Pioneering the Space Frontier – Introduction


The year is 1935. Pan American Airways is inaugurating trans-Pacific service, with additional flying boats on order to open trans-Atlantic service in 1939. The last Pony Express rider turns over his mail pouch to a young biplane pilot while newsreel cameras grind. Almost nobody expects to fly the Atlantic—that’s for daredevils like Lindbergh—but half a million people per year cross in ocean liners. Washington’s chief concern is the Federal Deficit: $30 billion in revenues versus $50 billion in outlays (1985 dollars).

The year is 1985. Could we explain to a visitor from 1935 that more than 25 million people now fly the Atlantic every year? That 16 years ago astronauts flew at 24,790 miles per hour to the Moon? That communication satellites are flashing color television signals around the world? That a spacecraft has transmitted pictures and data from Uranus across 1.8 billion miles, and is now flying on to Neptune? That supercomputers are being used to design next-generation spacecraft that will drastically reduce the cost of space travel? Washington’s grappling with the Federal Budget deficit might sound familiar, but 50 years of cumulative technological advance would be beyond comprehension.

What will 2035 be like? The National Commission on Space has been charged by the Congress and the President to look into the future to propose civilian space goals for 21st-century America. It is as challenging for us today to envision the advanced world of 2035 as it was to foresee today’s world back in 1935. Even the most visionary science fiction writer then failed to foresee the scale of the resources that would be needed to initiate the Space Age, and that no one imagined these would become available within 25 years. Looking to the future, we are confident that the next century will see pioneering men and women from many nations working and living throughout the inner Solar System. Space travel will be as safe and inexpensive for our grandchildren as jet travel is for us. Our vision and our recommendations are outlined in this report. Through vigorous leadership on the space frontier, America can make this happen.


Having been appointed by the President of the United States and charged by the Congress to formulate a bold agenda to carry America’s civilian space enterprise into the 2 1st century; and

Having met together throughout the better part of a year to obtain testimony from experts, and from a cross-section of citizens across the country; and

Having projected the next 50 years of the Space Age, and deliberated on America’s goals for the next 20 years; and

Having prepared thereby to place before the Nation a rationale and a program to assure continuing American leadership in space;

We, the members of the National Commission on Space, now propose these space goals for 21st.-century America….


To lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.


Our Vision: The Solar System as the Home of Humanity

The Solar System is our extended home. Five centuries after Columbus opened access to “The New World” we can initiate the settlement of worlds beyond our planet of birth. ‘The promise of virgin lands and the opportunity to live in freedom brought our ancestors to the shores of North America. Now space technology has freed humankind to move outward from Earth as a species destined to expand to other worlds.

Our Purpose: Free Societies on New Worlds

The settlement of North America and other continents was a prelude to humanity’s greater challenge: the space frontier. As we develop new lands of opportunity for ourselves and our descendants, we must carry with us the guarantees expressed in our Bill of Rights: to think, communicate, and live in freedom. We must stimulate individual initiative and free enterprise in space.

Our Ambition: Opening New Resources to Benefit Humanity

Historically, wealth has been created when the power of the human intellect combined abundant energy with rich material resources. Now America can create new wealth on the space frontier to benefit the entire human community by combining the energy of the Sun with materials left in space during the formation of the Solar System.

Our Method: Efficiency and Systematic Progression

In undertaking this great venture we must plan logically and build wisely. Each new step must be justified on its own merits and make possible additional steps. American investments on the space frontier should be sustained at a small but steady fraction of our national budget.

Our Hope: Increased World Cooperation

In his essay Common Sense, published in January of 1776, Tom Paine said of American independence, “’Tis not the affair of a City, County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent…. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now.” Exploring the Universe is neither one nation’s issue, nor relevant only to our time. Accordingly, America must work with other nations in a manner consistent with our Constitution, national security, and international agreements.

