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Failure to Launch, Failure to Lead

The Space Exploration Initiative and the Vision for Space Exploration -- two proposals, two failures. Why?

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Two Presidential announcements on space

In the aftermath of a major Space Shuttle accident, an incumbent President decides that our civil space program needs a bold new strategic direction.  In a major public speech, he outlines a path to return to the Moon and go to Mars.  The space agency responds with full-color sales brochures, committee meetings, community workshops, and a thousand charts outlining the steps they will take to carry out the new direction.  A couple of years pass, a new President takes office, and then – promptly cancels the initiative of the previous administration.

Sound familiar?  This has happened in our space history – twice.

In 1989, after much agency soul-searching following the loss of seven crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, President George H. W. Bush took to the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced what was soon dubbed the “Space Exploration Initiative (SEI),” a long-range program to send people beyond low Earth orbit, first to the Moon and then to Mars.  NASA responded to this challenge by outlining an architecture imaginatively named the “90-Day Study.”  It called for the development of new launch vehicles, new modules, transfer spacecraft and numerous robotic elements, including lunar and martian orbiters and landers (most of them extensions of existing hardware and designs).  Financial analysts somehow arrived at an aggregate cost of $600 billion (which also included assembly of ISS) and everyone gasped.

After numerous politicians and bureaucrats scoffed disapproval, a special ad hoc group was convened to re-examine the objectives and devise a less expensive approach for implementing SEI.  Their report was delivered and immediately put on the shelf.  In the ensuing three years, a new NASA Administrator was named, Congress refused to increase the NASA budget, and President Clinton cancelled SEI.

In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing its crew of seven.  The agency investigated and concluded that foam shed during launch destroyed the integrity of the vehicle’s thermal protection system, causing the loss of the Shuttle.  In January of the following year, President George W. Bush announced a new strategic direction for space – the “Vision for Space Exploration (VSE),” a long-range program to send people beyond low Earth orbit – first to the Moon and then to Mars.  NASA responded to this challenge by outlining an architecture to implement the new direction that called for the development of new launch vehicles, new modules, transfer spacecraft, and numerous robotic elements (including orbiters and landers for both the Moon and Mars – most of them extensions of existing hardware and designs).

Once again a committee was convened to examine the agency’s implementation of the new direction.  Another report was written and put on a shelf.  During numerous meetings and workshops spread over several years, an architecture emerged – accompanied by many charts (all electronic this time – technology marches on!). President Obama terminated the VSE in April, 2010 during a speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (“We choose NOT to go to the Moon!” – the historical resonances astound!).

What, if anything, is to be learned from these two sequences of events?  According to Mark Albrecht, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council in the Bush-41 White House, it means that the space agency is fundamentally broken – comprised of various constituencies that protect turf and resist implementing any new direction that may challenge or threaten their existence.  However, there is another possible reading of the situation.  The space agency was in a very different predicament during SEI than it was during the VSE.  In 1990, NASA had a clear but unfulfilled mission – Space Station Freedom, for which not a single element had yet been launched.  NASA’s anxiety at the time was uncertainty in being able to execute both Station and SEI simultaneously.  The oft-quoted 30-year, $600 billion cost of SEI, repeated by the media to denigrate the effort, included construction and operation of Station, which was to serve as both an orbital platform for missions beyond LEO and as a source of hardware (e.g., habitation modules) that could be adapted to trans-LEO missions.  Even so, most of the costing assumptions in the 90-Day Study were inflated beyond reason, presumably following in the footsteps of former NASA Administrator James Webb, who after reportedly being told that Apollo would cost about $20 billion, asked for more than $35 billion as a cushion.

In contrast, the VSE came along just as NASA was in the middle of ISS construction, with the program’s end clearly in sight.  There was no future plan for human spaceflight beyond Shuttle/ISS and the agency sorely needed some high-level direction.  The idea of Shuttle replacement came from the Columbia Accident Investigations Board report, which contended that the Shuttle system was inherently dangerous and that we ought to develop a new space transportation system as soon as possible.  In contrast to uninformed reporting and Internet mythology, President Bush did not “retire” the Shuttle – he ordered that it first be brought back to flight status (so that ISS construction could be completed) and then transitioned and replaced with new human spacecraft capable of journeys beyond LEO (which became the now-cancelled Project Constellation).  In contrast to SEI, the VSE came to NASA with price limits already in place – after a small incremental increase in the early years, it was to cost no more than we were then spending on human spaceflight (about $8 billion per year) with funding available from the gradual decline in spending on the Shuttle/Station program.  Finally, unlike SEI, which never had much Congressional support, NASA was given two Authorization bills (in 2005 and 2008) that strongly endorsed the VSE (many VSE goals, though ignored, remain in the current 2010 Authorization).

Although neither SEI nor the VSE succeeded in their principal objectives of sending people beyond low Earth orbit, they did manage to greatly advance our understanding of just what is at stake.  In the case of the former, a variety of people from the defense and civil space sectors worked together on SEI, creating networks that advanced an outbound agenda.  One accomplishment was the Clementine mission, a joint effort by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and NASA.  Flying in 1994, Clementine successfully mapped the entire Moon in eleven spectral bands, mapping its mineral composition in detail.  Clementine made the first global topographic map of that body and most significantly, found evidence for the presence of water ice in the dark areas near the south pole of the Moon.  The success of Clementine led to the Lunar Prospector mission, a robotic orbiter flown under NASA’s Discovery program, that both confirmed the excess hydrogen at the poles of the Moon and globally mapped the Moon’s chemical composition.

The intriguing results from Clementine and Lunar Prospector resulted in an international fleet of six spacecraft being sent to the Moon in the past decade, adding to our knowledge of the processes, history and potential utility of that body.  From this exploration, we now know that the Moon contains millions of tons of harvestable water.  We possess detailed maps of lunar physical and compositional properties.  In short, we now know that the Moon is habitable and is both an appropriate near-term destination for people and a unique enabling asset for future spaceflight within and beyond the Earth-Moon system.

Now, just as we find the Moon to be an attractive destination, we shrink away from the challenge, watching as others blaze trails we once traveled.  We willingly accept the pablum to not fret over new space powers who do not cancel their programs.  We are told they have not yet done all that we have and that we still carry the mantle of the world’s leading space power.  This is not logical. Similar thoughts once prevailed in Portugal, during an earlier age of exploration.  One doesn’t assume or retain the mantle of leadership by fiat or declaration – it must be earned and exercised.  Perhaps the real issue is not whether NASA is up to the task but rather, whether we as Americans are blind to the truth, unable to recognize that by having our nation withdraw from this arena, that we are retreating from our position, thereby ceding our prosperity, leadership and greatness to other nations who do have the will and the vision to press forward.

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About Paul D. Spudis
Paul D. Spudis

Paul D. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. His website can be found at www.spudislunarresources.com. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or his employer.

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