The Vision for Space Exploration: A Brief History (Part 4)

The Future of Human Spaceflight on a wall chart (NASA).

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.

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9 Responses to The Vision for Space Exploration: A Brief History (Part 4)

  1. “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.”

    Ironically, I thought trying to find a more affordable way to achieve the goal of finally returning to the lunar surface was supposed to be the central reason for the Augustine Committee in the first place. But I watched in horror as a return to the Moon was ridiculed during the hearings while there seemed to be a new found love for extending the ISS.

    I still find the idea that its cheaper to travel to an asteroid than to the Moon, questionable since the cost of shielding humans from cosmic radiation and major solar events during an interplanetary journey has largely been ignored. Radiation shielding a lunar outpost is pretty easy since there’s an endless amount of regolith for regolith bags.

    But, of course, when President Obama came out with his first NASA budget after the commission, there wasn’t even a Flexible Path. There was no path at all! Shocking!

    NASA was just going to sit at home and just study the problem for another five years– finishing just about the time when Obama might have been ending his second term in office. How convenient:-)

    I’m pretty sure jaws dropped in horror for most Congressional Democrats in Florida and in Texas which is why most of them went on the attack against President Obama’s plan.

    Thanks for this detailed review Dr. Spudis. This series has been verrrrrrry interesting so far!

    Marcel F. Williams

  2. DougSpace says:

    It sure seems like a mess.

    My impression is that, shortly, NASA will come out with an manned L2 telerobotics mission to explore the lunar farside. This will be presented as both “going to the Moon” as well as an exciting stepping stone along the Flexible Path. Given that the current administration has four more years, I am anticipating that we will be well set along this path and that there will be no significant deviation. Utilizing lunar resources will not be a part of that.

    So, given these realities, I would like to propose a modification of the current situation that would open a window of opportunity for the development and utilization of lunar resources.

    Not too long from now, the commercial programs will stop being paid for development and will be paid only for ongoing operations. Though confined to LEO, these private firms are demonstrating the ability to develop working space transportation systems at a fraction of the development costs as is done through the normal FAR process.

    If neither the Administration nor Congress is going to fund a FAR program for the development of lunar resources, then perhaps we need to consider an SAA path there. America’s space program would be set on two parallel but complimentary paths. The FAR approach would be for that path where there is little if any commercial value (e.g. science, L2, asteroid, Phobis, Mars). The SAA approach would be used for those areas where there is commercial potential (e.g. LEO, GEO, L1/LLO, and lunar surface operations).

    It is within the capability of America’s private companies to do this. Challenge them by setting payments for milestones achieved and I’d bet they would rise to the occasion. All ready, private companies are mastering small lunar landers. Companies like ULA and Boeing are ready to develop fuel depots. Companies like Honeywell, Astrobotic, and others would be willing to develop the lunar surface components. For about 5% of NASA’s budget per year, this could be done.

    Such a “Lunar COTS” approach would fit within the VSE paradigm since it would develop lunar resources, transition from robotic to manned (like Dragon will do. Maybe contracted astronauts), learn how to live and work productively off-Earth for increasingly long periods of time while establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon.

    Likewise, having commercial operations on the Moon would give the experience most useful for the Flexible Path path. Whenever that Path makes it to Phobos, we’ll have mastered the greenhouse, habitat, ISRU propellant handling, and telerobotic prep for human landing.

    A COTS approach to lunar development nay not have been part of the original planning but it remains an option while other options seem increasingly unlikely. It’s worth considering.

  3. Pingback: Mission: Tomorrow » The Vision for Space Exploration: A Brief History (Part 4) | Spudis Lunar Resources

  4. GH says:

    While I agree with many of your observations, I am not so quick to dismiss the reasons for the failure of the VSE and to Constellation. I think, as did a couple of Congress’ and a large number of NASA and Administration bureaucrats who developed the VSE originally, that the VSE was good and could have been followed.

    I had said after the first part, that I felt the failure was one of managing requirements to ensure that the program and hardware defined and designed was in the end capable of meeting the intent of the VSE. You said that you felt the remaining parts of your article would show that the reasons NASA failed went well above the level of the program and requirements management. I do not agree.

    Yes, I think that Griffin had undue technical input on the program. Maybe his goal was to build the biggest rockets and capsules he could? As we’ve seen, that approach did not work.

