“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.