Book Review: “The Martian” by Andy Weir

Andy Weir's "The Martian" A tale of Martian Survival

Andy Weir’s “The Martian” A tale of Martian Survival

Bullet Quote

Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian” is absolutely the best hard science fiction since Allen Steele’s “Orbital Decay” over 25 years ago.


I have almost given up on science fiction, which to me has meant what is normally called “hard” sci-fi, where the technology is a central part of the story.  Stories like Star Trek to me are hard sci-fi as the exploits of Scotty, Geordi, Tucker, or B’elanna Torres and other crew persons are central parts of resolving most crises in the televised episodes.  Most written science fiction recently has a veneer of science that is no more than an alternate setting for whatever human or alien conflict is the subject of the book.  Avatar, Alien, and absurd movies like Independence Day, are examples of that genre.

The Martian is a great example of how technology and human ingenuity are intricately interwoven in the story and how together they weave an exciting tale of accomplishment, overcoming obstacles, and the triumph of survival against daunting odds.

Without giving away spoilers the story of Mark Watney begins with him being left on the surface of Mars through a very believable series of events.  A crucial element of the story relates to the mission architecture that presumably a NASA led international team had chosen for Mars exploration.  It is a 100% believable scenario that has much in line with many people’s thinking about how to actually conduct sortie based Mars missions.  Sorties are where each new mission lands in a completely different area of Mars in a manner similar to yet far more advanced than the six Apollo lunar landing missions of the 1960’s.

Mark Watney’s inventory of things to work with during his ordeal is also 100% believable and in line with what has been laid out in NASA’s plans for Mars missions.  The technical presentation is not perfect, and should not be expected to though a few nits annoyed me greatly in reading the book.  Watney talks about solar cells when he means panels.  Another contrivance is his problem with the primary communications system that drives a lot of the early story.  However, these are minor and the general reader or even most technically knowledgeable ones can forgive these errors.

There are several extremely clever ways that Mark Watney gets around problems or comes up with inventive ways to use the resources at his disposal in unexpected ways. There are also some exceptionally minor, but to those of us who know the hardware of Mars missions, exceptionally accurate details of certain bits of hardware that he uses in his survival epic. The biological aspects of his survival are clever as well and how he extends his food supplies. His eventual salvation (to use a word that gives away the minimum of the story) is also exceptionally clever as is the response of his crew mates to the situation.

Andy Weir has written a marvelous story that is being turned into a movie that will star Matt Damon.  Note to Matt and the director, fall in love with the hardware, just as Watney did and you will make a great movie!

I read this book in one six hour sitting, it was that hard to put down.  Good job Andy!


Posted in Space, Space and Life Experience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project Last Mile

To Donate to the Project Please go to:

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) is a public/private project to recover, from the original master tapes, the image data from the five spacecraft NASA sent to the moon in the 1960’s and provide it to the scientific community and the public.  The first is done through a peer review process and then the data is provided to the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) for archiving.  We also have a public website through NASA at the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) at the NASA Ames Research Center.  This missive is to explain the background of the mission, the character of the data, and why it is important to our scientific and national history.

At this time we have completed over 90% of the work necessary to archive and publish these images.  However, sometimes that last 10% is the hardest and we have in the dozens of terabytes of data to complete the processing of our image captures.  Why doesn’t NASA pay for this?  They have paid for the vast majority of our work.  NASA’s Space Science Mission Directorate, NASA Ames, and and SSERVI have been magnificent in support of our work.  However, NASA’s budget is severely constrained, and for legacy projects like this, it is our work in technoarchaeology (literally the archaeology of technology) that is saving this data for posterity.

When we started this project, it was only to save the images of Lunar Orbiter’s II and III.  However, in 2011 NASA asked us how much it would cost to complete all five orbiters.  We estimated $400,000.  NASA provided $300,000 of this, which we spent capturing the data from the tapes Lunar Orbiter I, IV, and V, leaving a gap of $100,000 to finish processing the images.  This is why we ask for your support in our crowdfunding effort, to complete this task.  These images, provided on the SSERVI website, will be free to the public with no copyright.  The American taxpayer paid for this effort and even though our company has also contributed materially to the effort and we are extending this through your generous donations through crowdfunding, we want this to be provided free of charge, or any intellectual property right restrictions.

NASA had stored these original analog data tapes for over four decades, but if it were not for our project and former NASA archivist Nancy Evan’s preservation of the tape drives in her barn, this archive at its best quality would be lost to history.  Following is a description of the Lunar Orbiters, their camera, the images and what we are doing to preserve this legacy of the early Apollo program.

Background on the Lunar Orbiter

In 1966-67 NASA sent five spacecraft to the Moon to do a high resolution photo reconnaissance of the surface in preparation for the manned Apollo lunar landings.  This was the first time in human history, other than a few closeups before impact from the Ranger spacecraft, that the moon had been seen up close and personal.  The Lunar Orbiter spacecraft is shown schematically in figure 1:

Figure 1: Details of the Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft

Figure 1: Details of the Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft

The Lunar Orbiters were simple spacecraft compared today, but still quite capable.  Since this was the 1960’s there were no megapixel class CCD’s like on a camera phone to take images.  The Lunar Orbiters each carried ~3600 feet of SO-243 70mm black and white film.  The camera was built by Eastman Kodak, and had heritage from the classified SAMOS program.  There were two lens systems for the camera, one with a 80mm focal length Schneider-Xenotar lens with the other being a 610mm focal length lens from Pacific Optical.  The camera and imaging system is shown in figure 2:

Figure 2: Lunar Orbiter Imaging System

Figure 2: Lunar Orbiter Imaging System

Figure 3 shows the overall process of the image capture, film processing, transmission, reception, reassembly and storage of the images:

Figure 5: End to End Lunar Orbiter Image Path

Figure 3: End to End Lunar Orbiter Image Path

This graphic details the film system and shows how the images are scanned from the film.  Scanning is accomplished with a light beam that shines through the film an is then detected by a photomultiplier tube, (the great grandfather of the imager in your smart phone) where it was turned into a radio signal and beamed to the Earth.  Upon reception at the three ground stations, (Woomera in Australia, Madrid in Spain, and Goldstone in California) the images went two directions.  First, and most importantly for the LOIRP project, the images were recorded straight off the receiver to magnetic tape, shown in the lower left.  The tapes were recorded in what is known as “pre-detection” format.  This is the same as if you just captured a WiFi signal and stripped the waveform of the data out of it, without knowing what was in it.  This form of recording has the most fidelity to the original data, and is key to the reason for having the LOIRP project in the first place.

The second path was that the image analog waveforms were demodulated and displayed to a kinescope.  A kinescope is a very specific kind of display tube that displays the images on a screen in a manner similar to an old fashioned glass television tube.  This is where the principal loss of dynamic range occurs as will be detailed in the next section.  The images were then recorded on 35mm film.  The negative for this was actually a photographic positive (because the scanned 70mm film is a negative as well).  The film was then cut into strips called “framelets” which were assembled and placed under a large format camera.  The resulting negative from that process was used to assemble a large format photographic print.  We have many of these, which are provided as perks for the LOIRP crowdfunding.  One of those is shown here in figure 4:

Figure 4: Lunar Orbiter Original Kodak Print Image

Figure 4: Lunar Orbiter Original Kodak Print Image

The striping comes from the framelets and how they are put together.  The above is a Lunar Orbiter V medium resolution image.  It is comprised of 28 framelets stitched together in the assembly process described above then processed to a large sized photographic print.  It is these historic images that we are offering as the perks for the LOIRP last mile campaign.  The above image is approximately 20″ x 24″ and is offered as the $250 perk. (note the images will have different locations on the Moon on them, not just what is pictured above).

Detail of the Lunar Orbiter Film Images 

The images from the 70mm film on the spacecraft were processed shortly after they were taken by a dry “bi-mat” process, similar to an old polaroid camera where you took a picture, spit out the film, and then it processed it in 60 seconds and you pulled it apart.  Well, except that this was super high quality (500 lines per mm ) 70mm black and white negative film.  This is described in the book on the SAMOS camera, developed in the 1950’s by the U.S. Air Force, transferred to the National Reconnaissance Organization and then transferred to NASA for Lunar Orbiter.

Figure 5 shows the detail regarding the film format, and size of each image in kilometers, assuming a 45 kilometer lunar perigee orbit for the high resolution and medium resolution images:

Figure 3: Lunar Orbiter Film Forma

Figure 5: Lunar Orbiter Film Format

The upper right part of figure 5 is of supreme importance to our project.  NASA wanted to be able to guarantee that after the image was scanned, it could be properly reassembled.  Also, they wanted to be able to do a quality check on the images.  The upper right has what is called “edge data.”  This edge data was a part of the film that was preexposed on the Earth to produce a set of test patterns as well as a counter so that NASA would know how to reassemble the film.  An explanation of the patterns in the edge data strip, along with one captured by our team during our early test digitization process is shown in figure 6:

Figure 4: Edge Data Strip with LOIRP Captured Data

Figure 6: Edge Data Strip with LOIRP Captured Data

Figure 6 is an optical industry standard chart for determining the quality of a photographic image.  The linearity pattern allows for accurate reconstruction of the size of the individual strips of image as they are scanned.  The right side of figure 4 is from our LOIRP digitization, to show the quality of our captured images.  The resolution charts are just that, they tell you the resolution of the images.  The accurate reconstruction of the edge data provides verification that the scanned and transmitted image has been properly reconstructed and that the image of the Moon is in focus and meets resolution requirements.

The key for the LOIRP project is the gray scale step chart.  This gray scale chart is in ten steps, which then gives a measure of the dynamic range of the image.  Dynamic range is the same as how many bits you have.  On board the spacecraft, the SO-243 film as a dynamic range of ~1000 to 1.  in computer terms this is equivalent to 10 bits.  Some images will not have this dynamic range due to the uniform nature of the lunar surface. It is most important where there is shadowing and indirect light, which was required for many images in order to determine surface slope angles and small crater depths.  The Lunar Orbiter images were key to finding the landing sites for the early Apollo missions and for other science related work on the ground.  Following describes some of the research done with the images.

Use of the Lunar Orbiter Images in the 1960’s to 1990’s

Since there was only a limited amount of film that could be placed on the spacecraft, NASA had to send five of them to the Moon in order to accomplish all of their mission requirements.  The principle requirement was to map the moon at high resolution in the equatorial region, which is where the first Apollo missions landed.   Figure 7 shows the principal areas that were imaged:

Figure 7: Locations filmed at Medium and High Resolution on the Lunar Near Side

Figure 7: Locations filmed at Medium and High Resolution on the Lunar Near Side

Some of the odd shaped areas are from oblique images taken by the spacecraft when it was tilted.  The high resolution images were used to determine the number of small craters, the slope angles of the surface (flat or mountainous regions) and the number of rocks.  Before these images, no one in all of human history knew what the surface of the Moon looked like in detail over large areas.  The highest resolution images were taken in the equatorial region because that is where the Apollo missions were going to land crews:  Figure 8 is one of our LOIRP images that is blown up to show the Apollo 14 landing site, along with an inset of a picture taken on the surface:

Figure 8: Apollo 14 Landing Site (Pre with Overlay) Lunar Orbiter

Figure 8: Apollo 14 Landing Site (Pre with Overlay) Lunar Orbiter

After the site selection for Apollo 11, 12, and 14, the Apollo Service Module SIM bay camera images were used to pick the sites for Apollo 15-17.  The Lunar Orbiter images were the sole source for decades (until the Clementine Mission by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization).  Even with missions by other nations, the resolution of the lunar orbiter images were not exceeded until the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission by NASA that is in orbit today around the Moon (2014).

In 1965 a memo was sent by Charlie Byrne (who has worked with us on the LOIRP project) regarding the justification for the purchase of the tape recorders and the value of the tapes.  This memo, linked here, gives four principle reasons for the creation of the tapes:

  1. No new hardware be developed to rapidly convert the data to digital form for computer analysis.
  2. Predetection tape recorded data is free from degradation by the ground detection and ground photographic recording equipment.
  3. The tape may be replayed through the ground recording equipment with parameters optimized for particular condition of the data.
  4. Tape recorded data is useful in end-to-end calibration of the system.

The Lunar Orbiter tapes were used in the 1960’s for computer digitization.  The largest supercomputer in the world at the time was a Univac 1170, with 256 kilobytes of RAM.  NASA ran the tapes in a very similar manner to the LOIRP project, but with the much more primitive digitizer chips of the era.  They did this to run computer analyses of the images to determine the height of rocks around the potential landing sites.  They also used computer programs (project slope no less) to determine the slope of the surface for the potential landing sites.  No rocks larger than a meter could be tolerated due to potential damage to the Lunar lander legs.  Also, there was an Apollo mission requirement that no slope angle be greater than 14 degrees or the Lunar lander could tip over on landing.  Both of these analyses required the tape data for maximum fidelity.

Beyond its value to the Apollo human exploration program, the science that has been done with Lunar Orbiter images runs into the several hundred peer reviewed papers.  Lunar Orbiters I,II, and III were in the low inclination orbits best suited for the photo reconnaissance task for the Apollo missions.  Lunar Orbiter IV and  V were in polar orbits.  Lunar Orbiter IV was in a 2,706 x 6,111 km orbit, giving high resolution images at 40-140 resolution and medium resolution images at 200-1000 meters.     Lunar Orbiter V’s orbit was 194.5 x 6,023 km, providing images with 2 meters best resolution on the near side of the Moon.  The Moon was the first body in the solar system completely mapped (98%).  Even the Earth was not completely mapped from space until the Landsat era of the 1970s.

Film Scans of Lunar Orbiter Images and Other Associated Data

The best site on the Internet for lunar orbiter images has always been the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Houston (  That is the go to site that I use almost every day when looking at comparable lunar images when doing work on LOIRP.  Another good site, though only for Lunar Orbiter’s 3, 4, and 5 is the Planetary Data Node at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff.  However, at both sites, all of these images are from scans of the film (called the GRE film for Ground Reconstruction Electronics) described above related to figure 3.[1]

The U.S. Geological survey scanned the film with an 8 bit scanner, providing a dynamic range of 255 to one.  This is consistent with what we know of the dynamic range of the GRE film.  However, as stated above, the 70mm SO-243 film on board the spacecraft had a 1000 to 1 or ten bit dynamic range.  This is shown in figure 9, which describes the film density of the gray scale chart shown in figure 6:

Figure 9: Lunar Orbiter Gray Scale Chart and 70mm SO-243 Film Transfer Function

Figure 9: Lunar Orbiter Gray Scale Chart and 70mm SO-243 Film Transfer Function

The charts above were what I first ran into in the late 1980’s after obtaining a set of Lunar Orbiter microfilm prints and this is what led to my interest in recovering the original images from the tape.  If you look to the top right where it calls out the film density from the Gray Step chart, you will see the legend “Reassembled Record Density Change“.  This is the reproduced density of the GRE film which correlates to the Grays in the step chart seen in figure 6 right.  Thus it can be determined that Gray Step 1, possibly 2, and 8, as well as step 9 are clipped, or eliminated in the GRE film that was used by the USGS and everyone else after the use of the Lunar Orbiter tapes ended during the Apollo era.  This effectively clipped the data from 10 bits to 8 bits.  This is a compression of the dynamic range by a factor of four.  Also, the lower graph, with an overlay of video from an oscilloscope, is a single line scanned across the Gray Step chart, showing that the video signal matched the transfer function of the SO-243 film.  Interestingly, we could optimize this transfer function in either electronically in the demodulator or in software in post processing.

