To the Moon – Again

A future industrial operation on the Moon.  Possible or not? (Artwork by Pat Rawlings)

A future industrial operation on the Moon. Possible or not? (Artwork by Pat Rawlings)

A NASA-sponsored study has been released which outlines a plan to return to the Moon with people and set-up an outpost at one of the poles to mine water for propellant. This report has drawn both attention and puzzlement within the space community, as the agency continues to make clear that they have no interest in human lunar missions. This disconnect is covered because NASA will not do these activities – instead, the agency will pay commercial companies to develop and implement the plan. The propellant produced at the outpost from lunar polar water will then be sold to NASA for use in future human missions to Mars.

I find both positive and negative aspects in this report. I am gratified that another study recognizes the great leveraging power for spaceflight offered by the development of lunar resources. Most NASA lunar mission studies have invariably incorporated resource utilization only in the form of small-scale demonstrations or flight experiments. In contrast, this effort makes the production of water from the Moon’s polar deposits the principal mission objective – a definite step forward. The architecture also makes significant use of robotic machines on the Moon for most of the mining and processing activities, another positive development. Because of the Moon’s proximity, controlling robots on the lunar surface in near real time permits the early establishment of processing facilities using operators on Earth, rather than on the Moon. In these ways, I find a lot of similarity with this plan and the architecture designed in 2011 by Tony Lavoie and myself.

On the other hand, there are some strange aspects to the report that warrant attention. Early stages of the program call for human crews to be sent on equatorial surface sortie missions prior to the establishment of the polar outpost. Presumably, these missions will test and prove the equipment and vehicles needed for routine lunar surface access later. But sortie missions to equatorial or mid-latitude sites offer no real benefit to the ultimate aim of the architecture: the establishment of propellant production facilities at the pole. There is no good reason for not sending the first human missions directly to the locations where our future activities will happen. There is also no rush to do so – much can be accomplished in advance of human arrival with robotic machines under the control of operators on Earth.

The architecture calls for a series of robotic missions to reconnoiter, prospect and survey potential mining sites prior to human arrival. This approach is an absolute necessity, as much is still unknown about the nature and composition of the polar ice deposits. Apparently, there has been little to no scientific input to this report regarding the consideration of actual prospecting and mining activities, a significant shortcoming. Although the study acknowledges that the unknowns of polar ice mining constitute a “major risk” to the program, that risk can be at least partly mitigated now through the incorporation of results from current research. Known facts are misstated (e.g., water concentrations) and unattributed, a general shortcoming of this effort. It is critical to demonstrate ISRU (in situ resource utilization) with robotic precursors prior to outpost commitment, but the report does not indicate what levels of production constitute success or failure of this milestone. Insufficient detail for the robotic missions likely indicates that these aspects have not been designed or imagined, e.g., the need of power and communications for polar robotic spacecraft requires a significant supporting infrastructure that is not described.

The principal object of the lunar outpost in this plan is the production of water to be converted into cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket propellant. The report envisions this lunar propellant (about 200 metric tons per year at the end of outpost emplacement) as enabling human missions to Mars by reducing the total number of required SLS heavy lift vehicle launches required for such a mission from 12 to 3. But the study does not mention an even more tangible, practical benefit – that the availability of lunar produced propellant not only enables human missions to Mars, it creates routine access to the entirety of cislunar space. We could visit all of the locations of cislunar space (e.g., GEO, L-points) with people and machines to emplace, construct and maintain new satellites of potentially enormous power and capability. A fleet of space-based flight assets in cislunar space, provisioned by the products and propellant produced on the Moon, constitutes a transportation system that can serve nearly all of our space needs for the next century.