Our Aspiration: American Leadership on the Space Frontier

With America’s pioneer heritage, technological preeminence, and economic strength, it is fitting that we should lead the people of this planet into space. Our leadership role should challenge the vision, talents, and energies of young and old alike, and inspire other nations to contribute their best talents to expand humanity’s future.

Our Need: Balance and Common Sense

Settling North America required the sustained efforts of laborers and farmers, merchants and ministers, artisans and adventurers, scientists and seafarers. In the same way, our space program must combine with vigor and continuity the elements of scientific research, technological advance, the discovery and development of new resources in space, and the provision of essential institutions and systems to extend America’s reach in science, industry, and the settlement of space.

Our Approach: The Critical Lead Role of Government

As formerly on the western frontier, now similarly on the space frontier, Government should support exploration and science, advance critical technologies, and provide the transportation systems and administration required to open broad access to new lands. The investment will again generate in value many times its cost to the benefit of all.

Our Resolve: To Go Forth “In Peace for All Mankind”

When the first Apollo astronauts stepped onto the Moon, they emplaced a plaque upon which were inscribed the words, “We came in peace for all mankind.” As we move outward into the Solar System, we must remain true to our values as Americans: To go forward peacefully and to respect the integrity of planetary bodies and alien life forms, with equality of opportunity for all.


Program Thrusts

The National Commission on Space proposes a future-oriented civilian space agenda with three mutually-supportive thrusts:

  • Advancing our understanding of our Planet, our Solar System, and the Universe;
  • Exploring, prospecting, and settling the Solar System; and
  • Stimulating space enterprises for the direct benefit of the people on Earth.

We judge these three thrusts to be of comparable importance. They are described in Part I of our report: Civilian Space Goals for 21st-Century America.

To accomplish them economically, the Nation must make a long-range commitment to two additional thrusts:

  • Advancing technology across a broad spectrum to assure timely availability of critical capabilities; and
  • Creating and operating systems and institutions to provide low-cost access to the space Frontier.

These two thrusts are described in Part II of our report: Low-Cost Access to the Solar System, including Building the Technology Base, constructing a Highway to Space, and establishing a Bridge between Worlds.

A Logical Approach

To meet the challenge of the space frontier, the Commission proposes a sustained step-by-step program to open the inner Solar System for exploration, basic and applied research, resource development, and human operations. This program will require a creative partnership of Government, industry, and academia of the type that has proved highly productive in previous national enterprises. U.S. leadership will be based upon a reliable, affordable transportation system and a network of outposts in space. This infrastructure will allow us to extend scientific exploration and to begin the economic development of the vast region stretching from Earth orbit outward to the surface of our Moon, to Mars and its moons, and to accessible asteroids. We can achieve our recommended program most economically and with minimum risk through a systematic program structured in accordance with the inner Solar System’s natural characteristics: energy, distance, signal delay time, and availability of resources. These characteristics lead to a natural progression for future space activities within the inner Solar System.

  • Low Earth orbits are those just beyond Earth’s atmosphere and are therefore the easiest to reach from Earth. They provide both our nearest orbital view of Earth and our nearest clear window for observation of the Universe. Freedom from strong gravitational effects allows experiments impossible on Earth and facilitates construction of large structures of low mass. In this region, our mother planet provides a sheltering skirt of magnetic field that protects us from the radiation produced by solar flares.
  • Geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles above Earth’s equator, is the orbit in which spacecraft match Earth’s 24-hour rotation and hold fixed longitudes. This valuable real estate is a tenth of the distance to the Moon and is the locale of today’s entire civil communications satellite industry.
  • Lunar distance is 240,000 miles. The Moon is our nearest nonterrestrial source of abundant materials. The energy required to bring materials from the Moon to high Earth orbit is less than a twentieth of that needed to lift an equal mass from Earth to such an orbit. Round-trip communication time for a television image traveling at the speed of light to arrive from lunar distance and for a responding command signal from Earth can be as low as three seconds. This short time may allow practical teleoperation of remote machines on the Moon by people on Earth.
  • Mars and the asteroids are the nearest resource-rich bodies beyond our Moon. Because they are on the order of 1,000 times as far away, voyages to them require many months. Even at the speed of light, round-trip communication with them involves times of 10 to 40 minutes, so robotic machines on these Solar System bodies must be “smarter” than those on the Moon. However, certain distant objects with valuable resources can be reached with low energy expenditure, including the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and some asteroids.
  • Work sites and energy. We gain access to useful materials when we land on a moon or planet, but pay a price in propellants to descend to those surfaces. There we also lose full-time solar energy, which is valuable for industrial processing, and lose microgravity, which is advantageous for building large space structures. Early industrial production in space may, therefore, be best achieved by transporting raw materials from the Moon to high orbit for processing and fabrication into finished products in robotic factories powered by continuous solar energy. As on Earth, the economics of mining, processing, transportation, fabrication, and point of utilization will determine the best locations for transportation hubs and industrial centers within the inner Solar System.