In the late 1980’s before I was a college student, I was an engineer in a television studio that used tape drives similar to the ones used for the Lunar Orbiter tapes.  When I did my research during my college years studying the moon, I found that the tapes did indeed exist and that someone was trying to digitize the images.  However, years later I found out that this had not been the case, thus the LOIRP project was born.


Rather than regurgitate extensively the history of the LOIRP project (please see the links at the end of this article for documentaries and papers and posters that we have done), I will summarize and then describe why we are asking for the public’s hard earned money to complete the project.

When we started the project, we had three fundamental questions to answer:

1. Can 40+ year old Ampex FR-900 Instrumentation Tape Drives be brought back to an operating condition?

2. Is there any data on the tapes?

3. If there is data on the tapes, is it of higher quality than what is available in the existing archives.

We definitively answered all three questions in the affirmative in our previous efforts and as described in this missive and in the referenced paper.[2]  Visually, the difference in dynamic range can be immediately apparent, especially in images with a lot of light and dark (which corresponds to a wide dynamic range).

In November of 2008, after six months of work we reintroduced Lunar Orbiter to the world.  Figure 10 is an example of the improvement in a Lunar Orbiter 1 famous image, which is the first Image of the Earth, taken from around the Moon:

Figure 10: LO-1_102H Image 1966 (above) and 2008 (below)

Figure 10: LO-1_102H Image 1966 (above) and 2008 (below)

Digital capture of the original analog tape at the individual scan line level and at the full dynamic range of the 70mm film allows us to recover far more of the original data than from other sources. We were even able (with an artist’s help) above to remove the bimat dryout line to the right of the earth.  Figure 11 is a blow up of the earth, impossible to obtain from the film:

Figure blah blah

Figure 11: Earth Detail Blow UP from LO-1-102-H Image

For artistic purposes NASA flipped this over on its side, but here we reproduce it in its proper orientation. You can see the north coast of Africa, the Mediterranean sea, and Sicily and Spain in the upper part of the image.  You can also see the coast of South America to the far left, with a fog bank hugging the coast.  At the bottom you can see the Antarctic ice pack at that date, August 23, 1966.  The cloud formations are clearly visible, down to about what we estimate is a five kilometer resolution.  You can even see the sun glinting off the the Atlantic ocean, something that exoplanet hunters have talked about using as a means to detect oceans on exoplanets.  This is with what would today be a very modest telescope.   Figure 12 also shows the effect of improved dynamic range in a high contrast oblique image of the Lunar surface:

Figure 12: Copernicus Central Uplift Comparison (Image LOII-162-H3)

Figure 12: Copernicus Central Uplift Comparison (Image LOII-162-H3) (Film above and LOIRP below)

These are good details from images.  However, we have a poster from a NASA conference that we call our money chart.  The full sized chart is linked here, but a reduced version of that is shown here in figure 13:

Figure 13: NASA Lunar Science Institute Conference 2012 Chart on Relative Quality of Film vs Tape vs LROC Image Of Copernicus Central Uplift

Figure 13: NASA Lunar Science Institute Conference 2012 Chart on Relative Quality of Film vs Tape vs LROC Image Of Copernicus Central Uplift

Please download the chart at the link to get the full feel but it can easily be see how the improved dynamic range and our ability to easily do software processing to remove the striping artifacts makes the Lunar Orbiter image fully comparable to the current Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (LRO) LROC camera image of the same area under similar lighting conditions.  Thus we establish the value of our work for using the digitized Lunar Orbiter images from tape as a scientific baseline from the 1960’s fully comparable to any future work at this high resolution.  No other spacecraft from the 1960’s until the LRO mission achieved this level of resolution of the lunar surface.

 Where We Are Today

We have been very fortunate to get as far as we have.  Our original NASA sponsored work was to digitize Lunar Orbiter II and III as a compliment to the work of the USGS.  Lunar Orbiter I only has a few high resolution images as a result of the failure of the image motion compensation system.  However, in 2013, thanks to an earlier crowd funded effort, NASA gained confidence that we could complete the digitization of all of the Lunar Orbiter images.  We were also fortunate to have one of the Ampex old engineers (Ken Zin and Al Sturm) and all of his friends and associates who knew how to put the tape drives together.  We have also have had exceptional support from NASA Ames, headquarters, and the science community. For us the LOIRP project has been a labor of love for the community for which we are a part, and to provide them to the public, that paid for them.

In late 2013 we completed the scan of all the images on the 1478 tapes in our possession.  We were able to recover more than 98% of the images on the tapes, a remarkable testimony to the engineers of the 1960’s and their care for the tapes.  Figure 14 shows how the images were scanned from the 70mm film and how we saw them during our playback of the tapes:

Figure 12: Lunar Orbiter Film Scanning and Framelet Construction

Figure 14: Lunar Orbiter Film Scanning and Framelet Construction

If you look above on figure 14 you will see that the light beam (reference above in figure 3), scanned through the film, producing a change in current in the photomultiplier tube.  This is what you see in the individual line near the bottom of figure 12:  Other components are superimposed on the line, such as the synchronization pulse (vertical sync pulse for those in the television field).  An additional “spike” near the beginning and end of each line is also added.  This is the “stitching” that can be seen when you blow an unprocessed Lunar Orbiter image up (you can see the stitching on the right side of figure 6 in the middle of the calibration section running horizontally).  The reason for the stitching is to aid in the reassembly of the image.  There is a tiny (0.05″) overlap between the framelets (which is what one scan across the film as seen to the left and middle top is defined as).  This overlap was theoretically back then to allow a machine to reassemble the images for further processing.  The overlap is ideally eliminated in post processing of the digital images.  Figure 15 shows in summary how we do our work:

Figure 15: LOIRP Image Assembly Production Flow

Figure 15: LOIRP Image Assembly Production Flow

This process was originally manual, but with our engineer Austin Epps and software from Lunar Orbiter veteran Charlie Byrne (the same one from the 1965 memo), we have been able to automate this process.

What the Crowd Funding Will Pay to Do

We are over 90% of the way through our total process.  All of the tapes have been captured.  We are about to donate the refurbished tape drives and the demodulator to the Library of Congress. The Library is the repository of the knowledge of the American people and we feel that this is the best long term home for the tape drives.

The tasks that we have to finished and still have to do are as follows.

  1. Tape Capture

The tape capture of all of the tapes and all of our Lunar Orbiter Images is complete.

2. Framelet Slicing

This is where all of the framelets, captured on the tapes, are “sliced” or separated into individual files.  This task is also completed.

3. Framelet File Naming

This task takes the approximately 107,000 framelet files and names them with the proper lunar orbiter and image and framelet number.  Approximately 97,000 of these are done and about 10,000 to go.  This is the major task to be completed that will allow us to fill in the data that is needed for most of the submittal to the planetary data system.

4. Framelet Image Processing

This task is to take and run a batch program that takes the framelets and runs an image processing program on them to remove the “W” pattern, which is an artifact from the scanning of the 70mm film on the spacecraft.  This basically averages the gray scaled framelets and some other minor processing.  This is the first step in creating the finished .tiff large images for the SSERVI website.  This is a mostly automated process but sometimes it crashes due to defects in the capture, defects on the tapes, and when this happens, which is for a certain percentage, then it has to be done manually, taking a lot of time. This task is about 40-50% complete and has to be run on all 107,000 framelet files.

5. Framelet Assembly Into Images

We have to take the processed framelets and assemble them into images.  Thanks to Austin Epps scripting wizardry this is also a mostly automated process but has the same tendency to crash for a minority of files, which have to be manually done.  This task is also about 40-50% complete.

6. Final Processing

The assembled images then go through a final round of image processing as a complete or mostly complete image.  Some of the images are not complete from the spacecraft and some are not complete because of a defect in the tape.  We have done as much as we reasonably can to capture all the framelets correctly.  We have over a 98% completion rate, which is remarkable for something this old.  We also have images that are not in the current NASA database at either LPI or the USGS.  These will be published as well and we hope that with your support we can go ahead now and start this process.  These images will show up on the NASA SSERVI website as they are completed. They are also going to the NASA Planetary Data Center for archiving and preservation.  We are also at about 40-50% complete on this task.

7. Paperwork

For all of this there is a lot of paperwork.  We have myself, Austin, Marco, and some students to help, but for a project of this size, this is a labor intensive task.  We are developing the link between the raw images and the completed .tiff files.  It is vitally important to save the raw data as image processing technology advances rapidly and it will almost certainly be the case that future researchers will improve on our work in assembling images that can be better correlated to modern images.  We are also doing the submittal to the Planetary Data System (PDS) and this requires a lot of work, back and forth with a peer review committee and eventual disposition to the PDS of all of our work.  This includes the public website data that we will put out there so that the public can also play with our images and know what the, as we call it in the business, the traceability is to the raw images.  In science having the raw data is crucially important to establish scientific provenance.

This task is already underway now but much has to be done.

So the above tasks are what we need your generous donations for.  Watch our progress even before the end of the crowd funding effort so that you know that your hard earned dollars are being well spent!



Documentaries and Interviews and Web Pages

Our Wikipedia Page

Documentary on LOIRP by Scott Manley of the Kerball Space Program!

A 1960’s NASA Documentary on Lunar Orbiter and its importance to the Apollo landings TV Museum of Art Short on Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

Digital Amnesia, a Dutch Documentary About Losing our Digital Heritage, Featuring the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project.

Spacevidcast interview about the LOIRP project and lunar exploration and development.

Our Old Website


[1] L. Gaddis, T. Becker, L. Weller, D. Cook, J. Richie, A. Bennett, B. Redding and J. Shinaman, REVIVING LUNAR ORBITER: SCANNING, ARCHIVING, AND CARTOGRAPHIC PROCESSING AT USGS, Astrogeol- ogy Team, U.S. Geological Survey, 2255 N. Gemini Drive, Flagstaff, AZ

[2] D. R. Wingo1 and C. J. Byrne2, 1, ANALYSIS OF LUNAR ORBITER IMAGES RECOVERED FROM ANALOG TAPE Skycorp Incorporated, P.O. Box 375 Moffett Field, CA, Image Again,

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The Early Space Age, The Path Not Taken Then, But Now? (Part II)

Ok, my post got excessively long so I am breaking it into two parts…..

 The Economic Development of the Solar System and the Role of Private Enterprise Envisioned by Cordiner

In his lecture Cordiner laid down a stepwise vision of the economic development, not just of earth orbit, but for the solar system.  In summary there are three stages:

Figure 2: Cordiner's Three Stages of Development of the Space Frontier

Figure 2: Cordiner’s Three Stages of Development of the Space Frontier

This was followed by an absolutely visionary three graphics to show the implementation of this grand vision:

The First Stage of Solar System Economic Development

Figure 3: The First Stage of Solar System Economic Development

In the beginning.  We have only gotten beyond this in a transitory manner.  Stage II:

The Second Stage of the Economic Development of the Solar System

Figure 4: The Second Stage of the Economic Development of the Solar System

Fifty five years later and we are not there  yet.  Stage III:

Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System

Figure 5: Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System

We are not even thinking about this one yet (well maybe Elon and a few others of us are).  Again, Cordiner is not some wide eyed private enterprise only person, thinking that it can do it all.  However, his philosophical underpinning of government basically setting the requirements (as in the COTS and commercial crew contract) and letting the private companies find the best path, remains.  As he states when discussing stage II:

The scale of this exploratory work, the cost of it, the lack of any financial return for a long time, and the extra expense of hurrying because of international power politics, almost necessarily makes the exploration of space primarily a government-sponsored and government-financed operation. It is useful to remember that the voyages of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, opening up the Americas and the Orient to European development, were also government-sponsored. But the successful economic development was done in the followthrough period by private traders and colonists-at first with direct government support and sponsorship, and later with the governments  serving only to maintain order and provide military and naval protection. On the space frontier, the scientific voyages of exploration will also be government-sponsored and financed.

However, the management and operation of these exploratory operations should be done primarily through government contract by private firms, with competitive incentives for superior performance and penalties for failure. Private firms and private universities should design and produce most of the apparatus required to get there and do the exploratory work.

This approach will not only utilize the most experienced scientific and technical organizations in the country, but will also accomplish the objective faster and more economically, and will help prepare the companies for the day when commercial businesses can be conducted utilizing space technologies.

It is sad to say that these warnings were both prophetic and unheeded after the election in 1960.  Cordiner foresaw some of the problems that would crop up almost immediately in the Kennedy space age and had a great analogy to what was avoided in the development of the air age:

In these areas with commercial potential, the government should avoid the temptation to build operating facilities (under the guise of demonstration units) that will tend to pre-empt the field for tax-subsidized government enterprise and prevent the establishment of private facilities. For example, if in the 1930s the United States had established a nationalized airline instead of helping Pan American to lay the ground work for international air travel, it is likely that international air travel would still be a government monopoly as far as the United States is concerned. The public then would not have the advantage of many private airlines competing for their transoceanic business.

Private industry should move as fast as possible to establish these early space businesses, so that the government can shift its efforts to the many other areas of exploratory work.

The government, and especially the “whiz kid” Robert McNamara, got it almost exactly wrong, both in the Apollo program, as well as the many other space programs started by the government in that era, some of which still bedevil us and the treasury today.  Not only was the Apollo program a government directed enterprise, executed through the NASA centers (as is the case today with whatever the name of our exploration five year plan is today), but also the two fields that everyone agreed was ripe for early commercial activity were co-opted by the government.  These fields were communications and weather forecasting.

TELSTAR, COMSAT, Nimbus and the Technocratic Path

Just two years after these series of lectures the first commercial communications satellite, called TELSTAR, built by AT&T Bell Labs and launched by NASA entered service.   The TELSTAR 1 satellite was the first to relay television, telephone, and fax service between the U.S. and Europe.  It pioneered the use of the AT&T invention in traveling wave tubes for space transmitters.  It carried the first of what we now call C Band transponders.  It was first in every respect in these areas.  Interestingly at the time, NASA was precluded from building an active communications satellite by an agreement with the defense department.  Robert McNamara had this rescinded and NASA was off to the races.

One of the 1960 University of California lectures was by the CEO of AT&T Frederik R. Kappel. Here is what he had to say about private enterprise in space:

Here I am looking ahead quite a bit. In the present stage of experiment and exploration, with space vehicles being launched for many different purposes, it is natural for the government to take the lead in putting up satellites. But when we come to providing communication service, I think we in the Bell System should take all the responsibility we can— under public regulation— for the job that is given us to do.

