Here we go again. The pivot back to the Moon. In my professional lifetime this would now count as the third time. Maybe a charm? Space is actually not my first career. In the 1980’s I had a career as a non degreed engineer in the computer industry. When I started as a wee teenager in 1978 in the computer industry no one cared if you had a degree, the demand was so great. However, my first love professionally was always space and if you want to design space systems, you really do need to be trained to do so. So I walked away from my successful industry career and enrolled at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), just outside of the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC).
I was very fortunate to start there when I did, in January of 1988. At UAH and in local industry there were still several of the German rocket scientists and other Apollo era professionals working. I got an apartment near the school and went to the University library to immerse myself in the history of space, NASA technical documents, technical papers, and the like. Since I had already been a technical engineering professional for a decade it was a lot of fun. There was also a strong space community with the local National Space Society chapter (which Von Braun had helped found), as well as a Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) chapter, founded of course by Peter Diamandis, Todd Hawley, and Bob Richards, all of whom I met then.
I was able to meet a lot of the senior level people from NASA MSFC and other places as there were multiple technical conferences in town and I made it my business to get to know the people involved. At the Technical and Business Exposition and Symposia (TABES) in 1989 There was much excitement about the Bush administration’s Human Exploration Initiative (later renamed the Space Exploration Initiative or SEI). At the conference there were multiple speakers, most of them from NASA, the military, or the aerospace industry. All of them were rah rah, and talked about all the things they wanted to do, of course with the government paying for it. I got miffed and when the question and answer session started, I did the very first public speaking of my life.
I ranted that I had been spending over a year reading technical documents and plans and promises about returning to the Moon and when were they going to quit talking about it and do something. As you might imagine it caused a bit of a stir. However, I did get mentioned as I was a student of the new generation that they supposedly wanted to listen to and bring into the fold. Afterwards I started being invited to many affairs and as by this time I was already working for UAH designing payloads to fly on sounding rockets and for the Shuttle. I also became an early member of the Lunar Prospector (then) private mission to the Moon put together by Gerard K. O’Neil’s Space Studies Institute.
In 1990 I was a speaker in a session for the next big conference put together by the National Space Club in Huntsville called “The Space Summit”. This Space Summit brought in a large cross section of people but still it was mostly those associated with the incumbent contractors, academics, NASA, and we students. This is what was recorded about what I spoke about as a student in that session.
My comment went to the question related to what was the core reason for the effort to return to the Moon in the SEI plan. In July of 1989 George H.W. Bush announced the SEI project to the nation. A 90 day study was commissioned, which was actually a summation of a lot of work NASA and its contractors had done in a low level during the 1980’s. Here is a link to that study.
To me at the time and even today it was a good technical implementation plan. It covered the development of the Space Station, the return to the Moon, and then the journey to Mars. However, as we know now, that project failed. It failed to get congressional support and eventually became a victim of the recession of the early 1990’s. It also got caught up in partisan politics of the era with the majority democrats dead set against it as they had been the post Apollo plans of the early 1970’s. The rest of this missive will deal with why SEI failed, then why the George W. Bush Jr. Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) failed, and how we can avoid that failure with the new plan, whatever it is. There are reasons that these post Apollo plans have failed, and there is a way to get beyond it, if our political leadership will not make the mistakes of the past.
Why Space, Why the Moon, Why Mars, if We Have So Many Problems Here?
In the 1989 SEI announcement was hailed for its presidential support. Just five years earlier president Ronald Reagan had announced the start of the Space Station Freedom program and though it had its growing pains, the Bush SEI announcement and the presidential prestige of both presidents was what everyone thought was needed in order to finally get the nation back on course in space. However, that was not enough. There is a brilliant NASA sponsored history book that goes into all the gory details of why SEI failed, written by Thor Hogan. Here is a relevant excerpt from his book, NASA SP-2007-4410 which is linked here.
The answer above is the detailed answer. However, the overarching strategic answer is much simpler. For the SEI project, the “Why” was inadequate to the task of generating sufficient political support in the congress to fund the effort, when it had to compete with other more directly beneficial programs. As I have discussed here previously, the Apollo program had received the highest priority level in the federal government during the Kennedy/Johnson years, equivalent to expenditures for war. After Apollo this changed. Heppenhemier noted this in his book about the decision for the space shuttle. Here is Nixon’s doctrine on space as part of federal expenditures:
Having completed that long stride into the future which has been our objective for the past decade, we now must define new goals which make sense for the Seventies. We must build on the successes of the past, always reaching out for new achievements. But we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources. By no means should we allow our space program to stagnate. But with the entire future and the entire universe before us-we should not try to do everything at once. Our approach to space must continue to be bold-but it must also be balanced….
