When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Here We Go Again
In this present era of national challenges which demand the attention of policymakers and the public it is more important than ever for the space community to reflect on the purpose of human space exploration. What value does it hold?
The above quote is from a very insightful article ” Why Should we Go?:Reevaluating the Rationales for Human Spaceflight in the 21st Century” by Cody Knipfer at the Space Review blog on October 16th of last year, before the signing by president Trump of Space Policy Directive #1, issued December 11th, 2017. The money quote of the directive is here:
“Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations;”.
In Cody’s October 2017 article there are many insights, that while not unknown to those in the space arena, are generally not part of the conversation, at least in the halls of power where decisions over the allocation of national resources is made. This was certainly true after the initial success of the Apollo lunar landings that fulfilled the national geopolitical goal of beating the Russians, after which political and thus financial support largely evaporated exactly because other competing interests were able to formulate a more compelling rational for the use of limited taxpayer dollars. It is a myth that space was cut as part of a deficit spending control issue by the Johnson administration. I delve into this in a previous blog, linked here. Please read it for the details, suffice to say that the overall federal budget increased dramatically while at the same time NASA’s budget was cut by over 50% from fiscal year 1966 to 1970. The following quote from Cody’s article succinctly summaries the situation where government funding is concerned.
Those who advance the cause of publicly-funded human spaceflight find themselves operating in a larger political context and competing against equally worthy causes. To win support (and money), the rationale they put forth needs to be persuasive across a broad spectrum of political factions, appeal to potential supporters and opponents, and meet the perceived needs of large and diverse economic and political constituencies. In lack of a persuasive rationale, a proposed effort will be superseded by others seen by the broader polity as more realistically and immediately achievable or necessary.
This is a well known history at NASA but in spite of that we have never had the rationale for more expansive government funding of space to gain a larger share of the national funding pie. Just one illustration from the decision regarding the Shuttle shows the tension.
The 1999 NASA “The Space Shuttle Decision” (NASA SP-4221) by T.A. Heppenheimer has a discusses the countervailing arguments to spending money for various forms of the Space Shuttle. Congress was very much opposed to a continuing expansive NASA. As the cadre of original NASA supporters who were allies of Lyndon Johnson either retired or defected over the Vietnam war and the demands of escalating social programs, congress decisively turned against NASA. Just one small example from SP-4221, a quote from a speech from democratic senator Walter Mondale:
This item involves a fundamental and profound decision about the future direction of the manned spaceflight era.This is, in fact,the nextmoon-type program. I believe it would be unconscionable to embark on a project of such staggering cost when many of our citizens are malnourished, when our rivers and lakes are polluted, and when our cities and rural areas are dying. What are our values? What do we think is more important? [page 183]
Things have not changed in the last half century of efforts to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars. Dr. John Marburger, head of the Office of Science and Technology poly restated this tension in his Goddard Symposium speech in March of 2006.
Opportunities exist in other fields of physical science as well, such as nuclear and particle physics, space science and exploration, but these are not emphasized in the Competitiveness Initiative. Not that the U.S. is withdrawing from these fields, but ACI does signal an intention to fund the machinery of science in a way that ensures continued leadership in fields likely to have the greatest impact on future technology and innovation. The decision to make this needed adjustment for selected fields does not imply a downgrading of priority for other important areas of science, such as biomedical research and space science. These remain priorities, but the agencies that fund them are regarded as having budgets much more nearly commensurate with the opportunities, challenges, and benefits to be gained from pursuing these fields. As the nation pursues other critically important objectives, including reducing the budget deficit, the ACI gives priority to a small number of areas to ensure future U.S. economic competitiveness.. (Marburger 2006 Goddard Symposium Speech)
This speech was two years after the G.W. Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which had as its first goal for human spaceflight a return to the Moon. The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) referenced above was another Bush era program that they thought would bring more benefits to the economy in a shorter period of time than the VSE and space and thus funding was applied there rather than dramatically increasing space funding.
The Obama administration was no different in this regard. The $863 billion stimulus bill very little NASA money in it. After the Augustine commission report to the new administration saying that NASA needed $3 billion more per year for what it was being asked to do, this was the response by the administration.
