Jeff Bell and the Legions of Doom

By dennis_wingo
March 21, 2004
Filed under ,
Jeff Bell and the Legions of Doom

For a week now I have seen articles by an Adjunct professor of planetology at the University of Hawaii concerning A: The impossibility of the president’s Lunar initiative working and B: the impending death of the astronauts on orbit at ISS.

Dr. Bell’s first article, The Bush Space Initiative: Fiscal Nightmare or… Fiscal Nightmare? Is replete with inaccuracies and half truths. He takes the tact that those who say that there is too little money and those who say that the plan has too expensive are both right, using the old blind man with an elephant trick. However, the full truth is much more interesting.

First lets take on the “too little money” argument. In recent testimony to congress Michael D. Griffin, former head of NASA’s 1992 SEI effort, made the case that the amount of funding projected by Mr. Okeefe’s NASA is actually considerably more than the real numbers from SEI (As opposed to the widely reported but fictitious $400 billion dollar number) which according to Dr. Griffin were:

The most thorough study of an “Apollo-like” return to the moon previously conducted by NASA was the “First Lunar Outpost” (FLO) effort, which occupied many of us from 1991-93. FLO was intended not as a definitive or final architecture for lunar return, but rather as a working baseline, to establish a credible point of departure for further efforts, which were unfortunately terminated at the outset of the Clinton Administration. The FLO architecture offered some improvement as compared to Apollo capability, but not so much as to be beyond our credible experience base at that time. Top level FLO cost estimates were:

Item                                                FY92 $B 

Crew Vehicle Development & 1st Unit                   7.4 
Surface Habitat and Systems                           2.0 
Launch Vehicle Development & 3 Vehicles              12.6 
Unmanned Lander & Cargo Production (2 Units)          3.0
Total                                               $25.0 

The FLO costs must be inflated by about 30% to account for the difference between 1992 and 2003 dollars, resulting in an estimate of about $33 B for an initial lunar return. Also, the FLO studies assumed that the then-planned International Space Station habitat module would be available (with some modifications) for use on the lunar surface. Substantial development resources would be required to restore such a capability at this point, were it to be included in a lunar return mission. However, because a surface habitat is not included in the current planning estimate, it should be deleted from the comparison, yielding a 2003 FLO cost estimate of about $30 B, no more than 60% of NASA’s current assessment.

Dr. Griffin makes the point that the Apollo program cost about $130 billion dollars in today’s dollars and included the massive build up in infrastructure, tons of technology development, and operations. Dr. Bell does make a good point that we are not going to do much better in the ballistics today than we did back then, and this is a good thing which lowers the cost to the taxpayers today.

Dr. Bell does go on to build a strawman model of the requirements for the CEV that exist nowhere except in his desire to trash an effort that is yet to begin. The Aldridge commission has not made their report and even internally at NASA there are two wildly divergent architectures under consideration, one based upon constructing the elements at the International Space Station based upon EELV flights and one based upon launching the elements on a Shuttle derived HLLV that would bypass ISS for an Apollo style architecture. No where are either of these models codified in NASA plans or policies.

Dr. Bell does make a valid argument concerning the slow development plan but this is not necessarily a deal breaker if NASA comes up with the right architecture (one which encourages private enterprise to the maximum extent possible). Dr. Bell soon transitions into another assumption that the heavy lift side of NASA will win the battle and that their version of the architecture will win out and be adopted by the agency.

Dr. Bell is incorrect in his statements that all drawings of the proposed elements of the CEV are based upon a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) architecture. NASA’s NeXT team specifically does not assume an HLLV and a lot of the precursor work for the president’s initiative by NASA is based upon the NeXT team’s work. Dr. Bell is also incorrect that all Lunar orbits and the Earth/Moon L1 orbit are unstable. We have multiple spacecraft today at Lagrangian points that stably orbit the unstable point, and high lunar orbits (Above 500 km) are stable for long periods of time. Also, what is the problem with not attending the manned capable stations or CEV in Lunar orbit? We have very complex GEO communications satellites that are unattended for their entire 15 plus year operational time. The Chris Kraft/Gene Kranz mission control model is probably not appropriate for modern highly capable spacecraft such as would result for the new development of the CEV, L1 space station, and other elements of the initiative. Dr. Bell does make a valid point about the cost of an HLLV system, even one based upon the Shuttle elements. He is also right that NASA seems to be moving in this direction. However, the day is not yet done, nor the architecture settled upon, so we still have time to change the Admiral’s mind. Today with the existence of EELV, Ariane V, Proton, and other emerging systems there is no need for a HLLV system.

Dr. Bell is simply dismissive of those who advocate that the elements for a Lunar mission be assembled in LEO such as at ISS because neither of the original Apollo teams considered it! Dr. Bell, who was not at the deliberations back then ignores the original Von Braun architecture that explicitly called for a MLV type lift capacity (Saturn 1 series) and a space station where the elements would be assembled for the lunar voyage. Remember the cool Bonestall pictures? Dr. Von Braun’s architecture was dismissed in the end because it would require the construction of a space station and that would not allow us to reach the Moon before Kennedy’s 1970 deadline. Well, guess what, we have a space station in orbit, we have at least two viable supply vehicles (Progress and the European ATV, with the possibility of Kistler’s K1, Elon Musk’s Falcon V, and even EELV derived systems well within the horizon of the timetable of the plan that Dr. Bell derides earlier. Also, one of the unheralded accomplishments of NASA since the Apollo era is the near flawless execution of the construction of ISS and its operation in orbit.

