New post at Air & Space: Apollo 15

A somewhat offbeat contribution on this Moon landing anniversary day.  The month of July is witness to several different space history milestones.  Over at The Once and Future Moon, I discuss how I was inspired by the Apollo 15 mission, July 1971.  Comment here, if inclined.

Also, Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle has the third of his pieces on the state of the American civil space program up today.  He spoke to me about the value of the Moon and that topic is discussed in the story.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 9 Comments

Ten Easy Pieces

Apollo 11 leaves for the Moon, July 16, 1969.

Apollo 11 leaves for the Moon, July 16, 1969.

This weekend (July 20, 2014) is the anniversary of the first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission. No doubt much ink will be spilt on “perspective” pieces, noting the glory days of Apollo and contrasting them (no doubt unfavorably) with the current situation in our civil space program. Rather than adding to the random noise with yet another harangue about the advent of a space doomsday, I offer the following – a selection of ten quotes from some of my previous posts here at SLR and over at Air & Space magazine.

When we went to the Moon 45 years ago, it was to demonstrate the superiority of our system over that of the Soviet Union. Additionally, we were able to conduct the first scientific reconnaissance of another world. Both of these were momentous events. What we did not know then was the true value of the Moon. The Moon has utility and therefore, value.  Recent discoveries have shown that large quantities of water exist near the poles of the Moon, near localities of near-permanent sunlight, thus providing the material and energy resources needed to create new spaceflight capabilities from what we find in space, rather than what we can lug up there with us.  The Moon is not simply an interesting destination in space; it is an enabling asset for human spaceflight.

It has been two generations since Apollo and the manned Moon landings. Forty-five years ago, the Apollo astronauts were flesh and blood heroes – their achievements inspired us all and encouraged scholastic and career excellence. The dreams of science-fiction inspired many of us to pursue careers in space. Today, we still flock to see science-fiction movies and are entertained (some would say narcotized) by special effects and computer fantasy. But do we still seek to implement our dreams? Or are we content with the fantasy?

Human Spaceflight: What Value to Science? (Pt. 1)

February 2009:  The rocks brought back from the Moon told us the story of the Solar System’s early history, details both surprising and astonishing.  It was a time when planets collided and giant asteroids blew holes in planetary crusts hundreds to thousands of kilometers across.  The outer part of the Moon completely melted, forming a global ocean of liquid rock.  Our ideas about planetary formation and evolution had to be re-written from scratch after Apollo. What does this have to do with human exploration?  Because people went to the Moon, we now have a completely different view of how life has evolved on Earth.  That’s a bold assertion, but I believe it to be true.

Human Spaceflight: What Value to Science? (Part 2)

March 2009: A robotic rover can be designed to collect a sample, but it cannot be designed to collect the correct sample.  Field work involves posing and answering conceptual questions in real time, when emerging models and ideas can be tested in the field.  It is a complex and iterative process; we sometimes spend years at certain field sites on the Earth, asking and answering different and ever more detailed scientific questions.  Our objective in the geological exploration of the Moon is knowledge and understanding.  A rock is just a rock, a piece of data.  It is not knowledge.  Robots collect data, not knowledge.

Stuck in Transit – Unchaining Ourselves From the Rocket Equation

March 2010:  We can wait and hope for the proposed technology development program to provide us with magic beans, or we can begin that process now by returning to the Moon with robots and humans to learn how to harvest and use its material and energy resources.  Creating a sustainable system of space faring that can take us anywhere we want to go would be a real accomplishment.  By gaining this knowledge and expertise, mankind will be free to choose many space goals, thereby achieving “at will” space destination capability.

Can we afford to return to the Moon?

December 2010: Rather than shut up, I now put up.  I have submitted a paper for publication in the Proceedings of Space Manufacturing 14, the conference in late October sponsored by the Space Studies Institute.  My co-author Tony Lavoie and I have developed an architecture that returns America to the Moon with a specific mission in an affordable way.

From “One Small Step” to Settlement

Apollo 11 CDR Neil Armstrong, immediately after his historic Moonwalk.

Apollo 11 CDR Neil Armstrong, immediately after his historic Moonwalk.

June 2011: Settlement is a valid long-term goal for humanity in space – but we must have something with a practical and political payoff in the near-term.

Technical Readiness

November 2012: In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man.

“Where, Why and How?” – Concerns of the House Subcommittee on Space

May 2013:  I used my opportunity before the committee to submit a detailed architecture for building an incremental, cumulative space transportation system (see the links at end of my submitted testimony here).  While we should not make a fetish of reusability, to create a lasting system (one that serves our diverse national needs in space), we need to adopt the ethic of a space “fleet” whereby ships operate in one locality in space and only there.  One size does not fit all.  Different functions require different kinds of ships and one might change vehicles several times in the course of a journey.  In other words, we should begin to move from an Earth-based and dependent transportation system to a space-based and provisioned one. Harvesting lunar water is key to this development.

Mining the Moon, Fueling the Future

December 2013:  The real value of extraterrestrial mining is accessing material outside of Earth’s gravity well and making products that enable and create new capabilities in space and on other worlds.  So far, we have not found any deposits of unknown materials in space that cannot be found on Earth (the “unobtainium” beloved of science fiction writers).  But we have found deposits of common materials that, while having no economic value for return to Earth, have enormous value in space.  Anything that we can find and use on another world means that much less material that has to be launched from the surface of the Earth.  With launch costs of many thousands of dollars per pound, every bit of mass that we can find and use in space is that much less budget-busting dumb mass hauled up from Earth.

Lunar Forensic Files: Studying Life’s Processes and Origins on the Moon

February 2014: As we continue to study the Moon, we find that it offers much more than one might suspect at first glance.  The Moon’s early history reveals the secrets of planetary assembly, impact bombardment, global melting and differentiation into core, mantle and crust.  Its middle history tells us about the thermal evolution of planets, as internal heat spawned the volcanism that resurfaced part of the Moon and operates on all of the terrestrial planets.  The continued impact history recorded in the Moon’s surface layer documents a phase of Earth history missing from our terrestrial geological record, including the possibility of episodic waves of impacts that are at least partly responsible for extinctions of life recorded in the fossil record.  This same surficial layer also records the history and output of our Sun, the provider of energy to the planets and the principal driver of climate change on Earth.  The interconnections between the various branches of lunar science with the other sciences grow more evident and more significant over time.

Surrendering in Space

March 2014:  NASA missions have blazed the trail to future theaters of operation; these are national concerns vital to defense needs and they have been a well-understood driver of our technical and economic vitality.  The value of space assets – communications satellites, GPS, reconnaissance and remote sensing and detection – were all developed in tandem by both military and civil space, with such intertwining that it is impossible to separate the two.  The space theater of the future is cislunar space, where most of our satellite assets (critical to military action and economic stability on the Earth) reside.  Such satellites are extremely vulnerable and the fact that we currently lack a means to protect and routinely and repeatedly access them is a national security concern of major significance.  That this concern was not touched on during the program was striking.  It is not enough to know that space is symbolic of our national mood.  The nation must also understand that there are concrete negative implications if we retreat in our pursuit of space leadership.  Those who are not space powerful are space vulnerable.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 29 Comments

Why We’re Not Going To Mars

Production line of B-24 Liberator bombers, part of an enormous industrial infrastructure that won World War II, the Cold War, and later, sent America to the Moon.

