The Space “Field of Dreams”

Over at Air & Space, some musings on the space program (real and faux) as inspiration.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, Space transportation | 34 Comments

A Commercial Human Flight to the Moon?

A Dragon 2 launches on a Falcon Heavy (SpaceX).

Early this week, SpaceX held a conference call to announce that two private individuals have paid their firm a “significant deposit” to be flown around the Moon next year. Although details are sketchy to nonexistent, it would appear that the mission profile is to circumnavigate the Moon before coming back to Earth in a free-return trajectory. The as-yet-unknown crew would fly in the as-yet-unflown Dragon 2 spacecraft – launched to the Moon by the as-yet-unflown Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. One thing portrayed as certain was the date – “late next year,” meaning presumably November or December of 2018 – by sheer coincidence no doubt, the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 8, the first human mission to circumnavigate the Moon.

Although accustomed to hearing periodic, grand pronouncements by various New Space companies, skepticism continues to grow over their follow-through, as actual accomplishment is sporadic and less certain. What we do know for certain is that SpaceX’s one operational launch vehicle (Falcon 9) has had a few issues, the most troubling being an explosion of the vehicle on the pad last September. Although the Falcon 9 successfully sent a Dragon cargo shipment to the ISS this past week, questions about the basic design of the vehicle (e.g., the immersion of a carbon composite-wrapped helium tank in the vehicle’s LOX tank) and preparation procedures (e.g., filling the LOX tank with “slush” oxygen during late stages of the countdown with crew aboard) remain unanswered.

Though promoted continuously over the last five years, we’ve yet to see even a structural test article of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Still, many speak of this rocket as if it has already been in service for a decade or more. Falcon Heavy – a rocket design requiring the simultaneous and balanced operation of 27 engines during its boost phase, surely constitutes a challenging operational objective. The N-1 Soviet rocket had 30 engines in its first stage; it launched four times and exploded each time. Such a record does not automatically portend a similar outcome for the Falcon Heavy, but it does constitute food for thought. Additionally, SpaceX’s booster landing and recovery system is built into each segment of the FH first stage, complicating operations and reducing its total payload capacity.

A LEO-configured Dragon 2 would tip the scales at about 7-8 metric tones; one destined for the Moon will be at least this massive, possibly a bit more given the need for maneuvering fuel to assure putting the spacecraft on the correct return trajectory, and necessary extra consumables for the week-long journey. The Saturn V was able to put 48 metric tons in translunar injection (TLI), about 2/5 of its 120 metric ton LEO capacity. The Falcon Heavy, using lower specific impulse kerosene-LOX, should be able to send about 7-10 metric tones TLI, probably adequate for a “heavy” Dragon 2 manned circumlunar flyby.

Still, a few misleading claims have been made for the Falcon Heavy. The SpaceX web site claims that Falcon Heavy is the largest launch vehicle since Saturn V, but the Soviet Energia of the 1980s could place 100 metric tones into LEO, almost twice the capacity of Falcon Heavy. The press release announcing the lunar flyby makes the point that “At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V,” but this is an irrelevant metric. The measure of launch vehicle performance is the amount of mass that can be delivered to orbit. For Falcon Heavy, this figure is 54 tones, a bit less than one-half the quantity of the Saturn V (120 tones).

PR exaggeration and lingering questions about the reality of Falcon Heavy aside, there are several other serious issues about the feasibility of this mission. The Dragon 2 has never flown in space, let alone transported people there. The milestone of the first human flight on Dragon 2 has been pushed back multiple times; it is currently scheduled for sometime in 2018, close to the circumlunar tourist mission. Of course, paying passengers are assumed to have given informed consent, but would the FAA approve such a flight, given the short time and small experience base between initial LEO flights and a lunar one? A flight to the Moon occurs outside of the Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts, so solar activity must be carefully monitored to avoid flight during periods of active Sun – a large coronal mass ejection during translunar flight would mean instant death for the crew.

SpaceX has no experience in tracking, flying and operating vehicles at lunar distances. Global tracking facilities probably can be leased to monitor and control the flight, but it is unclear that the SpaceX flight teams have the knowledge and experience to conduct such a flight. A Dragon 2 on its way to the Moon has no hope of rescue, so its life support and flight control systems must function perfectly.

Perhaps the greatest challenge comes at the end of the mission. A spacecraft returning from the Moon approaches the Earth at near escape velocity, about 11 km/second, half again as fast as a LEO entry. Fifty years ago, the returning Soviet Zond spacecraft used a “skip” technique, whereby the vehicle enters Earth’s atmosphere to dissipate some energy (slow down), flies back out into space to lose excess heat (cool off), and then re-enters the atmosphere again before landing. In September 1968, the Zond 5 spacecraft lost its navigation and guidance system just before Earth return. The spacecraft landed safely, but experienced 15-20 times the force of gravity during the ballistic re-entry. The onboard crew of two turtles survived this torture, but it is not clear that a human would have.

