The Elephant and the Moon

There are already many interpretations of the Trump Space Policy Directive #1 (SPD-1). Its like a group of blind people trying to describe an elephant.  Unless we embark on an implementation plan for lunar return that goes beyond narrow viewpoints, we won’t return again.

Here We Go Again

It has been almost four months since the December 11, 2017 unveiling of the Trump administration’s new space policy document SPD-1.  Things have been evolving in unexpected directions due to the guidance from the National Space Council that has been supporting very positive developments for commercial space, but with lack of substantive movement on the NASA front.  The policy is very good that springs from SPD-1, but as with the Bush era’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), good policy can be derailed by an implementation that is not true to the policy, which leads to the loss of political support and the repeat of the dysfunctional cycle in the next administration.  With that in mind, here are some thoughts regarding what happened during the Vision for Space Exploration, the indications of direction now, and some observations on what can be done to carry out in implementation what was established in the policy.

Here is the most pertinent part of SPD-1.

“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;”.

I strongly feel (and wrote an article on this on my blog on January 9th, linked here) that the above statement from SPD-#1 evokes a visionary space program.  It takes vision (sense of purpose) to break through the last 46 years of inability to go beyond Low Earth Orbit.  However, even now the the statement above from SPD-1 is being reinterpreted by various interest groups to fit their agenda, with little of that agenda having anything to do with a return to the surface of the Moon. This is not the first time this has happened and it is instructive to quickly review what happened with The Bush administration effort.

The Bush Vision for Space Exploration Policy (VSE) vs Implementation

President George W. Bush articulated in a speech in January of 2004 of an expansive exploration program with the Moon as the first destination  From his speech:

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.

Here is similar language, from the official policy document entitled “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery” that is very similar to the Trump administration SPD-1 statement.

The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program. In support of his goal, the United States will:

Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;

Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;

Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and

Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.

The similarity in wording between the VSE era “Renewed Spirit of Discovery” and SPD-1 is striking. Consider that Bush speech explicitly called out the use of lunar derived propellants and possibly metals for building interplanetary spaceships.   However, within two months, as evidenced by internal NASA Red Team meetings in March 2004, this was excised.

NASA Red Team brief (March 2004)

Chart 9 – NASA Exploration Level 0 Requirements

NASA shall conduct extended human lunar expeditions to further science and to develop and test new exploration approaches, technologies, and systems, including the use of lunar and other space resources to enable sustained human exploration of Mars and more distant destinations in the solar system.

“Level 0 Requirements” are called that because they are the guiding principle(s) (vision statement) by which a program is executed and its success is measured.  In the aerospace world, everything flows down from the level 0 requirements being the highest and higher numerical values being lower level (to level 1,2,3,4…etc). Flowing down means to go from the general (vision statement) to specifics of an implementation plan, all the way down to the design of individual subsystems.  As lower level requirements are developed, and plans are implemented, they have to be validated against, and be consistent with, the higher level requirements. This is formally called “requirements traceability“.  Thus to delete a key focus in the level 0 requirements is to remove it from “flowing down” to the design level and from the implementation plan.

The highlighted and underlined text in passage above was DELETED from the Level 0 requirements by Red Team.  Think about this for a minute.  A president exclaims in a major policy speech about returning to the Moon about going there for extended periods and using its resources for missions to Mars.  Further, a presidential policy was promulgated that said basically the same thing.  Yet within 60 days this had been essentially excised from the effort.  This was reinforced in their recommendations from the same Red Team brief.