We must realize that space activities will be apart of our lives for the rest of time. We must think of them as part of a continuing process, one which will go on day in and day out, year in and year out and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable…. We must also realize that space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. (Page 391 of NASA SP-4221 “The Space Shuttle Decision)
This downgrade of the priority of space expenditures during the Nixon years (which continues to the present day) meant that the SEI project had to show that it was worth it in competition with other federal programs, such as Housing and Urban Development, Education, or poverty programs. Here is what the rational was in the SEI era from the original 90 Day Study:
This is not really different than the reasons given for the 1969 Space Task Group recommendations, ones that failed so miserably to get funding for post Apollo exploration to Mars. National pride, prestige, and inspiration were simply inadequate rationals for the new initiative when stacked against other domestic priorities. In 1969 congressman (and future Mayor of New York) Ed Koch had famously quipped:
“I just can’t for the life of me see voting for monies to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact I know there are rats in the Harlem apartments.” [Heppenheimer, page 182]
NASA did not win that fight in 1969 and they were not going to win it in 1989 with the same argument. The budget increases that Bush wanted for SEI never came about, though NASA did get an increase for the first part of the initiative, the space station. This also was critically endangered in 1993 when the new Clinton administration came in and declared that NASA would have to live with a 20% budget cut. [Mars Wars, page 134]. NASA administrator Dan Goldin worked valiantly, along with Dr. Mike Griffin, his head of Exploration Systems, to downsize the space station, then bring the Russians in and rename it the International Space Station (ISS). This broadened the base of political support by tying it to keeping Russian scientists and engineers employed after the end of the cold war. However, that did not arrest the downward trajectory of NASAs’ funding in the 1990’s.
NASA’s budget dropped from $14.305 billion and even in the last Clinton space budget of FY 2000 it was still at $13.428 billion. With inflation this was a loss of 20% purchasing power. This is while the federal budget increased from ~$1.4 trillion to ~$1.8 trillion dollars. It was so bad that in 1992 the congress passed a “recission” bill that took money already appropriated for NASA’s first robotic lunar mission under SEI, the Lunar Resource Mapper, and canceled the contract (I was a science PI on that mission). The reason was that the congress saw any actual lunar mission as the proverbial “nose under the tent” that might justify further SEI expenditures. Thus Heppenheimer’s premise that SEI was a deeply flawed political process is valid, yet that flaw was subsidiary to the primary one based on a deeper flaw in existential purpose.
It was far worse than that on a policy level after the 1992 election. All mention of the Moon and Mars was excised from NASA’s public pronouncements for years. In 1996 the White House NASA Science and Technology Council had pared NASA’s ambitions to five bullet points:
• Enhance knowledge of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe through human and robotic exploration;
• Strengthen and maintain the national security of the United States; • Enhance the economic competitiveness, and scienti c and technical capabilities of the United States;
• Encourage State, local, and private sector investment in, and use of,space technologies;
• Promote international cooperation to further U.S. domestic, national security, and foreign policies. [Mars Wars page 135]
It is at least interesting in that the 1996 policy attempted to more closely align NASA’s goals to something that was broader in national context. However, that did nothing to increase their budget in competition with domestic priorities. This began to change after the election of George W. Bush in 2000.
Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) (2004)
On January 14, 2004 president George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). The word vision is defined as “sense of purpose”. No matter what other things the president might have been, there is no significant fault in his VSE speech, linked here. His statements regarding the reasons for returning to the moon were no less than astonishing. Excerpted in part here:
Returning to the moon is an important step for our space program. Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost. Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air. We can use our time on the moon to develop and test new approaches and technologies and systems that will allow us to function in other, more challenging environments. The moon is a logical step toward further progress and achievement.
With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond. (Applause.) Robotic missions will serve as trailblazers — the advanced guard to the unknown. Probes, landers and other vehicles of this kind continue to prove their worth, sending spectacular images and vast amounts of data back to Earth. Yet the human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves. And only human beings are capable of adapting to the inevitable uncertainties posed by space travel.
At the presidential level you could not asked for a more forward thinking approach to lunar exploration. This was amplified in the official VSE NASA document linked here. There was the visionary statement regarding lunar propellant, the mind blowing speculation regarding spacecraft actually assembled and provisioned on the Moon, and then the utilization of lunar resources to allow us to go to other destinations, such as Mars. The emphasis was correct as well (in my opinion) in that the Moon was mentioned 12 times and Mars mentioned 4 times. Everything was right about his speech.
Following up on the speech was a document from NASA outlining the details of the VSE approach to exploration. That document is linked here. The goals and objectives were stated as:
The importance of the NASA effort was further amplified by who was chosen to lead NASA, Mr. Sean O’Keefe, a personal friend of the president’s father and former Secretary of the Navy during the senior Bush administration. There were concrete dated goals, fairly realistic budgets, and significant participation with the entire interested community, present writer included, in the development of the goals and technology road map for the VSE missions.