Principal Recommendations

Consistent with our proposed five basic thrusts and the logical approach outlined above, the major parts of our report that follow include a number of specific recommendations.

Advancing Science

We recommend an aggressive space science program with three major objectives: (1) understanding the structure and evolution of the Universe, our Galaxy, our Solar System, and planet Earth, including the emergence and spread of fife; (2) applying this understanding to forecast future phenomena of critical significance to humanity; and (3) using the environment of spaceflight and the tools of space technology to study the basic properties of matter and fife. We have reviewed the current plans of U.S. science advisory groups for orderly progress toward these goals in the several disciplines of science. We endorse these plans, and note that an exciting opportunity exists to integrate the research results from previously separate disciplines. In order to foster this integrated approach to research on fundamental questions in science, the Commission recommends:

A sustained program to understand the evolution of the Universe, through astronomical facilities of increasing power, precision, and sophistication at locations in more distant Earth orbits and at eventual locations on the Moon.

A study of the evolution of the Solar System by using samples retimed from selected planets, moons, asteroids, and comets. With returned samples, we can use all of our sophisticated laboratory technologies to perform the analyses. The results will also contribute significantly to the future discovery and utilization of space resources.

A global study of planet Earth using both ground- and space-based instruments. The goal of the study is in-depth understanding of the processes that shape our planet’s interior, oceans, atmosphere, and polar ice caps, with particular emphasis on phenomena which affect, or are affected by, life, and the means to forecast, quantitatively, such phenomena.

A study of the Sun and the vast region it influences, using remote sensing from Earth as well as interplanetary probes. We must seek to understand the generation of energy deep in the Sun, its transformation into radiations that affect Earth and planets as well as life, and its interaction with solar and planetary magnetic fields. The processes involved occur throughout all space, so our understanding will be broadly applicable.

A continuing program to search for evidence that life exists—or has existed—beyond Earth, by studying other bodies of the Solar System, by searching for planets circling other stars, and by searching for signals broadcast by intelligent life elsewhere in the Galaxy.

Provision of state-of-the-art facilities for laboratory experiments on the ground and on the Space Station to increase the returns from the Nation’s investment in space science, with particular attention to computer, modeling, data access, advanced graphics, and artificial intelligence software.

New research into the effects of different gravity levels on humans and other biological systems, as well as on processes in physics and chemistry. The planned space program and the extension proposed here provide both the opportunity and necessity to resolve fundamental questions and to solve pacing problems that depend on gravity. Particularly needed are long-duration studies of the reactions of humans and plants to the microgravity of free space, the one-sixth gravity of the Moon, and the one-third gravity of Mars.

Exploring, Prospecting, and Settling the Solar System

In addition to basic scientific research, we propose specific applied-science investigations to discover, study, and learn to use for human benefit the resources on the space frontier. These materials have special value because they do not have to be lifted from Earth and carried over a long supply line. As a natural consequence of these investigations, the future will see growing numbers of people working at Earth orbital, lunar, and, eventually, Martian bases, initiating the settlement of vast reaches of the inner Solar System.

