Successfully reported this slideshow.
We use your LinkedIn profile and activity data to personalize ads and to show you more relevant ads. You can change your ad preferences anytime.

Reviving Space Futurism


Published on

This paper proposes that the inadequate long-term strategic planning that has plagued
the space community for more than three decades must be addressed by a multidisciplinary
approach that ties space futurism into larger societal ambitions and the search for solutions
to global problems. The work of early space age visionaries such as Wernher von Braun,
Arthur C. Clarke, Dandridge Cole, Herman Kahn, and Gerard K. O’Neill is contrasted with
more recent space “visions” and deficiencies in long-term strategic thinking. This is followed
by a discussion of how space futurism could reconfigure itself to emphasize the continuing
relevance of space activities.

Published in: Technology, Business
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

Reviving Space Futurism

  1. 1. AIAA SPACE 2008 Conference & Exposition AIAA 2008-78739 - 11 September 2008, San Diego, California Reviving Space Futurism: A New Focus on Long-Term Strategic Planning James A. Vedda, Ph.D. * This paper proposes that the inadequate long-term strategic planning that has plagued the space community for more than three decades must be addressed by a multidisciplinary approach that ties space futurism into larger societal ambitions and the search for solutions to global problems. The work of early space age visionaries such as Wernher von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, Dandridge Cole, Herman Kahn, and Gerard K. O’Neill is contrasted with more recent space “visions” and deficiencies in long-term strategic thinking. This is followed by a discussion of how space futurism could reconfigure itself to emphasize the continuing relevance of space activities. I. Introduction One of the most important tasks of executive and legislative decision-makers is to shape the future. However, policy-makers and business leaders are routinely accused of short-term thinking driven by the next election or the next quarterly report. Decision-making aimed at limited, near-term impacts has its place, but a different approach is required for long-term strategic planning for space. The demands of space exploration and development involve timeframes measured not in weeks or months, but in years and decades. Experience to date with space systems has demonstrated that development cycles, from conceptualization to full operations, can take anywhere from a couple of years to 20 or 30 years. Additionally, large projects like launch vehicles, space stations, and satellite constellations have ripple effects across generations because they establish the space infrastructure upon which others depend, dominate funding for extended periods, and spawn networks of bureaucracies and contractors. Clearly, decision-makers need all the help they can get from astute futurists who can map the probable futures that depend on today’s decisions. Unfortunately, they are not getting the help they need. 1 There is no shortage of organizations and analysts – think tanks, academic groups, and consultants 2 – engaged in the study of possible long-term futures and the actions needed in the near term to get there smoothly. However, very few of them include space activities in their analyses. Even some organizations that once gave substantial attention to space have reduced their efforts in this area, and popular literature on space futurism has diminished as well. There have been a few exceptions, and controversial topics such as space weapons continue to garner plenty of attention from think tanks and pundits, but in general there has been movement away from space topics in favor of other issues deemed more timely (e.g., globalization, homeland security, climate change) with little or no recognition of the contribution that space is making, or can make, in these areas. It would be reasonable to expect that the space community – both professionals and advocates – would make up for this shortfall in futurist thinking, but this has not been the case. Long-term strategic planning for space continues to suffer from a lack of substance and a crisis of relevance. This paper will contrast past and present space futurism aimed at exploration and development, and assess the implications for space-related public policy. It will then consider what is needed to improve the quality of futures studies and increase their value to decision-makers. II. A Golden Age of Space Futurism There is a common misperception that “futurism,” “futurology,” “futures studies,” or “futuring,” as it is variously called, is aimed at making predictions of what will happen by a particular point in time. (That’s what fortune-tellers and astrologers do – badly.) In fact, futurism uses a variety of techniques (such as trend-spotting, expert opinion surveys, scenario generation, and mathematical modeling) to formulate an array of possible futures and make a reasonable assessment of which ones are most probable. This helps decision-makers in a couple of ways. First, it helps them to be prepared for what may be over the horizon. No one likes to be blindsided, and public policy is not well served by knee-jerk reactions to events and circumstances that should have been anticipated. Second, futures studies emphasize that although current trends are strong drivers, there are multiple possible futures, and * 5853 Governor’s Hill Drive, Alexandria, VA 22310. The views presented in this paper are the author’s alone. 1Copyright © 2008 by James A. Vedda. Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., with permission.
