Blame Game

NASA outlines their master plan for a human Mars mission.

NASA outlines their master plan for a human Mars mission.

“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally to blame.”President Ronald Reagan, March 8, 1983

Wayne Hale’s speech at the 2015 von Braun Symposium in Huntsville is getting some attention in the space policy commentariat. Hale talks to “the family,” as he puts it – meaning, I suppose, the space flight community (which is a family of sorts, as in the Sopranos). He urges us to stop “squabbling” amongst ourselves, and “get on with it.” If you seek someone to “blame” for the current stasis of our civil space program, he opines, “look in the mirror.”

Well, okay. I have. And what I see is a guy who’s devoted his life to the movement of people beyond LEO, sometimes wrong about specifics but more often right about major trends and strategic direction. And there isn’t a doubt in my mind that in this sorry saga of the decline and fall of American spaceflight, there are people who deserve blame. I reject – completely and utterly – the concept that somehow, “all of us” (including those who have realized that this is no longer the era of Apollo and that new approaches are necessary) are responsible for the American civil space program going to Hell in a hand-basket. While it is clear that some of us have tried to find a path forward without doubling the NASA budget, or demanding a national commitment to an Apollo-like effort, it is equally clear that others have promoted just such an unsustainable path, either through poorly reasoned devotion to a flags-and-footprints Mars mission, ignorance of history, or in a deliberate effort to foster chaos and the demise of American manned spaceflight.

We have a limited amount of resources to expend on space – an expensive undertaking no matter how you slice it – and that means that choices must be made. Some programs are achievable and some are not. Some destinations can serve as a springboard to real and lasting capability in space and some don’t. Some efforts are politically sustainable and provide payback on reasonable time-scales and some do not. The siren call of Kumbaya, group hugs and all of us “getting along” is as useless as it is childish. We have wasted the last seven years in the challenge of moving humans beyond LEO and there is no doubt in my mind that some are blameworthy.

A large collective effort requires leadership for success. When such leadership fails, those responsible for that failure often affix blame for their misguided policies (or their failed attempt to shift direction for ideological reasons) on those who had relied on sound leadership. Dissent from the chosen path is viewed as disruption. Recently, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden claimed that we are pursuing a “visionary path” and that any re-vectoring by the agency from it would bring “disaster.” Such caution was not a concern five years ago when the current administration unilaterally decided to terminate the strategic direction of the civil space program. Bolden is saying “I can do whatever I want, but you can’t make any changes to it.” This plaintive whining sounds like (and should be read as) the parting words of a lame duck who knows his “strategic path” has little chance of remaining in place past his tenure of office.

Are dissenters from the current path the villains of the space program? Are all of us guilty of the non-progress and aimlessness currently evident in civil space? If the agency’s “Journey to Mars” (which is neither a “journey” nor will it take anyone to Mars) is fundamentally misguided (either through inadvertent or deliberate misdirection), then who has standing to make that case? And if it is determined that the current path will not lead to the capabilities and missions promised, on what possible basis should we continue in that direction? If you find yourself traveling down the wrong road, stopping and turning around is the first step towards fixing the problem.

In 2010, President Obama cancelled the Vision for Space Exploration. Initially, it was claimed that this was merely the termination of an unsustainable program (Project Constellation), based on the report of the 2009 Augustine committee. But not only was Constellation ended, its initial destination (the Moon) was also written out of future plans. The Augustine committee did not recommend this – they specifically made no recommendations, but offered alternative paths to future directions in human spaceflight, including the lunar surface. It was the President himself who removed the Moon from the critical path, for reasons that appear trivial (“We’ve been there!”) and specious. The removal of the lunar surface as a destination for the American civil space program left a predictable and obvious gap – a manned Mars mission is (and has been) so far in the future, that we are incapable (literally) of drawing up a working blueprint for how to achieve it.

We are told by Bolden that the President has “set us on a visionary course” for space. But there is no identified path to get us from where we are (low Earth orbit) to Mars. The agency’s recent release of the “Journey to Mars” report merely outlines current projects (mostly the Orion spacecraft and the SLS launch vehicle), hints at some possible missions in cislunar space (a “habitat” in deep space), and gives little attention to the difficulties, and no discussion of, the expense required to solve the knotty technical issues that separate us from the first human mission to the surface of Mars. This is a “visionary course?”

By setting the goal of a Mars mission as the only rationale for human spaceflight, the administration does accomplish some political aims. The mission is certainly imaginative, as it is beyond our current capabilities and thus, this is a “future-” oriented project. Estimates suggest that we will be ready to attempt a human mission to the surface of Mars sometime in the late 2030s (more likely, 2050 and beyond). Because that goal is so distant and undefined, virtually any space activity can be claimed to be relevant to its achievement. Setting such a distant goal assures that no meaningful mission funding will be needed during the current administration’s term of office. As they say, talk is cheap – we are drowning in a sea of talk about future space utopias.

So damn those stupid space advocates! All they do is argue!

You’re damned if you advocate for a program – you are blocking consensus by creating division and are therefore, a roadblock to progress. (Some ideas ARE better than others.)

You’re damned if you lobby for a specific policy over another – you are either encouraging government “pork” or commercial “cronyism.” (We must work together, but we need sustainability.)

You’re damned if you don’t “excite the public” – you haven’t touched the right nerve that opens the spigot to a torrent of government funding. (After 60 years, there is no evidence whatsoever that “public excitement” drives space accomplishment.)

So by all means, let us look into the mirror. Not all in life is relative – some things are right and some things are wrong. Pursuing a flags-and-footprints, manned Mars mission run along the lines of the Apollo program is a fool’s errand. The historical circumstances that made Apollo possible (e.g., Cold War, an expansive aerospace industrial infrastructure) are no longer operative. We must design and advance a human presence in space beyond LEO using an incremental, cumulative and affordable architecture. Some of us are trying to do exactly that. Others aren’t.

