Taking it to the Streets (Space That is): Problems with NASA’s Return to the Moon Plan

By dennis_wingo
December 10, 2007
Filed under
Taking it to the Streets (Space That is): Problems with NASA’s Return to the Moon Plan

This past week has given me confirmation of something that has been a growing dread and suspicion by many of us in the space community regarding our latest return to the Moon effort. The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) is being suffocated. It is literally having the life choked out of it.

I was around as a student in 1992 when our previous, presidentially-blessed effort, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) died. SEI did not die a death like a car wreck, it died a slow-motion death, where the inevitably tragic outcome was known by all a priori and no one felt compelled or empowered to intervene. By 1993 the new president and his administration pulled the plug only a short time later, the SEI patient wasn’t conscious enough to realize it or even care anymore.

In stark contrast to every serious study by NASA for the previous 40 years, the final SEI architecture, called the First Lunar Outpost, did not even have a final report that we can pore over today and dream of what might have been. This death by obscurity is the same death that the current vision (VSE) is facing, too.

Just as SEI died, for having chosen an infeasible architecture, combined with a lack of adequate funding for the flawed architecture and glacial timeframe chosen – all factors which caused congress to collectively yawn – feeling no mandate to risk their political futures to support it, feeling it was mostly a sop to a limited constituency by delivering jobs to the aerospace states.

I have read in history – as well as seen with my own eyes – the cycles that these things go through. It first happened at the end of the Apollo era, then with SEI, and now with the VSE. After a presidential send off with great fanfare, NASA as an agency each time has failed to follow through, leading to a loss of support and with that loss, the money inevitably drains away.

The reasons given are many, the deficit, the need to fund “other” priorities, and the thought that space will always be there and we can do it later when we solve our problems here on the Earth. Each of these reasons have a common unstated rational, that space is not something to spend money on as it is not a priority and does nothing to solve our problems here on the Earth.

While those of us who are insiders in the space world lament this as we feel that the exploration and development of space does help to solve our Earthly problems, that it is a priority, and that it is worthy to spend money on, this is not a shared view outside of our own constituency. In the Bible it is said that where there is no vision the people perish. Vision is defined as sense of purpose. What NASA has consistently failed to do with its human spaceflight program, is to understand what its purpose is in the post Apollo world.

The reason that I place the VSE on the critical list of space exploration efforts are many and there is no one major death strike but a lot of little bleeding cuts, some of whom have started to become public.

This is exactly what happened after the announcement of SEI in 1989. Even more ominous is that some in congress have already expressed that they would like to put language in the NASA budget precluding the agency from spending any money on any humans to Mars-related efforts. So far in only one year — Sean O’Keefe’s last as NASA administrator – has the agency received its full budget allocation that was planned when the Bush administration began the effort. Blame can be apportioned to both Congress and the White House for this but also NASA. NASA should have understood that this would happen as this has been the case the vast majority of the time over the last 35 years and planned accordingly.

That is similar to before when a congress in 1992 passed a budget rescission that stripped funding from an already awarded contract for the Lunar Resource Mapper. Also, the agency — which is barely beyond the viewgraph engineering phase for the design of the new launch vehicle to take humans to the space station — is delaying the preliminary design review by half a year! The “gap” where the U.S. will have no access to space, much less our own orbiting national laboratory, has grown by nearly a year for every year since the new effort began.

If the engineering difficulties that are whispered in the halls at various NASA centers are anywhere near true, then the gap will not close and Congress may soon act to direct NASA to come up with yet another plan. This also is like before with SEI and Space Station Freedom. Unlike Space Station Freedom, which morphed into the International Space Station with full Russian and European partnership and participation, international politics is unlikely to come to the rescue here as NASA has barely nodded in the direction of our partners in space regarding the VSE.

For all of these signals of patient ill health the worst was articulated this week at a panel discussion as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1958 International Geophysical Year. The statement was that the VSE has failed to connect to the American people. That single sentence goes to the heart of the problem, one that is far larger than missed schedules, delayed milestones and a dearth of funding. Despite the fact that year-in and year-out, Americans typically support the space program by a two-to-one margin, often the rhetoric, like perception, becomes reality.

And the sad reality is that without the perception of support of the American people, and more importantly, their elected representatives, the VSE is going to die, just like SEI did. It is time to sound the alarm and make sure that every single NASA employee, contractor, and space advocate realize that we are at a critical moment in time – a tipping point.

Questions abound, but the question of the hour becomes, how does NASA, and by extension, the American space program regain its relevance to the folks on the street around the country today? What is it that space can do to contribute to solving the really big problems of the early 21st century related to climate change, peak oil, war, and poverty?

The follow-on question is that if the exploration and development of space can contribute to solving these problems then why are not more resources being devoted to this area?

I would assert that a vision for space development, of which NASA is a vital part, can mightily contribute to solving these problems and indeed it is through the resources and technologies derived from developing the resources of the Moon and the rest of the solar system that we will build an economically secure and prosperous planetary civilization.