  2. 2. actions taken today can target – or avoid – particular outcomes that may be decades away. In short, “the goal offuturing is not to predict the future, but to make it better.” 3 A Golden Age of Space Futurism began in the early 1950s and lasted for about three decades. This is not toimply that there were no space visionaries prior to the 1950s. In fact, there were many: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky,Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, and Herman (Potočnik) Noordung, to name a few. But as mid-century passed,there was a perceptible change in the way policy-makers and the public thought about space. In political scienceterms, this was a shift in “policy image.” Spaceflight ceased to be merely science fiction and became something thatcould actually happen within one’s own lifetime. This was a profound attitude adjustment, stimulated bytechnological advances and media attention, that turned space into a serious public policy concern that was in needof long-term visions. Before analyzing why this Golden Age ended and why the public policy community has failed to compensatefor this deficit, it is instructive to briefly review the visions of some of the key thinkers of the period.A. Wernher von Braun Fascination with space goes back a long way, but it really began to capture widespread attention in the early1950s as post-World War II economic and technological growth provided the means to pursue space activities in thenot-too-distant future. Technically grounded, well-thought-out plans for the conquest of space appeared at this time,the most popular of which came from Wernher von Braun and a team of prominent advocates. Widely publicized inprint media 4 and on television, 5 the steps in the plan were as follows: 1. Launch and operate Earth-orbiting satellites to learn about the technology and the space environment. 2. Conduct Earth-orbiting flights with human crews to learn how to live and work in space. 3. Develop reusable spacecraft to shuttle back and forth to low Earth orbit. 4. Build permanently inhabited space stations to observe Earth and serve as a launching point to other destinations in space. 5. Explore and settle the Moon. 6. Explore and settle Mars. 6 To a very substantial extent, this plan has guided U.S. human spaceflight efforts since the beginning of thespace age. The Moon race of the 1960s shuffled the order of events, but strategic planning since the end of Apollohas focused on getting back on the Von Braun track. NASA has adhered to this plan and presidential administrationshave adopted it as their own. Clearly, no other space exploration and development paradigm has been as influentialin public policy.B. Arthur C. Clarke The prolific author Arthur C. Clarke is perhaps best known for two things: his 1945 journal article describing anarchitecture for communications relays in geostationary orbit, 7 and his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for themovie 2001: A Space Odyssey. These constitute a small sample of a large body of work – dozens of books andhundreds of essays – that secured Clarke’s place as a world-renowned futurist. A pragmatist as well as a visionary,Clarke avoided violating the known laws of physics even when writing fiction set in the distant future. His futuristwriting is highlighted here using two prominent examples of his non-fiction work. In 1963, Clarke collected essays he had written during the previous five years and published them under the titleProfiles of the Future. He covered a variety of topics, such as terrestrial and space transportation, energy production,manufacturing, the potential of the human brain, artificial intelligence, and the difficulties of time travel andinvisibility. His most remarkable prognostications were those regarding telecommunications. In an essay writtenprior to the 1962 launch of Telstar, he accurately depicted direct-to-home satellite television, portable phones withposition location capabilities, and fax machines. He also provided a prescient description of the Internet. The dailynewspaper, he prophesied, would show up on your TV screen, and would allow you to print out just the articles youwished to read. Further, the same TV screen could give you access to an electronic library of books and documents. 8 Clarke’s clairvoyance did not extend to all areas, however. In the back of the book he placed a “Chart of theFuture,” which he advised readers not to take too seriously. This is good advice, since the chart predicts nuclearrockets in the 1970s, planetary expeditions in the 1980s, artificial intelligence and fusion power in the 1990s,planetary colonization in the 2000s, weather control in the 2010s, and interstellar probes in the 2020s. A few years later, in 1968, Clarke produced one of his most memorable non-fiction works, The Promise ofSpace. This is undoubtedly one of the best tutorials ever written for the general reader on rocketry, orbitalmechanics, and the solar system. Exercising his predictive powers, Clarke wrote of reusable boosters and aerospaceplanes, and finished with a discussion of the challenges of traveling to the stars. Although his aim in this book wasnot to predict when certain capabilities would arrive, Clarke exhibited his optimism when he said, “the exploitation 2
  3. 3. of the foreseeable techniques to their limit could result in truly commercial space transport being in sight by the endof this century. And perhaps fifty years from now [i.e., 2018], anyone should be able to afford a visit to the Moon atleast once in his lifetime.” 9C. Dandridge Cole An aerospace engineer who was also trained in chemistry, physics, and medicine, Dandridge Cole wrote books,articles, and technical papers that provoked much thought in the late 1950s and early 1960s about possibilities forspace development. Cole was an “out-of-the-box” thinker, perhaps best remembered for his 1964 book (co-writtenwith science writer Donald Cox) advocating robotic and human journeys to the planetoids (a term he preferred over“asteroids”) as the next major space endeavor after the Moon. He envisioned the human spaceflight program asfollows: Phase 1 – The Exploration of the Earth’s Space Environs (1961-1965) Phase 2 – The Exploration of the Moon and Its Environs (1965-1975) Phase 3 – The Exploration and Exploitation of the Planetoids and Martian Moons (1975-1985) Phase 4 – The Exploration of Mars and Other Solar System Planets (1980-2000) 10 Cole felt that NASA’s thinking at the time represented a go-slow policy. Postponing manned Mars flights tosometime in the 1980s, he believed, would concede the initiation of interplanetary flights to the Russians. 