Living in space will be practical even though for long-term good health, people and the food crops that support them require atmosphere, water, sunlight, protection from radiation, and probably some gravity. Technological advances will permit all of these requirements to be met in free space; food, oxygen, and water can be recycled within an artificial biosphere, shielding from cosmic and solar flare radiation can be provided by lunar soil transported from the Moon with little energy, and artificial gravity can be provided by rotation. In the event of illness or accident, we can return people to Earth from lunar distance within a few days. Thus, the Earth-Moon region is favored for initial industrial production and for testing prototype spaceships and life-support equipment for later voyages to Mars and its moons.

To support these activities the Commission recommends:

Continuing robotic prospector missions, using the techniques of remote sensing and of on-site measurements to discover and characterize usable materials on our Moon, Mars and its moons, and accessible asteroids. A very high priority should be given to discovering any resources that may be” frozen near the lunar poles, to determining the potential water and hydrocarbon resources on the surfaces of Phobos, Deimos, and near-surface layers of Mars, and to charting and analyzing all of the asteroids that pass close to Earth.

Missions to obtain samples from selected sites on out Moon, Mars and its moons, and the most accessible asteroids. When prospector missions have identified the presence of valuable chemical elements, sample return missions will be needed to bring back enough material to characterize the minerals and initiate industrial process development based on the physical and chemical properties of the samples.

Robotic and human exploration and surveying of substantial areas and special features of the Moon and Mars. This effort will begin on the Moon with automated roving vehicles teleoperated from Earth, and on Mars with vehicles having substantial artificial intelligence. Robots will be followed by the first astronaut arm operating from lunar and Martian outposts and bases.

Human outposts and bases in the inner Solar System. On the space frontier, habitations with closed-ecology life-support systems and reliable power plants will be needed to support work crews and, eventually, their families for long-duration work. Maintenance of good health for people working on science, exploration, and enterprise in distant communities, some of them at less than Earth-normal gravity, requires more knowledge and the development of dependable new systems. The development of long-duration habitation in space, based upon local resources, is essential to the support of activities in all three of our primary areas: science, exploration, and enterprise.

Space Enterprise

Our proposals span the range from involving private enterprise more heavily in post-shuttle space transportation to the support of major new industries. We propose that NASA should have a role in encouraging new space enterprises through technological development and demonstration analogous to its traditional successful support of the private sector in aeronautical research. It is imperative that the private sector be much more heavily involved in defining the nature and specifications of future launch vehicles. This will help ensure the adoption of commercial practices that will reduce operating costs and make it possible to transfer operation of these vehicles to the private sector. Future vehicles for cargo and passenger transport should be designed to be readily operable by the private sector after development is complete and routine operation is reached. To accomplish this the Commission recommends: That wherever possible the private sector be given the cask of providing specified services or products in space, and be free to determine the most cost-effective ways to satisfy those requirements, consistent with evolving Federal regulations. We also recommend: That NASA initiate research and development now on systems and processes for application beyond low Earth orbit.

These systems should include tele-operated machines to repair and refuel satellites in high orbit, and the machines of robotic lunar pilot plants. Lunar resource utilization will depend on automated and tele-operated machines which are reliable and easy to use. This equipment must be developed through the pilot-plant stage for robotic plants capable of transforming lunar and other non-terrestrial raw materials into propellants, shielding materials, structural elements, and industrial raw materials.

