The Vision for Space Exploration: A Brief History (Part 2)

A key finding of the Gold Team was that by using existing Shuttle parts and infrastructure, development of the Shuttle side-mount (SSM) would be cheaper and quicker than a newly designed heavy lift vehicle. Two SSM vehicles could launch a human mission to the Moon. Image by Frassanito and Associates

In Part 1 of this series, I sketched out some background regarding the conception and the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).  I will now share more of this history by describing some activities that occurred both within and outside of NASA during the first few months immediately following its rollout.

As part of the VSE speech, President Bush charged Former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldridge with chairing a commission to examine how NASA should implement the VSE.  The Aldridge Commission, consisting of nine members drawn from government, academia and industry, was to report to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.  I was asked to serve on this commission and eagerly accepted the job.

The Aldridge Commission was given a six-month timeframe, so we proceeded in earnest. During our first meeting, we each expressed our initial thoughts on what we needed to do, as well as any reservations or concerns we might have.  Interestingly, everyone at the table was concerned that the VSE be sustainable, a word now appropriated by the green lobby and one that I have since come to detest, but at the time, it simply meant that as a multi-decadal program, the VSE must be constructed to survive several Congressional and Presidential terms of office.  This heedfulness was not merely about money.  We all realized that for sustained support, a momentum of consistent, steady progress was critical.  Everyone, regardless of background, was sensitive to this overarching concern.

NASA was also considering the implementation of the VSE during this same time period.  They drew together internal teams to study how the effort might be organized.  This Red Team/Blue Team activity occurred during the first few months after the VSE speech.  The most striking result from these studies was the de-emphasis of the Moon as a theater of activity.  The President’s VSE speech had been very clear about why we were going to the Moon – to learn how to live and work there for increasing periods of time, including the use of local resources.  True enough, this was a challenge; one for which success was not certain.  But undertaking such challenges is why we have a federal space program.

In the work of the Red/Blue teams, the Moon mission became the Gemini of an Apollo-to-Mars mega-effort.  This was expressed through the use of phrases such as “touch-and-go” (i.e., land on the Moon to check the box and then move on to Mars) and “exit strategy” (i.e., develop a way for NASA to extract itself from any lunar activities so that money could be spent on Mars missions.)  Consider:  we had yet to accomplish a single step toward lunar return and the agency was spending more effort worrying about leaving the Moon than planning to get there.   Though the VSE directed it, no part of their effort looked at using lunar resources to enable Mars missions.  Some within NASA flatly and brazenly denied that lunar resources had anything to do with the VSE.  In situ resource utilization was defined as too “immature” a technology to rely on.  One might have recalled that when the Apollo program began, orbital rendezvous was “immature” in that it had never been done, but it was not dismissed out of hand from the beginning.

Meanwhile members of the Aldridge Commission stormed though a national tour, meeting in several cities to hear testimony and give people “ownership” of our results. The Commission was given a grateful and enthusiastic welcome everywhere it went.  We came to the conclusion that this effort must be undertaken with a different mindset than previous NASA programs and made several suggestions to permit such an evolution of the program’s operational template.  Several Commission recommendations were adopted eventually, such as the development of a commercial launch-to-LEO capability, while others were not (e.g., the re-establishment of the National Space Council to oversee NASA for the White House).  Our report specifically noted that an Apollo-style program to achieve any of the VSE goals was likely to be unsustainable.

As the Commission’s work and NASA’s Red/Blue Team activities plowed ahead, a low visibility effort also was making progress.  Bill Readdy, at this time the Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight (responsible for both Shuttle and ISS) and with his hands already full returning Shuttle to flight status, put together his own team to see how the VSE might be implemented, focusing on “the art of the possible” and the maximum use of existing NASA capabilities and infrastructure.  Tasked to think outside the box and develop innovative plans, this activity, dubbed the “Gold Team,” was an informal effort parallel to the agency’s Red/Blue Team activity.

The Gold Team outlined a plan that would return Shuttle to flight and fly it enough to complete the ISS, while simultaneously developing a heavy lift vehicle based on Shuttle parts – the Shuttle side-mount (SSM) launch vehicle.  The SSM could carry over 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), more than enough for human missions to the Moon (the immediate post-ISS destination of the agency).  A major advantage of this approach was that SSM used existing manufacturing tooling and launch infrastructure at the Cape – no new dies, tooling, VAB platforms or launch pad hardware would be needed.  Consequently, the cost for developing a launch system around a SSM heavy lift vehicle was a fraction of what was needed to develop and build a new heavy lift rocket from scratch.

Prior to human arrival on the Moon, the Gold Team envisioned a significant robotic presence there to prospect for and to learn how to use its resources, as well as to emplace infrastructure on the surface.  These spacecraft would validate systems designed for later human use.  Not only did the Gold Team map out a plan that could return us to the Moon relatively quickly (mid-2010s), their architecture also was achievable under the highly restrictive budgetary environment that had been assumed for the VSE.