The cost analysis of this architecture has drawn much attention. Indeed, more print space is expended on the allegedly low total cost of the project (23 pages) than on the technical aspects of establishing a lunar presence (20 pages). The remainder of the 100-page report deals with risk management and organizational structures. The report claims that by using their approach, the establishment of the polar outpost would cost $40 billion, plus or minus 30%. At first glance, this estimate seems exceedingly low, but it is comparable within about a factor of two to the cost analysis numbers run for the Spudis-Lavoie predominantly robotic architecture (our cost total is $88 billion, of which 30% is reserve). Where do their low cost estimates come from? Primarily from the assumption, widely held in the New Space community, that a COTS-like model of implementation will produce cost savings of factors of eight to ten.

In their model, NASA simply provides the money and industry designs, develops and performs the missions and program. This architecture critically relies on SpaceX’s “Falcon Heavy” for the delivery of propellant to LEO – a vehicle that has yet to materialize, even in structural mock-up form. The Falcon Heavy design consists of three Falcon 9 vehicles, constituting a total of 27 engines, strapped together and using cross-feeds for fuel. In concept, it is similar to the old Soviet N-1 rocket, which used 30 engines; that vehicle was launched four times and never successfully. Even if Falcon Heavy works as advertised, we have no idea what its ultimate cost per flight might be. Its 53 metric ton to LEO payload capacity has no obvious commercial customer; satellite manufacturers design their spacecraft to fit on Atlas or Delta expendables (with a mass limit of about 30 metric tons), so the excess lift capacity either goes to waste or must be sold to co-riders. I frankly find the quoted cost of $90 million per flight of Falcon Heavy unbelievable, especially as the vehicle has not yet flown.

But the new plan willingly accepts this advertised sticker price, largely on the ideological belief in the New Space trope that it can do more in space with less money. The NASA program to deliver cargo to the ISS using commercial launch providers is cited as an example of the benefits of the new business model. In fact, we arguably spend more money now for payload delivered to ISS on the Dragon (about $9,500 per kg) than when Shuttle was operational (cost usually quoted as between $5,000-$10,000 per kg). All equipment, assets and operations remain the property and responsibility of the lunar “development authority,” an entity established by the plan consisting of a consortium of private companies and international agencies to accomplish the mission. So American (and possibly other nations’) taxpayers pay for a lunar outpost, but they don’t own any of it. And when it eventually does come time for a human Mars mission, NASA will pay for the lunar-produced propellant, even though they would have already paid to develop the system that acquires and delivers it.

Which brings me to a final (possibly critical) aspect of this plan. One reason I favor the federal government leading a return to the Moon is that it establishes our national, collective rights to use the Moon and cislunar space for a wide variety of purposes, including all of our economic, scientific and security needs. In possible future disputes with the space efforts of other nation states (such as China), it is not clear that this “development authority” will possess the stature or the assets to prevail. Nations can and do go head-to-head, but when nations go against corporations (for- or not-for profit), corporations seldom come out on top.

The development of the Moon and cislunar space is critical to national strategic needs – it is not some carnival sideshow that we should relegate to a second-tier space program. While I applaud this effort as a contribution to the technical literature of lunar return, I have serious doubts that the plan as presented will work. New Space has a long history of talking big and promising bigger, but their follow-through and delivery has been more run of the mill. Undertaking a major, innovative space program is beyond their capabilities now and may remain so for the foreseeable future.

Still, setting aside concerns over this plan’s feasibility, the glaring issue of our weakened national space posture remains. The traditional role of government is to represent us collectively and to protect our national interests. A lunar development authority would possess neither those ethics nor the means to do anything about them. We are not the only ones interested in the Moon and cislunar space, and it is still a dangerous world. The federal government, of which NASA is a part, should take steps to assure national rights of access and activity in cislunar space and the Moon. It should be noted that in the section of the report listing the “pros” and “cons” of a development authority, these critical national priorities are not even considered.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology | 87 Comments

Swirling Controversy

I have a new post at Air & Space on the mystery and problem of swirls on the lunar surface.  Readers are invited to comment on this topic here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 1 Comment

Americans are good at Marketing – We used to be good at Space

Falcon 9 explodes during staging, 5 July 2015.  (NASA TV)