Building the Technology Base

The United States must substantially increase its investment in its space technology base. We recommend: A threefold growth in NASA’s base technology budget to increase this item from two percent to six percent of NASA’s total budget. This growth will permit the necessary acceleration of work in many critical technical fields from space propulsion and robotic construction to high-performance materials, artificial intelligence, and the processing of non-terrestrial materials. We also recommend: Special emphasis on intelligent autonomous systems. Cargo trips beyond lunar distance will be made by unpiloted vehicles; the earliest roving vehicles on the Martian surface will be unpiloted; and processing plants for propellants from the materials on asteroids, Phobos, or Mars will run unattended. To support these complex, automated, remote operations, a new generation of robust, fault-tolerant, pattern-recognizing automata is needed. They must employ new computers, sensors, and diagnostic and maintenance equipment that can avoid accidents and repair failures. These systems must be capable of taking the same common-sense corrective actions that a human operator would take. These developments by NASA should also have broad application to 21st-century U.S. industry.

We recommend demonstration projects in seven critical technologies:

  • Flight research on aerospace plane propulsion and aerodynamics;
  • Advanced rocket vehicles;
  • Aerobraking for orbital transfer;
  • Long-duration closed-ecosystems (including water, air, and food);
  • Electric launch and propulsion systems;
  • Nuclear-electric space power; and
  • Space tethers and artificial gravity.

These base technology and demonstration programs are discussed in detail in Part II of our report: Building the Technology Base.

Highway to Space

The two most significant contributions the U.S. Government can make to opening the space frontier are to ensure continuity of launch services and to reduce drastically transportation costs within the inner Solar System. The shuttle fleet will become obsolescent by the turn of the century. Reliable, economical launch vehicles will be needed to provide flexible, routine access to orbit for cargo and passengers at reduced costs. A complementary system is needed for low-cost transport from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit and lunar distance. To reduce space operation costs as soon as possible, the Commission recommends that: Three major space transport needs be met in the next 15 years; the three major transport systems requirements are:

  • Cargo transport to low Earth orbit;
  • Passenger transport to and from low Earth orbit; and
  • Round-trip transfer beyond low Earth orbit.

For cargo transport, we propose that a new vehicle be put into operation by the year 2000 with a goal of achieving operation costs of $200 per pound delivered into orbit.

For passenger transport, we see two competing developments for the follow-on to the shuttle: an advanced reusable rocket vehicle, or an airbreathing aerospace plane. These piloted vehicles could carry both passengers and compact cargo. Accordingly, we propose an intensive technology-base program for the next five years to provide critical engineering data on both systems so the Nation can make a sound selection by 1992. Key technologies include computational fluid dynamics, dual-fuel rocket propulsion, supersonic combustion ramjet engines, high performance materials, structures, aerodynamics, thermal shielding, and launch automation.

The airbreathing hypersonic propulsion has broad potential for a number of 21st-century applications, including intercontinental passenger transport, low-cost orbital transport, and a wide range of defense missions. The Commission therefore supports a major national commitment to achieve early flight research with an experimental aerospace plane. We also believe that in the next century the passenger transport system should, be developed and operated privately for routine non-military operation between Earth and low Earth orbit.

For destinations beyond Earth orbit, a new transfer vehicle will be required. In the coming era of fully reusable Earth-to-orbit vehicles, the needs of Government and industry for the reliable emplacement of expensive satellites beyond low Earth orbit will require new space-based “workhorse” vehicles designed for flexibility through modular systems. Basic components should be capable of being ganged, or provided with extra tankage, for higher energy missions. They should be capable of transporting both cargo and people, be reusable, employ aerobraking, and be adapted to on-orbit servicing, maintenance, test, and repair. A transfer vehicle will be required to lift large payloads to geostationary orbit, to move payloads and crews to lunar orbit, to land payloads on the lunar surface, and to travel beyond the Earth-Moon system. Its Space Station base may be a critical pacing item. This vehicle should be designed for return to a low Earth orbit spaceport using aerobraking. The Commission recommends that: The U.S. Space Station program be kept on schedule for an operational capability by 1994, without a crippling and expensive “stretch-out,” and a space-based robotic transfer vehicle be developed to initiate a Bridge between ‘Worlds.

