Remarks by Dr. John H. Gibbons |
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology
at the Wernher von Braun Lecture
March 22, 1995
National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
The New Frontier: Space Science and
Technology in the Next Millennium
I'm delighted to be with you this evening. It's a honor to be here.
A new millennium is nearly upon us. The next few years mark the
transition between the twilight of one age and the dawn of the next.
During this transition, we will have the opportunity to reflect upon the
great and dynamic changes that are taking place around us:
- Here at home, Americans are asking fundamental questions about the
social contract that binds them together and to their government;
- Around the world, new forms of cooperation between governments are
reducing barriers to commerce, technology, and culture, enhancing the
prospects for new forms of collaboration, and defining anew the meaning
of national boundaries;
- Dramatic and unparalleled advances in technologies for information,
health, transportation and the environment are fundamentally redefining
how we live and work;
- We continue our struggle with the problems of environmental
degradation and overpopulation, with violence and famine caused by
centuries-old ethnic and religious conflicts and, with an increased
threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Tonight, I would like to reflect upon both the role that the space
program has played, and continues to play, in enabling technological and
societal change and how these changes have, in turn, altered our
perception of space research and exploration. I would like to share with you
a vision for the future of US and international space activities. A
vision that is simultaneously optimistic and affordable; practical and, I
Why we Go to Space
Space technology has been one of the defining forces of this century.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957 and the ensuing space race
to the moon came to symbolize the conflict between the competing world
views of communism and democracy. Space became the ideological
battlefield upon which each country sought to demonstrate its prowess
and win global influence.
This titanic struggle yielded dark moments -- such as the Cuban missile
crisis -- where it seemed to many that technology would ultimately be the
undoing of mankind. But there were also bright moments, such as the
Apollo moon landing, where space technologies seemed to light
a clear path to the future. In following this path, the United States
has discovered that:
First, space applications are a practical and essential part of our
- Satellites provide essential communication services to both the
developed and the developing world. Whether it is the global
distribution of news and entertainment, or the regional delivery of
health care and educational programming, satellites constitute a
critical component of the emerging Global Information Infrastructure.
- Space also provides a unique vantage point from which to analyze and
monitor our complex planet. Satellites have dramatically increased our
ability to predict the weather and its many consequences; Multi-spectral
imagery from space has provided unprecedented advances in regional and
global resources management; and, satellites for treaty verification
have helped us to keep the peace.
- Finally, the diverse scientific, military, and commercial
applications of the Global Positioning System are revolutionizing how we
work, play and travel. Although originally developed for military use,
the United States has welcomed the global use of GPS for a wide range of
peaceful purposes and anticipates the pivotal role that GPS could
play in the global air traffic management systems of the future.
Second, space research and technology can make us better stewards of our
The very first images of the Earth from weather satellites and from the
Apollo missions literally changed our view of the planet. In these
pictures -- particularly the one known as the "Blue Marble" -- the Earth,
hanging in empty space, seemed, for the first time, small and fragile.
Astronaut Bill Anders, remembering his first view of Earth from the
Apollo 8 command module, said: "Looking at the Earth and seeing it
floating like -- I thought, since it was Christmastime -- a little
Christmas tree ornament against an infinite black backdrop of space ...
it seemed so very finite. It was this view of the fragility and
finiteness of the Earth that is the impression, frankly, that I hold more
in my head than any other."
It was Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who later
pointed out that although we had sent highly sophisticated spacecraft to
study other planets, we had not taken a
similar interest in our own planet. She led a study group that
recommended a program to accomplish this task and dubbed it, somewhat
ironically, "Mission to Planet Earth."
The simple truth is that we still don't understand well enough how our
planet works and how human activities are affecting the biosphere. Space
technology can play a pivotal role in this research. For example, we
learned more about ocean circulation from a single US/French
satellite than in the whole history of ocean research. Satellite
measurements also played a critical role in monitoring and understanding
ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere, thereby
averting a major health and biological catastrophe.
And we are just getting started. Some two dozen missions to study the
global environment will be flown by the year 2000. NASA's Mission to
Planet Earth, and its companion programs in the US and other nations, are
building the knowledge base that is a critical prerequisite for achieving
a sustainable future.
Third, space exploration is providing phenomenal insights into the
nature of the Universe.
1994 was an absolutely outstanding year for space science. Indeed,
astronomer John Bahcall has called it -- perhaps with only a little
exaggeration -- the most important year to be alive for astronomers since
the dawn of man. The Hubble Space Telescope is simply wowing
the world. Most recently, it has given us striking evidence that the
universe may be billions of years younger than we thought. It's found
conclusive evidence that massive black holes exist at
the core of active galaxies. And, it's brought us the first views of
infant galaxies, which formed only about two billion years after the Big
And that's not all.