Falcon 9 explodes during staging, 5 July 2015. (Click on image to animate; NASA TV)

The recent launch failure of a Falcon 9 rocket on its way to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) has drawn a lot of media attention. Most of this coverage has been very sympathetic to SpaceX (the company that built and operates the Falcon 9-Dragon system), with heavy reliance on the platitude “space is hard.” Following this doleful lament are assurances that this problem will be fixed and that our inexorable march to the stars will continue. As the commercial cargo and crew programs are heralded as a central core of the new, better, re-invented NASA, now is a good time to examine where stand. Exactly how much of the current space program consists of real accomplishment, as opposed to marketing?

Objectively speaking, the SpaceX accident was not particularly unexpected. Launch failures happen in the invariably risky field of spaceflight. Even in regard to the ISS re-supply program (of which this flight was a part), there have been two other recent failures, one by Orbital when its Antares rocket blew up on launch and a Russian Progress re-supply spacecraft failed when its antenna did not deploy properly. So accidents happen. The question is why? Is it a result of random bad luck – some part that failed at a critical time and won’t happen again? Or does it indicate some systemic problem that needs to be fixed before another mission can be attempted with any degree of confidence? At this point, we don’t know the answers and it would be unwise to speculate which cause is most likely.

My concern here is with a different issue – space marketing, the billing and selling of relatively minor events as major “accomplishments.” The distortion of program realities has left the public with a false impression about where we stand in space capability. Five years ago, this administration conducted a major re-vectoring of our national civil space program – arbitrarily terminating the strategic direction provided by the Vision for Space Exploration (an established program that had drawn overwhelming bipartisan support). In its stead, a Potemkin Village program was devised – a slight-of-hand maneuver that proclaimed a human mission to an asteroid and then to Mars as the nation’s new long-range goals in space. An effort to supply the ISS supply by “commercial” launch services was heralded as a “new direction” for the American space program, when in fact, it was already part of the existing program.

The initial success of SpaceX’s spacecraft for ISS re-supply missions (hyped as “privately developed”) ignited a barrage of marketing about the superiority of this new mode of operation over the traditional model of government-developed spacecraft. Supposedly, this new modus led to better capability for less money. (Who would argue against that?) In fact, with the retirement of the Shuttle, we now have less capability than we did, yet we are still spending about the same amount of money per year on NASA as we did when the “money-draining” Shuttle was operational. The Shuttle could deliver over 24 tons of supplies and equipment (and people) to the ISS on each flight; up-mass for the SpaceX spacecraft Dragon is about 3 tons. Shuttle had a cargo bay and cradle so that complex spacecraft could be worked on, refurbished and repaired. Neither the SpaceX Dragon nor the new Boeing CT-100 spacecraft (both intended to ultimately transport people to and from low Earth orbit) possess that capability.

The Shuttle program was terminated for two principal reasons. First, having lost two crews over the course of its 30-year history (where lessons were learned), there was the perception that it was inherently “unsafe” as a mode of space transportation. It is not clear just how safe the new “commercial” replacements for Shuttle will be because they have yet to fly, but the Falcon failure reminds us that accidents can always happen. Comparatively speaking, during its 30 years of operation, the Shuttle had a pretty good safety record – 133 successful flights out of 135 attempts (98.5%). Second, it was thought that since Shuttle operations (being very labor intensive) consumed such a large fraction of the NASA budget, that by retiring it, the savings would permit the agency to transition to new operations beyond LEO. Well, the Shuttles are now in museums. Where are the new missions? Even the SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft – the new government-developed space hardware intended to take humans into deep space – have yet to become operational and when they do, they will fly only once or twice per year, at most. (“Where”  is still up in the air.)