Production line of B-24 Liberator bombers, part of an enormous industrial infrastructure that won World War II, the Cold War, and later, sent America to the Moon.

In our never ending debate over the direction of U.S. space policy, you’ve no doubt heard the claim that for a human mission to Mars, we have more technology available to us than President Kennedy had available to him when he declared the Apollo Moon landing goal in 1961. Those making this assertion are likely referring to the oft-mentioned “information revolution,” whereby the computing power that guided Apollo to the Moon can fit inside a thimble, rather than the large, suitcase-sized boxes that the old system required. But computers and avionics, while essential, hardly make up a complete and operational spaceflight capability.

How was it possible that within the span of only a few years, a country that had not yet been able to send a man into orbit was able to land two men on the Moon? For over 50 years, space advocates have been talking about sending people to Mars. Yet projected launch dates for the first voyage continually recede into the dim future, currently estimated as occurring in the mid-to-late 2030s at best, but more likely after 2050 in more candid assessments. What has happened to us as a nation that would cause this huge disparity? Could it be we are not as technically literate and advanced as we believe we are? Have we ridden too long on the Apollo wave of excellence? We appear stranded – left behind, dreaming and talking of space but not conquering it.

The success of Apollo can be attributed to many factors, but one aspect often overlooked is that Apollo was a program of the Cold War – a successor to World War II, the greatest marshaling of national will and capability in human history. Several recent books have examined the role of industry and the technical infrastructure developed and used to win the Second World War – how the latent industrial power of America was harnessed and unleashed against the war machines of both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. The massive production capability of American industry supplied an abundance of matériel to our armed forces. In the roughly 1300 days of America’s participation in World War II, the United States produced over 100,000 tanks, almost 200,000 fighter and heavy bomber aircraft, 160 aircraft carriers, 350 destroyers, and over 200 submarines. Whatever setbacks we received on the battlefields of the world, it was not for a lack of tools (nor the will) with which to fight.

This enormous American manufacturing capacity was complemented by a concerted effort to use our abundant scientific and engineering talent pool to aid the war effort. The contributions of science and engineering were numerous, ranging from proximity fuses, to radar, to the ultimate scientific/engineering achievement of the war, the atomic bomb. These efforts not only created “wonder weapons” to serve the fight for freedom, they also produced a trained and dedicated work force – a group of people willing to endure long, hard, anonymous hours of work using their maximum (and considerable) brainpower to solve nearly intractable problems.

This marshaled capability could have dissipated into nothing at the end of the war but it didn’t because the people and facilities that defeated the Axis and restored peace to the world were necessary to contain the ambitions of a new and rapacious superpower – the aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union. This was the Cold War, a long period of world tension. Rather than putting an emphasis on the production of matériel, this war required an even greater intellectual effort and more brainpower than the just-concluded “War to End All Wars.” In a real sense, the Cold War was a “technician’s struggle,” with East and West continually engaged in a global contest of technical achievement and one-upsmanship, all with the aim of attaining a military edge over their opponent to advance and secure their nation’s position in the world. The space program was an outgrowth of this mindset and struggle.

With the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), it was clear that launches into space were now possible and that the battle of ideas and ideals would inevitably spill into the heavens. The Space Race became another battleground in the relatively bloodless, ideological Cold War struggle. Each new space accomplishment was heralded not only as an achievement in its own right, but also as an example of the superiority of a politico-economic system. When President John F. Kennedy advocated the landing of a man on the Moon “by the end of the decade,” he was throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the Soviet Union: We will do this – are you able to?

In doing so, Kennedy was able to draw on the enormous scientific and technical infrastructure built up over the course of a twenty-year Cold War (itself a legacy of the previous capacity used to win World War II). This infrastructure was much more than factories, laboratories and advanced machinery – it was powered by Americans who possessed the culture and character needed to make it all work as a unified whole. The generation that fought and won the Cold War was largely the same one that fought and won the Second World War – those men and women shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression, who sacrificed for their families and for their country. They were willing to work the long, hard hours beyond a daily punch-in to complete whatever job had to be done (and done correctly) to keep and protect a nation and a way of life. In short, it was the so-called “Greatest Generation” – those who fought back tyranny and won, who took us to the Moon.

Over time, people and ideas pass away and memories fade. After the fall of the USSR, the enormous technical infrastructure that won this triumph was allowed to atrophy and dissipate. I have always thought that the 1989 declaration of the Human Space Initiative (later re-named the Space Exploration Initiative – SEI) of President George H.W. Bush (a WWII veteran) was our leadership’s recognition of the danger of letting this capability lapse and thus, coupled it to a suitable challenge for America’s scientific and engineering community (one that would keep sharp our capacity to fight some future technocratic war or struggle – a sentiment and truth we should always reflect upon). Historically, exploration is an activity used to keep a country’s military engaged during long periods of relative peace (e.g., The H.M.S. Challenger’s oceanographic survey in the latter part of the 19th Century). In this sense, President Bush believed a challenging goal in space would serve to maintain this critical national capability, a capability bought and paid-for with decades of blood and treasure.

However, SEI was not supported by the Congress and the technological infrastructure that won the Cold War evaporated. Numerous small, high-tech companies that supported military and space needs in previous decades were allowed to fold or were absorbed by mega-conglomerates. The contraction was not only permitted to occur, but was actually encouraged by ideological opponents of the “military-industrial complex,” the allegedly evil coalescence of the high-tech, federal contractor firms that helped to win the Cold War. The so-called “boom” of high-tech in the late 1990s was largely consumer-oriented and did not produce the needed pieces of a space faring capability.

So, here we find ourselves in the new millennium. Are we “more technically advanced” than when JFK annunciated the goal of a lunar landing within a decade? I think not. Not only has our enormous and varied technical industrial capacity vanished, its engine – the people who made it all work – are gone (laid off, retired or dead). Too many of the current generation lack an understanding of history. They are not motivated by an understanding and belief in American exceptionalism – the foundation that animated past generations to greatness. They have not learned (or have not been taught, so do not possess) the ethic of self-sacrifice of their parents and grandparents – those tough, smart generations that defeated the Nazis, brought down the Soviets, and built a technically advanced American civilization, wealthy – and generous – almost beyond imagination. That nation has been slowly receding into the mists of history, leaving behind but a shell of what it once was and what it was capable of doing.

This is not the same country that sent people to the Moon in less than a decade. We have become a generation of self-absorbed takers, vegetating on and destroying the accumulated wealth and accomplishment of our formerly great nation. We spin fantasy when we talk about going to Mars. We’re not going to Mars – or anywhere else in space – until we are willing to sacrifice, roll up our sleeves and begin working to rebuild what we once had. Until then, our future in space will remain limited to Powerpoint presentations and recollections of what the Greatest Generation was able to achieve.