11 In a 1965 book, Cole acknowledged that the space program at that time was mainly designed to gaintechnological advantage and win the allegiance of nations in a global power struggle. But from a long-termperspective, he believed that “We could fill books with problems of fundamental importance to the human racewhich can be solved only by spaceflight, more easily by spaceflight, or more probably by spaceflight.” 12 Cole discussed several emerging developments and took the position that “All of these major breakthroughs areconnected in some way with the conquest of space!” 13 He believed spaceflight would stimulate technologicalbreakthroughs toward revolutionary, rather than just evolutionary, advances. He had in mind a diverse mix ofresearch and development areas including energy production (especially nuclear), automation, artificial intelligence,scientific discoveries on the formation of the universe and the basic structure of matter, the improvement of thehuman species through genetic and mechanical means, and world government. All of these advances he expected “inthe next fifty years” – in other words, by about 2015. We have made great strides in many of these areas, but we arestill far from the levels Cole anticipated. Cole excited readers with his optimism. Here are some of the key assumptions he made about what wouldhappen within 50 years (and a parenthetical reality check): • Many advanced space vehicles based on new forms of propulsion will be built. (Actually, we are still using the same basic chemical rocket concept that has been used since the beginning of spaceflight.) • Space transport costs will drop by an order of magnitude every seven years for the next two decades. (Much to the chagrin of everyone in the space business, this has not occurred.) • Nuclear fission power should be available at much lower prices unless something much better such as fusion power has replaced it. (Obviously, this hasn’t happened either.) • On the question of whether the inner solar system will be colonized during this time period, “the tentative conclusion must be – yes.” (The actual conclusion must be – no.) • Extraterrestrial bases and colonies will become self-sustaining. (Such bases and colonies remain conspicuously absent.) Like many of his contemporaries, Cole assumed a pace of development that was far too ambitious. As was thecase with Clarke, he was not proposing anything that would defy the known laws of physics, nor was he probinginto scientific and technical areas that lacked at least some theoretical or practical background. His work reflects thefact that he was a product of his environment, which at that time made it look like revolutionary developments werejust as likely, or even more likely, than evolutionary ones.D. Herman Kahn Well known for work on nuclear conflict scenarios at RAND Corporation, Herman Kahn and his colleaguesstarted the Hudson Institute, a futurist think-tank, in 1961. 14 The Institute’s interests have always been wide-ranging,and through the 1960s and 70s included space development. Kahn’s popular 1967 book The Year 2000 (co-writtenwith Anthony Wiener) offered a list of 100 “very likely” technical innovations anticipated for the turn of the 21stcentury, including these space-related items: • Direct broadcasts from satellites to home receivers • Worldwide use of high-altitude cameras for mapping, prospecting, census, land use, and geology • Recoverable boosters for economic space launching 3
  4. 4. • Space defense systems • Artificial moons and other methods for lighting large areas at night • Permanent manned satellite and lunar installations; interplanetary travel 15The first two items appeared ahead of schedule. The next two items were partially addressed by 2000 but stillremain in very early stages of development. The last two items are still beyond the horizon, although one coulddebate whether the International Space Station is what Kahn meant by “permanent manned satellite.” Most likely, heenvisioned something busier and more permanent, as did many of his contemporaries. The book also offered a list of 25 “less likely” possibilities, some of which involved space: • Major use of rockets for commercial or private transportation (either terrestrial or extraterrestrial) • Substantial manned lunar or planetary installations • Planetary engineering • Modification of the solar system 16Commercial payload launch services became common well before 2000, and commercial human spaceflight maybecome reality in the near future. However, the other three items on this list are still far down the road. One wondersexactly what Kahn had in mind for “modification of the solar system.” Kahn and his Hudson Institute colleagues produced a 1976 book titled The Next 200 Years focused on what theycalled an “Earth-centered” perspective on global development, which assumed limited levels of space explorationand exploitation. However, the authors also introduced a “space-bound” perspective, which would involve … a much more vigorous effort in extraterrestrial activities early in the 21st century, including the eventual establishment of large autonomous colonies in space involved in the processing of raw materials, the production of energy and the manufacture of durable goods – both for indigenous consumption and as exports back to earth or to other solar-system colonies. Such developments would involve substantial migration from earth and could eventually create very new and different patterns of population and product growth, all quite beyond any projections made from a basically earth-centered perspective. 17 Kahn and the Hudson Institute, at least during this period, clearly viewed space development as a logical andall-but-inevitable step in societal evolution.E. Gerard K. O’Neill Almost as if he was picking up where Kahn’s 1976 book left off, Gerard K. O’Neill published The HighFrontier in the same year, outlining how humanity should begin using the vast resources of space. 