Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two
After the fall
After it was clear to virtually everyone that SEI was dead, the space agency began taking some steps towards outlining cheaper alternatives to achieving initial parts of the lunar goal, starting by scaling back the initial goals of the policy from immediately establishing permanent human presence on the Moon to extended stays on its surface. Associate Administrator Griffin unveiled the First Lunar Outpost, or FLO, proposal in 1992. FLO would return a four-person crew to the lunar surface for a 45-day stay, rather than starting to build a lunar base from the start. The scientist-astronauts would conduct astronomical and geochemical experiments as well as evaluate the use of lunar materials for on-site support of future missions. FLO would still require a Saturn V class booster and would still have a hefty price tag—eventually calculated at about $25 billion to achieve the initial missions in a decade. About half of this amount would go for rocket development. Furthermore, FLO was a “go as you pay” approach, since it was only the initial step to a permanent return to the Moon, not a giant, hundred billion dollar leap. Had FLO been proposed back in summer 1989 rather than three years later, the Space Exploration Initiative might have had a greater chance of success.
By the time NASA unveiled FLO the presidential election was in full swing. Bush lost that election and in January 1993 William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as his successor. During the early months of the Clinton administration Dan Goldin’s future at the space agency was in doubt and he faced open revolt from several of the agency’s top civil servants.
After it was clear that Goldin would remain at the space agency—if only because the new administration could find nobody to replace him—Goldin devoted his attention to securing a commitment from Clinton to the space station, and to bringing Russia into the program. He was ultimately successful at both of these efforts. After the embarrassing failure of the expensive Mars Observer spacecraft in fall 1993, Goldin was able to substantially overhaul robotic planetary exploration and introduce “faster better cheaper” development techniques into the agency’s robotic efforts.
The quest for cheaper space exploration
Because FLO had been intended to serve as a baseline, and it was now clear to industry that cheaper alternatives to NASA’s projects were necessary, in spring of 1993 the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics held a one-day conference on low-cost lunar access. Various contractors proposed methods of sending humans to the Moon for less cost than NASA’s FLO proposal. General Dynamics had the most detailed plan, which would have used two Titan 4 launches and two shuttle launches to place a two-person crew on the lunar surface for several weeks.
But many of these proposals faced an unfortunate conundrum: the largest launch vehicles in the American fleet, the space shuttle and Titan 4, were still not big enough for even dual-launch lunar operations. Even if the shuttle carried part of the spacecraft into orbit and then rendezvoused with another part carried into orbit atop a Titan 4, the performance margins were so tight that they would force safety compromises. A third launch would add significant cost and complexity. There were no easy solutions that did not require, for instance, a new rocket vehicle with greater power than either shuttle or the Titan IV.
In addition, the entire political environment that had framed American space policy for decades was changing. With the Cold War over, competition with the remnants of the Soviet Union turned to cooperation. Soon NASA’s budget was being cut as the Clinton administration sought to use the money elsewhere. In 1989 President Bush had declared that his goal was to achieve American preeminence in space. That goal could now be achieved at far less cost because nobody was challenging American space preeminence.
There were other proposals that sprouted from the failure of SEI. In 1990 Martin Marietta engineers Robert Zubrin and David Baker produced an innovative plan for a Mars mission called Mars Direct. Most of the concepts used for Mars Direct dated from earlier NASA research, and the project at Martin Marietta was initiated by the company to secure SEI contracts. Throughout the 1990s Zubrin worked tirelessly as a zealous advocate of the plan, which he claimed would be significantly cheaper than NASA’s more conventional Mars approach. Another lunar proposal developed within NASA in 1993 called LUNOX also would have used in situ resources to lower costs compared to the First Lunar Outpost, to $19.6 billion. Its primary benefit was that it no longer required a Saturn V class launch vehicle.
Starting in 1995 NASA administrator Dan Goldin challenged industry and NASA personnel to develop a manned lunar landing spacecraft under a “faster better cheaper” approach. This effort was labeled Human Lunar Return, or HLR, and had a tight schedule, calling for a human landing on the Moon by 2001. The plan that agency personnel produced called for developing precursor technologies that would also be used after the initial landing and would have a total cost of $4.17 billion. Not included in this cost, however, were the launch costs, which would have been significant—11 large Titan 4 class launch vehicles, two Delta 2 class launch vehicles, and one Taurus-class launch vehicle, plus several shuttle launches. Those launch costs would have at least doubled the overall cost.
Goldin was unhappy with the costs and wanted his people to bring them down substantially. This forced a revision of the plan that further cut safety margins. But by 1996 the entire effort was abandoned as Goldin and NASA turned more attention to robotic Mars exploration and the problems of the space station and the shuttle.
The initial HLR estimates were far cheaper than the SEI costs only six years before and in fact cheaper than the First Lunar Outpost costs of 1992. However, as one observer has noted, during this period NASA’s cost estimates for human spaceflight were notoriously unreliable and it is doubtful that the project could have been pursued at anywhere close to these estimates. Still, the space agency has produced many plans for lunar missions that would not even cost $100 billion.
Once the HLR effort was abandoned in 1996 NASA continued to conduct internal studies of human Mars and lunar exploration, such as the Mars Design Reference Mission in 1997 and Project NEXT in 2002. But nobody at NASA pretended that these were anything other than viewgraph engineering.
Déjà vu all over again?
There is no way to view the Space Exploration Initiative as anything other than a policy failure. For whatever reasons, President George H.W. Bush approved the policy without even a basic assurance that NASA was capable—and willing—to conduct it. Even if Congress had been inclined to fund new human exploration missions, the agency provided no indications why it could be trusted to conduct them. All indications are that the Space Council did a poor job both of warning Bush of the problems implementing the plan, and providing NASA with proper guidance on how the project was to be conducted, particularly the need to keep the costs manageable.
SEI’s legacy was not entirely negative, however. It did help to discredit the Apollo paradigm and highlighted the need for management reforms—and personnel changes—at the civilian space agency. The ridiculous cost estimates also led to greater attention on cost and performance at the space agency, and eventually the adoption of new management philosophies to achieve them.
There are some parallels between the new space plan laid out by President George W. Bush in January 2004 and that endorsed by his father in July 1989. Both presidents endorsed the plans at a time of high federal budget deficits and both plans immediately drew strong partisan and media scorn. In addition, in both cases NASA had a bad reputation for managerial problems. Finally, both presidents embraced lunar and Mars exploration goals together rather than clearly selecting one over the other.
But there are also many significant differences between the two time periods. Unlike his father, George W. Bush does not face a Congress controlled by the opposition party. NASA is also not threatened institutionally by the new policy, because agency leaders now accept that both the space shuttle and space station will end and the new goals will replace them. In addition, although the costs of the plan remain unclear, a method of funding it is more clear—ending both the shuttle and space station programs will eventually free up money to pursue other human spaceflight efforts; the only question is when this will happen and whether or not Congress will choose to divert the money elsewhere. Rather than starting with the question of how much the agency would need to accomplish these new goals—as it did back in 1989—NASA started with how much the agency could realistically expect to have available. The agency also has more flexible options in space launch—the Delta 4 and Atlas 5, for instance, can theoretically be upgraded to significantly more powerful boosters. In addition, NASA also has much more efficient ways of conducting robotic precursor missions than it did in 1989, freeing up money for the human projects.
But, perhaps most importantly of all, the current president does not face the active opposition of the space agency’s leadership and a conflict between NASA and its own policy makers.