Note:  I was a guest on The Space Show this week, discussing this topic and also the new NRC report, the subject of my last blog post.  You can listen to the podcast from this link.

Posted in planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 32 Comments

The NRC Report – A Missed Opportunity

Assembly in space - a role for humans unrecognized by the NRC report.

Assembly in space – a role for humans unrecognized by the NRC report.

The recent report from the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Human Space Exploration has drawn a good deal of commentary from the space press. I’ve looked over the report and have my own thoughts, some quite orthogonal to most of the commentary so far. I find the report acceptable in some areas but woefully lacking in vision and imagination. Many standard assumptions and clichés about human spaceflight are taken for granted and very little thinking “outside the box” is evident. All in all, the report is a conventional, mediocre effort. But given how far strategic thinking about the U.S. space program has fallen, I am not surprised.

In common with virtually all current thinking on the space program, the report focuses on “exploration” as the principal activity to be undertaken by humans in space, defined by the committee as consisting of surface activities associated with various scientific investigations. Thus, at the outset, the entire human effort in space is oriented around activities that, from evidence of the last 30 years, are already known to be politically unsustainable over decadal timescales. That the adoption of this viewpoint was not inadvertent is shown by the complete absence of any consideration of the value of human spaceflight for operational and applications purposes, viz., the industrial development of space for a variety of critical national needs.

The history of human spaceflight since Apollo has focused on low Earth orbit – specifically, on the use of the Space Shuttle to conduct a variety of missions, including the assembly of the International Space Station. Many observers have criticized this era of spaceflight, especially in comparison with the great surface explorations of the latter Apollo missions. However, the past 30 years of space operations began as an attempt to make spaceflight “routine” by keeping costs down. The Shuttle was built because it was thought that reusability and high flight rates would make orbital flight cheap enough to enable a wide variety of activities in space. The Shuttle has an excellent operational record of 133 successful flights out of 135 attempts but as a spaceflight system, it never achieved the savings or flight rates initially projected.

The “policy failure” of the Shuttle (as it has been labeled by one observer) led to several decades of navel-gazing and pining for a more ambitious space program (with an oft-repeated call for new missions “beyond low Earth orbit,” the holy grail of space policy analysts). Fed largely by Saganism and Star Trek fantasies about “seeking out new life,” mission dreams focused primarily on humans to Mars. But whatever the proposed trans-LEO destination, the principal activities envisioned always consisted of “scientific exploration,” with the architecture always some derivative of the unsustainable Apollo template – a large mega-booster rocket, a throw-away spacecraft and a small Earth return vehicle.

Although the original idea and purpose of the Shuttle program was eminently logical, we had abandoned the systematic and incremental approach to space exploration during Apollo because of pressing geopolitical needs. The post-Apollo direction was an attempt to return to that step-wise template through the sequence of Shuttle, station and orbital transfer vehicle – back to a space-based transportation system that would ferry crew and cargo between LEO and destinations beyond, including geosynchronous orbit, the L-points, and lunar orbit and surface. By returning to these necessary and prescribed steps, and phasing them in over time (so as to be affordable), we would gradually move from a predominantly Earth-centric transportation system based around launch vehicles, to a space-based system built around elements that would remain permanently stationed in space for continuous availability and reuse. Such an extensible system would gradually expand the operational reach of humans into the space beyond LEO.

During the course of our thirty-year experience with Shuttle and Station, critical questions about the value of people in this region were answered in the affirmative. People working in space together with robotic assistants could build, repair and maintain large, distributed systems in space – facilities much larger than could ever be launched from the surface of Earth. The ISS is but one example. Future large distributed systems built on-site in GEO (or elsewhere in trans-LEO space) could become the communications and solar power complexes of the future. People and machines, working in these areas, could assemble the interplanetary spacecraft that have been the dreams of space advocates for years – giving us systems much more capable and less expensive than those launched from the surface of Earth, the deepest gravity well in the inner Solar System.

Even though these concepts are well understood, there is nothing about such possibilities in the new report – no mention of attempting this spaceflight template, one that would revolutionize space-based satellite assets, offer unprecedented bandwidth and coverage for global digital communications, afford us the ability to develop inexpensive and clean energy for a rapidly industrializing third world, and provide better security from both internal and external threats for the world as a whole – hardly small potatoes. All of these possible activities involve the need to prove vital engineering and science concepts that will inspire and propel the inevitable space-based economy that would follow.

Yet the new NRC report focuses exclusively on the old Apollo template – a human Mars mission, staged completely from Earth-launched assets (for a few crew members) to study a few scientific questions on a distant planet. Although such a program is far from worthless, it lacks the multi-dimensional appeal and the political attraction of a program that has lower buy-in costs (being incremental) and wider appeal (broad-based constituencies, diverse opportunities). Basically, it is the difference between a single-shot mission “stunt” and the creation of a long-term dynamic that moves humanity into space – the dynamic that gets us there. Once we possess the ability to get there, people will have the freedom to choose from an infinite spectrum of activities and rationales.

On their web site, the committee lists the formal presentations they received as well as the ~200 white papers individually submitted by interested parties. Within this mass of material is work (from several sources) explaining the substance and importance of a series of new and significant discoveries about the Moon’s polar regions. In the last 10 years, we have found that the Moon contains large quantities of water in the form of ice deposits. Water is an important substance with a wide variety of uses. It is even more valuable when it’s naturally available where we need it. One of the most important uses for water is as rocket propellant. In his presentation, Mike Duke carefully outlined the promise and remaining unknowns associated with accessing and using this off-planet resource. In addition, several contributed white papers pointed out how the rules of spaceflight could be fundamentally and favorably altered through the harvesting and use of lunar water.

None of these new, game-changing results are acknowledged in the report. The closest the report comes to evaluating the enormous leveraging potential provided by in situ space resources is the use of martian atmosphere to manufacture fuel for the return trip back to Earth. While certainly a worthwhile effort, it is inadequate. Completing a single human mission in the distant future does not compare in significance to creating an affordable, sustainable human space exploration program in the here-and-now. In contrast, the systematic extraction of water from the Moon would provide fuel and consumables for a variety of purposes in cislunar space, including the necessary and all-important ability to take space transportation from an Earth-dependent activity and transform it into a space-based operation, finally removing the necessity (and expense and limitations) of propellant being launched from Earth. A cislunar transportation system can take us to the planets – to Mars.

One may speculate on the reasons for this paucity of imagination in the NRC report, but I suspect it is because the current generation of scientists and engineers are hidebound by conventional thinking about space, as well as having an aversion to crossing those necessary bridges of technical readiness that lead to new capabilities. They believe that a space program consists of industry building big, complex machines that get launched, used and then thrown away – and a big government check gets cashed. Instead of a permanent human presence in space, their idea is to get there, do the mission and get home. It’s what they know – the proven model that worked for Apollo, the sleek white rocket pointing to infinity and the touchstone for large, exciting, spectacular space firsts. In contrast, the Space Shuttle – ugly and unloved – undertook pedestrian missions in low Earth orbit, circling close to Earth and completing unglamorous tasks like Hubble servicing or Space Station truss assembly – prosaic, but useful.

