- Press Release
- Sep 28, 2022
The Path Forward In American Space – 2014 Edition
Before we address today’s space policy issues, it must be understood that the core problem with the America’s “space program” has been with us since the Apollo program “space race” began in earnest in the early 1960’s. As such, we need to look through the lens of history.
Our lunar program was based upon the concept of prestige. Our government wanted to beat the Soviet communists to the Moon as a means to impress and inspire the rest of the world given that the Soviet’s Sputnik was loudly broadcasting that their organization of society was surpassing that of the west. Once that goal was achieved and we (the west) beat the Soviets to the Moon, the space lost its place in the political pantheon of priorities. Our government shifted funding priorities to other initiatives such as the so-called “Great Society”, the “War on Poverty”, the “War on Cancer”, etc.
However, there was another meme, another vision, another reason for being – one that got lost in the rhetoric and prestige chasing of the space race. That meme encapsuled the notion that the exploration and economic development of space is a logical progression for the evolution of human society and that this move would affect humanity as profoundly as the (re)discovery of the Americas by Europe.
“I AM UNEASY. I resent the passive attitudes many scientists have toward the challenge of science, especially their passivity concerning the greatest scientific, technological, and industrial opportunity of all time— the development of space— a challenge so limitless and exciting as ultimately to surpass all previous human accomplishments….
I am angry that so many scientists do not voice the scientific benefits of the expedition to the moon, concerned that industrial directors in charge of tomorrow are tranquil to the future, disturbed that our non-scientific Congress is unrealistic in its reasons for space appropriations, and disgusted with scientific journals that have abdicated their responsibilities of leadership and fail, even, to present a point of view.
Hundreds of important scientific and cold-cash reasons abound for going to the moon…”
These words could have been written by myself or a number of other space advocates over the last few years (it could also be written about Mars). However, these were written as the preface to a book “The Case for Going to the Moon”, written in 1965 by Neil Ruzic, the editor and publisher of the 1960’s era journal Industrial Research. The forward to the “Case for Going to the Moon” was written by Arthur C. Clarke. Here is what Clarke said the point of Ruzic’s book was:
“This book is a practical one. It maintains that science and space travel should have a practical purpose. Because of this attitude (as opposed both to the pure science and the political approach), and because it is written in ordinary English, this book is for three classes of readers. First, it is for intelligent laymen who have wondered why we should spend all that money to go to the moon. Second, it is for statesmen attempting to divest their opinions about space from vested interests as they ponder why we should spend all that money to go to the moon. Third, it is for those scientists unashamed to admit we’re all laymen in some else’s field as they contemplate why we should spend all that money to go to the moon.”
In the 1960’s NASA, its budget, and the race to the Moon were all openly rooted in politics. President Kennedy was not that interested in space other than its role in a geopoltical contest of prestige. This is what Kennedy had to say on the subject in a meeting with NASA administrator James Webb, deputy administrator Robert C. Seamans, and Hugh Dryden, and the President’s science advisor Jerome Weisner:
In listening to the entire audio and reading the transcript the argument that Webb, Seamans, and Dryden were making was that the Moon landing should not be the highest priority of NASA. These are three of the top officials of the agency! They advocated a broader program of science, exploration, and exploitation of the space environment, but the president was quite clear and insistent regarding the reason that he was busting the budget (stated elsewhere in the audio) for space. In other words NASA’s funding priority in that time period was solely due to its value as a weapon in the propaganda war with Russia over who was “best” in the world. This entire meme was amply researched and reported in MacDougal’s book “The Heavens and the Earth, the Political History of the Early Space Age”.
NASA as a National Priority Post Apollo
Support for the Apollo effort in the 1960’s was a mile wide and an inch deep. In his book Ruzic recounts sending out questionnaires to his almost 100,000 Industrial Research readers. He normally got a 30% response rate, but for the question about the Moon, the responses were barely 12%. Even the respondents the Moon race only expressed about 60% support, with most favoring more spending on their own disciplines which (in their minds) would bring more practical benefits, such as a cure for cancer.
In congressional testimony from the science community the results were about the same. Nobel prize winning physicist Dr. Polycarp Kusch basically said that the landing on the Moon was “unimportant”. This lack of support continued to grow as the social strains of the 1960’s became more urgent, including civil rights and the Vietnam war. Even before the first human landing was made on the Moon, NASA’s budget was cut so severely that production of the Saturn V ceased.
