at large are considering significant reforms and policy innovations as the nation faces a series of complex challenges related to ensuring national security, providing clean and affordable energy, protecting the environment, meeting 21st-century needs for education, sustaining global economic competitiveness, and promoting beneficial international relations. Awareness is widespread that the time has come to reassess and, in some cases, reinvent and refocus national institutions. In a time of substantial rearrangement of budgets and of national priorities, when once again objectives rather than process dominate the debate over resource allocation, it is the conclusion of the committee that the U.S. civil space program is an essential national resource with the potential to substantially address pressing national needs.
In this context, and responding to its charge, the committee sought to address the top-level goals of the civil space program and the connection between those goals and broad national priorities. Therefore, the committee focused on the long-term, strategic value of a U.S. civil space program, and the report does not address nearer-term issues that affect the conduct of U.S. space activities other than to provide a context in which more tactical decisions might be made.
In December 1990, the report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program1 recognized the effect of the fall of communism on the civil space program. The report recommended that space science should become the high-priority NASA program and that two mission-oriented programs—Mission to Planet Earth and Mission from Planet Earth—should share second priority. By the dawn of the new millennium, there was no single, dominant rationale for the space program, and in particular for the human spaceflight program. NASA remained generally popular with the public, but few knew much about what the agency was doing or what its goals were. The Columbia accident in February 2003 was the catalyst for a new space exploration policy (the Vision for Space Exploration) that attempted to bring policy clarity to the broader space exploration program. NASA was directed to reorient its activities and today is preparing to extend the sphere of human activity beyond the International Space Station and low Earth orbit, starting with a return to the Moon. Congress supported the new exploration vision in the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2008, but emphasized that NASA has vital, independently important responsibilities in aeronautics, Earth science, and space science in addition to human spaceflight.
The world today is characterized by intertwined economies and transnational benefits to enjoy but also serious transnational problems to confront, from terrorism to global economic crisis to climate change. Mutual dependencies coexist with national and commercial competition and rivalries.