Given all these questions and unknowns, how real is this circumlunar flight? I suggest that as with many other New Space public relations extravaganzas, this “mission” should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Like its big brother NASA and their imaginary “Journey to Mars,” New Space effectively uses the media to shape perceptions. In today’s society, press releases are covered as real accomplishments. You don’t actually have to do anything in space – you simply have to announce that you are going to do it. Increasingly, space has become the realm of the pseudo-event – a space theater reminiscent of P.T. Barnum.

Meanwhile, China continues its systematic and continuous progress toward the Moon and dominance of cislunar space.

Posted in China space program, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 31 Comments

Cislunar Space — Looking into the Future

I recently attended a one-day workshop held at United Launch Alliance on the topic of cislunar space development.  I’ve written up some impressions of the meeting at Air & Space.  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 19 Comments

The Endless Moon vs. Mars debate

After reading an apparently endless number of “Mars is the next step” op-eds in two weeks, I had to vent.  New post at Air & Space is up on why the Moon should be the next destination for the American civil space program.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, Space transportation | 19 Comments

Momentum for the Moon

The LRO spacecraft over the south pole of the Moon. We know a lot more about the Moon and its resources than we did 13 years ago when the VSE was announced.

Engineer and stalwart lunar advocate Dennis Wingo has written a new piece on his blog titled “Getting ‘Going Back to the Moon’ Right this Time.”   Dennis and I, and many others, have traveled and struggled down this road together – and apart, for years, never putting down the mantel of working to secure a sustainable space economy and future.  Dennis recounts some history of previous lunar efforts in his post, a journey I also have taken .  We have slightly differing perspectives on this history, but we are in complete agreement that the idea of using the Moon to develop cislunar space is the path that needs to be followed.

I greatly respect Dennis’ efforts and I thank him for the trust he gives me in his post.  It reminded me of a piece we wrote together, along with Gordon Woodcock, in 2009 that was published at SpaceRef titled Going Beyond the Status Quo in Space, in which we tried to extend the amazingly far-sighted vision of former Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger, whose 2006 speech was sadly neglected by NASA in implementing the Vision for Space Exploration.

I began this blog to give my own insights on this history – my attempt to prevent us from repeating those things that hurt the program, as well as to advocate for those things that many of us believe will move us forward.  Toward that end, Tony Lavoie and I designed a lunar return architecture in 2011 (which we updated last year), focused specifically on the development and use of the resources of the Moon.

Is there new momentum for lunar return?  And if so, will we succeed?  That remains to be seen.  But we know much more about the Moon and its resources than we did prior to those two previous initiatives – information that makes lunar return much more attractive than ever. In fact, I recently wrote a book on this very topic.

An important note: Please check out a recent blog post on “Why the Moon Matters” by Congressman Jim Bridenstine, another candle lit in the space policy darkness.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 25 Comments

Thoughts on National Geographic’s Mars mini-series

Mars life awaits! (National Geographic/Robert Viglasky)

Well, this thing has set back the cause of space advocacy another 50 years.

We have now been subjected to six, 45-minute episodes of this dreary exercise in clueless propaganda. I expressed my initial reactions to the first episode previously and indicated my concern about the format, emphasis, dramatic pacing and factual content of the series. After watching all six episodes of Mars, my initial concerns about the quality and value of the entire series have been validated to a large degree.

Episode 6, Crossroads, covers the final existential crisis of the new Mars colony, in which all the previous accidents and difficulties borne by the colonists in the New World have rendered the entire project subject to termination (from which I take it that they are still dependent on Earth support and supply). Dolefully noting that “this isn’t the first time that we’ve had this problem,” the episode then proceeds to regurgitate a pastiche of spaceflight history recounted by advocates who describe how the Apollo project was the beginning of a human exodus into the cosmos, with a human mission to Mars as the first step, and how America betrayed their space dreams by not pursuing same.

All very enlightening – except that it was almost completely wrong from top to bottom, or at best subject to alternative – and a more logical – explanation. As I (and others) have written before, Apollo was not about conquering space, but was rather a Cold War battle for technical superiority, waged in space. The challenge issued by President Kennedy to the Soviet Union in 1961 was one of bloodless competition – which system was superior in terms of technological capability and managerial competence? At the time, the Soviets were ahead in space achievements, possessing heavy lift rockets and had already sent a man into orbit. In contrast, America had only flown Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital hop. But because a race to the Moon required new technical developments that the Soviets did not yet have, it was thought to be a competition that America had a chance to win.