I plan to discuss other aspects of this report (some of which are quite good and insightful) in future posts, but my initial reaction to the report is one of disappointment in its missed opportunity. The authors had a chance to set out a logical rationale and a path for the implementation of long-term human presence in space. They had a capable staff and a wide variety of knowledge and interesting ideas to access in the years they’ve spent writing this report. Having served on previous committees like this, I understand the tendency to believe that you already have the expertise needed to evaluate the major program “covered” by your committee membership. I also know (and knew after my first experience) that such a feeling is invariably mistaken. The key facts and pieces of a logical space program can be found on the NRC Committee website – not in the main report, but in the materials presented and submitted to the committee by outsiders. However, like finding diamonds in the host kimberlite, one must ferret out and separate the gems from the gangue.

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space policy, Space transportation | 45 Comments

“Pioneering Space” – Really?

1pi·o·neer  noun\ˌpī-ə-ˈnir\ : someone who is one of the first people to move to and live in a new area – Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary

A pioneer homesteader.  They came to stay, not to visit.

A pioneer homesteader. They came to stay, not to visit.

In Pioneering Space (the latest report released by NASA), much is made over the use of the word “pioneer.” Apparently, we are no longer exploring space – we are pioneering. This new term is discussed in detail within the pages of this brief document, carefully distinguishing how pioneering differs from simply exploring. In short, according to the agency, to pioneer means to go somewhere with an intent to stay there. It implies permanence and presence. This verbiage is directed toward their plans for human missions, as part of a “pathway to Mars,” but they make much of near-term activities in “cislunar space,” by which they mean the “vicinity” – not the surface – of the Moon.

With a cursory read, the new report seems to say the right words and terms – permanent, Earth-independent, expanding human presence. It claims the new path is “incremental” and “sustainable.” They roll out what they call an “Evolvable Mars Campaign,” laying great stock in each of those three carefully chosen words – it is “evolvable” because new technologies will be gradually introduced as they become available. It is focused on “Mars” as the “ultimate goal,” repeating the pattern of the last 50 years of space policy. And it is a “campaign” – less a new spaceflight program than a series of independent missions that connect thematically to the long-range “ultimate objective.”

After this rhetoric is absorbed, one must ask: Is what they have planned really congruent to what is claimed in the prefacing remarks of this document? A key insight of the early statements is that as spacefarers, we should be moving in the direction of permanence and incrementally expanding our presence. I completely agree with this attitude and have advocated exactly such an ethic on this blog and elsewhere for decades. However, the specific activities outlined in the remainder of the document seem to disconnect with this (laudable) set of goals laid down at the outset.

Rather than “cutting the cord” with Earth and permitting permanent presence, human missions to “cislunar” (as they define it) entail repetitious one-off trips using disposable spacecraft to set regions in free space (for periods of up to a few days or couple of weeks). Every mission is entirely self-contained, with launch of all equipment and consumables from Earth’s surface. No permanent assets are emplaced; each mission will carry its own spacecraft, which will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a scenario straight from the Apollo template. No planetary destinations are visited or studied; spacecraft are put into “DRO” (distant, retrograde orbit – the new buzz term this report offers up). Oh, by the way, that DRO is around the object-that-cannot-be-named and the Orion will rendezvous with pre-emplaced targets, in the case of the ARM, a previously captured piece of rock.

There are no plans to develop and use any indigenous resources of space, except for the sunlight that will generate power from the solar arrays of the Orion spacecraft. Despite the fact that we will orbit an object that possesses billions of tons of water, no attempt will be made to harvest and use that resource. It is possible that the asteroid brought back into DRO might contain water, but there is no description of any type of water extraction experiment to be done during the ARM, nor will the Orion spacecraft have the facilities to conduct such experimentation. As near as I can tell from the document, the primary value of these missions is to give the crew “deep space exposure,” which in this instance involves the same micro-gravity environment currently experienced on the ISS, with the added bonus feature of greater exposure to (and risk from) both energetic solar particle events and cosmic rays from deep space.

In brief, this new “pathway” is the very antithesis of space permanence and Earth-independence. And the conundrum we find ourselves in is entirely the result of the agency’s dogmatic, categorical and incomprehensible refusal to consider the value of lunar surface missions as a necessary part of any program to develop the capability for interplanetary human spaceflight. Nothing about the plan outlined in Pioneering Space is “permanent” – no long-term infrastructure of space-based assets is established by these flights. Each mission is a self-contained one-off “stunt” that leaves no lasting legacy to build on. It does not “evolve” because each mission essentially repeats all the steps of the mission before it, orbiting the object-that-cannot-be-named in differing places for varying times, but accomplishing very little. Every gram of air, water and rocket fuel must be dragged up from the bottom of Earth’s gravity well, the deepest one of all the inner planets. This is not “Earth-independence.”

What would a genuine evolving and capable program look like? We would establish expanding spheres of human “reach” and operational experience. The program would proceed in increments, gradually but continuously expanding our theater of operations. Emphasis would be placed on developing human-tended staging and transfer nodes at increasing distances from Earth, starting possibly at GEO but extending later to the Earth-Moon L-points, low lunar orbit and the lunar surface. We would begin to assess the nature of the water resources of the lunar poles and experiment with their extraction, processing and use, both on the Moon and in cislunar space. We would launch vehicles and equipment designed to be based permanently in space, so that they are always available and will not have to be discarded and then re-launched from Earth after each mission. And most importantly, we would re-supply our travels from the material and energy resources that we now know to be abundant in cislunar space, most especially, the enabling asset of lunar water and its myriad uses.

If we desire to “pioneer” the space frontier, there are certain skills we must master. Settlers in the American west had to know how to clear land, hunt and fish for food, build shelter, develop clean and reliable water delivery, and establish presence by homesteading on the frontier. In a similar manner, space pioneers have skills to learn. We must learn how to supply ourselves from what’s locally available. We must learn to cope with the harsh environments of both interplanetary space and the surfaces of alien worlds. We must learn how to build redundant, fault-tolerant and repairable systems capable of long-duration operation. And we must assemble this constellation of different systems in an incremental, affordable and capable manner.

Challenging indeed.  But that’s what a pioneer understands their job to be and what they set out to do.  From the verb:

  1. pi·o·neered, pi·o·neer·ing: to open up (an area) or prepare (a way); rockets that pioneered outer space; to settle (a region). – The Free Dictionary
Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 42 Comments

New post at Air & Space: Gordon Swann, Geology Teacher to the Astronauts

I have a new post over at Smithsonian Air & Space about my good friend, Gordon Swann, who passed away last week.  Gordon was the PI of the field geology team for the Apollo 13, 14 and 15 missions and developed many of the procedures for collecting samples on the Moon.  He was a great guy and he will be missed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Stupid Space Tricks

Simulation for the next NASA mission

Simulation for the next NASA mission?

