodiversity conservationists, sociologists, etc. And all of them with businessmen and women (entrepreneurs especially) to translate science into down-to-Earth economic activities that will really change the way we live. Within NASA itself, I’d increase the relative importance of the Earth Observation field and Earth Sciences in general for the reasons stated before.
5. Human Component of Space Exploration
In your opinion, what is the relative value of a space exploration program (to low-Earth orbit and beyond) that includes humans as compared to a space exploration program that is conducted exclusively with robotic, uncrewed spacecraft and rovers? That is, to what extent does a human presence add value to a space exploration program, and is it worth the cost and risk?
To me, as I said, NASA’s end goal should be the very exploration of our inherent curiosity as humans to reach for new challenges (and dreams) as a species. That of course concerns our ultimate frontier: space. In this sense, NASA’s programs and activities in space should be aligned and in pursuit of these objectives. That is the case with unmanned robotic spacecrafts and rovers. They should be regarded as precursors to eventual human travels and settlements, aimed at exploring and preparing the terrain for us to take over when the moment is right (enough knowledge, sufficient budget, need for human capabilities, interest for our civilization, etc.) Robots nonetheless should also be given credit for the great science they can do and so, when humans are unnecessary they represent a magnificent cost-effective alternative, but always bearing in mind that the real end goal is human exploration and so every step has to be taken in this direction. However, when conditions on Earth are such that human exploration is compromised (budget, risks, more pressing problems to take care of on our planet, etc.), this one can be delayed (never fully discarded forever) and continue navigating the big space with our robotic friends while a window of opportunity for us emerges.
6. NASA Communications
Do you feel that NASA is very good, moderately good or not very good at communicating its vision, mission and strategic direction to its stakeholders, including the public? Why? How do you obtain information about NASA (TV news, websites, Twitter or other social media, etc.). If you think NASA’s communication strategy needs improvement, what specifically do you recommend? Why?
I think NASA, overall, does a good job at communicating its achievements to the general public. Its major discoveries and events (launch of a new mission, finding of water on Mars, striking new images from the Hubble…) make headlines in the mass media and reach out to millions. On that account, NASA, as a brand, is well-known and highly esteemed worldwide. It is associated with great science and advanced technology. That I can testify for as, any time I tell somebody I collaborated with NASA, their eyes open widely and they seize their chance to satisfy their curiosity by posing all sorts of questions (is there life out there? did we really get to the moon?) Compared, for instance, with the European Space Agency, which is awfully unknown among regular europeans and even scientists, NASA rocks, its outreach efforts really do the job. However, on the specific matter of communicating its mission and direction, the verdict is not as clear. I’m not sure the scientific community, let alone the general public, know so well what NASA wants to achieve. I didn’t myself before reading the statements here. With SETI the story is different. It is less known but everybody knows it searches for aliens. I think a more directional strategy has to be implemented to let everybody know of NASA’s true end goal of enhancing stewardship of Earth by learning from Space. Hence, I’d put more efforts on raising awareness on environmental matters and how space exploration contributes to sorting them out, and the uniqueness and beauty of life on Earth and what we all can do to keep it that way for future generations. Scientists and green entrepreneurs have to be the cool heroes that kids grow up looking up to and there NASA can do a whole lot.
7. International Collaboration
Should the United States conduct future human space exploration efforts on its own, like the Apollo program, or should the United States conduct such efforts as collaborative international efforts, like the International Space Station? If you recommend the latter approach, should the United States insist on taking the lead role? Why?
I love this question. As a non-american (Spanish) I admire with my full heart what NASA has been able to achieve. It has made me dream of stars and ETs ever since I was a little boy. However, I’ve always felt it was all done in the name of humankind as science and Space belong to no one but to us all. That said, the USA has been historically the one nation pushing space exploration forward. We all recognize that and are deeply thankful to America. Be that as it may, things are different now. We find ourselves at a crossroad in time, with the challenges ahead in the adventure of space too grand for a single nation to overcome. The ISS has set a great example on how international cooperation is the way forward. It’s not being given sufficient credit, and even less publicity, for what it has meant not only to the space venture and science in general, but to humanity as whole. It has proved that, when we want (and its just matter of will really), we can cooperate and effectively work together towards our common good, accomplishing great tasks along the way, tasks unreachable for each us separately. Space has indeed helped us prove that there is only one people as one planet and destiny there are. So yes, let’s build on this ground-breaking experience to fully enter the international era of space exploration. The USA can take the lead role as long as it is necessary (you guys are very good at it), naturally stepping back when others step in and vice versa. What is important is to question ourselves about where we want to go as a species and then putting our minor differences aside, focus on our complementarities and move forward as one.
8. Commercial Space Ventures
Should NASA and the federal government continue current efforts to encourage the development of a commercial space industry as is, or should it either curtail or expand these efforts? What specific actions would you recommend? Why?
Yes, unquestionably so. As much as international cooperation is required for the next phase of the space exploration to take off, so is the participation of the private industry. We cannot do away with it and we should not. The power of business to transform our world (for the good and for the bad) is well known. The same can logically be expected for Space. It has certainly much to offer and to provide to entrepreneurs and businessmen and women across our world. But, as it has been the case on Earth, we also need to be vigilant and ensure that the participating businesses besides seeking their own benefit they must first and foremost pursuit the common good, respect Space and its elements and safeguard our planet and its people. I now work as an entrepreneur adviser and know all very well this philosophy: we have to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs in a way so that they undertake sustainable and responsible businesses and projects. Same drill with space entrepreneurs. NASA and a future “international space coalition” (maybe within the UN framework?) do have to work hand in hand with businesses, as inseparable partners, but also with the rest of the stakeholders (just as in this survey) like civil society organizations, educational institutions, other scientific bodies … and the general public. As I do with my dear green entrepreneurs, the future has to be co-created or will not be. Given the magnitude of the challenges we are facing, we need everybody to take part in designing, implementing and improving solutions. Space is no different, our quest for the next frontier will only be fulfilled if we bring all players on board. And we, dreamers and pioneers of Space, have to take the leading role and get the rest engaged.
9. Other Remarks
Are there any additional comments regarding NASA’s strategic direction that you would like to make?
Yes, I must make a vital remark for NASA to analyze my responses adequately and place them in the right context. Although I’m filling this public form as a “normal” citizen, member of the “civil society” or “general public” stakeholder category if you want, I am not so. I was directly involved, both on a professional and personal level, in the field of Space Sciences, having worked at institutions the likes of the Paris Observatory, the SETI Institute, UC Berkeley or the French Space Agency. This means I am biased in a way. I’m fully convinced myself of the need to explore Space both for its own sake and to improve our lives on Earth. So maybe I’d rather fall in the “experts” or “scientific community” category. But, above all, what I wanted to say is that you guys need to reach to the non-experts, the true general public. Because it is easy to get people like me to help you out with our feedback, but it less so to get a priory non interested individuals to do that kind of work. And you must get to them first to know what society really thinks about NASA and where they would like it to head to, and then also to get them engaged in the space adventure. Engagement means a lot more than just skimming through news related to the last rover mission on Mars, it means taking time to provide this kind of information and whole lot more. But this is a good first stone along the road, a good test to see how NASA really inspires people when it comes to real participation. It’s a hard task (I suffer it myself everyday in my job) but we can do it together, people 😉