Apollo was successful because we marshaled the resources required to bludgeon all of the technical difficulties and programmatic obstacles into submission. And we were able to do this because at that time, we still possessed the technological-industrial infrastructure inherited from World War II and needed for the ongoing Cold War. With the primary objective of the Apollo program accomplished by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, the imperative to send people beyond LEO receded in urgency. However, the idea that manned spaceflight was somehow important to national interests remained, but at levels of expenditure much lower than it had been for the previous decadal program. It was for this reason that the development of the Space Shuttle was undertaken as the follow-on for Apollo, as it was thought that a more inexpensive, reusable means of getting people and cargo into space was important for enhanced future levels of space activity.

The oft-repeated trope that “Nixon cancelled Apollo – and our chance for Mars” was presented as received wisdom by the talking heads of the Mars mini-series. But there are several problems with this interpretation. The Saturn V production line was shut down by Presidential order in 1968; the President at that time was Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Agnew report of 1969, that famously advocated a human Mars mission to follow Apollo, was never going to be embraced by the Bureau of the Budget (Office of Management and Budget after 1970). The budgeteers at the time looked forward to the end of human spaceflight, believing that it served no scientific or technical purpose and that these critical resources were needed in other areas of the budget. That this course was not taken can be attributed to the head of OMB, Caspar Weinberger, who thought that human spaceflight uplifted and inspired the nation. Weinberger wrote up these thoughts in a memo to Nixon, who penciled his agreement with them in the margins. Thus was settled the question of human spaceflight in America’s future.

But continued flights to the Moon were not in the cards. Two close calls, one on the Apollo 12 mission (where the vehicle was struck by lightning during launch) and then again during the Apollo 13 mission (in which an oxygen tank exploded on the way to the Moon), made the managers of the Apollo program (especially Bob Gilruth, the Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston) eager to conclude the series of lunar missions. In contrast to the statements made on the last Mars episode, Nixon did not terminate the Apollo program because he got “spooked” by the Apollo 13 accident. The last Apollo 20 mission was cancelled because its Saturn V was needed to launch the Skylab orbital space station fully outfitted and “dry” while the subsequent cancellation of Apollo 18 and 19 reflected the sense that the program had fully accomplished its goals of beating the Soviets to the Moon. Apollo hardware was considered too expensive to produce and was over-designed for routine flights to low Earth orbit. Hence, the Space Shuttle. And the Shuttle was originally supposed to be only the first element in an eventual “Space Transportation System” that included the Shuttle, a low Earth orbit space station, a Moon tug and an interplanetary spaceship.

But what’s a little mangling of history compared to the technical shortcomings of the series? A key plot development involves the death of a scientist who opens a lab door into the near-vacuum of the Mars surface, causing an explosion and the collateral deaths of several crew members. What kind of engineer designs a door in a habitat module that opens into space without an airlock? What possible purpose could this feature have? This is not to mention the greenhouse scenes, growing plants in martian soil, material that is loaded with perchlorates and peroxides (this issue was also ignored in last year’s film, The Martian). When the life-threatening problem of losing power develops during a global dust storm lasting for months, two crew members volunteer to brave the blinding storm and in an attempt to restore power to the complex. The base nuclear reactor had not yet been activated so they fix the connectors at a junction box to the solar arrays. How do solar arrays function during this seemingly endless global dust storm? The answer: not very well. Yet with this “fix,” full power is restored and all becomes normal back in the habitat.

But the most ludicrous plot element comes at the very end of the series. After enduring mechanical difficulties, problems locating the habitat, a global dust storm and a few deaths, the sponsors back on Earth are ready to pull the plug on this experiment in off-world living. But wait! Let’s go out for one last look and collect a sample from a distant outcrop, upwind from the previous collection area. They do – et voilà! Thread-like structures activate and move with the introduction of water onto a slide under a microscope. Life on Mars has been found! The press eagerly crowds around Joon Seung, twin sister of the Mars base commander Hana. Mankind’s settlement on the New World has been saved! Next stop, the stars!

Seriously, how pathetic is this? A human outpost that clearly is costing more than it is worth is saved at the last minute – by science. Anyone who has had more than 5 minutes experience dealing with research and development by any government or commercial entity must surely find this plot device laugh-out-loud hilarious. Yet it is a solemn rite for the Humans to Mars devotees, who believe that finding life guarantees the funding of an endless series of future missions to the Red Planet.

