Science and Exploration

An Open Letter to Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and James Lovell

By Marc Boucher
June 9, 2011
Filed under
An Open Letter to Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and James Lovell
Apollo 17 Astronaut Cernan During First EVA

While it may be that the current administration’s plans are not perfect – and a new national debate on space appropriate – these plans stand head and shoulders over the plan that was the latter implementation of the Constellation program.

Recently, a joint letter was penned by three legendary Apollo lunar astronauts berating the Obama administration for “Grounding JFK’s Space Legacy” and declaring that a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent. While it may be that the current administration’s plans are not perfect – and a new national debate on space appropriate – these plans stand head and shoulders over the plan that was the latter implementation of the Constellation program. Furthermore, these space veterans have been misinformed pertaining to the reasons for the demise and cancellation of the Constellation program.

First of all, the Constellation program that was cancelled is not the one created by the Bush administration in 2004 and endorsed by Congress. The following is from the “Constellation Systems Interim Strategy” by NASA’s Exploration Mission Systems Directorate (ESMD), under Admiral Craig Steidle and NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe – their implementation plan for the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE):

Constellation Systems: Creating System-of-Systems Capabilities for Sustained Exploration on the Moon and Beyond

Based on studies conducted by our Requirements Division, and driven by their results, the Directorate’s Constellation Systems Office will develop, demonstrate, and deploy successive generations of capabilities that will enable the United States to achieve the vision of sustained human and robotic exploration on the Moon and beyond. Technology and advanced systems development and demonstration activities will be undertaken to establish critical capabilities that will be essential for all phases of lunar exploration. The capabilities to be developed will form a system-of-systems that include:
* Robotic Precursor Systems: The first steps in our journey of exploration will be taken by robotic systems–orbiting, landing, and operating on the Moon as precursors to later human explorers. We are working closely with, and providing requirements to the Science Directorate, which is responsible for managing a series of robotic lunar missions that will pave the way for human exploration.
* Crew Transportation: The initial focus for the Constellation Systems Program will be to develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that will carry future astronauts from Earth to space, and from point-to-point in space. Initial high-level milestones include a CEV demonstration flight in 2008, a CEV flight without crew in 2011, and a CEV flight with crew in 2014. Along with building the CEV, we will select the appropriate human-rated launch vehicle.
* Cargo Transportation: The cargo we transport may include fuel and supplies, as well as transportation modules and supporting infrastructure that will be used in space or on the lunar surface. In cooperation with the Space Operations Directorate, trade studies are underway to evaluate launch vehicles and optimize the number of launches required to implement a given mission. Multiple components may be launched from Earth, assembled in Earth orbit or other locations, and then transported for use in lunar orbit or on the Moon.
* Surface Systems: The capabilities we deploy on the lunar surface will support diverse mission phases, including lunar landing, surface operations, and ascent from the lunar surface. The variety of systemof- systems needed are still being defined, but could include systems for surface mobility, robotic assistants, extravehicular activity, habitation, scientific platforms such as telescopes, and surface-based power generation.
* In-Space Systems: We may also enhance, in cooperation with various other Directorates, NASA’s space-based infrastructure. This may include additional communication networks, service platforms for maintenance and supply, and zero gravity extravehicular capabilities like evolved space suits.
* Ground Systems: In cooperation with other Directorates, we will rely upon or enhance NASA’s existing ground-based systems to support mission operations, preflight integration and logistics, and mission simulation and testing.
* Humans as a Critical System: We will create new capabilities by focusing on the human interface so that humans can live and work in space productively without suffering long-term health consequences.

Figure 1: Constellation Systems Implementation Overview

The Level 0 Requirements were provided as well:

Appendix 1: Agencywide Requirements

NASA has developed overarching “Level-0″ requirements for human and robotic exploration, derived from the Vision for Space Exploration. The Level-0
requirements are:

1.0 NASA shall implement a safe, sustained, and affordable human and robotic exploration program to extend a human presence across the Solar System and beyond.
1.1 NASA shall develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, capabilities, and infrastructures to support human and robotic exploration.
1.2 NASA shall conduct a series of robotic missions to the Moon to prepare for and support future human exploration activities.
1.3 NASA shall conduct human lunar expeditions to further science, and to develop and test new exploration approaches, technologies, and systems, including the use of lunar and other space resources to support sustained human space exploration to Mars and other destinations.
1.4 NASA shall conduct robotic exploration of Mars to search for evidence of life, to understand the history of the Solar System, and to prepare for future human exploration.
1.5 NASA shall conduct human expeditions to Mars to extend the search for life and expand the frontiers of human exploration, after successfully demonstrating human exploration missions to the Moon.
1.6 NASA shall conduct robotic exploration across the Solar System for scientific purposes and to support human exploration.
1.7 NASA shall conduct advanced telescope searches for Earth-like planets and habitable environments around other stars.
2.0 NASA shall acquire an exploration transportation system to support the delivery of crew and cargo from the surface of the Earth to exploration destinations and the safe return of the crew to Earth.
3.0 NASA shall complete the assembly of the International Space Station, including the U.S. components that support U.S. space exploration goals and components provided by foreign partners (planned by the end of the decade).
3.1 NASA shall focus the use of the Space Shuttle to complete assembly of the International Space Station.
3.2 NASA shall focus U.S. International Space Station research and technology on supporting space exploration goals.
3.3 NASA shall separate transportation of crew and cargo to the International Space Station to the maximum extent practical.
4.0 NASA shall pursue opportunities for international participation to support U.S. space exploration goals.
5.0 NASA shall pursue commercial opportunities for providing transportation and other services supporting the International Space Station and exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.
6.0 NASA shall identify and implement opportunities within missions for the specific purpose of inspiring the Nation.”