NASA named a new Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, Admiral Craig Steidle, who had previously overseen the Joint Strike Fighter program.  The JSF program had used a management style called “spiral development,” an evolutionary systems engineering method that can be simply expressed as “build a little, test a little.”  Predictably (and in line with the agency’s history and penchant for managerial process gimmicks), Powerpoint engineering, endless meetings on spirals and technology road-mapping quickly became substitutes for bending metal and flying missions.

The absolute nadir of this exercise in process-oriented “busy work” came more than two years after the announcement of the VSE, when in April of 2006, a four-day workshop was convened in Washington DC to determine exactly why we were going to the Moon and what we would do once we were there.  This effort was undertaken despite the fact that both the reasons for, and the activities of, lunar return had been laid out in the original VSE speech.  Yet to observe this workshop, one would have thought that the very idea of going to the Moon had just sprung unbidden from the forehead of Zeus.  Rather than the succinct “go there to learn how to live and work productively on another world,” the major result coming out of this gathering was a wall chart of six identified “themes” of lunar return with more than 100 different surface activities and questions to investigate.  The breadth of the lunar “mission statement” had “grown” so wide and its activities so nebulous, that few in the agency (up to and including, most notoriously, the person tapped to be the “keeper of the requirements” for lunar return) could state the mission on the Moon in a single sentence – a clear signal that the mission was not understood.

In the spring of 2005, NASA was no closer to the Moon than it had been from the start of the VSE – in fact, it was farther away in the sense that a clear, well defined mission had been rendered fuzzy and uncertain.   After serving several years as NASA Administrator and developing and guiding the VSE, Sean O’Keefe announced his forthcoming departure from the agency.   As the direction and success of the VSE hung in the balance, the search for O’Keefe’s replacement was set in motion.

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21 Responses to The Vision for Space Exploration: A Brief History (Part 2)

  1. Joe says:

    A very interesting article (as usual).

    I was particularly fascinated with the discussion of the “Gold Team”. During the period I was working on the Shuttle Program. I was not on the Gold Team, but (I now realize) I had friends/co-workers that were. They described the plans in detail and it all made a great deal of sense. We were all very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

    But (according to them) Steidle was completely uninterested. They believed (at first) he already knew he wanted to do something different, but later came to think he just did not know what he wanted to do. He kept “widening the trade space” while making no decisions. I remember running into one of them and asking how it was going and she replied: “Well Joe, we are diverging on a solution.”

    When Griffin took over there was again a lot of hope he would give the plan an evaluation. But he apparently really did know already what he wanted to do.

    • Paul Spudis says:


      He kept “widening the trade space” while making no decisions.

      That is also my recollection of those days. I submit that a current parallel is the obsession for “technology development” in lieu of flying missions. I think that this is merely an excuse to defer decision making, usually indefinitely. A mission that never flies can never fail.

    • denniswingo says:

      “Well Joe, we are diverging on a solution.”

      You just won my yuk yuk of the day award…..

      Paul is right on all of this of course. I went to some of these confabs like this and I was completely amazed that a core part of the Bush speech was rejected (ISRU) because it was not a mature technology.

      Good figging lord!

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  3. Very interesting Dr. Spudis. But its also very depressing!

    Ironically, NASA is currently developing the first critical component of a return to the Moon architecture (the SLS). But it will never be utilized that way unless lunar proponents somehow recapture the imagination of Congress with a strong rational as to why NASA should return to the Moon without making enemies with the Mars First advocates and the Commercial Crew advocates.

    I think lunar advocates need to come out with a graphically illustrated paper or poster, or both, that fully details:

    1. How to utilize the SLS (Congress’s baby which I approve of) efficiently to set up a manned outpost for mining and manufacturing water at the lunar poles and for the production of liquid hydrogen and oxygen once it is fully functional (RS 25E rocket engines are in full production and CPS stage has been completed in 2021). (I think you answered most of this question with the paper you wrote with Lavoie).

    2. The advantages of using lunar water resources for mass shielding and fueling chemically manned spacecraft located at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points for manned flights to Mars. A simple cis-lunar space to Mars architecture needs to be described and illustrated that uses lunar resources and probably water or oxygen resources from the moons of Mars.

    3. How we can incorporate the manned– Earth to orbit– architectures of private commercial crew companies for manned flights to the Moon and Mars including potential non-government commercial possibilities for private tourist trips to the Moon using the reusable lunar architecture.

    4. How do we maximize the use of the lunar transportation and outpost architecture for similar use for out post on the moons of Mars and on the surface of Mars

    5. How do we financially and physically involve foreign astronauts in our lunar outpost and manned Mars programs

    6. How do we establish a permanent presence on the Moon and Mars within an $8 to $8.4 billion a year manned spaceflight related budget over the next 25 years ($200 to $210 billion dollars).