Bob Zubrin appears on screen to intone to the Senate Space Subcommittee that “Mars is where the science is, Mars is where the challenge is, and Mars is where the future is.” That is surely news to the 99.9% of the scientific community who conduct research totally unrelated to anything dealing with Mars. Yet this belief is deeply ingrained in the Mars advocacy community and within NASA as well. The concept that you might use space for practical benefits to create infrastructure and wealth seems alien to them.

Too bad Mystery Science Theater 3000 isn’t on any more – this series would make great fodder.

Posted in planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 16 Comments

Restoring America’s Space Program: An Ambitious But Achievable Path

The XEUS, United Launch Alliance’s concept for a lunar lander based on their ACES cryogenic stage. Such a vehicle could be ready for flight within a few years. From Barr (2015).

Last month’s national election results have confounded this year’s annual crop of retrospective pieces on space. Instead of a guarantee of business as usual, America has elected a President that defies normal political calculation. Hanging in the balance are questions over what President Donald Trump will do about the U.S. space program. His statements over the course of the 2016 campaign have been ambiguous, first advancing the idea that filling in America’s potholes was more important than space, then proclaiming that our civil space program was one of the things that “make America great.” So what might this ambiguity of attitude portend for the coming years?

Decisions made over the last eight years have left us with a hollowed out space program and an agency in complete disarray. So regardless of which strategic direction the new Trump administration decides to pursue, they must first repair the agency tasked with executing our national space policy. Appallingly, a programmatic decision made in conjunction with the earlier Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) architecture (the retirement of the Space Shuttle) was not halted in light of President Obama’s cancellation of that direction, and instead, was permitted (with great fanfare) to proceed apace as these workhorses were shuttled off to museums. That decision terminated America’s ability to deliver astronauts to space, while at the same time, Mars was proclaimed as the agency’s end goal. Lunar return was declared a dead-end repeat of past glories, unworthy of our efforts and replaced with a call for the development of technology for a “Journey to Mars” sometime in the distant future.

Vague promises of an “asteroid mission” and the far-off Mars journey couldn’t fill the void left by the termination of the VSE. A call to permit the more nimble “private sector” to develop and provide human transportation to and from the International Space Station was touted as a new way of conducting spaceflight, but nothing from that quarter is yet available to deliver American crews to space. No American human spaceflight capability – government or private – exists and we continue to purchase Soyuz seats from the Russians as our only access to the ISS, a facility that America largely built and paid for.

The relevance of this history is that the current version of NASA has seen the hemorrhage of competent, experienced spaceflight personnel, along with many businesses that have simply faded away. Hanging around waiting for someone to decide where and how to proceed does not feed families or attract talent. So many of the people who had prepared and operated the Shuttle system were lost to retirement, workforce reduction, and to their own crippling frustration and eventual resignation over an apparently nonexistent future in space.

Meanwhile, NASA management resorts to producing meaningless PR hype (“#Journey to Mars”), hoping to convince the public that the agency is viable and on-track for a human Mars mission “sometime in the 2030s.” In fact, the #Journey to Mars is a complete fraud. There is no architecture that enables a 2030’s mission, no strategy to develop one, and no money to implement such a plan, even if one existed.

The net effect of this institutional drift and strategic confusion is an agency bereft of technical knowledge and capability, an entity claiming to be going somewhere, but without any knowledge of how or when it will do so. Despite a reasonably constant budget of about $20 billion per year (not chicken-feed by any stretch of the imagination), the current program is a hodge-podge of disconnected, disparate efforts that have led to no new or innovative capabilities. Is there a way to recover from this state of disarray? There is, but it will take both strong leadership and purposeful conviction to do so.

Honesty about our situation is the first step. We need to recognize that recovery will not come overnight and that a careful, but constant, movement towards a clear direction of reform and retrenchment must begin. There is no “Journey to Mars,” except in the minds and fantasies of some space buffs. We do not have the technological base, the skilled personnel, or the money to conduct a human mission to Mars by the end of the 2030s. There is no government space hardware or infrastructure to conduct an Apollo-type “flags-and-footprints” mission to Mars on decadal timescales. And there are no reusable “Mars Colonial Transports” waiting to whisk hundreds off to the new world to begin construction of Muskopolis. Dreams and inspiration are important, but human endeavor is ultimately answerable to nature. Facts and a workable architecture must exist in the mix if America wants a stake in a future space economy.

The only way we will ever get to Mars is by incrementally developing an expanding, space-based transportation infrastructure, one that gradually extends human reach – first beyond LEO, and then beyond cislunar space – into the Solar System. The key missing skill set necessary to build such a system is the knowledge and ability to find and use what exists in space to create new spaceflight capabilities.

