International Repercussions [Part 1] The Unreliable Partner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21 Responses to International Repercussions [Part 1] The Unreliable Partner

  1. Michael Wright says:

    >”While there is strong sentiment among most nations to pursue a logical path of return to the
    >Moon and the development of new spaceflight capabilities, one particularly recalcitrant member
    >nation insists upon going down a different path.”

    this reads just like Wingo’s article on the one-legged stool.

    On another item, in one of Wayne Hale’s blog he said Augustine II committee was directed to present options costing no more than $3 billion. Wayne disagreed with this cost-cap and did not want his name listed on the report though he was happy to help with the committee. Wayne felt there were other options “worthy of a great nation” except these may cost more than $3B. Also reminded me of cost-cap done in early 1970s for development of reusable spaceships.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      My complaint with the Augustine report is not their dealing from a stacked deck (which they did) but the more culpable problem that viable architectural alternatives that fit the existing budget were ignored (like Shuttle side-mount). They were bound and determined to get rid of lunar return.

      • DougSpace says:

        Why would the likes of Jeff Greason and Leroy Chiao choose / conspire to get rid of lunar return? Were they known beforehand to be strongly against lunar return? How could the Administration know that lunar return would be gotten rid of by the members of the Comission? Thx

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Ask them, not me.

          A committee can be stacked/oriented/pre-loaded to reach any conclusion wanted beforehand.

          • Michael Wright says:

            though may be pre-loaded, gives opportunity for others to vent as Dennis Wingo gives brief to Augustine II commission,
            “…your team has a historical opportunity as well as a responsibility to not only our generation but to the generations yet unborn to come up with a set of options that our political leaders can buy off on and pay for…”

            And thanks for providing this blog for some of us to vent.

      • libs0n says:

        You are the one who ignored the actual substance of the Augustine commission Spudis. Shuttle side-mount was considered and is in the report as one of the HLV options, and John Shannon gave a presentation on it to the panel during one of the broadcasted sessions, but the fact is it wasn’t the magical silver bullet that your deranged myopic obsession with it concludes it to be to make lunar missions feasible in the reality of the current and foreseeable budget alongside the other things necessary for a lunar program in that budget including its development and continual operation. You are no doubt a very good lunar geologist, but like many specialized men you have assumed that specialized competency extends over other subject areas where your views are in fact quite shallow and victim to your peculiar personality defects such as your immersion in the space shuttle program hyping culture of Houston/JSC that forms your entire limited worldview on the subject.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          I know that Augustine and the committee heard about Shuttle side-mount (I was there during John Shannon’s presentation)– they ignored it during their later architectural analysis. At that point (late 2009), the goal was to save what was left of the agency’s space faring infrastructure, then on the edge of total destruction (SLS now serves that function). But the committee went ahead with the pre-drawn conclusion — that the VSE was unaffordable. My point is that alternatives (including, but not limited to, side-mount) were offered and were not analyzed.

        • Joe says:

          If I might throw in one additional curiously about the committee’s handling of the Side Mount. Shannon’s presentation (backed up by extensive analysis) showed an achievable lunar architecture using two Side Mount launches.

          The committee’s preliminary analysis assumed that three launches (two of the Side Mount and one of an EELV) would be required. Based on that three launch scenario the committee apparently eliminated the Side Mount from consideration as an option for further analysis or presentation, but they never even bothered to explain why they ignored the two launch scenario in Shannon’s (well documented) presentation. No rationale for the three launch scenario was ever given.

          Also a question for “libs0n”.

          A few of your statements:
          – “your deranged myopic obsession”
          – “your views are in fact quite shallow”
          – “your peculiar personality defects”
          – “your entire limited worldview”

          I have often wondered what people who post as you do believe they gain by resorting to those types of ad hominem insults. It certainly wins no converts to your position, if anything just the opposite. So why do it?

        • First of all, NASA never asked for any additional money from Congress for the Constellation program since they planned to fund it by terminating the Space Shuttle program after 2011 and the ISS program after 2015.

          The Augustine commission inflated the cost of the Side-mount in their scenario by extending the Shuttle program until 2015 (actually a reasonable thing to do, IMO, in order to avoid any gap in America’s ability to send astronauts into space) and by– unreasonably– extending the life of the ISS program up to 2020.

          So it wasn’t a fare comparison since they inflated the cost of the Side-mount by approximately $22 billion by extending both the Shuttle and ISS programs.

          And anyone who is drinking the Obama-Holdren “mission to nowhere” kool-aid shouldn’t be calling anyone myopic:-)


  2. billgamesh says:

    Upon reading the mission statement at the beginning of the global exploration roadmap pdf that Dr. Spudis provides a link to I felt compelled to stop and make a comment before going on. The comment concerns the quote from Carl Sagan concerning the cosmic ocean. Space is not an ocean. The first space age ended in 1972 with the return of Apollo 17. This era lasted from 1968 till just short of 4 years later. Twenty four Americans escaped Earth’s gravity field and ventured into outer space over a period of a few years over four decades ago. That was it. It ended then and humankind is nowhere near beginning a second age of exploration.