In short, we no longer have a civil space program. We have the simulacrum of a program. Marketing has replaced accomplishment. We don’t have to be going anywhere – we simply have to say that we’re studying it. This is not a new phenomenon; NASA has been claiming to be on their way to Mars since Apollo 11 flew in 1969 (even though that plan was specifically rejected by then-President Nixon who knew that it was politically untenable). For NASA, the Mars bird in the bush was always more important than the Shuttle-Station bird in the hand.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming large and planning for some distant “horizon goal.” The problem comes when people start believing that the hype is the reality. One of the biggest offenders in this regard appears to be the New Space community themselves. Far too many people with real space experience (who should know better) accept that, while accidents on the road to “commercial space” are likely to occur from time to time, we will somehow recover from these setbacks much more quickly and easily than was experienced during an exclusively government-directed space effort. Additionally, there has been in recent years, a large measure of unreality in the expectations of New Space. The mass sale of private rides into space, the recent competition to select people willing to establish an off-world Mars colony, and the “terraforming” of Mars into a second Earth, are a few examples of ideas advanced and seriously discussed in many circles.

The unraveling of our civil space program has gone nearly undetected by the media (who reliably promote any absurd sales pitch tossed their way) and by the public in general (who basically don’t know what they don’t know, as it’s all made to sound promising). But facts are facts, and facilities and people critical to the success of the space program in the past have vanished and will not be returning. An entirely new generation will be responsible for what comes next (as it should be) yet they have been indoctrinated with a series of absurdly unrealistic beliefs and expectations about spaceflight and spacefaring. The difference between what is possible (how a program can be logically constructed and flown) and what is pure fantasy (dreams) has been blurred to the point where distinguishing between the two is almost impossible. This new generation desperately needs leaders who are willing and able to realistically approach the problems and devise a path forward; they’ve already bought into the marketing. While we need salesmen for space, the product they sell must be based on competent engineering and science, a program grounded in reality.

Is space “hard”? Of course it is. Any activity in which you are expected to hurl several tons of complex and delicate machinery hundreds of kilometers into the sky along a precise path and at speeds exceeding 8 kilometers per second could not be anything but “hard.” The myth of New Space is not that spaceflight is “easy” but that it can somehow be achieved more quickly and inexpensively using shortcuts unique to entrepreneurial companies but unknown in government circles. The most outlandish claims of imminent accomplishment come from those least qualified to judge the feasibility of those achievements. A recent piece on the SpaceX launch failure stated: “We’re not amateurs anymore. We’re not cheerleaders, either.” Actually, in the New Space field, many are both.

Americans are good at marketing. We used to be good at space too.

Posted in space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 56 Comments

Dusty Space Around the Moon

A new post up at Air & Space on LADEE results for the lunar dust exosphere.  Space is not empty!  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 6 Comments

More Than Life Itself: Some Heretical Thoughts

The Mars rock with the bugs -- a scanning electron microscope image of alleged fossil bacteria in a martian meteorite.  These features are extremely small (note scale, in nanometers, i.e., billionth of a meter).

A Mars rock with bugs?  Scanning electron microscope image of alleged fossil bacteria in a martian meteorite. These features are extremely small (note the scale, in nanometers, i.e., a billionth of a meter).  NASA image.

In a letter to Space News, current CEO of The Planetary Society, Bill Nye, expounds on his belief that the search for life on Mars is the both the principal rationale and objective of human spaceflight. Many members of the Planetary Society subscribe to this belief, as do many others in the space advocacy field. Certainly, upon reading through various decadal studies of the planetary science community, it quickly becomes apparent that searching for extraterrestrial life is the major goal of space exploration and other topics are noted as to the degree with they contribute to the search for life. Where does this deeply ingrained idea come from?

Setting aside for a moment the decades of science fiction dealing with invaders from Mars and a variety of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) from space, this quest for life (as a driving imperative for the space program) took much of its impetus from Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Sagan, who popularized space science in his TV series Cosmos, is renowned for speaking and writing about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Sagan became famous by pontificating on the “billions” of planetary systems that must exist in our galaxy, explaining (on the basis of our scientific understanding of how life arises) that many millions of them must be teeming with life. The science fiction concept of extraterrestrials was thus elevated and dignified by a seemingly irrefutable scientific argument, and this combination steam-rolled NASA into making the Quest for Life Elsewhere (QFLE) a cornerstone of its rationale for existence and its space exploration strategy. NASA’s quest to inspire (and let loose the floodgates of funding) saw gold in Sagan’s appeal to the public.