Chart 22 – Findings/Recommendations

Finding: Resources allocated to the lunar component of the program directly affect progress toward Mars


Develop absolute minimum robotic and human lunar test bed objectives consistent with Mars exploration activities

Articulate clear exit criteria for lunar ops and ramp up of Mars development

And just like that, the Moon was turned from the primary near term goal, to a sideshow on the way to Mars.  When I dug deeply into this I found that the primary justification for the deemphasis on the Moon and lunar resources was that the “Technology Readiness Level” (TRL) was not high enough to put it in the critical path”.  I was part of the development effort during the VSE years and have direct experience in the process of how this happened. While the exact details are not the same today, the same process, the same interests, even now are at work to sidetrack the latest return to the Moon effort.  What never seems to be understood is that today, at the level of technology and government willingness to commit financing, any NASA Mars mission will be flags and footprints, meaning a trip only for the vainglory of science.  Thus in order to successfully and sustainably go to Mars, the Moon must be more than a side trip.

Turning Vision into Reality

A New Whole-of-Government Approach To Space

There are many positive signs and implementations coming out of this administration regarding their commitment to space, in the commercial realm, in the DoD world, and for NASA.  With the revival of the National Space Council (NSC)  we have the potential for a coordinated governmental wide approach to space.  This seems to be the direction that Vice President Mike Pence, who is the chairman of the NSC wants to go and he has made many visits to NASA facilities and has (at the time of publication here) two public NSC meetings.  President Trump has been almost universally positive about space in his public pronouncements as well.  The National Space Council Executive Director, Dr. Scott Pace, from what I have been given to understand, has worked diligently for a harmonization of space policy across several government departments.  On the Department of Defense (DoD) side there is both reluctance and enthusiasm for change.  DoD space procurement has been broken for years and with the accession of Dr. Mike Griffin, former Strategic Defense Initiative technology head, as well as NASA Administrator, expect interesting things to happen.  NASA has received a large budget increase in 2018, far beyond what was expected, so there is substantial political support for the agency in congress.

On March 23rd of 2018 a new “National Space Strategy” was announced by the White House.  While the new strategy has not been fully rolled out, a statement released by the White House is an outline and fact sheet for the strategy (Space News March  24, 2018).  Central to this National Space Strategy is that it is not just a NASA policy, but part of a greater whole, working within a framework of a broad national security policy that “puts America first”.

The new policy seeks to bring together commercial, national security, and civil space sectors (NASA/NOAA/FAA/Commerce), to achieve the goal of the United States retaining and building upon its leadership in space.  In the fact sheet there are “Four Pillars for a Unified Approach” specifically delineating a whole-of-government policy to transform to more resilient space architectures.  Resiliency is the big buzz word in Washington these days as it pertains to how to make our space assets more survivable and to reconstitute them if they are impaired.  It also espouses deterrence and war fighting options in space, improve foundational capabilities, and foster domestic and international environments.  Perhaps the greatest early successes are in the regulatory arena with the four pillar approach.   NASA’s role is stated at the end of the fact sheet and is a restating of the key part of SPD-1.

In the section titled “A New Direction for U.S. Space” the fact sheet reiterates that:

On December 11, 2017, President Trump once again set America’s sights toward the stars by signing Space Policy Directive – 1, which instructed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to return American astronauts to the moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.

  • In signing the directive, the President ordered action to work with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system.

The bullet point is a substantial refinement of the policy direction.  We truly do want to enable human expansion across the solar system, we all agree with that.  Working with commercial interest and our international partners is also important. How is important, for what purpose are we doing it?  This type of policy guidance is critically important or the interest groups in NASA and the contractor community with little interest in the Moon will slowly or quickly minimize the Moon, just like they did during the Bush VSE era.

NASA in 2018

In a Speech at the Space Technology Applications International Forum in February of 2004, former congressman Robert Walker warned against “stovepiped interests” that would derail the Bush VSE. “Stovepiping is a metaphorical term who’s definition includes …a lack of context that comes from a particular group, in the national policy structure, selectively presenting only that information that supports their own preconceived solutions“.  That is exactly what happened during the VSE era.  You can see this happening at NASA today, in how the lunar architecture infrastructure plan is being developed.  It is happening strongly because NASA leadership has been decapitated.  With no Administrator and Deputy Administrator answerable to the White House, and with a major Center (Johnson Space Center), also without a director, the stovepiped interest groups are exercising power to push NASA in their desired direction.  It is truly like the tale of the blind men who were asked to feel each a separate part of an Elephant and describe what kind of animal it was.

