“Lost in Space 2016,” a public forum held recently in Houston at the Baker Institute of Rice University, was enlightening, although perhaps not in the sense the organizers intended. Seven space policy experts were invited to come and share their opinion of the state of America’s civil space program. During the panel discussion, one of the participants casually shared an insight that I believe has not been revealed previously.
“The Constellation program, frankly, had a lot of funding problems and some pretty serious technical problems. You know it probably was the right thing to do to cancel it. But it didn’t mean we should not go to the Moon. …. It came down to us on the committee to not talk too much about the Moon, because there was no way this administration was going to go there, because it was W’s program. OK, that’s a pretty stupid reason not to go to the Moon. I’m hopeful with this election cycle that maybe the Moon will be a possibility again.”
Leroy Chiao’s description of the Augustine committee deliberations is quite striking, so let us examine its various components.
The Constellation Program was how NASA chose to implement President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Indeed, Constellation had both funding and technical problems, but nothing that couldn’t have been resolved. There was the question about the announced schedule for lunar return, which the agency had claimed would include human missions to the Moon by 2020. In particular, I remember that the Augustine committee was concerned that the first missions to the lunar surface had slipped to the unimaginably distant date of 2025. The committee even suggested that an additional $3 billion per year would “fix” what was being described as an appalling schedule problem. Seven years on, such criticism of the program schedule is ironic, to say the least.
Most of the “serious technical problems” of Constellation were actually funding problems. The Ares I crew launch vehicle was experiencing a minor issue with thrust oscillation (and there were design objections to the whole idea of Ares I) but that, and other issues could well have been mitigated. Work had barely started on Orion and Altair – the command and lunar modules of the Constellation system, so their problems were almost entirely fiscal rather than technical. Options were presented to the Augustine committee (e.g., the presentation by NASA Johnson Space Center’s John Shannon and the Human Exploration Framework Team) that would have fixed the alleged problems of Constellation, and without an increase in yearly spending. These proposals were not simply refused – they were just flat ignored in the final report.
The attitude of the Augustine committee to the HEFT proposal to fix Constellation puzzled many of us who were involved in planning the original VSE. Given that the chosen path back to the Moon could have been modified to avoid or correct the real and perceived problems of Constellation, why cancel the whole effort instead of adopting the fixes? Now we know why – because “it came down” to the committee during deliberations not to discuss the benefits of going to the Moon. Chiao’s use of the phrase “came down” to describe the discussion environment, clearly indicates that the committee was instructed by those who commissioned it (the Obama administration) to not conclude that going to the Moon was valuable, nor was it to consider or advocate the offered technical fixes to the VSE lunar return architecture.
Supporters of the current direction would probably argue that even if all of these statements are true, the bulk of the Augustine report is solid and that both its technical analysis and recommendations are impeccable. In fact, Chiao’s comments prove the exact opposite. His statement that during the committee’s deliberations, “it came down” to not “talk too much” about the Moon, discloses that the committee’s conclusions were pre-ordained. Left unsaid are such pertinent facts as the Who and the How represented in this directive, but clearly, as members of the committee felt compelled to obey it (even possibly against their better judgment), such direction must have had considerable administrative weight.
If the Moon was a priori taken off the table, then the report is not the objective technical analysis claimed by its sponsors, but rather a blatantly political document designed to justify in retrospect a decision undertaken entirely for political reasons. This decision continues to cause great turmoil – the loss of a national capability and the predictable costs to the civil space program that comes from a crippling disruption. Significantly, the retirement of the Space Shuttle program (a key milestone of the VSE) proceeded apace, leaving the nation with no national means to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Chiao shared with “Lost in Space 2016” that cancelling lunar return because it was “W’s program” (i.e., an idea conceived and advocated by the previous administration) is a “pretty stupid reason not to go to the Moon.” People have all kinds of reasons to not want to go to the Moon, but politics is now and always has been part of the equation in considerations of national space policy. Some segments of both political parties have always had a problem with the human spaceflight program, believing that it is federal money poorly spent. They would rather spread that money around to their political supporters through various alternative programs. So I am not surprised by this rationale.
However, it’s not clear to me that either of the current candidates for President are inclined to re-instate lunar return as a goal for America’s civil space program, nor is it clear that they favor the current Program of Record. Human spaceflight simply is not a political issue in this Presidential election, just as it has never been an issue in Presidential elections. (Arguably, the debate about the alleged “missile gap” in the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960 was about space, but that occurred before human spaceflight existed and was in reality a debate about our national defense posture. Moreover, as a campaign issue, it was completely bogus – the Eisenhower administration knew that there wasn’t a “missile gap” but decided to say nothing so as not to give away our national intelligence gathering capabilities.)
Chiao’s disclosure does raise a significant issue about the “expert” advice sought and given on national scientific and technical issues. There is a tendency (or is it a hope?) in the media and the public to believe that the pronouncement of technical experts on questions of import should be accepted at face value because, after all, “these people know of what they speak.” Chiao’s revelation puts the lie to such wholesome ideals. Commissions and studies, and panels of experts can only answer the questions they are asked, and sometimes these questions are framed in a way to project what answers are expected in response. Of course, even when these committees deal with alternatives in a straightforward manner, their conclusions can always be torqued in desired directions. One might reflect on these facts in regard to other “scientific” advice the federal government solicits and receives on a variety of scientific and technical topics of public interest, such as energy policy and climate change.
Although I can’t describe this revelation as gratifying because of the damage it’s caused, it is good to see a member of the Augustine committee confirm what many of us in the space community had long suspected, but could not prove – that the decision to terminate NASA’s human lunar return was not driven by technical or programmatic considerations, but rather by base and petulant political calculation and desire. It is unfortunate that it took so long for a member of the Augustine committee to publicly share this information. This knowledge would have been valuable to those members of Congress who were trying to save the VSE in the critical budget years of 2010 and 2011. If these facts had come to light then, we might have had a more positive resolution of the conflict. Now, as some of us predicted at the time, our human spaceflight program has been decimated and we are left with NASA’s Potemkin Village-like “#JourneytoMars” and the science-fiction fantasies of Elon Musk.