Some Thoughts Regarding Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger’s Speech on Space Exploration and Utilization

By dennis_wingo
April 29, 2006
Filed under
Some Thoughts Regarding Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger’s Speech on Space Exploration and Utilization

Recently Dr. John Marburger, head of the Office of Science and Technology gave the keynote address at the 44th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium in Greenbelt, Md. To me, as a long time space advocate, this speech is the most important statement on the development of the space frontier from the government since John F. Kennedy’s fateful endorsement of the Apollo program. There was an incredible statement made early into the speech:

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.

I, and I would grant most space advocates, certainly want to incorporate the solar system into our economic sphere. Mining the Moon? Gathering resources of the asteroids for our use on the Earth? Living and working on Mars? L-5 habitats? The key to the entire success or ultimate failure of the President’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) is the proper definition of “economic sphere”. Here is the definition that Dr. Marburger offered:

Our national policy, declared by President [George W.] 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

Does the current VSE have the goal of executing on the “advancing U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests” aspect? This is a key question that Marburger seems to be asking as the next paragraph in his talk explains:

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.

I don’t think that NASA as an agency – or the aerospace industry – has seriously thought about the restating of the space program within the context that Marburger has laid out. This new policy that is being implemented by the Bush administration is more focused toward “ensuring future economic competitiveness” and space is placed at a lower priority as it is not perceived to contribute as strongly as other fields such as nanotechnology, infotechnology, and biotechnology. Supporting future national economic competitiveness is at the core of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) that was announced by the president in his state of the union address. NASA is losing out in the battle for funds when compared to other activities, as space and space science is not considered to contribute as strongly as the other fields to economic competitiveness. This is the key implication of Marburger’s speech.

This is clear when reviewing the President’s spending plans for science and technology. For example, Marburger in his speech points out that a 9.3% budget increase is slated for the budgets of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. What is NASA getting … a paltry 3% increase in its budget. Unless NASA and the general space community wake up to this new reality in government policy and redesign the VSE to more clearly contribute to economic competitiveness it will wither like the elder Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, or limp along like the Shuttle and ISS and it will be our grandchildren that return to the Moon.

Looking around the world, space is being supported for its contribution to economic competitiveness. In Europe, several programs are underway to subsidize the capital expenditures necessary to replicate technologies that were traditionally bought in the U.S, due to the huge burdens associated with the current ITAR regime (which does nothing to promote U.S. security either). The Ariane V launch vehicle has a significant fraction of the world’s GEO sat launch market and is the marquee example of public/private efforts to capture global aerospace market share.

There are also programs such as Galileo, a European GPS, a multibillion-dollar industry for the U.S. today. Other programs such as the Alpha bus which will be a competitor to Orbital Science’s light GEO sat platform have been approved as well as the ARTES public/private partnership that matches private funds with ESA member state funding to start entirely new ventures. Among the ventures supported is the Orbital Recovery CX-OLEV commercial GEO satellite on orbit servicing system.

In Asia governments are giving away money to westerners who relocate and who want to start space related businesses. In the middle east, Dubai is supporting the expansion of the U.S. company Space Adventures plan for commercial spaceports. In the U.S. access to capital is the number 1 impediment to the start of new space companies and the capital support of these industries overseas signals the continuing growth of their commercial aerospace industries at the expense of American companies.

In the U.S., at the policy level, space and space science is increasingly not perceived (in its present execution) as being consistent with increasing economic competitiveness. Here is Marburger’s statement explaining the cost benefit analysis results for space as it played into the development of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI):

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 is a rather clear statement: in terms of priority, space is losing the funding battle within the government as it is not perceived to contribute to future U.S. economic competitiveness. This is NOT because space is inherently a place where there is no money to be made and no contribution to future U.S. economic competitiveness. Rather, it is because the space program, as it is currently structured, (and for virtually the entire history of NASA) does not do so.

Marburger understands what can be done – and he made a brilliant statement about what the Administration’s policy strives toward:

The ultimate goal is not to impress others, or merely to explore our planetary system, but to use accessible space for the benefit of humankind … The idea is to begin preparing now for a future in which the material trapped in the Sun’s vicinity is available for incorporation into our way of life … The Moon has unique significance for all space applications for a reason that to my amazement is hardly ever discussed in popular accounts of space policy. The Moon is the closest source of material that lies far up Earth’s gravity well. Anything that can be made from Lunar material at costs comparable to Earth manufacture has an enormous overall cost advantage compared with objects lifted from Earth’s surface. … I am talking about the possibility of extracting elements and minerals that can be processed into fuel or massive components of space apparatus. The production of oxygen in particular, the major component (by mass) of chemical rocket fuel, is potentially an important Lunar industry.