Bridge Between Worlds

Many of the systems needed for reaching outward to the planet Mars will be proven in the course of work in the Earth-Moon region. Others fisted here are special to operations conducted at distances so remote from Earth that tele-operation and close mission support are not possible. To build the 21st-century Bridge Between Worlds that will open the Solar System, the Commission recommends:

Developing reliable high-performance electric propulsion systems, including mass-drivers and ion propulsion able to operate throughout the entire Solar System. Candidate technologies should be pursued vigorously to ensure that they wilt be ready when needed. Mass-driver reaction engines would be able to use as propellants raw materials from Earth’s Moon, Phobos, Deimos, or asteroids. They, and other electric thrusters, would be able to run on solar or nuclear electric power.

Developing fully self-sustaining biospheres independent of Earth. For routine operation beyond the Moon, it is essential that fife support be maintained using on-site materials, without reliance on long supply lines.

Establishing initial outposts and bases on the Moon and Mars that combine objectives, including life-support, science, exploration, prospecting, resource development, material processing, automated rocket fuel production, and robotic fabrication. Long-term exponential growth into eventual permanent settlements should be the overarching goal.

An Economical, Phased Approach

In considering the financial resources required to carry out our recommended agenda and future civilian space budget levels needed to meet our goals, the Commission considered the potential growth of the U.S. economy from a number of perspectives, as discussed in Part IV of our report: 21st-Century America. Based on what we believe to be realistic growth assumptions, we are confident that the long-range agenda we recommend can be carried out within reasonable civilian space budgets. Figure 1 [not included here] outlines our phased approach to achieve low-cost access to the Solar System. The Highway to Space starts with economical new cargo and passenger transport vehicles, adding a transfer vehicle for destinations beyond low Earth orbit. These three systems would become operational in conjunction with an orbital spaceport within 15 years. In the following 5 years, the Bridge Between Worlds would support initial robotic lunar surface operations, followed by a permanent outpost to support astronaut operations. In 10 more years the space bridge would be extended out to Mars for detailed robotic exploration followed by a Mars outpost for human activity. To achieve this the Commission recommends that: The phased space transportation network outlined in Figure 1 be developed and placed in operation. It starts with simple components, but evolves over time into a system of spaceports, bases, and connecting transportation systems that will open the space frontier for large-scale exploration, science, and the initiation of economic development. Resources will be utilized where they are found, to minimize the need for resources transported from Earth. This inner Solar System network will ensure continuing American leadership in space in the next century.

Implementing the Program

The hallmarks of this program are the technological advances needed for major cost-reduction and capability extension. Figure 2 [not included here] depicts the growth of the U.S. Gross National Product (GNP) for the past 25 years, and projects it forward for 50 years at an annual growth rate of 2.4 percent, as discussed in Part IV of our report, The estimated annual costs of the space advances that are outlined in Figure 1 are shown as an extension of the U.S. civilian space budgets of the past quarter century, assuming continuing international and commercial contributions to the program. Note that the percentage of the U.S. GNP invested in opening the space frontier would remain below one-half of the percentage spent on space during the peak Apollo years. We believe that these estimated levels of expenditure win prove to be affordable and reasonable in view of America’s projected economic growth and the increasing significance of space development in the next century. We recognize, however, that this long-range program is a new challenge to the management of our Nation’s space enterprise. For this reason we recommend that: The Administration and the Congress continue to work together to set a new long-range direction and pace for America’s civilian space program. We sincerely hope that this Commission’s report will contribute to a reexamination of and fresh approach to America’s future in space. We see the need for longer-range vision, greater leadership, and more effective management of critical technological, financial, and institutional resources. This will also facilitate greater public understanding and participation, and more rewarding international partnerships.

The Commission’s report has value only to the extent that its recommended space goals for 21st-century America are adopted and acted upon. If the decision is made to proceed along these lines, the detailed review, planning, and budget preparation should be carried out by NASA in consultation with NOAA and other agencies. The Commission therefore recommends that: The President and the Congress direct the Administrator of NASA to review the Commission’s findings and proposed space agenda, and by December 31, 1986, to recommend a long-range implementation plan, including a specific agenda for the next five years.