One of the persistent myths about NASA’s budget cuts is that it was for deficit reduction or due to the costs of the Vietnam war. This is shown in an excerpt from the book “Defining NASA: The Historical Debate Over the Agency’s Mission”.3
However, an examination of the budgets of that era show conclusively that it was a shift of priorities away from NASA to other domestic programs, as is alluded to in the reference to the Newsweek article above. Table 1 shows the budget for 19 federal agencies including NASA from 1966, the high water mark for NASA and 1980 when spending for the production of the Shuttle was near its peak.
This table clearly shows a major shift in funding trajectory from NASA to these other agencies beginning with the FY-1967 budget year. This shift in funding priorities is further illuminated by translating these numbers into fractional budget units using NASA’s budget as a standard 1.0 through this period in table 2:
Beginning in 1966 there was only one agency in this list with a larger fraction of the federal budget than NASA: the Department of Defense. By 1980, 11 of 19 federal agencies had budgets larger than NASA’s. Carrying this forward to FY 2012, using data from the White House Office of Management and Budget, 14 out of 19 of the agencies listed here have budgets larger than NASA’s. Even in agencies with smaller budgets than NASA’s their fraction has increased more than NASA’s has over the same time periods. This result is not cherry picking. If you take all federal agencies in an expanded list using the source data, the results are the same.
It becomes quite clear when you look at these budget numbers that starting in FY 1967 there was a massive shift in resources toward the problems of the inner cities, labor, and education – President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and “Great Society” programs. Space began to be marginalized, even being called “welfare for the middle class”. Figure 3 is a quote from a Life Magazine article from that era:
Never mind that this statement is both meaningless and wrong as every single penny of the NASA Apollo money was spent in the U.S. on jobs and hardware, it was a sentiment that won the day in the Congress of that era and is what led to the great budget shift. Table 3 shows a sample of some of the things that the money from NASA was shifted toward (also from the White House historical data):
These are enormous budget increases. In one example, sub-function 504 training and employment, the increase is from less than a quarter of NASA’s 1966 budget to more than twice the budget of the space agency in that period. These are huge increases. Yet the rationale for these increases is that they have a direct impact on improving the lives of Americans. Thus, their budgets have grown for generation. Therefore, it is hoped that these numbers can put to rest many of the myths about why NASA funding decreased. This also points to the core of why NASA remains anemic as a national priority today.
A much more recent warning about matching NASA goals to national priorities was given by the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 2006. Dr. John Marburger had been discussing the Bush administration’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and had this to say about its priorities vs space:
“Opportunities exist in other fields of physical science as well, such as nuclear and particle physics, space science and exploration, but these are not emphasized in the Competitiveness Initiative. Not that the U.S. is withdrawing from these fields, but ACI does signal an intention to fund the machinery of science in a way that ensures continued leadership in fields likely to have the greatest impact on future technology and innovation. The decision to make this needed adjustment for selected fields does not imply a downgrading of priority for other important areas of science, such as biomedical research and space science. These remain priorities, but the agencies that fund them are regarded as having budgets much more nearly commensurate with the opportunities, challenges, and benefits to be gained from pursuing these fields. As the nation pursues other critically important objectives, including reducing the budget deficit, the ACI gives priority to a small number of areas to ensure future U.S. economic competitiveness.”
Marburger echoed the words of President Kennedy by indicating that lacking a pressing priority for space, spending money to desalinate water (to echo Kennedy), is more important to the nation. As a space advocate it is my strong opinion that this prioritization is wrong neither NASA, or any of the other high level players have not made a compelling case for why its priority should be higher, and thus receive a larger fraction of the national budget.
The State of Affairs for FY 2014
The state of affairs with NASA in 2014 has been set by the recent budget deal on Capitol Hill. In November of 2013 I wrote an article called “NASA Will Face Solomon’s Choice in 2014“. My central thesis was that NASA’s budget would be likely to be insufficient to carry out both the ISS program and the SLS/Orion program. Thus, in a world where wisdom ruled, a choice would have to be made whether to terminate one or the other if we are to be able to move forward with exploration beyond Earth orbit. The worst possible choice would be to retain both programs and continue to loot the rest of NASA, including commercial crew, to keep them going. Of course that was the choice that Congress and the White House made!
