Benefits of future space program are intangible

November 2, 2011 By Paul Bennetch, Cornell University

( -- As someone deeply involved in the American aerospace industry since its inception in the late 1950s, Norman Augustine says that the United States may need a "jolt" similar to the 1958 launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik to propel itself down the path of continued and sustainable space program success.

Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Corp. and former member of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, shared these thoughts with a packed Upson Hall audience in a talk, "Are We Lost in Space?" Oct. 29. Augustine was the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering's 2011 Sears distinguished lecturer.

Learning about Sputnik in 1958 "was like a body blow" to industry insiders, Augustine said, but it prompted the U.S. government to pursue "one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of humankind": the American space program.

NASA, though still "the finest space institution in the world, without a doubt," is a "large, mature, successful organization without a clear competitor," which from a business perspective, he said, is "one of the most dangerous things that can occur."

Without Cold War competition to rally Americans around a generously funded program, what direction this very costly endeavor should take has become a controversial issue over which "reasonable and conscientious people disagree," including experts in the field, said Augustine.

While establishing a permanent presence on the moon would be exciting for lunar scientists, many Americans today -- young people specifically -- don't share that vision, said Augustine. A along the lines of "give us $100 billion and we'll land on the moon again" simply does not have the appeal it used to, he said.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Augustine was appointed by newly elected President to chair a commission tasked with reviewing "Constellation," NASA's human spaceflight program that was established by Congress in 2005 with a long-term goal of renewing manned lunar missions.

One of the strongest recommendations Augustine's commission made to the president was to eliminate mismatches between the scope of space programs and their funding -- a recurring plague of NASA projects, according to Augustine. He explained that Constellation was unsustainable in that regard, and that drastic changes either in funding or program goals would have to be made.

The commission, Augustine said, did not conclude that the economic and commercial benefits from technological spinoffs alone justify the vast sums of money spent on the program.

Obama's 2010 decisions to cancel Constellation in favor of a more flexible human spaceflight program with a midterm goal of a manned asteroid mission and a long-term goal of manned orbital missions to Mars were based in large part upon the commission's conclusions, Augustine said.

Indeed, the human spaceflight program can't be justified on the basis of "dollars and cents," he said. Rather, it is the "intangible" benefits like establishing a platform for human civilization to expand into space, or inspiring Americans and nations around the world by venturing into uncharted territory, that provide the best justification for a vibrant human spaceflight program.

"Just like it's hard to calculate the value of Shakespeare's writing or Beethoven's music, or great art … to some extent a spaceflight program falls into that category," said Augustine.

Explore further: NASA denies new space program is too risky, pricey

Related Stories

NASA denies new space program is too risky, pricey

July 30, 2009

(AP) -- Engineers designing NASA's next moon rocket denied Wednesday that the human space flight program dubbed "Constellation" is too expensive, too risky and would unnecessarily delay man's return to space.

3 Questions: David Mindell on Obama's NASA proposal

February 5, 2010

In 2008, David Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing; professor of aeronautics and astronautics; and director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, ...

Panel to evaluate NASA's manned spaceflight program

June 17, 2009

A 10-member committee of former astronauts, aerospace executives and academics kicks off an 11-week evaluation of America's manned spaceflight program Wednesday - and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Senator may have won fight over private rocket manufacturing

July 3, 2009

For months, a powerful Republican senator from Alabama has fought the Obama administration to block $150 million that the White House wanted to spend to help private companies build rockets capable of reaching the international ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2011
China plans to set foot on the Moon before 2030. This may be enough to motivate the US again. Just sell it to the public as good capitalists (SpaceX? Bigelow?) vs. evil communists, and funding will flow.. :D
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2011
Or when this fails, I believe the militarisation of space is the way to go - imagine when huge budgets of defense of many nations were commited to space program. Once any nation breaks the current ban on space military, others will have to follow.
We need new Space Race, thats for sure.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2011
It's mutual synergy: the countries which are poor have no sources or even motivation how to become rich and vice versa.

What all space agencies urgently need in the same way, like the economies which are powering them is a new type of fuel/energy. The chemical sources of energy are out of their limits. The implementation of cold fusion would help the space exploration a lot - it would enable us to expand the mining of raw sources outside of Earth, which would stimulate the space program reciprocally.

The Space Race is a remnant of era, when the relative richness of human civilization was substantially higher, than by now. Now we're dealing with slightly more resources - but there are substantially more people, who are using them.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2011
The human civilization could get easily into tipping point, from which it will lost any motivation to its further development without war, which would increase the motivation to development and reduce the consumption. It's easily visible on the ignorance of cold fusion research, not just of space-time research. When facing the increasing risk of geopolitical and environmental catastrophe the human civilization becomes catatonic and essentially phlegmatic(al) toward further risks. All people in it are just doing "their job", but this is not enough at the moment, when this production just serves to pure reproduction, because the natural resources are depleting gradually.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
"... the United States may need a "jolt" similar to the 1958 launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik..."

The launch of Sputnik was 4 October 1957, not 1958. US got a kick maybe in 1958, but the start of the space era was 1957.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2011
I believe the militarisation of space is the way to go - imagine when huge budgets of defense of many nations were commited to space program.

Though this would require an open breach to existing international law which forbids the militarisation of space or the setting up of nationally owned territories (see: "Outer Space Treaty").

I think the first nation to try THAT stunt is going to be in a world of hurt.
not rated yet Nov 02, 2011
I agree, any attempt at militarization of space or outer space by any country COULD result in nuclear war. Militarization implies superiority of the one nation over all others and constitutes a threat to everyone's freedom and autonomy. . . . .even if no threat is outwardly implied. Commercialism, on the other hand, could be a more nicer and less threatening competitive undertaking between countries, but there too, there is the presence of spying, undercutting, and other unfair practices and poorer, disadvantaged countries will consider it a blow to their own national pride to be unable to participate or get their fair share, as they do now.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.