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50 Responses to Blame Game

  1. Another excellent article Dr. Spudis!

    Its kind of difficult for NASA to have a beyond LEO program when you have an administration that really doesn’t want NASA to have a beyond LEO program:-)

    But, with the exceptions of the two previous Bush administrations, the same was also true of previous administrations– starting with Republican President Richard Nixon– who decommissioned NASA’s beyond LEO architecture with full approval from a Democrat dominated Congress.

    Politically, we’re a nation ruled by lawyers, many who tend to view human space travel as a series of wasteful stunts.

    Of course, once China and Russia and perhaps Europe are on the lunar surface exploiting lunar resources in order to strategically and economically dominate cis-lunar space, there will be a lot of angry finger pointing by our legislators as to who lost the Moon and probably Mars. And many in Congress will asks why NASA spent hundreds of billions of tax payer dollars over the last half century merely to continue to go around in circles above the Earth.

    As I’ve previously argued, an $8 billion a year human spaceflight related budget is plenty of money for NASA to set up a permanent water and propellant producing outpost on the lunar surface in the 2020’s and on the surface of Mars by the 2030s– if such efforts are prioritized.

    But NASA cannot continue to run an expensive $3 billion a year space laboratory program (ISS) while also financing and deploying an expensive beyond LEO program to the Moon and Mars– unless Congress raises the annual NASA budget by $3 to $4 billion,

    Once there is an administration that really wants a beyond LEO program then raising the NASA budget by $4 billion would be the simplest thing for Congress to do since that meager amount of money would only represent about 0.1% of annual Federal expenditures.


    • Paul Spudis says:


      Thank you for your (as usual) thoughtful comments. Let me make a point in regard to President Nixon and beyond LEO human spaceflight.

      After Apollo, the country had no real appetite for additional space extravaganzas. Yet thoughtful observers recognized the benefits of continuing human spaceflight (and those are real, despite the uninformed opinions of some). So the issue became, “How do we continue flying people in space under a (very) constrained budget?” The answer the agency came to was to develop the Space Shuttle, whose goals were to make spaceflight routine and cheap(er). It succeeded in the first goal, but missed the second.

      John Logsdon will admit when pressed that the Agnew committee’s recommendation of a all-out, human Mars mission to follow-up on Apollo was D.O.A., not only in the White House, but up on The Hill as well. Yet he still denigrates Nixon for choosing Shuttle and “keeping us in LEO” for 50 years (illogical; his animus seems driven more by his hatred for Nixon from than a clear-eyed analysis of the facts).

      The plain fact is that after Apollo, we had things to do in LEO and that included learning how to maintain and repair satellites in space, operate routinely in microgravity and to build large, distributed space systems on-orbit. Looked at in that way, Shuttle followed by Station makes perfect sense. In the course of doing this, we also found that accomplishing these things in space was more difficult and more expensive than we had projected.

      That said, current Presidents live in a world that knows that extended human presence on the Moon is possible and that the lunar surface contains the material and energy resources needed to extend human reach beyond LEO. Those that continue to reject that path do so in obstinate opposition to logic and strategic thinking. The current irrational fixation of the agency on a human Mars mission is simply a reflection of that ignorance (or malice, depending upon the individual case).

      • “After Apollo, the country had no real appetite for additional space extravaganzas.”

        Thanks for your comments Dr. Spudis. But I really don’t believe that there was ever a lot of enthusiasm in this country for spending a lot money for beyond LEO missions.

        It was simply the fear by the politicians and the US military that the Soviet Union would take possession of the Moon and the rest of the solar system that drove America’s efforts to the Moon. Plus Soviet technological supremacy in Space was extremely good propaganda for the cause of spreading communism throughout the world at that time. And that was driving Congress and the Executive branch absolutely crazy!

        But after the Soviets launched Sputnik, President Eisenhower feared the US military industrial complex would take advantage of the Congressional fear of communism, allowing the US military to spend titanic amounts of money in space. So Eisenhower created NASA (a civilian space program) in order to stop each branch of the military from having their own hyper expensive and competing individual manned and unmanned space programs.

        But once it became clear that the USSR had abandoned its desire to send cosmonauts to the Moon, it also became easy for cynical Republicans like NIxon along with many liberal Democrats to put an end to NASA’s beyond LEO program.

        Ironically, former Vice President, Humbert Humphrey, an extremely liberal Democrat, strongly supported the US space program and publicly criticized cuts to the Apollo program after he lost the 1968 election to Nixon. So if Humphrey had won the election, I don’t think America’s heavy lift program would have been decommissioned in the 1970s.,2915800&hl=en


        • Joe says:


          The newspaper article to which you link is dated 11/20/1968. That is after the end of the 1968 elections (which as you note Humphrey lost), but also well before Nixon took office.

          Therefore the cuts he was criticizing were made by the Johnson administration of which Humphrey was a member (Vice President).

          I may be being cynical, but Humphrey’s criticism would have been more impressive/convincing if made before the election.

          • President Kennedy put Johnson in charge of the Space Program and NASA’s early development. Not surprising since going to the Moon was actually Johnson’s idea. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson handed that role over to Humphrey as Chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council after Humphrey became Vice President. So Humphrey already had a very close relationship with NASA and the Gemini and Apollo programs.

            But long before that, Humphrey had something interesting to say about the space race.

            Right after the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957, Senator Humphrey said:

            “This government needs to start telling the truth to the American people. Quit kidding ourselves, and quit trying to fool our friends and our neighbors. And by that I mean let’s find out just where we stand in this race and this armament picture, and let’s find out just what we’re going to do about it. Let’s quit acting as if nothing happened, because something has happened and it has embarrassed us throughout the world!”