It is for this reason that I advocate a return to the Moon – not to “plant the seventh American flag” or to one-up the Chinese – but to go and learn how to use and exploit what the Moon has to offer. I often hear the argument that it will “cost more to go to the Moon and make rocket propellant for a Mars mission than it would to launch the water directly from Earth.” This belief nicely misses the whole point of going to the Moon. We do not go there simply to “make propellant” but to learn how to make propellant – and all of the other commodities necessary to sail on the ocean of space. Using off-planet resources is a skill set that must be mastered in order to become a true space faring species.

To return to a vibrant, forward-moving civil space program, we need to plan and execute a series of small robotic missions to the lunar poles to characterize their environments and prospect for water ice. When the Vision for Space Exploration was announced in 2004, we did not know to what extent water was present on the Moon. Now we know that promising deposits exist close to areas of near-permanent sunlight near both poles. Because the availability of power is of overriding importance in any off-planet environment, we can confine our detailed explorations to within a few tens of kilometers of these sunlit areas. This localization simplifies prospecting requirements. Initial work can be done with inexpensive, small, expendable spacecraft, such as hard landers and small, fixed soft-landers, eventually followed up by long-lived surface rovers (depending on the findings of the earlier missions). These surveys will reveal in short order the optimum locations for future surface operations.

After the best locations have been identified, a series of increasingly sophisticated robotic craft can land near the site to demonstrate that the ice can be recovered and processed. After that is done, building infrastructure for a lunar outpost can begin. The basic needs are water-bearing feedstock (ore), a nearby zone of near-constant sunlight for power generation, solar arrays to generate that power, and a small array of equipment to harvest, extract and store the water. These tasks do not require a huge industrial facility on the Moon – the initial robotic equipment needed to undertake this work has a total mass of about 20 tones. Emplacement of all the equipment necessary for initial operations on the lunar surface would require only 2-3 launches of the forthcoming SLS heavy lift launch vehicle.

The Orion spacecraft and its SLS launch vehicle are currently in final stages of development, with initial test flights planned for 2018. We can use these existing systems to return to the Moon; indeed, as the remnants of the cancelled Constellation program, they are already optimized for cislunar missions. The only missing piece is a lander to put people on to the lunar surface. NASA’s Altair lander program was cancelled in 2011, but fortunately, a lander may be ready very soon. The United Launch Alliance has outlined a plan for a human-rated lander based around the venerable Centaur stage, using modified RL-10 engines. This vehicle is almost perfectly configured to return people to the Moon, as it is intended to be reusable and utilizes the LOX-hydrogen propellant that we will produce on the lunar surface.

By re-focusing the agency toward the achievable and enabling, instead of the improbable, unrealistic and unattainable, we will be on the Moon developing a permanent, space-based transportation system that opens many possible destinations in space – and all doable within the agency’s existing (or slightly enhanced) budget.

We must return to a program template that knows how to distinguish reality from fantasy. And we must follow a path designed for space permanence, one that assures our nation’s leadership in space. This recovery will happen by a return to the Moon to learn how to use its resources. There we will add to our skill set and demonstrate what is possible – and create an atmosphere in which entrepreneurs can use that knowledge to build new space industries. Our space program requires clear direction, decisive leadership and competent technical implementation. We need for those who understand this – those willing to pursue these vital tasks – to speak up, engage and make our space program great again.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 39 Comments

Favorable Signs for a Lunar Return

New post up at Air & Space discusses events at the recent annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), including a report on Congressman Jim Bridenstine’s great speech to the attendees (which I urge you to read in its entirety).  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 30 Comments

The National Geographic Society’s “Mars” – Nova Fabula

Which version of the EDL of the human Mars spacecraft (Musk ITS at top; NGS Mars at bottom) is fact and which is fiction? Sorry, trick question – they are both fictional.

Which version of the EDL of the human Mars spacecraft (Musk ITS at top; NGS Mars at bottom) is fact and which is fiction? Sorry, trick question – they are both fictional.

For me, a child of the Sixties, the National Geographic Society (NGS, or “Society”) provided an amazing window into the wonderful world of discovery. Founded in 1888, the Society has produced an enormous catalogue of books, TV programs and movies. Nine months after its inception, the now iconic National Geographic monthly hit the stands. For well over one hundred years, in issue after issue, the publication with the familiar yellow square graphic has taken eager readers to far away places, exotic locales and alien worlds – making the unknown interesting and accessible through the Society’s magnificent photography and artwork. Occasionally, a fold out map detailing the feature story is tucked between its pages. The Society’s map of the Moon is one of the best available. While I knew National Geographic through years of enjoying its publications and programs, I remained unaware of the Society’s history of controversies. My knowledge about science and history (and its telling) is much broader today.