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 4.19.12 PM
Figure 2: The Blind Men Trying to Describe an Elephant

So before delving into the perspectives of the blind, we have to define what the elephant (space policy) should be in order to match implementation with policy.  To maintain consistency with the parlance used before, this would be level 1 requirements.  These are program requirements and thus define how the assets that we currently have, those under development, and those we want to develop, fit together into a coherent whole that accurately describes our space pachyderm.  This is beyond the scope of this missive, but will be addressed in later posts in detail.  What is important here is to show just how the new policy is already being tilted in a direction not in keeping with what the administration has set forth.

Implementation (or not) of the New Space Policy

Reiterating the key sentence from SPD-1 Policy and the March 23rd National Space Strategy documents.

…return American astronauts to the moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.

This is exactly the point where things can either go right, or awry.  In order to properly interpret that sentence we need to define terms and concretionize (to make concrete) the definition of the words as backed by their explicit meanings.

  1. ….Return American Astronauts to the Moon for long term…..Pretty clear.  American astronauts went to the Moon, meaning landing on its surface during the Apollo era.  However, as we will see, this is already being redefined.
  2. Long term exploration and utilization 

    Pretty clear as well but it is amazing how these two words can be misinterpreted or reinterpreted by the stovepipes.  Thus, to be crystal clear lets define the nouns in this sentence.Explorationthe action of traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it

    The clear interpretation here is that we are going to return astronauts to the Moon’s surface to travel the unfamiliar areas of the lunar surface to learn about it.

    Utilizationthe action of making practical and effective use of something

So to this point in that sentence we can rewrite it by expanding the terms in the sentence in this manner.

Return American astronauts to the lunar surface for long term travel in the unfamiliar area of the Moon in order to learn and to make practical and effective use of the of it.

So there can be no doubt at this point in the sentence what the purpose explicitly espoused in the sentence means.  However, this brings up the key question, which is what is the definition of the expanded term: make practical and effective use of it.  Everything depends on how that is interpreted.   It is quite clear that NASA has already reinterpreted SPD-1 and the March 23rd policy guidance.  This can be shown by NASA pronouncements regarding their new start in human exploration, the Deep Space Gateway, recently renamed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway or (LOP-G).

The Redefinition Process at Work

How does one redefine a presidential directive?  Simple, the first is in the name change of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), without any change of scope or plan.  The second is to claim that the LOP-G is a platform for performing lunar science.  This is shown in this excerpt from a NASA press release from March of 2018, describing the activities associated with LOP-G.

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Figure 3: NASA Press Release February 13, 2008 Regarding LOP-G

The NASA budget for 2019 is further evidence that the return to the Moon has become, the return to the vicinity of the Moon.  Below in table 1 is the NASA budget, starting on the left from fiscal year 2017.  Fiscal Year 2018 does not have a line item for the LOP-G, (See Marcia Smith’s 2018 budget summary here on page 15), but as seen here the ramp up is rapid. with well over two billion dollars spent between FY 19-23.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 5.54.10 PM
Table 1: Advanced Exploration Systems Budget FY-17-23 (FY 18 excluded) [out year budgets]
Additional evidence comes from the recent Deep Space Gateway Concept workshop, held in Denver Colorado February 27th through March 1st.  The NASA press release announcing the results of the workshop barely mentions the Moon’s surface and only in the last paragraph.  An excerpt is shown below in .  The full press release is linked here.

Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 9.33.18 PM
Figure 4: First Part of a NASA Press Release Regarding the LOP-G Workshop

The proceedings from the LOP-G workshop are illuminating.  They are focused on the science, as this was a scientific workshop, but strikingly there were few mentions of using the Gateway to support long term human exploration and utilization of the lunar surface.  Here is the link to the workshop program, that provides links to the sessions and papers.  Frankly, I was surprised at how few papers (I found only one abstract 3157) that directly discussed a human mission from LOP-G to the surface.  There was another that was not very convincing concerning using LOP-G for telepresence operations (3089), and one (3193) on communications to and from LOP-G to the surface for robotic operations.  It was interesting to note that LOP-G only provides 86% communications coverage to only one polar region at a time (and very little to the other pole), and near zero communications coverage near the lunar equator.  This is seen as in this graphic from the 3193 paper.

Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 9.49.27 PM
Figure 5: Communications Coverage from the NRO Orbit to the Lunar Surface

Thus it can be reasonably construed by the informed observer of lunar surface activities, that LOP-G is not focused toward long term human exploration and utilization of the lunar surface.  Some of this is to be expected in that it takes a while to turn the ship of NASA into a new direction.  However, even in the George Bush VSE era the new direction was at least given lip service until sidelined and eventually erased when a new administration took office.  Those of us who watch this closely understand that it is a very easy step to position LOP-G to be morphed back into the DSG with the flick of a presidential directive in a new administration.   It is hoped that this won’t happen, but already senior lunar advocates see the movement of the stove piped interests in this direction.

What Can Be Done?

The answer here is simple, NASA needs a new administrator who is on board with the intent of SPD-1 and the March 23rd National Space Strategy document.  Right now we have had the longest block of time in the history of the agency without an administrator. It is high time that a vote be held on Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s nomination, or failing that, another nominee who is in keeping with the administration’s new direction.  Additionally, the putative administrator needs a strong technically savvy deputy along with a strong team under him/her who can wield power to assist the administrator in steering the NASA ship in the right direction.  Say what you will about former administrator Dr. Mike Griffin, he was a strong leader who grabbed the reins of power and strongly pushed NASA in the direction that he thought it should go.

Many informed sources indicate that the Vice President is firmly committed to getting humans back to the surface of the Moon.  However, we have had multiple presidents and Vice presidents with the same commitment and yet the last dusty footsteps on the Moon were placed there when a man named Nixon was in the White House over a generation ago.  Do not underestimate the ability of the existing stovepipes to thwart even a strong supporter of the Moon like Vice President Mike Pence. Strong leadership is absolutely essential.

There are many in the stovepiped interest sections that do not want this to happen.  The large contractors see LOP-G as the next great development program, bringing billions of dollars of new revenue in for their development teams.  Congressional sources indicate that the large contractor lobbyists have already turned the administration’s push for ISS commercialization into “hand the ISS over to an industry led organization like the Shuttle era United Space Alliance” which saved neither the taxpayer or NASA any money. A sector of the science community focused only on Mars does not want it to happen as it is still their hope that a president like Kennedy will come along and bless them with a flags and footprints Mars program.  They are more likely to be able to vacation at Muskville condos on Mars before that happens.

It is time and beyond time to get this moving.  It is my strong opinion that the industrialization of the Moon is the most important thing to happen in the first half of the 21st century.  A combination of government, commercial, and international partners can make this happen, but only with leadership, and that leadership needs to be in office as soon as possible.  The 21st century today has new needs and new rationals for space.  A new generation longs for a positive future, beyond the acrimony of today’s petty political fights and the preachments of doom and gloom regarding our future world.  We must become a multi planet civilization if we are to save our civilization here on the Earth.  Time to get to it!

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

11 thoughts on “The Elephant and the Moon

  1. An eloquent description of how NASA avoids the Moon, as it firmly believes the “been there, done that” sentiment of the former president. The message above is clear – without the Moon, Mars is a (stove)pipe dream. NASA will continue to lead us on a journey to nowhere and America will cede the Moon to other interests, thus losing the chance to stimulate a new sector of the economy and provide high-tech jobs for generations to come. All because certain groups in NASA do not embrace change……..
    It is time for a change and here’s why – NASA has atrophied to such an extent we have to pay Russia to send our astronauts to the ISS because we have no launch vehicle. SLS is in development but each launch is an expensive new build as reusability was not in the design. The Moon gives a near term focus to develop sustainable capabilities that will allow sustainable human exploration of Mars AND expand out economy.
    LOP-G rebranding allows HEO to use the developments of the poorly thought out Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) so the tax-payer’s dollars are not wasted. But these technologies are not optimal for long terms human surface exploration and utilization of the Moon. Maybe this is the White Elephant in the cartoon shown in the blog??