18 He believedthat the human condition on Earth would be improved by the work of a large population residing in space colonies.Extraterrestrial energy and material resources would enable economic growth and prosperity – both on Earth and onthe space colonies – while preserving Earth’s environment. Contrary to what some have alleged, O’Neill’s visionwas not intended as a resettlement plan to remedy overpopulation, or as a way for the affluent to escape the planet’sproblems. His ideas were spawned by a search for solutions to societal needs as much as by his interest in thescientific and engineering challenges of space settlement. O’Neill shunned predictions of a firm schedule for realizing his concept, but believed a “high-orbital facility”could begin within seven to 10 years and be completed in 15 to 25 years. From our perspective today – several yearspast his 25-year estimate – it is doubtful that even another quarter century will be sufficient to construct the firstiteration of O’Neill’s vision. In his 1981 book 2081, O’Neill allowed himself to delve more deeply into the art of prophecy, taking a 100-year view shaped by five drivers of change: computers, automation, communications, energy, and – the factor thatsets O’Neill’s view apart from many others – space colonies. He speculated that by 2081, “there may be moreAmericans in space colonies than there are in the United States” and “a voyage of a few days to a space colony willbe as commonplace in 2081 as a Caribbean cruise is to us today.” This would be enabled, according to the findingsof technical workshops reported in the book, because “a rapidly growing industry in space could be established witha total investment comparable to that made in the Alaska Pipeline (which was entirely privately financed) in a timeof less than ten years from the start of a substantial development effort.” Once such a commitment was made, therewould be “a near certainty of economic payback beginning within five years after investment.” 19 Some have labeled O’Neill’s vision as utopian or escapist, but its prophetic inaccuracies stem from overlyambitious timelines rather than the disconnect from reality that these labels imply. O’Neill was well aware ofpolitical and economic bottlenecks, but placed too much faith in the ability of technological progress to overcomethem. Nonetheless, he conveyed a compelling message about how space could contribute to serving global societalneeds, and in the process he has inspired a substantial number of space professionals and enthusiasts in thegenerations that have followed. 4
  5. 5. F. Prophets or Dreamers? Learning Lessons from Early Space Futurists Knowing how far we have fallen behind the expectations of these and other futurists, we might conclude thatspace futurism has had a dismal record of guiding policy (with the notable exception of the Von Braun paradigm).Even if the majority of these technological and societal propositions had been embraced, one might expect that theresulting policies would have vastly underperformed on their objectives for a variety of reasons. Does this mean thatspace futurism is little better than fantasy, and should not be relied upon to advise public policy? Before jumping to that conclusion, two important points should be considered. First, space futurists did getsome things right, and sometimes even underestimated our eventual accomplishments. Futurists helped to inspireefforts to develop geosynchronous communications satellites and to go to the Moon, both of which were majoradvances that were realized more quickly than even most futurists had imagined. Second, much of what they gotwrong was a result of overestimating the pace, rather than the substance, of technological developments. Their poortrack record in this area stands out because some of the biggest activities – lunar bases, Mars missions, space miningand manufacturing – have missed (or will miss) their predicted appearance not just by a few years, but by a fewdecades. Part of this is because some ventures turned out to be technically harder than originally assumed; obviousexamples include development of fusion systems for power and propulsion, and human trips to Mars. But thegreatest culprit in the extension of timelines has been the non-technical factors – political, economic, and societal.The classic space visionaries typically ignored, downplayed, misinterpreted, or misrepresented these factors so theycould keep the focus on technical advancement. Arthur C. Clarke was up-front about this in his book Profiles of theFuture: I am limiting myself to a single aspect of the future – its technology, not the society that will be based upon it… I also believe – and hope – that politics and economics will cease to be as important in the future as they have been in the past… Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive, concern of full-grown men. 20 Purposeful avoidance or inappropriate application of a multidisciplinary approach that includes socio-economicrealities is evident in the work of the other futurists. In the examples presented earlier, O’Neill and Coledemonstrated more savvy in this area than many of their contemporaries, though they tended to downplay ormisread political signals that challenged the inevitability of technological advances. Kahn, in contrast to the othersdiscussed here, actively sought to integrate socio-economic factors, but did so in ways that often seemed contrivedto support his conclusions – a methodology that today would be called “spin.” An axiom of futurism is that there is a tendency to overestimate the near term and underestimate the long term.Near-term overestimation is a particular problem for space futurists, whose subject matter is by nature very longterm, and whose audience includes policy-makers, business people, and others who are looking for informationabout the immediate future and are seeking results in a few years at most. Positive visions often take on a grand scale, and space visions are extreme examples of this characteristic. TheGolden Age of Space Futurism ended by the early 1980s largely due to reality overtaking ambition. The samerealities that ended the Apollo program – changing public policy priorities, budget deficits, a sagging economy,reduced confidence in government programs