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As Atlantis Glides to Its Final Landing, What Comes Next?

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space shuttle Atlantis in Earth orbit With all of the discussion about future U.S. efforts in human spaceflight precipitated by final flight of the space shuttle, too little attention has been given to how international cooperation might factor into that future. I guess that is appropriate, given the iconic nature of the shuttle as an exemplar of U.S. capability. But it is worth noting that the STS-135 mission was international in character. It was enabled by a Canada-built remote manipulator and an Italian-built logistics module; the mission provisioned a 15-nation International Space Station. Also, for the time being, the U.S. will have to depend for a few years on cooperation with another country, in this case Russia, for astronaut access to the ISS. International cooperation is an integral part of today’s spaceflight enterprise; it should come even more essential to future human exploration.

By following the reasoning of the 2009 Augustine Committee, the Obama administration has imposed unneeded constraints on future space planning. The committee concluded that future NASA budgets could only support the development of a new heavy lift launcher and a new spacecraft for deep space expeditions, not also a vehicle to land on another planetary surface, especially the moon. This led the committee to propose a "flexible path" for exploration that bypassed the moon on its way to other distant destinations. The Obama administration embraced this perspective, and President Obama on April 15, 2010, announced that reaching a near-earth asteroid by 2025 should be the initial goal of the next round of human exploration, and that a return to the moon would not be a high priority U.S. objective.

To put it politely, visiting an asteroid as the initial destination for exploration has not excited the American public, indeed, there is a pervasive sense despite the president’s announcement that NASA is planning to build "a rocket to nowhere." Congress in its 2010 NASA authorization bill gave priority to operations in the Earth-moon "cislunar" space, including the lunar surface, but did not mandate development of a landing vehicle to reach that surface. The uncertainty over future destinations is one of the reasons NASA’s future is so unclear as the shuttle program draws to an end.

It does not have to be this way. In another part of its report, the Augustine Committee said, "If the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and the benefits of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant accomplishments could follow. Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today's multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global financial and technical resources, and enhance the exploration enterprise." This counsel has so far been ignored. There has been no pressure on NASA from the White House to actively incorporate potential international contributions in its planning, and NASA on its own has not yet done so. Traditional U.S. partners in Europe, Canada, and Japan—and perhaps new partners in emerging space powers—are standing by with increasing impatience, with the hope that they could contribute to a U.S.-led post-shuttle, post-ISS exploration effort. They seem willing to accept U.S. space leadership, if only it were offered.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says in many of his speeches that the U.S. cannot go it alone in the future. He is certainly correct in this regard. But neither does he have top-level political support from the Obama administration to engage national partners in serious discussions nor has the NASA staff developed a strategy for how international contributions could be incorporated into a global exploration effort. Such an effort, by pooling the resources of participating countries, could include a return to the moon (the option most potential partners prefer) as an early possibility.

However desirable it might be, I have little hope that President Obama will use the occasion of the final landing in the space shuttle program to invite his counterparts around the world to consider how their countries might participate in future exploration efforts. But I hope that he would issue such an invitation in the near future. More than a quarter century ago, President Ronald Reagan invited U.S. "friends and allies" to participate in the U.S. space station program; the International Space Station is a direct result of that invitation. A similar call from Barack Obama to his colleagues in the G-20 or a similar grouping might open up multiple new prospects in space, making the end of the shuttle program a real point of transition to an exciting future.

Image: This is one of a series of images showing various parts of space shuttle Atlantis in Earth orbit as photographed by one three crew members -- half the station crew -- who were equipped with still cameras on the International Space Station as the shuttle "posed" for photos and visual surveys and performed a back-flip for the rendezvous pitch maneuver. Courtesy of NASA


About the Author: Dr. Logsdon is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Prior to his leaving active faculty status in June 2008, he was on the faculty of the George Washington University for 38 years; before that he taught at the Catholic University of America for four years. He was the founder in 1987 and long-time Director of GW’s Space Policy Institute. From 1983-2001, he was also Director of the School’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy. He is also a faculty member of the International Space University. During the 2007-2008 academic year, he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT’s Science, Technology and Society Program on a part-time basis. During 2008-2009, he held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. He holds a B.S. in Physics from Xavier University (1960) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from New York University (1970).

Dr. Logsdon’s research interests focus on the policy and historical aspects of U.S. and international space activities. His book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon was published in December 2010.Dr. Logsdon is also the author of The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (1970) and is general editor of the eight-volume series Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program. He has written numerous articles and reports on space policy and history, and authored the basic article on “space exploration” for the most recent edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Dr. Logsdon has lectured and spoken to a wide variety of audiences at professional meetings, colleges and universities, international conferences, and other settings, and has testified before Congress on several occasions. He has served as a consultant to many public and private organizations. He is frequently consulted by the electronic and print media for his views on space issues.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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