    Having had a hand in designing spacecraft that have flown, I know that design is always a trade-off. What are you trading? You are trading bigger and better for cost, schedule, technology…Remember the engineer’s adage that better is the enemy of good enough. I look at the Orion capsule, now still early in its conceptual development phase after 8 years and $15 billion with no actual Orion capsule scheduled to fly for another 5 years, and to date no work even started on the Orion Service Module and systems, because they are hoping that ESA will step up to that job. I wonder, what were they thinking? Did they really think that 4 people were going to live in a capsule that is smaller than a 1-man prison cell, for 6 months or a year or 18 months in order to go to Mars? Were they not going to have any kind of a redundant pressure vessel or redundant life support systems? Apollo, as designed, was capable of carrying 6 people. So what was the increased size and mass of Orion for? What were the requirements?

    Remember, Orion started with a crew of 7. It started as being land-able on dry land. It started as being reusable. It is none of these things any longer because it was too big and too heavy. Its size and mass drove the development of a much larger and heavier escape rocket. It drove the requirement for a larger more capable Ares booster. The Ares booster at the outset was poorly thought out and marginal at best, depending upon capabilities and attributes that its booster engines never possessed, but the increased size and mass of Orion literally broke the back-the booster was ultimately axed because it could not do the job. These are all failures to control requirements.

    There should have been specific goals in the VSE which then dictated the establishment of very specific program requirements, which then translated to a particular spacecraft capability and design. There might have been due or poorly conceived thoughts on the part of an Administrator, however if there was NASA technical leadership in charge, they should have been able to stand up to the Administrator on the basis of technical rationale and requirements traceability. If these individuals in program leadership positions were not permitted to do their management jobs, then they should have laid their badges on the table and told Mr. Griffin to find someone else, someone who perhaps was a better engineer because they could truly implement the impossible.

    On the other hand, if no one was in charge, and there was no requirements traceability, and there was simply a lot of arguing going back and forth in the endless management boards and committees that characterized the Constellation program, then the job was not being managed and they had put the wrong people in place as leaders. And from that the program collapsed, which led to the disarray we have today.

    This was clearly a NASA management failure.

    I, for one, do not blame a recalcitrant Congress unwilling to spend money, or Buzz Aldrin, Barak Obama, John Holdren or Norm Augustine. They all helped to put the nails in the coffin, but in the case of the VSE and Constellation, NASA management, or the lack of it, did it to themselves.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      There should have been specific goals in the VSE which then dictated the establishment of very specific program requirements, which then translated to a particular spacecraft capability and design

      I contend that there were — I started this series outlining the motivations and rationale for the VSE. Specifically, the idea was to both give the program a strategic direction and to put space exploration on a long-term sustainable basis by changing the rules. The former led to the adoption of lunar return; the purpose was to “change the rules” by learning how to create new capabilities in space by using what we find there. Both of these goals were clearly articulated in the January 2004 VSE speech. I pointed out that NASA began to “re-interpret” the meaning of the VSE as a human mission to Mars, done in an Apollo-style template, almost immediately. The consequences flowing from that misdirection ultimately led to the disarray we have today.

  5. GH says:

    I think we are 100% in agreement. It is a shame we have wasted the money, the time and the opportunity.

  6. Pingback: The Vision for Space Exploration: A Brief History (Part 3) | Spudis Lunar Resources

  7. Rand Simberg says:

    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.

    Just to clarify, Obama himself never said this (as far as I know). It was something that appeared on his campaign web site, apparently posted there by his education adviser, before he even had a space adviser (he didn’t pick up Lori until after he beat Hillary). It’s unlikely that he gave any thought to space whatsoever during the primary.

  8. Joe says:

    Rand Simberg says: November 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm
    “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.
    Just to clarify, Obama himself never said this (as far as I know). It was something that appeared on his campaign web site, apparently posted there by his education adviser, before he even had a space adviser (he didn’t pick up Lori until after he beat Hillary). It’s unlikely that he gave any thought to space whatsoever during the primary.”

    Actually he did say it himself during an interview on NPR. He had made an assertion something to the affect he was a social liberal but an economic conservative. When asked for an illustration of what that meant he talked about a plan he favored for “0 to 5 education” (apparently meaning the government would begin taking a part in raising/educating children from the time of birth not waiting until kindergarten) but would delay Constellation Systems by 5 years to pay for it (whether or not that made any accounting sense is a separate subject). That was in the period of the primaries. When the general election came around he said (in Florida of course) pretty much what Mr. Simberg described above and removed text from his website about the Constellation delay later.

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