NASA Revives Apollo – While Starving Space Life Science

By Keith Cowing
September 19, 2005
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NASA Revives Apollo – While Starving Space Life Science

Today NASA put form to words spoke by President Bush a year and a half earlier. Standing on the same stage in the NASA Headquarters auditorium Mike Griffin let pictures serve to illustrate how America would return to the moon. Contrary to the initial public impression of Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which was seen as a program to send humans to Mars, Mars barely got mentioned today.

Instead, the moon took center stage. The means whereby we go back will be rather familiar to anyone who was around in the 1960s. If NASA’s plans stay on schedule, one year shy of half a century after humans first stood on the lunar surface, they will do so again.

The architecture presented was the result of activities collected under the Exploration Systems Architecture Study which was implemented shortly after Griffin arrived at NASA. The plan is clearly Apollo revisited – “Apollo on steroids” Griffin joked. While it does clearly utilize Apollo thinking, Griffin was quick to add that NASA did not start its architecture study assuming that an Apollo mode would be used. Rather, he said that NASA started with a set of requirements. The fact that the study teams arrived at an apollo like model is a testament to the fact that the Apollo guys got it right, Griffin said.

The Hardware

The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) will look very similar to Apollo – except it will be larger. It will be designed to carry up to 6 people to the ISS and a crew of 4 on lunar missions. It will be launched on the Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV). The CLV will be built from a 5-segment Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) based on the Shuttle’s 4 segment SRB currently in use. A second stage, using a single Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) will place the CEV – and its Service Module into low Earth orbit. For trips to and from the ISS that is all that is needed.

Regardless of whether the CEV is returning form the ISS or the moon, it will be designed to land on dry ground – in contrast to Apollo’s use of water landings. The spacecraft may be fully reusable, partially reusable, or perhaps even disposable. Griffin spoke of some level of reusability – but deferred speculation noting that the exact implementation will be the result of contractor design and trade studies.

For lunar missions, a second vehicle will be developed. This vehicle will initially be used to launch lunar mission components and eventually, components of missions to Mars. According to Griffin, this Shuttle-derived Launch Vehicle (SLV) and the rest of the lunar architecture was derived backwards from some of the core requirements the study team saw for human missions to Mars. In computer terms, it is forward compatible.

The SLV is an ‘inline” design i.e. upper stages are stacked atop one another- as opposed to the current “side mount” approach taken with the space shuttle. The core stage of the SLV will be an extend version of the current Space Shuttle External Tank. Underneath will be a cluster of 5 SSMEs. In addition, two 5-segment SRBs will be attached much as they are on the current shuttle system. A second stage powered by two SSMEs will oft the payload into Low Earth orbit.

For lunar missions, the next steps are very familiar to anyone who recalls how Apollo worked. Apollo lunar landing missions used a single launch vehicle, the Saturn V, to place the crew, lunar lander, and lunar transfer stage into orbit. The new architecture uses two launches.

A SLV will be launched with a LSAS and a lunar lander. This spacecraft complex can remain in orbit for up to 30 days until a second launch of a CEV on a CLV occurs. The CEV will then dock with the lunar lander and the entire collection will depart for the moon.

On arrival in lunar orbit, all four crew members will enter the lunar lander and descend to the lunar surface while the CEV continues in orbit. Initial missions will last for 7 days – twice the length of the last Apollo missions. Moreover, they will have 4 humans on the surface, thus doubling the productivity.

As was the case with Apollo, the lunar lander is disposable. The descent stage, which will be left behind on the lunar surface will be powered by a Liquid Hydrogen/Liquid Oxygen propulsion system. The ascent stage will be powered by a Liquid Oxygen/Methane propulsion system. At the end of their mission, the crew will depart the lunar surface in the ascent stage, dock with the CEV, discard the ascent stage and return to Earth.

While the hoped-for endpoint is the establishment of a permanent lunar base, this architecture only seeks to work toward that capability. It does not implement it. A formal decision to create a permanent base has no yet been made. The current architecture calls for lunar missions at a rate of 2 per year.

Landing sites will be chosen for scientific value – and will not be limited to equatorial sites, as was the case during Apollo. Indeed, the new lunar lander is capable of landing anywhere on the moon and is capable of returning to Earth on very short notice.

How Much Will This Cost?

Inevitably at today’s press conference, the first question had to do with how much all of this will cost. Griffin replied that the cost of returning a crew to the lunar surface will cost 55% of what the Apollo program cost. It will take 13 years to accomplish (as opposed to Apollo’s 8 years). All told this will amount to a cost Griffin estimates to be $104 billion.