Dr. Bell continues in his strawman development by making claims about how many EELV’s it will take to implement the Lunar initiative. To use his language, he is dead wrong. While it could take the number of EELV’s that he speaks of, it would only be if we were completely stupid in how we built the system. Dr. Bell implicitly assumes that everything will be thrown away after every mission requiring multiple launches each time to put up new hardware. Where is this defined in any of NASA’s plans? Answer, it is not. NASA’s NeXT team explicitly called for fully reusable chemical and solar electric tugs as well as the fuel modules for the refueling of both systems. The solar electric tugs (my company is already building a lightweight version for the commercial market) would be used to move very heavy payloads that do not require fast transit such as the L1 station and lunar landers, and the chemical tugs would carry the humans rapidly through the Van Allen radiation belts.

Dr. Bell then goes forward with the radiation red herring. He correctly points out the results to the crew if they had been out in the open or in transit between the Earth and Moon during the huge solar flare last year but he omits the fact that this particular flare was the largest seen in several hundred years and is not likely to be repeated soon. Dr. Bell does accurately point out that the Lunar base must be buried but this has been the baseline since the end of the Apollo era. As for the warning time, Dr. Bell is incorrect about that as well. We knew for weeks about the large sunspot group that produced the megaflare last year and the heavy particle radiation released takes hours to transit between the Sun and the Earth, giving plenty of warning.

Dr. Bell goes on to describe the requirement for nuclear power at the base because it would be in the shadow zones at the pole. Well this is a true statement it ignores the fact that adjacent to those shadowed areas there are locations that are in full Sun probably 100% ( four locations) of the time at the North pole and 70-90% (two locations) at the South pole, making solar power completely adequate for any base that we would desire. Why would we put the base in the dark locations anyway?

Dr. Bell then goes back into the cost argument, citing figures from the Augustine commission about the $40 billion dollar per year NASA budget requirement to support a Lunar base. Well two things about that commission. One is that their report ignored In-situ resource utilization and another it relied on 1980’s technology. Well it is not the 1980’s anymore and we know so much more now about how to extract oxygen from Lunar soils and with the confirmation of water there we have the hydrogen to refuel the chemical tugs at the Moon and lower the cost of the entire architecture. President Bush brilliantly got that one right in his speech.

It is interesting that in the end Dr. Bell complains that the Bush initiative is just a retread of the plans from the 1950’s. His whole argument is against that plan but that is not the only plan that was around in the 1950’s. The original plans outlined by Von Braun and Walt Disney in the 1950’s is very much akin to what President Bush outlined in his speech. Bush specifically talked about In situ resources and using those resources to build an architecture to send folks to Mars later. One thinks that it is Dr. Bell who is trapped in time and not the president or the rest of us who actually build flight hardware.

Dr. Bell’s other article about ending the ISS program because of the orbital debris issue is similarly flawed. If you take his statistics and then stretch them out over the existence of the space program you would have found that these disasters would have already occurred. Taking this to today you would expect that the 79 satellites of the Iridium constellation would have already been destroyed by orbital debris. He veers off into Zubrinesque logic about the dangers and uses these arguments to demand the end of manned spaceflight, his real issue and his real goal. Bob Zubrin was similarly using statistics to make inane statistical statements about Shuttle flights and the probability of loss due to orbital debris (his numbers if true means that the station crew is already dead).

Dr. Bell uses the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter (JIMO) mission as one of his straws to show the danger from orbital debris and how NASA is unwilling to risk it’s nuclear mission starting in LEO for that reason. Dr. Bell is dead wrong there. I have seen the NASA program documents about JIMO and the reason that they don’t want to start in LEO is that the propulsion system of JIMO would take 2.5 years to climb out of Earth orbit and NASA’s estimate of total radiation dose is 17 mega-rads versus 20 mega-rads in Jupiter orbit. This would require huge increases in shielding and it is clear that NASA’s own numbers show that the radiation does is similar in both places as opposed to Dr. Bell’s conjecture. It is also clear that the HLLV crowd at NASA is trying to use this issue to force the NASA administrator to sign on to the Shuttle C but there are solutions to this problem that do not require Shuttle C or long periods of time in the Van Allen belts. Dr. Bell uses very selective data, which is a bad trait in a scientist. However, scientists are influenced by politics as we all are.

There is a common misconception in the astronomical community that Dr. Bell is a part of that if only the manned space program went away they would get that $15 billion dollar budget to build telescopes and get their projects funded the way that they want. This is completely off track. Study after study, poll after poll, have shown that if manned spaceflight were eliminated NASA’s budget would be about $2 billion per year. Sorry Jeff but your logic is flawed and your hatred of the manned space program is awry in its logic, origin, and purpose. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the way that NASA is going about the planning of this new initiative. There is a danger that NASA will be swayed by the remnants of the Apollo crowd to try and revive the Saturn V a la Shuttle C, but in the end it is hoped that clear heads (and financial brains) will prevail and that we will go back to the Moon using ISS, EELV, and other existing and emerging assets to build a public/private partnership that will take us back to the Moon hand in hand with private enterprise which is the true American way.