I would further assert, that through a dedicated space development effort, a planet wide prosperous civilization will result, one that will dwarf our present one as much as our own dwarfs all of the civilizations that have come before ours today. It will do this while cleaning up the environment and providing plentiful energy and resources to a global population almost 50% larger than ours today. That is a vision worth enumerating and one worth fighting for at the White House, in the halls of congress, and perhaps more importantly, in the ballot box next November. Space exploration must be part of the national agenda for any serious candidate for the highest office in the land.

Restating the Vision

President Bush actually laid the cornerstone of a fine vision when he said something that was missed by many, including most within NASA. He said, regarding 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.

With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond. (Applause.) Robotic missions will serve as trailblazers — the advanced guard to the unknown. Probes, landers and other vehicles of this kind continue to prove their worth, sending spectacular images and vast amounts of data back to Earth. Yet the human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves. And only human beings are capable of adapting to the inevitable uncertainties posed by space travel.

As our knowledge improves, we’ll develop new power generation propulsion, life support, and other systems that can support more distant travels. We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos.”

This is an amazing statement by a president regarding the unfolding of the development of the resources of space both to lower the cost of space travel and to open up further exploration. In over 30 years of reading space literature from NASA, congress, and the president, this is the first time that the presidential stamp has been placed on the development of extraterrestrial resources. This was not the only step in the development of this thought at the highest reaches of our government. In 2006 at the 44th Goddard Symposium the presidential theme was extended and amplified.

“As I see it, questions about the VSE 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.”

These two speeches, one by President Bush, and another by his science advisor, the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy laid the foundation and provided the ground rules, and gave very explicit policy direction to NASA regarding what we are to do in the return to the Moon and conduct exploration to Mars and beyond.

The problem is that NASA has not embraced this expansive goal for our national space program. Why is this? It seems to be just the kind of red meat goal that NASA has dreamed of forever. Even in the SEI era there was never this kind of clear cut, practical direction for a policy, as Marburger states, from the President and Congress. It boggles the mind that this has not been incorporated as a core value for the lunar exploration program–it is exactly this type of effort that has the potential to connect to the American people.

Making the Connection

In order to make a connection to the American people, the vision for space exploration must, in some fashion, have relevance to our problems today. In the 1950’s a vision for the exploration of space was created by Wherner Von Braun and brought to life graphically by Chesley Bonestell and animated so compellingly by Walt Disney. This was an expansive vision, one filled with fleets of space ships flying to the Moon and Mars for the sheer thrill of the human exploration of the cosmos coupled with the faith that it would lead to a better world.

Von Braun once upbraided his subordinate German rocket scientists when they objected to his “salesmanship” of the space program. Von Braun replied simply that without the American people on board, there was no chance of ever having the funding to pursue the dream of reaching the Moon.

He was right and the good will with the American people was hijacked/incorporated into the cold war meme of fighting the Soviets through our superior technology in the race to the Moon. Senior NASA people since Von Braun have done little to craft our exploration program in a similar manner. Indeed, some of them have said that it is not our place to do so while another has said that it is his job to build a rocket and let others worry about what to do with it.

These are inadequate responses, as for good or ill, most people outside of our space industry see NASA as the embodiment of our national aspirations for space. Therefore, whatever NASA puts out as their plan, is what people look at and evaluate for its value to the nation, and so far that value proposition has not been equal to the task. Marburger commented on this disconnect in his speech where he said:

“To be affordable its fraction of that budget must be small enough to be stable against competition from other parts of the budget, and in particular those that are perceived to serve a wider variety of societal needs.”

It is clear that even in this speech by a proclaimed space advocate in government that he realizes that NASA does not, in its current planning, meet the criteria of the perception of serving a wider variety of societal needs.

The problems that we have today are related to our uncertainty about the future. When gasoline continues its inexorable climb in cost, Americans want a solution. When Americans see hundreds of billions of dollars per year headed to countries who control the oil who are unfriendly to us they wonder how we can get beyond oil. Furthermore when the read about the fact that oil, either now or in the near future, will no longer be able to continue growing in its supply, they worry that wars like in Iraq are just a prelude to a dark future.

Many fear that our reliance and use of oil is making changes to our planet’s climate and clamor for changes to address this. People also see that none of the solutions yet provided by those who clamor about climate change, have the potential to actually lead us into a direction other than down a dark future of where less is less, and our options become increasingly constrained by the limited resources of our planet. Many also fear that our three century march upward in technology and living standards are coming to an end and are ever more fearful for the future.

Space has the potential to sidestep the problems and provide solutions that make these problems as quaint as the problem of horse dung on the street is to us today.

Solutions, the 70,000 foot View

As Dr. Marburger suggested in his Goddard Symposium speech, the economic development of the solar system is an option that is at our fingertips. What are the resources out there? There is first of all energy. Energy is what our hungry planet needs more than anything and it has to be available to all and held hostage by none. Solar power satellites in equatorial orbit around the Earth have the potential to contribute to our energy needs, but to be cost effective, materials for their construction will have to come from the Moon.

