Near the end of my recent two hour co-appearance with Dr. Jim Vedda on The Space Show (October 19, 2012), an ongoing misconception emerged about the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) and prompts me to detail some of the history of the VSE and its original intent. Such a review is timely as discussions rage about NASA’s current and future direction.
Look up the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) on Wikipedia. You will read that it was a “visionary plan for space” announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004. The VSE was devised to give our national civil space program a long-range direction – making human missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond the new strategic horizon for NASA, our national space agency. With the bipartisan passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, the VSE became our national space policy; the same policy was renewed three years later by Congress. Then, in the spring of 2010, it was terminated by the current administration.
Where did the VSE come from, what exactly happened to it and why did it go away? Answering these questions requires some background in order to give the context of the decisions about the VSE, and to explain how it came to be implemented by NASA.
After the Apollo program ended, the spaceflight community wanted ambitious, long-term goals for NASA, including human voyages into deep space, assuring strong U.S. leadership in space exploration, technology and science. The agency itself has long subscribed to the paradigm first outlined by Wernher von Braun in the late 1940s. It called for an Earth-to-low Earth orbit (LEO) rocket (preferably reusable), an Earth-orbiting space station, a Moon tug (for missions beyond LEO into cislunar space), and a manned Mars vehicle. This sequence made logical sense (in that each step enabled the next step) and as technology improved and matured, humanity would become a space faring species.
The geopolitical realities of the Cold War (Sputnik) intruded on this logical sequence, initiating America’s bold challenge to the Soviets, followed by a headlong drive to land a man on the Moon first. Once we had won the Moon race, there was no political need to continue the Apollo lunar missions and spaceflight once again was relegated to the background of modern American life. NASA returned to the von Braun architecture as best it could and implemented the first two steps – the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS), programs whose principal operating arena was low Earth orbit.
However, we already had “jumped ahead” in the von Braun sequence and been beyond LEO – we had walked and worked on the Moon. Many working in space activities looked back on that program as a lost “Golden Age,” very much in the sense that citizens of the latter-day Roman Empire looked upon the Age of Augustus. Throughout the eighties and nineties, many different proposals and initiatives attempted to define a new strategic goal for NASA, most often by attempting to resurrect the use of either the Moon or Mars part of the von Braun architecture as its centerpiece. In fact, these strategy initiatives frequently became Moon OR Mars campaigns, with each camp proclaiming their superior qualities and/or advantages.
In the wake of the 1986 loss of Space Shuttle Challenger (and on the twentieth anniversary of Apollo 11’s first landing on the Moon in 1989), President George H. W. Bush announced what was dubbed the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). SEI addressed the space goals sought by both Moon and Mars advocates. The space agency quickly studied the concept and announced it was achievable on a timescale of about thirty years and would cost around $500 billion (1990 dollars). Many gasped at that headline-grabbing cost estimate and detailed program facts were never as “good” as the headline – that this was the total aggregate cost to the agency for a thirty year time period and corresponded to roughly a doubling of the then-current NASA budget (at that time, about $10 billion per year or roughly 1% of our national budget).
Considering the scale and scope of what was being proposed, this number was not unreasonable. To give some context, during the time period between 1980 and 1995, the annual budget of the Department of Energy (DoE) ramped up from $8.4 billion to $18.4 billion (after the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union had already receded). Over the course of the past thirty years, DoE’s annual budget would exceed NASA’s by almost 50%. Money spent on entitlements (e.g., Medicare, student loans) and social welfare programs accelerated and increased at much higher rates.
The “$500 billion” SEI program was deemed too expensive and in the early 1990s, it was quietly abandoned. Assembly of the ISS kept NASA busy during the following six years and in 2000, the orbiting space station became operational. Then in early 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia and all seven members of the crew were tragically lost when the vehicle broke apart during re-entry. Once again, the agency looked to the White House for strategic guidance.
The Columbia accident initiated a top-level (nearly year-long) review of the goals and strategies of the U.S. civil space program. Much of this work is chronicled in New Moon Rising: The Making of America’s New Space Vision and the Remaking of NASA(Frank Sietzen and Keith Cowing, 2004), which describes the “sausage-making” phase of space policy in the Bush White House. Although that story is well told there, I will add a few new details not covered in their book.
I first became aware of this activity in mid-2003. I had been making the rounds in various venues, preaching the gospel of lunar return to anyone willing to listen. I received a favorable reaction from many people, including many at NASA (one was Gen. Jefferson Davis “Beak” Howell, the Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston) and retired space veterans (such as Tom Rogers, one of the key people involved in developing the Atlas launch vehicle and many other early space projects). Another key player was Dr. Klaus Heiss, an economist who originally made the case for developing the Space Shuttle and who had worked with President Reagan on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). A friend of George Bush the elder, Klaus had a private meeting with President Bush in the spring of 2003, where he urged him to focus on building a lunar base. Klaus and several others (including most notably Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger and his staff) understood the importance and value of learning how to use the resources of the Moon to create a permanent, sustainable space faring infrastructure. This idea was central, not peripheral, to the emergence of lunar return as a major theme of the new direction being formulated by the White House-NASA study group. The intent of the VSE was to put forth a strategic direction for the next few decades (leading to long-term space utility), so an ambitious, capability-creating paradigm was sought (and why President Bush specifically mentioned the use of lunar resources in his 2004 space policy speech).
However, the mission of the VSE became muddled and Mars advocacy was the reason. Although President Bush clearly understood the purpose and value of learning how to create new capability by going to the Moon, he wanted to demonstrate its wider relevance by including Mars as a goal in (not the goal of) the new VSE. This episode, memorably recorded in the Sietzen and Cowing book, occurred during the meeting to make a final decision on the VSE, when the President asked, “This is more than just the Moon, isn’t it?” – that the VSE was about creating the capability to do anything and everything in space, with the Moon as the enabling asset and lunar return the key to making use of that rich commodity.
Of the roughly 2000 words that make up the VSE speech President Bush delivered on January 14, 2004, the Moon is mentioned eleven (11) times. Moreover, the specific activities to be undertaken on the Moon are set forth and described, including learning how to live and work there for increasing periods of time and using its material and energy resources. Mars is mentioned four (4) times and no specific activities to be undertaken there are described. But “Mars” was the only word that many in NASA and elsewhere in the space community heard or wanted to hear. Almost immediately, the intent of the VSE to go to the Moon and learn to use what it had to offer was forgotten or ignored, at least by many below the Associate Administrator level (and a few at and above that level). In consequence, the new initiative found itself off course rather quickly. I will describe those events in my next post.