Figure 2: Constellation Level Zero Requirements

It becomes clear as you read the early VSE/Constellation documents and the inclusive, collaborative environment of industry, academic, and NASA participation in workshops and the Concept Exploration and Refinement (CE&R) contracts, that the VSE’s initial concept ot Constellation has very little to do with the version of Constellation that was cancelled.

If you read the presentations from the CE&R contracts, not one of the contractors (Orbital Sciences, SAIC, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Andrews Space, Raytheon, and T-Space) advocated a launch vehicle beyond 70 tons of payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Indeed, from the Lockheed CE&R Open Forum CA-1 Mid Term Briefing, came this conclusion: “70 mT-class ELV family is most affordable, long-term solution for exploration.”

At no point did any of the contractors advocate a huge heavy lift launch vehicle of the type that became the centerpiece of the Mike Griffin era Constellation program. Interestingly, the CE&R reports were completely ignored after O’Keefe and Steidle left NASA. A new architecture – still called “Constellation” – but derived from the 60 day Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) is what was approved by former Administrator Griffin. It was Griffin’s totally different version of something called “Constellation” that was cancelled.

ESAS/Constellation Funding Problems

Those of us who have been around NASA and who follow such things knew immediately on publication that the ESAS variant of Constellation was going to be big trouble. First of all, when the study was published, the cost volume was excluded. The excuse from NASA for not releasing this portion of the study was that it included proprietary information. It rapidly became apparent that the numbers that NASA was giving Congress for its budget to build two brand new launch vehicles, plus the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), and the LSAM lunar lander were far below what the actual cost would be – the cost NASA did not want to share with anyone.

As early as 2006 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in congressional testimony about the CEV and ESAS/Constellation:

“Despite early surpluses, the long-term budget profile for the vision includes multibillion dollar shortfalls each year from fiscal 2014 through FY 2020. The cumulative shortfall will reach $18 billion by 2025, Li said.” Source: Aviation Week and Space Technology

The original report is referenced here.

This situation was further complicated by the effort of Mike Griffin’s NASA to make up for these shortfalls by shifting money from other programs (Shuttle, Aeronautics, Education, and Science). This prompted a push back by the new Democratic majority in Congress in 2007 that cut the ESAS/Constellation by approximately $500 million and restored some of the cuts in other areas. (Source:

Rather than rethink the program in the face of declining funding, NASA charged on as if the money would be there.

In 2008 these concerns were amplified by the GAO in a follow-on report about problems with the CEV (now known as “Orion”) and the Ares 1 vehicle…

The report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, ticks off a list of difficult issues, especially with the Ares I rocket, which it said is prone to violent shaking on liftoff and might not have enough power to reach orbit with a capsule full of astronauts. In fact, according to GAO, the whole project is dogged by such “considerable unknowns” that it is doubtful whether NASA’s request for an additional $2 billion during the next two years will be enough to overcome design flaws and speed its development for a first liftoff before 2015.

In 2009 the GAO yet again weighed in on the subject:

“In our October 2007 report, we noted that NASA’s approach to funding was risky and that the approved budget profile at that time was insufficient to meet Constellation’s estimated needs. The Constellation program’s integrated risk management system also identified this strategy as high risk and warned that funding shortfalls could occur in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. According to project officials, these shortfalls limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precluded the orderly ramp-up of workforce and developmental activities.”

(Source: Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case Is Established GAO-09-844)

This GAO report recognized that a review of the program was underway (The Augustine Commission), and that this would have an impact going forward.

When the Augustine Commission provided its recommendations they pointed out that the funding profile for Constellation was inadequate and that a minimum of $3 billion per year in additional funds on top of the (then) current budget would be required to bring a modicum of stability back to the program.

Making the Hard Choices

In a normal business, when it becomes clear that funding is not going to be there for a project, you either cancel the project or figure out how to change the scope, design, or direction of the project to match available funds. NASA did not do that. Instead they continued to charge forward until the Obama Administration made the decision for them.