The Space Foundation has published a detailed comparison between the proposed budgets from the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate for the FY 2014 budget along with what was actually passed into law with the Omnibus budget act. The NASA budget provided was very close to the one proposed by the White House early in the year, but less than the Senate and more than the House budgets. However, the funding priorities were shifted in an interesting fashion. This is shown in table 4 and table 5, copied from the report entitled “Space Foundation FY 2014 Budget Comparison Update 4“:
As can readily be seen the spending priorities for NASA were shifted to keep SLS/Orion on schedule with an almost $200 million budget increase. The ISS program suffered a $105 million cut (~3%) while commercial crew lost $125 million (~16%) and exploration technology lost $62 million (~17%) of the requested budget. Also, the decision was made this year to extend the ISS until 2024, eliminating the possibility of shifting ISS operating funds to exploration after FY 2020. With the February Senate declaration that it has no intention of passing a budget this year and the White House focusing all of its energy on its legacy building issues of health care, immigration, and climate change, large budget increases or decreases are off the table until at least FY 2018.
What does this mean? Barring large budget-eating technical problems it looks like SLS is going to get to its first launch in FY 2017/2018, but not prosper as the next launch is in 2022 or later. It also looks like ISS is going to survive, but it will probably not prosper due to inadequate budget support. Commercial crew is probably going to first fly around the time of the first SLS launch in the FY 2018/2019 timeframe. The Barbara Mikulski Memorial James Webb Space Telescope will also fly in 2018, lowering that drain on the planetary sciences budget. Technology development also suffers but some work will move forward, hopefully including solar electric propulsion.
The funding situation for NASA also means that there is no money to fund any significant work in beyond Earth orbit. No money for crew modules for long duration flight. No money for advanced life support systems. No money for landers, for the Moon or Mars, and no money for the asteroid visitation mission either. No money for sample return from Mars. No money for flagship outer planets missions. There is also no money for crucial elements needed to make SLS into its final form, a vehicle able to lift 130 tons to orbit.
The SLS that will first fly has limited performance compared to what NASA wants, principally because there is no money to pay for the upper stage that is required, one powered by the J2X. This situation happened after several billion dollars was spent to develop and bring the J2X to flight qualification. Now the J2X will sit for a decade waiting for the money to appear.
Figure 4 shows what the performance of this stunted SLS vehicle is compared to the EELV Delta IV Heavy:
The above graph is from AIAA 2013-5421, a paper presented by Boeing at the Space 2013 conference in San Diego, CA.
Inspiration Mars (Mars 2021 Flyby) Congressional Hearing, February 27, 2014
The Inspiration Mars congressional hearing was one of the more curious events in recent history regarding space on Capitol Hill. First were all of the statements from committee members, both democrats and republicans that seem to emanate from an alternate reality. Both sets of members say that Mars is the destination for NASA’s human space program. But, as the Augustine Commission conclusively reported, for this to happen under the “program of record” at the time. NASA would need an additional $3 billion per year in funding. However, since that time NASA’s budget has decreased (see reference iv) by $1.3 billion. This is at the same time that our nation spent almost a trillion dollars in economic stimulus funds. Maybe this is why the committee did not invite NASA to testify.
From the record it is clear that the White House and the democratic Congress have not fought for increased spending, the republican plan, if enacted for the FY 2014 budget, would have further reduced NASA funding by another $1.1 billion dollars. How can NASA plan for Mars or anything else when there is such a disparity between rhetoric and reality? The Solomon’s choice that I wrote about in 2013 is real and all of the babies at NASA are starving. This is not for a lack of money. Federal spending has increased by a trillion dollars per year since 2005. The simple fact is that NASA is not a priority for the Congress or the White House.
The witnesses before the committee at the Mars Fyby 2021 hearing were interesting. The good news is that all of the witnesses made statements that the U.S. needs a consistent philosophy and a long range plan for space. The bad news is that their rationales have been proposed and seen wanting for decades. American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics Executive Director and former astronaut Dr. Sandra Magnus stated that it was against human nature and the structure of our government to plan for the long term. This statement is at odds with the fact that for over two centuries our government has invested in long term infrastructure of practical benefit that takes decades to implement like the canals of the northeastern U.S., the railroad infrastructure across the continent, and the interstate highway system. The difference is that for decades our decision makers have separated space from reality, using space achievements (as Dr. Magnus accurately observed) as kind of a marketing brochure for the USA (prestige again). Dr. Magnus also the words “commercially viable” but placed no emphasis on it. In the end her talk was a plea for the aerospace industry status quo and more money.