          • Paul Spudis says:

            President Kennedy put Johnson in charge of the Space Program and NASA’s early development. Not surprising since going to the Moon was actually Johnson’s idea.

            The idea of going to the Moon had been around for some time (e.g., the von Braun Collier’s articles and the Walt Disney Tomorrowland TV series in the 1950’s), but it was actually Hugh Dryden (NASA Deputy Administrator) who briefed Johnson on the goal of “man-Moon-decade” that went into his memo to the President.

            See this:

            Also note the following recent piece, relevant to Chinese cislunar development:

          • Chris Castro says:

            Perhaps it was just easier, and less problematic for a VP from an outgoing administration to do a strong criticism of his regime, particularly considering how his governing goals could have diverged from President Johnson, and what he planned on doing, once he had secured becoming President-elect, had the election went differently that year. It is intriguing to speculate, and ruminate over alternative history, with regard to America’s space program. If Heavy Lift, multi-stage launching rockets continued to be used, for getting deep-space manned vehicles into an LEO parking orbit, the road to expanded Lunar exploration activity would’ve been secured, since unmanned cargo landers & base modules could’ve been flown.

            If the Saturn 5 could have continued flying for a span of time longer, say for most or all of the 70’s, then Apollo would have been able to finish up on a much better note, with the completion of the designated then-future missions of Apollos # 18, 19, & 20. These would’ve been additional “J” class landing missions to the Moon, enhancing the grand adventure narrative, that was humankind’s only explorations of another world, in person. Later on, if a hiatus of manned deep-space missions would’ve happened, and/or been warranted because of national budget limitations, such a Heavy Lift launcher would’ve proven helpful & flexible enough to accommodate a limited-to-LEO interlude, with its launching of Skylab-types of orbital stations. Recall, that the Saturn 5 had a less-powerful variant, the Saturn 1-B, which was used for sending a lone Apollo command & service module to reach Skylab. An alternate history Skylab program, flown a mere few years later, and supported much better budgetarily, of course, could have gotten that whole fatuous obsession with LEO stations out of our system, in the decades past of the 70’s & 80’s, so that maybe by the 90’s the sentiment to return our astronauts to deep-space and the Moon might’ve grown, and have been more feasible-looking technologically, with unmanned cargo-supply variants of the Apollo CSM craft——-or some other spacecraft——- in operation for the LEO-limited exploits going on at that time.

            Of course, limiting our manned space program to LEO, in the first place, for the sheer vast length of time——- half-a-century——-was the biggest mistake that NASA & America made! Even after the long multi-decade Space Shuttle era, an escape from LEO could’ve been in the works had we went ahead with the sidemount crew-less variation of the Shuttle. Then some form of ability to launch cis-lunar spacecraft and lunar base elements would’ve come to fruition as an outgrowth of the STS program. But as things in fact happened, NASA decommissioned & shut down the Shuttle, without reaping any deep space benefit out of the whole 30-year commitment to the vehicle, and to its industrial base. There’s no doubt about it, that decade after decade, giant mistakes keep being made, by politicians & bureaucrats over what path NASA will take.

          • Paul Spudis says:


            NASA decommissioned & shut down the Shuttle, without reaping any deep space benefit out of the whole 30-year commitment to the vehicle,

            Not really — Shuttle pieces make up most of the SLS heavy lift vehicle.

            The Saturn V, while a magnificent machine, was simply too expensive to go into any kind of routine production. Parts of the S-II second stage were (literally) hand-made. There were actually enough Saturn Vs made to support the full Apollo program. Apollo 20 was cancelled first (so that it’s booster could be used to launch “dry” Skylab) and Apollos 18 and 19 were cut to save operational costs (a few tens of millions of dollars — an extreme example of penny-wise, pound-foolish). Those Saturns now serve as museum pieces at KSC and JSC, tangible testimony to a vanished technical base, like the aqueducts of ancient Rome.

        • Dr. Spudis, I often wonder if it wasn’t the American science fiction film, Destination Moon, that helped to inspired the interest of the USSR in space travel.

          The classic 1950 film is, of course, famous for igniting the first golden age of science fiction movies in America. But its strongly pro-capitalist theme of wealthy businessmen funding the first human mission to the Moon in order to beat the communist there probably didn’t go unnoticed by some of the leadership in the Soviet Union.

          It was in 1953 when the Soviet’s Chief Designer, Korolev, initially proposed using the R-7 to launch a satellite into orbit.


          • Chris Castro says:

            To Dr. Paul Spudis;………. True, both the formerly planned mega-rockets, the Ares 5, and the Ares 1, were to have been designed with Space Shuttle launch technology as the engineering base. When Project Constellation was the program being put forward, there was a silver destination of grandeur, the Moon, whose specialized parameters of mission requirements was to have driven its full development. A solid plan for launching manned spacecraft to an LEO parking orbit and then firing away an earth escape/departure stage, & taking those vehicles all the way to an orbit around another world, then bringing a crewed landing craft down to the surface, was set in motion.

            In the absence of the Moon return goal, I harbor strong doubts as to whether the SLS rocket even gets built & flown, and that even if it does reach that stage, I have trouble seeing it ultimately getting used for anything important. It seems likely that it’ll just become the American version of the old Soviet Energia rocket: It gets flown a few times, doing very minor league stuff, and then gets promptly decommissioned, without any meaningful gain in terms of astronauts grappling with the cislunar frontier. That big pitfall of a scenario, appears to be very likely to happen, with each passing year, unless the manned Lunar Return goal is restored.

          • Paul Spudis says:


            I certainly agree that absent some significant goal (destination), the SLS will probably not be used extensively. But if that happens, we can forget about having a national human spaceflight program anyway. The real object of the SLS program was to keep a nucleus of the industrial-technical infarstructure (including its human capital) together until some future, more enlightened administration establishes a real objective for civil space (and I do not include in that category the current faux human mission to Mars).