    I plan to post my own detailed ideas on these questions on my blog in the near future. But I hope you and your colleagues will come up with some detailed plans of your own. I think showing Congress how a permanent lunar outpost can make Mars much easier and economical to reach and to stay might be a winning scenario for everyone!

    Marcel F. Williams

    • Paul Spudis says:


      why NASA should return to the Moon without making enemies with the Mars First advocates and the Commercial Crew advocates.

      I’m not sure that this is possible. One of my themes in this series is that the Mars mania of people within NASA helped to first re-vector the VSE and then de-rail it. I could make a similar case for the Space Exploration Initiative of the early 1990s. As for “commercial crew” advocates, they care more about who is getting federal subsidies and who is in charge than about where we are going or what we are doing.

      • That’s why I think its useful to present a scenario to Mars advocates where a permanent lunar outpost significantly enhances the human ability to safely travel to Mars through lunar water resources while also utilizing the same basic lunar outpost hardware for permanent outpost on the moons of Mars and on the surface of Mars.

        A lunar aided– permanent human presence on Mars– might be much more attractive to Mars advocates, IMO, than the extremely limited and expensive Apollo style sorties concepts. Why? Because I don’t think the Mars obsessed just want to visit Mars. I think they want to stay! A permanent presence on Mars would allow humans and machines to thoroughly explore the entire planet.

        My problem with Commercial Crew advocates is that they want more than just the development of private commercial manned space programs. They also seem to have a political agenda that advocates completely ending any government manned space programs that are not conducted through private commercial space architectures. That’s a pretty extremist philosophy, IMO, especially for companies that have yet to achieve the goal of getting people safely and routinely into orbit:-)

        But if NASA could develop a reusable people shuttle that could conduct round trip transfers of people between LEO and the lunar surface by only using a single fill up of lunar fuel (like the Orion in the movie 2001)– then that might greatly reduce some of NASA’s recurring cost– especially if they used private Earth to orbit shuttles to meet such lunar shuttles at LEO. Of course, if private companies purchased this NASA developed architecture for themselves, this would also give private space companies easy and cheap access to the lunar surface.

        Marcel F. Williams

  4. The Moon isn’t just a destination…. It’s a WORLD!

    • Paul Spudis says:


      It is also an enabling asset, one with relevance to the creation of new space faring capabilities. I think that this is the Moon’s most important attribute.

      • The odd thing is that China, Russia, Japan, Europe and the US Congress all seem to recognize the value of the Moon. Yet President Obama and Presidential candidate Romney don’t!

      • DougSpace says:

        But Nelson is right. “Space faring” first implies “space traveling”. The Moon’s icy resources can help significantly with that. But those and other lunar resources can also be used to establish a permanent manned base which also can teach valuable lessons for settlement of off-Earth destinations (such as Phobos). But the establishmemt of a permanent manned and expanding lunar base is itself a valuable goal irregardless of any additional activities which it will enable.

  5. Robert Clark says:

    Well written article. Relevant to the discussion is that the SLS will have the capability for manned lunar landing missions from its very first launch in 2017. I discuss this here:

    SLS for Return to the Moon by the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11.

    Dr. Spudis with Tony Lavoie wrote a nice description of a low cost, maintainable lunar outpost here:

    Mission and Implementation of an Affordable Lunar Return.

    Spudis is not a fan of commercial space but imagine how low cost this outpost could be if all cargo launches were made by the Falcon Heavy at reportedly 1/5th the launch costs per kilo of the current launch vehicles available. The Falcon Heavy for delivering only cargo could land 12 mT on the lunar surface when you don’t need the return trip of a manned vehicle by using the architecture described here :

    SpaceX Dragon spacecraft for low cost trips to the Moon.

    This would mean 1/6th as many flights than by using current expendables, in addition to the cost per kilo only being 1/5th as much.
    Then you could also use the SLS just for the crewed flights.

    Bob Clark

    • Paul Spudis says:


      Thank you for the comments. Note that I am NOT a “non-fan” of commercial space, but rather, have pointed out in past writings that true commercial entities use their own capital to develop and market their products or services and are not dependent on government grants and loans.

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  7. Warren Platts says:

    I agree with Marcel that perhaps the trick to moving forward would be a clear explanation on how we go from a permanently crewed Lunar ISRU station to a permanently crewed Mars base. How do we get past the self-licking icecream cone stage? Dennis Wingo suggested above that we need to choose an architecture by working backwards from the requirements of a Lunar station; but really, we should work backwards from the requirements of Mars missions that would make use of Lunar propellants. Moreover, the Mars missions shouldn’t merely make use of Lunar propellant, it should be in game-changing amounts that would allow an “abundant chemical” Mars architecture.

