Establishing the Vision for Space Exploration

By dennis_wingo
April 22, 2008
Filed under
Establishing the Vision for Space Exploration

(Those who do not learn from history are doomed)

To those of us who have committed our lives to the proposition that the exploration and development of space as the means by which we can build a prosperous global civilization that will last far beyond our current limits to growth, recent events have a familiar and depressing feel. There is a principle in the entrepreneurial world that if you present a business plan to an investor that does not meet their criterion for funding, you dont get funded. The same principle applies to government spending with the congress, executive branch and the people fulfilling the role of the investor. Our national space agency has been trying to sell a business plan to the American people for almost forty years that they have continually decided not to fund. The investor has continually given feedback to the NASA entrepreneur with little or no indication that NASA has listened. This missive will provide examples of this forty year phenomenon and hopefully provide insight to NASAs leadership on what can be done within the context of the Vision for Space Exploration to establish a lasting effort to achieve national goals.

This is not a criticism about a rocket development effort, it is about the goal, the vision, and the return on investment for the American people. The investor does not care exactly how a company carries out its business plan, they just care about results and the exit plan. Successful great and noble efforts by nations follow this same path. The canals of the early American frontier opened up the Midwest to settlement and commerce. The national railroad of the 1860s was built in a time of desperate civil war but was funded because our leaders understood that the result would bind together and unify the nation for communications, settlement, and commerce. The Panama canal, the interstate system, the seaports, the airports, all of these government funded or supported efforts had a simple goal, increase our national wealth through the creation of an infrastructure unparalleled in world history in support of commerce and freedom of movement for our people. These are things that people readily understand and that congress willingly funds. These are templates and lessons that NASA must incorporate into its plans or the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) will join the other acronyms of space plan failure in the dustbin of history.

The History

The Post Apollo 11 Mistake

The first indication of the path not taken in selling space to the American people came almost as the sound of the engines of the Apollo 11 launch faded from the warm Florida sky. During the network coverage of the launch former president Lyndon Johnson was sitting with Walter Cronkite discussing the importance of Apollo 11. Anticipating the success of the flight Johnson began talking about how the success of Apollo 11 could now be translated into solving our earthly problems related to poverty. This is without the understanding that success in a technical enterprise really has nothing to do structurally with solving a social problem. The constant refrain that I remember even as a child was that if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can solve x, y, or z social problem. National technical enterprises can solve social problems but not in the way that was carried out by Project Apollo. The canals, the railroads, the interstates, and even the internet solve social problems through enabling the people to create wealth, literally enabling the constitutionally derived pursuit of happiness, not providing happiness itself. This was not NASAs fault, but it provided the evaluation criterion whereby NASAs efforts over the next forty years would fail in comparison to competing social priorities.

This meme spoken by Johnson became popular even as Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon. From Thor Hogan’s brilliant book, “Mars Wars – the Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI)“:

Public sentiment toward the space program had also begun to shift, with increasing concerns that the government had misplaced priorities. A Gallup Poll conducted in July 1969, at the time of the Apollo 11 mission, indicated that only 39% of Americans were in favor of U.S. government spending to send Americans to Mars, while 53% were opposed.

The Space Task Group, a Nixon administration appointed group that included many of the legendary NASA leaders that built the Apollo system, basically ignored the public sentiment. This is illustrated in this excerpt from the Space Task Group report:

By its very nature, the exploration and exploitation of space is a costly undertaking and must compete for funds with other national or individual enterprises. Now that the national goal of manned lunar landing has been achieved, discussion of future space goals has produced increasing pressures for reexamination of, and possible changes in, our national priorities.

Many believe that funds spent for the space program contribute less to our national economic growth and social well-being than funds allocated for other programs such as health, education urban affairs, or revenue sharing. Others believe that funds spent for space exploration will ultimately return great economic and social benefits not now foreseen. These divergent views will persist and must be recognized in making decisions on future space activities.