          • To Chris Castro:

            The SLS is Congress’s baby and they expect it to be used. And it should launched at least twice per year (I would prefer four times per year for a lunar program)

            The fixed cost for the SLS will probably be around $3billion dollars per year– even if NASA never launches another vehicle after 2021.

            So it would be enormously expensive for NASA to always be prepared to use the SLS– but to never use it!


        • Grand Lunar says:

          “But after the Soviets launched Sputnik, President Eisenhower feared the US military industrial complex would take advantage of the Congressional fear of communism, allowing the US military to spend titanic amounts of money in space.”

          In retrospect, IMHO, this probably wouldn’t have been a bad thing had this been allowed to happen.

    • Joe says:

      Hi Marcel,

      Good post on an excellent article.

      I will, however, extend part of your point. You say:

      “But NASA cannot continue to run an expensive $3 billion a year space laboratory program (ISS) while also financing and deploying an expensive beyond LEO program to the Moon and Mars– unless Congress raises the annual NASA budget by $3 to $4 billion,”

      While I agree with the point, I would go further. If we are to truly begin to develop Cis-Lunar space with the use of lunar resources on a fixed NASA Budget a more extensive reordering of NASA’s internal priorities would be required. That would include the robotics program as well as the HSF program. I do not mean de-emphasizing robotics as it will be extensively required in Cis-Lunar space development. I do mean that a lot of really interesting outer solar system projects might have to be deferred in order to free the resources (not just money but human resources with the proper expertise) in order to support that part of the development.

      If I am correct NASA has a real problem because that means upsetting several constituency groups that help to keep it funded at all.

      Would be very interested to hear Dr. Spudis’s view of this.

      In the mean time what is left of NASA has become somewhat like an abused child, simply trying to survive it’s parents erratic actions.

      The satirical website The Onion, unfortunately, has NASA’s current real goal about right.

      Note the title: “NASA announces bold plan to still exist in 2045.”

      • Paul Spudis says:


        If we are to truly begin to develop Cis-Lunar space with the use of lunar resources on a fixed NASA Budget a more extensive reordering of NASA’s internal priorities would be required. That would include the robotics program as well as the HSF program.

        I agree with this in part. The original VSE called for lunar return under the existing NASA budget (plus a one-time augmentation of $1 billion), then raised by inflation thereafter. That effort was to have kept all of the agency’s robotic planetary, astrophysical and Earth science mission plans intact.

        While that funding level was probably somewhat unrealistic, no serious effort was ever expended by NASA to devise an affordable scheme for lunar return under the original funding conditions. I think that a lunar outpost can be achieved for the original budgetary envelope (that was our assumption in the Spudis and Lavoie 2011 architecture, total funding of $7 billion per year or less) if you are willing to trade money for time (and lead with robotics). To do that, you need to understand what you are trying to do and to recognize that you cannot do everything.

        That Onion article you link is a true classic. It reminds me of the great line by Hoover in Animal House during his defense of the Delta fraternity at the Faber College Council hearing: “Delta House has a long tradition of existence to itself and the community.”

        • Joe says:

          Thanks for the feedback.

          Did not know about the funding plan for the VSE (only got directly involved when Constellation Systems was established).

          Guess I still lean to the “everything ends up taking longer and costing more” side and the longer you stretch things out the more chance there is for political mischief.

          Nice quote from Animal House. In return here is one from Blazing Saddles.

          Governor William J. Le Petomane: ” We’ve gotta protect our phoney baloney jobs, gentlemen!

        • Michael Wright says:

          “The original VSE called for lunar return under the existing NASA budget (plus a one-time augmentation of $1 billion), then raised by inflation thereafter.”

          Someone mentioned VSE was a non-starter as O’Keefe making the rounds in front of senate and congressional committees talking about developing new spacecraft of lower operating costs. Many of these committee members saw less money sent to their districts. So out with Sean and in with Michael.

          • Paul Spudis says:

            I don’t buy that. O’Keefe was brought into NASA to “solve” the budget and schedule problems that ISS was having. He did that, but then the Columbia accident intervened. He decided to devote his last few months at NASA on getting Presidential buy-in for the VSE. He never intended to stay at NASA to implement it.

            Mike Griffin was not brought in to NASA by Congress to shovel money to their districts; the White House hired him, based on his wide experience in space projects. He came into the office with specific ideas on how to implement the VSE, which became the ESAS and Constellation. That project ran into developmental cost overruns and the rest is history.

          • Michael Wright says:

            OK, comment by Spudis of O’Keffe/Griffin yesterday makes sense. I remember back then many people complaining O’Keffe was just a bean counter and a technical person is needed for a NASA Administrator (I admit feeling the same way). I now feel a NASA Administrator should be a bean counter, someone who knows how to work the political system (i.e. James Webb). Deputy Admin can be the technical person.

          • Paul Spudis says:

            I now feel a NASA Administrator should be a bean counter, someone who knows how to work the political system (i.e. James Webb). Deputy Admin can be the technical person.

            I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule — it depends on the people. But the ability to communicate a mission and to get along with both Congressional members and staff and Executive Office of the President staff is an absolute necessity in an NASA Administrator.

          • Joe says:

            Interesting point.

            O’Keefe was actually very successful (at least in my opinion) in the political sense as NASA Administrator. What he needed was a good technical type as his Deputy.

            Unfortunately what he got was Steidle who was out of his element. After they proposed a “fly off” of two different full up orbital vehicles for $1B and then had to retract it, the Admiral appeared “snake bit”.

            He refused to make another final decision and would instead continue to “broaden the trade space” (i.e. keep sending the technical people who brought the results of one trade study back to do at least two more trade studies). .