Improved Oversight Through a Longer-Range Perspective

The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management has recommended a number of reforms in defense systems acquisition that parallel our conclusions on improving the management of America’s civilian space program. We recommend three specific changes similar to those proposed by the Packard Panel:

Twenty-year civilian space program and five-year budget planning to establish long-range goals and budgets for review and decision by the Administration and the Congress;

Multi-year procurements to replace year-by-year funding, with firm decisions that eliminate annual changes which have proven very costly to NASA and its contractors;

Two-year overall approval of civilian space budgets by the Office of Management and Budget and the appropriate Congressional committee to replace annual line-by-line auditing.

International Cooperation and Competition

This is discussed in detail in the section: International Cooperation and Competition. In proposing continuing American leadership on the space frontier, the Commission recommends that: Vigorous steps be taken to attract other nations to work in partnership with us. We must mobilize this planet’s most creative minds to help us achieve our challenging goals. All of humankind will benefit from cooperation on the space frontier.

Twelve Technological Milestones in Space

The program we propose sets the stage for exciting achievement ‘ s in pioneering the space frontier. A dozen challenging technological milestones would mark our progress:

  • Initial operation of a permanent Space Station;
  • Initial operation of dramatically lower cost transport vehicles to and from low Earth orbit for cargo and passengers;
  • Addition of modular transfer vehicles capable of moving cargoes and people from low Earth orbit to any destination in the inner Solar System;
  • A spaceport in low Earth orbit;
  • Operation of an initial lunar outpost and pilot production of rocket propellant;
  • Initial operation of a nuclear electric vehicle for high-energy missions to the outer planets;
  • First shipment of shielding mass from the Moon;
  • Deployment of a Spaceport in lunar orbit to support expanding human operations on the Moon;
  • Initial operation of an Earth-Mars transportation system for robotic precursor missions to Mars;
  • First flight of a cycling spaceship to open continuing passenger transport between Earth orbit and Mars orbit;
  • Human exploration and prospecting from astronaut outposts on Phobos, Deimos, and Mars; and
  • Start-up of the first Martian resource development base to provide oxygen, water, food, construction materials, and rocket propellants.

With these giant steps, America will lead a dynamic movement of humankind to new worlds in the 21st century.


The new space program we propose for 21st-century America will return tangible benefits in three forms:

  • By “pulling-through” advances in science and technology of critical importance to the Nation’s future economic strength and national security;
  • By providing direct economic returns from new space-based enterprises that capitalize upon broad, low-cost access to space; and
  • By opening new worlds on the space Frontier, with vast resources that can free humanity’s aspirations from the limitations of our small planet of birth.

“Pulling-Through” Technology

As we learned in World WarII, government-academia-industry teams mobilized to accelerate advances in science and technology can build the foundations for new growth industries even though the original objectives were narrowly focused on military requirements. Wartime breakthroughs in jet propulsion, antibiotics, synthetic rubber, oil pipelines, nuclear energy, microwave radar, liquid-fueled rockets, radio guidance, electronic computers, and other systems led to America’s high growth industries of the 1960s and 1970s in global jet transport, pharmaceuticals, synthetic materials, nuclear electric power, microwave communication, electronic computers, and many others. Technological advances from later Government programs made possible today’s weather satellites, global marine communications, and the multibillion-dollar communications satellite industry that links together more than 100 nations on every continent. The space program has also initiated additional fledgling industries in remote sensing, direct broadcast, and navigation that appear likely to become future growth industries.

The program we recommend will motivate people, provide new standards of excellence, and stimulate many fields of science and technology, including those that we believe will be most critical to the economic growth of 21st century America. Specific examples include artificial intelligence, robotics, tele-operation, process automation, hypersonic flight, low-cost global and orbital transport, optical communication and data processing systems, ultrahigh-strength and high-temperature materials, supercomputers, wireless power transmission, pollution-free vehicles (electric and hydrogen-oxygen fueled), orbital antenna farms, closed-ecology biosphere operation (which could revolutionize intensive agriculture)—and myriad others.