After the detailed parsing of Marburger’s speech it becomes clear why certain budget decisions related to NASA have been made.

1. Curtail the growth of space science missions.

Marburger points out that we currently have 55 active space science missions and that the longevity of these missions is putting pressure on the entire budget. Also, the undercurrent is to ask what the value is of these missions compared to activities that directly impact economic competitiveness. Marburger points out that space science is popular with the American people, receiving as much money as the entire budget of the National Science Foundation. However, in terms of continuing growth, it is clear that space science is being displaced by other activities run by other agencies with a greater near term economic benefit to the nation.

I was recently at the LPI conference in Houston where NASA was raked over the coals (all that was lacking was the burning effigy of Mary Cleave as I am sure that she will attest) for its change in direction but it is perfectly clear from Marburger’s speech that this shift in priority comes from the highest levels and can be justified by the economic competitiveness argument.

2. Emphasize Lunar Exploration, including manned exploration

Marburger is an unabashed space advocate, one that in another era of less partisan politics would be heralded as a space visionary. What other White House has ever spoken of making propellant on the Moon as Bush did in his 2004 speech or Marburger’s expansion of that theme in his speech? What amazes me that not even one blog or other space advocate has picked up on this speech as a call to arms to push for an expansive effort for lunar development.

3. Mars is in the distant future

I know that my friend Bob Zubrin is having conniption fits about this one as well as the other Mars advocates at NASA – but it is clear from Marburger’s speech that since Mars has zero near term chance of contributing to U.S. economic competitiveness that its exploration is being curtailed. Ironically, as was initially spelled out in Bush’s January 2004 speech, the development of the Moon is placed squarely in the critical path of getting us to Mars as the Moon has the greatest potential (followed by the asteroids) for economic development.

So What is the Plan?

Today the space science community and most of NASA pretends that the Bush speech and this speech by Marburger does not exist, except for the “give us more money” part. There is no value in bashing NASA or anyone else over this lack. The only value is to think about what should be the plan going forward that is consistent with the vision laid out by Bush and amplified by Marburger.

First: The Vision for Space Exploration, as laid out in amplified form by Marburger, is an incredibly positive vision – one that we as space advocates have been pining forever to be stated. It is incredible to me that this speech by Marburger is not on the wall of every single space advocate, and on the front of ever space advocate group’s web page. Even Ad Astra left off almost 40% of the speech from its web page – ironically, the part where a cost/benefit analysis leaves space wanting. We as space advocates need to absorb this speech (space advocate in this context includes NASA), look at its “vision” and look to see what can be done to align NASA and other national space efforts to support space development as an engine of U.S. economic competitiveness.

Second: What can be done to re-align space science to support future U.S. economic competitiveness? What missions can be flown that will aid this goal? That is actually relatively easy. A look at the payload of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for its contribution to prospecting for possible valuable lunar resources is the first step. This also supports pure science as these minerals, elements, and implanted volatiles can tell much about the origin of the Moon and the history of solar output. This was the whole purpose behind the original Lunar Prospector project that space advocates started in Houston Texas almost two decades ago.

Also, any follow up missions in the NASA Robotic Lunar Exploration Program (RLEP), should reflect a resource prospecting theme and or support future surface human and robotic operations. Such missions would include such efforts as a combined lunar orbital GPS/communications infrastructure, lunar surface beacons, and preparatory work for a lunar base such as those advocated by top lunar scientists such as Paul Spudis.

Beyond the Moon there are a plethora of interesting combined science/prospecting missions to fly as well as ground based astronomical studies. Here are a few ideas.

Ground Based Telescopes for the Spectrographic Follow Up Characterization of Near Earth Objects

Near Earth Object (NEO) spectral characterization is lagging far behind the discovery of these objects. These objects in near earth space represent the left over building blocks of the planets of our solar system. The recent Deep Impact mission data reduction is leading to a rethinking of the origin of comets and there implications that the number of NEO’s with water resources may be far greater than has been previously thought. Just think, Earth/Mars cyclers that are also gas stations! Also, as Dr. John Lewis pointed out in his book “Mining the Sky” the smallest NEO (3554 Amun) that has been characterized as a metallic body, has an aggregate Earth market value of 20 trillion dollars! Just think about how the inclusion of such a resource into the American economy would change the level of benefits for baby boomers that will begin retiring in a few years. Add to this my own hypothesis that some of these bodies may have remained at least somewhat intact when they impacted the Moon and the possibility of them as resources three days away and a picture begins to be painted of exactly how space contributes to the future economic competitiveness of the nation. This leads to the next idea:

Fleets of Spacecraft to do Follow up Recon and In-situ Characterization of NEO Resources

As a follow up to the ground based study, several spacecraft need to be sent to the NEO’s for in-situ characterization. This would be a standard spacecraft bus with identical instruments that would allow the resource potential of various objects to be determined. Landers and rovers would also be included for more detailed studies. This would dramatically increase the level of scientific knowledge of the inner solar system while at the same time contributing to the determination of which bodies would be most effectively exploited for the benefit of humankind. With clever design, these spacecraft or a follow up series would return samples to the Earth or to an intermediate orbit in cislunar space where they would be returned to the Earth for detailed study.