Dr. Scott Pace started off magnificently with this statement:
“I have argued that international space cooperation, space commerce, and international space security discussions could be used to reinforce each other in ways that would advance U.S. interests in the sustainability and security of all space activities.”
This is exactly what was argued in “Toward a Theory of Space Power: Selected Essays“, for which he and I were contributing authors. However, after that it was all down hill. After setting up a straw man scenario of doom regarding commercial space companies regarding an accident at ISS that would be just as true for NASA, he goes on to write ISS off and dump it as soon as possible in order to pay for exploration. Pace continues to channel former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s plans which are a replay of the Constellation “Apollo on Steroids” strategy – a plan that never garnered sufficient political support to deliver a budget for its own implementation.
Dr. Pace lays out a series of goals that in his opinion can be accomplished by appealing to the geopolitical benefits of international cooperation. While this is a fine sentiment, it has usually been thrown out as a code word for getting the international partners to pay for our ideas when we can’t or won’t do so. The sequence of goals, the Moon, Dennis Tito’sInspiration Mars, a touch-and-go lunar exploration plan, and then on to a Mars ladning by humans is a house built on sand. This is no different and with no moral underpinning other than what has been sold unsuccessfully to Congress for over twenty years. Adding Tito’s ever-shifting Inspiration Mars to this mix merely adds one more pawn on the chessboard.
I understand that Dr. Pace is trying to tie this to larger political forces, which as it did for the ISS program itself, provide sufficient rationale for its ongoing support. However, this is unlikely to fly with the competing requirements to support the needs of the onrushing wave of baby boomer retirements. If Dorthy Reynolds (Figure 3 above) was used as the epitome of complaints about the perceived misallocation of priorities in the 1960’s, imagine the onslaught in ten years when political advertising pitting baby boomer healthcare Vs. a Mars mission are shown. We all know who would win that one.
General Lester Lyles, (USAF Ret.) was the most practical and honest witness before the committee. General Lyles immediately got to the heart of the matter by referencing the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) Space Technology Roadmap study’s findings that a plethora of critical path technologies are immature, including life support, radiation mitigation, habitation and waste management technologies. Lyles further states that due to these reasons, in his opinion, an Inspiration Mars-type mission is high risk and there is no funding profile for NASA that would enable such a mission. By implication he notes that there is a huge difference between this being a private mission (as originally proposed) and one financed and undertaken by the government (using SLS/Orion) and this has not been considered by those promoting the idea.
Lastly we get to Doug Cooke, former Associate Administration at NASA’s former Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD). In his congressional testimony as well as a follow up Op Ed in the Houston Chronicle, Doug is basically rearguing for the cancelled Constellation program. I am flattered that he is arguing the merits of a modified Inspiration Mars 2021 flyby including Venus, which was first publically mentioned as a means to improve the inspiration of the private effort in a NASA Watch article I penned in March of 2013.
However, Mr. Cooke is being disingenuous when he says that no costing has been done for that mission. In providing a critique of the original plan our team added a habitation/supply module, which Cooke also mentions and the fact that it would take at least two Falcon heavy launches in addition to the Dragon crew capsule. These additions easily pushed the cost over half a billion dollars and if this were a NASA mission these additions, plus developments like the ones General Lyles mentioned, push the number to a billion dollars at least. This rough order of magnitude cost is well known. Mr. Cooke also argued for the larger upper stage for the SLS vehicle, which as can easily be calculated by those knowledgeable in the art, is the only way to make the Inspiration Mars mission work with SLS. There is no current budget for this upper stage.
Last November Dennis Tito testified before congress about the Inspiration Mars mission and his seemingly innocent idea that if SLS was going to fly anyway, why not go with Inspiration Mars. Mr. Tito even made the pitch to Congress for the funding for the new upper stage. He was immediately pilloried for being the rich guy who wants NASA to fund his ideas. Well, in truth, Mr. Tito was encouraged to do this by Inspiration Mars team member Mr. Cooke and other people and companies operating in the shadows who want that upper stage work accelerated. Mr. Tito was feted at NASA centers and encouraged by those who thought that it would be just grand for Inspiration Mars to use SLS, but in the end Mr. Tito and his ideas were and are being used to push the agendas of others, regrettably so.
The reason that this is so regrettable is that this is that Mr. Tito was effectively asked to convince congress to kill ISS and or commercial crew in order to fund their bright and shiny (SLS) baby who in their opinion is being suffocated by competing programs. Another interesting aspect is that Mr. Cooke is championing many of the technology developments that were killed by his former boss and collaborator (Mike Griffin) during his tenure as deputy AA and AA of ESMD at NASA.