            I remember running into a co-worker who was involved and asking how things were going. She replied: Well Joe, we are diverging on a solution.”

            Griffin (had he not already decided on the 1 1/2 launch scenario from a Planetary Society Study he led) might have been a good Deputy.

            Too Bad.

      • Thanks for your comments Joe!

        I fully agree. NASA simply doesn’t have the funding to do everything all at once. So it has to prioritize some programs over others.

        Returning to the Moon in order to exploit its water and oxygen and other regolith resources should be NASA’s– top priority!

        That’s because it will make all the other things that NASA wants to achieve in the near future, including human missions to Mars, a lot simpler, safer, and cheaper to do. And I believe that this will also be true for the emerging private spaceflight industry.


  2. Philip Backman says:

    Hello Paul,

    I half wondered if you would tackle this topic, and was glad to see and read your article this morning. In addition to Wayne Hale’s comments, I noticed that ‘NASA WATCH’ took a swipe at you a month or so ago: advocating that you compromise your fairly well thought out ideas from the past decade (or more) and instead open your mind, and embrace the elusive ‘dark matter’ solution to our human spaceflight problems. Seems like an odd request.

    Good on you for standing your ground, as I am sure many others will. For moving the human presence into space, there are right and wrong ways to do it, but picking an average between a right and wrong way is not acceptable.

    Phil Backman

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Thanks, Phil. The idea that we should always just “split the difference” fits in perfectly with our post-modernist, “All have won and all must have prizes!”-culture.

  3. No human can leap from the bottom of a flight of stairs all the way to the top. The Mars plans based on the 2009 plan are still fiscally impossible to implement. It is much more reasonable to steadily walk up the stairs step by step. In the years since 2011, we have seen a growing consolidation of opinion around the cis-lunar architecture, and the concept of building space infrastructure as we go to make space transport easier.
    The cis-lunar plan that seems to be the most attractive is one where lunar polar water is mined, brought to L1 or L2, and used both to support cis-lunar transport and also to support a similar Mars architecture. The mining base would provide direct science access to the lunar surface, giving us a clear reason to go there. Developing equipment, such as a propellant production plant, which can be used both on the Moon and Mars, results in a shared development cost for each piece of common equipment and each common vehicle.
    Thus “developing” space greatly assists in the exploration of space and its scientific investigation. The more points of commonality that can be found between cis-lunar, lunar and Mars architecture the better. The realization by some leaders in NASA that water ice at the lunar poles and on Mars is a realistic source of propellant can also “propel” thinking towards building reusable in-space vehicles, given that obvious propellant sources do exist.
    Thus, step 1, a fueling and logistics base in LEO; step 2, a fueling and logistics base at L1/L2; step 3, a lunar polar mining and science base; step 4, a fueling and logistics base in Mars orbit; step 5, a Mars surface mining and science base with a supply of ice. Step by step we can open the solar system. However, private enterprise must play a major role in space transportation or it will remain extravagantly expensive.

    • “However, private enterprise must play a major role in space transportation or it will remain extravagantly expensive.”

      While I’m a strong supporter of Commercial Crew development, the demand for crewed flights for NASA over the next few decades is unlikely to be enough to sustain more than one or two private spaceflight companies. And that will be especially true after the ISS is finally decommissioned.

      But there are more than 50,000 super wealthy people in the world who could actually afford a $20 million to $40 million flight to a private space station. That’s where the focus of Commercial Crew company efforts should be, IMO. Just getting a fraction of 1% of that number to fly into space every year could be a catalyst for dramatically lowering that cost of human space travel.

      States with significant space industries could also offer rides into space to private space stations via private space launch systems through a space lotto system, plus $200,000 in prize money to compensate the winners for time off from work for spaceflight training.

      As far as beyond LEO efforts are concerned, NASA should be ready to take full advantage of emerging technologies currently being developed from some of its own private vendors like the ULA, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and ATK which could allow the deployment of LOX/LH2 propellant depots and reusable extraterrestrial vehicles for cis lunar space and interplanetary journeys to Mars.


  4. Creating a demand for launches by spending a lot of money sustaining super-expensive flights has already been tried for 30 years (1981-2011). It was called the Space Shuttle. The real way to get launch costs down is by getting them down directly: lower design and construction costs, reusable launchers, lower pad operation costs and faster pad turnaround. All else will flow from that, since as the cost of a service declines, the demand for it will increase. Cis-lunar transport depends on this happening.

    • Joe says:

      “The real way to get launch costs down is by getting them down directly: lower design and construction costs, reusable launchers, lower pad operation costs and faster pad turnaround.”

      The problem with that statement is that is exactly what the Space Shuttle (which you deride in the same post) attempted to do. Perhaps technology has advanced enough to make that possible now, but there is no definitive sign of it.

      “All else will flow from that, since as the cost of a service declines, the demand for it will increase. Cis-lunar transport depends on this happening.”

      Even if a true potentially low cost launcher were to be currently possible that would not automatically mean lower cost launches. For a reusable launcher to actually reduce cost it must fly many times a year, that potential will not automatically generate such a market.

      If a Lunar Resources/Cis-Lunar Space development program is pursued using conventional expendable launchers (and yes that would include a SDHLV) then it is easy to picture a time (with lunar propellant and use of additive manufacturing for other components) when the limiting factor will be transport of crew/light cargo from Earth’s surface to a staging orbit.

      How such relatively low mass but high volume launches would be achieved is an interesting question. As of now the required mass fractions for a reusable SSTO have still not been achieved. Reusable multi stage vehicles face a similar challenge, the required additional Delta V to fly a first stage back to the launch site and have it perform powered landings still require un-demonstrated technical capabilities.

      Air Breathing propulsion like the Skylon proposed by the British might work.

      Another possibility is beamed power propulsion, possible; but still not demonstrated.