Now it is up to the White House to decide which path to take. “Too soon to say,” is all that one Administration official would offer. Health care and other bigger fish may put the future of space on the backburner until closer to the release of the 2011 budget request early next year. (Sciencemag.com)
The Obama administration had other priorities and in the middle of what would be a $1 trillion per year increase in overall government spending during the Obama administration, NASA’s budget was cut by $2 billion per year. It took congressional pressure after the 2010 take over of the house by the Republican caucus to result in any improvement in the budget. Other priorities for sure….
Now we have a new administration with a new policy that on the surface looks like the policy statement that was announced in 2004 by the Bush administration for what was termed “The Vision for Space Exploration”. The Office of Science and Technology Policy head Dr. John Marburger in his 2006 Goddard Symposium speech gave his take on what that meant.
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.
In the Trump administration Space Policy Directive #1 succinct statement on the subject is in keeping with the Bush era VSE but it goes goes farther than the Bush era formulation in a profound fashion.
enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities
Enabling human expansion across the solar system is a stunning statement, never before uttered as official policy. Interestingly enough, in studying the meaning of the words used, the Bush era “Vision” was really a statement of “rationales” while the Trump SPD#1 is a vision statement.
Rationale vs Vision
In order to more perfectly explain why the Trump formulation is different and indeed more profound we must delve into word meanings. Remember that this missive was started by restating something from Cody Knipfer’s article on the rationales of why we want to go into space with humans in the 21st century.
In the dictionary the word rationale is defined as:
“a set of reasons or a logical basis for a course of action or a particular belief”
The dictionary term conventionally for vision is (in the context of the VSE):
mode of seeing or conceiving
This meaning would translate the “Vision for Space Exploration” as the “Conception for Space Exploration”, or the “seeing”. This harkens back to a much older term for the word “vision”.
However, there is a much older meaning, from the Hebrew equivalent of the english word that is important to consider:
חזה : to gaze at; mentally to perceive, contemplate (with pleasure); specifically to have a vision of:—behold, look, prophesy, provide, see.
Thus I can argue that the original VSE as Marburger explained it was much more of a set of rational economic trades between outcomes that are the result of comparing the value of spending money in one area or another (space or on the ground). In this sense the VSE was not that different than previous space policies despite the verbiage used by Bush and Marburger. On the other hand the SPD#1 is a vision statement. Enabling human expansion across the solar system is not a rationale, it is a conception, a vision in the sense of the dreamer that envisions a future in space and that from this action, this effort, indeed the faith that practical results will flow that justifies the expenditure.
Thus the comparison is this: A rationale is a forward looking set of reasons for space based upon our current knowledge base regarding its payoff and those reasons are traded against competing rationales for the expenditure for funding in other areas. A vision is a visionary look into the future to see where a certain set of efforts will place us in X number of years to bring about a certain outcome. A vision provides a focusing mechanism for the mind, and this brings others into the vision stream, those who agree with the vision and who are willing to work to bring it to pass.
In a fight between rationales we (space) are not going to win as it becomes a test between competing interests and power structures. Indeed Knipfer references how the only way that people see a way for space policy to win in this environment is the following.
Recognizing the pressures involved in public policymaking, the geopolitical rationale appears, at least historically, the most significant and compelling. Underlying this is the fact that international events and circumstances, acting as forcing functions, can either heighten or lessen human spaceflight’s stature as an element of public policy and policymakers’ willingness to allocate resources toward it. Human spaceflight has, at least historically, been most valued as a part of the foreign policy “toolbox,” as a method to deal with emerging external challenges. As Roger Handberg put in his Rationales of the Space Program,
“one needs an incentive, a compelling focusing event, strong enough to break through the existing political status quo and to place the issue of space on the policy agenda for political decision-making and policy formulation.”
The Apollo program had this focusing event in our cold war contest of technology with the Russians. The Shuttle focusing event was the 1972 election and the health of the aerospace industry that otherwise was in serious trouble. The International Space Station event was the fall of the Soviet Union and the desire to keep the missile engineers from going to work for the Iranians or other hostile powers. The return to the Moon and or the Journey to Mars has never had this focusing event as it is essentially science driven which has a small constituency, or for the ephemeral and not salable concept (in our current age) of “prestige”. Even the economic rationale’s have fallen flat in the halls of power simply because politicians have found other means to enhance their prospects for reelection by showering money on more powerful constituencies. However, it is the vision of space as a place of humanity’s future that is seeming to catch on.