To reiterate, the problem is that for NASA to undertake the Inspiration Mars mission in 2021 a large budget increase is necessary, or as Mr. Cooke argued, de-scope competition in ISS and commercial crew to save money that could then be spent on exploration. This is an incredibly short sighted perspective to take, especially with Ukraine exploding and the U.S. and Russia at loggerheads on the issue. We could easily lose our access to ISS, something terrible for our nation and our international partners.
The Path Forward
There are a few things that all participants in the recent congressional testimony as well as the larger community agree upon. The first is that NASA (and by implication the nation) does not have a long term goal/vision/sense of purpose in space. The second is that resources are completely inadequate to the tasks that NASA has been asked to accomplish. The third is that come way may, core programs like ISS, SLS/Orion will be preserved. What players like Cooke, Pace, and others lurking in the shadows would like to do is to stack the deck to change this, for what to them are entirely logical reasons. We cannot do exploration with these ongoing programs operating in parallel in the current fiscal environment, with the current or offered rationales. Congress demands Mars without any sign of being willing to provide the money to do so cut an existing program to pay for it. So what can be done?
The dynamic of the current presidential administration is set in stone and as one astute political observer noted, their intended legacy is going to be healthcare, immigration, and climate change – not space. Impending geopolitical crises may change that but that is the plan, and thus do not count on any further presidential political capital being spent on NASA. This also means that the status quo between major programs is not going to be altered at least until the FY 2018 budget, meaning that a NASA Inspiration Venus/Mars mission is off the table. So again, what can be done?
A Statement of Principle for Space Exploration
The answer is quite simple actually. It began with science fiction, it was rendered into ideas in the early 1950’s by Von Braun, Bonestell, and Disney. It was cast aside by the prestige based Apollo program. It was emasculated with the cuts to Shuttle utilization and the Challenger disaster. It was cast aside again during the Space Exploration Initiative era. It was twisted by the political and financial moves during ISS development and today continues to be underfunded. It was yet again cast aside when the Vision for Space Exploration morphed into Constellation’s “Apollo on Steroids” nightmare.
It was what Dr. John Marburger first exclaimed, then warned about in his 2006 Goddard Symposium speech. What is it? It is from Arthur C. Clarke’s Forward to Neil Ruzic’s book.
“science and space travel should have a practical purpose.”
To rephrase as a statement of principle going forward.
“The United States commits that its space exploration efforts shall have practical benefits to the people of the United States and for all mankind.”
This simple statement of principle that can be understood by everyone. It forms a guiding principle for decisions regarding beyond earth orbit exploration. How would this play out in the real world of NASA, considering the current budget?
General Lyles put his finger on many of the most critical path issues going forward, some of these are addressed in NASA’s own plans, however the exploration technology budget line continues to be cut. Restore those cuts. There is an interesting synergy between a fully closed loop ISS environmental control and mining. The same Sabitier reactor used to turn CO2 into oxygen and water could be used in the mining industry as an emergency air supply. Yes, you could do this without NASA but the cross-fertilization is a natural. Implement a fully-closed environmental life support system on ISS. This would use ISS as intended, as a test bed for these technologies and would lower the logistics costs of the station. Provide this technology to anyone who wants it for commercial space systems through the government purpose provisions of federal contracting.
NASA is also funding solar electric propulsion systems. Currently both Boeing/Spectrolab and Emcore have new generation solar cells ready for flight qualification that are much more efficient than currently used. Pay for this qualification, which is only about $7-10 million, and then help with production by buying panels to replace the 20+ year old ISS silicon solar arrays. This will not only prove out the technology, but will cut the drag on the station by 50%, reducing the operational cost of the station while enabling the commercial satellite industry to adopt these cells for a new generation of commercial comsats. Fully fund solar electric propulsion missions for exploration (disclaimer is that I work in this area and could personally benefit). However, it is beneficial to the community, especially with the shift to all electric propulsion on GEO comsats currently underway. Also, increased production volumes of advanced cells can lower the costs for terrestrial solar power systems to the point to where they are commercially viable.