      With the growing in-orbit operations of a Lunar Resources/Cis-Lunar Space development program, a market to cause the push to fund any/all of these would exist.

      • billgamesh says:

        That was an outstanding comment Joe. Strickland is repeating the NewSpace infomercial word for word. This cheaper is better concept has been endlessly hyped for years and has now worked itself into the public consciousness as somehow being a “fact.”

        I consider “reusability” as envisioned by NewSpace fans as being a myth. The airliner model is not valid. However, recovering boosters at sea like the SRB’s is workable (it was reloading the segments with propellant that made them so expensive and a pressure-fed would have worked better). Reusing empty stages as Ehricke/von Braun wet workshops is valid. And even parachuting at least the turbopump of upper stage engines with a waterproofing system into the ocean for recovery might break even. But landing back the hobby rocket is a farce.

        There is no cheap. I think this idea that something can be had for nothing is “in fact” the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration. The reality is there is no cheap. I think ULA has proven after over 100 in a row that you get what you pay for. But instead of accepting the cost of doing business we have NewSpace demonizing ULA and “old space” as corrupt and horrifically wasteful. The solemnly pronounce that without resuable rockets and feul depots we will “never” expand into the solar system. I would say it is their business plan that will never expand.

        And we also pay exorbitant amounts for military hardware, much of which does not really work that well, but we scream about the price of spaceships?

        I ony differ with your view in that I don’t think Skylon or any air-breathing system has the slightest chance of working, while I strongly believe beam propulsion will. The beam is the dream.

        • Joe says:

          “I ony differ with your view in that I don’t think Skylon or any air-breathing system has the slightest chance of working ….”

          You may very well be correct.

          The point I was trying make is that the discussion (not just here, but in professional forums) is often run backwards. It is assumed that if you just had the “perfect” rocket, a market would materialize to use it. That is just not the way things work, because payloads are also expensive (satellites often cost more than their launch).

          I listed four potential types of systems that could provide the kind of relatively low mass payload but high flight rate required to support crew/light cargo transport for a growing Cis-Lunar space infrastructure. There are others, but all have one thing in common; they all still require substantial technical development to make them practical.

          Therefore any of them could prove to be ephemeral, but (once a specific set of requirements is defined) not all of them will.

          To tell you the truth, provided at least one of them (preferably more) works, I do not care which one it is.

          • billgamesh says:

            Whatever works of course. We have discussed this aspect of Mr. Brown here a couple times; he went with what would work and was a perfect mix of the conservative-yet-able-to-change-progressive type. Yet ironically it is common to see his name used to beat people over the head when they don’t support some NewSpace talking point.

            Bob Zubrin, who I am no fan of has nevertheless made some good points concerning your observation on things running backwards (and his excellent comparison of our space program to the Chinese burning their super-ships in the 1400’s).

            In my view it is not cost that is the problem at all- I consider all that screaming cheap to be a fabrication. One need simply look at the DOD budget. We have the money and this endless whining about cheap lift is tragicomic. The salient problem has always been and will remain….scale.

            Only really, really, big rockets with several times the thrust of the SLS can make any progress establishing a cislunar infrastructure. Nobody dares to speak of this. Yet ever since Apollo this kind of public works investment has come to be accepted as…unacceptable. This kind of thinking is actually fairly common in military history and is one of the main reasons wars are lost. If you are not willing to commit the necessary forces to battle to decide the issue then you better just forget about trying and ask for terms.

            We lost the battle when we retreated into LEO with the Shuttle. The space age ended in 1972. We have not traveled space since then- only gone in circles at very high altitude.

          • Michael Wright says:

            “and his excellent comparison of our space program to the Chinese burning their super-ships in the 1400’s”

            Back then Chinese were faced with land based threats such as the Mongols, and their ships though impressive were limited by having to stay close to shores (not ocean going navigation). Gunboats from Europe were not even envisioned.

            We can see the same thing these days. Back in Apollo days, missiles and rockets were the serious threat. We see the US pouring enormous amounts of resources. There were some budgets posted by Dennis Wingo that showed the huge amounts in tens of billions just in development of Atlas, Titan, etc. of each!

            Now the “threat” is terrorism in addition to info/cyber so enormous amounts of resources are poured into countering that which does not include rockets.

        • billgamesh says:

          Michael the Mongols had already conquered China and the Chinese superships traveled most of the pacific- they did not stay “inshore.” Wingo would not be my choice to cite. As for cyber-defense being what billions are poured into instead of rockets….I have no comment on that “threat.”

    • The Space Shuttle was supposed to fly a few dozen times per year in order to reduce cost. But no such demand ever showed up– especially after the first fatal accident. So the Space Shuttle usually flew only four or five times per year.

      Still, with its capability of being able to transport at least eight astronauts to orbit plus 25 tonnes of payload, the Space Shuttle was a lot cheaper than the future American Commercial Crew vehicles are going to be.

      Space X is currently charging NASA (and the tax payers) $1.6 billion for just 12 cargo flights to the ISS for up to 40 tonnes of cargo. Just two Space Shuttle launches would be needed deliver 50 tonnes of cargo plus 16 astronauts to LEO.

      With 200 flights per vehicle, Skylon is really the only space vehicle being currently contemplated that could– dramatically– lower the cost of getting to orbit– possibly at less than $100,000 per passenger. Space X will be charging over $20 million per passenger and NASA astronauts, a lot more!


      • Two flights of the shuttle cost $1 billion each, and 1.5 billion each if you count the development costs. These cost values have been published. Flying the shuttle often enough to reduce costs was not realistic, since it took thousands of workers at least 3 months and a massive amount if detailed labor to get a shuttle and all of its components refurbished, reassembled and ready for flight again. Thus that 50 tons would have cost $3 billion.

