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NASA Lost its Way

As we survey the wreckage and ruin of yet another NASA “return to the Moon” program, the inevitable “what went wrong?” arguments play out. 

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From the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Not in my lifetime.  And probably, not in yours either.


As we survey the wreckage and ruin of yet another NASA “return to the Moon” program, the inevitable “what went wrong?” arguments play out.  We’re in a much different place today than we were when Apollo 11 reached the Moon (and each year there are fewer of us alive who witnessed it).  To some of us, this is not a new movie – we’ve been to this show many times before.  Although some aspects of the experience convey a startling sense of déjà vu, in other respects, this time it was a very different event.  While one could rightly blame previous unsuccessful efforts on politics, this time another culprit brought us to the tipping point.

Our efforts to return people to the Moon after Apollo came from a sense that such a move was inevitable.  This feeling largely came from Wernher von Braun’s vision of our future in space.  von Braun wrote a series of magazine articles and books in the early 1950s that outlined a sequence of steps that would lead us into space.  They were so logical that despite the out-of-sequence Apollo lunar landings, NASA returned to this template after we “jumped ahead” of his vision sequence.  The von Braun architecture began with a rocket that could routinely go to and from Earth to low Earth orbit, followed by the construction of a space station, the building of a transfer vehicle, lunar landings, and finally a manned mission to Mars.  This “stepping stone” sequence was to give us both routine access to space as well as move humanity out into the Solar System.

In order to answer the challenge posed to America by the Soviet Union in space, von Braun’s vision was altered when President John F. Kennedy called for Americans to go directly to the Moon.  Afterward, NASA tried to pick up von Braun’s original sequence (shuttle, station, Moon tug, Mars) but by then, the logical appeal of his architecture had faded.   The Moon landing ignited passions about space, popularizing and expanding study of science and engineering.  But each failed “vision” has seen our country retreat from space exploration, fall behind in engineering, and our dreams of moving into space have faded away.  The logical sequence of manned exploration of the Solar System had stalled; the program fought for its very existence by promising new rockets, new space stations, and landings on the planets, “sometime” in the future.

I have argued previously that you must understand your mission before you make decisions on how to accomplish it – the objective of your trip may well have relevance to decisions on launch vehicles and architectures.  The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004 was exciting not for its chosen destinations (“Moon, Mars and Beyond”) but because it clearly and cogently articulated the mission (the purpose) for space exploration and the need for lunar return – to use the resources of the Moon to create a sustainable human presence there.  Once we learned how to do that on the Moon, the entire Solar System was the objective.

The VSE laid out a path forward that would change the paradigm of spaceflight, from one-off missions where everything we needed must be brought from Earth, to one where fuel and other consumables are extracted from what we find in space, thus creating an extensible, reusable space faring infrastructure that conquers the budget busting limitations imposed by our residence inside Earth’s gravity well.  Numerous articles since the announcement of the VSE expounded on these goals and objectives.  They were widely discussed and disseminated to the public.  The legislative branch responded to President Bush’s proposed mission twice, with strong, bipartisan endorsements of the VSE in 2005 (Republican majority) and in 2008 (Democratic majority).

Although the purpose of the VSE was clear to the White House and the Congress, it became increasingly clear over time that NASA was having difficulty understanding the mission.  They eventually embarked on a multi-year study to define exactly why they had been tasked to go to the Moon and to understand what they might do once they got there.  The mission to understand their mission involved lots of meetings, workshops and conferences, whereby all the “stakeholders” had an opportunity to give their input.  All this “input” was distilled into a series of documents containing six themes and 181 different specific objectives.

No one at NASA could state the mission of the VSE in a single sentence.

Recently, former Administrator Michael Griffin was interviewed about the “new path” for NASA.  Among the questions about the demise of the Constellation program, he was asked:
Ars: What was the imperative for developing the Moon? Was it because it was felt its resources could be used for longer-term exploration?

Griffin: Well, the Moon is interesting in itself. And the United States bypasses the Moon at its peril, because other nations—as they develop space capability—will not bypass it. So, the Moon is interesting in and of itself. Secondarily, the experience of learning to live and work off-planet will be valuable... it may not be essential, it may be possible to go to Mars without learning how to utilize the Moon. But, as I say, it is not advisable. So, the experience of learning how to live on another planet only three days from home, I think, is enormously valuable, before we set out on a voyage where our astronauts will be seven or eight months from home.
I read this answer in stunned amazement.  The former Administrator of the agency charged with executing the VSE omitted the principal reason for going to the Moon:  to use its resources to create new space faring capability.  The interviewer seemed more informed about the reason for a lunar return than the former Administrator; he even teed up the answer within his question!

This lack of understanding of the mission didn’t just emanate from the top.  A recent quote from Jeff Volosin:
“We really never had a compelling reason to send humans back to the Moon …. More than that, we really, really don't have a compelling reason to set up a permanent presence on the lunar surface - we really don't."
Really Jeff?

Jeff Volosin worked at NASA in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.  He was in charge of collating and synthesizing the results of the agency’s efforts to articulate the reasons we were returning to the Moon (the one with six themes with 181 different specific objectives).

Lest you think that such was then and now is different, the current NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, was recently asked what he thought about China going to the Moon.  His response:
"There are six national flags on the surface of the moon today. All six of them are American flags. That's not going to change."
In other words, because an American planted a flag on the Moon 40 years ago, there is no possible reason for the United States to want to go there, nor to be concerned about another country doing so.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

You may well ask, what is the purpose of wallowing in this sordid saga of utter cluelessness?  First, it is important to understand that while the reasons for the VSE were clearly understood by some (and that includes many dedicated, smart, hard-working people within NASA), many more either never understood it or refused to accept it and could not explain it to those who needed to know.  So their selection of a doomed architecture may well have been inevitable.

Second, this experience offers food for thought to those who think the “new path” for NASA (as laid out in the proposed budget) will somehow magically transform the agency into a fount of technical and scientific excellence.  NASA couldn’t understand why we were going back to the Moon, which confused their reasoning about “how” to get back under the existing budgetary envelope.  So why should anyone believe that with the “new path,” NASA will be able to go to Mars and beyond?

Finally, unless and until scientists and engineers jointly embrace the objective of making human reach into the Solar System permanent and affordable, our country and its space program will continue to diminish.  Robotic missions are important but their true value lies in enabling sustained human exploration and settlement of space.  With the increasing evidence of vast lunar resources, a logical sequence of stepping stones into the Solar System is more relevant than ever.  It is the way back to what was once the promise of NASA.
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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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