Experts Discuss Future of U.S. Space Program

Today, Governance Studies at Brookings hosted an event to discuss the future of the U.S. space program

. The fifth annual A. Alfred Taubman Forum on Public Policy convened two panels of experts to discuss topics such as the economic benefits of private industry’s involvement, the scientific discoveries resulting from NASA’s continued space efforts and the potential for future exploration, and the government’s policies and decision-making process.

“This is no longer your grandfather’s space program.”

— Darrell West, VP and Director, Governance Studies

In his introductory remarks, Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies, said that “Space exploration long has been a symbol of American inventiveness and discovery … We’ve learned about the age of our universe, its development, the history of Mars, and asteroids that have the potential to destroy us, among other things.” However, West said, “this is no longer your grandfather’s space program.”


West moderated two panels: one on the impact of private investment into space exploration, featuring representatives from SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Sierra Nevada Corporation; and the other on the scientific community’s most important new discoveries, with the lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and a physics and astronomy professor from Northern Arizona University.

“We pay the Russians quite a bit of money to launch our astronauts to the space station.”

— Adam Harris, VP of government sales for SpaceX

Harris described his company’s collaborations with NASA on a number of programs. “Early on,” he explained, “NASA had a vision here of doing government contracting in a different way.”


Harris lamented some stagnation in the space industry. “We rely on old technology” he said, comparing the space sector to the automotive industry, where manufacturers must build safety technologies that work for 100,000 miles. He noted that advanced 3D printing with metal is a “major advancement that SpaceX is trying to use to lower the cost of building and research & development,” one that “can be translated both into our launch vehicles and our spacecraft and that will make a better result for exploration and for scientific advancement on the space side.” 

“There’s a tremendous lack of understanding in general as to the benefits of space to society.”

— Antonio Elias, Executive VP and CTO, Orbital Sciences Corporation

The “space program in general has significant general economy as well as quality of life benefits,” Elias said, “but there’s a tremendous lack of understanding in general about the benefits of space for society.” He emphasized “you have to be careful to distinguish between human spaceflight … and non-human, or robotic exploration.”


Elias also described a dual role for the private sector in space exploration:

It can help space exploration by removing from the burden of performing that space exploration a number of tasks that were once heroic, such as launching a rocket, but now can be considered close to commodities. [and]

So government and public agencies and generous philanthropists can concentrate their efforts and their resources in what is truly uniquely exploration that can then benefit society in general and leave to private industry the more mundane parts.

“We are at an incredibly exciting point in the shift of the economics of space.”

— John Roth, Vice President, Business Development, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems

Roth observed that “We’re going from a space economy that was really all government funded for 60 or more years, both the military side and the NASA side, and we’re in midst of shift to a commercial space economy.”


“The exciting thing about being in a new economy … of commercial space,” Roth said, “is we’re not exactly sure where it’s going to end up.” Citing advancements in pharmaceutical research and satellites for monitoring weather and climate, he added that “there’s so many different areas that the space economy could grow in and I think some of them are going turn out to be incredibly high economic impact and some of them are going to go bankrupt.”

“One of the things that we can learn from Mars exploration is actually how life got started on Earth.”

— Michael Meyer, Lead Scientist, Mars Exploration Program, NASA

Meyer said that the Mars exploration program has been “spectacular.” Even though Viking concluded during the 1976 mission that Mars was “cold, dry, and dead,” putting Mars exploration went into a “moribund state,” more recent discoveries of life in extreme places on Earth has revived the program. “Maybe we didn’t look at Mars the right way,” he said.


When asked to look ahead 25 years to potential future discoveries, Meyer said that “by then I think we’ll actually be able to figure out whether there are habitable planets around other stars in our galaxy. The degree to which we know how they are habitable is quite a stretch … and the refinement of that is going to be a tremendous amount of science.”

“By studying Mars, by studying where the water resources actually are, it tells us more about the evolution of these types of planets and how the Earth ties into all of that.”

— Nadine Barlow, Professor, Physics and Astronomy, Northern Arizona University

Professor Barlow explained the importance of Mars exploration in terms of water. “We have started to realize that water is very abundant both in our solar system as well as elsewhere,” she said. And:

One of the big questions that we have related to Mars is, how come it looks like it was probably very earthlike early on? And, what happened to it so that it actually has become the dry, desiccated world we see today. Could something like that happen to Earth? Could we prevent that from happening here on Earth?

By studying Mars, by studying where the water resources actually are, it tells us more about the evolution of these types of planets and how the Earth ties into all of that.

Barlow, also answered a question about the possibility of life on Earth being threatened or destroyed by an asteroid. Watch her answer:

Watch the full video of the event on the web page and read Darrell West’s overview piece on space exploration.

See also Brookings’s 1960 report to NASA, “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs.”