        The shuttle system and its two disasters proved that for now, it is very risky to combine very large payloads with crew launches. By separating them, crew escape systems, which the shuttle shamefully lacked, are again feasible.

        In addition, the current prices for astronaut seats will be lowered due to simple competition, once reusable rockets can land reliably. This could be within 2 years, or before astronaut flights on US boosters resume.

        • Joe says:

          Your “analysis” of shuttle cost per flight is entirely skewed.

          You are ignoring the difference between fixed and total cost.

          When I was working on the program it’s total budget was around $3B. The overwhelming majority of that was fixed cost, that is the cost to be able to fly at all. The incremental cost to fly was so relatively small that whether it flew one time or six times was lost in the rounding error.

          We always got a good laugh at press accounts saying the shuttle cost/flight was:

          (1) $750M/flight – when it flew four times.
          (2) $600M/flight – when it flew five times.
          (3) $500M/flight – when it flew six times.

          That relationship exists in every other launcher system, also for Airlines, Railroads, and Trucking Services.

          The higher figures you quote are based on throwing in the cost of everything anyone could find (a good example being the cost to the DoD to build a never used Shuttle launch site at Vandenberg) assuming worst case inflation scenarios and adding amortizing those inflated sunk cost in the yearly operations..

          This sophistry may make you feel good, but the same sorts of games could be played with the Falcon 9 if SpaceX did not keep so much information secret.

          You can play these games as much as you want. Nobody that knows anything about the subject, is ever going to believe you.

        • billgamesh says:

          “-the current prices for astronaut seats will be lowered due to simple competition, once reusable rockets can land reliably.”

          There are so many holes in that statement I don’t know where to start. So I won’t even try.

        • NASA’s not a private business that has to pay back the money that its previously spent. Its, fundamentally, a scientific research and development Federal agency for the American people.

          What matters is what NASA can do with the annual budget its given by Congress and the tax payers.

          Once the Space Shuttle was operational, annual funding for the program was around $3 billion a year for four or five flights per year. So that would be about $600 million to $750 million per flight. NASA likes to say that the cost of the Shuttle was around $450 million per launch– but that was only during the year when NASA launched eight Space Shuttles in just one year.

          There will be no economic competition for crewed NASA flights into space since there won’t be enough crewed launches demanded by NASA for any such economic competition over the next decade or two.

          NASA will be strictly focused on the safety of its astronauts– no matter what the cost! And right now it looks like the ULA is going to have a huge advantage over Space X as far as Commercial Crew safety is concerned.


  5. Michael Wright says:

    In grand scheme of things I wonder what is really going on. Back in the days lots of experts debated space program during 1950s/60s. Now we can look back at what really drove it particularly Eisenhower deliberately squelching Vanguard because if Soviets orbit a satellite over us and we don’t complain, then we can later do the same with Corona and they cannot complain. Then fast forward to the Shuttle decision in early 1970s where Dale Myers and others having to make tough decisions under a possibility that Skylab flights could have become the last HSF by US (Apollo-Soyuz mission was yet to be approved). And why Shuttle became what it is. I was particularly fascinated watching the 2005 MIT Open Course Ware videos listening to key people such as Myers, Cohen, Moyer, and others. It made all the debate we talked about Shuttle during 1980s completely pointless.

    So…. I ask what is really going on? Why is ISS pretty much invisible to the general public? Why is it so hard to get Orion moving? (ok, ok, I know there’s a lot of debate on these items). SpaceX has made great strides but even then they are falling behind their original schedule. Other New Space companies show a lot of promise but not much hardware into orbit. And I saw this posted of debates about spaceplane Skylon on slashdot (reference the “hobby rocket” term by BillMash?):

    “I started my professional life working for a guy like this – an engineer with a small company and an idea. He paid his small staff to keep developing his idea year after year but when you worked for him for a while you realized he had no plan to actually take his project through the regulatory process and into production; it was actually a hobby for him, that was just there to make enough money to stay in business and interesting enough to keep him busy and fiddling until he could retire. My old boss could attract young workers to join (and work cheap) for a while and then get new ones as each figured out the hobby angle.”
    –end quote–

    There are probably some good ideas out there but lost in a lot of schlock. When the airplane was new, there were lots of ideas and companies (about 400 in 1920s) and most have disappeared. I think the last quote regarding the hobby angle is insightful, analogy of lots of business investment promotions with glitz and whatnot but in the end very few are able to make any reasonable amount.

    Pardon if I diverged off. And thanks to Dr. Spudis letting some of us vent.

    • billgamesh says:

      My favorite aviation example and one I have mentioned a few times here is the British airship program. The big airship failed for three reasons- first it could not operate at high altitudes above the weather and thus would inevitably get caught in turbulent conditions that exceeded structural limits. Most of the big airships were lost due to storms. Second was flammable hydrogen and the cost of the alternative which was helium. And last was the initial investment not only in the ships but in the manpower and facilities required to handle them.

      In hindsight all of these problems could be solved with technology that was available at the time- superchargers and pressurized cabins would have allowed the airships to actually fly higher in the late 1920’s than jet airliners do today! A double hull with a thin outer nitrogen or helium barrier to isolate the inner hydrogen envelope would have answered safety concerns. And last the procedures to handle these leviathans with fewer ground crew had been largely worked out by the time of the Hindenburg.

      It is a case of “going cheap.” The British and American governments were not willing to pour enough money into the research and development necessary to make the airship a success. And we can see the very same problem with space exploration. Unfortunately in the case of space exploration there will be no heavier than air solution. If there was we would have found it by now. The only path to space is state funded production of Super Heavy Lift Vehicles with hydrogen upper stages.