From our earliest recognition that Mars was a planet similar in size and composition to the Earth, it has harbored humanity’s hopes for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Dreams of “life” were dashed when the initial flyby mission showed a cold, cratered surface, more like the Moon than like the Earth – a desolate Mars with an extremely thin, carbon dioxide atmosphere. In 1971, the Mariner 9 orbiter rekindled hopes of “life” when it showed channels as natural features on the surface. These landforms are difficult to explain by any process other than flowing water, and water is a prerequisite for life. Two Viking landers were launched to Mars in 1975, configured with the express objective of searching for evidence of (microbial) life in the martian soil. Nothing was found, except for some strange and unexpected soil chemistry. No organic matter was found in the soil at the parts per billion level, suggesting that not only was there no life there, but that some chemical process on the surface was destroying carbon compounds that did exist (we knew that they were being deposited on the planet by meteorite impact).

Thus, for the twenty years following Viking, Mars was considered dead, although many speculative efforts tried to envision how life might have arisen there in the past and then went extinct, as the climate changed from an early wet, warm and thick atmosphere to the current cold, dry, and thin conditions. Another round of robotic missions to Mars in the 1990s rekindled interest in possible life – or at least fossils – that could exist there. Since then, we have sent some type of robotic probe to Mars at nearly every launch opportunity (which occur every 26 months). Each mission has discovered that: a) Mars once had liquid water near the surface; and b) could have developed life. Each announcement of these astounding results is accompanied by much press hoopla as the again “new” findings are heralded and papers are published.

Concurrent with these findings was the astonishing result that perhaps life had already been found. Scientific study of the meteorite ALH 84001 showed extremely small rod-like forms that look similar to terrestrial bacteria. This space rock is one of a group thought to have come to Earth from Mars, blasted off the planet by an ancient impact. If all of these inferences were correct, then we may have already discovered fossil life from Mars! However, these interpretations are not universally accepted – indeed, they are not accepted by most of the scientific community today. Thus, the QFLE continues.

Just why is the idea of martian microbes so compelling? Although motivations vary, many in the space community have embraced the QFLE in relation to Mars because it has been good for business. The discovery of the possible fossils in a martian rock in 1996 inspired and spawned an entire Mars exploration program, one responsible for the launch of 11 American and 7 international spacecraft (and still counting) to the red planet over the last 20 years. Each mission repeats the new discovery that Mars “probably” was conducive to life early in its history. We can’t stop now – this elusive goal is just around the next bend!

Two issues present themselves in regard to the QFLE, especially as applied to Mars exploration. First, is the QFLE a valid rationale for a space exploration program? Second, if extraterrestrial life were found there, so what and what then?

Clearly, as they have embraced it as their rationale for space exploration, NASA is endorsing the QFLE. I have two issues with this adoption, one practical and one philosophical. On the practical side, if you define your objective around the search for life and you don’t find it, by definition, your mission is a failure. One cannot prove a negative, so not finding life or evidence of former life does not prove that it never existed. The only response QFLE advocates have to such a negative result is that “we just haven’t looked in the right place” and thus, additional missions or experiments are needed. This gambit works for a while (at least, it has worked up until now), but eventually, the public will get wise and decide that enough is enough. Thus, using the QFLE as a rationale for spaceflight contains within it the seeds of its own demise, as finding life or evidence for its past existence is an unlikely occurrence (it has yet to happen in 50 years of planetary exploration).