Viewers of the David Letterman Show (before it went to pot) probably remember a running gag where people would bring their pets to perform a variety of silly or dumb acts for the amusement of the audience. Letterman called this segment “Stupid Pet Tricks.” Although each particular trick was silly, the pet owners sincerely believed that their pets were gifted and were proud to showcase their animals’ various abilities. In fact, the whole exercise allowed the host and audience to smirk knowingly at the owners’ pride in their pets’ seemingly “human” abilities. This bit of low comedy has now been adapted as the central principle of our federal civil space program. The object now seems to be who can come up with the silliest idea for a human spaceflight mission. And boy, is the competition for that title fierce!

Of course, we all know already about Contestant Number 1, the “haul a rock to lunar orbit and visit it” entry. Called the “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” by NASA (I prefer to think of it as the “Haul Asteroid Mission“), this concept seeks to conceal the potential embarrassment of developing a new deep space transportation system (the Orion spacecraft) and having no approved place to send it via the expedient of creating one. Of course, the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named is involved in this “high-concept” idea; it acts as a convenient gravity well, around which this purloined boulder will be placed in orbit. Following this feat of legerdemain, the Orion crew will rendezvous with it and station-keep – the term “landing” is not appropriate in this case, as the object has no appreciable gravity field and a visit is more akin to formation flying than to landing.

Exactly what the crew will do there is yet to be defined. There is a vague sense that perhaps sampling the asteroid and returning pieces back to the Earth might be valuable. Sounds great – those few kilograms can be added to the thousands of metric tons of material from near-Earth asteroids that we already posses here on Earth in the form of meteorites. What’s that? You say that an “unmodified” sample of asteroid might be a “first?” Well, we’ll know if that’s true by the time this mission flies – the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission will be returning samples from an asteroid just around the same time.

The arguments of some of the advocates of the ARM can be amusing. A recent claim that perhaps the astronauts would “extract some water or platinum” is interesting; I suppose that the details are left as an exercise for the student. Perhaps that student could explore the details of the Orion spacecraft, which contain no facilities for resource processing, particularly using a feedstock about which we know nothing. Of course, we wouldn’t want to simply “duplicate our achievements of 40-plus years ago.” This is, after all, an all-new, improved space program. Rather than land on an alien world and explore the complex processes that created and shaped our planetary system, we will now boldly snuggle up to a rock in free space and do – something. Anything we did not do “40-plus years ago” is billed as progress.

The fact is, scientifically, the ARM offers next to nothing. We already have samples of asteroids (we call them meteorites) in great quantity. We will learn nothing about the rock’s internal structure that isn’t already known from previous robotic missions to other similar bodies. It does nothing in the way of helping us learn the skills needed for asteroid collision mitigation, as extinction-sized asteroids are not amenable to being towed by a solar electric tug, no matter how efficient it may be. The more one looks into the ARM, the more patently absurd the whole concept appears. But it is “someplace to go” and it is not a mission to the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named, so that qualifies it as a high-value target in today’s space agency.

The claim is made that the ARM “prepares us for journeys to Mars,” the so-called “ultimate destination.” Calling that hand and raising the table limit is an alternative idea, Contestant Number 2 – a human Mars flyby (the mission formerly known as “Inspiration Mars”). Originally, space tourist Dennis Tito proposed the mission as a privately funded activity. However, some saw this idea as a possible NASA alternative to the ARM, a way to plausibly “prepare for Mars” by going to Mars – albeit not landing there.

What would it be like to be the crew on this mission? Imagine that you’re a sailor in the Royal Navy in the 1770s on a ship bound for Tahiti. After a 10-month voyage fighting contrary winds, brutal work and hard discipline, you see an emerald green isle on the horizon. Your mind fills with images of terra firma, dancing maidens, abundant fruit and fish, swimming and lying in the Sun, and no rotten salt pork or weevil-filled hardtack. The island gets nearer and nearer. Then, you pass it by and continue on for another 9 months of what you just experienced, hopeful to make it home safely.

That’s the Mars flyby mission in a nutshell. Its advocates claim that it is better preparation for the ultimate Mars journey than the ARM mission, which is a bit like claiming that riding a bicycle to the next town is better preparation for a cross-country trip than doing loops in your own neighborhood. The alleged benefits of the Mars flyby mission are not overwhelming. It is a long-duration mission, but so are current tours on the ISS. It will practice interplanetary navigation, a skill we mastered in the mid-1960s with the first flyby of Mars, Mariner 4 – and continue to exercise with every subsequent robotic Mars mission. It will permit human eyes to gaze upon the martian surface for the first time; that view is likely to be disappointing, as Mars is a low-contrast object and almost all of the images of the planet taken to date have been processed and stretched to enhance color and appearance.

Perhaps the biggest issues are the possible downsides to a human Mars flyby. The crew will spend at least a full year in deep space, exposed to hard cosmic radiation. More troublingly, solar flares could erupt at any time, possibly showering the crew with a lethal dose of high-energy particles. It might be possible to devise a storm shelter of jacketed habitat to protect the crew during such an event, but this greatly increases the mass and complexity of the spacecraft. The crew will live in microgravity for over a year, although this feat will have already been achieved by the time it flies (a one-year tour is starting next year on the ISS).

All this for a quick fly-by. It will largely be over in about an hour. A year in space for an hour’s glimpse of Mars – sounds like a bargain to me! And in the end, will it have helped or will it have hindered the ultimate goal?

The claim that this mission is to a future human landing on Mars what the Apollo 8 mission was to the Apollo 11 lunar landing is specious. Apollo 8 was undertaken because of a very real concern that the Soviet Union was planning a circumlunar human mission by the end of 1968. It was feared that had they done so, the perception would be that the Soviets had “won” the Moon race. Apollo 8 was sent to the Moon without a lander to avert that possibility. There is no comparable geopolitical end served by this Mars fly-by mission.

So there we have it – the current state of America’s space program: wrangling over which stupid mission is the least stupid. These mental contortions are all brought about because the agency cannot consider flying a mission to the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named.

And that’s the stupidest part of all.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 92 Comments

International Repercussions [Part 2] The Power Vacuum

Future participants in the cislunar co-prosperity sphere

Future participants in the cislunar co-prosperity sphere

In my last post, I explored issues related to American abrogation of responsibility in the arena of international space cooperation, primarily as they pertain to the removal of the Moon from the “critical path” in the Global Exploration Roadmap and the subsequent confusion and dismay this decision has caused our international space partners. Having looked at how poorly considered, unilateral policy decisions affect our friends, one also must look at how it could affect a possible adversary. Although we have no declared space enemies, volatile political circumstances on Earth always contain the implicit threat of escalation and expansion into the realm of space. With the increasing reliance and dependence of modern technical civilization on satellite assets, such a threat will be greater in the future than has previously been the case.

Recent world events have documented our vulnerability in regards to both foreign partners and competitors. The strong disagreement between Russia and the United States over the political status of parts of the Ukraine is currently bleeding over into the realm of space cooperation. Although our principal joint space project (operation of the International Space Station) remains on track, bureaucratic directives have interfered with and stopped Russian-American cooperation on a variety of scientific efforts. One example is an international scientific workshop on the exploration of Venus (scheduled next month in Houston), which has been thrown into disarray due to escalating Russian-American tension.