and technological advances – similarly constricted space futurism aftera time lag of a few years. By this time, awe-inspiring space developments occurring in one’s own lifetime, whichseemed to have become a new requirement of space efforts, could no longer be envisioned. The quick results of theApollo program are at least partly to blame for this, leading observers to believe that this should be the norm. Clearly, if space futurism is to reemerge and play a constructive role in public policy, expectations of instantgratification need to be quelled, and futurists’ methodology must incorporate sincere efforts to integrate socialscience considerations and thereby increase the perceived relevance and value of the resulting visions. Beforeexamining how to approach this, let’s briefly recall how we got to where we are. III. Where Have the Visionaries Gone?A. The Onset of Pessimism Advances in space applications and human spaceflight in the 1960s made it logical for optimists to portrayspace as an important part of humanity’s future, and to expect that the rapid development of space technology wouldcontinue. But the seeds of pessimism were already being sown in the U.S. by several influential developments. Theescalation of the Vietnam War and racial tensions spawned protests and violent civil unrest, resulting in fallingpublic confidence in the federal government’s competence. At the same time, there was increasing awareness ofenvironmental problems after Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. 21 Certainly, this was not the first time that asociety raised concerns over war, ethnic conflict, or environmental degradation. The significance for the space age,however, is that although the space program was at its most popular and was producing historic achievements, many 5
  6. 6. in the 1960s began to see technology as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Combined with thetroubled economy of the 1970s, this contributed to the sharp downturn in the priority and pace of spacedevelopment. Space futurism remained prominent in the 1970s, with young people and professionals riding the momentum ofApollo-era accomplishments and generating remarkable futurist scenarios like O’Neill’s space settlement conceptnoted above. The decade-long slump in activity and public interest, particularly in human spaceflight, seemed like acyclical slowdown that would turn around dramatically once NASA’s space shuttle became operational in the 1980s.But at the same time there began an outpouring of cautionary literature that continues today.22 Discussions ofsocietal and global problems of increasing magnitude made spaceflight look less relevant. Inflated perceptions of thecost of the space program caused some to see it as a drain on resources that would be better spent elsewhere. Toofew saw that space applications could be valuable tools in the search for solutions. The 1980s brought new possibilities for space, but also a great deal of hype. The space shuttle system failed tolive up to its promises of cheap, frequent access to orbit, and then failed catastrophically in the 1986 Challengeraccident. Commercial space efforts – primarily launch services, remote sensing, and microgravity materialsprocessing – didn’t quickly produce profitable multi-billion-dollar industries as promised, and in fact are stillstruggling today. The Apollo generation was having trouble convincing the next generation that a career in the spacecommunity would be interesting, lucrative, and professionally fulfilling. The end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s shut down the already sagging superpower rivalry inspace, removing the last vestiges of what had once been the civil space program’s greatest driver. NASA spent therest of the decade as the nation’s poster child for Reinventing Government (i.e., downsizing) and adopted the mantraof “faster, better, cheaper.” Even if this had worked as advertised, it was little more than an acquisition philosophy –not the long-term strategic vision for the future in space that was needed and is still lacking. During these post-Apollo decades, the search for a vision continued sporadically, but without success.B. Two Generations of Failed Visions It is well known that NASA was unable to stimulate interest in ambitious space exploration and developmentplans in the wake of Apollo. NASA’s dreams of new launch vehicles, space stations, lunar outposts, and missions toMars, largely derived from the Von Braun model and earnestly proposed in 1969, 23 were either significantlywatered down or rejected 24 but would periodically reappear before policy-makers in the U.S. government. In 1985-86, the National Commission on Space, headed by Thomas Paine – a former NASA Administrator andadvocate of Mars exploration – was directed by Congress to construct a U.S. civil space strategy for the next 50years (i.e., through 2035). In addition to advocating missions to the Moon and Mars, the Commission’s mid-1986report 25 outlined major steps in infrastructure development and recommended concurrent efforts in the civil andcommercial sectors. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, there was almost no follow-up from the Ronald Reaganadministration. (One reason was bad timing – the Commission’s report came out at around the same time as theRogers Commission report on the Challenger accident.) The administration’s disappointing response to this effortwas one paragraph in a 1988 space policy directive which referred to human exploration beyond Earth orbit withoutmentioning the Moon or Mars. The directive recognized that there should be a “long-range goal of expanding humanpresence and activity beyond Earth orbit into the solar system,” but it put off any serious commitment by simplydirecting NASA to “begin the systematic development of technologies necessary to enable and support a range offuture manned missions.” Such development would be “oriented toward a Presidential decision on a focusedprogram of manned exploration of the solar system.” 26 Despite failing to generate political and funding support during the Reagan administration, a similar Von Braun-inspired human exploration plan appeared a short time later in the form of President George H.W. Bush’s SpaceExploration Initiative (SEI). President Bush used his speech at a ceremony honoring the twentieth anniversary ofApollo 11 to announce SEI, which featured a return to the Moon and a human expedition to Mars by early in the 21stcentury. 