  2. If NASA is dead set on going to Mars does the US Government have to invent a new agency to build and operate the Moon bases.

    1. Does US government need to build and operate lunar base?
      I think US government needs explore the lunar poles.
      It’s been 20 years and we still don’t know if or where there is minable lunar water.
      Before building base, we should know this.
      If we knew this, I don’t think that building lunar base is a priority. It could be something done but there is not any current reason to do it.
      I think if we determine if there minable lunar water, the next step should be to explore Mars.
      If congress wants to spend a lot money related space, building lunar base could something to spend money on but it seem there is no will to do this at the moment.
      There also is no will to do a Mars program.

      But there is plan to explore the Moon and then explore Mars. Or at least a general idea which lacks clarity.
      It seems to me building a lunar base could more expensive than building a Mars base, and we need a mars base to explore Mars.

      I would start building a Mars base, after we have done something with ISS.
      And I think we start exploring the moon, now.
      We should start exploring the lunar poles with robotic missions.
      What is needed for future lunar water mining and Mars exploration is depots.
      So do both robotic luner exploration and build a low cost LEO LOX depot.
      Have robotic missions use depot.
      Later, manned missions to Moon and Mars could use depots. But such use, doesn’t have to be using this NASA LEO depot. The purpose of NASA depot is demonstration operational ability of using depots. One could say NASA will standardize how it wants rocket fuel delivered to it’s spacecraft. Other providers may want to do differently , but one has established a standard to compare it to.
      Anyhow, if one can refuel robotic spacecraft, then you also refuel manned craft, but for Mars exploration and commercial water mining, you going to need ability re fuel robotic spacecraft.

  3. NASA should explore the Moon because it could cost not a lot of money, more importantly cost not much time.
    It has very small area that needs to be explore, and this region would be exciting to explore, and minable water can found, its a game changer.
    There number factors related to whether lunar water is minable but a factor could be related to whether Mars is viable place for human settlements.
    And if there is minable lunar water is important factor related if Mars is viable place to have settlements.
    Mars has more land t?han Earth has land area, Mars is very large area to explore.
    Mars will require a lot time to explore, and public could lose interest in funding such exploration, but the public wouldn,’t lose interest, if one has ongoing commercial lunar activity.

  4. — Return American astronauts to the lunar surface for long term travel in the unfamiliar area of the Moon in order to learn and to make practical and effective use of the of it.

    So there can be no doubt at this point in the sentence what the purpose explicitly espoused in the sentence means. However, this brings up the key question, which is what is the definition of the expanded term: make practical and effective use of it. —-

    I don’t think NASA astronauts should make effective use of the Moon. Rather I think astronauts should discover how to use the Moon.
    And then astronauts should go to Mars and discover how we can use Mars.

    It not certain to me that we can effectively use the Moon or Mars.
    But rather than the Moon, the focus should be the Moon’s polar regions. Both south and North.
    Or I am quite certain we can’t use the Equatorial regions of the Moon at this point in time.

    If we can use the moon, at some point we could making spacecraft on the Moon.
    And if could use Mars, we will have settlements there.

    It seems a critical part of using the Moon is the ability to make cheap rocket fuel on the Moon.

    I think it important that NASA not get distracted from it’s purpose which should be to explore space to determine if and where we can use it.

  5. There has been many changes in NASA policies including they are now talking about the Moon New Administrator says we are going back and “no more Lucy and the football” (though Resource Prospector was cancelled).

    Give us some insight and maybe clarification from your sources about future if any lunar programs. For me I want to have a rover go into one of those craters at the poles to get the real scoop on lunar water ice.

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