During its 128-year history, the Society has sponsored expeditions to remote corners of the globe, including Richard Peary’s 1909 attempt at the North Pole. When Dr. Frederick Cook announced in 1909 that he had attained the pole the previous year, the Society began a campaign of disparagement of Cook’s claim in favor of its own sponsored Peary expedition. Cook’s credibility had been previously questioned by the revelation of a member of his climbing team that his ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1906 had been fabricated. Thus, the NGS felt unassailable in their support of Peary’s claim that denied the priority of Cook’s claim. The campaign to give Peary credit for being first to reach the North Pole succeeded with an act of Congress that declared his claim valid (the vote was not unanimous). A re-examination of the published and unpublished evidence by arctic expert Wally Herbert in 1989 concluded that most likely, neither Peary nor Cook reached the pole. The NGS still supports Peary’s claim of priority.

The Society repeated this pattern of high profile, unquestioning support for their sponsored expeditions with Richard Byrd’s 1926 claim to have been the first person to fly over the North Pole. His claim was questioned, most notably by Bernt Balchen, the Norwegian polar aviator who later piloted Byrd’s aircraft on its first flight over the South Pole. Balchen was present at Byrd’s departure for the North Pole and had timed the length of the flight. On the basis of the known performance of the Fokker Tri-motor aircraft, Balchen concluded that Byrd must have turned around well short of the pole. Once again, the NGS stepped forward with a massive propaganda campaign to support Byrd’s claim.

This sort of no-holds-barred advocacy by the National Geographic Society’s isn’t some relic of bygone days either. For many years now, the NGS has promoted the idea of catastrophic climate change, most recently illustrated by the publication in their latest atlas of a blatantly incorrect map of the North Polar ice cap, a map where the Arctic basin appears to be mostly ice-free (the NGS understands well the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words). In fact, satellite data show there has been little change in the extent of the polar cap since the publication of the Society’s 1971 map. Global, catastrophic, human-caused climate change is a politically correct, fashionable topic that has permeated all thinking and policy. The NGS has thrown its lot in with the sky-is-falling-and-we’re-all-doomed crowd. Everything has become politicized and science is no exception.

Which brings us to National Geographic’s current massive propaganda campaign, the Mars project. This combination documentary/drama is somewhat reminiscent of Walt Disney’s 1955 Tomorrowland television series about the conquest of space, which also introduced space visionary Wernher von Braun to the American public. Like its predecessor, Mars seeks to educate and enthuse the public in the belief that human missions to the Red Planet lie just around the corner. Toward that end, Mars is a pull-out-all-the-stops, Hollywood mega-production, featuring the talents of the renowned Director/Producer of the movie Apollo 13, Ron Howard.

This new series is officially set to premiere on November 17, 2016. However, Episode 1, Novo Mundo (The New World) is available for streaming on the web and the Society has created a massive, multi-page web site to promote the show. In addition to their dramatized version of a fictional first human mission to Mars, the series includes sound bites and interviews with numerous space experts proclaiming the imminence of the era of Mars flight. Needless to say, a variety of Mars advocates are heavily immersed and invested in the promotion of this show, including most notably NASA (whose own “Journey to Mars” remains as much in the realm of fiction as the NGS television series) and SpaceX’s CEO and “Chief Designer” Elon Musk, the architect of an “Interplanetary Transport System” that he envisions will enable mass human migration to Mars.

SpaceX and its various activities are showcased prominently in Mars with story-moving references and clips. So, not too unexpectedly, the spacecraft chosen for the Mars series bears a remarkable resemblance to the futuristic animated video of a SpaceX Interplanetary Crew Transport System that Elon Musk released during his recent, highly promoted International Astronautical Congress (IAC) speech. After a decelerating aerothermal entry into the martian atmosphere, the vehicle pitches around for a propulsive braking burn onto an upright, vertically precarious landing. From the discussion in the “documentary” portion of the first episode, including clips of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage landings, the casual viewer is left with the false impression that this “Entry-Descent-Landing” problem has been solved. This is far from the case. To date, landing on Mars has proven to be extremely problematic and more often than not, attempts have been unsuccessful.

Not shown in series’ intermingling of fact and fiction are the many outstanding problems and questions about a human mission to Mars. Interestingly, the opening episode doesn’t include the launch of mission pieces, the ship’s assembly and fueling in space, the departure of the Mars mission, nor are we given a window into their subsequent months of boredom and peril during the 6-9 month journey to Mars. That the crew risks exposure to several lifetime limits worth of radiation is alluded to, but nothing is revealed about how this hazard is to be addressed and mitigated. In the accompanying interviews and short films, the series’ producers note that the focus of the film is deliberately put on activities to be undertaken on Mars – on establishing a human foothold on the “Novo Mundo.” In the opening episode, the possible ill effects of radiation and solar UV exposure, toxic soil chemistry, and the numbing cold in the near-vacuum of the martian surface are lightly skipped over or set aside.