The Space Task Group has not attempted to reconcile these differences. Neither have we attempted to classify the space program in a hierarchy of national priorities. The Space Task Group has identified major technical and scientific challenges in space in the belief that returns will accrue to the society that takes up those challenges.

By not explicitly tying the exploration and development of space in a manner as to provide concrete economic results to the nation, NASA and the Space Task Group started a path of divergence that continues until this day. To be fair, the results of the study of Apollo rocks had barely started and the first true remote sensing mission during Apollo would not happen until Apollo 15 and 16 carried Gamma Ray spectrometers. Von Braun and others such as the author Neil Ruzic attempted to show in their writings that there were economic benefits to be had but Von Braun was soon to be assigned to oblivion at NASA and Ruzics book is a footnote in history.

The Rise and Fall of The Space Exploration Initiative

Jumping into the late 1980s and the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing a new wave of interest was generated by the speech by the senior President Bush on the steps of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Thor Hogans book referenced earlier has an incredible wealth of information related to the origin and ultimate failure of SEI that is worth investigating here. First, president Bush sought to attack head on the perceived problem with the space program, which is that it was irrelevant to the problems of that time:

Some say the space program should waitthat we should only go forward once the social problems of today are completely solved. But history proves that attitude is self-defeatingMany an American school kid has read the story of Columbus doubters, and shook their heads in disbelief that these naysayers could have been so shortsighted. We must not let the schoolchildren of the future shake their heads at our behavior.

This soaring rhetoric was not matched with an equal fervor in congress nor did the exploration plan put forth by NASA address the issues that congress deemed important. The FY 1991 NASA budget that killed SEI had the following statement in the House-Senate conference committee report:

The Committee believes that it is premature to proceed with an extensive planning and technology program oriented toward a manned mission to return to the Moon and then to Mars without a clear, sustainable revenue source available for such an undertaking. NASAs preliminary studies on a manned mission to the Moon and Mars estimate a total program cost of over $500,000,000,000. The Committee believes that these figures will likely underestimate the potential cost of such a mission, and believe that moving on such an initiative, in the absence of providing a way to pay for it, is ill-advised in an era of enormous fiscal constraint.

It needs to be made clear that during the time from 1969 to 1989 the federal budget increased from $195 billion to over $2.1 trillion dollars, so the issue is not one of cash, it is one of priorities. This was recognized at least in part by the Augustine commission who stated as their most important finding:

The groups most important finding was that the space program needed to shift its fundamental rationale from one dominated by national prestige, national security, and foreign policy (although these remained contributing motivations) to one predicated on global economic competitiveness and environmental protection.

None of the plans for lunar and or Mars exploration in the late 1980s and 90s addressed the issue of economic competitiveness, though the NASA Mission to Planet Earth did address the environmental aspects of the NASA mission (this was the only part that was funded by the way) in a meaningful way. While there is blame that needs to be spread around to both the White House and NASA, it is the collective failure of SEI to consider any contribution to the economic competitiveness of the nation that caused it to lose out as a priority. In contrast to many writers I will assert that money has never been the issue. When something is a priority to the government money is always found, be this war or social spending. While the executive branch may be considered by many as dictating plans and budgets to the congress, the legislative branch has shown time and time again that when it comes to spending, if it does not meet their criterion for investment, it simply does not happen.


Almost fifteen years later the son of the president who announced the Space Exploration Initiative announced his own ambitious space effort to return to the Moon to stay and then on to Mars. There was a subtle difference between the Sr. Bushs speech and the sons speech. For the first time resources derived from the Moon were placed into the critical path of the development of the lunar outpost and the trip to Mars:

Returning to the moon is an important step for our space program. Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost. Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air. We can use our time on the moon to develop and test new approaches and technologies and systems that will allow us to function in other, more challenging environments. The moon is a logical step toward further progress and achievement.

This is the first time in presidential speech history that resources from the Moon are explicitly described as a part of the exploration plan. During the SEI era lip service was done to the concept but it was never truly integrated into the plan. The concept first introduced by Bush was expanded upon in a truly visionary speech by OSTP head Dr. John Marburger at the 44th Robert Goddard memorial symposium in 2006:

As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.