27 He backed it up with sizable requests for start-up funding, and allowed Vice President Dan Quayle andthe National Space Council to devote the bulk of their efforts to promoting the concept. The idea was poorlyreceived in Congress, which granted only token appropriations for preliminary studies. Even that meager fundingdried up by 1993. 28 The most recent space exploration plan, revealed by President George W. Bush in January 2004, is intended to“Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, inpreparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.” 29 Like the previous efforts, this is anotherattempt to resurrect the half-century-old Von Braun paradigm, and it shares the same key deficiency: no strategicallysignificant long-term rationale has been articulated. 30 So far, it has received enough funding to get started, but 6
  7. 7. significantly less than what was originally promised. As funding requirements peak in the next decade, it remains tobe seen whether the program will be sustainable as currently configured. 31C. Evidence of Declining Interest From the 1950s to the 1970s, most futurists acknowledged the importance of space exploration anddevelopment. Since that time, however, space has fallen off the radar screen of mainstream futurists. For example,there is no space category among the World Future Society’s “20 Subject Categories of Futures Thinking,” and theSociety’s list of 140 “best books and reports” includes only one space-related item: an illustrated book thatspeculates on what extra-solar planets might look like. 32 RAND Corporation, the pioneer think tank on space and other technologies, also puts out a recommendedreading list called “50 Books for Thinking About the Future Human Condition.” 33 However, no space-related booksare on this list. RAND has branched out substantially since the 1970s and now does work in 17 major categories.Space-related studies have become a very small subset of the Science & Technology category as customer interestsand the mix of corporate expertise have moved into other areas. 34 Declining or non-existent interest in space is evident among other non-profits and SETAs (systems engineeringand technical assistance contractors), aside from those staking out positions on space weapons and related nationalsecurity issues. The author experienced this first hand during more than six years at Analytic Services Inc.(ANSER), which at one time was a significant player in supporting national security and civil space agencies inWashington, DC. ANSER lost interest in space-related business and sought greener pastures in homeland securityafter former shuttle astronaut John Fabian retired as the company’s CEO in October 1998. A notable exception to this trend is the recent activity at a think tank that traditionally has not been associatedwith space. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), established in 1962 to study challenges tonational and global security, has made space a prominent subject since 2003 when the organization began its HumanSpace Exploration Initiative to examine the global implications of humanity’s movement into space. 35 The impact ofthe CSIS effort remains to be seen. IV. The Future of Space Futurism To steer correctly, a system with inherent momentum needs to be looking ahead at least as far as its momentum can carry it. The longer it takes a boat to turn, the farther ahead its radar must see. 36 The quote above is particularly appropriate when considering the future of space exploration and development,not only because it is “a system with inherent momentum” but also due to the extremely long lead-times –sometimes measured in decades – between conceptualization of a space system and its full operational capability.Unfortunately, we have not found a balance between the overly ambitious forecasts of the Golden Age of SpaceFuturism and the limited, pragmatic, and decidedly unsuccessful approach to space strategy since that time. Ageneral observation in a recent RAND study is particularly true for space planning: “… most futuristic narratives arecreated with the aim of commenting on and shaping the present rather than supplying an accurate roadmap for whatis to come.” 37A. Needed: A Multidisciplinary Approach At this point we should revisit a quote from Dandridge Cole noted earlier: “We could fill books with problemsof fundamental importance to the human race which can be solved only by spaceflight, more easily by spaceflight,or more probably by spaceflight.” Cole did not finish the job of filling the books that he alluded to, though he mighthave done so, had he not died of a heart attack at the age of 44. The task remains for us to complete. If space futurism is to provide policy guidance for addressing “problems of fundamental importance to thehuman race,” it must be far more than a technologist’s dream factory. Collectively, we must open the aperture widerthan even the most erudite visionaries of the Golden Age and seek to encompass the highest-salience challenges ofour era. There are plenty of topics to be covered, going well beyond the disciplines typically associated with spacescience and engineering, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, and the production and distributionof energy. But “multidisciplinary” does not simply mean multiple types of engineering. Political, economic, andother societal developments must be considered in parallel, including topics such as these: • Geopolitics and international relations o Population growth, migration, and demographic changes o The role of emerging economic and technological powers such as China and India 7