One of the more contrived aspects of the first episode is its depiction of the programmatic structure of the mission – the postulated creation of an “International Mars Science Foundation,” a politically correct, multi-cultural organization directed by a council of administrators and bureaucrats, convening at a round table (no doubt to indicate the universal equality of their status). A placard placed in front of each seated bureaucrat suggests that they represent the world’s space agencies (I saw JAXA on one of them). Presumably, either the world has banded together to finance this venture or Elon’s reusable spaceships have made Mars voyaging a trivial expenditure. Considering that none of the SpaceX Mars architecture pieces have gotten within 2000 miles of any launch site, this series is more Nova Fabula (new fable) than Novo Mundo.

In fact, this whole exercise is more akin to a worship service for the Mars faithful than it is a serious science and engineering documentary bent on sketching out a future for space travel. No identifiable rationale or motivation is given for this journey – more “on a hope and a prayer” than actual engineering and science. The short “Why Mars?” featurette on the NGS web site repeats the usual smorgasbord of platitudes – “because it’s there,” “human destiny,” “search for life” – but none of these reasons are unique to a human Mars mission. Why Mars and why “next” are two questions that go unanswered. It is simply assumed that viewers will agree with the premise of the producers (and the series’ contributing experts) that Mars is the “obvious” next destination in space, making those who believe differently unfashionably out of touch and probably “anti-science.”

This promoted fable – that Mars represents “humanity’s destiny” – takes a still very far-away vision, and through the use of spectacular imagery and propaganda, attempts to sell it to a public accustomed to instant gratification and thus programmed to “believe.” This suits many in positions of power. Hyping the romance of a human Mars mission keeps the public (not to mention a highly compliant and ignorant media) from asking tough questions of their leaders and their space agency: “How are you going to get to Mars?” “What will you do when you get there?” “Why this, to the exclusion of all else?” “Is there a more efficient way?” “What is the payback for those who will foot the bill?” Perhaps these questions will be addressed in future episodes, but somehow I doubt it.

Regardless of how the facts evolve and emerge over the next 20 years, since the National Geographic Society has chosen to sell the idea of a Novo Mundo, its sizable institutional resources will aggressively launch and sustain a multimedia campaign to promote this Novae Fabula. The fictional Mars mission portrayed here is said to occur in 2033 – that’s only 16 years away. Here’s my prediction for what will actually occur in 2033: the powers-that-be then will predict that a human mission to Mars will take place “within the next two decades.”

Posted in planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 19 Comments

Lost in Space or Thrown Away? – Revisiting the 2009 Augustine Committee Report

The 2009 Augustine Committee -- did Chiao let the cat out of the bag?

The 2009 Augustine Committee — did Chiao let the cat out of the bag?

Lost in Space 2016,” a public forum held recently in Houston at the Baker Institute of Rice University, was enlightening, although perhaps not in the sense the organizers intended. Seven space policy experts were invited to come and share their opinion of the state of America’s civil space program. During the panel discussion, one of the participants casually shared an insight that I believe has not been revealed previously.

Space writer Eric Berger, who attended the event, reported that former astronaut and member of the 2009 Augustine committee Leroy Chiao said the following:

“The Constellation program, frankly, had a lot of funding problems and some pretty serious technical problems. You know it probably was the right thing to do to cancel it. But it didn’t mean we should not go to the Moon. …. It came down to us on the committee to not talk too much about the Moon, because there was no way this administration was going to go there, because it was W’s program. OK, that’s a pretty stupid reason not to go to the Moon. I’m hopeful with this election cycle that maybe the Moon will be a possibility again.”

Leroy Chiao’s description of the Augustine committee deliberations is quite striking, so let us examine its various components.

The Constellation Program was how NASA chose to implement President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Indeed, Constellation had both funding and technical problems, but nothing that couldn’t have been resolved. There was the question about the announced schedule for lunar return, which the agency had claimed would include human missions to the Moon by 2020. In particular, I remember that the Augustine committee was concerned that the first missions to the lunar surface had slipped to the unimaginably distant date of 2025. The committee even suggested that an additional $3 billion per year would “fix” what was being described as an appalling schedule problem. Seven years on, such criticism of the program schedule is ironic, to say the least.