Our Moon is a bonanza of resources and our first off world location to learn how to live and work. While the resources are diffuse for the most part, amounting to rock on the Earth in many instances, processing these rocks for oxygen and metals not only will provide us with resources to use out there but will provide a technological leap that may provide a cost effective means to do this on the Earth, forever solving any shortage of metals here. It is speculated by some, including this author, that asteroids with valuable metals have impacted the pock marked surface of our Moon. Samples of these resources were returned during the Apollo era included samples of valuable platinum group metals, the key to the hydrogen economy to build fuel cells without the wholesale strip mining of southern Africa, Siberia, and northern Canada.

Going beyond this, learning to live off world can bring benefits as well. Closed life support systems are critical to maintaining human life in space. Well, the Earth is one really big closed life support system and even now the International Space Station is working to pioneer the recycling of water, and waste materials into breathable air and drinkable water. Drinkable water is a global problem and what we learn on the station as well as on the Moon may bring critical progress in this area. Every day the astronauts have to monitor and control the concentration of CO2 in their atmosphere, something that is of a planetary concern as well today.

Efficient production of food on limited resources will be normal on the Moon. Technologies developed in this area can also be applied to increase crop yields or to use far more marginal land than is used today for food production, a critical need when our population is expected to grow another 50% in the next few decades before leveling off.

Moving from the Moon back toward the Earth, the ability to build large structures in space and service them will erase the throw away mentality for large communications satellites. Refueling, servicing, and extending their capabilities will lead to large kilometer sized transponder farms that will provide ever more channels of television to sate our appetite for entertainment and even education. Large equatorial orbit platforms can carry many instruments for the persistent study of climate, one of the great gaps in current research into how humans and natural forces work to change our biosphere. The ability to freely move about in the space between the Earth and the Moon will allow us to place other sensors in place to study the sun, the Earth, and even put together telescopes of otherwise unimaginable size and light gathering capability that will allow us to study “Earths” around nearby stars.

Thirty five years ago the United States turned away from a robust space exploration program in order to “focus on our problems here on the Earth”. How is that going? The fact is that this turning away, a turning inward, has not solved the problems that we have spent trillions of dollars of national wealth addressing. In any experiment, in any business, in any nation, if after the spending of trillions of dollars one would expect that if the problem has not been solved, then we need to look at alternate approaches.

Space is the startling alternative, one that has not truly been tried since the early 1970’s and the end of the Apollo program. However, that being said, we cannot continue on a path in the space agency or in our national commitment to space with halfway efforts. The time has come to be bold again, to take the president and congress at their word and construct a new space program that is a national program that goes well beyond simply NASA’s efforts, though NASA will continue to be the linchpin.

Going Forward

NASA must lead as it has the lions share of resources committed to it that the private sector would never spend as going to the Moon is too risky, and the vistas opened by such an effort is part of a long term national investment in reducing risk and creating economic opportunity. However, the current NASA plans for activities on the Moon are non existent in this regard.

Whatever rockets are used to get humans and cargos to the Moon, we must develop the ability to use local resources to enable a cislunar economy. We must also plan to go beyond just the Moon, to first the Near Earth objects that are easier to reach than even the lunar surface and then finally to that destination of our dreams, Mars.

There must also be a place at the table to bring in entrepreneurial enterprises such as Space X, Spacehab, and space companies yet to be created. As of yet NASA is not addressing off planet resources in any meaningful way even though some of the greybeards at the NASA centers have a wealth of knowledge and passion to make this happen. If the current NASA leadership is unwilling to listen to their bosses and take the baton that has been handed to them then they need replacement, just as Lincoln and Roosevelt fired generals, until we get the leadership that is necessary to implement the vision already laid before us by our political leaders.

The Vision

The vision is simple, a prosperous world of 9.5 billion people in the year 2050 and in 2100. This world will have a large middle class in India, China, Europe, Japan, as well as the United States. The people of the rest of the world have a legitimate right to the same standard of living that we enjoy here in the U.S. today. However, it is clear that the resources of our little planet are inadequate to provide this level of civilization. A few years ago the World Wildlife Federation put out a press release that our global civilization would need the equivalent of two more Earths in order to provide for all of the people that will be alive in the year 2050. In fact we have thousands of worlds in our solar system that are worth untold trillions of dollars that can be developed to provide these resources for our use here on the Earth.

In the book “Guns, Germs, & Steel”, the author, Jared Diamond developed the theory that all civilizations are ultimately limited by the resources at their command. This is what led to cannibalism in the pacific islands, the lack of metal technology in New Guinea, Australia, and South America, and conversely the plentiful nature of these resources gave western civilization its head start leading to the current world system. It is my feeling that a prosperous world that is far above our level of civilization in the year 2100 is both a desirable state and an amazing legacy for America to bequeath to our fellow planetary citizens. This is also a vision that will connect with the American people.

Since our victory in the cold war our dreams have been small and we as a people have done nothing but fight each other. It is time for that to end, it is time for us to rise above our differences, and space is the place for that to happen.

There is enough space for everyone.