To be more emphatic, I am certain that this will be in the best interest of the United States. We need only look at the record to know that private enterprise has given this country the finest, the most complete, the most dependable communication system in the world. I strongly believe that private enterprise will also keep this country out in front in space communications, just as we have led the way on land and by sea. It was the Bell System, I may remind you, that pioneered world-wide telephony, first by radio and later through cables. We want and intend to be pioneers tomorrow too. We are ready, willing, and able to push ahead. All we need is the leeway, the freedom, to do our best.

AT&T and the Bell system as it was called at the time was by far the largest communications company on Earth, the Google of its era.  It controlled more than half of all global communications at the time and had the financial resources to build satellites without government subsidy.  The first TELSTAR was a success, but immediately on its heels the government came in and set up the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) to push spacecraft located in geostationary orbit (GEO), all owned by the government chartered corporation.

The Webb-McNamara report completely ignores the fact that AT&T was already constructing a fully private and commercial satellite.  Though its publication date of May 8th 1961 (just after Shepard’s suborbital Mercury flight), was more than a year before the launch of TELSTAR 1, it is impossible that McNamara and Webb (since NASA provided the Thor-Delta launch vehicle) did not know about it.  However, this is what the Webb-McNamara report says about commercial communications satellites:

Satellite based telecommunications systems are another application of space technology which will be of great commercial/civilian interest and value in future years.  In fact, numerous U.S. commercial enterprises, both equipment manufacturers and common carriers, are greatly interested in this field.  Both NASA and the DoD have undertaken projects for the development of communications satellites. Both agencies have studied the subject in depth.

Both agencies have worked closely with the FCC, the OCDM, the Whtie House state, and other agencies and officials concerned with this subject.  Despite the interest evidenced by commercial companies, the technology is not in hand.  It is likely that the major preliminary steps leading to the development of commercially feasible communications satellite technology, including the acquisition of environmental data needed to design the satellite vehicle for successful operation, must be done by the Government.  Otherwise we must wait until the state-of-the-art generally has been developed and deployed on a commercially economical basis.

Yea, a whole year.  Compounding this egregious misrepresentation of the truth, was the passage of the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, barely a month AFTER the launch of TELSTAR 1.  The Act created a public monopoly corporation, called the COMSAT corporation to develop commercial satellites.  The COMSAT corporation’s directors were chosen by the president of the United States.  The COMSAT corporation in turn set up the actual operating company called the International Satellite Corporation (INTELSAT).

No more TELSTAR satellites designed by AT&T ever flew.  AT&T had talked about a constellation of Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites to provide continuous global communications.  This never happened because of the Communications Satellite Act of 1962.  When the act was passed, Senator Russell Long of Louisiana (who knew quite a lot about corruption) was heard to exclaim “When this bill first started out I thought it was as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. I am now convinced that that would be a compliment. This bill is as crooked as a barrel of snakes.”  [Wikipedia referenceConsidering that it is pretty evident that McNamara grossly misrepresented the state of the art of private commercial satellite technology at the time, this is not an inaccurate characterization.

A factor may have been competition with Hughes, which was supported by NASA and the defense department in the development of GEO communications satellites.  The first of these, SYNCOM 1 was launched on Valentines day of 1963.  In contrast to the privately funded and developed TELSTAR, it was technically inferior and it failed before operational status was reached.   SYNCOM 2 was launched in July of 1963, becoming the first spacecraft to successfully operate from GEO orbit.  When INTELSAT finally got around to launching their own first spacecraft in 1965, it was also Hughes built, using the same bus as the SYNCOM satellites.  This was three years after AT&T’s first successful operational satellite launch.

Ralph Cordiner’s prediction regarding the difficulty of commercial space getting a foothold if the government ownership route was taken was proven to be correct.  In 1972 the U.S. congress passed an open skies law providing new entrants access to Intelsat satellites.  The problem that developed is that INTELSAT, having the governments of over 100 countries as signatories, had monopoly power.  Through a series of revenue sharing agreements with those governments, the cash cows for many African and other governments was protected from competition.  However, in the 1980’s the dogged determination of Rene Anselmo, founder of Panamsat, began to break the hold of the monopoly in the U.S.   Other companies around the world were growing up as well and circumventing the now exorbitantly priced satellite service.  It took until 2001 before INTELSAT became the privatized Intelsat, a fully commercial company.

It is even worse in the weather satellite business.  It took from the early 1960’s until the 1990’s for the defense department to experiment with commercial low earth orbit imagery for intelligence gathering.  Today there is a growing market in LEO imaging, driven mostly by third generation companies like Planetlabs and Skybox, supported by Silicon Valley capital.  For weather satellites it is a complete and utter disaster.  The government led NPOESS development contract turned to dust in the harsh light of congressional anger over multi billion dollar overruns and delays for the next generation DoD weather satellite.  From a 2010 article:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Air Force jointly manage the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS. The White House decided the cancel NPOESS after numerous delays and cost overruns that made the program the subject of Congressional ridicule and high-level government investigations.

The follow on program (JPSS) is in no better shape five years later.  From a January 2015 article at :

Today’s GAO report on JPSS found that “recent cost growth on key components likely is unsustainable and risks remain that could increase the potential for near-term satellite data gaps.”  It warns that “a gap in satellite data may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates.”  Almost 40 alternatives have been identified for mitigating any gap, GAO reports, but NOAA’s contingency plan has “shortfalls” that GAO wants addressed.  It made five recommendations and said the agency agreed with them.

The replacement for the current generation of GEO satellites is faring no better.  Cordiner nailed the core problem in his lecture:

Some have taken this to mean that the United States, in order to move out ahead of the Soviet Union in space technology, must adopt something like the Soviet method of strict government control of that technology. In my opinion, such an imitative procedure is doomed to fail.

We in the space community part jokingly and part ruefully opine about the state directed space enterprises of Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrup Grumman.  It is rueful in that these American companies are hardly distinguishable from their Soviet and now Russian counterparts.  This is one of the core reasons that NASA’s beyond earth orbit exploration efforts have been so utterly bloated over the past few decades.  You need look no farther than comparing the development of the Falcon series of vehicles with the NASA Ares 1, Ares 5, and now the Space Launch System.  In the time that NOAA, NASA and the DoD have wasted money on the JPSS follow on to the horrendous waste of money of NPOESS, Planet labs has launched over half a hundred imaging spacecraft.


Public Private Partnerships

It has been the history of the United States of a fruitful partnership between the government and private interest in the development of the nation and its infrastructure.  This goes far back in our history, to the time when a young state legislator from Illinois who was a rail splitter and later a railroad lawyer named Lincoln helped push local projects.  In an online classroom missive on the subject it was said:

Lincoln biographer J. H. Barrett wrote that Lincoln “held it to be the duty of Government to extend Its fostering aid, in every Constitutional way, and to a reasonable extent, to whatever enterprise of public utility required such assistance, in order to the fullest development of the natural resources, and to the most rapid healthful growth of the State.

At this time the federal government did not do infrastructure.  The democratic party, the strict constitutional constructionists of that era did not believe in it.  Thus it first happened at the state level, especially in the more populous states of New York (Erie Canal), Illinois (Mississippi to Great Lakes Canal), and Virginia (Railroads).  It was that same railroad lawyer turned president who in 1862 threw his presidential weight behind the passage of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which provided the funding to bridge a continent and bind a nation together east to west.  That is an early example of the best and worst in Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) as the western company, the Central Pacific, was a private commercial corporation while the Union Pacific was a crony laced government propped up fiasco even then.

More recent versions of successful PPPs are the Kelly Airmail Act of 1925 and its successors. Here is this excerpt from

The act authorized the postmaster general to contract for domestic airmail service with commercial air carriers. It also set airmail rates and the level of cash subsidies to be paid to companies that carried the mail. As Kelly explained: The act “permits the expansion of the air mail service without burden upon the taxpayers….” By transferring airmail operations to private companies, the government effectively would help create the commercial aviation industry.

The act did not require direct taxpayer subsidies, as it was done through the post office, and the burden fell only on those that used the airmail service. Today’s version which is the NASA COTS and NASA commercial crew contracts, are absolutely demonstrating  savings to the taxpayer while advancing commercial space technology.


Other tried and true methods are prizes.  Some quite innovative prizes have done a great deal to advance technology.  Some of these are listed.

The Longitude Prize–Three prizes, 10, 15, and 20 thousand dollars for a reliable method of precisely determining longitude for ships.  Won by Harrison

The Rainhill Trials–Contract prize for the best locomotive, won by the Robert Stephenson Company Rocket.

The Orteig Prize —-$25,000 for the first transatlantic flight.  Won by Charles Lindbergh

The Ansari X Prize–A $10 million dollar prize for the first privately built human carrying reusable rocket, Won by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

NASA in recent years has also awarded prizes for various technologies of interest to the agency with some success and benefit to companies.   Just think what could have happened had the government offered, in 1961 a prize of twenty billion dollars for the first private human mission to go to the Moon and return safely.  That would have been the American way, and it would have saved taxpayer money!  As I continue to deeply research the history, the more that I am convinced that an American company or a consortium could have pulled this off.  Alas, this the fodder of alternate history.

Economic Incentives

Investment economics work fundamentally on two principles, fear and greed.  The problem that we have today is that too many investors do not understand this new generation of commercial space and are thus fearful of it and unlikely to invest.  There are great venture capital companies that do invest in space, and for those that do, they are generally patient as space is for the most part a capital intensive investment that takes a while to pay off.  As technology has continued to move forward though, these cycles are getting shorter.  However, if we are truly going to get private enterprise into the mix, incentives are required to decisively shift from fear and into the greed side of the equation.  (Note: I use the word greed here in a positive light)

The best way that any of us have found to do this is to get beyond the PPP’s and to tax incentives, which we have called in the past, Zero G, Zero Tax.  This is no different than the zero tax regime that the Internet enjoyed for years, and that produced a society paradigm shift in the way that we do business.  The oil industry also enjoys considerable tax benefits for the risky business of oil well development.  Several options exist there and these are recounted at this site.

The Zero G Zero Tax legislation is explained in detail in a previous blog post by me.  Many of my fellow space advocates claim to love it while failing to push it.  I am tempted to ponder whether or not they think that by trying to stack the deck with PPP’s that they can more directly benefit, but that is just a thought.  It would not be the first time it happened.  What Zero G Zero Tax (ZGZT) does is to remove taxation of all profits from a space venture that is outside of the bounds of current large scale markets such as launch vehicles, communications and remote sensing satellites, and certain other activities.

Since there is no companies really doing this besides maybe Robert Bigelow’s commercial space station, there are no tax implications, though it was scored at $10 billion dollars by the joint taxation committee in the year 2001.  We said at the time this was absurd as there were no companies making any money doing what was covered at the time, but under static scoring rules this is how it came out.  The good news is that in this congress, the House has switched to dynamic scoring, something that we discussed for years in our citizen congressional lobbying.  What dynamic scoring means is that if you have $10 billion in profits that are offset by the tax credit, you probably have $30 billion in income taxes for your employees, thus providing the treasury a net of $20 billion dollars.  Yes this makes sense and one wonders why it did not happen decades ago, but that is the wisdom of congress.


The bottom line on all of this is that we as a nation made a terrible mistake during the Kennedy and Johnson administration in trying to implement a government centric control and execution of our national space program.  Right at the top of the list for the reasons that we have not gone back to the Moon since the Apollo era is that it was done for the wrong reason, prestige.  McDougall goes into the meaning of the world prestige and in tracking down the definition from over a century ago, a prestigious man was basically a fraud.

A prestige based space program was at the end of the day, a fraud on the American people.  Much better reasons for space exploration and the lunar landings were provided by many of the gentlemen who provided the lectures that were turned into the book edited by Ramo.  If we had listened to these sometimes deeply insightful and inspiring reasons, in all likely hood we would not have to be going back to the Moon as we would have never left.  As I have shown in several other posts (look them up), the issue was never money, never the deficit or any other manufactured excuses for killing Apollo, at the end of the day it was because the White House (LBJ) wanted to spend the money on other things, and space was no where near the top of the list.

In 1960 they knew that they were going to do this, start running up large deficits as it was considered that they were not evil and would bring prosperity to the nation.  It did, for a while, but like Greece with a much smaller economy, it is going to haunt us some day if we do not start investing in the future.  The United States economy has been wonderful in the areas that are private, in creating new wealth.  Indeed it can be seen that the beginning of the explosion of computer technology and Silicon Valley started when all of those aerospace engineers, that concentrated cadre of talent as McNamara called them, started being entrepreneurs again, (of necessity as they were laid off from the Apollo program and the end of Vietnam) they brought magic to the world.

MITS Altair built the MITS Altair 8080 at least partly in desperation because of the loss of contracts with Kirkland AFB in Albuquerque, NM.  Intel was started by people like Gordon Moore, who left Fairchild semiconductor, a defense contractor at the time, to start the world’s largest chip company.  A small company in Alabama called Space Craft Incorporated, possibly the first commercial space company, is now SCI-Sanmina (the SCI is for Space Craft Incorporated), one of the largest contract electronics manufacturers in the world.  The untold story of Silicon Valley, going back to the 1950’s is just how much of the original capital that built the underpinnings here, goes back to the government spending of the 1950’s on electronics, test equipment, radio, and defense.  Silicon Valley is also the tale of what can happen when free enterprise is unleashed from the tether of the government.  Time to try that in space.

A beautiful thing that I have seen, based on some of our projects like our lunar research and the ISEE-3 project is those younger than 20-25 really love space and space is a source of excitement for this generation.   This will change all the rules, especially as the part of space they are excited about is commercial space.  We have a real chance today to make this happen the right way.  The rationals provided by the University of California lecturers were great, the yearning of mankind to escape Earth, and the desire deep in our history to touch the sky.  We have come so far since 1960 in space and it is time that this particular Pandora’s box be opened wide, and see the hope inside..


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The Early Space Age, The Path Not Taken Then, But Now? (Part 1)

1960, Space, in the Beginning

1960 was a pivotal year in American history and space history.  In the U.S. presidential election, space and the space race, was a big issue.  Not only was there the issue of the missile gap where it was thought that the Russians had far more ballistic missiles than we did, (which turned out not to exist) but there was also the panic about the Soviets and their perceived superiority in space exploration.  These fears, along with the flight of Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961, led to the decision for the Apollo program to go to the Moon.   However, before this happened, before the election of John F. Kennedy, there was a healthy debate regarding space policy, the purpose of American space efforts, and its direction.

This space policy debate and exposition was well described in a book published in 1961, based upon a series of lectures in 1960.  The editor of this was Simon Ramo, the R in TRW corporation, a major aerospace player in the early space age.  The name of this book was “The Peacetime Uses of Outer Space”.  Figure 1 is the cover of the book:

Figure 1: Peacetime Uses of Outer Space

Figure 1: Peacetime Uses of Outer Space

In 1960 we were just barely three years into the space age.  The cold war was burning and the battlefield at this time was not peppered with bullets but with press releases, rocket launches.  The Russians had seized the initiative on October 4th 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1.  They followed this up with launches of larger and larger payloads, including Lakia the dog, designed to impress, not just the U.S. military but the world.  The entire early space age was a great public relations battle and the perception was that the Russians were winning.