Commercial Human Spaceflight
First of all congress, quit cutting that budget, quit paying attention to these BoLockNor and its smaller sibling lobbyists that continually visit your offices. It should be quite clear that any day now Russia could easily cut us off from ISS. SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and even Boeing with the CST-100 are making progress and it is in our vital national interest that this move forward. It would be prudent even to restore the full Senate request in a supplemental appropriation. Again, you all know that the money is there and think of the loss to the nation in prestige if we lost access to our station that we paid nearly $100 billion to build! We are currently paying $70 million per seat to get to ISS when Dennis Tito in his first space tourist trip paid less than $15 million. Would it not be better to spend that money in our country? I think that Dorthy Reynolds would approve.
There are a lot of other areas. Dr. Magnus talked about cubesats. A commercial company, Nanoracks, is currently working with the ISS program to deploy dozens of these for another commercial company, Planetlabs for persistent remote sensing of the Earth. My team built the first NASA supported small satellite and launched it in 1998 and we had the first space act agreement to do so on ISS. This is a technology and a market with potential to explode and it will have a dramatic effect in the global finance and economic intelligence market. ISS is the perfect test bed for allowing a rapid advance in deploying new and more capable systems. Today NASA through STEM education programs funds several of these small satellites as well as new ways of launching them. This momentum must be maintained and extended to the planetary science community, which can benefit from lower mission costs and leverage commercial and academic technology advances.
ISS and Exploration
The problem that we have today is that the SLS/Orion and ISS factions at NASA increasingly see themselves as competing with each other for funding. There is an old saying that if you have enough problems they can solve each other. Dr. Pace spoke about integrated approaches. It is beyond time to integrate the SLS/Orion centric exploration architecture with the ISS. This is not a new idea, indeed it was central to the Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars which was the basis of the Space Exploration Initiative. There are a couple of strong practical reasons for doing this. The first is that we have the ISS in orbit, and serviced by cargo and soon commercial human transportation vehicles. It is there, in place. Second is that we have a heavy lift launch vehicle with an exceptionally inadequate upper stage that we have no money to improve on. Thus with these two facts, we can start to develop an architecture that combines both vehicles. Figure 5 shows a version of this concept from the HEI report figure 3.6:
Figure 5: 1989 HEI (SEI) Space Station Freedom Based Exploration Architecture
Now critics might argue that this was for Space Station Freedom which was at a 28.5 degree inclination orbit, but study after study has shown that the payload loss to the ISS inclination of 51.6 degrees is worst case about 6.3%. This means that the SLS can deliver 65.6 tons of payload to ISS. Current NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier has stated that in order for the SLS to fly safely it is required to fly at least once per year. The money for this is also not budgeted but it seems to be an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars to have a standing army of people just standing for several years because you don’t have the incremental money for hardware. There is also no money for payloads for these flights. However, there are possible options for cargo that could fly to ISS that could be used to support exploration.
The first is called Node X. It was the structural test article built by Boeing for the space station program. Figure 6 shows a picture of it at MSFC:
This could be launched, along with an Orion to the space station in 2019 with a very modest amount of funding. Yes, I know, they don’t have the money, but they don’t have the money for SLS either but they keep getting it. If the ISS and SLS program worked together, they might actually be able to pull it off. The reason to fly this again goes back to the Space Exploration Initiative days. Figure 7 shows why:
The Node X is easily adaptable to this concept. Even if you don’t use it initially for missions beyond low earth orbit, it could fly the Orion environmental control system for testing at ISS. It would also give the station more docking ports, something that would be useful as a base of operations for exploration missions. The node could also be fitted with a heat shield for aero-assist return to the station, making it a reusable vehicle. It could also, with the addition of solar arrays and a small propulsion system, be used as a long term outpost in lunar orbit. A similar plan has been proposed by Boeing in an IAC paper (IAC-12-D2.8).
The point is that if you are going to fund SLS, fund the thing to be able to actually work. If not, then cancel it. This is what I write about when talking about starving the baby. HEOMD AA Gerstenmaier is correct, launching once every few years is not the way, nor can it be sustained. Without spending much more money than you already are going to spend there are ways to do it. Subsequent SLS launches could launch as strictly as a tanker. The tanker would further extend the upper stage to carry more fuel and rendezvous with the station and take the node with it.
What To Do On the Moon
We are poised at the cusp of a revolution for what we can do on the Moon. Dr. Pace is to be applauded for focusing on the moon and he is right that this is the near term focus for the international community. However, as they say in the south, don’t do a half baked job about it. Our knowledge base about lunar resources is far better than it was just ten years ago. One NASA mission under development is the RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction) mission. This is a fantastic mission to test a lunar landing site and its nearby environs for water, hydroxyls, and other volatiles as well as to perform tests for the production of oxygen from lunar regolith.