Rather than accept that mistakes in architecture implementation led to the financial debacle, ESAS/Constellation supporters have waged a war through the proxy of friendly senators to the point that the latest incarnations of the ESAS Ares V vehicle have been derisively called the “Senate Launch System” (SLS). The senators who support the development of the SLS took the additional step of providing an underfunded and unrealistic deadline for the fielding of this system. This senatorial directive also ignores the fact that not enough money has been provided for other elements of the system that would be required should you actually want to fly the vehicle with payloads.

The current NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, has had the intestinal fortitude to stand before Congress and tell them that the SLS is not going to fly with the amount of money and time provided. Bolden and the team in ESMD and Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) have been attempting to come up with solutions that do not require a 100+ ton class launch vehicle. But every time they gain ground, the SLS vehicle returns to haunt and derail their efforts.

The tragic thing is that not a single supporter of the SLS can articulate why this class of heavy launch vehicle is required. Messers Armstrong, Cernan, and Lovell proclaim that the congressionally-mandated launch vehicle and spacecraft will allow exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but without the associated landers and surface systems, costing even more money, the launch vehicle and spacecraft are on a mission to no where.

The reason that there is no money for landers and associated surface system is due to the cost of the rocket and spacecraft! In the years since the demise of the Apollo program there has never been a clearly-defined need for a launch vehicle beyond the 70 ton class vehicle in order to return to the Moon. The stark fact is that the 100+ ton class vehicle has only one destination, Mars and even then NASA’s own Design Reference Missions (DRM) indicated the need for six or more heavy lift launches, with a mission and architecture that would be no more than a renewed flags and footprints effort – this time on the sands of Mars.

Building a Sustainable Future in Space

We of the younger generation of space advocates, architecture designers and systems engineers look at the Apollo program in a different light than these Apollo veterans. They see it as a heroic flight into the unknown that brought the nation together in a time of turmoil and it is their hope that a flight to Mars would have the same effect today.

To us, the biggest value of Apollo are the rocks that came back that have given us the insight into the basic resource potential of the Moon and how those resources could be developed to enable an off-planet civilization and the economic development of the solar system for the benefit of the people of the Earth. A heroic dash to Mars is the antithesis of the sustainable economic development of the solar system inasmuch as it diverts resources to yet another politically unsustainable stunt while leaving no usable infrastructure beyond LEO.

It is not that the Obama Administration wants to shut down the Kennedy legacy. Indeed I would argue that ending the ESAS/Constellation, de-scoping the heavy lift vehicle, and enabling the entry of private enterprise into space exploration will bring forth the ultimate expression of that legacy. From a portion of the quoted Kennedy text in the Apollo veterans missive:

“Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

A question for Apollo veterans Armstrong, Cernan, and Lovell: Can you look at yourself in the mirror and say, without reservation, that the Apollo program, as it unfolded in history, held the key to our future on Earth? To our generation for the most part Apollo was a technical success but a policy failure – if that policy was, as Kennedy stated, that Apollo would be the key to our “future on Earth”.

I stood before many of you as a young student over 20 years ago questioning why we had not made any progress in making space the key to our future on the Earth. Today, after being a part of the unfolding of the failures to make progress since then, the answer is clear. We have not made progress because we have failed to embrace the awful truth that Kennedy saw through a glass darkly, which is that economic development of space is the key to our future on the Earth.

In 1969, the United States was at the height of its economic and political power and we turned away from space; today we are broke and the challenges that face our nation are daunting in the extreme. Without a powerful economic incentive, space is simply not worth the expenditure. It is within our financial and technical power to do this as a nation, but not through the brute force method of an “Apollo on steroids” architecture (as cited by Mike Griffin) and certainly not with further flags and footprints.

The day that Werner von Braun, sitting at his desk in Huntsville, caved to the inevitability of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous method of getting to the Moon. he warned his Huntsville staff that his greatest fear was that Apollo would lead to a “Kilroy Was Here” mentality that would allow our political leaders to kill the program after the first success was had. The ESAS/Constellation architecture of an “Apollo on steroids” program, even if somehow successful, is molded in the same vein, and with our economic difficulties today, would be similarly shut down after the initial goal reached.

There are architectures out there – many of them – that will enable the economic development of the solar system and the harvesting of the resources that are out there, wealth that will transform our world for the better, for the good of all humankind, in keeping with the Kennedy vision and legacy. NASA is making moves in that direction today with a focus on the use of commercial space solutions for cargo and human spaceflight, contracts for fuel depots, and other innovative systems. However, the rump ESAS/Constellation program in the form of the SLS vehicle is not one of them.

Indeed, as we are seeing what the James Webb Telescope threatens to do to the science budget, the SLS sucks the needed oxygen of technology development and innovation needed to make Kennedy’s vision come to pass.

To be worthy inheritors of the Kennedy space legacy we must be willing to depart from its 1960s form and adopt an approach that works now – half a century later – one that is as relevant to our times as Apollo was to its own time.

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.