Part of the problem, was that from the general public all the way up to high level policy makers, we had no idea what the Russians really had, or what their real intentions were.  Thus this fed the rumor mill and the presidential election campaigns with all kinds of rhetoric about how far behind we were, how complacent the Eisenhower administration was, and that we need to make bold moves as a nation to address the crisis of the loss of prestige.

It is in this context and background that this book, the record of a series of lectures sponsored by the University of California on the subject of the peacetime uses of outer space were had.  The lectures ran from March 23rd to Jun 29th of 1960 and featured major public figures, academics, and government officials interested in space.  Following is a list of the chapter authors/lecturers:

Lloyd V. Berkner, President, Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (University of Texas, Dallas)

James H. Doolittle, Chairman of the Board, Space Technologies Laboratories Inc.  (TRW and Now Northrup Grumman) (General, USAF ret.)

Frederick R. Kappel, President, American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T)

Vice Admiral John T. Howard, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, United States Navy.

Leyton Faneuf, Chairman of the Board and President Bell Aircraft Corporation (retired)

Leo Goldberg, Higgins Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University and Staff Member, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Joseph Kaplan, Professor of Physics, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Chairman, U.S. National Committee for the International Geophysical Year (IGY)

Morris Neiburger, Professor and Chairman, Department of Meteorology, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)

Willard F. Libby, Professor of Chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Overton Brooks, Chairman, Committee on Science and Astronautics, House of Representatives, United States Congress

Ralph J. Cordiner, Chairman of the Board, General Electric Company

Brigadier General Don Flickinger, Assistant for Bioastronautics, Headquarters Air Research and Development Command, United States Air Force

Edward Teller, Professor of Physics, University of California

Many of these names may not be familiar to a modern audience but if you read the text of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space book, you can read their resumes.  There are Nobel prize winners,  famous scientists of the day, the CEO of one of the largest corporations (GE) [Ralph Cordiner], and General Jimmy Doolittle, the hero of the Tokyo raid of 1942.

The lectures were all thoughtful presentations about space and its promise, within the context of the hysteria over the space race.

Threads of Policy

When the Kennedy administration came to power the prestige argument won the day. However,  beforehand the discussion space was considerably wider in scope, though prestige was also considered.  Here is an excerpt from the lecture by Overton Brooks:

People have been dreaming about space travel for thousands of years. Now that we have the means to make the dream come true, however, many people begin to doubt the value of our space program. Is it merely political and psychological— that is, are we going into outer space just for reasons of national prestige and advantage in the cold war? Or is it military— to prevent outer space from being used against us, and to use it, if need be, against our enemies? I would answer that the value of our space program is both psychological and military, in the cold war and the hot war alike, and could be amply justified on either ground, in the perspective of 10 or 20 years. Or we can justify it on the ground that it leads mankind farther along the roadway toward his destiny.

This is a thoughtful and interesting in the context of the later decision to implement the prestige based space program.  Also interesting is the reference to the political and psychological “value” context.  During the first two years of the space age, from the launch of Sputnik 1 to the 1960 election, there was a lot of hysteria, as Walter MacDougall  captured in his book “The Heavens and the Earth; A Political History of the Space Age“.

In the political realm, there was a letter, written by Charles Brewton, a little known aid to Senator Lister Hill (D., AL), to George Reedy, an assistant to Senator Lyndon Johnson in October of 1957.  Reedy met with Brewton and took this letter and amplified the sentiment regarding space. It had, among other things, this revealing bit about the perception of the mindset and concerns of the American people at the time:

It did not matter Brewton continued, whether the satellite had an military value: “the important thing is that the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started” In previous ages the Romans controlled the world because of their roads, then England controlled the world because of its ships.  When humanity moved to the air, the United States was supreme through aviation.  “Now the Russians have moved into outer space.”[page 149]

This is directly parallel to and an amplification of, what Overton Brooks, the twelve term democrat and the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, stated in his University of California lecture.  Everyone of that era deeply understood that a great deal of the credit for the victory in World War II was attributable to the United States vast superiority in airpower.  To think that the Russians might have captured the high ground of space, thereby negating that power, would have been deeply worrisome to the American public.  This sentiment was echoed by Lloyd Berkner in his lecture:

LLoyd Berkner,

In speaking of the rewards of space activity, we cannot ignore two others; these are the political and the spiritual. The United States with her leadership in advancing man’s welfare— a leadership triggered by a superb science and technology— has become the standard that must be surpassed by any other nation if that nation is also to claim the distinction of leadership. Therefore, such emergent societies as Russia and China aspire vigorously to surpass the United States to demonstrate the superiority of their ideology and social system. They have set this as their objective unambiguously.

Escape into space— the exploration of the heavenly bodies around us is a deep-seated aspiration of all mankind. That escape was reserved to man’s early gods, and it is closely identified with civilization’s early origins in mysticism, folklore, and religion. At every intellectual level man longs to know the nature of other bodies around him, so astronomy was among his earliest sciences. Man prizes this idea of escape from the earth to the universe as the highest symbol of progress. Therefore, the nation that can capture and hold that symbol will carry the banner of world leadership. Consequently, leadership in space exploration has a real political meaning. Failure in that leadership means inevitably falling into the status of a second-class nation with the heavy costs to our way of free enterprise which subjugation to others would involve.

Clearly the major concern of the above writers and the public was whether or not the USA was still the world leader in this new space age.  It also delved deeply into the most ancient longings and aspirations of humanity to reach into space.  This is an exceptionally insightful observation and goes further to explain the fear for the future and fed the doubts of many whether or not freedom and limited government was still the herald of the future for mankind.  A fear gleefully fanned for the 1960 presidential election.

For general Doolittle, his lecture was a straight forward practical look into the future to see where missile technology was going:

The so-called “space race” with Russia — more of an Olympics than a race — is a scientific crusade for military, political, cultural, and economic objectives. To date in the electronic revolution, the marriage of human intelligence and mechanical brains has produced an offspring made for terror and destruction. This first-born — the big ballistic missile — is as yet the only consistent user of space.

What of the countless man-made objects that will use space in the months and years to come? Here we find the great challenge: To use space in the pursuit of goals that will benefit — rather than destroy — all of mankind.

General Doolittle also addressed the prestige issue, that would figure so greatly in the Kennedy decision:

….Early in 1960 the director of the United States Information Agency told Congress that we are losing prestige throughout the world because of Soviet successes in space. There is already a tendency in world opinion, said George Allen, to view the Soviet Union as pre-eminent in all fields of science and technology because of its space feats. Furthermore, he added, these successes have created a “cockiness” among Soviet officials that endangers world peace.

The strange thing about the leadership issue, looking back is that it was no where near as dire as was being portrayed.   Of course there are reasons and perhaps the biggest one can be traced back to the politics of the time.  The Eisenhower years were years of prosperity, balanced budgets, and unmatched American military power, though with emerging civil rights issues.  Even in space, we were second not because of any Soviet massive leadership but because of a decision by Eisenhower to let the Russians launch a satellite first, and thus render moot any discussion regarding carrying national sovereignty into space, thus allowing them to by default establish the “Open Skies” policy regarding overflight rights for Soviet airspace.

In August of 1956 the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), could have launched a satellite into orbit.  As recounted by Major General Bruce Medaris, who was Von Braun’s boss at the ABMA in his book “Countdown to Decision” (1960), president Eisenhower sent one of his aids down to the launch site to make sure that the fourth stage was sand,  just in case Medaris and Von Braun might accidentally put a satellite into orbit. The overflight rights were exceptionally important to the Eisenhower administration as it was the only way to obtain detailed intelligence regarding Soviet missile launchers without risk to American pilots.  This concern was feverishly amplified after the shooting down and capture of Francis Gary Powers, flying a U2 aircraft over Russia in violation of Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960.

We know about these rationalizations now because of presidential papers, historians like McDougall, and writings of players like Medaris, but at the time the Eisenhower administration would not admit this strategic reason.  Fanning the space hysteria was presidential politics, with one of the epicenters being Senator Lyndon Johnson (LBJ).  In yet another revealing book, “Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige,” by Yanek Mieczkowski, delved into these more mundane politics of the space issue and why it reached such hysterical heights.  Parallel with the Brewton letter and after his meeting with George Reedy, Reedy then wrote to LBJ with these political  aspects of why space was important to the democrats as described by Mieczkowski:

…Eisenhower’s 1952 and 1956 victories further pounded the Democrats, and when the Little Rock desegregation fights erupted, they felt anxious about the party’s identification with civil rights.  Reedy wrote Johnson that ” in the integration issue [Republicans] have a potent weapon which chews the Democratic Party to pieces so efficiently that it cannot be an effective opposition.”  He warned, “The integration issue is not going to go away… The only possibility is to find another issue which is even more potent.  Otherwise the Democratic future is bleak.

Space provided what Democrats had been searching for, and Johnson crowded the opportunity, making exaggerated statements.  Whoever dominates space, he said “would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperature climates to frigid.”  He claimed that space exploration “will dominate the affairs of mankind just as the exploration of the Western Hemisphere dominated the affairs of  mankind in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”  Johnson wanted to get on equal footing with the Soviets regardless of cost. [page 139]

It is amazing that LBJ would make such absurd statements, but so was the sentiment of the time.  These inflammatory statements further amplified the hysteria and turbocharged the space issue, as to draw a contrast between the policies of the Eisenhower administration (and by implication a 1961 era Nixon administration) and an LBJ/Kennedy White House. So, at the end of the day, much of the rational for the prestige based space program of president Kennedy and later Johnson was based on the politics of the missile gap and the supposed Soviet superiority in space, coupled with bare fisted politics and a grasping for presidential power.  However, there were others that shared the wider perspective of the  lecturers.  Chief among these was Ralph Cordiner.

Ralph J. Cordiner’s  Vision Regarding Space and Private Enterprise Vs Webb-McNamara

Ralph J. Cordiner was a man invested in free enterprise and our capitalistic system.  In his lecture on “Competitive Free Enterprise in Space” he posed several questions that he then provided his thoughts on:

How can we utilize our dynamic system of competitive private enterprise in space, as on earth, to make newly discovered resources useful to man?

How can private enterprise and private capital make their maximum contribution? What projects will necessarily require government chairmanship and support for their execution?

What must be done to preserve a free society while competing in an international race for space? How can we assure that when the space frontier is developed, it will be an area of freedom rather than regimentation?

It is interesting that in the cacophony of the 1960 election that some of these more thoughtful lectures were given.  There is little record of them having any effect on the election itself, but they do provide a window of insight into the thoughts of those not directly invested with the election or the hysteria.  Ralph Cordiner, CEO of GE had the broadest perspective and this is where we now focus our attention.  It must also be noted that he was the Vice Chairman of the U.S. war production board during WWII and thus was intimately involved in the government direction of our entire national economy for several years during the war.  From his lecture:

The advanced industrial nations can now send objects off the planet into space. This new capability opens a whole new frontier to human exploration, development, and use. At this stage, the new frontier does not look very promising to the profit-minded businessman, or to the tax-minded citizen. But then, so it must have seemed to the Greeks, when Jason returned from his exploratory trip into the Black Sea; or to the Phoenicians, when their first explorers returned from the wild and savage shores of the Western Mediterranean. Most of the Greek and Phoenician traders, in 1000 B.C., probably preferred to invest their money in a good safe cargo of grain or wine, shipped over familiar sea lanes to familiar markets. But apparently a few traders, and later colonists, had the vision to see possibilities where other men saw nothing, because in a few centuries the Black Sea and the Western Mediterranean became familiar and profitable regions, enlarging the resources available to civilized man.

These questions go to the heart and soul of the struggle over the future of space policy, not just then, but today as well.  Cordiner was no died in the wool free marketer who thought that everything had to be done through private enterprise.  He understood that the new frontier of space was fraught with risk and that it was premature for private enterprise to fully shoulder the burden of its development.  He acknowledges the need for government funding, direction, and control in its early days as recounted:

It appears that the exploration of space is going to depend, for many years, primarily on government financing and hence government direction and control. That will be true because the exploration of space offers relatively little commercial opportunity for private business in the years immediately ahead.

Cordiner had a view of the proper role of government, which is consistent with most conservatives of his era:

What is the proper role of the government, in relation to the economy? Basically, it should provide an orderly political setting that encourages individual initiative and competitive private enterprise. It should provide the regulation necessary to keep the economic system competitive- as it does through vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws and other trade regulations. Government should do for the citizens, at their expense, only those things that the citizens cannot do for themselves through their private institutions. Thus, governments provide certain community services-locally, wherever this is possible, but federally, if necessary.

And also the role of private enterprise:

The competitive system, with its profit-and-loss disciplines, puts men and companies to the test as no other system does. It rewards the creative and the efficient. It penalizes the unimaginative and the inefficient. It provides an incentive for risk not only on the obvious ideas, but also on the “long shots.” It provides a natural and effective system for the elimination of failure, complacency, and delay. At its best, the competitive economy has a vigor, diversity, creativity, and efficiency that no controlled economy can match.

Most people would agree that the proper role of government as described by Cordiner is appropriate.  Some want the government to control everything, and we have seen the problems that accrue to this mindset.  However, keeping our focus on aerospace the description of the role of private enterprise in its full flower today certainly applies to SpaceX, Planetlabs, Google, Apple, and other companies in Silicon Valley who only bear lightly the touch of government.  On the other hand the aerospace companies that dominate our national space efforts today are much like their Soviet counterparts of that bygone era, doing nothing unless the government pays them to research the issue (I have had this told to me many times by executives at Boeing, Lockheed and other large aerospace and defense firms).  Cordiner had the explanation for this:

But we must recognize that there are growth tendencies in these government agencies that could overexpand under the pressures of the space program, unless proper safeguards are established. As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is· struggling against-a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government.

Can any serious observer of the current aerospace-defense establishment argue that this has not come to pass in that realm?  Can anyone look at SpaceX, who just obtained a $10 billion dollar valuation for their last investment round and not wonder what the problem is with the status quo?  In looking at the Stock Market today I see that SpaceX has five times the Market Capitalization of the newly merged ATK-Orbital, one third the market capitalization of Northrup Grumman, one sixth of Lockheed Martin, and one tenth of Boeing’s.  That is less than fifteen years after start.  How long until they surpass the big aerospace industrial complex companies in value?  Not very long at the current trajectory.

Looking on the bright side, this is what Cordiner had to say about how to get space done most effectively:

The United States has its own more effective way of concentrating efficient effort on a technical project of importance to the national security. And that is for the people, through government, to determine the objectives to be attained, and then to turn most of the technical work of achieving those objectives over to the private firms that have the managerial and technical capacity to get the work done- using competition and profit-or-loss incentives to the maximum.