Despite this tension, our space relationship with the Russians appears, for now, secure. However, current access for American crews to the ISS is dependent entirely on the Russian Soyuz, not to mention our use of Russian-built RD-180 engines in the United Launch Alliance Atlas launch vehicle family. If diplomatic relations continue to deteriorate and turn cold (or hot), we will be in the difficult and very publicly diminished position of losing all of these space capabilities at once. Russia’s military buildup and aggression toward its neighbors, coupled with their denial (or hiked price) of resources is instructive on what their posture in space will be. China, another space power, has also become increasingly assertive toward its neighbors in Asia. In both instances, Russia and China are filling the power vacuum that has been opened up by America’s retreat from influence on the world stage (which includes space).

Looking beyond the immediate near-term, what would poor relations with Russia mean for future space operations beyond low Earth orbit (LEO)? The Russians have outlined their plans for future trans-LEO spaceflight in several venues. Remarkably and unsurprisingly, they intend to focus considerable effort on the Moon, beginning with a series of lander and rover spacecraft designed to examine and characterize the volatile deposits of the lunar poles. Initial efforts are entirely focused on robotic spacecraft, but there is nothing to stop the Russians from following these missions with human visits sometime after 2020. Indeed, recent remarks by Russia’s Deputy Premier Dmitri Rogozin have specifically outlined a vision of permanent Russian presence on the Moon within the next decade or so (the timescale is of less significance than their intent to accomplish it).

What are we to make of these claims? Who cares if Russia and China decide to do “what we did” over 40 years ago? The key difference is that they are not “doing what we did” nor are they emphasizing a lunar “touch-and-go” and an “exit strategy” so as to get on to Mars (NASA’s truncated version of a devolved Vision for Space Exploration, now totally abandoned). By focusing on polar exploration and resource characterization, Russia and China intend to go the Moon to stay. In the coming decades, such knowledge and capability will become increasingly vital and valuable, as the freedom of movement throughout cislunar space holds significant national security and economic ramifications.

I’ve outlined elsewhere the importance of cislunar space – the area between the Earth and the Moon, where most of our critical satellite assets reside. The power to freely come and go throughout this volume of space permits the holder to both protect their own space assets and to deny adversaries the use of their own. This development need not involve the weaponization of space or the deployment of offensive capabilities. Satellites are delicate physically and can be disabled through very simple expedients, such as snapping off an antenna or severing a cable. To realize this scenario, necessary capabilities are cislunar presence, the ability to maneuver throughout space (orbital changes, rendezvous and loiter), station-keeping with proximity operations and long-dwell times (preferably in high orbits well beyond LEO to mask both the presence and purpose of spacecraft). China has recently sent a variety of space probes to the Moon and beyond and has successfully demonstrated a mastery of these space skills and capabilities.

The Chinese Chang’E-2 mission, launched in 2010, was sent to the Moon to orbit it for a year and map the surface in greater detail than its predecessor Chang’E-1. After mapping the Moon, the spacecraft was sent to Sun-Earth L-2, the libration point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. It spent the next eight months at this L-2 point, loitering but available to depart and re-position on command. After this period, the probe was sent into orbit around the Sun, including maneuvering into a fly-by of the near-Earth asteroid Toutatis. Other Chinese satellite missions have experimented with orbital maneuvering and rendezvous; one satellite possessed a robotic arm and engaged in proximity operations with its sister craft. All of these new capabilities post-date the infamous 2007 Chinese interceptor mission that destroyed an obsolete satellite and left a cloud of orbital debris to interfere with future missions (and for which China endured justifiable international criticism). Chang’E-3 soft-landed and deployed a rover on the Moon last December; Chang’E-4, 5 and 6 are being built or designed for upcoming missions to the Moon.

The extensive and permanent presence of Russia and China in the frontier of space beyond LEO would not be such a concern if we were certain that other space powers would also be present there. Although the Europeans have outlined plans (as of yet, indefinite) for lunar missions in the coming years, as in most space activities they take primary cues from the United States (which has indicated that it does not intend to conduct lunar missions). However, U.S. human missions to cislunar space may occur, in particular, as part of the testing program for the SLS-Orion spacecraft. This includes the so-called Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), a concept being studied wherein a rock will be hauled to lunar orbit to allow astronauts to encounter it.

Can it thus be said that America will be on the cislunar frontier as well as these other nations?  Key considerations are the intent and outcome of these two different approaches. With the ARM, the United States has proposed conducting a one-off, “make work” mission solely for the purpose of being able to check off the box of doing something new by “visiting” an asteroid (a plan that has been met with derision by many in the space community). Unlike the Russian and Chinese plans, there is no effort to assay, develop and use the material and energy resources of the Moon to create cislunar permanence and new space faring capabilities. In short, the Russians and Chinese are making plans to be permanently present in cislunar space and on the Moon, while our present leadership is adamant that since “we’ve been there,” they have no interest in going back. As such, our options to participate or even have a voice in how the new cislunar frontier develops (or command the use of space assets that control and safeguard so much of our existence here on Earth) will be severely limited, if not completely curtailed.

Some may not worry about this development, as it will take at least a decade (perhaps more, perhaps less) until the importance of others’ presence (and our absence) becomes evident. However, decisions made now hold ominous scenarios from many perspectives. Those present on the frontier will make the rules of the road. If America is not there, our rights of passage, access and use of space and its resources are not guaranteed. In international relations, a power vacuum occurs when there is an absence of strong leadership and no regional presence (or plans for any) to secure and defend our national interests. Such a vacuum is always filled (often with malign powers and circumstances not to our benefit or advantage). Recent events have shown that relying upon foreign space powers may save small amounts of money in the near-term, but can cost us dearly in the long run.

We are not at war with either Russia or China but it is dangerous for U.S. leadership to allow the country to assume a vulnerable posture, as events outside of our control can quickly change. Weakness is an invitation for aggression; we are either space powerful or space vulnerable. There is no doubt that our satellite infrastructure represents a critical national asset and that its health and proper functionality are vital to the economy and security of the United States.

Abandoning our presence on the frontier of cislunar space and the lunar surface is not an option – at least not a rational, intelligent one. Our civil space program would serve vital national interests if it were re-vectored through cislunar space to take advantage of the natural logistics depot (in specific and limited locales) available on our Moon. In time, with our presence there, this new realm in space could be developed for commercial and economic expansion. But for now, we’re slipping further and further behind the eight ball, committed to performing space public relations stunts that give no lasting value for money spent and, as current events portend, leaves us exposed amid growing national security concerns.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 55 Comments

International Repercussions [Part 1] The Unreliable Partner

The Global Exploration Roadmap:  International consensus -- except for us.

The Global Exploration Roadmap: International consensus — except for us.

An interesting exchange occurred last week at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), when representatives from several national space agencies met to discuss the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) for spaceflight, which outlines the ambitions of nations that cooperate in space.  The nations currently involved in the operation of the International Space Station (ISS) meet periodically to discuss future plans and strategic directions, but all is not well among the international partners and some of these differences were hashed out at the meeting.  While there is strong sentiment among most nations to pursue a logical path of return to the Moon and the development of new spaceflight capabilities, one particularly recalcitrant member nation insists upon going down a different path.