This was further and more positively amplified by the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Dr. John Marburger at the 44th Goddard Memorial Symposium in 2006. Here is what he said about the value of the VSE;
As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.
The wording of this policy phrase is significant. It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security, and economic interests. Stated this way, the “fundamental goal” identifies the benefits against which the costs of exploration can be weighed. This is extremely important for policy making because science, security, and economic dimensions are shared by other federally funded activities. By linking costs to these common benefits it becomes possible, at least in principle, to weigh investments in space exploration against competing opportunities to achieve benefits of the same type. [Marburger 2006]
Marburger in the above excerpt goes to the heart of the issue in order to frame space in a positive manner in the competition for national resources (money). Why it took 36 years to do so (since Nixon in 1970) till 2004 is worth a book level treatment. Thus the economic development of the solar system, a goal that was originally proposed by Ralph Cordiner CEO of General Electric in 1960 [see my post on that subject here and here], was finally proposed as something worthy of the federal funding required to accomplish the goal. Marburger went even further forward to discuss in his speech, amplifying what Bush had said in his presidential address, on beginning with the resources of the Moon as the first element of the VSE:
The Moon has unique significance for all space applications for a reason that to my amazement is hardly ever discussed in popular accounts of space policy. The Moon is the closest source of material that lies far up Earth’s gravity well. Anything that can be made from Lunar material at costs comparable to Earth manufacture has an enormous overall cost advantage compared with objects lifted from Earth’s surface. The greatest value of the Moon lies neither in science nor in exploration, but in its material. And I am not talking about mining helium-3 as fusion reactor fuel. I doubt that will ever be economically feasible. I am talking about the possibility of extracting elements and minerals that can be processed into fuel or massive components of space apparatus. The production of oxygen in particular, the major component (by mass) of chemical rocket fuel, is potentially an important Lunar industry.
What are the preconditions for such an industry? That, it seems to me, must be a primary consideration of the long range planning for the Lunar agenda. Science studies provide the foundation for a materials production roadmap. Clever ideas have been advanced for the phased construction of electrical power sources – perhaps using solar cells manufactured in situ from Lunar soil. A not unreasonable scenario is a phase of highly subsidized capital construction followed by market-driven industrial activity to provide Lunar products such as oxygen refueling services for commercially valuable Earth-orbiting apparatus. This is consistent with the space policy statement that the U.S. will “Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration”.
This was a mindbogglingly practical and expansive policy. What happened?
VSE Policy Destroyed from Within
The VSE started out with a bang and in more or less the right direction. Former admiral Craig Steidle was hired by NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe to lead the new Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) to carry out the VSE. Almost immediately the heavy lift advocates were disappointed as both O’Keefe and Steidle eliminated consideration of the development of such a vehicle, citing costs. Whatever the plan was, it had to be kept within a reasonable budget line and that line did not include the cost of the development of such a vehicle. This was even considering that under the VSE assumptions, both the Shuttle and ISS programs would be brought to a close before 2020 and that money freed up for the VSE program.
Instead of large costly and very long term development programs NASA decided on an approach to develop new technology to support exploration, under Dr. John Mankins, called the Human and Robotic Technology program (H&RT). Second was a series of very well funded architecture studies under the Concept Exploration and Refinement (CE&R) effort. There were several contractors for both the H&RT (disclosure, my company was involved in both the CE&R and H&RT studies) and CE&R studies.
The CE&R studies were the core of the effort as these studies would set the architecture selection for first the lunar return and then onward to Mars. Again, heavy lift was not baselined, though contractors could have a heavy lift in their designs, if they figured out how to pay for it. Following are graphics from two of the contractors, SpaceHab and Orbital Sciences.
SpaceHab relied on existing vehicles with Earth Orbit Rendezvous of multiple units that would then go forward to the Moon. Other contractors had similar designs. Orbital had a departure that one can readily see figured in the future. It is shown below.
One thing is quite clear. Orbital ignored the directives out of NASA to not include heavy lift in their CE&R designs. All of the contractors with the exception of Orbital had architectures that did not require a heavy lift vehicle. There was a pathway to get to what the president, the OSTP (Marburger), and what NASA leadership (O’Keefe and Steidle) wanted. What happened?
NASA Administrator and Bush confidant Sean O’Keefe left NASA in 2006 to take over as chancellor of the Louisiana State University and Dr. Mike Griffin, the former head of Exploration Systems at NASA in the early 1990’s returned to the agency as its administrator.