Griffin was careful to note that this would all be done under NASA’s projected budget – one adjusted for inflation and that it was a ‘go as you pay’ approach i.e. that the architecture will not change if funding changes – rather, its pacing will be adjusted instead. According to Griffin “this is not about “new money” Rather it is about “redirecting money toward new goals in the human space flight program.

Of course, $104 billion is a lot of money – even if it is spread out across 13 years. Such large figures are especially notable given the staggering costs – perhaps $200 billion – that will need to be spent over the coming years to repair the damage done by hurricane Katrina. The same first question also asked Griffin to address the dilemma some politicians may face as they push for such expenditures in the aftermath of Katrina.

Griffin replied “when we have a hurricane we don’t cancel the air force or the navy”. He added that he saw such programs of exploration as a ‘long term investment’ that he feels that the nation needs to make.

Unfinished Business

There are a number of ways to look at this announcement. NASA’s plan seeks to pick up where Apollo left off. The Apollo program was killed in the early 1970’s just as it was moving from a sequence of engineering and political stunts to a program of full blown planetary expeditions. The last three landings, Apollos 18-20 would have featured some spectacular locations including the center or the crater Copernicus. Plans for even more expansive human exploration were also developed which could have led to a permanent human base in perhaps a decade or so. They were never realized.

Alas, our politicians grew tired of funding the moon program as Vietnam and other more pressing issues loomed. NASA could not make a convincing case why it should be continued. So we walked away from it. Before we walked away from Apollo hardware completely we built Skylab (which had evolved out of the Apollo Applications Program) and the Apollo-Soyuz Test project. We soon abandoned our first space station as well. It would be several decades before Americans flew to a space station again – and spent time in space with Russians.

As such, we have unfinished business on the Moon. Many say we should never have left. Others say would should have returned long ago. I doubt Gene Cernan and his contemporaries ever thought that he’d retain the title of being the “last man on the moon” for so many decades. None the less, there are many instances in terrestrial exploration where goals and destinations were left unrealized for years only to be re-engaged with new found enthusiasm.

Apollo hardware worked even when it did not work (Apollo 13) since there was an inherent robustness that allowed it to bring its crew home safely. It pushed the leading edge of spacecraft design in almost every way – and developments that arose from the push to the moon continue to echo throughout our economy.

There is a logic in looking to revisit the moon with systems that benefit from the operational experience gained during Apollo. But while the pretty computer graphics show things that look like Apollo, they bear about the same engineering inheritance as a 2005 VW Beetle has with its 1960’s counterpart. They have a similar shape, 4 wheels, seating for 4, etc. Yet underneath the skin there is 4 decades of automotive advances. Some minor – some significant. In the case of NASA’s new architecture, while rocketry has not made super strides, electronics and software have – and these advances will be incorporated into this new hardware.

The moon is another world – torn from our own eons ago it represents a truly alien environment – one which cosmic fate put within tantalizing reach. It is not only a place begging to be explored, it also represents a possible location for new resources, and perhaps a second home. We have barely explored it. Indeed, in terms of real estate trod upon, its as if western civilization abandoned exploration of the New World after a handful of shore sorties by the members of Columbus’ first voyage – all the while knowing that two huge land masses sat there unexplored and not utilized.

Been There, Done That

While some people would embrace this new version of Apollo as something we should have gotten back to a long time ago, others will dismiss it. Ask a classroom of kids about humans walking on the moon and you will be surprised how little they know about it. When I was in grammar school during the 1960’s Apollo was a great adventure that we were told represented our future. Now it is something that happened so long ago as to be just another a factoid students memorize for a history exam. What was once a beckoning target in the sky is now just another place we’ve been.

When George Bush made his speech in January 2004, his announcement was touted as a return to the Moon – and then on to Mars. Indeed, the commission he charted to examine how this new space policy should be carried out adopted its own name – “Moon, Mars – and Beyond”. For a year or so, that is what NASA pursued. Now it announces a far more modest plan. Mars is all but gone from mention – and NASA seeks to re-do something it did decades ago – and it will take twice as long to do it again. Where’s that American engineering prowess? How do you justify tens of billions of dollars to send a handful of people back to the Moon when hundreds of billions of dollars are now needed to rebuild after Katrina?
One of the things that worried NASA officials when Bush’s speech was being sold on Capitol Hill was the ability to sustain it. With a goal of returning to the moon around 2020, a coalition of sorts would be needed such that it could be maintained across multiple administrations, and many congressional elections, and annual budget fights. With an eventual prospect of using the moon to prepare to go to Mars – and planning to go to Mars, there was a clear notion of doing things that would be exiting and would offer a chance for human eyes to witness new things in person.