In one particularly memorable session, Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera, in what appeared to be an impromptu aside before his presentation, strongly declared (in rebuttal to statements of previous NASA speakers) that the Moon is on the “critical path” to Mars.  Moreover, in relation to his assertion, he proclaimed, “I am not a liar.” (Remarkable that he felt the need to make this statement, but then, these are remarkable times.)  Robinson then proceeded to describe LRO mission results and persuasively outlined the case for lunar return as the next logical step in space.

Ordinarily, our international partners show a strong tendency to follow America’s lead in space.  When the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced in 2004, their initial response was to question the commitment of the United States to completing the ISS and operating it long enough to return research value for their considerable investment.  After receiving the necessary assurances, they were eager to participate in the VSE, attending at least two major conferences designed to gather and integrate the specific desires and requirements of each partner nation into a general strategy for lunar return.  This effort, which outlined the sequence of activities to be undertaken in space as part of a return to the Moon, resulted in the GER.  First published in 2007, the report has since been revised but lunar surface activities remain key features of the roadmap.

So, how is it that we now find ourselves at odds with our international partners in space? Immediately after the Obama Administration took office, it chartered a committee (led by former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norman Augustine) to examine and review NASA’s human spaceflight program.  Although the Augustine Committee was not chartered to make specific recommendations, it was empowered to evaluate and cost out possible alternatives to the then-existing Project Constellation – NASA’s chosen launch architecture to send people beyond low Earth orbit, first to the Moon and then ultimately, to Mars.  The committee report found that Constellation was technically feasible, but concluded that it was under-funded to the extent that the interim goal of lunar surface return by 2020 could not be met.

One misconception about the Augustine Report is that they recommended that the lunar surface mission of the VSE be eliminated.  They did not; they were concerned that the rate of spending on Constellation was inadequate to meet the 2020 target date (which was not a deadline) and recommended that the agency’s budget would have to be increased by roughly $3 billion per year to put the program “back on track.”  These figures came from budget run-out targets provided to the Committee by the Administration.  In other words, the Committee’s real conclusion was that given those assumed budget numbers, the lunar surface portion of the Constellation architecture did not close.  On that basis, they examined an alternative architecture that would conduct human visits to near-Earth asteroids instead of the lunar surface.  Their reasoning was that an asteroid mission was achievable at lower cost because it did not involve the development of a lander; the extremely low gravity of an asteroid would be more akin to a rendezvous than landing on a planetary surface.  Thus came about the  Flexible Path” and the idea that lunar surface missions were not on the “critical path” in the development of a human mission to Mars (where one would rightly assume a lander will be part of the architecture).  The Administration eagerly embraced this concept and in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010, President Obama proclaimed that lunar return was unnecessary because “we’ve been there.”

The Administration thus eliminated the strategic direction of the space program solely by presidential fiat, using the Augustine Committee “finding” as its unspoken justification.  This decision was made without consultation with the Congress, various civil space “stakeholders” in industry, academia who were actively working on the VSE, and most especially, with the international partners.  At various meetings subsequent to the President’s speech, NASA attempted to explain the benefits of human missions to asteroids, but was hampered in this effort by several handicaps.  No asteroid suitable for a human rendezvous was immediately apparent.  The specific activities to be undertaken at the asteroid were uncertain and their supposed benefits unspecified.  Study revealed that human missions would spend months in the hard radiation environment of interplanetary space, with few or no opportunities for mission abort in case of difficulty – all with the aim of reaching and exploring a target whose utility and benefits were (and are) unknown.

After an embarrassing few years of study, no candidate asteroid target had been identified.  Thus, in a “mountain-coming-to-Mohammed” moment, an idea emerged from an academic workshop.  This one had NASA hauling a small asteroid (or a bolder from a large asteroid) from its solar orbit into lunar orbit and then sending a human crew to rendezvous with it there.  This concept is the so-called “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” (ARM) that NASA now touts as its next, new big thing.  ARM, it is claimed, will better prepare us for human Mars missions than lunar surface missions will.  But despite Charlie Bolden’s strident claims to the contrary, NASA has yet to make that case to Congress, to the space community, or to the public.

The stark contrast between America’s current path in space (a vague mission concept with uncertain benefits – its primary attraction being that it is “not the Moon”) and the strategic path outlined by the GER was strikingly apparent at this recent meeting.  Our international partners remain firm, convincingly insistent that returning to the Moon is a necessary requirement for future human missions to the planets.  A prominent member of the engineering space community has testified to Congress on the relative value of lunar vs. asteroid missions to long-range capability in space, presenting a clear articulation of the value of the Moon, alongside the uncertain and incomplete identification of the value of asteroid missions (particularly the ARM variety).  The scientific stakeholders have neither embraced nor rejected the ARM – they appear to be mostly puzzled by it (an attitude similar to that of the Congress).  The only groups vigorously defending the ARM are the original workshop members who devised it and the administration that embraced it.

Mark Robinson asked me if the rationale and justification for the ARM has ever been formally written down anywhere.  If it has, I am unaware of any documentation.  As near as I can tell, like Athena, it sprung forth from Zeus’ forehead, fully formed and complete (but without the attendant wisdom).  Our international partners (whom we’re told are vital to any human space endeavor) clearly see the value of lunar return and despite NASA’s continued claims to the contrary, these partners know that a lunar return is not “a repetition of what the United States did forty years ago.”   The benefits of lunar return build on that previous round of Apollo lunar exploration, which demonstrated the scientific and operational value of the Moon as a natural laboratory and testing ground in space.  Subsequent exploration, especially by several recent robotic lunar missions sent from a variety of countries, has only increased our appreciation of the Moon’s value as a key component in any long-range strategic path to the planets.  On the Moon, we will locate and extract those resources necessary to provision ourselves, thereby learning how to live and work effectively on another world (presumably this is the same aim and justification of a human Mars mission).

While NASA idles, contemplating the concept of an improvised space project of uncertain value, our international partners continue to plan for a return to the Moon.  Outside this organizational construct, other nations (particularly China) also have plans for the Moon.  My next post will consider these plans in more detail – what we know of them and their possible international ramifications.

Posted in Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 21 Comments

The nomenclature “National Space Transportation System” will no longer be used

The elements of the von Braun space architecture lead to the development of a permanent space faring system.

The elements of the von Braun space architecture lead to the development of a permanent space faring system.

On 22 February 1990, Robert L. Crippen, then NASA Space Shuttle Director, issued a memo stating that due to the new “mixed fleet” strategy of using expendable boosters to supplement the Shuttle, the nomenclature “National Space Transportation System” would no longer be used, and the current nomenclature is simply “Space Shuttle Program.” – Dennis Jenkins, Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System, The First 100 Missions, 2002, Voyageur Press, Stillwater MN, page v.