It was clear from the moment his arrival that the CE&R and H&RT efforts were history. It was so bad that there was not any NASA leadership at the CE&R contract briefings. Steidle was gone, Dr. Mankins was gone, and anyone at any NASA center who disagreed with developing a heavy lift rocket was immediately pushed aside or terminated. NASA became all about the rocket, and all about Mars. Utilizing the resources of the Moon, gone. Solar electric vehicles to carry more mass–gone. On orbit assembly of systems in earth orbit–gone, until the new team figured out that you could not go to Mars even with a heavy lift rocket without orbital aggregation, as was the new buzz word. In short NASA returned, under the new leadership to a 1960’s mentality regarding how to approach human spaceflight and exploration. This approach did not work out then, or in 1989, and why anyone in the world thought that it would work in 2006 is mystifying to say the least. It is instructive that even today, it is exceptionally difficult to find the CE&R materials from the contractors. I saved the information at the time and that is the only reason I have it to present to you, the reader, here.
The consequences of the “Apollo on Steroids” approach as it was called by the NASA administrator at the time is exactly what you would expect from steroid use, disaster. Now, over ten years later the heavy lift vehicle still has not flown. The simple and cost effective Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) of the VSE was traded for a ten billion dollar (and counting) Orion vehicle that has only flown as a metal shell on the same EELV that the NASA administrator ruled out for exploration. The calendar for launch of the heavy lift vehicle is still moving to the right, as is the Orion crew vehicle. This did not change even after a new administrator, former astronaut Charles Bolden came on board. To give the new team some credit in 2008 they attempted to kill the heavy lift vehicle and return to a more technology development bent as had been the VSE path. However, an alliance of powerful republican and democratic congress people stopped that effort and the new administration did not care enough to spend the political capital to change the equation.
The new administration, after that fight, went adrift in space policy. It was known that under the Griffin era Constellation program that the overweight, oversized Lunar Lander was too expensive to develop and build under the current budget limits (up to $2 billion was cut from the NASA budget per year in 2010). A commission was put together, led by the former head of Lockheed Martin Norman Augustine, in 2008 that came back and said that the Constellation program needed $3 billion more PER YEAR to be successful, and thus with a $2 billion per year cut, forget it. In an era where the federal budget increased by over a trillion dollars per year, NASA’s priority in the great scheme of the federal budget was so low that the budget has been below the 2008 level on an inflation adjusted level ever since. This is why an ill considered asteroid rendezvous mission was floated as a destination on the road to Mars.
The primary lesson learned is that in the SEI era you had a good technical implementation of an architecture and horrible policy. During the VSE era you had astoundingly good policy, the start of a good team, and then it all went straight to hell when the new leadership came in.
Recommendations to the New Administration
Former congressman Robert Walker had some outstanding observations regarding the direction of NASA, as has congressman Brindenstine. However, if the idea of the revival of the National Space Council is to bring about good policy, the people that are chosen must have the technical, financial, and organizational understanding of what the president and his advisors want to accomplish. The problem in the immediate post Apollo era is that personages involved had little understanding of how to craft a program that would move the ball forward in a financially resource constrained environment and still make progress. Dr. Paul Spudis has observed on multiple occasions that NASA has sufficient resources to do the return to the Moon, as long as we do not go off the rails in the direction that NASA did with the Constellation program of Dr. Griffin or the current effort.
If congressman Brindenstine gets the job, and he would be a great candidate from what I have read, then he must assemble a team under him that understands the financial constraints of the agency and that there are other ways to get to the Moon rather than the current “Journey to Mars” Plan. I would suggest forgetting the whole National Space Council thing unless its charter is to consolidate national resources to implement a preselected policy. There is no better policy beginning for the Moon than what was expounded upon by Dr. John Marburger in 2006. Integrating commercial space into the plan will provide the greatest leverage. Encouraging further investment in space such as what congressman Dana Rohrbacher has worked for years to get in the Zero G Zero Tax legislation (my blog on that subject is here). It is entirely possible that with the passage of such legislation that commercial enterprise will make the jump to the Moon.
People are the most important asset and the new administrator simply must bring in people who agree with the policy for implementation. Dr. Spudis should be at the top of the list for such a position. There are a lot of other great people who were sidelined in the past decade who would be outstanding in that regard as well.
We have probably the best opportunity for an American break out (not just NASA) into the solar system in the space age. This should be a partnership between government and commerce for the good of the American people and then the world. The next six months is crucially important and I will be spending considerable time writing about this. It is my opinion that the United States made a grave error for decades since the end of the Apollo era in policy. That error is to not realize that the economic development of the solar system is the defining development of humanity in the 21st century. What we do now for better or worse will define the future of America. We have a chance to bring about all the positive benefits of increasing our national resource base, our technology, and improving the future for all mankind to support our planetary civilization. Exciting times!