The wording of this policy phrase is significant. It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security, and economic interests. Stated this way, the “fundamental goal” identifies the benefits against which the costs of exploration can be weighed. This is extremely important for policy making because science, security, and economic dimensions are shared by other federally funded activities. By linking costs to these common benefits it becomes possible, at least in principle, to weigh investments in space exploration against competing opportunities to achieve benefits of the same type.

These two amazing paragraphs accomplish what had been sought by both congress and executive branch leadership for the previous 35 years. However, the speech was also a warning in that in the weighing of investments NASA has come up wanting in terms of its contribution to our economic competitiveness and national security. He explicitly stated this later in the speech when discussing the budget increases for the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation that were a part of the American Competitiveness Initiative:

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.

This was a clear shot across the bow of the NASA desire for increased funding to support the architecture developed by newly minted NASA administrator Mike Griffin and his Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS). Thus we come to the quandary that represents today and NASAs newest plan for lunar and Mars exploration.

NASA vs Nation

It is quite clear to those of us who have been involved with NASA since the beginning of the SEI era that its successor, the VSE is in trouble. The fact is that NASA ignored both the president and the executive branch organization (OSTP), that helped to come up with the VSE in the first place. The problem is not the rocket, it is the plan of what we do when we get to the Moon. While there are many who would strenuously argue that the transportation architecture represented by the ESAS study as implemented with billions of dollars of taxpayer money is the wrong one, in the end, this argument misses the greater point.

The point is that there is virtually no plan at all to carry out the truly remarkable plan to use resources derived from the Moon for further exploration. The epitome of the divergence from the vision as laid out by the president is the statement by the NASA administrator that all we need is a good map, to get back to the Moon. There are statements that encapsulate all the problems of a plan, and this statement is the one that made it clear that NASA has no interest in carrying out the VSE as envisioned by our elected leadership and why in the competition for federal resources, NASA is losing.

Congress has already in this past fiscal year budget passed a provision forbidding NASA to continue to study the mission to Mars. Recently it has been stated that NASA will be on a continuing resolution (budget freeze) until after the election. It has also been stated that NASA is to not put together a budget for fiscal year 2010 but let the new administration deal with it. Since three out of three of the current candidates have already stated either a freeze in discretionary spending or specific cuts to the ESAS architecture, the chess pieces are already in place for the VSE to go the way of SEI. It is up to the leadership of NASA to continue driving the train toward the cliff or figure out a way to make NASA relevant to the nation in a way that it has not been since July of 1969.

Congress is an additional factor this time around as well. Early in April the CBS program 60 minutes did a segment on the Constellation program (the operative term today for the ESAS architecture). In this segment after discussing all of the things that it was going to do, they asked senior congressman Senator Barney Frank what he thought. His response could be cloned from any number of similar statements by congress persons over the last forty years. His statement was in paraphrase thus:

If the sole purpose of the NASA program to send mankind to Mars is simply to get them there and back safely, then the program will not be funded and the hundreds of billions of dollars that it costs will be better spent solving problems here on the Earth.

The administration and congress are speaking but is anyone from NASA listening?

Creating a Spacefaring Nation

It does not have to be this way. A lunar installation has the potential to be an incredible microscopic laboratory for developing ways and means to use very limited material resources to build a self sustaining (as opposed to self sufficient) off planet foothold. While on the Earth we face the inherent limits of the resources available on our single planet, on the Moon those limits are dramatically closer to day to day survival as even the air that you breath either has to come from the Earth or be won from the billion year old rocks near the installation. We can learn how to generate oxygen from rocks and metals besides. The rocks of the lunar highlands at the lunar pole where the installation would be sited are similar to volcanic rocks on the Earth. If we can learn to derive metals and oxygen from them does it not stand to reason that this same technology can be applied here? There is plenty of iron, magnesium, silicon, and aluminum in lunar rocks that can be won with increasing levels of difficulty as well as oxygen. As president Bush said, the oxygen and other materials derived there may be crucial to lowering the cost of going to Mars.