    Innovation is a tricky phenomenon. I lived in Silicon Valley during the dot com boom at the turn of the century and there are dozens of huge office complexes that to this day have stood empty with for rent signs posted. In the Florida everglades there is an abandoned solid rocket booster facility from the 60’s and in a test pit is the hulk of the most powerful rocket ever tested. A pair of the evolved 325 inch versions of these monolithic boosters manufactured in submarine shipyards in the 1970’s would have produced over 30 million pounds of thrust at lift-off compared to the SLS’s projected 7.2 million in 2017. The mission statement of the Global Exploration Map conclusion includes “-space agencies seek to generate innovative ideas and solutions for meeting the challenges ahead.”
    I submit all the innovation is behind us; far behind. All that is needed now is a decision to spend the money on the existing solutions and open up the solar system to human exploration and development. The path to economic development is clear and also dates back half a century to a proposed space solar energy industry. The next administration will make the decision to establish a colony on the Moon and she needs to be convinced now. If Lockheed Martin wants to make a profit for their shareholders then they will have to follow the leader like everyone else. Unless they are really running the show. And considering the result of the Augustine Report that is a possibility.

  3. czoklet says:

    I just wanted to say (after lurking for months) that I love to read your blog, dr Spudis. Keep up the good work!

    Best wishes from Warsaw, Poland!

  4. Chris Castro says:

    The dice were cast, for this horrid state of affairs, in America’s space program, the moment the current President & his minions entered office. Now America seems unstoppably poised to put to waste this entire decade-worth of potential! I hate seeing it unfold, but the years 2010-to-2020 are going to be mystifying to explain, by future historians, with all the stagnation & total lack of progress! Just what are we doing, as a supposed world space power? Where in heaven’s name, is NASA headed to? What is the actual game plan, for America’s space enterprise?
    It’s like every other year, NASA’s top leaders come up with yet another wacko proposal——-or a wacky change to the currently most-favored scheme. All in the name of avoiding the Moon, like a plague! First came the idea of sending astronauts to an NEO. Then, it was changed to the idea of snaring up & towing the NEO all the way to cis-lunar distance, and launch astronauts to rendezvous with it there. Now, the Mars-fixation has come back full throttle, as they want to actually send a pair of voyagers all the way out, to a Mars fly-by mission! Meanwhile, not a single flight-ready manned space capsule exists, nor has flown yet, crewed. The ISS continues to vacuum up the lion’s share of the funds. No designated manned deep space capability is being worked toward. Not to mention the long list of technological milestone accomplishments, which need doing, if future human planetary journeys are to become reality. None of this intermediate work is being dealt with, by anybody! Bad political & administrative leadership, and their bad decisions have been dooming America’s lofty space goals to failure.
    I have a real hard time envisioning the nation, recovering from all this rotten misdirection & misadministering, with regard to its space program. Unless this country finds itself up against some really credible competition, internationally, then I’m afraid we’re doomed to continually accomplish nothing, well into the next decade also. (Both the “tens” decade & the “twenties”.)

    • Paul Spudis says:


      I am afraid that I largely agree with your interpretations. However, our recognition of reality does not excuse us from the responsibility to tell the truth as we see it, to all and sundry. Thanks for reading the blog.

  5. The easiest and cheapest way to have a sustainable human presence on Mars is by exporting lunar water to the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. Lunar water can be used for mass shielding interplanetary habitats from dangerous levels of cosmic radiation and major solar events. And lunar water can be used for the production of fuel for human interplanetary missions.

    A permanent human outpost on the Moon is the key to quickly establishing a permanent human outpost on the surface of Mars. Its that simple!

    But the Obama administration is really not interested in any of this. They’re not trying to help NASA get to Mars, they’re trying to paralyze NASA from ever getting to Mars– or any place else in the solar system. The Obama administrations only interested in continuing NASA’s perpetual $3 billion a year– mission to LEO– program by using the ISS as a make-work program for Commercial Crew companies and his rich friends like Elon– hoping the private companies will make NASA’s human space program obsolete so that those funds can be used for social programs– as he argued for during his first campaign.

    In the long run, the Obama administrations policies are going to hurt both NASA and the emerging Commercial Crew companies by allowing other nations to move rapidly ahead of us on the Moon and beyond. He simply doesn’t understand that government space programs and private space programs are– mutually beneficial to each other!