On the philosophical side of the issue, I contend that the QFLE, while a legitimate scientific inquiry, should not be the all-consuming justification for our space endeavors. It is certainly no more important than all of the other questions about the origin, history and evolution of the planets that we have developed over the years. By focusing on the QFLE and making all other topics subservient to its needs, we preclude opportunities for discoveries and breakthroughs in fields unrelated to biology. But more insidiously, by questing for life, we are attempting not to make a new discovery, but to confirm an existing dogma. Virtually all scientists subscribe to the materialist paradigm for the origin and development of life, viz., that given the right chemistry and environment, life will arise and over geological time, it will evolve into many different, ever more complex organisms. And if, or when, extraterrestrial life is found, what will have been proven? That our materialist model is correct? What scientist doubts that now?

By necessity, most planetary scientists follow the money and because special pots of funding have been set aside for the study of extraterrestrial life, many orient their research in that direction (one must eat, after all). But that funded scientific “interest” is not a product of the free marketplace of ideas deciding which topics are most important, but rather the directed result of a bureaucratic decision.

According to Nye,

“Everyone…..would agree that if we were to discover evidence of ancient life on Mars, let alone if we were to discover something still alive there, it would change the course of human history.”

Well, I don’t agree. I believe that the really important breakthroughs and insights of science tend to come from totally unexpected connections and conceptual breakthroughs, not from some finding that everyone has been expecting for the last 100 years. By making the QFLE the central objective that propels our national space program, we’re ignoring other objectives of equal (if not greater) importance and significance. Moreover, we’ve set the program up for an abrupt termination when the long-sought evidence for life fails to turn up. But even if life or evidence of former life is found, all we have done is to validate our existing prejudices. I sense that this realization is gradually creeping into the consciousness of others in the space community, as some advocates of human Mars exploration are emphasizing habitation and settlement, rather than the search for martian life.

The universe is big and displays many interesting phenomena for us to study. To make the QFLE the main focus of our scientific exploration efforts is to ignore or give short shrift to other equally engaging problems. It also has the potential to cause a loss of political support for the program – the public “excitement” that it seeks.

NASA and Congress are always asking: What will inspire the people? We don’t need another Sagan – what we need is a permanent path to everywhere in space. The quest for everything can begin once our leaders move beyond believing that we need gurus and gimmicks to inspire and sustain a great space program.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Philosophy of science, planetary exploration, space policy | 28 Comments

China and the “dark side”

I have a new post up at Air and Space discussing a possible Chinese lander/rover mission to the far side of the Moon — what it could tell us and why it’s significant.  As always, your thoughtful comments are solicited.

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

Going Back to the Moon

I recently was interviewed by Space.com reporter and author Leonard David.  The interview is now posted at their web site.  Comment here if interested.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 11 Comments

Lunar Distractions

I have a new post up at Air & Space on recent NASA comments on the possible use of the Moon in a human mission to Mars architecture.  Comment here, if you’d like.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 14 Comments

Dick Nixon’s Space Program

Presidential decisions and the post-Apollo space program

Presidential decisions and the post-Apollo space program

Richard Nixon is the President all good liberals love to hate – the Darth Vader of American politics: paranoid, suspicious, duplicitous and just plain evil. It should come as no surprise then that his legacy in regard to the American civil space program would come under critical scrutiny by those who idolize his opposite number, a charming, virtuous and courageous John Kennedy. JFK sent America to the Moon on a towering pillar of flame, capped by the sleek, white needle of the thundering Saturn V. Nixon consigned us to permanent space mediocrity, lumbering our way to orbit on the short, squat ugly Space Shuttle, a vehicle that brings to mind nothing more than the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Kennedy is remembered as the cool kid on the block, the budding rock star; Nixon is recalled as the old man on the corner, yelling at you to turn down your stereo and get off his lawn.

The new book by John Logsdon, the “Dean” of American space policy historians, is titled After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. It is an engrossing read, but perhaps not in the way its author intended. As I made my way through the narrative, I continually recognized a different way to interpret events. That is not necessarily a criticism of the book per se, but as Logsdon is apparently intent on drawing “policy lessons” from the history of the decision to build the Space Shuttle, we should carefully consider exactly what those lessons might be.