  8. 8. o Evolving relationships, including research and development partnerships, with long-time allies • Globalization, both economic and technological o Technology transfer – incoming as well as outgoing o International fiscal and monetary concerns o Trade relations, especially in technical areas like telecommunications and energy • Global threats o Natural and man-made disasters o Military conflict o Climate change o Environmental degradation o Resource scarcity o Pandemics Political, economic, and environmental goals and objectives must be linked to the nation’s space efforts, whichcan then be programmed to seek long-term solutions to global problems. Increased activity in space applications andEarth sciences, backed up by a wider public and private sector constituency, will bring greater stability in theallocation of resources and will once again attract the brightest and most energetic minds to space-related fields. Italso will redound to the benefit of space exploration ambitions, since exploration and development are two sides ofthe same coin. This brings us back to the purpose of futurism: not to predict the future, but to make it better. Multidisciplinaryinvestigation of plausible options to address the needs of probable future scenarios will be an important tool to avoidthe unrealized expectations and wasted resources that have been endemic to space efforts since Apollo.B. Building Recognition of the Relevance of Space Space was the cutting-edge, fast-moving activity of the 1960s, but today it is viewed in the U.S. as one of theslower-paced sectors of high technology, surpassed in speed and agility by information technology, biomedicaladvances, and other disciplines. This perception, fed by widely reported problems in controlling costs, meetingschedules, maintaining quality, and retaining global market share, evokes images of a community that has lost itsedge and its relevance. This is occurring at a time when the geopolitical and economic environment – which directlyaffects the health, missions, and priorities of the space community – is evolving rapidly. In order for the spacecommunity to remain relevant, it must be vigilant of societal and technical trends, not only in space-related fieldsbut in other key areas that directly and indirectly affect its work. A sustained effort is required to integrate thesetrends and formulate scenarios extending well into the future. There is evidence of increasing recognition of the need for more and better futures studies to assist in long-termstrategic planning or contingency planning for disruptive technologies or events. For example, Mike McConnell,Director of National Intelligence, recently noted: The intelligence community is also investing in more in-depth and long-range analysis so that analysts can dig deeper into issues of concern for the future, such as the changing character of warfare and energy 38 security, unencumbered by the demands of producing current intelligence. During the past few years, the author has observed increasing interest among colleagues and governmentofficials in the monitoring and analysis of the many diverse trends shaping the future. Generally, queries take a formsuch as, “What can I expect my operating environment to be like in 2025?” An appropriate and helpful responsemust do more than say, in effect, “It will be much like today but with better technology.” Such a study must take onthe fascinating and challenging tasks of trend-spotting, long-range speculation, and scenario generation in civil,commercial, and national security space, which require insight into history and the policy environment as well astechnical expertise. Astute analysts in the space community, able to assimilate key aspects of our multifaceted operatingenvironment, should contribute to defining the role of space in our future, lest the task be left to other organizationsthat are less space-savvy – or to no one at all. To overcome the perception that space has little relevance to societalneeds, the space community should provide forward-looking, thoroughly researched, and technically groundedoptions for possible futures involving the exploration and development of space. Without this input, and efforts toeducate policy-makers and the public on long-term space visions, the public policy process will tend to favor a risk-averse approach and, lacking insight as to what may lie beyond the horizon, will not recognize the role of spaceexploration and development in the big picture. There are indications that today’s space visionaries are found mainly in the commercial sector rather than thecivil sector. This may be true, judging from all the attention in recent years to suborbital space tourism, privately-owned orbital habitats, prize competitions, online map services using satellite imagery, and new applications in 8
  9. 9. handheld devices that depend on communications and navigation satellites. But the commercial space sector is nostranger to overpromising. In the 1980s, there were many assurances of substantial near-term profits in launchservices, remote sensing, and microgravity materials processing that have yet to be realized. Commercial spacevisionaries should not be too sanguine about their ability to turn their dreams into realities more effectively thantheir counterparts in the civil arena. Hopefully, creative thinking using a multidisciplinary approach will be sharedacross the civil and commercial sectors, since both need it and each can learn from the other. Both sectors face thedifficulty of promoting very long-term visions in an instant gratification society. In order to succeed, they will needto demonstrate results at milestones along a clear path to widely recognized strategic objectives. V. Conclusion There is no shortage of futurists today, but there does seem to be a lack of opportunities to harness their talentsto look at possible futures in space beyond the next quarterly report, the next election, or the next budget cycle. Atthe beginning of the space age, everyone in the embryonic space community had to be a futurist. Space systems andground infrastructure had yet to be built, missions had to be proposed and defined, and requirements that wouldremain valid for many years had to be envisioned. The space community is much larger today, and has settled intoongoing operations that provide services such as communications, Earth observation, and navigation. But althoughspace applications are integrated into the fabric of society, and many other nations are developing their spacecapabilities, forward-thinking is no less important to the United States today than it was at the dawn of the spaceage. As Gerry O’Neill has noted: The long-term health of a nation is probably shown most clearly by the time scale of the programs it undertakes. The