- Hubble data have confirmed the existence of protoplanetary disks
around newborn stars. This is the strongest evidence yet that the same
basic process that formed the planets in our Solar System may be common
throughout the galaxy.
- Looking Earthward, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory contributed to
the discovery of a strange new phenomenon known as upper atmospheric
flashes that may provide a link between phenomena in the Earth's lower
atmosphere and events in the upper layers of our atmosphere.
- The Comet Shoemaker-Levy's collision with Jupiter in July was a
seminal event for astronomers. Such events may occur in the solar
system only once every thousand years or more. The early detection of
the comet by the Near Earth Object Program allowed unprecedented
preparation to observe this event from ground and space-based
observatories, sparking worldwide interest from the scientific community
and the public.
And finally, cooperation in space offers us a new vision of global
International cooperation in space offers a rare opportunity for nations
to pool their interests and resources in exciting and challenging
ventures. Such cooperation is a laudable
successor to the dark conflict that characterized the birth of the space
program. The Apollo moon landing was, assuredly, an American victory,
yet it seemed then, as now, "a giant leap for all mankind."
But the Cold War did not end with Apollo. For years, the US and Russian
space programs continued along their separate paths, not really
competitors, not yet partners. Then the Berlin Wall came down. The
Soviet Union fell apart under its own weight. And the world
changed dramatically. The space programs of both countries had to adapt
to a changing world. Gradually, we came to see the space program as a
tool for building peace and international understanding rather than a
weapon of the Cold War.
This is why, in 1984, the United States invited our close allies in
Europe, Japan, and Canada to join us in building a space station. And,
this is why the Clinton Administration, a decade later, took the bold
step of inviting the Russians to be full partners in the International
Visions of the Future
But what next? Are the glory days of the space program in front of us
or behind us? Although physicist Niels Bohr's warned that "It is very
difficult to make an accurate prediction,
especially if it's about the future" -- I feel confident in predicting that the best days of the space
program are yet to come. In the future, space will play an increasingly important role in our
daily lives, in our science, our adventures, and the security of this nation. I would like to take
a few moments to examine some of the ways in which space technology will continue to change
the world in which we live.
The Information Society
Today, we are in the midst of a digital revolution that promises to
transform the way we use and share information. Satellites, including
the new generations of hand-held mobile and broad-band communications
satellites, will play a critical role in this revolution. They will
provide affordable links to the global network from the most remote
corners of the planet. And they will help link existing terrestrial
networks as well. The result will be more open markets,
more freedom of information, stronger democracies, more productive
workers, and a higher quality of life for billions of people around the
Satellites will help communications and computer companies to develop
ever more sophisticated products and services. A new generation of
"information appliances" will replace today's computers, cellular phones,
and televisions: wallet-sized, wireless, personal digital assistants
that help you organize your life and keep in touch with your office,
digital newspapers, magazines, and books delivered directly to your
laptop computer, and new learning tools using virtual reality or
providing access to huge digital libraries of information. These new
tools will enable users to access and manipulate data in ways that we
cannot even imagine today.
We can see examples of what will be possible in the future in the
research community today, particularly among scientists using remote
sensing data and computer models. Because their work is so
data-intensive and because it requires interdisciplinary collaboration,
researchers have developed software and networking technology that
enables people around the country to access, manipulate, and share huge
data files of imagery. Experiments currently being conducted
by NASA and industry on the Advanced Communication Technology Satellite
are demonstrating that satellites too will play an important role in
networked, high data rate communications.
The New Explorers -- Putting our Minds Where our Feet Won't Go
In the future, we will continue our exploration of the solar system and
beyond. However, this exploration will proceed in ways that would have
surprised, and I think fascinated, Wernher von Braun.
The von Braun paradigm -- that humans were destined to physically
explore the solar system -- which he so eloquently described in Colliers
Magazine in the early 1950's was bold, but his vision was highly
constrained by the technology of his day. For von Braun, humans were
the most powerful and flexible exploration tool that he could imagine.
Today we have within our grasp technologies that will fundamentally
redefine the exploration paradigm. We have the ability to put our minds
where our feet can never go. We will soon be able to take ourselves --
in a virtual way -- anywhere from the interior of a molecule to the
planets circling a nearby star -- And there exclaim, "Look honey, I
shrunk the Universe!"
Today, the great challenge of space exploration and utilization is
making it affordable and efficient. I am happy to say that's exactly
what Dan Goldin and NASA are trying to do. The
Jet Propulsion Lab, for example, is now developing concepts for a
ten-pound spacecraft that is no bigger than your fist.
