In the last installment, I described NASA’s development of Project Constellation, the architecture chosen during the Bush Administration to implement the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). When President Barack Obama assumed the nation’s helm in 2009, his attitude toward the VSE and the U.S. civil space program in general was ambiguous. As a senator, Obama was not noted for any particular interest in space and suggested during his 2008 Presidential campaign that money spent on space would be better spent on education. This suggestion raised eyebrows among long-time, space supporting Democrats and a “recalibration” must have occurred, as Obama subsequently expressed strong support for Project Constellation as the follow-on program to replace the retiring Space Shuttle in a later Florida space coast campaign appearance.
Once elected, Obama decided the strategic direction of the civil space program needed to be re-evaluated. In time-honored Washington tradition, a committee was convened to study program direction and make recommendations. Norman Augustine, the former CEO for Lockheed-Martin, chaired a blue-ribbon committee made up of members tapped from government, industry and academia. Their charter was to evaluate NASA’s progress on the VSE and to make suggestions on possible changes in program emphasis and approach. The committee began their six-month study in the spring of 2009, holding meetings in several cities, including those adjacent to major NASA centers.
The Augustine committee report, given the grandiose title Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, outlined three possible paths forward. One path emphasized a human Mars mission (deemed technically a bridge too far). Another path described a return to the Moon (deemed too “old-hat”). The third alternative outlined what was called the “Flexible Path” (deemed just right). In contrast to the first two options, Flexible Path advocated journeys beyond LEO to a variety of destinations beyond the Moon but short of the surface of Mars. The targets included an L-point, a near Earth asteroid, or one of the moons of Mars. The perceived advantage of Flexible Path was that all its targets are low gravity objects so that deep space systems could be developed incrementally without the need to simultaneously develop an “expensive” lander spacecraft. The committee was in receipt of detailed cost estimates for the various options (performed by The Aerospace Corporation) to buttress their conclusion – that no viable and affordable path forward was possible under their assumed budget guidelines (given to them by OMB).
The reaction to the work of the committee was mixed. It was widely (and incorrectly) interpreted as a slap down of the Constellation architecture. In fact, the report noted that the chosen Constellation architecture would create the capabilities it claimed. However, costing estimates suggested to the committee that an additional $3 billion per year was needed to meet the chosen schedule goals of Constellation. Attention mainly focused on the Augustine committee’s Flexible Path architecture, which promised technology development and future missions to unspecified destinations. Some thought this to be a great approach, while others pointed out that nebulous goals and indefinite timelines are, in general, not a good recipe for a space program “worthy of a great nation.”
As usual with committee reports, the devil was in the details. Cost estimates provided to the committee by The Aerospace Corporation included excessively large margins and totals came in much higher than other analysts estimated. Moreover, the committee had been presented with evidence showing that modifications to Constellation and other alternatives (e.g., Shuttle side-mount for heavy lift) were possible and affordable without funding augmentation. Leverage provided by and capabilities created through the use of the resources of the Moon for both lunar and martian missions was documented and presented to the committee. None of these alternative options were given serious consideration. Some in the space community began to suspect that another agenda was at work.
NASA’s new administrator, Charles Bolden, a retired Marine general and former astronaut, made public comments suggesting he was not enamored of the VSE goals, particularly the one involving the Moon. He expressed the “been there, done that” criticism of lunar return and indicated that while he was strongly in favor of a human mission to Mars, he believed that such was far away in cost and time. Presidential Science and Technology Advisor John P. Holdren indicated his desire to make NASA principally responsible for global monitoring of the Earth, with an emphasis on the tracking of climate change from space. A correlation of forces was assembling to significantly change the direction and outlook for the U.S. manned space program.
President Obama’s April 15, 2010 speech, given at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, outlined his administration’s new space policy. At first glance, it appeared to embrace the Flexible Path of the Augustine committee. It called for spending on technology development to be followed by human missions to a near Earth asteroid. Obama also called for increased efforts to develop commercial capabilities to launch payloads to low Earth orbit. A planned return to the Moon was disparaged with the phrase, “we’ve been there – Buzz has been there,” a reference to Buzz Aldrin, who had flown to Florida with the President, apparently giving him the benefit of his space expertise during the flight.
The announcement of the new path effectively ended the VSE. More significantly, it was also the end of any strategic direction for the American civil space program – direction had been replaced with rhetoric and flexibility. The promise of spaceflight in the future became a stand-in for spaceflight in the present. Instead of a mission for people beyond LEO, we were given vague promises of “a spectacular series of space firsts.” Inconceivably, a relatively small, pre-existing program designed to help develop commercial re-supply of cargo and crew to and from ISS was heralded as the centerpiece of America’s space program – the “new” direction. Gone was the concept of creating a lasting, sustainable space faring infrastructure. Back was the template of one-off missions to plant a flag and leave footprints on some new, exotic, far-away target, sometime in the distant future – the all too familiar “exciting space program” panacea.
What many forgot (or chose to overlook) was that with large bipartisan majorities, the VSE had been endorsed by the Congress twice – once in 2005 and again in 2008. Congress (at that time completely controlled by the Democratic Party) did not react favorably to the President’s new direction for the civil space program. In the new 2010 NASA authorization bill, Congress laid out some surprisingly detailed specifications for a new heavy lift launch vehicle. They directed NASA to transform the planned Ares rockets of Constellation into a new program called the “Space Launch System” (SLS – dubbed the “Senate” Launch System by its critics). While enthusiasts for the new direction decried Congressional actions as “pork,” the simple fact was that many on the Hill were concerned with the unabated scheduled retirement of the Shuttle – sensing that a critical national capability was being irretrievably lost. Orion (basically an expanded Apollo-type capsule) was retained as the program to develop a new government-designed and run human space vehicle.
Interestingly, the resulting 2010 NASA authorization bill retained all of the potential destinations of the old VSE, including the surface of the Moon (something else that many have ignored). Despite the fact that this bill was a partial repudiation of his proposed space policy, President Obama signed it into law. Since then, NASA architecture teams have been examining possible human missions beyond LEO, including to an L-point and near Earth asteroids. To date, no clear, achievable mission that materially advances our space faring capability has been identified.
The effect of such policy confusion is a U.S. civil space program in complete and utter disarray. A clear statement of objectives and destinations has been discarded for platitudes and promises. A formerly experimental, small effort to foster commercial spaceflight through contracting for delivery of supplies to the ISS has been presented to the American people as a bold new direction. Meanwhile, fantasies about human missions to Mars and the quest for alien life dominate the agency’s PR effort. Accomplishment is hard to document. The highly constrained budgetary environment for federal spending means that we must now construct a program that both fits under strict budget envelopes and provides measurable progress and significant milestones at frequent intervals. In my next and last post in this series, I will consider some lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of the VSE and how we can move forward in space in an affordable manner.