  6. Mark R. Whittington says:

    Part of the problem is that two presidents named Bush were not able to sustain their proposals, Bush the Elder did not vet SEI with the stakeholders, neither Congress which was asked to pay for it nor NASA which was asked to implement it, and then got blindsided when both turned on it. Bush the Younger avoided that mistake, but made one of his own by forgetting that VSE needed to be nurtured and defended in the long term. President Obama’s approach, as I think we all agree, has been awful on so many levels.

    • Paul Spudis says:


      I agree with you on Bush-41, but not on Bush-43. A President’s attention span is short, especially given that we were embroiled in two ground wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) at the time. It was NASA that dropped the ball on the VSE, first by not understanding (or by deliberately misunderstanding) its purpose and mission and then by selecting an unaffordable architecture to implement it. Even so, after Bush left office, it still could have been re-vectored to affordability and testimony to that effect was presented to the 2009 Augustine committee, which they ignored (heightening my suspicions that their conclusions were pre-ordained.)

      • Mark R. Whittington says:

        To be sure, but the old Harry Truman maxim of where the buck stops still applies, IMHO. If NASA was dropping the ball (and to be fair Griffin claims it was OMB) all it should have taken was a two hour meeting at the White House to get things back on track. Iraq and the economy aside, time should have been found for that at least.

        • Joe says:

          “If NASA was dropping the ball (and to be fair Griffin claims it was OMB) all it should have taken was a two hour meeting at the White House to get things back on track.”

          If OMB really was the culprit, given the long sad history of OMB undercutting NASA; the President would probably have to put such a meeting on his calendar about once a week.

          O’Keefe was well connected to Cheney and was thus able to keep OMB at bay. Griffin had no such connections.

  7. Gary Church says:

    And my view….which it is damn unpatriotic and un-American to discuss; cold war toys are easy money and spaceships are hard money. I was in the military 23 years and am not shamed into silence with “SUPPORT THE TROOPS!” I was one of the troops.

    Nobody will touch on the DOD as having anything to do with NASA budget woes- and the defense industry would much rather keep it that way. Like playing the race card; call it the “old glory card.” Ask Norm Augustine about it.

    Then there are the Ayn-Rand-in-Space libertarian NewSpace clowns who wrap their anti-government, anti-NASA, and in reality, anti-space, free enterprise informercial in the flag. They have managed to get me banned from almost all the discussion forums. You can call it my own fault for being a “troll” but first go ahead and criticize Musk or SpaceX using their own language and see how long YOU last. Anyone who does not get they are just shilling, knowingly or unknowingly, for that company, knows little about spaceflight.

    And finally there is the simplest truth of all- Human Space Flight as a political football. I am not a sports fan, was not born with the gene, so I have an unbaised view on the old ball game; sports has no real meaning. It is B.S. Really. So when jobs-for-votes is the game then any progress in space explorations is doomed before it starts. Using this lamp any amateur historian (like me) can compare the nuts and bolts of World War 2 and discern exactly what has happened to our space agency. Take a look at most of the major weapons programs during that period and you will find common elements in Apollo, the Shuttle, etc.

    The only solution is for someone to come in and fire people- lots of people- and say, no more games, this is what we need to accomplish, so either do it or find something else to do.

    I heard an extremely enlightening public radio show about GM going bankrupt a couple months ago. It took years for GM to switch over to Japanese production methods (actually they were originally American methods but we dropped them after World War 2) because the plant managers were nearly gods unto themselves and were almost impossible to fire. They hung on for years and fought the new programs tooth and nail. Eventually GM did improve but by then it was too late and they went bankrupt. True story and a very similar in many ways to NASA.

    I will not reiterate my own space game plan- the regulars here are familiar with it. It starts with radiation and massive shielding blah blah blah. But aside from just ignoring the facts I base this “Moon First” plan on, nobody, in the last 4 years, has ever changed my mind about it.

  8. Grand Lunar says:

    Hale’s “look in the mirror” comment seems to be put out as a distraction from the real issue.

    Those that pay attention and really know what they are talking about know damn well who is responsible for the state of affairs we’ve gotten ourselves into.

    The real question I wonder is what we can do about it.

    • billgamesh says:

      As I stated before, I have big problems with Bob Zubrin (I think Mars is a dead end) but his example of the Chinese fleet in the 15th century is…..a profound and important allegory about our own space program.

      In my view NewSpace is the worst possible thing that could have happened to space exploration. Their business plan is just a cheap and nasty continuation of the pay-for-itself-cargo-bay-of-dreams. We are trapped in LEO, which is not space, and Mars is a worthless fantasy.

      The ice on the Moon is the key enabling resource. We have to go back to the Moon and the only way to get there is how we went the first time- a state sponsored Super Heavy Lift Vehicle flying every couple months for the NEXT 30 years.

      Nobody seems to understand the Shuttle was only marginally less powerful than the Saturn V. Instead of going to the Moon it put a 737 size glider in LEO so it could come right back down. We could have been going to the Moon for the last quarter century for the same amount of money.

      • billgamesh says:

        And I would add that Dr. Spudis’ statement that, “If you find yourself traveling down the wrong road, stopping and turning around is the first step toward fixing the problem” is the first step.

        If a group of space advocates were to form a Mothers Against Drunk Drivers type organization with a simple mission statement it might accomplish something. The problem is, of course, the space advocates themselves.

        “So damn those stupid space advocates! All they do is argue!”

  9. billgamesh says:

    Gerard Kitchen O’Neill was inspired by his students to pursue space colonization. He admits in his writings that they offered up many conclusions he adopted and formalized. I would like to think that this forum is a kind of classroom and Dr. Spudis might be inspired by some of the comments here. Somebody has to step up and become a spokesman for Human Space Flight or it might very well end. All it takes is a downturn in the world economy and space programs will become a luxury of the past “golden age.”

    As it is if things continue down the NewSpace road I do not expect to see humans leave Earth orbit again in the quarter century or so left of my lifespan.

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