    Congress needs to– legislatively endorse– the logic of establishing a permanent human outpost on the Moon in order to expedite the establishment of a permanent human presence on Mars. Congress needs to offer the Obama administration a substantial increase in Commercial Crew funding– if the administration agrees to prioritize the deployment of a water and fuel producing human facility on the lunar surface.


  6. billgamesh says:

    “-tell the truth as we see it, to all and sundry.”

    “ARM, it is claimed, will better prepare us for human Mars missions than lunar surface missions will.”

    I am personally very upset when it is claimed this ARM smokescreen will protect the planet. It is bad enough that the only private organization advocating planetary protection has an anti-nuclear agenda and is pushing a “space tug” as the superior solution. Nuclear energy in space cannot be avoided when discussing planetary protection or interplanetary travel. But it is avoided.
    And then there is this “better prepare us for human Mars missions.” Mars is not even a good destination- it’s gravity well is too deep and there are no oceans. I have been telling the truth as I see it for the last couple years and have yet to hear a convincing argument against my findings.
    The first obvious conclusion that an objective researcher would come to is that space radiation and zero G debilitation must be eliminated before any Human Space Flight Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit can take place. Not just “mitigated” or “remedied”; for missions that require years taking the Earth environment with the mission is really the only option. This means that an unshielded non-rotating chemical propelled spacecraft will just not work. Reality. This then leads unavoidably to a narrow path and the first stop is not Low Earth Orbit or a refueling depot or a “gateway” station or any of these schemes. The first stop in building a spaceship that can maintain an Earth environment for the several years required is someplace to assemble, test, and launch nuclear systems. That someplace has to be outside the Earth’s magnetosphere. That someplace has to have a sanctuary from space radiation while you are putting a nuclear mission together. And since the first requirement is something in the neighborhood of a thousand tons of cosmic ray shielding for the spaceship that place should also provide this material (water) so as not to waste several billion dollars lifting this dumb mass out of Earth’s gravity well.
    This is the stark reality and no one is even talking about it.
    There is only one place and one way to get there. The Moon by SLS. The “possible international ramifications” of this state of denial are that for decade after decade, just like the last thirty years, the human race will continue to remain Earthbound. While many are fine with this I am not. Not because I am a “space cadet” or want to go on a tourist trip- I am worried about a replay of Chelyabinsk with a rock a couple thousand times bigger or a engineered pathogen escaping from some modest lab in a third world country. Preventing the end of civilization and saving the human race from extinction is my priority and it might also be an appropriate international goal. The rider to these possible doomsday scenarios is the certain slow burn and contamination of resources the world faces and the only solution to that is to be found outside the ecosystem by beaming down energy from space. The truth as I see it and I greatly appreciate Dr. Spudis providing this forum and allowing me to express my opinion.

  7. Robert Clark says:

    There is a solution, a low cost lander:

    Bob Clark

    • billgamesh says:

      As Joe commented last year here, SpaceX also advertised the cheap solution at 4000 dollars per pound to orbit and that translated to 133,000 dollars per pound in practice. I do not know how much that figure has improved since September 2013.

      Promising cheap and breaking that promise has become the “Norm” in the aerospace business. In 2002 Lockheed Martin spokesmen “promised” to deliver a future plane-that-will-not-be-named for 35 million each and a recent block of those aircraft were purchased years late in 2012 at 304.15 million each if the R&D costs paid by the customer are added. If those same R&D costs paid for by the taxpayer were factored into SpaceX launches the difference between what was advertised and what is being delivered becomes absurd. In the case of the SLS such pervasive deception is not possible due in part to the demonizing of the program perpetrated by new space sycophants.

      So forgive me Bob if I repeat my own favorite advertising slogan; There is no cheap!

  8. JohnG says:

    I found it interesting that Mark Robinson wasn’t the only one to speak of the critical importance of the Moon. Bernhard Hufenbach of the European Space Agency (ESA) said something along the lines that ‘you can’t build an international partnership if you don’t include the Moon in the exploration roadmap’. Also, later in the same workshop, NASA’s Roland Martinez showed a ‘consumers digest’ type chart that showed how NASA was using different destinations to reduce the risk for human missions to Mars. Without any NASA systems being tested on the lunar surface, this leads me to conclude that all surface systems that will be used on Mars will have to be designed and built by international partners (or possibly commercial), since they will be the only ones that have the needed experience and the ‘know how’ gained on the Moon. NASA’s contribution to an international Mars mission would then be confined to spacecraft and deep-space habitats. This will be a boon for the international partners, as they will be the only ones with a capability to work and live on another planetary surface. Later, other countries launch vehicles (both China and Russia have plans for heavy launchers similar to NASA’s SLS) and spacecraft could get internationals to their destination of choice. NASA, only playing the role of a delivery driver, may one day find they have no paying passengers. That should be very inspiring for America’s youth!

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