Just about everyone today agrees that Elon Musk is a space visionary. Elon began with a vision of landing a greenhouse on Mars that would have a camera that would watch plants grow. It was his hope that this would inspire people to see Mars as a future home for humanity. We all know today that Elon has done a great deal to move his vision forward. From SpaceX to Tesla Elon is developing technologies and systems to do what he aspires to do, which is for him to die on Mars (hopefully not during a landing mishap). It is this vision that has driven SpaceX. This vision has attracted thousands of people to work there and to become part of that vision, which indeed is a vision for a positive future for humanity. People “see” the vision and agree with it and place their lives in service to that vision (and get paid for it!).
In executing on his vision, it is not about the process (which is the full focus of the current aerospace industry in government contracts, which due to the laws involved constrains their ability to lower prices for commercial contracts), its about getting there, and at the lowest cost. What once was considered crazy by the aerospace establishment (reusability of a launch vehicle stage) is now the subject of a global effort by other nations to catch up (by those same contractors that like process over results). Elon has completely disrupted the status quo because the vision of colonizing Mars is far more important to him than squeezing the last dollar out of a government or commercial contract. Indeed building more rockets, flying them more often, and figuring out ways to lower costs and prices does more to help reach the visionary goal, and thus that is what he does and fortunately it is also profitable.
Jeff Bezos also has that visionary bent as well as the money to carry it out. His work on full reusability for the New Shepard and now the New Glenn vehicle will help him reach his visionary goal of millions of humans living and working in space. He is somewhat behind Elon but with his vastly larger financial resources, it will be only a few more years before he catches up. This will profoundly shake the status quo in aerospace and indeed both of them together are a forcing function and creators of opportunity for other new entrants.
There are other companies and people out there who want to mine asteroids, industrialize the Moon (this writer), build thousands of satellites for planetary internet, persistent Earth observation, satellite servicing, on orbit manufacturing (this writer), and other activities. A crescendo of activity is building, and at the core of it is a vision for how space can transform our society for the better and provide humanity a better future, especially better than the doomsayers that so often point out how we are doomed.
In reflecting on the above, it has become my position that focusing on rationales is a futile effort, at least in the near term. Far better to focus on visionary principles and projects that will enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. The question becomes, what can we do as a community to bring this about. What government policies can we get adopted (rather than a singular focus on how much money we can get from the government) that will foster the human expansion across the solar system and bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Thus we have a goal (human expansion across the solar system) and a return on investment (new knowledge and opportunities).
I want to remind those that have read my previous missives on this subject of a graphic from 1960 from a talk by General Electric Chairman of the Board Ralph Cordiner who gave a speech on the economic development of the solar system in a pre-Apollo era pre-Kennedy presidency speech.
If it is our goal to enable human expansion across the solar system, I would submit that it be done in a cost effective manner, but just as Elon has done with SpaceX, keep our eyes on the eventual prize of the solar system. In thinking about the problem, it is not tenable for everything that humans need across the solar system to be derived from the Earth. It is simply too costly to do so. Thus, it would seem to logically flow that in situ resource utilization be a key element driving the success of the effort, and with that this is a principal focus of the initial effort. Since we are very fortunate to have one of the larger airless bodies in the solar system right next door (the Moon of course), then it seems logical to start there. This lowers operational costs, provides a near term focus for resource extraction, processing, and off planet manufacturing that are crucial elements for a successful enablement of humans spreading across the solar system. Energy is the other crucial element that should go hand in hand with resource development.
This is why I have been focused on lunar industrialization. If we can do this on the Moon, then in theory we can do it anywhere else in the solar system. I have gone into great detail regarding some of the first steps of this in a previous blog linked here and papers that I have done that are accessible online here. I will be following up this blog regarding some of the further steps toward lunar industrialization and how that fits in with enabling human expansion across the solar system.
Vision versus rationale is an interesting study in comparative philosophy as well as a means whereby we can make progress. It would take a book long exposition but there are many times in the American past where visions of the future have driven the nation forward. There was the vision of “aeronautics” that started in the mid 1800s that you can read about in the book “With Brass and Gas”. There was the vision of an intercontinental railroad that began in the 1820’s that was not consummated until the “National Railroad” of 1869 as told in the book “The Empire Express”. We could go on about Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of the Panama Canal, the aviation industry, space before Apollo and many others…
As much as anything else it has been positive visions of the future, carried out by visionaries that have changed the world like nothing else in our long human history. That is our story, and that is were we should draw our inspiration and our strength…