Isn’t this what the current Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) is structured as?  Even Boeing and Orbital Sciences have stepped up to give it a go in this quasi commercial activity and even more so with the commercial crew contract.  Compare this with the complete debacle and tens of billions of dollars already spent on the Space Launch System the Orion capsule, as well as other projects like the James Webb telescope, the NPOESS and GEOS weather and climate satellites.

This perversion of the private enterprise system can be traced back to the Webb-McNamara report.  Here is what it said about private enterprise and government control:

Enormous strides have been made, particularly in our space efforts and in the development of related ballistic missile technology on a “crash” basis.  We have, however, incurrent certain liabilities in the process.  We have over encouraged the development of entrepreneurs and the proliferation of new enterprises.  As a result, key personnel have been thinly spread.  The turnover rate in U.S. defense and space industry has had the effect of removing many key scientific engineering personnel from their jobs before the completion of the projects for which they were employed.  Strong concentrations of technical talent needed for the best work on difficult tasks have been seriously weakened.  Engineering costs have doubled in the past ten years.

These and other trends have had a strong adverse effect on our capacity to do a good job in space.  The inflation of costs has an obvious impact and they are still rising at the rate of about seven percent per year.  This fact along affects forward planning.  It has often led to project stretch-outs, and may again in future years.  The spreading out of technological personnel among a great many organizations has greatly slowed down the evolution of design and development skills at the working level throughout the country.  Precisely the opposite is true in the USSR, where the turnover rate is very low and the skilled cadres of development personnel remain in existence for a great many years.

General Doolittle had the opposite take on the subject, based on data that he had tabulated:

Moreover, the Russian students’ economic incentive for intellectual excellence is great. An outstanding professor of science, who is a member of the Soviet National Academy of Science, is reputed to get fifty times the remuneration of a day laborer.

Let us, on the other hand, examine where we stand in refining our most vital resource. Within 3 months from now, industry will require some 50,000 engineering graduates. Tabulations show that only 39,000 will graduate. The remaining 11,000 cannot be recruited. They cannot be recovered. They will simply not exist. This is only one indication of an even more serious problem: Student interest in engineering is lessening. Engineering enrollments are dropping.

So the Russians were recruiting, training, hiring, and keeping their “cadres” of engineers and scientists because they paid them more money, exactly the thing that McNamara did not want to do in the U.S.!  How capitalist of the Russians.  It is also funny that Cordiner did not comment on the subject of talent loss though he was the CEO with arguably one of the largest engineering staffs in the nation.  One suspects more was at work here.   Here is their explanation for their system of organization under the title of “Space Projects for Prestige”.

All large scale space projects require the mobilization of resources on a national scale.  They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies.  They call for skillful management, centralized control and unflagging pursuit of long range goals. Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of the nation.

It is for reasons such as these that major achievements in space contribute to national prestige.  Major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified.

Looking back from the vantage point of today it is clear that the above is hogwash and as McDougall pointed out, stunts for prestige along end up being a series of empty promises, which is what our manned national space efforts for exploration have been since the death of the Apollo program.  It is also clear, from looking at the historical record in the waning years of Apollo that the “management techniques” and the “process” used for Apollo could, in the mind of the technocrats, be turned and use to solve world peace and other vital government projects as Lyndon Johnson told Walter Cronkite on the day of the launch of Apollo 11.  That video is linked here for those who may doubt that mindset.

 Part II Follows

This post got way too long.  It is being broken into two parts for easier digestion.

Addendum to Part 1. I found this gem in one of my books used for the research in this article that convey’s what Eisenhower thought of Kennedy’s Moonshot…

Figure Addendum: Eisenhower Administration Position on Moonshots

Figure Addendum: Eisenhower Administration Position on Moonshots


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The Quagmire of The Apollo Space Program

Editor Note: Hyperlinks in this article are direct links to referenced documents discussed in this missive.

Why the Lessons of Apollo Have Still Not Been Learned 50 Years Later

There is an old saying that history is his-story, or the story of whoever the victors are in war or society.  We know that Roman and Greek civilization was superior to others at the time because we have the Roman and Greek records that tell us so.  The Celts or Chinese might have thought differently.  In some respects the same is true of all history.  This is not to indict historians that have written on the subject of space but it is to say that everyone has a viewpoint and sometimes the official history does not fully illuminate a subject.

I have never been satisfied with the “official” NASA history of the Apollo program.  I lived in Huntsville Alabama for a long time and it mystified me to an extreme why we did not at least launch the last two flight worthy Saturn V’s and their payloads, Apollo’s 18 and 19.   Over the years since I left the computer industry in 1987 and moved to Huntsville to begin my space career I have collected a pretty good library of space books and I have read them all.  I have participated in conferences, talked to and worked with many Apollo veterans, and have been a part of NASA’s attempts at new efforts to get exploration beyond Earth orbit going.  None of it has ever made sense to me, so I have spent time researching the history to try to understand why we were able to do it then, and why it has been so hard since Apollo to make progress.

To me the best history is the Pulitzer prize winning book “The Heavens and the Earth, A Political History of the Space Age” by Walter McDougall.  I read the book probably twenty five years ago but did not fully understand its importance.  I re-read it often now.  The official NASA history, NASA SP-4407, “Exploring the Unknown” edited by Dr. John Logsdon is also a great resource.  Chapter two was written by Dr. Logsdon (which is an excerpt of his 1970 book “The Decision to Go to the Moon“) deals directly with the history of the Apollo program.  There is an extensive bibliography of histories but these two encapsulate the prevailing consensus.  However…..

A Tale of Two Space Programs

In rereading McDougall and Logsdon, as well as other books and documents recently I had a revelation.  The U.S. has always had two space programs, the first being the one that the politicians wanted, and the one that was sold to the American people.  This is I call the political space program vs the American space program.

Kennedy Administration Space Priorities

My first piece of evidence in this is derived from a November 21st 1962 White House meeting between president John F. Kennedy, NASA administrator James Webb, associate administrator Robert Seamans, Hugh Dryden, and presidential science advisor Jerome Wiesner.  The issue was the Apollo program, its purpose and priority within the federal government.  This is over a year and a half after the famous May 25, 1961 Kennedy speech  announcing the program and it is interesting the level of ambivalence if not outright opposition that NASA administrator Webb had to having the lunar landing be the priority goal of the agency.  Webb wanted “preeminence” in space.  Here is the beginning of the Kennedy audio tape transcript:

Figure 1: Kennedy/Webb Discussion on Apollo

Figure 1: Kennedy/Webb Discussion on Apollo

Part of Webb’s reluctance was political as well as technical, in that at the time we knew nothing of the surface of the Moon, and this was still four years before the first high resolution images of the Moon from Lunar Orbiter were obtained.  Webb also had a sense that the space program was much more than just the Apollo effort.  Presidential advisor Wiesner echoed these concerns later in the recording.

It is quite clear from the transcripts that if the Soviets had not chosen this battlefield in the global battle of prestige, that Kennedy would not have pushed to give NASA the money to go to the Moon.  Kennedy even put it in context of solving other problems.  Here is his definitive statement:

Figure 2: Kennedy Statement on the Rational for Apollo Prioritization

Figure 2: Kennedy Statement on the Rational for Apollo Prioritization

It does not get any clearer than this.  If it were not, and Webb continued to make the prominence argument, Kennedy shut it down and provided his view on the relative priority of the Apollo lunar landing:

Figure 3: President Kennedy Vs Webb on Preeminence vs Lunar Landing

Figure 3: President Kennedy Vs Webb on Preeminence vs Lunar Landing

Finally, Kennedy was only interested in spending the money, wrecking the budget as he called it, because in his opinion we had to beat the Russians to the Moon.  Also, look at the highlighted text in figure 4 following:

Figure 4: President Kennedy "I'm Not That Interested in Space"

Figure 4: President Kennedy “I’m Not That Interested in Space”

The president directly says that he is just not that interested in space, when it is compared to other priorities, except as a means to beat the Russians in the prestige game for global public opinion that McDougal illuminates so well in his book.

There is additional evidence that points to the prestige game that drove Apollo in a manner not known publicly at the time, but which was given extraordinary weight.  This is embodied in the Webb-McNamara report as it is known or the Recommendations For Our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals.  This was a classified report prepared under the direction of NASA administrator James Webb and Department of Defense head Robert McNamara.  It was the key guidance noted by both Logsdon and McDougall that provided the plan, budgets and the rationale for the Apollo program and the rest of NASA’s portfolio of activities.  It is now available from the national archives.  I collated it and published at this link.  Here is an excerpt from the section called Space Projects for Prestige.

Space Projects for Prestige

All large scale space projects require the mobilization of resources on a national scale.  They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies.  They call for skillful management, centralized control and unflagging pursuit of long range goals.  Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation.

It is for reasons such as these that major achievements in space contribute  to national prestige.  major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial, or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified.

This nation needs to make a positive decision to pursue space projects aimed at enhancing national prestige. (emphasis by the authors)

This is the opening paragraph on planning.


It is vital to establish specific missions aimed mainly at national prestige.  Such planning must be aimed at both the near term and the long range future.  Near term objective along will not suffice.  The management mechanisms established to implement long range plans must be capable of sustained centralized direction and control.  An immediate task is to specify long range goals, to describe the missions to be accomplished, to define improved management mechanism, to select the launch vehicles, the spacecraft, and the essential building blocks needed to meet missions goals.  The long term task is to manage national resources from the national level to make sure our goals are met.

The entire document is filled with this kind of language.  The political space program was basically a global public relations campaign (McDougal goes into this in great detail) aimed at the third world as part of the “fluid battleground” of the cold war.  To achieve this required “centralized direction and control”.  This word usage was conscious as the people involved in the Apollo decision had great faith in the power of government for good.  This is important later on as it was the management process developed for Apollo that was later to be integrated into most government programs of that era through today, including anti poverty programs, the war on drugs, and Obamacare.

To enable the successful execution of the Apollo program, a little known (to the public) prioritization within the federal government was granted.  This same meeting (it had been established earlier with the announcement of the Apollo program) mentioned the Apollo program’s “DX” classification.  According to the Department of Defense (DoD), this is the DX classification’s definition:

The Department of Defense has authority under the Defense Priorities and Allocations System (DPAS) (15 CFR 700) to place industrial priority ratings on its contracts. DoD uses two ratings: “DO” and “DX.” If necessary to meet required delivery dates at any level in the supply chain, DO-rated orders must be given production preference over unrated (commercial) orders, and DX-rated orders must be given preference over DO-rated orders and unrated orders.

The above quoted text (provided in the link in the previous paragraph)  is from a DoD document outlining the number of programs as of 2011 that had a DX classification.  There are only 13 DX classified contracts as of 2011 and most of them deal with nuclear weapons.  In my research I have found no time since the Apollo program that space had a DX classification.   This is important as the first call on resources from defense contractors, especially during Vietnam would have been for the war, but the Apollo program was on an equal footing in terms of allocations of manpower, contractor plant and equipment, and federal government support.

Administration’s Various Postures On Apollo

While of course NASA was focused on the Saturn V to the moon, the agency used its priority to push well beyond the limited mandate of Apollo.  This was not done stealthily, and it was part of the sales process to the American people for the Apollo program.  Kennedy himself used the rhetoric of the “New Frontier” to sell not only space but his other priorities. NASA, with the most to gain from this rhetoric, enthusiastically used the frontier meme in its efforts to keep the funds flying.  Another exceedingly interesting book on this subject is Selling Outer Space, Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 1961-1963 by James Kauffman.  Here is an excerpt from the Amazon summary of the book that encapsulates the position of the author regarding the rhetoric used to sell the program:

This book examines the Kennedy administration’s rhetoric to understand why Project Apollo received so little opposition. Although the Kennedy administration advanced a number of political, scientific, military, and economic arguments for a manned moon mission, its rhetoric ultimately “sold” the space project as a great frontier adventure story with deep roots in American history and culture. The administration enticed Congress, the media, and the public to think of Project Apollo not in “logical” terms, but as a reaffirmation of the romantic American frontier myth. By describing space as the New Frontier, the Kennedy administration shaped the way Americans interpreted and gave meaning to space exploration for years to come. The frontier narrative subsumed arguments about the technology and economics of the program, and it established a presumption in favor of massive commitments of the nation’s resources to staffed space flight.

The administration, NASA, and their congressional allies used various arguments to sell the Apollo program to congress, especially after the bills started mounting shortly before Kennedy’s death.  To some congress people it was sold as a jobs program, to others for its role in absorbing what would otherwise be a major surplus in aerospace employment as the missile gap closed and spending decreased there. In the sales pitch it was the American space program that was sold.  However, deep down philosophically, the leadership now in place in the Kennedy administration, the generation that grew up on the perceived success of FDR’s New Deal and the government led victory in WWII, it was the faith in the technocratic direction of government itself that drove the plan.  The Apollo program was a tool, to show that government and its skill in organizing, managing, and executing on large programs could do anything.  From McDougall:

…Apollo signaled a new age.  The technology race that began with weaponry now extended to a civilian pursuit, held in turn to be a symbol of overall national prowess.  Where the Eisenhower men doubled and tripled spending on science, education, and R&D, it was their intention to contain as far as possible the effects on traditional values and social institutions and the relationship of the public an private sectors.  The men who launched Apollo came to office dissatisfied with existing state management of the national treasure and talent, and began to view the space program as a catalyst for technological revolution, social progress, and even the “restructuring of institutions” in ways that were dimly foreseen but assumed to be progressive.

How this change occurred in so short a time is not a mystery, but rather that most vexing of historical problems, the “overdetermined event.”  New men arrived and brought with them those ideas of the “seed time” of the 1950’s.  Among those ideas were the notion that  the Third World was the main theater of the Cold war and that in that contest prestige was as important as power.  Their new ideas validated a far greater role for government in planning and executing social change.  The new men also cared more for imagery and felt increasing pressure to display their control over affairs in the wake of early setbacks in foreign policy. Finally, each major figure in space policy—Kennedy, Johnson, Webb, Dryden, McNamara, Welsh, Kerr, and others– saw ways in which an accelerated space program could help them solve problems in their own shop or serve their own interests.  This is not to say that they were petty; it is to say that they were technocratic, applying command technology to political problems.

Stating this in more modern terms, the “overdetermined event” was the challenge of the Soviets in space and as the former chief of staff of president Obama once opined, never let a crisis go to waste.  Thus it can be seen that the Apollo program, from the perspective of the politicians, had nothing to do with the Moon, nothing to do with opening the space frontier, nothing about our future in space.  McDougall captures this betrayal of the people that executed the American space program in his closing paragraph of chapter 15 of his book:

Of all those who contributed to the moon decision, the ones farthest in the background were the engineers of Langley and Goddard and Marshall, many of whom devoted their lives to spaceflight, designing dreams.  Their reports and studies were necessary buttresses to the political arguments: they had to persuade that the thing could be done.  Otherwise, they were absent.  Some of their visionary talk about exploration and destiny found place in the political speeches, but their efforts to stretch the minds and hearts of their fellows, to sow wonder for its own sake, got lost in their very adoption by the technocratic state.  What Constantine’s conversion did to the Christian Church, Apollo did to spaceflight: It linked it to Caesar.  The new faith might conquer the empire, but its immaculate ability to stir hears was accordingly diminished.  Of course, it could not have been otherwise.

