A Fordham Historian Helps Write the Future of Spaceflight

18801-0309305071-covers450When we think about the future of spaceflight, the names that most often come to mind are those of the science fiction authors and film directors: Andrei Tarkowsky, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and most recently, Christopher Nolan. We certainly don’t think of historians. After all, historians are concerned with the past, not the future, right?
Well, in 2010, the United States Congress set up a committee to explore the future of the already ostensibly futuristic concept of human spaceflight, they called on the expertise of a historian, specifically Fordham’s own Asif Siddiqi. In the summer of 2014 the committee’s report was published, and we asked Professor Siddiqi to tell us a bit about the process. Read on to learn more about the experience, watch a video featuring about the history of and to see the great snapshots he provided illustrating his time working on the committee.

In 2010 Congress passed an act creating a “Committee on Human Spaceflight” to assess the state of NASA’s programs and to recommend courses of action. The final report was to be delivered to Congress, NASA, and the current Administration, and it was intended to act as a roadmap of how to move ahead. The reason for the Committee’s formation was a crisis in terms of where NASA was going given a lot of changes (such as cancellation of the Space Shuttle). “There was a sense,” Siddiqi says,  “that NASA was directionless.”
The Committee on the Move: Off to visit the Johnson Space Center

The Committee on the Move: Off to visit the Johnson Space Center

The Committee to advise the US government and its agencies was organized by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). While the group was comprised in part by a number of high profile scientists, it also included humanities and social science scholars. Although there were a few political scientists, a sociologist, and an economist, Siddiqi adds “I was the only historian on the committee.” This is obviously a very great honor, and it recognizes how important Siddiqi’s research has been in shaping the current understanding of the human drive into the cosmos.

But what did the committee actually do? Siddiqi writes:
Astronauts working in a space capsule while the committee looks on.

Astronauts working in a space capsule while the committee looks on.

We basically worked on the issue for a couple of years and had many sessions at various locales, including Irvine & Stanford, California, Washington, DC, and Woods Hole in Massachusetts. It was actually a lot of work but also a lot of fun! I was lucky enough to get an exclusive view of the American space program. We visited a lot of cool places (our official “site visits”). I remember the one to the Johnson Space Center in Houston very vividly where officials showed us around the whole facility. We also talked to space program leaders all over the world which was a bit surreal (for example, asking tough questions to the head of the Russian Space Agency).


Space lunch in theory.

Space lunch in practice

Space lunch in practice

When the report was finally published earlier last summer it was covered very widely in the media. Just a few examples of the press coverage can be found at

And what did the report say?
 What the report essentially says is that in terms of moving people Earth orbit (say to the Moon or Mars), there are no compelling practical rationales for doing so. There are, however, substantive but intangible “aspirational” rationales for sending people out beyond Earth orbit, i.e., things that are more difficult to measure. These might include “prestige” or “exploration” and things like that. We also found that putting people on the Moon or Mars is going to be very expensive and therefore, we need a good reason to commit to such a project. If people involved in the space program believe that it’s worth it to do these things, then we should commit money over the long term, not just for 4 years until the next President comes along.
You can read the full report, and find out more about the committee and its work at this site.
AND watch a video featuring Asif Siddiqi about the history of United States’ human spaceflight policy.

Comments Off on A Fordham Historian Helps Write the Future of Spaceflight

Filed under Faculty News, Uncategorized

Comments are closed.