The mission has several instruments that have gone through generations of refinement but at this time is starved for funding as the planetary science budget has been decimated by the costs of Mars missions and the James Web telescope. It should be flown, and flown to a location that we intend to put a base (not an outpost). There are two sites for this and in my opinion the best place is on the rim of the crater Whipple, which itself is on the rim of the crater Peary, at the lunar north pole.
Figure 8 shows the results of a study we did regarding landing sites and their accessibility via rover to nearby water concentrations:
The graphic on the left and the charts on the right were developed for the purpose of determining the shortest distance from the permanently lit region on the rim of Whipple to the floor of Peary to the concentrations of water identified by Spudis. It turns out that route 2 is about 15 km with a maximum slope of 20 degrees, well within the capabilities of candidate lunar rovers. Exploring the rim of Whipple, which has elevated volatiles compared with the rest of the moon and determining the extent and duration of the sunlit periods is of value to lunar science and to the development of a base. The rover/lander would also carry a communications beacon for precision landing of follow on missions.
Further missions would build on the beginnings of the RESOLVE mission. Samples returned from the Apollo 16 landing site, which was in a lunar highlands region, indicated elevated levels of meteoric metals, which can be magnetically separated with simple electromagnets. These metals could be fed into an induction furnace and melted. The melt products could be formed first into plates for a demonstration. More advanced rovers and landers in the future bring advanced robotic systems, rovers, lasers for cutting and welding, and power supplies. With this being one of the most sunny places on the moon, solar power will suffice as capabilities are built up.
In the past ten years there has been an explosion of robotics capabilities and 3D printing in the U.S. and funding for these types of missions would help to accelerate the capability to build things on the Moon. This can all happen at a fraction of the cost that it would have twenty or even ten years ago. Software algorithms worth billions if they had to be custom coded have been developed over the last ten years and at an accelerated pace in the last five years. The recent DARPA grand challenge robotic competition as well as the autonomous car competition has shown that we have past an inflection point on robotic capability that will enable a dramatic increase in productivity on the lunar surface, and all of that work will pay forward for Mars as well. Today we have rovers on Mars that cost billions and move at millimeters per day. Tomorrow we can have rovers on the Moon and Mars that cost a fraction of that and move at kilometers per hour.
Incredible advances have also happened in the terrestrial field in fuel cells with autos coming out this year from many manufacturers. Taking that a step forward to closed loop fuel cells, we now have, almost off the shelf, high power density systems that will allow mining (fuel cells are already moving into this field on Earth), regolith moving, transportation, and manufacturing.
The Goal, Industrial Development on the Moon
On the Earth, industries that use a vacuum generate tens of billions of dollars worth of product every year. This vacuum is generated here on the Earth and is expensive in terms of capital equipment and operational costs. Figure 9 shows some of the products generated by this industry:
Figure 9: Vacuum Market and Products Globally6
While at least in the near term the export of manufactured products from the Moon to the surface of the earth is not practical, the research and development that can be done in this environment can feed back to terrestrial process improvement in the vacuum industry, just as experiments in zero gravity on the Shuttle and ISS have fed back into the terrestrial biotechnology and other markets.
This was the dream of Ruzic when he wrote his book. Figure #10 shows the lunar industrial manufacturing complex he envisioned:
Neil Ruzic was the editor of the industry magazine Industrial Research. He had far more than a passing knowledge about what was possible with industrial processes in vacuum. In fact, the James Webb telescope could not function with Neil Ruzic’s work. He invented and patented the Cryostat. For his purposes the bowls in the image on the left are cryostats that allowed precise temperature control to foster advanced in-vacuum materials processing mass production.
This is just the beginning. Advanced spacecraft and systems should not be built on the Earth and then launched on rattling rockets bludgeoning their way through the atmosphere. The medical community has delineated the risks to crews in sending them to Mars due to radiation exposure. This has more to do with the limitations of designing a vehicle to the last ounce of performance rather than to accomplish a mission. A lunar built vehicle can be lofted into lunar orbit with a single stage to orbit cargo vehicle (first demonstrated in July of 1969 on the Moon, still not there on the Earth). Figure 10 shows one such vehicle, designed in the 1980’s for the Moon:
These landers and their cargos can be built and launched without regard to aerodynamics. The energy to get to orbit is 1/81th of the energy that it takes to get something from the Earth into orbit. It’s time to free ourselves of the limitations of a geocentric mindset that proclaims that we must have a beast of a launch vehicle to loft large payloads built on the Earth. That was our grandfathers space program.