In other words, the real American space program was ignored for the political space program and when this program ceased to be useful, the political geniuses like McNamara (the brilliant architect of the Vietnam war), and the rest, especially LBJ, took the money from Apollo and spent it on other political problems that in their perception had more value.  The ironic thing is, that if they had not been so focused on their own rice bowls and had continued the focus on space at the Apollo spending levels, many of the problems that they sought to spend money on other than the Apollo program, could have been fixed.

The American Space Program

The nation made dramatic strides in technology in the 1960’s and foundation of our economic power today derives from these advances.  Solar cells were invented and first used for Vanguard 1, one of the first satellites that the United States placed into orbit.  Integrated circuit development was funded by NASA and DoD space appropriations.  The first real time embedded computers and operating systems were built for the Saturn V by IBM (first surface mount chips) and for the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules.  Precision matching, robotic welding and assembly, all were first implemented for the Apollo program.  These are just the spin off’s, the systems advances were just as dramatic.

I acquired a book that is the official congressional record of the “NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1966″.  The book is a record of the Hearings Before the Committee On Aeronautical and Space Sciences United States Senate.  This was from the 89th congress, first session, bill S.927, the NASA Authorization for FY 1966.  This is part 1, Scientific and Technical Programs and Program Management.  There is a lot of interesting testimony in this document, from NASA administrator Webb, deputy administrator Dr. Hugh Dryden, as well as associate administrator Robert Seamans and Wherner Von Braun.

The Apollo program known to history was called the approved program, which constituted the 15 first production run Saturn V’s (all that were ever built), and their associated support systems, the Command/Service modules (that carried the crew to the moon) as well as the Lunar Module landers.  Many statements were made that the production rate for the vehicles, not just the Saturn V but the Saturn 1/1B as well was 6 per year.  Additionally NASA was moving in the direction of the flight qualification of the NERVA nuclear upper stage, which would have increased the throw weight of the Saturn V to the Moon from 48 metric tons to 98 tons, more that doubling its capability.  Figure 1 here shows a chart from the book (page 251) showing the next step in the Apollo program:

Figure 1: AES_Saturn Capabilities

Figure 1: AES_Saturn Capabilities

This was part of Dr. George Mueller’s testimony.  The AES capabilities shown in the bottom half of the chart would be with only modest increases in Apollo capabilities and or with a dual Saturn V launch.  It is mind blowing to think that in the early 1970’s we could have put two crew persons on the lunar surface in the polar regions for up to a month.  The continued production of Saturn V vehicles and the associated hardware could have been done to support these missions at the ~$5.5-6 billion a year peak NASA budget from FY 1966.  The proof of this is in Dr. Mueller’s testimony (page 256):

…In carrying out the extended lunar missions on the lunar surface it does require, if we are going to use the present equipment, two launches of a Saturn V are required to carry out one mission (fig. 82, p. 210). One of the lunar excursion modules is landed unmanned and is modified to be a lunar laboratory on the surface, and is modified by taking off the ascent propulsion and the propulsion tanks.  Then you land a manned lunar excursion module along side of it, and the men live in this laboratory for the 2 weeks, return to the original lunar excursion module that brought them down, and return in that to the command module….

This is shown in the figure below:

Figure 2: AES Lunar Mission with Two LEM's.

Figure 2: AES Lunar Mission with Two LEM’s.

Here is where we were at with nuclear engine technology in March of 1965:

Figure 3: Nuclear Engine Testing 1

Figure 3: Cold Flow Testing Nuclear Engine

Figure 4: Systems Testing of Nuclear Engine At Lewis (Now Glenn) Research Center

Figure 4: Systems Testing of Nuclear Engine At Lewis (Now Glenn) Research Center

Figure 5: Mars Mission With a Nuclear Engined Saturn V.

Figure 5: Mars Mission With a Nuclear Engined Saturn V.

Figure 6: Clustered Nuclear Reactor Testing

Figure 6: Clustered Nuclear Reactor Testing

These graphics are all from the same Senate hearings from March of 1965.  Can there be any doubt whatsoever that the American space program as it was unfolding was starkly different than what the political space program intended?  

A more formal version of the advanced post approved Apollo program ideas and others for further uprating of the Saturn V for Mars missions was presented to president Johnson and VP Humphrey in February of 1967 as The Space Program in the Post-Apollo Period, A Report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.  The cover is shown in figure 7:

Figure 7: The Space Program in the Post Apollo Period Report Cover

Figure 7: The Space Program in the Post Apollo Period Report Cover

President Johnson simply ignored this report.  President Johnson had other priorities and was simply unwilling to expend further national capital on sustaining the momentum built up by the Apollo program.  John Logsdon’s history states it this way (page 421 of NASA SP-4407):

Soon after Lyndon Johnson became President, he had asked NASA to begin to identify post-Apollo options. NASA responded by January 1965 with a “laundry list” of future possibilities. (Volume I, III-18) But by that time, “Johnson did not want to hear about the possibilities, nor did he particularly want Congress to hear them.” Recognizing that a second Apollo-like initiative was not in the offing, NASA focused its post-Apollo planning on an interim effort that became known as the Apollo Applications Program.

McDougal strangely enough blames NASA’s lack of a plan for the lack of interest by the White House and congress in pushing forward a new program but in looking at the FY 1966 bill S.927 hearings, it is impossible to sustain that conclusion.  The only caveat to this was (for me) the shocking revelation in Logsdon’s history (page 434) by Robert Gilruth of NASA that no more lunar missions be flown after the successful landing of Apollo 11.  It boggles my mind that anyone inside of the agency, especially one of Gilruth’s stature, would suggest such a thing.  Fortunately, this sentiment was not shared by many, but in recalling some other histories that I have read, I remember that by the time Apollo 17 had flown that there was a lot of concern about the continuing risk and that this may have played a role in the decision to not fly Apollo 18 and 19 with the hardware already in hand.

Just think how the history of the space program would have been different had they flown the Apollo AES mission (the lower half of figure 1), to one of the lunar poles!  As far back as 1969, Dr. James Arnold, of the University of California San Diego, and Dr. Harold Urey (who won a nobel prize in chemistry) postulated, based on their examination of lunar samples and theoretical calculations of thermodynamics, that water could exist in cold traps at the lunar poles.  This has only recently been confirmed, with the current NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the LCROSS impactor, coupled with earlier measurements from the DoD Clementine and NASA’s Lunar Prospector, providing the definitive confirmations.  However, if we could have flown the AES to one of the lunar poles, science would have confirmed the water over 40 years ago and indeed the last 40 years of quagmire in lunar exploration could have been avoided.

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Man on the Moon?

This journey into the history of the Apollo program and why we have not followed up on it has been been both satisfying and yet frustrating.  I now have satisfied my curiosity regarding why we have not followed up on the Apollo program, even to today and the current indecision regarding exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  We have not done it simply because the political space program has no interest in it, nor have they ever really been interested.  For the political space program was never more than a tool, the ultimate appeal to authority for what they were really interested in, which has been buying votes, for trillions of dollars that have been spent on “other priorities” over the years.  McDougall goes into this in the closing chapters of his book:

…By 1969 Anderson’s [Democrat Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico; ed] colleagues mostly had other hopes and fears than nose of 1961: the fear of social disintegration and the hope that the Apollo method might help alleviate poverty, pollution, decaying cities.  The hope that rode on Apollo was the hope for human adequacy in the face of awful challenges.  NASA had whipped the Soviets, and now technocracy—state-managed R&D, state regulation, state mobilization, and systems analysis—could be applied to “down-to-earth” problems.  Now that the technocratic method was proven out, space travel was becoming dispensable….But the first irony of Apollo was that over time, the means had become more important than the end, even though that means—technocracy–was to prove inapplicable to most of the items on the new national agenda.  Going to the moon was an engineering problem; eliminating discrimination or poverty or even urban blight was not…..

Thus what can be said here is that the Apollo program became the ultimate appeal to authority by those who had the ultimate faith that government could cure all of societies ills.  Indeed, for most of my own youth I remember hearing that used as a clarion call of “If we can put a man on the moon surely we can solve X, Y, or Z!” Today this has crept into the general vernacular in that some writers call the current administration’s Affordable Care Act as Obama’s “moonshot”.  I don’t know McDougall’s politics but he zeroed in on the whole technocratic meme.  Democratic leaning historians such as Logsdon would not go into this subject in the depth of McDougall though he did illustrate the mechanics of what happened accurately.   Here is what Logsdon had to say about the later stages of the Apollo program and Nixon administration’s response to the Space Task Group’s expansive plans for post Apollo (page 436):

This type of recommendation was not at all what the Nixon administration had in mind; its top goal was reducing government spending……Richard Nixon finally responded to the Space Task Group in a statement issued on 7 March 1970, saying, “space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.” It was clear that there would be no more Apollo-like space goals set while Nixon was in office.

Logsdon uses the excuse here of the Nixon administration’s desire to cut the budget, but that is only true of the NASA budget.  Nixon’s first budget, for fiscal year 1970 came in at $195.649 billion total dollars.  Nixon’s last budget, FY 1975 was $332.332 billion, an increase of over $138 billion per year in that period.  Another three billion to keep NASA at its 1966 level would have not even been noticed.  The bold text above indicates that it was not a desire to reduce the general federal budget, which obviously did not happen, but a shift in national priorities that started years before by LBJ and Nixon just continued the trend.  The numbers I use here are from the historical federal budget as obtained from the White House OMB website.  Table 1 shows the NASA budget in comparison with other large federal agencies.

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

I have published this before but it bears repeating.  I normalized the NASA budget to 1 and then compared the other budgets as a fraction of NASA’s budget.  In FY-1966 only the DoD had a higher proportion of the budget than NASA.  By FY 1970 the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Department of Transportation all had higher budgets.  By FY 1975 this list included the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, DoD Civil Programs, International Assistance, and even the Office of Personnel Management had higher budgets than NASA.  The Department of Health and Human Services budget was over ten times that of NASA by FY 1975.  Thus it is absurd to make the claim that it was some general effort to reduce the budget that NASA had to take, along with the rest of government.

NASA’s budget had already been cut from its peak of $5.933 billion in FY 1966 to $3.752 billion for Nixon’s first budget.  There has been this fantasy, repeated by Logsdon, that somehow the Saturn V production line could have continued to operate and that the final decision to end production was not until 1972. However, as far back as 1968 and the completion of subsystems and with the main contract only for 15 flight units, the subcontractors had long been shut down by then.  As early as mid 1968 conference papers were indicating a loss of employment of 4-5000 per week in critical areas.  Saying that the Saturn V production could have continued as far down the road as 1972 is as absurd as saying that Space Shuttle flights could have been continued without interruption by the last flight in 2010.

It is exactly this shift in priorities that has not been substantially changed since that era.  The Reagan and Bush 1 administration’s more than doubled NASA’s budget but by then, with inflation and the growing sclerosis of the American aerospace industry, the increases, while allowing NASA to fly the Shuttle up to 9 times in 1985 and start on the development of the Space Station Freedom, was not as effective as before.  There was some shift at the policy level with Reagan advisor Dr. George Keyworth and George H. Bush in 1989 boldly began the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  However, by then the partisanship in congress was so bad that the democrat caucus strongly opposed any increased spending on  space, so much so that with large majorities in 1992 forced through a budget recission that specifically cut funds for the first lunar orbiter since Apollo (the Lunar Resource Mapper that yours truly was a PI on) after the production contracts were signed with Boeing.  Again the excuse was deficit reduction, but during the Clinton years the federal budget increased from $1.46 trillion dollars to $1.87 trillion dollars while NASA’s budget for a time was reduced by almost a billion a year.

In 2004 the Bush II administration began another attempt at an expanded space program with the Vision for Space Exploration.  George W. Bush’s administration increased the NASA budget from the last Clinton budget of $14.092 billion (still less than the last Bush 1 budget of $14.305 billion), to $19.17 billion in the last Bush budget in FY-09 to support the completion of the International Space Station and the beginning of what became the Constellation program.  When the Obama administration came into office the Constellation program was immediately cut, and the budget was again cut, by $2 billion a year by FY 2013, recovering this year but still less (at about $18.5 billion) than the last Bush budget.

It should be indisputable to any rational observer that the reason for the Apollo quagmire is that the politicians in our government, both congress and the White House, simply have other priorities.  Our federal budget has increased by over a $1.5 trillion a year since the Bush announcement in 2004 while NASA’s budget has declined in the past five years of the current administration.  The Augustine commission’s Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee in their final report stated that for NASA to be able to execute on its beyond earth orbit human spaceflight efforts, it would need an additional $3 billion a year, over and above the $19.1 billion dollar budget.  Instead, the budget decreased, again in the name of deficit reduction, which is counterfactual considering how much the federal budget has increased.

Thus, in conclusion, the only conclusion that we can draw is that the political space program has been a failure.  It was a failure in concept, brilliant for a few years in execution in landing men on the moon, and then a failure in philosophy, spirit, and execution since that time.  The truth of the matter is that if the political space program had been in actuality what the American space program was in spirit, many of the political problems that money was diverted from the Apollo program to solve, would probably have been solved by a continued emphasis on space development.  It was only with the George W. Bush administration that an articulation of the American space program was finally made.  Here it is from a speech by Dr. John Marburger at the Goddard symposium in 2006:

The ultimate goal is not to impress others, or merely to explore our planetary system, but to use accessible space for the benefit of humankind. It is a goal that is not confined to a decade or a century. Nor is it confined to a single nearby destination, or to a fleeting dash to plant a flag. The idea is to begin preparing now for a future in which the material trapped in the Sun’s vicinity is available for incorporation into our way of life.

This is the first articulation in the political sphere that I have ever seen of a true American space program.  Indeed Marburger took a slap at the whole prestige rational in his above statement.  Unfortunately, the NASA administrator who understood Marburger and who had the ear of the president, gave way to an administrator and a program (Constellation) that was a throw back to the Apollo program, but without the funding profile to match.

This also goes back to my opening about his-story.  I first started noticing discrepancies between the official NASA history, some other written histories, and my personal experiences and relationships with the people involved.  This was reinforced in my personal participation in both the Space Exploration Initiative and the Vision for Space Exploration.  I also gained insight by going back over the writing of people who were opposed to the technocratic character of the Apollo program like Ralph Cordiner, CEO of General Electric, president Eisenhower, and Von Braun’s army boss, General Bruce Medaris.  Though I don’t like what I found, it does make sense.  The politicians of the era, especially those like whiz kid Robert McNamara who had a lot of influence on space policy, simply had no vision of what our first steps into the cosmos meant.  There were many of that era who did, but this did not penetrate the self assured intellect of the new men that surrounded Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson.

I hope that the reader, in following the links that I have provided here, as well as the development in this missive of the idea of the political vs American space program, can gain insights on why we have been stuck in this quagmire for so long.