willingness to commit to ventures of many years’ duration, with potential very large returns, is the hallmark of a nation confident of its own future. The fear of any commitment beyond one or two years is the symptom of disease, signaling a fundamentally hopeless view of the future and the intention to cut the losses and get out of the game. 39 Numerous challenges face our planet in the coming decades that will require us to “commit to ventures of manyyears’ duration.” Many of them, including high-visibility concerns such as environmental degradation and climatechange, are amenable to the application of space technology. As these problems move higher on the public agenda,the nation and the world will look to space technology for information and solutions. We should be ready to answerthat call. In fact, space futurism should allow us to be ready far in advance so that plans and programs are in placewhen the call comes. As we contemplate how space efforts can help us make the future a better place, we should keep in mind thiscaution from Arthur C. Clarke: [T]here is rather more to space exploration than shooting men into orbit, or taking photos of the far side of the Moon. These are merely the trivial preliminaries to the age of discovery that is now about to dawn. Though that age will provide the necessary ingredients for a renaissance, we cannot be sure that one will follow. The present situation has no exact parallel in the history of mankind; the past can provide hints, but no firm guidance. 40 References1 Robert J. Lempert, Steven W. Popper, & Steven C. Bankes, Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis (RAND Corp., Santa Monica, California, 2003), pp. 1-3.2 For example, the World Future Society’s website displays a self-selected list of nearly 50 “consulting futurists” who are offering their services to private sector and government customers. (, accessed March 17, 2008).3 Edward Cornish, Futuring: The Exploration of the Future (World Future Society, Bethesda, Maryland, 2004), p. xii.4 Collier’s magazine featured the human conquest of space in eight issues from 1952 to 1954. Contributors included Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Cornelius Ryan, and Fred L. Whipple. These authors and others provided an expanded presentation of this information in book form in Cornelius Ryan (ed.), Across the Space Frontier (New York: Viking Press, 1952).5 Disney DVD, “Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond,” released May 18, 2004. Includes “Man in Space,” originally aired March 9, 1955; “Man and the Moon,” originally aired December 28, 1955; and “Mars and Beyond,” originally aired December 4, 1957.6 Roger Launius, “Looking Backward/Looking Forward: Space Flight at the Turn of the New Millennium,” Astropolitics, Vol. 1, No. 2, Autumn 2003, pp. 64-74.7 Arthur C. Clarke, “Extraterrestrial Relays,” Wireless World, October 1945.8 Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963), pp. 190-193. 9
  10. 10. 9 Arthur C. Clarke, The Promise of Space (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1968), p. 208.10 Dandridge Cole & Donald Cox, Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids (Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1964), p. 24.11 Cole & Cox, p. 29.12 Dandridge Cole, Beyond Tomorrow: The Next 50 Years in Space (Amherst, Wisconsin: Amherst Press, 1965), p. 32.13 Cole (1965), p. 46.14 Hudson Institute History,, accessed April 2008.15 Herman Kahn & Anthony J. Wiener, The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years (New York: Macmillan Company, 1967), pp. 51-54.16 Kahn & Wiener, pp. 55-56.17 Herman Kahn el al., The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976), pp. 4-5.18 Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976).19 Gerard K. O’Neill, 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), pp. 70-74.20 Clarke (1963), pp. xi-xii.21 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962).22 Some prominent examples include the following: Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William Behrens III, “The Limits to Growth: A Report to The Club of Rome,” 1972 (executive summary at, accessed April 5, 2007); the most recent update of this work in Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004); Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 1993); Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York; Viking Press, 2005); Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Washington: Island Press, 2006).23 NASA, “Americas Next Decade in Space: A Report for the Space Task Group,” 1969.24 Space Task Group, “The Post-Apollo Program: Directions for the Future,” September 1969.25 National Commission on Space, Pioneering the Space Frontier (New York: Bantam Books, 1986).26 National Security Decision Directive 293, “Fact Sheet: Presidential Directive on National Space Policy,” February 11, 1988.27 George H.W. Bush, “Remarks by the President at 20th Anniversary of Apollo Moon Landing,” July 20, 1989.28 Dwayne Day, “Doomed to Fail: The Birth and Death of the Space Exploration Initiative” Spaceflight, Vol. 37 (1995), pp. 79-83.29 National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 31, “U.S. Space Exploration Policy,” January 14, 2004.30 For a detailed discussion of this point, see James A. Vedda, “Humans to Mars: Logical Step or Dangerous Distraction?” Presented at AIAA Space 2007, Long Beach, California, September 19, 2007 (AIAA 2007-9922).31 For a more extensive discussion of political, economic, and societal risks to long-term sustainability, see James A. Vedda, “Challenges to the Sustainability of Space Exploration,” Astropolitics, 6:1, January-April 2008, pp. 22-49.32 World Future Society, “Best Recent Books and Reports,” (accessed March 17, 2008).33 RAND Corporation, Frederick S. Pardee Center, “50 Books for Thinking About the Future Human Condition,” November 28, 2007 (, accessed March 17, 2008).34, accessed March 17, 2008.35 Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Human Space Exploration Initiative,”, accessed October 2007.36 Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004), p. 175.37 Lempert, p. 13.38 Mike McConnell, “Overhauling Intelligence,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007, pp. 49-58.39 O’Neill (1981), p. 70.40 Clarke (1963), p. 94. 10