The familiar story of the post-Apollo space program is well known to space advocates. As it is told in some circles, the brilliant achievement of the lunar landings was squandered by the skinflint Nixon in deciding against a manned mission to Mars (the next obvious goal). To his credit, Logsdon does not advance this popular mythology; his take is more subtle. He carefully outlines how Nixon took full advantage of the international prestige and goodwill that America received from the success of Apollo 11, but notes that Nixon did not have any particular interest in or love for the space program in general (but then, neither did Kennedy). How to move forward on a constrained and limited budget was the fundamental problem the American space program faced after Apollo. That the budget would be lower than Apollo (and in fact, much lower, although the exact amount was unknown at the time policy decisions were made) was a foregone conclusion. In September of 1969, a report from the Space Task Group (chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew) advocated that a manned Mars mission should be America’s next major space goal. But that program direction was a non-starter in the White House, a non-starter on the Hill and a non-starter with the public.

Given this level of ambivalence, what was possible for America’s civil space program in the post-Apollo era? As more had to be done with less money, many believed that lowering the cost of space access was critical. This led to the idea that a reusable space plane would assure both lower costs and routine access to orbit. Although routine flight was achieved with the Shuttle, the technology needs for low cost were not fully understood and never really possible. Mythology has it that the completely reusable, winged booster + shuttle design of Max Faget was passed over for a cludgey, partly reusable drop-tank camel design of the eventual Shuttle. In fact, the fully reusable design was a “bridge too far” and would not have worked then (and even today, its feasibility is questionable). But even the partly reusable Shuttle could not live up to the high hopes for a low cost option of the “sophisters, economists and calculators” (in Edmund Burke’s memorable phrase).

In great detail, Logsdon traces the debate within the Executive Branch, an ongoing argument between NASA, the White House Science Advisor (later OSTP, Office of Science and Technology Policy) and the Bureau of the Budget (later OMB, Office of Management and Budget). To sell the Shuttle, NASA had to recruit multiple customers (most famously the Department of Defense). Logsdon notes that bringing DoD onboard levied specific requirements on payload sizing and cross-range capability (i.e., the ability to move the landing trajectory left or right of its descent path). One myth of Shuttle design is that this cross-range requirement led to the adoption of the large “delta-wing” configuration of the orbiter (increasing its mass and cost greatly). But NASA engineers had decided that this configuration helped to alleviate thermal issues during reentry and would have gone to something similar anyway.

The chronology and description of this decision process is valuable and I learned much from this section. The principal weakness of the book is in its conclusions, which are all too clearly colored by Logsdon’s disdain for Nixon. Logsdon levies the blame on Nixon’s shoulders for not setting a visionary, exciting space goal for the nation. But it is “perfectly clear” from his own narrative that there was no mood in the country for anything more than Shuttle. Moreover, you will search the book in vain for any detailed discussion of the opinions and influence of liberal Democrats in Congress regarding the space program (which were highly negative in the extreme). People like Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Senators Proxmire, Mondale, and most notoriously (the brother of JFK) Ted Kennedy, all made negative and disparaging statements about the space program around the time of the first Moon landing. Nixon’s presidency spanned six Congressional terms, all of which transpired under majority control of both houses of Congress by the Democratic Party.

Logsdon criticizes Nixon for using the space program as a political pork barrel and vote-getter, with California’s aerospace industry being a major beneficiary of the Space Shuttle program (Nixon needed to carry the state in the 1972 election). But space pork didn’t start with Nixon; the location of the NASA Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston derives from the influence of two powerful southern Democrats in Congress, Lyndon Johnson and Albert Thomas of Texas. Nixon proposed much lower space budgets than those of the Apollo days, but most forget (and Logsdon doesn’t mention) that much of the Apollo era spending went to build permanent infrastructure (such as launch, assembly, and testing facilities), assets used by all other subsequent space programs. By design, those sunk costs were never to have been repeated. Logsdon repeats the standard line that “Nixon stopped building the Saturn V” but it was President Johnson who shut down Saturn production in 1968 after a review determined that we already had the number of vehicles necessary to accomplish the goal of a lunar landing.