Just this past week an article was published in Aviation Week by Marcia Smith, regarding the anniversary of yet another report, the National Commission on Space report.  Chaired by then former NASA administrator Tom Paine (who I had the honor of having lunch with in 1989), it was another attempt at pushing on the government space program an expansive effort, this time with the focus on Mars.  She wonders why, after thirty years, that we still have these questions about destinations and NASA’s direction.

To the reader of this missive, the answer is clear, it is not a priority of the political space program.  There was no money provided in the 80’s for it, or in the 90’s or 2000’s, even with the dramatic expansion of the federal budget in this same time period.  Mars simply has not be placed in the proper context of the economic development of the solar system.  It has been considered a province of science alone for decades.  Any base on Mars built by NASA will look like the National Science Foundation’s base in Antarctica, the sole province of science.  It is hardly remarkable that this does not cross the threshold of a positive tipping point in government funding when compared against competing earthly priorities.

Marburger had it right, but he is dead, and the other real or perceived sins of the George W. Bush administration has consigned the brilliant construct of the economic development of the solar system to yet another speech lost to the ether.


I added this a couple of days after the original post of this article.  It helps to drive the point home even more, and here it is, out of the mouth of the former president of the United States, specifically that he wanted to use the management techniques that proved effective for the Apollo program and use them for “world peace” and other progressive ideals.

The American Space Program

Stated simply, the goal of the American space program is the economic development of the solar system, beginning with the industrialization of the Moon, free space, and asteroids, with settlement of Mars.  With the death of the Apollo program the American space program moved outside of NASA.  Dr. Von Braun, after his retirement from NASA, helped found the National Space Institute, which later merged with the populist L5 Society, to form the National Space Society.  Von Braun’s goal with the founding of the NSI-NSS was to educate the American people on the value of space, beyond the confines of the political space program.   It is here where I will pick up in my next missive.  I will just leave the reader with the thought that it is the American space program that is growing at this time while the political space program is dying.  That is a good thing.



Posted in Economic Development, Space, Space and Life Experience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

Gerard K. O’Neill on Space Resources; Omni Magazine First Word

Gerard_K_ONeilThere is a group of people, most of us now in our fifties now, that call ourselves Gerry’s kids.  In the 1970’s Gerard K. O’Neill, professor of physics at Princeton University was one of the very few voices for space that had the gravitas to be published and listened to on the subject.  He founded the Space Studies Institute with the premise that space was too important to be left to the politicians.

The 1970’s was an era very much like today.  Every day then it was the doom and gloom of the gas crisis, the resource crisis, the nuclear crisis, and most of all, an amazing crisis of spirit, that was not commented on with the hysteria of the other crises.  This was also the beginning of the time of the problems that carry on today in the middle east.  As a teenager of that era who lived and breathed space, reading Dr. O’Neill in Omni (and Omni magazine itself) was a breath of fresh air, a counterweight to the Limits to Growth doom and gloomers of that era.

Unfortunately I never got to meet Dr. O’Neill as he died in the early 1990’s.  I was a member of one of their projects, the Lunar Prospector, the first privately conceived lunar resource mapping mission.  This mission was later adopted by NASA, flew in 1998, and provided the first solid indication of water ice and global resources after the Apollo era. There is a pretty good Wikipedia page about him here.  A dear friend has recently given me a corpus of Dr. O’Neill’s writings, including a short one from Omni magazine that is important and I will reproduce in part here.

The reason to me that this is important is that the subject of space manufacturing, space resources, and space development have been around for a long time and it hasn’t happened yet and we need to understand why it did not happen then and how to make it happen today.  We need to make it happen because the same type of doom and gloomers that were around then are screaming louder today.  They are just as wrong now, if not more so than in the 70’s, but their voices have been adopted by those with good intentions, but no clue about what the future can hold, if we just not give up, not give in, and we don’t surrender to the voices of darkness.

Here is Gerry’s First Word in Omni Magazine.  (I don’t know what issue)

If you want to be sure something gets done, do it yourself.  That’s an old rule and it works. A small band of people from all over the world are applying it now in practice.  They feel that the breakout of humankind into space is too important to be left to the vagaries of national politics and they are making it happen on their own.

With the successes of Apollo, Skylab, Soyz, Viking, and the planetary survey spacecraft, we humans have shown our ability to break free of the limits a planetary surface imposes.  Why battle over fossilized energy when out beyond Earth’s shadow there streams by every second, based, enough continuous solar energy to power our civilization for thousands of years?  Why fight over minerals when theres more iron, nickel, aluminum, silicon, and other useful elements in the asteroids [ed: and the moon] than we could obtain by carving away every mountain range on Earth?

NASA conducted technical studies in 1976 and 19777, under my direction, aimed at using non terrestrial resources.  We obtained positive results, since confirmed in yearlong contractor studies by Convair/General Dynamics, MIT, and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.  If there’s a need for big construction in space, whether it’s for radio telescopes, deep-space laboratories, solar-power satellites, or space colonies, that need can be met most economically by getting raw materials from the moon or asteroids.  That logistical result will endure forever, because no one can repeal the law of gravity.  It will always take more than 20 times as much energy to haul a ton up to orbit from the earth as from the moon.

Despite all good will on the part of our NASA friends, it became clear late in the 1970’s that the space agency could carry this research forward without help.  Amid reorganizations, continuing governmental budgetary crises, and potshots from critics, NASA was lucky if it could plan even six month ahead [ed: nothing has changed]  But to get results, research has got to be published steadily, and the Space Studies Institute (SSI) was formed in 1977 to do just that: it funds research through tax-deductable gifts from individuals.  Overhead? No problem: SSI’s founding officers serve without pay.  So do its senior advisors, who include both of the last two NASA administrators, other distinguished scientists, and such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller and Barbara Hubbard.

The Institutes’s donors are asked for only $10 to cover the annual subscription, but most of them renew at higher figures.  By 1979, hundreds of individuals began pledging larger sums annually for five years.  SSI’s capital resources, acquired by such voluntary gives, will never equal the vast sums that governments extract from citizens by taxation, but SSI is building assets that are even more important: continuity and longevity.  It is committed to opening the resources of space for human benefit, and it will hold to that commitment no matter what politicians are swept into or out of office by the winds of political fortune.  Occasionally an administration may support a project [ed: like Lunar Prospector] that SSI started.  Fine.  The institute will turn to the next item on its funding priority list.

SSI funds were allocated first to the construction of a model mass driver, a special type of electric motor that could be used to launch lunar materials to a precise point in space, or to drive space freighters efficiently, running on solar power.  The model built mainly by MIT students working as volunteers, demonstrated an acceleration of 35 gravities, zero to 85 mph in 0.1 second.  With continued SSI support, and initial design was drawn up for a second model, to work at 500 gravities of acceleration.  NASA became interested and supported its construction.  By mid-1980 that machine was working too.

The institute also began supporting workshops to find the quickest, least expensive methods of reaching higher economic productivity in space, using solar energy and lunar materials.  Specialists in mass driver design, spacecraft engineering, the chemical separation of lunar materials, and industrial automation cooperated and found that an investment of $6 billion to $8 billion, no more than the cost of wholly private ventures like the Alaska pipeline would be enough to establish a partially automated industry in space, producing 100,000 tons of products annually with a value of over $10 billion.

Recently the institute made a third grant, and the research it supported opened the door to what could be the most attractive storehouse of materials in the entire solar system.  Following a suggestion by one of SSI’s senior advisors, the Noble laureate Professor Hannes Alfven, a Princeton graduation student named Scott Dunbar wrote his doctoral thesis on a difficult problem in gravitational theory.  He showed that small asteroids could be trapped along the earth’s orbit.  Those nuggets would be retrievable at almost no cost in energy, and an inexpensive telescopic probe could find them if they exist.

The breakout into space doesn’t depend on our being so lucky as to find those particular asteroids, but it does depend on our learning to separate lunar or asteroidal materials into pure metals silicon and oxygen.  The institute has now put its highest priority on raising funds to build a working pilot plant, at tabletop sale, to extract pure elements from minerals identical to those on the moon.  With a constancy of purpose and its independence, SSI is proving that a small amount of money spent wisely can be more effective in advancing a cause than much larger sums scattered for purposes that change with every passing year…..

I read back on this missive by Dr. O’Neill ruefully.  Today we are still saying what he said three decades ago.  The issues are the same, the ideas are the same, and the challenges as well.  Late in his life Dr. O’Neill and others founded a commercial GPS like satellite project to provide commercial positioning, which was overtaken by the government provided GPS.    What he said back then is still valid today and much of his work and ideas has continued to inspire my own work in this field.

One thing that was an achilles heel of his plan as well as many others is that he only needed $6-8 billion to make the plan work.  Time and experience has shown that no one invests this amount of money in a project with as high of perceived and real risks.  Many of us who learned from Dr. O’Neill have started with far smaller projects that have commercial viability today, and then hopefully we will grow into the type of organization that can pull off these very big projects.  The dream is still there for us and it is the good dream of a positive future for all mankind, while as good capitalists, we have to make a profit as well!

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

2015, The Year For Zero G Zero Tax?

The Rebirth of ZGZT….

I am one of the nine original members of a non profit, citizen space lobbying group called ProSpace.  We started our journey in March of 1995, just after the revolution where the Republican party took over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.  I was a student at the time but those of us who started what was called “March Storm” had a strong desire, as a citizen group, to lobby our congressional representatives on matters concerning space that were important to us.

Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System

The  Economic Development of the Solar System

We did not go with our hands out, asking for money, like some space groups.  We originally, though we did later, did not even advocate for specific projects, simply to get congress to recognize that space was more than NASA.  Also, that by adopting intelligent policies, which were far easier to get passed in the congress, the commercial space industry, beyond the incumbent defense contractors, could contribute to economic growth, and thus increase the national tax base.

We had considerable successes, including the commercial space act of 1998, which has been used to help pry the cold dead fingers of the incumbents from the launch vehicle market in the U.S.   We also had another idea that we pushed for several years which is what we called “Zero G, Zero Tax”.  Zero G is a space term that is related to the fact that in orbit the gravity is effectively zero, or Zero Gravity, or Zero G.  What this legislation sought to do is to help foster private enterprise in space, by providing for a tax holiday on the earnings (later capital gains as well) of companies who’s revenue (or a portion thereof) was derived from activities in space.  This excluded existing industries like telecommunications and remote sensing.

We almost got it passed multiple times, but the conditions were not right at the time and the congress was wedded to what was called the “static” analysis of tax policy.  The joint taxation committee in congress scored the bill as costing the treasury $10 billion dollars, which was absurd as at the time there were no companies that qualified for the exclusion!  However, with that scoring, no matter its invalidity, this killed the bill.  Today though, times have changed.  We have a new congress, with a new majority, and today we have a still nascent but growing “New Space” industry.  A Zero G Zero Tax bill today could be a very good means to encourage growth, spur investment, and create jobs, without costing the treasury any dollars, and indeed as we showed before with dynamic scoring, the net gain in taxes would be in the tens of billions of dollars.

So for today, I am putting our last White Paper from 2006 back out for consideration.  In a follow on post a discussion will be had on how the passage of this bill, along with the growing nibbles of an appetite by investors, could result in an explosion of economic growth in space for American companies with the high paying jobs that will follow.

Reprint From Tuesday, November 14, 2006

White Paper on Zero Gravity – Zero Tax –

Congress has considered a bill intended to spur economic development of space-related American industries. Its potential for significant job creation, revenue generation and strengthening American leadership in space is analyzed herein, and recommendations presented to maximize its chances of success. The authors represent a non-profit group dedicated to a market-based approach to activities in space.

  1. Purpose

Manned spaceflight and space exploration has been primarily a government activity in the United States since its start in the early 1960s. As such, we Americans have not been able to take advantage of traditional market forces, private investment, cost savings due to competition, and improvements in safety, capability and methods that would normally fall out of a robust competitive marketplace. It is our goal as an organization to create a self-sustaining off-world economy. The vehicle to do so would be via the creation of a competitive marketplace for goods and services off planet. Should this goal be realized, we believe we can create a significant number of new jobs and increase revenues into the treasury as a result of those jobs. This White Paper explores possible changes in the tax code that could fuel the creation of new jobs, wealth and revenues in off-world businesses and industry.