The next century will likely see the flowering of a new manufacturing
revolution, enabling an armada of tiny, intelligent machines to travel
outward from Earth to explore new worlds. These small spacecraft will
require less power and smaller, lower-cost launch systems. They will
take advantage of next generation on-board intelligence capabilities and
will have little need for elaborate terrestrial control and operation
centers. The result will be to greatly increase the
science output while reducing the physical and human resources required
to develop and operate a mission.
There will even be occasions when we conduct dramatic new exploration
missions without ever sending spacecraft to distant worlds. In the not
too distant future, we may have the technology needed to image planets
that may be orbiting nearby stars. It might be possible to
infer through spectroscopic analysis of their atmospheres or the color
of their oceans whether they are life-bearing. What a revelation that
All of these options will greatly enhance our research into the human
role in exploration. We are firmly committed to the space station, not
only because it opens a door to new research,
but because it is an essential step in understanding how humans react to
the space environment. Early in the next century we will hopefully
understand the difficult questions of bone loss and blood chemistry that
currently beset astronauts spending long periods in space. With this
knowledge and the knowledge obtained from our robot explorers, we will
be prepared to answer the important questions about the next destination
for humans in space.
A New Understanding of the Planet Earth
As we set out to explore new worlds, we must also be good stewards of
the one world in which we all live -- and the only world we can count on.
- In the words of Robert Burns:
- O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
to see oursels as others see us!
it wad frae mony a blunder free us...
Perhaps it was the view from space that Burns was imagining! One of the
space program's most important contributions is to increase our
understanding of our planet so that we may enhance life on Earth.
As the century ends, the United States and its international partners
will have an array of sensors in Earth orbit measuring the atmosphere,
oceans, biosphere and land surfaces, as well as the interaction among
these elements. These sensors will be linked by sophisticated information
systems providing data to scientists and researchers. This work will
produce answers to fundamental questions about the Earth, how its systems
interact, and how and why it changes.
We will have powerful new tools for analyzing weather, for the
longer-term prediction of floods, drought, violent storms and the
dynamics of biological change, such as disease and the migration of flora
and fauna. We will have a complete survey of the Antarctic ice sheet, and we
will be making the first assessments of changes in thickness of the
Greenland ice sheet and the first global rainfall assessment. In the
future, routine forecasting of El Nino occurrences and consequences will
be possible with enormous potential for economic savings.
Soon we will be able to perform repeated global inventories of land use
and land cover from space, evaluate the consequences of observed changes,
and analyze the consequences of different preventative and adaptive
practices. We will use satellites for the first global
assessment of air pollution in the lower atmosphere, leading to
continual assessment of changes in global air quality.
In short, space technology can give us the information we need to
understand the role that human activities play in this complex cycle as
well as the influence of "natural phenomena." This knowledge is
absolutely essential if we are to be responsible stewards of this planet.
How We Will Get There
Space science and exploration has inspired and enriched us. What more
could we ask? Well, as they say, "happiness can't buy money." The
current review of budgets and programs in the Administration and in
Congress implies that even high priority programs, such as space
science and exploration, will be coming under increased scrutiny.
That's the bad news. The good news is that much of what we must do to
develop an aggressive space program for the future has already been started.
First, we are truly reinventing NASA. This means that we must take an
organization established during the Cold War as a federally mobilized
response to Sputnik, and transform it into an agency that is more
relevant to today's economy and today's world. An agency that will
once again define excellence in space science and technology. This task
will be difficult and it will not be done without some legitimate pain.
However, reducing the size of NASA is not an end in itself. We must
also work with NASA to change the way it does business. The aerospace
industry has matured considerably since the days of Apollo. As a result,
the private sector can now accomplish many of the tasks formerly done by
the government. Satellite communications, space launch, and remote sensing
were all originally government programs but are now being offered
successfully by the private sector. In the future, we must ensure that
NASA does only those things that it does best.
NASA's 1996 budget contains a number of programs that already
incorporate this new approach. For example, the Reusable Launch Vehicle
(RLV) program will focus on developing low-cost, next-generation launch
vehicles, while the Discovery program will seek to advance the
state of the art of spacecraft for space exploration. Both of these
programs have sought, from the beginning, to include significant industry
participation, management, and funding.
Finally, we must to seek creative ways for the space programs of the
world to combine their talents, resources, and facilities to accomplish
goals that are beyond the reach of any one country. Space Station and
Mission to Planet Earth provide us with early examples of this trend.
In the future, we must seek other opportunities to build durable links
between our individual efforts in space science and exploration.
In 1965, President Johnson asked: "As [man] draws nearer to the stars,
why should he not also draw nearer to his neighbor? As we push even more
deeply into the universe, we must constantly learn to cooperate across
the frontiers that really divide the earth's surface."
I thank you for your attention and look forward to participating with
you in this important venture.
I would be happy to take a few questions.
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