Logsdon concludes that the decision to build the Shuttle was a “policy mistake,” but one should consider the alternatives. Apparently, Logsdon would have favored the “small shuttle-glider” design proposed by OMB during the policy debate. What if that path had been taken? We would have found that many of the technologies needed for a full-sized shuttle were more difficult to perfect than we thought. Besides, the shuttle-glider prototype was nothing more than the current “Flexible Path” approach (i.e., get technology first, destinations and goals later). Would that have led to the building of more capability or less? Perhaps we might have gone back to the capsule and big rocket days of Apollo (as we have apparently done now), but that would have meant no space station and it most certainly would have meant no manned Mars mission (the elusive Holy Grail space program that has kept us from doing anything of lasting value beyond LEO for more than forty years).

A hidden gem in the book (page 214) deserves special mention. William Niskanen, an analyst with OMB, describes two libertarian ideas – changes he believed would inject more money into the space program and help unburden the taxpayers. One idea was to bring rocks back from the Moon and sell them to the public, using those funds to support further space efforts – a plan, while inventive, that would not have generated anywhere near enough money. Niskanen’s other idea was for NASA to get out of the launch and spaceflight business and let the private sector develop the next generation of launch capability. Then, the federal government could contract for launch services from American business. In response to this suggestion, legendary NASA engineer and manager George Low told Niskanen that “the reason for not doing it is that it simply won’t work; if the idea is to cancel the space program, this might be a way to do it.” I almost bust a gut with laughter at that passage.

Laying the blame for 40 years of perceived mediocrity in space at Nixon’s feet may be satisfying, but it’s not particularly enlightening. The reason that there was no visionary goal for space after Apollo is because Apollo was not about space – it was about beating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Once accomplished, there was no need for any crash space program, especially one as difficult and expensive as a manned Mars mission. Thus, NASA fell back on the classic von Braun architecture: the systematic extension of human reach into space through the consecutive building blocks of a shuttle-station-moon tug-Mars mission. Shuttle was intended as the first part of an extensible, permanent space faring system; it was never meant to be the “ultimate space vehicle” but rather, the first leg of a long journey. As for money for space, 40 years of funding at less than one percent of the federal budget might suggest to an objective observer that this level of spending is politically sustainable (even if it’s not the level that space buffs would want). The corollary to this recognition is that it is our challenge to construct an approach that makes progress with such funding levels, not to whine about our belief that it isn’t enough.

Still, this new book is worth reading, with the reservations expressed above. I cannot help but think that Logsdon’s conclusions – steeped in Beltway conventional wisdom – are driven more by his opinions of the presidency of Richard Nixon than by an objective evaluation of the historical facts surrounding Shuttle development. That the development of the Space Shuttle was a “policy mistake” is his long-held opinion and certainly one way to read the record. But other readings are possible and for all of its faults, that space program of recent memory was arguably better than the one we have now. I couldn’t help but think of an image: Dick Nixon’s space program as Pat Nixon in her good Republican cloth coat; Jack Kennedy’s space program as Marilyn Monroe, seductive in a mink coat.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, Space transportation | 26 Comments

Science Publishing – Some Skepticism Required

I have a new post up at Air & Space about the current scandal of fake papers being published in scientific journals, the breakdown of the peer review process, poor scholarship among some scientists and “expertise” derived from Google searches.  Comment here,  if so inclined.

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging here much lately.  I am busy with the manuscript of my next book, due at the publisher in a couple of months.  I’ll be back with more commentary on space policy and programs soon.

Posted in Lunar Science, Philosophy of science | 32 Comments