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Malice, Mischief and Misconceptions

The space community has fractured since the disastrous roll out of NASA’s “new direction.” 

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The "new direction" presaged six years ago?


The space community has fractured since the disastrous roll out of NASA’s “new direction.”  Preceding the administration’s budget announcement, endless delays and rampant speculation about administrators, rockets, and program design and direction kept people guessing.  The current trench warfare is not a pretty sight, but it is not unexpected given the lack of a clear direction.  Word has it that more detail will come out early next week, adding yet another layer to this growing space onion.  The undirected, unfocused, unproductive spin cycle NASA (and the entire space community) has twirled around in for the last 18 months is instructive.  It is real time, 20/20 insight on how the new direction will play out during the proposed five-year study hall being scheduled for NASA to find their “right stuff.”

The latest attempt to explain NASA’s new direction is an article published in Space.com by Clara Moskowitz.  She tries to “correct” some alleged “misunderstandings” about the Obama administration’s new direction and budget for NASA.  Her article quotes several space luminaries, who opine that the new path is simply “not understood” by a few petulant detractors who stubbornly refuse to accept Flexible Path as advertised.  Responding to the criticism that the new path was conceived in secret by a small cabal without detailed thought, Moskowitz quotes my friend Jim Oberg as saying that the administration's space proposal is “extremely similar” to a report issued by the International Astronautical Academy (IAA) and so (in effect) the new direction has been studied extensively by an “international astronautical group.”

The IAA report Oberg referred to was an outgrowth of NASA’s Decadal Planning Team activities in the early 2000’s and was being prepared for publication just as the 2004 Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced.  There was no interaction between these two strategic plans.  I re-examined the IAA report to see how closely it tallies with the Obama Administration’s proposed new direction for NASA and more significantly, how they both differ from the VSE (a direction endorsed by Congress and both political parties in 2005 and 2008).

I find that the general outline of the IAA report corresponds to the proposed new direction quite closely.  Both the IAA report and the administration’s budget propose a “ flexible path” approach for human journeys beyond low Earth orbit.  Both plans outline a variety of possible destinations, including the Sun-Earth Lagrangian points, near-Earth asteroids, Phobos and Deimos (the moons of Mars), and finally the surface of Mars.  The IAA report does not address transport to and from LEO, the starting point of these missions, but acknowledges that commercially procured transport of people and cargo is highly desirable.

A glaring difference between the IAA report and the administration’s budget proposal is that the IAA report specifically recognizes the Moon’s surface as a valid objective (as does the VSE).  Many in the blogosphere continue to insist to those who know better that the new direction does include the Moon.  By rejecting the Moon as a destination with such trite and unthinking casualness, the administration’s proposal has left those who understand the national economic, scientific and security implications of lunar return reeling.  One could be forgiven for concluding that there is some mischief in how these reports are being conflated.

Oberg is correct in that there is commonality between the activities described in this report and the purported activities promised by the “new direction.”  But the administration’s proposal did not go “through years of analysis, modification, and critiques by a worldwide team.”  The IAA report retains the Moon as a destination and does not discard the national spaceflight system immediately in favor of a non-existent commercial transport system – it ignores the Earth to LEO segment completely.  Neither the impact on our national aerospace industrial base and workforce, nor the bureaucratic effects of an unclear and indeterminate direction to NASA’s productivity were considered by the IAA report – or are considered by the administration’s new path, for that matter.  The Obama administration has offered to assist the thousands of displaced aerospace workers affected by the new direction.

Let us examine the objectives of the IAA flexible path versus those of the VSE.  The IAA report states that this plan is undertaken to “articulate a vision for the scientific exploration of space in the first half of the 21 st Century” and that “scientific objectives are used to determine the destinations for human explorers” ( IAA report, Executive Summary, page 3).  Moreover, the report states (as does the new direction) that although many destinations are envisioned, “the ultimate goal establishment of a human presence on Mars for science and exploration.”  To this end, all technology development, infrastructure creation and scientific exploration are undertaken with the goal of humans on Mars as the ultimate end point.

In contrast, the VSE was undertaken to “to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” This included the “implementation of a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond, to extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020 in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations, to develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration, and promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.” The Moon is the necessary starting point for what is (in essence) the doorway into our entire Solar System.

The purpose of lunar return under the VSE is not to collect rocks or relive past space glories.  Simply put, because we can’t take everything with us, humans must learn to use what we find in space to create new space faring capabilities, starting on the Moon.  And our goals are not simply Mars, but everywhere – wherever human presence is needed or desired.  Using the resources of the Moon (specifically, making consumables and propellant from lunar materials) enables routine access to all of space – not merely for science, but for economic and national security interests as well.

Oberg’s statement that the new direction for NASA received detailed study and thought, follows from his evaluation: 1) of the amount of study put into the IAA report; and 2) that the IAA report and the new path are equivalent.  I do not deny the former, but strongly question the latter.  Unlike the IAA report, flexible path as articulated in the new budget proposal not only eliminates the lunar surface as a destination (one chosen by the VSE specifically for its ability to enable new and greater space faring capability) but it also has a much narrower rationale: scientific study of Mars as opposed to the Vision’s objective of creating an extensible, reusable space faring infrastructure to conquer the budget-busting limitations imposed by our residence at the bottom of the gravity well of the Earth.

The administration’s proposed program for NASA indefinitely defers trips to destinations that have gravity wells.  It is shortsighted and limited. The IAA report (and the new direction) focuses heavily on scientific aims while the VSE seeks to advance human exploration for “scientific, security and economic interests.”  Architects of NASA’s new direction may not have understood or appreciated (or approved of) the objectives of the VSE, but those who read and understood the original reports and documents did.  The VSE was about incrementally expanding the reach of people and machines by learning how to use the inexhaustible materials and energy of space, starting with the nearest, most accessible place beyond LEO that has what we need:  the Moon.  Breakthroughs and new understanding of the world and space around us rise to the fore and challenge us when we explore the unknown.

Civilizations thrive and advance when not in retreat.  The administration’s chaotic proposal for NASA retreats from human space exploration.  Many in the space community have serious doubts and concerns about this new direction.  Labeling these doubts and concerns as “misconceptions” does not make the new direction valid nor change the reality that we are in danger of losing our capability as a space faring nation.
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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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