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.