Return from Investment in Technology

In the last 50 years, Government-sponsored research and development created “enabling technologies” in aeronautics and in communications satellites. The needs of governmental agencies and of the public for new services attracted private capital to apply those technologies, leading to great new global industries. In the airmail contracts of the 1920s and 1930s, a public need for service played an additional vital role through the guarantee of markets to assist the growth of fledgling airline companies.

During the next 20 years, the Space Station may spark new industries by serving as a space laboratory for academic and industrial researchers. New processes of economic significance can be expected from applied materials and processes research in microgravity. Other new economic opportunities may come through laboratory environments isolated from Earth’s biosphere, through the orbital global perspective for communications, navigation and observation of Earth, and through increased public access to space. Obtaining a return from new processes will require private investment in orbiting industrial parks established to provide common services to entrepreneurial companies carrying out independent operations in orbit.

New Space-Based Enterprises

In order to attract substantial private capital to bad new space industries, the Government should create as early as possible the least expensive enabling technologies sufficient to open the energy and material resources of space. The private sector, especially its entrepreneurial part, is well situated and motivated to find the most rapid way to serve new markets. Companies are driven by the need to obtain returns on their investments, and financing is extremely difficult to obtain for high-risk ventures unless the returns occur quickly. This forces speed and concentration on specific opportunities.

We believe there will be such opportunities when the Highway to Space is extended via the Bridge between Worlds to high orbit and the Moon. The first products based upon materials found on the Moon include oxygen for rocket propellants and raw mass for shielding piloted orbital stations against cosmic and solar flare radiation. When the Highway to Space is extended to the Moon, an opportunity will be created to bring those products to Earth orbit at far less cost in energy than lifting them from Earth.

The transfer vehicle, capable of round-trip journeys from low orbit to the Moon and of piloted or remotely piloted operation, to which we give high priority in our recommendations, is the enabling technology needed to emplace experimental plants-which could be operated by the private sector. When that second link in our space transport system is completed, the event will compare in significance to the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah more than a century ago that marked completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Private companies, driven by their need for rapid return on investment, could make use of the transfer vehicle to emplace economical pilot plants to provide lunar-derived shielding and oxygen. These plants would make strong use of robotics technology and. would probably be tele-operated remotely from Earth. They would serve a highly valuable reinforcing role to the long-term space program by demonstrating soon the practical value of space resources. The Government could serve a vital role and reduce its own costs for space operations by committing to buy shielding and oxygen in Earth orbit.

We cannot foresee the ingenuity that companies, established or entrepreneurial, will bring to the building of new industries in the 21st century based upon the Highway to Space. Nor can we know the individuals whose names will rank with Douglas, Boeing, Sikorsky, and the other pioneers of the aeronautical industry. But looking back for analogies, we know that one of America’s greatest heroes, Charles Lindbergh, practiced the skills of piloting in heavy weather, prior to his Atlantic crossing, by flying the U.S. mail.

New Worlds on the Space Frontier

The immediate benefits from advances in science and technology and from new economic enterprises in space are sufficient in our view to justify the civilian space agenda we propose. However, we believe that the longer-term benefits from the settling of new worlds and the economic development of the inner Solar System will prove even more rewarding to humanity. These returns are difficult to quantify. What was the true value of developing and settling North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand? Today more people speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese in the New World than in Europe, and they have built economies surpassing those of Europe. But the contributions to humanity from Columbus’ “New World” are surely far beyond its material returns, impressive as they are. We believe that in removing terrestrial limits to human aspirations, the execution of our proposed space agenda for 21st-century America will prove of incalculable value to planet Earth and to the future of our species.

PIONEERING THE SPACE FRONTIER:     Part 1     Table of Contents