This is just the beginning of a new age of exploration that would dramatically increase the funding for space science as it would directly contribute to future U.S. economic competitiveness. Space scientists are up in arms today about cuts to space science but they have not once thought about the reasoning behind the cuts and what they could do to turn this around other than to lobby for more money to support the status quo. This is unlikely to be successful. A sterling example of how this could work was the effort to re-instate the Dawn mission. Guess what, it is a great mission to scientifically characterize the two largest main asteroid belt objects, Ceres and Vesta. This is an example of the type of mission that should be flown, should economic interests be supported by space science missions.

Lunar Bases

As this is written, the Exploration Strategy Workshop was coming to completion in Washington DC – and event focused upon future lunar exploration. There is a huge dichotomy between the “traditional” space scientists, Mars advocates who want only to nod to the Moon on the way to Mars, and those of us who support the economic development of lunar and asteroidal resources. NASA’s current plan for lunar exploration has barely a nod in the direction of the economic development potential of the Moon. Without this as a central theme, the return to the Moon will continue to sputter along as an exercise in futility with great damage to the nation; this because the Moon does offer, and Marburger and the president support, the economic development of our nearest solar neighbor. This has to be at the core of any lunar return architecture. It is not there today and it simply must be done.

There are some excellent proposals for this type of lunar exploration – but the guiding lights of NASA lunar exploration are still guided by the science-only aspects of this exploration. The question boils down to this: Do you want more money for space? If so LISTEN to what Marburger and the President have clearly stated are the goals for the Vision for Space Exploration. The word “vision” has always implied a sense of purpose. What better purpose than to expand humankind into the solar system in a meaningful way? Is this not what every science fiction novel and NASA program has advocated for decades?


We need to take the vision as expounded by the President and his science advisor and turn it into reality. NASA alone is inadequate to the task. NASA’s charter does support something that can make this a reality. From the NASA Space Act of 1958:

(c) The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.

Principal to NASA’s charter is the fullest commercial use of space. However, as any of us who have put our life’s work into commercial space will attest, this is hardly ever a priority with the agency. This has been true for decades and is unlikely to change. This is where congress can step in and exercise its proper role in helping to implement national economic policy.

Here are some suggestions for how to do this:

Pass the Zero G Zero Tax act

This act, as introduced into congress, eliminates taxes for new space ventures not directly associated with existing industries such as communications and remote sensing. It also provides tax relief for investors in this highly speculative area. This would go a long way to help promote the development of this new industry in the same way that the abatement of taxes on Internet commerce has lead to the flowering of that venue. The Zero G Zero Tax bill should be extended to lunar and beyond commercial efforts.

Take the Boeing Judgment and Turn it into an Entrepreneurs Fund for Space Development.

Boeing may soon be slapped with a huge fine for its role in using documents obtained from its rival Lockheed Martin to support its bid for EELV contract money. This fine could be between $500 and $750 million. WHy not take this money and put it into a fund that would be used in a similar manner to the European ARTES program for public/private space development projects? This money would not be subject to the year to year appropriates battles that plague NASA today and is not coming out of the taxpayers pockets. It would be a wonderful irony that Boeing’s misdeeds end up supporting the development of commercial space opportunity for entrepreneurial space ventures!

Here are a few ideas in bullet form that would both support the VSE and promote private enterprise (which does the economic competitiveness thing as well).

  • Orbital Propellant Depot
  • Lunar Comsat/GPS Constellation
  • Private Take Over of ISS
  • Low Cost Private Launchers for Small Payloads
  • Suborbital Cargo Carriers for Rapid Global Delivery

Of course the amount of money provided by the fine is inadequate to fund most of these ideas if they were government contracts but by requiring private enterprise to put up half of the money and providing a market through the implementation of an economic development oriented Vision for Space Exploration the amount of money can be matched by private enterprise and increased by future congresses, based upon the economic gains of the first money provided.

Last week there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Congress as NASA’s budget was discussed. NASA is not getting the increase that Mike Griffin wants because the perception (correct) is that NASA’s current plan does not address a policy of increasing U.S. economic competitiveness. NASA, and NASA space science, do you want more money? The path is clear, the policy by the President has been stated. Ignore it at your own risk and the future of our nation. Space has the greatest potential of ALL national investments but only if economic development is at the root and core of the implementation of the new vision for space.