Most of the “serious technical problems” of Constellation were actually funding problems. The Ares I crew launch vehicle was experiencing a minor issue with thrust oscillation (and there were design objections to the whole idea of Ares I) but that, and other issues could well have been mitigated. Work had barely started on Orion and Altair – the command and lunar modules of the Constellation system, so their problems were almost entirely fiscal rather than technical. Options were presented to the Augustine committee (e.g., the presentation by NASA Johnson Space Center’s John Shannon and the Human Exploration Framework Team) that would have fixed the alleged problems of Constellation, and without an increase in yearly spending. These proposals were not simply refused – they were just flat ignored in the final report.

The attitude of the Augustine committee to the HEFT proposal to fix Constellation puzzled many of us who were involved in planning the original VSE. Given that the chosen path back to the Moon could have been modified to avoid or correct the real and perceived problems of Constellation, why cancel the whole effort instead of adopting the fixes? Now we know why – because “it came down” to the committee during deliberations not to discuss the benefits of going to the Moon. Chiao’s use of the phrase “came down” to describe the discussion environment, clearly indicates that the committee was instructed by those who commissioned it (the Obama administration) to not conclude that going to the Moon was valuable, nor was it to consider or advocate the offered technical fixes to the VSE lunar return architecture.

Supporters of the current direction would probably argue that even if all of these statements are true, the bulk of the Augustine report is solid and that both its technical analysis and recommendations are impeccable. In fact, Chiao’s comments prove the exact opposite. His statement that during the committee’s deliberations, “it came down” to not “talk too much” about the Moon, discloses that the committee’s conclusions were pre-ordained. Left unsaid are such pertinent facts as the Who and the How represented in this directive, but clearly, as members of the committee felt compelled to obey it (even possibly against their better judgment), such direction must have had considerable administrative weight.

If the Moon was a priori taken off the table, then the report is not the objective technical analysis claimed by its sponsors, but rather a blatantly political document designed to justify in retrospect a decision undertaken entirely for political reasons. This decision continues to cause great turmoil – the loss of a national capability and the predictable costs to the civil space program that comes from a crippling disruption. Significantly, the retirement of the Space Shuttle program (a key milestone of the VSE) proceeded apace, leaving the nation with no national means to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Chiao shared with “Lost in Space 2016” that cancelling lunar return because it was “W’s program” (i.e., an idea conceived and advocated by the previous administration) is a “pretty stupid reason not to go to the Moon.” People have all kinds of reasons to not want to go to the Moon, but politics is now and always has been part of the equation in considerations of national space policy. Some segments of both political parties have always had a problem with the human spaceflight program, believing that it is federal money poorly spent. They would rather spread that money around to their political supporters through various alternative programs. So I am not surprised by this rationale.

However, it’s not clear to me that either of the current candidates for President are inclined to re-instate lunar return as a goal for America’s civil space program, nor is it clear that they favor the current Program of Record. Human spaceflight simply is not a political issue in this Presidential election, just as it has never been an issue in Presidential elections. (Arguably, the debate about the alleged “missile gap” in the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960 was about space, but that occurred before human spaceflight existed and was in reality a debate about our national defense posture. Moreover, as a campaign issue, it was completely bogus – the Eisenhower administration knew that there wasn’t a “missile gap” but decided to say nothing so as not to give away our national intelligence gathering capabilities.)

Chiao’s disclosure does raise a significant issue about the “expert” advice sought and given on national scientific and technical issues. There is a tendency (or is it a hope?) in the media and the public to believe that the pronouncement of technical experts on questions of import should be accepted at face value because, after all, “these people know of what they speak.” Chiao’s revelation puts the lie to such wholesome ideals. Commissions and studies, and panels of experts can only answer the questions they are asked, and sometimes these questions are framed in a way to project what answers are expected in response. Of course, even when these committees deal with alternatives in a straightforward manner, their conclusions can always be torqued in desired directions. One might reflect on these facts in regard to other “scientific” advice the federal government solicits and receives on a variety of scientific and technical topics of public interest, such as energy policy and climate change.

Although I can’t describe this revelation as gratifying because of the damage it’s caused, it is good to see a member of the Augustine committee confirm what many of us in the space community had long suspected, but could not prove – that the decision to terminate NASA’s human lunar return was not driven by technical or programmatic considerations, but rather by base and petulant political calculation and desire. It is unfortunate that it took so long for a member of the Augustine committee to publicly share this information. This knowledge would have been valuable to those members of Congress who were trying to save the VSE in the critical budget years of 2010 and 2011. If these facts had come to light then, we might have had a more positive resolution of the conflict. Now, as some of us predicted at the time, our human spaceflight program has been decimated and we are left with NASA’s Potemkin Village-like “#JourneytoMars” and the science-fiction fantasies of Elon Musk.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 47 Comments