Spacelift Washington: On E Street, it’s the Restoration of Exploration

By frank_sietzen
September 22, 2002
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washington Archive

(WASHINGTON) Twice in my lifetime American presidents have issued a call to arms for a national goal in space. One Democrat and one Republican, each gauged the role of space activities within his administration’s priorities. Both had extensive opposition to their space plans within their own government; but both wound up summoning up the political courage – and political capital – to make their goals survive to become reality, although neither would be in office when that happened.

The most recent – the Republican Ronald Wilson Reagan – called the nation to permanence in space, a space station to follow and build upon (and be built by) the result of the nation’s commitment to reusability in space; the shuttle. That occurred some 19 years ago next January; we’ll have more to say about that in this column then.

The second was a Democrat president who took the boldest path of all, calling the nation to send an expedition to the Moon when all America had was 15 minutes and 30 seconds of human spaceflight experience. John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s lunar landing goal, like Reagan’s space station idea was a triumph of a national matrix of government, academia and industry. And while it took place in a speech before Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy clarified his call a year later, on a hot Indian summer day at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas.

That speech took place 40 years ago last week. But before we remind ourselves of what a call to arms sounds like, we should consider the state of human space exploration today.

For while not yet formulated into a call to arms, change is percolating over on E Street Southwest in the nation’s Capital. Nothing less than the future of the human spaceflight program of the U.S. may be involved. Sean O’Keefe, you see, has an exploration agenda under development. And we’ll tell you exactly what he has in mind, using his own words. (We can almost hear you ask he has what? Not O’Keefe?)

But first, some background to this noise about new space goals being studied anew.

Some two weeks ago, O’Keefe’s freshly-minted deputy Fred Gregory issued his own call-for information. In an email reproduced on this web site, Gregory said this:

“Seems as though even after telling the crowd last Wednesday that it is OK to combine NeXt and Eileen’s science and the medical stuff as the beginning of several road maps with milestones that acknowledge the possibility of leaving low Earth Orbit, there are still some who are afraid to take the next step without getting further permission. Those folks will be left at the station. Research-driven exploration is where I am heading. If an email of this type will help, share this one with your folks and let’s get rolling … only your folks can plan for the future, once we are cleared of our past sins … and we need those requirements now!


As one can imagine, there has been no shortage of ideas on how to return Americans to what was once called “spacefaring”. But one could reasonably ask if this is just an exercise, or is O’Keefe serious about crafting a space exploration agenda to follow completion of the ISS in the decade ahead. And if he is, how will this evolve, and play out within the administration and Congress? Even before the war on terrorism began, the Bush White House wasn’t exactly focused on space matters.

On Wednesday, September 18th I asked O’Keefe directly about this so-called agenda; what’s this all about?

Here, verbatim, was his answer:

“Very clearly what Fred has been working, along with Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, they had put together a team of folks that was in response to a larger directive that had originated about a year or so ago, maybe a year-and-a-half that said ‘you ought to be thinking about a longer term strategy and where you (NASA) ought to be going; so the two of them got together and said let’s call this the NeXt team, and they developed the basic framework of how you go about looking at long term exploration objectives. Anywhere.

And what it calls for, in what you see playing out heavily right now, his approach, is the advancement of exploration objectives, using robotics and a variety of capabilities that gather data, information, and inform the research objectives; the science purposes; then would tell you whether or not it is of utility, use and requirement to send a human thereafter.

They have laid this out in a series of approaches that would follow, and, again, a lot of that’s developing right now so I can’t go through an awful lot of the mechanics because it’s still shaping; and Fred’s continued that. Expanded it, well beyond spaceflight and space science to include a larger agency objective.

As the Chief Operating Officer he is the Chairman of the Executive Committee which is the enterprise managers, the five Associate Administrators plus Bryan O’Connor, and the Comptroller, the General Counsel, in looking at a range of different applications for which they are being supported by a group that’s looking at taking this next effort. Developing it into a strategy that gets us beyond this.

That’s the long version.

[A] simple way of looking at it – the premise of it – is [that] we have to dedicate ourselves to developing the enabling technologies to get anywhere to leave this rock we love as home and go anywhere you might want to define. Right now, the laws of physics is the only thing that dictates what we can do. John Glenn in 1962 – and John Glenn on his last flight – flew precisely the same speeds and we haven’t had any progress in that span of time. We could go back to the Moon – or whatever but let’s define what the mission objectives are, and it will inform developing the exploration agenda with the technologies to get us there. Return folks, and everybody comes back in roughly the same condition as when they left – and be able to follow any opportunity for discovery and exploration. And that means generating power capabilities and propulsion, advancing what we’re doing in any location and destination that’s interesting, by robotics or larger surveillance capabilities that we are deploying, or whatever.

As a consequence, looking at a range of different ways to take advantage of future spaceflight opportunities more informed and for a purpose and a set of reasons, rather than say ‘you did it’. So how do you enable that, and find ways for folks to endure the experience? Both of those we don’t know how to do yet.”

Editor’s Note: What about SEI?

I omitted mention of President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 “Space Exploration Initiative” which sought to return to the Moon and go on to Mars. While President Bush’s effort was commendable, SEI was so broad – Moon, Mars, and everything else – and with such a high pricetag – that it died within a year. In fact, the SEI never received any funding.

Following a second speech by Bush in 1990, it was never mentioned again, let alone fought for. No mention of SEI was made during the 1992 Presidential campaign. Thus I do not count this as a successful mobilization effort by a President for the exploration of space. SEI never manifested itself in actual programs. In contrast, Kennedy’s and Reagan’s efforts resulted in actual hardware and missions. – Frank Sietzen

One step not yet taken would be to reorient the research effort aboard the International Space Station to addressing, as a priority, those issues that would tend to make long duration space travel hazardous, or help lay out the technology for a spacecraft that would have to operate for several years without repair or assistance from ground support or control. A central focus for not just the station but, just possibly, NASA itself.

To lay down an answer to the question that some have asked, in this age of multiple war fronts, Just what is NASA for?

And, beyond laying down this technology infrastructure and building the capability to go exploring again to, shall we say, something interesting, would, eventually require a call to arms.

Like the one given 40 years ago, that we remember this month. For those who may not have read most of that speech, or only heard a snippet of the cadence, herewith is that famous ringing statement of purpose that told America and the world why the Moon.

This, on September 12, 1962, is what a space call to arms sounded like. It was hot and sunny when President Kennedy stepped to the podium at ten am Central Time, in Houston Texas:

We meet at a college known for knowledge; in a city known for progress; in a State noted for strength; and we stand in need of all three; for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear; in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

… Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer; to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward – and so will space.

This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space: we mean to be a part of it, we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal?

We choose to go to the Moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. .. because that goal will organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one that we intend to win. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the Office of the Presidency …

Space is there, and we are going to climb it. And the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked . ..

It was September 12, 1962. Eight and a half years later, came the afternoon of July 20, 1969. It was made possible by a space call to arms.

We’ve had two calls to arms thus far.

Someday reasonably soon, we might see a third.

Then again, maybe not. ..

Only time will tell.

Stay tuned.


SPACELIFT WASHINGTON © 2002 by Frank Sietzen, Jr. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own, and are not associated with or affiliated with any other organization or group.