    Thus, the first step is an order of magnitude estimate of propellant production requirements:

    10 mT —> enough to lift an ascender module or two;

    100 mT —> enough to start making a significant dent in the cost of a Lunar base;

    1000 mT —> enough to render an aggressive Lunar base essentially self-sufficient in propellant;

    10,000 mT —> enough to enable an abundant chemical Mars architecture.

    10,000 mT sounds like a lot: if we go with 5:1 mass ratio, that would require cracking 15,000 m^3 of H20; but at 10% water content with a 2-meter deep pit, about 9 acres per year would have to be exacavated: basically the size of your local mom ‘n’ pop gravel pit. Since the base would be self-sufficient in propellant, the annual overhead for the base could reasonably be expected to be on the order of $2B/year; thus propellant would cost ~$200/kg.

    To get to this point, I’ve estimated the total downmass to be on the order of 400 to 600 mT. With beefy landers of the DTAL sort that ULA proposed and landing at the rate of 2 or 3 cargo flights per year, all the parts could be emplaced within 10 years of 1st landing.

    The showstopper is going to power requirements: to crack and liquify that amount of propellant is going to run into multiple 10’s of megawatts.

    Of the 10,000 mT of propellant produced at Lunar surface, up to 3,000 mT/year could be made available at an L2 depot. This is huge: for NASA to replace that capability at current launch prices of $10K/kg, it would cost taxpayers an astounding $72B/year! This is the sort of leverage Lunar propellant can provide!

    The propellant would be lifted to L2 using a small fleet of DC-X-like VTVL SSTO tanker-landers with a capacity of
    120 mT of LH2/LO2.

    If the SLS ever gets built, I would recommend turning it into a 1-trick pony where its only job is to lift 120-mT tankers. This way, they could possibly get the launch rate up to the best Shuttle levels–say 6 flights per year. The Block II could lift these fully fueled at a cost of about $3K/kg; Block I LV’s could be topped off at a LEO depot.

    Rather than disposing of these modules at L2, they should be stockpiled and used to construct the MTV’s. The ULA MTV consists of 6 120-mT propellant modules surrounding a central habitat module. And they propose sending 2 at a time. That’s 1440 mT per Mars mission just for the MTV’s. Note single stage MTV’s would have a delta v capability of 11 km/sec–more than enough for round-trip, fully-propulsive Hohman transfers. If refueled in Mars orbit, they could get the 1-way trip to Mars down to perhaps 90 to 100 days.

    Flying depots composed of clusters of 7 modules would have 840 mT capacities. We probably want to send 2 of those depots. These could double as giant L2-departure stages for deliver of cargo and landers to Mars.

    Since launch windows open every 2 years, but round-trip Mars missions last longer than 2 years, thus in order to be able to launch missions every window, we would have to double the number of all spacecraft. That would take 52 120-mT tanker modules, but with 60 120-mT tankers sent to the Moon over the course of 10 years, there would be enough to make a spare MTV or flying depot.

    As Marcel points out, a lot of the Mars development costs would have been paid for by the Lunar program. But it’s better than that: the beauty of the abundant chemical architecture is that if there is a design problem, it is solved by throwing propellant at it. Rather than being mass starved, the abd-chem architecture has more cheap propellant than it knows what to do with. No need for aerocapture. Landers and all interplanetary spacecraft would be fully propulsive. Martian ISRU can be taken off the critical path–no more need for CO2 sniffers–there is a reason we don’t do this on Earth….

    In sum, there is no need for an exclusionary Moon or Mars, soup or salad choice: we can have the cream and we can have the sugar if we want! The path from A to Z merely has to be spelled out all the way.

    • Paul Spudis says:


      the trick to moving forward would be a clear explanation on how we go from a permanently crewed Lunar ISRU station to a permanently crewed Mars base

      I contend that part of the problem we have is the obsession with Mars. I consider it A destination, not THE destination. Our real goal is to become “space faring” — this is, the ability to go where we want, when we want and with whatever we need to do any job we can imagine. That requires a space transportation infrastructure.

      I am proposing the development of cislunar space based around the harvesting and use of lunar propellant. If we have that, we can access all the “pay zones” of cislunar (MEO, GEO, HEO, the L-points and the lunar surface), for whatever activities people want to do there. Such a capability permits real return on investment (e.g., large (ISS-sized) communications complexes at GEO assembled by people and robots.) in the near-term and provides independent revenue streams. Moreover, the development of such a transportation infrastructure enables human missions to the planets.

      The inevitable focus on Mars as some kind of “ultimate destination” for our civil space program over the last 30 years has done more to hold us back than any lack of funding has. The Mars obsession is a classic example of the adage, “The Better is the Enemy of the Good.”

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