  1. The History of Industrial Tax Credits and Tax Cuts
    • 1862 – Pacific Railroad Act and Land Grant College Act – first significant legislation that gave something of value from the US government in return for activities that the government deemed important
    • Succeeded in producing cross-country extension of railroads (several routes) and a series of colleges and universities nationwide (including former Agricultural and Mechanical colleges, mostly now renamed as State Universities)
    • Same model was followed later in a series of Homestead Acts, which conveyed federal land to settlers in an effort to settle the West. This also worked nicely
    • Several times in the last century, tax cuts have increased economic activity – usually in unexpected ways (volume of new money into the treasury significantly – and surprisingly, to some, increased)
      • The first example of tax cuts creating economic activity last century was during the Coolidge administration in the mid-1920s.         President Coolidge supported tax cuts which led directly to economic prosperity known as the Roaring ‘20s.
      • President Kennedy proposed tax cuts late in his term of office.         They were eventually passed as the Revenue Act of 1964. Increased economic activity and revenue growth provided the financial underpinning for Johnson’s Great Society
      • The Reagan tax cuts of 1981 almost doubled the yearly dollar amount into the treasury by the end of his second term in office
      • The capital gains tax cuts passed during the Clinton Administration in 1995 increased economic activity for the years to follow.         They allowed congress to balance the federal budget late in that decade
      • The Bush tax cuts of 2002-2004, which have increased the capital gains revenue into the treasury, unexpectedly cutting the projected deficit in half by FY 2006
  1. The use of tax credits to encourage investment in underdeveloped areas also has a long history (space is by definition an underdeveloped area) -
    • Free ports (a.k.a. porto fraco, free zone, Foreign Trade Zone)
      • Tax benefits usually limited to the elimination of tarrifs
      • Hong Kong and Macao are classic examples
      • Also exist in US, Bahrain, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Croatia, Germany, Malta, Denmark, UK, Portugal, Georgia, Italy, Ireland, France, Latvia, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Bermuda, Panama, and Venezuela
    • Free economic zones (not always distinguished from free ports)
      • Partial or complete tax exemptions
      • Exist in UK, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Belaurus, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Brazil, Chile, EU, Iran, US (Hawaii, Puerto Rico)
    • Enterprise Zones (a.k.a. Urban Enterprise Zone, Special Economic Zone, Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Communities, EZs)
      • Originated in England
      • Popularized in US by Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) and Rep. Robert Garcia in the 1980s
      • Used at both Federal and State level
      • 1992 LA riots prompted more interest in Federal enterprise zones; track record considered mixed
      • Bill Clinton signed Community Renewal Tax Relief Act in 2000; $15 billion in tax credits to private Community Development Entities
      • Currently exist in US, China, India, Iran, Jordan, Poland, Kazakhstan, the Philippines and Russia.
      • In US, investors often combine enterprise zone credits with Historic District tax credits; this has created a bias toward historical redevelopment rather than helping low-income areas that EZs were supposed to help. This has reduced the effectiveness of some EZ’s.
    • Various tax holidays for industrial development
      • Internet is best known example and most undeniably successful.
      • Taiwan currently has five-year tax holiday for biotech and nanotech
      • Israel offers biotech firms a 10-year tax holiday on undistributed profits
      • India has tax holiday for IT in Software Development Parks until 2010; R&D tax holiday for up to 10 years
  1. The history of ZGZT (Zero Gravity, Zero Tax) Legislation -
    • First introduced 2000. Provided for 20-year tax holiday for new space products and services. To attempt to maintain revenue neutrality, existing profitable industries were excluded; thus, the definition of eligible products and services excluded “any telecommunications service, any service provided by a weather or other earth observation satellite, and any service of transporting property to or from outer space.”
    • Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act of 2000
      • HR 3898
      • Cosponsored by: Rep Bartlett, Roscoe G. [MD-6] – 3/9/2000 Rep Calvert, Ken [CA-43] – 3/9/2000 Rep Cook, Merrill [UT-2] – 3/9/2000 Rep Gordon, Bart [TN-6] – 3/9/2000 Rep Hall, Ralph M. [TX-4] – 3/9/2000 Rep Jackson-Lee, Sheila [TX-18] – 3/9/2000 Rep Lucas, Frank D. [OK-6] – 3/9/2000 Rep Sensenbrenner, James, Jr. [WI-9] – 3/9/2000 Rep Weldon, Dave [FL-15] – 3/9/2000
    • Reintroduced in 2001. Exclusions changed to “any telecommunications service provided from earth orbit, any service provided by a weather or other earth observation satellite, and any other service provided on or before the date of the enactment of this section of transporting property to or from outer space.”
    • Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act of 2001
      • HR 2504
      • Cosponsored by: Rep Calvert, Ken [CA-43] – 7/16/2001 Rep Harman, Jane [CA-36] – 7/16/2001
      • Exclusion was the same as previous version
    • Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act of 2003
      • HR 914
      • Cosponsored by: Rep Calvert, Ken [CA-44] – 5/21/2003 Rep Harman, Jane [CA-36] – 5/21/2003 Rep Lucas, Frank D. [OK-3] – 5/21/2003 Rep Weldon, Dave [FL-15] – 5/21/2003
      • Exclusion was the same as previous version
    • 2005 version incorporates some tax-credit concepts from the former Calvert-Ortiz tax bill (i.e., Invest in Space Now Act). Can be seen as merger of two bills..
    • Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act of 2005
      • HR 1024
      • Cosponsored by:
      • Rep Calvert, Ken [CA-44] – 3/1/2005 Rep Harman, Jane [CA-36] – 3/1/2005 Rep Lucas, Frank D. [OK-3] – 3/1/2005 Rep Weldon, Dave [FL-15] – 3/1/2005
      • Exclusion was the same as previous version
  1. Why it failed before
    • Inclusion of tax credits – which cost the treasury real money
    • Failure to concentrate on the corporate tax holiday aspect of the legislation
    • Failure to put it into perspective with other tax holidays for which Congressional support exists – both of which have bipartisan support:
      • Internet
      • R&D tax credit
    • NASA and “old-school” aerospace / DoD contractors ambivalent as it falls outside the bounds of normal government – contractor relationships
    • Failure of the backers to work both sides of the aisle
    • Failure to user dynamic scoring in analysis
    • NASA will not support as this approach will be viewed by some as a way to seed competition for what it does
    • Congresisonal perception that space is something that is necessarily expensive by virtue of being ‘space’ rather than due to historic lack of competitive marketplace for goods and services
  1. Scoring etc. for such bills
    • Reported to be in the neighborhood of $10 billion – static analysis – cost to the treasury over 10 years
    • The previous $10 billion scoring in lost revenue implies hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate revenue. As of today, there is zero revenue in this business segment today so there is zero existing cost to the treasury. Using a conservative 10% profit implies $280 billion in U.S. revenue subject to taxation ($28 billion profit yeilds $10 billion tax at the 35% rate). A conservative estimate is that 40% of that revenue is wages.       Therefore the wages paid would potentially equal $112 billion. If we assume a conservative 20% federal tax rate for the taxes paid, this equals $22.4 billion dollars in federal tax revenue.       Should the total number of jobs created be a conservative 1 million new jobs created, yearly salaries would yield an additional $17.47 billion dollars in social security and Medicare taxes paid into the Treasury. Add the two revenue streams, and the potential exists for an additional ~$40 billion dollars in total federal taxes for the 1 million jobs produced, a return to the Treasury in the neighborhood of four times the static analysis cost to the Treasury of this proposed legislation.
    • Dynamic analysis includes personal income taxes and capital gains taxes paid by employees / investors – pays up to 5-10 times its cost in new revenue into the treasury via personal income taxes paid by employees
  1. Good and bad points of current proposals
    • Key points of 2005 proposal –
      • Excludes space-based income from gross income
      • Space-manufactured goods and services are exempted from federal excise taxes, duties, tariffs and imposts
      • Investment credit for qualified stock purchases
      • Exclusion for capital gains from the sale of stock for corporations that do at least 90% of their work in space-related activities
    • Good point – tax holidays have worked well in the past, significantly increasing economic activity and the flow of tax dollars into the treasury. Federal tax revenues come from employees and investors. There is no reason to believe they will not be similarly successful in the future.
    • Bad point – 2005 proposal capped corporate gross receipts for qualifying corporations at $100 million / year. That number ought to be closer to $10 billion, given the startup costs, long lead times to run the regulatory gauntlet, and returns on investment needed to make space more attractive to investors
    • Bad point – excluded telecommunication, weather & Earth observation activities from tax breaks. However, if the goal of this effort is to encourage the startup of new space businesses and industries, it is logical to exclude existing, profitable industries don’t need new incentives
    • Bad point – 10-year phase out of provisions for stock purchase & capital gains starting in 2014. Normal lifespan for infrastructure – roads, buildings and equipment is typically 30 years. Some aircraft are flying that are approaching 50 years old.       30 years would seem to be an appropriate number in this regard based on the creation of new infrastructure on and off planet..
    • Observation – current proposals exclude any activities done before bill was signed into law
    • Bad point – can be painted as a taxpayer giveaway to well-connected members of Congress and potentially to existing aerospace companies.       However, this is a generic complaint applicable to any targeted tax holiday, tax credit or deduction.
    • Note that at this point, the single good point – the fact that it works, and has demonstrably worked well in the past – far outweighs all the bad points,
  1. Suggestions for improvement of current proposals.
    • Concentrate on tax holidays rather than tax credits
    • May have to sunset the tax holiday – if so, 30-50 years would be appropriate as that timeframe represents the useful investment lifetime of infrastructure, rather than the current proposal of a 20-year holiday
    • Work both sides of the political aisle to ensure bipartisan support
    • Find sponsors in the Administration and on Capitol Hill that are willing to push this thru Congress
    • Treat this as jobs and economic growth legislation rather than a revenue legislation
    • When doing economic markup, emphasize the immediate increase in personal income taxes paid by people in new, potentially high paying jobs as a result of this tax holiday on investment and corporate income taxes with the deferred nature of revenue increase due to tax holiday for corporate income taxes and space-related investments
  1. Potential Foundation actions for the future to make ZGZT happen
    • Change the name to something other than that of previous legislation.       One suggestion would be the “Jobs and Economic Growth Act of 2007”
    • Work both sides of the political aisle
    • Sell it as a jobs creation and revenue growth program
    • Parallel it with tax breaks in capital gains in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and tax holidays for the Internet – all which have successfully brought in significantly more money to the treasury via personal income taxes paid by new employees and have grown the economy
    • Possibly float it in the lame duck session of Congress in November–December of this year
    • Prep it for Congressional action in 2007
    • Prep it for advocacy during March Storm in 2007
    • Set up a session in next year’s conference on tax policy and invite several well-respected free-market, pro-growth economists to speak on the subject


  1. Actual text of 2005 Legislation follows:


To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide tax incentives for investing in companies involved in space-related activities.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the `Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act of 2005′.


(a) In General- Part III of subchapter B of chapter 1 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to items specifically excluded from gross income) is amended by inserting after section 139A the following new section:


`(a) General Rule- Gross income shall not include space-related income.

`(b) Space-Related Income-

(1) IN GENERAL- For purposes of this section, the term `space-related income’ means–

(A) income derived from the sale by the taxpayer to an unrelated person of–

(i) any product or article which is produced by the taxpayer in outer space, and

(ii) any service provided by the taxpayer in or from outer space,

(B) income of an individual attributable to services performed in or from outer space by such individual in a trade or business, and

(C) any amount not described in subparagraph (A) or (B) which is interest, rent, royalty, or similar amount received with respect to production or service described in subparagraph (A) or (B).

(2) EXCEPTION FOR TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, ETC- Paragraph (1)(A)(ii) shall not apply to–

(A) any telecommunications service provided from earth orbit,

(B) any service provided by a weather or other earth observation satellite, and

(C) any other service provided on or before the date of the enactment of this section of transporting property to or from outer space.

(3) EXCEPTION FOR WAGES- Paragraph (1) shall not apply to wages (as defined in section 3401) received by any employee of an employer.

(4) PROPORTIONAL ALLOCATION BETWEEN SPACE-BASED AND EARTH-BASED ACTIVITIES- In the case of any product or article which is produced partly in space, space-related income shall be an amount which bears the same ratio to the amount of gross income attributable to the sale of such product or article as the expenses attributable to producing such product or article in space bears to the total expenses incurred in producing such product or article.

(5) PRODUCED- For purposes of this section, the term `produced’ includes created, fabricated, developed, grown, manufactured, extracted, processed, cured, and aged.

(c) Exclusion From Tariffs, Etc- Any product–

(1) which is manufactured in outer space, and

(2) which was–

(A) launched from, and returned to Earth, within the United States, or

(B) Manufactured at a facility in outer space which is owned by 1 or more United States persons, shall be exempt from all Federal excises, imposts, and duties and any other Federal tariffs.

(d) Phaseout of Benefits- In the case of a taxable year beginning after December 31, 2014, the amount excluded under subsection (a) shall be reduced (but not below zero) by x/10th’s of the amount excludable without regard to this subsection, where `x’ is the number of years such taxable year is after the last taxable year beginning before January 1, 2015. A similar rule shall apply to the benefits under subsection (c).’.

(b) Clerical Amendment- The table of sections for part III of subchapter B of chapter 1 of such Code is amended by inserting after the item relating to section 139A the following new item:

`Sec. 139B. Space-related income.’.

(c) Effective Date- The amendments made by this section shall apply to taxable years beginning after December 31, 2005.


(a) In General- Subpart D of part IV of subchapter A of chapter 1 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to business related credits) is amended by adding at the end the following new section:


(a) General Rule- For purposes of section 38, the space company investment credit determined under this section for any taxable year is the amount paid in the taxable year for the purchase of qualified stock in a qualified space company.

(b) Qualified Space Company- For purposes of this section–

(1) IN GENERAL- The term `qualified space company’ means a domestic C corporation if for the 3-taxable-year period ending with the taxable year immediately preceding the taxable year in which qualified stock is purchased–

(A) the average annual gross receipts of such entity does not exceed $100,000,000, and

(B) more than 70 percent of such gross receipts are derived from space-based business.

(2) SPACE-BASED BUSINESS- The term `space-based business’ means a business whose gross receipts are substantially space-related income, as defined in section 139B(b).

(3) AGGREGATION RULES- Rules similar to the rules of section 1202(d)(3) shall apply.

(c) Qualified Stock- For purposes of this section–

(1) IN GENERAL- Except as otherwise provided in this section, the term `qualified stock’ means any stock in a domestic C corporation if–

(A) as of the date of issuance of such stock, such corporation is a qualified space company, and

(B) except as provided in subsections (f) and (h), such stock is acquired by the taxpayer at its original issue (directly or through an underwriter)–

(i) in exchange for money or other property (not including stock), or

(ii) as compensation for services provided to such corporation (other than services performed as an underwriter of such stock).

(2) ACTIVE BUSINESS REQUIREMENT- Stock in a corporation shall not be treated as qualified stock unless, during substantially all of the taxpayer’s holding period for such stock–

(A) such corporation meets active business requirements substantially similar to the requirements of section 1202(e), determined on the basis that the qualified trade or business is a space-based business, and

(B) such corporation is a C corporation.

(3) CERTAIN PURCHASE BY CORPORATION OF ITS OWN STOCK- Rules similar to the rules of section 1202(c)(3) shall apply.

(e) Recapture- If, during any taxable year ending with or within the 10-year period beginning on the date qualified stock was purchased by the taxpayer, the issuer of such stock ceases to a qualified space company, the tax under this chapter for such taxable year shall be increased by the aggregate decrease in the credits allowed under section 38 for all prior taxable years which would have resulted solely from reducing to zero any credit determined under subsection (a) with respect to such stock.

(f) Termination- This section shall not apply to stock acquired after December 31, 2013.’.

(b) Credit Allowed as Part of General Business Credit- Section 38(b) of such Code (defining current year business credit) is amended by striking `plus’ at the end of paragraph (18), by striking the period at the end of paragraph (19) and inserting `, plus’, and by adding at the end the following new paragraph:

(20) space company investment credit determined under section 45I(a).’.

(c) Conforming Amendments-

(1) Subsection (c) of section 196 of such Code is amended by striking `and’ at the end of paragraph (11), by striking the period at the end of paragraph (12) and inserting `, and’, and by adding at the end the following new paragraph:

(13) the space company investment credit determined under section 45I(a).’.

(2) The table of sections for subpart D of part IV of subchapter A of chapter 1 of such Code is amended by adding at the end the following new item:

Sec. 45J. Space Company Investment Credit.’.

(d) Effective Date- The amendments made by this section shall apply to costs paid or incurred in taxable years beginning after December 31, 2005.


(a) In General- Part I of subchapter P of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to treatment of capital gains) is amended by adding at the end the following new section:


(a) In General- Gross income shall not include gain on the sale or exchange of any stock of a qualified space corporation.

(b) Qualified Space Corporation- For purposes of subsection (a), the term `qualified space corporation’ means, with respect to any taxable year, a domestic corporation which is a C corporation if–

(1) such corporation is organized exclusively for providing to unrelated persons–

(A) any product or article which is produced (within the meaning of section 139B(b)(5)) by the corporation in outer space, or

(B) any service provided by the corporation in or from outer space, and

(2) At least 90 percent of the expenses of such corporation are attributable to the active conduct of a trade or business of providing a product, article, or service described in paragraph (1).

Such term shall not include a corporation providing a service, product, or article described in section 139B(b)(2).’.

(b) Clerical Amendment- The table of sections for part I of subchapter P of such Code is amended by adding at the end the following new item:

Sec. 1203. Exclusion for gains from sale or exchange of stock of qualified space corporations.’.

(c) Effective Date- The amendments made by this section shall apply to taxable years beginning after December 31, 2005.









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