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The New Frontier: Space Science and Technology in the Next Mellennium

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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 believe, exciting.

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 daily lives.

  • 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 planet.

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 Bang.

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 cooperation:

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 Space Station.

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 globe.

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 would be!

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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