An oft-repeated metaphor for space exploration is that of the frontier. Its proponents argue that outer space is a bountiful domain which, if and once opened and pioneered by human civilization, offers the promise of sustained economic development, national gain, social and technological revolution, and the continued preservation and protection of our species. A meme as old as the space age itself, it is compelling to enthusiasts, pro-space activists, and, notably increasing in the present day, billionaire space entrepreneurs, many of whom perceive it as an underlying rationale for our civil and commercial space endeavors. The ultimate settlement of outer space, it holds, is the fundamental purpose for why we do space beyond the pursuit of prestige and scientific benefit.
This author, a subscriber in the metaphor, sees the view of space as a yet-unsettled frontier as providing a convincing, indeed necessary, justification for our national space activity outside the security sphere. Divorced from the settlement rationale, for example, what is the purpose of human exploration when robotics can ultimately achieve similar scientific gain cheaper, if perhaps more slowly? What is the value of multi-hundred billion dollar civil campaigns to other planets, considering the myriad issues, obligations, and responsibilities our nation faces here on Earth? Is it justifiable to continuously use taxpayer dollars to send humans on temporary jaunts into space, not to stay but merely visit? Some may think so, but the author struggles with the notion.
This piece is not intended to explain the frontier metaphor nor serve in defense of it. As a theme pervasive in science fiction and the renewed rhetoric of the commercial space industry, most involved in the field are familiar with and hold a position on it. Indeed, this piece acknowledges that, whether one views the frontier rationale as a valid metaphor or holds its tenets to be true, it has in practice been an exercise in disappointment.
Largely, the history of humanity in space has been that of one-off expeditions and the normalcy of ‘routine,’ not of sustained development, off-planet settlement, nor the other elements associated with pioneering the frontier. The legacy of Apollo has been our miring in low Earth orbit.
Much hope and even anticipation, especially among enthusiasts, have been put into the burgeoning commercial space sector as being the key to tangibly developing and “pioneering” outer space. Those expectations may well come to fruition. Still, it is important to bear in mind from historical examples that settlement has not been and cannot be solely the domain of commercial operators. Rather, most instances of past settlement, especially those frequently analogized by space advocates – cross-Atlantic and the western United States – involved cooperation and close interaction between civil, commercial, and military actors building off each other’s roles, responsibilities, and capabilities.
This will be especially true for settlement and development in space, where the costs and barriers involved are substantially higher and more difficult than the oceans and western frontiers of old. Advocates of future space settlement should see linkages and shared goals between the commercial and civil realms as necessary and beneficial. Both being elements of spacepower and our space enterprise, it strategically behooves the country for them to work more closely in tandem toward achieving those goals. As such, the inclusion of space settlement as a key NASA goal, established through policy directive, could be a means toward that end. Beyond exciting the public imagination and giving clear direction to the human space flight program, it could serve as purpose for greater cooperation and mutually beneficial capacity-building between the civil and commercial space sectors.
It is in this context, then, that recent circumstance in the policy realm should hearten advocates of the frontier vision. Within the past two years, two pieces of legislation have brought the frontier metaphor and settlement rationale back into offices and ears of United States policymakers.
The Senate’s NASA Authorization Bill
The Senate’s “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2016,” its version of a NASA authorization that leaders in Congress have spoken a need for, contains language referencing settlement as a key goal for the United States’ space effort.
Section 411 of the bill, “Human Exploration Long Term Goals,” contains (emphasis added):
“The long term goals of the human space flight and exploration efforts of NASA shall be… the peaceful settlement of a location in space or on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st century.”
Notably, this section of the bill amends Section 202(a), “Goals and Objectives,” of the last NASA authorization, the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 2010.” While that section established NASA’s continuing long-term goals, it did not amend the original NASA Act of 1958. As such, without affecting the organic NASA law that lays out the space program’s most important underlying purposes, there is no true permanency to this particular settlement language. Indeed, it is entirely reasonable to assume that the agency will take no steps toward achieving the aim.
There is past precedent to support this assumption. Section 217 of the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 1988,” entitled “Space Settlements,” declared that (emphasis added):
“the extension of human life beyond Earth’s atmosphere, leading ultimately to the establishment of space settlements, will fulfill the purposes of advancing science, exploration, and development and will enhance the general welfare.”
Moreover, it mandated that NASA prepare comprehensive biannual reports that provided a review of all research related to settlement so that Congress could gauge progress made toward the goal. Aside from the Senate’s current authorization bill, this was the only time the settlement goal was included in policy directing NASA. However, the agency never referred to the law in long-term planning and failed to provide any mandated reports, which prompted no Congressional response. Of course, if the failure of that section can be seen in anything, it is that, 28 years later, tangible action toward space settlement seems perhaps as remote as it did then.
In his reflections, Steve Wolfe, then a staffer for Rep. George Brown who was instrumental in including the settlement language in the 1988 authorization bill, noted that “what was a significant victory for the space movement upon enactment became an abysmal failure of implementation.” As to the cause of that failure, he suggested that the settlement goal “lacked a bona fide constituency from either outside or inside the government… the legislative process works best when it responds to issues with a broad base of support.”
In effect, the 1988 settlement language, as an expansion upon NASA’s goals but not an inclusion into its fundamental purpose, was not heeded by the agency, which did not view it as a truly defining directive. Lacking an invested constituency at the time, the goal was not defended by policymakers when no progress was made toward it.
The Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act
Much work, then, remains to be done if space settlement is to be made a substantively guiding purpose requiring NASA support and action. Namely, it need be included in the organic code governing NASA, providing it both a sense of permanence and necessity. To that end, there is another legislative effort for settlement advocates to set their focus.
Earlier this year, Rep. Rohrabacher introduced the “Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act of 2016,” which seeks to include the settlement goal in NASA’s organic act.
Among its provisions, it amends the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to include (emphasis added):
“The Congress declares that expanding permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit in a way that enables human settlement and a thriving space economy will enhance the general welfare of the United States and requires the Administration to encourage and support the development of permanent space settlements.”
Like the 1988 NASA authorization, the bill requires a biannual report describing progress made toward space settlements and a thriving space economy. It further requires that NASA identifies and develop metrics to gauge that progress. It calls upon the President to conduct a review of national space policy to incorporate into it the goal of space settlement. Significantly, the findings included in the bill’s language speak directly to and reflect the assumptions about the space frontier detailed at the beginning of this piece.
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in March, where it remains. Its future success in becoming law is doubtful. Nonetheless, unlike the perhaps non-substantive and rhetorical settlement language of the Senate bill, this act seeks to concretely embed the settlement purpose in the most fundamental law providing NASA direction.
Conclusions and Takeaways
Writing in 2003, Wolfe recommended that “no new space settlement legislation be pursued until there is developed a strongly committed and sufficiently large constituency ready to take meaningful action when the time comes.” 13 years later, the settlement constituency appears much larger and more committed.
The companies at its fore, Blue Origin and SpaceX, talk about “millions of people living and working in space” and “cities on Mars.” Moreso, they are taking meaningful action through the development of their long-term capabilities and approaches, as evidenced by the “New Glenn” reveal and Musk’s coming IAC ‘Mars mission architecture’ talk. Indeed, ULA too envisions thousands of people working in space by 2045. In light of these developments, Wolfe himself acknowledged last year that space settlement legislation “does have a better chance of making an impact a quarter-century later.”
Herein lies the value of the settlement language in the Senate’s current bill and the recent SEDS Act. With our national space capabilities, broadened by the continuing growth in the commercial sector, substantially different now than in 1988, the frontier metaphor and settlement rationale appears more realistic and achievable. That, for only the second time in history, policy regarding it has been issued demonstrates Congress’ growing cognizance of this new, or at least renewed, possibility.
Regardless of whether, as the legislative process continues, the Senate bill is substantially altered, the settlement language is removed, NASA authorization fails to pass, or NASA fails to act, pro-space activists need recognize this section as a crucial indicator of progress. The same is true with the SEDS Act, regadless of whether it becomes law. The rhetoric and beliefs of advocates have emerged from the enthusiast echo-chamber, taken hold in public discourse and entrepreneurial vision, and are beginning to be considered as substantial and substantive in the minds of policymakers.
Of course, be it within ten years, when Musk envisions a “sizable” population on Mars, 30 years, as ULA’s vision anticipates, or sometime in the indefinite future, as Bezos expects, space settlement is still a thing of the future.
NASA’s focus for the next 30 years is squarely on its “Journey to Mars” – a major goal, no doubt, but one that more closely mirrors the ‘flags and footprints’ approach of Apollo than a concentrated effort to move humans permanently off-Earth. The commercial sector, while growing in promising ways, is still in its nascent stage; much development, work, and practice remain before they can realistically begin to settle space. Meanwhile, the “thriving economy” described in the language and required for space settlement, as with any form of settlement, has not materialized, nor will it emerge from policy mandate alone. It will take the sustained, long-term efforts of entrepreneurs, engineers and technologists, and investors testing, failing, and succeeding with approaches and applications to bring it into being.
Yet when Kennedy issued the national goal of a man on the Moon mere weeks after Alan Shepard’s first American flight into space, it seemed as remote and challenging then as the idea of space settlement may today. The goal, however, was achieved. While granting that national pressures invigorated the spirit and determination at which the project was approached, it was crucial that there was a fundamental purpose around which NASA could organize its energy and direct its focus.
It is, then, not too soon, too early, too unrealistic to lay out space settlement as an underlying goal for our space program. It is a mission which does not advocate for a specific destination, launch vehicle or contractual arrangement. It is rather a guiding purpose around which NASA can interact, cooperate, and coordinate more closely with new space actors who view it as a defining drive. It is a method to make more cohesive our entire space enterprise.
Advocates of space settlement, who have long recognized this, should feel emboldened by this recent policy work. They should acknowledge as key takeaways:
- That the frontier metaphor remains a pervasive, if still a (decreasingly) second-tier, way of conceptualizing our purpose in outer space.
- That, more now than ever before, there is recognition that key capabilities and technologies needed for eventual space settlement are being developed by a broadening base.
- That the settlement rationale, having worked its way into the rhetoric of increasingly prominent and credible commercial space actors, has begun to gain slow traction in Congress and among policymakers.
- That there are policymakers who are not only receptive to the settlement rationale, but who are willing to do work to make it a fundamental element of our space program.
Most importantly, advocates of settlement should recognize that, if ever there was a time to redouble their efforts, it is now. Never before has a confluence of factors provided so favorable a reception to their vision. As the axiom goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The settlement of outer space will not only be a literal journey of thousands of miles, but a long-term, continuing process. Key first steps are being taken in the engineering, technology, business, and investment realms. If space settlement is to be a cohesive, cross-cutting, national effort, key first steps must be taken in the policy realm. They are beginning to; now is the time to act.