galaxies forming at the beginning of the universe and stars forming in our own galaxy. We have explored the wonders that abound in our solar system and have found locations where life might have occurred or might even now be present. We have discovered planets around other stars, so many that it is ever more likely that there are other Earths comparable to our own.
What will the next 50 years bring? Today we live in a globalized world of societies and nations characterized by intertwined economies, trade commitments, and international security agreements. Mutual dependencies are much more pervasive and important than ever before. Many of the pressing problems that now require our best efforts to understand and resolve—from terrorism to climate change to demand for energy—are also global in nature and must be addressed through mutual worldwide action. In the judgment of the Committee on the Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program, the ability to operate from, through, and in space will be a key component of potential solutions to 21st-century challenges. As it has before, with the necessary alignment to achieve clearly articulated national priorities, the U.S. civil space1 program can serve the nation effectively in this new and demanding environment.
In its initial discussions, the committee concluded that debates about the direction of the civil space program have too often focused on addressing near-term problems and issues without first putting those issues in the context of how a disciplined space program can serve larger national imperatives. In the committee’s view, characterizing the top-level goals of the civil space program and the connection between those goals and broad national priorities is necessary as a foundation on which the nation (both now and in the future) can devise sustainable solutions to nearer-term issues. Therefore, the committee focused on the long-term, strategic value of the U.S. civil space program, and its 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.
The national priorities that informed the committee’s thinking include ensuring national security, providing clean and affordable energy, protecting the environment now and for future generations, educating an engaged citizenry and a capable workforce for the 21st century, sustaining global economic competitiveness, and working internationally to build a safer, more sustainable world. A common element across all these urgent priorities is the significant part that research and development can play in solving problems and advancing the national enterprise in each area. Instruments in space have documented an accelerating decline in arctic sea ice; mapped the circulation of the world’s oceans; enabled the creation of quantitative three-dimensional data sets to improve the quality of hurricane forecasting; and created new tools to address a host of agricultural, coastal, and urban resource management problems, to cite only a few examples.