The Future of Space Science
The Sun heaves out a load of space weather that can impact the Earth. Shown here is the Sun's outer atmosphere — known as the Corona — taken by instruments onboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's GOES-13 spacecraft.
Credit: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center

BOULDER, Colo. — Space science research is having a major impact on our daily lives. It is also an enterprise that can provide a solid framework for global cooperation in an uneasy world. Universities are a sparkplug in fostering space science research — crucibles of creativity to harness interdisciplinary thinking for problem solving.

Experts took part in a special panel "Forging the Future of Space Science: The Next 50 Years," held here April 14 at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

The discussion is part of an international public seminar series, marking the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year that launched science into space. The colloquia series is organized by the Space Studies Board, a research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Enormous changes

Walter Scott, Founder and Chief Technical Officer of Digital Globe based in Longmont, Colorado, spotlighted the enormous changes in satellite remote sensing. He detailed the expanding applications for the next generations of high resolution imaging — a far cry from spysat technologies first utilized in the 1960s.

Scott pointed to trends in commercial satellite remote sensing: better resolution, increased accuracy, more bandwidth, and greater coverage of the Earth - in far-shorter time from click to customer.

The ubiquity of satellite remote sensing in our daily lives, Scott said, is moving quickly, mimicking use of electricity and the Internet.

James Watzin, Director of Space Programs at ATK Space, took a hard look at NASA, indicating that the space agency appears to have "lost its customer."

While NASA celebrates 50 years of progress this year, Watzin said there's need for public dialogue to cast the civilian space agenda in more necessary and relevant terms. NASA faces a vulnerable state of paralysis, he suggested, striving to send humans to Mars while dealing with tight budgets, issues of mission affordability and risk-taking.

Watzin signaled that NASA needs to do the most exciting and compelling things that the country's best and brightest people can possibly conceive of. NASA needs to be allowed by all stakeholders to take more risk and have much more payoff.

Watzin is a former project manager for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Heavy reliance on sparse data

Progress is being made on assessing the impact of space weather on systems, as well as humans, said Rodney Viereck, Chief of the Space Weather Services Branch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder.

Still, "there's heavy reliance on very sparse data," Viereck noted, with the customer base for space weather data growing.

Viereck said there are diverse impacts of space weather on today's technology, from communications, navigation, and spacecraft operations to aviation, as well electric power grids.

There is a beginning ability to computer model in three-dimensions the complex nature of space weather, Viereck said. The coupling of various space weather models is in the offing, he added.

In the years to come, Viereck said, public access to space will bolster the need for better space weather forecasting. Given the number of spaceports being planned, he said, both orbital space tourism and point-to-point suborbital passenger travel will mean increased use of space weather services.

Global workforce

Developing a globally-engaged science and engineering workforce is a priority of the National Science Foundation's Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE), said Cynthia Singleton, a policy fellow at OISE in Washington, D.C.

Singleton reflected upon the role of science diplomacy, also reviewing the research and development dollars being spent in China, Europe, Japan, Canada, as well as Saudi Arabia. Those expenditures should give pause to those that ponder a key question: Will the U.S. remain a global leader in technology and innovation?

OISE funds international research and education activities in a variety of science disciplines, Singleton said. Doing so helps to open up access to research talent and research facilities beyond U.S. borders, she explained.

Safe zones

Daniel Baker, Director of LASP said that universities are now — and will continue to be — regional centers of intellectual leadership and technological innovation.

"Universities should, well into the future, be the neutral sites, or 'safe zones,' where industry, national laboratories, and academia can feel secure to meet, exchange ideas, try new approaches, and create," Baker told SPACE.com.

Baker explained that leading universities will build mountains of development and economic growth in the "Flat World" — drawing from the popular 2005 book of Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

The world of tomorrow will be far more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary than today, is Baker's forecast. Universities must fully embrace that fact, he said, in teaching, learning and research.

Furthermore, successful universities must increase "in every possible way" hands-on education and training opportunities, Baker said.

Space research can be a major vehicle of learning and power, Baker advised. "Through space research, universities should be funded to form strategic partnerships with key Chinese, Indian, European, and Latin American universities."

Baker emphasized that through shared campuses and extensions, space science and engineering has "more potential to build peace and friendship than any other theme."

Space science should begin now to encourage, and to drive, the strong interactions of humanities and social sciences with the premier technical components of space research, Baker said. Taking that approach, he felt, can provide continued strength and leadership potential for space exploration in the world of tomorrow.

There's need to "take universities to the world ? and bring the world to universities," Baker concluded.

For more information on the Space Studies Board public seminar series, go to:

http://www7.nationalacademies.org/ssb/International_Public_Seminar_Series.html