Toward the end of the Sixties, during the heady days of Apollo, NASA personnel were eagerly looking ahead to the next program.  Many believed that a human mission to Mars should follow Apollo.  However, both cost and a lack of relevant technology made this goal a bridge too far (as it still is today).  Despite the strong emotional pull of Mars, most engineers understood that a more incremental approach was needed.  Fortunately, more than 20 years previously, space guru Wernher von Braun had already outlined this architecture in his book Das Marsprojekt.  It was understandable and conceptually quite simple.

The von Braun plan utilized incremental steps.  Each step would extend our ability to put people and cargo into space.  We would first develop a reusable launch vehicle to get materials into Earth orbit.  We then would build a space station in Earth orbit to carry out a variety of scientific and engineering research and serve as a platform to assemble and service the spacecraft needed to go beyond Earth orbit.  A “moon tug” or orbital transfer vehicle would be built to get payloads into cislunar space (the space between Earth and Moon).  That development would allow us to access the Moon, first to orbit and then to land using a specialized transfer vehicle.  With these vehicles, a lunar outpost would be built – a place near the Earth where we would learn to live and work on another world.  Finally, an interplanetary vehicle would be built that could send people to Mars.

As each step built the necessary foundation for the next one to follow, this architecture was deemed achievable.  The range of access and space capability would increase over time and it allowed an affordable rate of development (no large funding increment was required at the beginning).  Why then, if this step-wise plan made so much sense, did America not pursue it?   We didn’t because geopolitical considerations trumped technical logic – the call wasn’t for an incremental space faring system but for one that would beat the Soviets by getting an American to the Moon first.  In order to do that, von Braun discarded his carefully considered, incremental master plan of permanent space access and replaced it with the Apollo mission plan – an architecture featuring a one-off, mega-booster with a disposable spacecraft.

Following the successful Apollo missions to the Moon, the Space Shuttle was envisioned as the first part in a return to the logical, step-wise von Braun architecture.  After the throwaway design of Apollo-Saturn, it was hoped that a reusable Shuttle would be more affordable.  In a perfect world, all Shuttle pieces would be reusable, with the main booster returned to the launch site after separating from the smaller orbital stage (which would continue to orbit).  Many different designs, developed by various NASA centers and aerospace companies, were considered.  A system to get both people and cargo into low Earth orbit would be the first step toward a permanent human program to journey to the planets.

Fiscal realities quickly intruded on the design process.  After the massive expenditures needed for the Apollo program, politicians were in the market for an affordable space program.  As the Shuttle was (in part) “sold” on that basis, “design to cost” became the ruling principle.  This led to a vehicle design that featured partial reusability (with Shuttle orbiter and solid rocket boosters being recovered and reused); only the large external tank would be discarded.  Despite this design “compromise,” the basic template – the requirements of the first step of von Braun’s architecture of transporting people and cargo to and from LEO – was fulfilled.  In 1972, after some wrangling between Congress and the White House Bureau of Budget, the new program was approved and funded.

The new manned program was named the National Space Transportation System (STS), or Space Shuttle for short.  Up until now, manned flight programs had been given poetic, symbolic names, usually taken from mythology.  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo resonated with beauty and symbolism – humankind thundering into the heavens on a historic quest for knowledge and power.  This principle was first abandoned when the prosaically named Apollo Applications Program (the follow-on for the Apollo lunar missions that focused on Earth orbital missions using Apollo hardware) was renamed “Skylab.”  It was descriptive enough but hardly as inspiring as those derived from the Greco-Roman mythological canon.

Though long and cumbersome, the name “National Space Transportation System” was significant because the utilitarian essence of the von Braun architecture was implicit within it.  We were set on a course to establish a permanent space faring infrastructure.  The new vehicle would be part of a “transportation system,” not a one-off, space-stunt facilitator.  The Space Transportation System would contain all the pieces of von Braun’s plan operated as an end-to-end system.  When fully realized, this architecture (shuttle, station, orbital vehicle and interplanetary spacecraft) would maintain program continuity by routinely conducting a wide-variety of missions in LEO and beyond.

The space station was designed and configured as an extension of Shuttle – to serve not only as an orbital laboratory, but also as a staging area for missions beyond.  Each piece would be developed incrementally, enabling us to gradually and steadily extended human missions and operations in LEO out to cislunar space, then to the lunar surface and when ready, on to the planets.  Thus, the STS designation not only represented the Shuttle as an operational program but also envisioned a future in which we would continuously press and conquer the limits of human presence and influence in space.  Shuttle began flying in April of 1981.  It conducted scientific experiments, carried satellites into space and began answering our questions of how humans would fare in space.  Station was to follow next.

After the Challenger exploded during launch in 1986, the decision was made to develop and use a mixed fleet of space launch vehicles (including the expendables Atlas and Delta, in addition to the Shuttle).  This decision made sense from the perspective of one aspect of the Shuttle program, that of it being an all-purpose, reusable launch system.  What had been called the Space Transportation System was now dubbed simply the Space Shuttle Program.  However, with this seemingly trivial rewriting of the STS program name, the idea of an incremental, cumulative space transportation system (of which Shuttle was only the first piece) was jettisoned.  Perhaps a pale remnant of that original idea remained visible as, despite the memo from Bob Crippen quoted above, the “STS” and number designation remained as the official tag of each Shuttle mission.  In part, this institutional loss of focus is inevitable in a program of thirty years duration, wherein the people running the Shuttle program in its later phases did not fully understand (or simply forgot) the reasoning behind the program’s original architecture.

Space Station was designed for assembly in stages.  Segments were built and constructed with the participation of many countries and one by one, they were launched and transported to LEO on Shuttle flights.  Over the course of about 10 years, astronauts assembled the pieces into what is now called the International Space Station (ISS).  Wernher Von Braun’s moon tug and interplanetary spacecraft were never realized.  It now is 2014.  We can clearly see there is no longer a shuttle (except in museums).  The space transportation system never made it beyond LEO and we have no plans for the development of one.

Contradicting philosophies of spaceflight are sharply illustrated in this history of space programs.  The “Apollo template” envisions missions staged entirely from Earth – launched on massive rockets, carrying everything we need up from the Earth (with various components discarded as they’ve served their purpose), then ending with the return to Earth of a small vehicle carrying its human occupants.  In contrast, the “Shuttle template” consists of specialized vehicles, each serving one purpose and creating a gradual, permanent extension into space.  Each spacecraft is customized for use in its intended zone and reusable to the extent possible.  But these two templates (Apollo and Shuttle) are not mutually exclusive.  Parts of an extensible and reusable system can be launched initially using heavy lift vehicles.  By following this incremental architecture, a von Braunian space transportation system can be built that will enable dramatic and spectacular space accomplishments.  The construction of this system affords vast opportunities and gives us the necessary tools to realize true achievement and a return of value for money spent.

The question before us is:  Which transportation paradigm is most likely to develop a permanent and sustainable human presence in space (and all the technology and science that flows from it)?  We do know how to build an incremental space transportation system.  What we don’t seem able to do is embrace the necessary programmatic structure that facilitates a sustainable and permanent human presence in space.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology | 14 Comments