NASA’s revamped plan gets Americans back to the moon only a couple of years sooner. than its previous plans called for. The hardware, as presented by NASA, is clearly aimed at lunar exploration only. While not explicitly called for by Bush’s speech, there had been talk of a permanent base on the moon, and eventual migration of exploration to Mars. Such notions have now all but vanished. Moreover, to make these plans come into fruition in a constrained fiscal environment, Griffin seeks to discard people and programs to free up funds.

To many its as if NASA lost its will when confronted with a new opportunity. Whether you see this as a chance to make up for lost time, or too little too late, others – such as the media and Congress will soon join the public discussion.


One catch phrase biologists often refer to as an explanation as to why living things look like they do is ‘form follows function’. In the hey day of Apollo, NASA took the form required to complete the function of sending humans to the moon. Once that task had been accomplished, a substantial infrastructure and workforce had been amassed that NASA – and its political patrons were reluctant to disassemble. So other things were found for that existing capability to do. And so the agency was run for decades.

Despite periodic hiring freezes, buyouts, and the like, the agency has not had a wholesale, central organizing factor applied to the way it is organized for decades. And it shows. For decades much of the agency’s efforts have been expended to adjust activities to keep everyone employed.
Mike Griffin seeks to retool the NASA workforce. If an individual does not have the skill set and job description required to directly support the VSE, they will eventually find themselves departing the agency. Griffin said, with respect to JSC that he did not expect “a job boom or a job bust” at JSC. When asked about workforce issues at KSC Griffin did express a hope that he workforce required to service the new SLV and CLV systems would be smaller – otherwise hoped for cost savings would not be realized.

Science on the cutting block

At one point Griffin made a point of saying that science will not be cut in order to fund implementation of the VSE. “It is not about taking money from the science program – or the aeronautics program in order to fund manned space flight. It is about utilizing the money that we have to achieve different – and I think – far more exciting goals – in human spaceflight.” He said. A few minutes later he repeated that statement adding that in his plans “we do not take one thin dime” out of science.

These statements are in clear conflict with recent events. A hundred or more contractors working on life science activities at ARC have been laid off in past weeks. Life science managers at NASA Headquarters have been removed from their job and moved to unrelated jobs, told to seek work elsewhere, or transfered to other activities at field centers. Meanwhile life science research activities aboard the ISS continue to be reduced – the most notable being the Centrifuge Facility which was to be housed inside the Centrifuge Accommodation Module. Although it has not (yet) been announced formally, all involved are working on the assumption that it will soon be deleted entirely from the program. The core purpose of the Centrifuge was to probe life’s adaptation to gravitational field – including fractional gravity such as will be encountered by humans on the moon and Mars.

Griffin is making these draconian cuts (while denying that he is doing so) despite decades of recommendations to the contrary by august bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences. Indeed, until his arrival at NASA, one of the prime reasons for the ISS was cutting edge biomedical research.

Not any more.

Griffin made his intentions very clear at hearings before the House Science Committee titled “The Future of NASA” wherein he said “Most of the kind of fundamental research that we talk about is done in universities or in programs where universities are part. And it will — if we are not able to fund all of the work in fundamental life science, the researchers who were doing it will go elsewhere to other occupations, other research endeavors that are being funded, and we will have to put the program back together later. That is just a fact. But I cannot responsibly prioritize microbiology and fundamental life science research higher than the need for the United States to have its own strategic access to space.”

To be clear, the need for such program will likely re-emerge after Mike Griffin has left NASA. Someone else will have to ‘put the program back together”.

Tough choices

Today’s announcement is just the opening salvo. Congress will soon weigh in. As NASA moves down the road, costs will rise as they inevitably do. More things will need to be cut or moved to the right. When he was first pressed on the issue of a gap in American human space flight capability between Shuttle retirement and CEV availability, Griffin vowed to close that gap. His plans have closed it from 4 years to perhaps 2. But he has not eliminated it. Whereas he once saw such gaps as unacceptable, he now sees them as unavoidable.

Perhaps Mike Griffin will come to see that the life science upon which so much of the ISS was justified – often as enabling technology for human planetary exploration – has value as well. Many have learned that when NASA says that something is “science driven” what it really means is “if we can afford it”.

GSFC Center Director and former AA for Space Science Ed Weiler is often quoted as saying that “exploration without science is just tourism”. So far all we have seen of Mike Griffin’s moon plans is the tourism brochure.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.