In response to growing calls for NASA to revive the struggling U.S. space program and specifically to dampen any buzz of a possible U.S. lunar return, once again a well-worn process that I describe as “Augustining” has come to the fore. In brief, “to Augustine” something is to structure a report in such a way that a space goal or architecture is deemed “unaffordable.” From the outset, the resulting report must conclude that the program being evaluated is unaffordable and “sadly,” dropping it must be laid at the door of Congress for fiscal and programmatic restrictions and not by any desire on their part to kill the program.
The latest agency Augustining is a report describing a two-launch, Space Launch System (SLS) sortie mission to the Moon. Because only one launch pad at the Cape (Launch Complex 39) is being modified to accommodate the SLS, launches must be scheduled every six months, resulting in a fully fueled lander waiting in space for 6 months before the arrival of a human crew. The architecture moves the rendezvous point of the Orion crew vehicle and the lunar lander to low lunar orbit, rather than Earth orbit, presumably to add some mass advantage. The crew then transfers to the lander, descends and explores the lunar surface for about seven days, and then returns to the Orion in lunar orbit for the trip home. All pieces of hardware, except for the Orion command module, are discarded after use.
So what’s the big conclusion from this scenario? That it’s “unaffordable” of course. Hence, Administrator Bolden’s recent comments that return to the Moon will not happen “in my lifetime.” He also has said that no one should change the course NASA is currently on, because if the Moon again was made a goal for human spaceflight it would send the agency “back to square one”
Let us deal with the unaffordable aspect first. What this current “reference mission” really shows is that by employing the Augustining process, you can devise a dumb implementation and make any mission unaffordable. The criticism of Project Constellation was that it was “Apollo on steroids,” i.e., a large expendable rocket implementation of a short-stay mission to the lunar surface. Yet the new reference architecture doesn’t do anything differently. Except for changing some arcane technical details, it still is dependent on government-provided heavy lift and throws away all of the flight hardware except for a small crew return segment. Maybe we could fly it a couple of times, but replacing all that material for each mission would soon become tiresome and excessively costly, as it did near the end of the Apollo program.
The idea that attaining a space objective won’t happen in someone’s lifetime is often expressed in regard to human Mars missions. I hear this a lot from the human Mars mission advocates – “I want this to happen in my lifetime!” I have never heard the “within my lifetime” constraint expressed in any Presidential declaration of space goals since Kennedy, yet it constantly re-appears in technical discourse. It may be an understandable sentiment, but it is not a technical requirement. Personally, I would rather that we pursue a rational path into space, regardless of how long it takes. Of course, this is the expression of someone near the end of his career, who despairs of ever seeing a rational policy enacted to create an affordable, sustained program pursued over a reasonable time period.
So what’s wrong with going “back to square one?” To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if you’re on the wrong path, the one who turns around first is the most progressive. It’s been four years since the original Augustine report concluded that Project Constellation was “unaffordable.” They advocated instead a “flexible path” whereby we’d research technology and then go to destinations as we could. That report proposed missions to near Earth asteroids as a possible near-term goal that could be undertaken sooner and less expensively than lunar return.
Serious study of the asteroid option showed it to be more technically challenging than originally thought. Add to the mix that few near-Earth objects satisfy the constraints of the Orion system, abort possibilities and crew safety. Issues arose over how the crew would interact with the asteroid, including safety concerns with regard to approaching rapidly spinning objects (What information gathering activities would the crew do? Explore a homogeneous rock? Sample an object for which we already have several hundred metric tons here on Earth? Process the asteroid to extract resources with the limited power and loiter time of the Orion spacecraft?). As none of these issues have straightforward answers or solutions, a growing chorus has challenged the agency to explain the rationale propelling this mission option. The answer seems to be “affordability.”
The administration adopted a 2012 study that proposed using solar electric power to haul a near-Earth object back to cislunar space where it would be reached by a human crew in the Orion spacecraft. No “expensive” lunar lander would be needed, just rendezvous and station-keeping with an asteroid in orbit around the Moon (thus avoiding the return to “square one”). Yet in spite of all these contortions, once again we would throw away all the hardware except for the Orion crew return vehicle. This is “affordability” by virtue of being smaller, less ambitious and more pointless.
The real problem with the new outlined lunar return scenario is its mission – a seven-day sortie to the lunar surface. I have previously described the drawbacks of sortie missions. By conducting sorties, you dissipate your limited hardware and resources by scattering them over a large area and by using them only once. This is acceptable if the mission has some urgency or you have limited and specific objectives. But as part of a greater architecture, it does not lend itself to permanence or to the establishment of any legacy hardware, infrastructure or capability. Those concepts are anathema to the current version of the agency, which is focused on one-off stunt missions designed to deflect public attention from the fact that the U.S. space program has been decimated.
Of course, as they will endlessly explain to you, the real goal of NASA is a human Mars mission. Any near-term mission is merely prelude to this grand adventure. But for what are we preparing? The current Mars mission scenario requires that all the propellant for the mission be launched from Earth. In the old Constellation plan, that required 8-12 Ares V (150 metric ton each) launches, most of which carried propellant for the voyage. At the current projected launch rate of one SLS (100 ton) every six months, it adds up to an even more formidable task than Constellation’s architecture. This is in addition to all the other issues involved in a human Mars mission, including protecting the crew during a long duration trip and the currently unsolved “entry, descent and landing on Mars” problem – and all for a one-off “sortie” mission to “search for life.” If the crew doesn’t find life, is the mission deemed a failure? A wide diversity of space activities has suffered because of this “search for life” obsession that’s enveloped the agency for so long.
The American civil space program is now dead in the water. They not only have no solution to their cost-difficulty problem, they don’t even have a path forward toward fixing it. They are however, experts at telling us what we can’t do, where we can’t go (usually because they aren’t being given enough money) and why a given space goal will not or cannot happen in someone’s lifetime. Instead of devising a stepwise, incremental approach toward creating a permanent space faring capability, we get reports pre-designed to show us why the U.S. cannot attempt them.
To thrive, humanity must pioneer, explore and create. Under the strain of continued programmatic turmoil, confidence in our national civil space program is ebbing. Will future generations extol in the “Right Stuff” or will they retreat from the stage? It’s time we return to the Moon – back to “square one” – to continue on our journey to explore, prosper and secure the world.