Ruzic expanded his vision for a lunar industrial future in his book “Where The Winds Sleep” in 1970. He foresaw Apollo expanded methodically from exploration sorties, to antarctic-style bases, followed by industrial utilization morphing eventually into colonies and a unique lunar civilization – all before the middle of the 21st century. Using local resources – especially as we know how to do things today, this is not at all unrealistic – techically. We could have been in the midst of this now had we not been diverted in the 70s.
The Practical Benefits of Lunar Industrialization
After reading the above grandiose prose you may ask what does this have to do with bringing practical day to day benefits to the American taxpayer? The problem that has always stifled industrialization has been transportation costs. Today with our technical abilities in manufacturing we can offload a majority of the “uphill” costs to the Moon via local resources. With an industrial infrastructure under development, research in vacuum manufacturing can accelerate rapidly. New alloys, new MEM’s devices, new semiconductor technologies will all play a part. However, the biggest direct value will be in systems.
In energy terms geostationary (GEO) orbit is closer to the surface of the Moon than it is to low Earth orbit. Large space platforms that would be exceedingly difficult to loft from Earth can be built there for communications, remote sensing, and other applications. Many people today talk about ubiquitous global Internet but it remains elusive. Some think that launching thousands of cubesats will solve the problem. With large GEO platforms this becomes a reality and the digital divide evaporates. Persistent observational platforms that can be serviced from the Earth or moon will eliminate the periodic problems of weather satellite outages. Advanced sensors, enabled by large optics not possible with existing launchers and Earth based construction, can keep an eye on the changing climate, providing real time data to researchers to help refine and calibrate, and validate computer models. With high mobility spacecraft constructed on the Moon and fueled with its water the almost intractable problem of orbital debris can be solved. In the area of GEO orbit there is now over half a million pounds of debris. Just one high velocity impact between spacecraft could wipe out a trillion dollars in global economic product.
Mars? Mars now becomes not only possible, but sustainable. Mr. Cooke spoke in his testimony about a Mars mission powered by the SLS vehicle. Well actually it was six or seven of them. If you take the price of their launch, and add the price of spacecraft, landers, and other logistics required to mount a Mars expedition using SLS, we are talking about $20 billion for a single mission – not counting development costs. This vast alocation of taxpayer resources would not for colonization. No, it would only be for a single sortie mission. How many television shows do you see about our Antarctic research stations? How loud do you the reader think the howling will be at budget time when Medicare or the ACA is being cut to fund Mars? Whether or not it is true, that is what will happen, and for every Dorthy Reynolds of 1968 there will be a thousand of them in 2032.
Unless we can bring a return on investment from our manned spaceflight activities, they simply will not persist in the face of daunting demands on the budget brought about by the retirement of the baby boomer generation. On the other hand, a program that brings practical benefits to the American people that helps to generate economic activity can be a boon for the people, an inspiration to our youth, and a hope for a brighter 21st century.
If the SLS faction and the ISS faction get together, and develop a rational program of exploration and development, may both might just survive. The arguments of the last 30 years have not provided NASA with a budget. Its time to try something new, which indeed is where the space program started with president Eisenhower over a generation ago. If you don’t then expect some other country or Elon Musk to get there before you do.
1 Ruzic, Neil; The Case for Going to the Moon, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York New York, 1965, page xv.
2 http://millercenter.org/presidentialclassroom/exhibits/fly-me-to-the-moon, John F. Kennedy, James Webb, Robert Seamans, Hugh Dryden, and Jerome Weisner, November 1962
3 Kay, W.D., Defining NASA: The Historical Debate Over the Agency’s Mission; State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005, page 98
4 http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals , accessed 02/20/14
5 Donahue, B., Sigmon, S.; Space Launch Vehicle Capabilities with a New Large Upper Stage, AIAA Space 2013 Conference and Exposition, September 10-12, 2013, San Diego, CA. AIAA 2013-5421
6 http://www.pneurop.eu/index.php?subcategoryid=28 accessed 3/1/14
You may also be interested in NASA FY 2015 Budget – Commercial Crew is Investing in America from SpaceRef Business.