Other technologies developed at the lunar installation have equal value to us here on the Earth. As we breathe, CO2 is exhaled. Here on the Earth it is thought to change our climate, on the Moon it would soon kill the inhabitants unless it is dealt with. Therefore a means must be found to reclaim the oxygen from the CO2 and use the carbon as an extra resource. On the Earth today pure water is becoming an increasingly valuable resource. On the Moon it would cost over $100,000 per gallon, necessitating extreme measures to reclaim it from the bath, clothes washing, and even from our waste. These same technologies could be fed back into the terrestrial economy, improving our water usage and lowering the cost of additional water extraction infrastructure. A pound of food delivered to the Moon is also enormously costly and therefore an early effort to grow nutritious plants and eventually animal husbandry will be required. Learning how to do this in this extremely resource constrained environment could teach us much to help with the growing concerns over our food supplies here on the Earth.

On the Moon a closed or nearly closed loop industrial infrastructure can be created that would be a model for the much larger one here on the Earth. If the lunar installation (not an outpost, not a base) was explained to the people using this type of mental imagery (and if it was actually done this way) then people would be able to see the economic and security linkages between that effort and the greater good on the Earth. Without these linkages it is highly unlikely that any of the current candidates for president will support the VSE any more than SEI was supported after George Bush senior left office.

This is just the beginning of ideas for turning a rocket project into a plan for establishing the first outpost of mankind off the Earth. There are further ones that are linked to the production of fuel for further missions to the asteroids to acquire resources that can materially benefit our economy here on the Earth. Scientists know that there are vast resources of metals and precious metals such as platinum, a key ingredient in enabling the hydrogen economy here on the Earth on many of these asteroids and on the Moon from their impacts there. The Department of Energy is sponsoring research today to try and replace with lesser materials the catalyst effect of platinum due to its looming scarcity. As is true with many materials, the cost of platinum has quadrupled in the past 10 years due to its increasing scarcity.

If this is not done, if we as a nation do not look at the Moon and Mars as more than objects of scientific inquiry, then the following is an example of what a young man and space advocate thinks about NASA and the current plan for returning to the Moon:

If our current approach to space development was actually putting in place the technology and infrastructure needed to make our civilization a spacefaring one, I’d be a lot more willing to support it.
Wise investments in the future are a good thing, but NASA’s current approach is not a wise investment in the future. Its aging hipsters trying to relive the glory days of their youth at my generation’s expense.

Patience is only a virtue when you’re headed in the right direction and doing the right thing. If Constellation was truly (as Marburger put it) making future operations cheaper, safer, and more capable, then I’d be all for patiently seeing it out.

While Constellation might possibly put some people on the moon, it won’t actually put us any closer to routine, affordable, and sustainable exploration and development. I have no problem with a long hard road, just so long as its the right one.

Jonathan Goff is a young man and engineer who works for a so called new-space company whereby he gets to build hardware instead of spending years on paperwork. This is what engineers want to do, build things. The timetable is too long for the current plan and it has no means for anyone but the chosen few government employees to participate. This is no longer sufficient motivation for the majority of the engineering community to participate nor is it sufficient motivation for the taxpayer to continue to pay for. Already there are slips to the Constellation program schedule and with every one the groans increase and the spirit falters.

The point of this missive is that if the plan that NASA is executing does not address specific economic issues or some of the large scale problems that face us as a civilization today, of which there are many, it is highly unlikely that the VSE will survive, and with the death of the VSE, another generation will have lost its chance to make a difference. The wonderful thing about space is that we can make the greatest difference of all, which is to create a positive future for all mankind. To do less is unworthy of what awaits us and beckons to us. Our future is out there and somewhere in the future is the starship Enterprise, not the limited future on this one lonely rock in space that many fear is the only future that we have. We live in a planetary civilization today, the cradle of humanity, but as the great Russian scientist Tsiolkovsky said, we cannot remain in the cradle forever.