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Zubrin and Tumlinson
Rick Tumlinson (left) and Robert Zubrin debate the merits, or lack thereof, of NASA’s exploration plans at the Space Frontier Conference in Los Angeles on October 21. (credit: J. Foust)

The debate over ESAS

A couple of months ago, NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration looked to be in good shape. The Vision had won support from Congress late last year with a fully-funded budget for 2005, and since then both the House and Senate have passed versions of authorization legislation for the agency that explicitly endorse the goals of the program. NASA has started, and even accelerated, work on some of the key components of the Vision, most notably the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). With a new administrator and leadership keenly focused on implementing the program, there was every indication this summer that the Vision was gaining momentum.

In the last several weeks, though, that momentum has been diminished, if not lost entirely. The devastation created by Hurricane Katrina in late August, and to a lesser extent by Hurricane Rita a few weeks later, have left the federal government with a repair tab that could exceed $200 billion, raising questions regarding whether other government programs, including NASA’s, could be raided to pay the bill. (See “The hurricane and the vision”, The Space Review, September 6, 2005.) Then, just a few weeks after Katrina, NASA rolled out the long-awaited Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), a report by NASA that outlined how NASA would develop the CEV, launch vehicles, and other spacecraft needed to return to the Moon. The response to the ESAS was tepid at best in the mainstream media, with many reports fixating on the $104-billion price tag to implement the ESAS proposal in comparison to hurricane relief. (See “The reaction to the exploration plan”, The Space Review, October 3, 2005.)

There are now signs of dissent within the community of space activist and enthusiast organizations.

This combination of factors brings into question just how viable NASA’s exploration plans are. NASA may face an uphill battle just to preserve its budget against potential cuts, if not in the 2006 budget (which is nearing final approval in Congress), then in 2007 and beyond. Fiscal conservatives, like the Republican Study Committee, have targeted the Vision as part of “Operation Offset”, a wide-ranging series of budget cuts to offset the cost of hurricane relief without raising taxes or increasing the budget deficit. Worse, there are reports that NASA may need even more money over the next five years—as much as $5 billion—after cost savings originally projected last year for the shuttle program failed to materialize. Without that extra funding, Florida Today warned on Sunday, NASA may have to sharply curtail the already-reduced number of remaining shuttle flights.

There are now signs of dissent within the community of space activist and enthusiast organizations. These often-fractious groups joined together last year in the Space Exploration Alliance (SEA), an effort to create a unified front to promote the Vision. Now, though, some of the original member organizations have parted ways with the SEA, dissatisfied with ESAS and the agency’s general approach to implementing the Vision, while others have made it clear they are, at the very least, disappointed with the ESAS plan. However, while these groups may not like ESAS, there is no clear consensus—in fact, diverging opinions—on an alternative.

Heavy lift now

When NASA unveiled the ESAS plan last month, The Mars Society was initially supportive. A statement by the society’s political committee published September 26, while quibbling with some aspects of the plan, called it “a good beginning to make the Vision a reality.”

Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, though, is more pessimistic about the prospects of ESAS and the Vision itself. “The pertinent issue right now is whether there really will be a Moon-Mars initiative, or whether this is just nice theme music for a rationalization of the space station program,” Zubrin said Friday during a speech at the Space Frontier Conference in Los Angeles.

Zubrin’s concerns with the plan are rooted in part with the Vision itself, which keeps the shuttle operating through the end of the decade before embarking fully on development of the systems needed for human missions to the Moon and Mars. “The Vision is a compromise policy between those who wanted business as usual and those who wanted a destination-driven space program,” he said. “This formulation has created great peril for the Vision for Space Exploration.”

That compromise, he believes, has had a significant negative impact on its implementation. Zubrin’s concept of an ideal lunar mission involves the single launch of a spacecraft atop a heavy-lift booster. This spacecraft would land directly on the Moon, with no need for rendezvous and docking operations in Earth or Moon orbit. At the end of the mission the spacecraft would ascend from the lunar surface directly to Earth. Such an architecture is particularly feasible if the mission can make use of lunar oxygen—derived from minerals in the regolith or ice deposits at the poles—to manufacture propellant for the return trip.

“The policy is irrational because it is a compromise,” Zubrin said of the Vision. “In other words, this policy sucks.”

That, of course, is not what ESAS proposes: it features a heavy-lift launch vehicle and a smaller crew launch vehicle designed for the CEV, not to mention both Earth orbit rendezvous (to dock the CEV to the lunar lander and departure stage launched on the heavy-lift vehicle) as well as lunar orbit rendezvous (between the CEV and lunar lander). All that, Zubrin believes, introduces needless complexity and risk into the exploration plan.

Zubrin argued that this complexity is a result of the compromise nature of the Vision, one that puts off development of the heavy-lift launcher until 2011, after the shuttle is retired, as well as use of shuttle-derived components to support the shuttle’s existing industrial base. “The policy is irrational because it is a compromise,” he said. “In other words, this policy sucks.”

Zubrin offered an alternative to the ESAS. He would fly the shuttle just one more time, on a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. He would then used the money freed up from no longer flying the shuttle to accelerate the development of the heavy-lift launcher, allowing it to enter service by 2010. The heavy-lift vehicle could then be used to deploy the remaining modules for the ISS (which, he acknowledged, would require the development of a tug of some sort to actually maneuver and dock the modules to the station). The heavy-lift launcher could then be used to carry out manned lunar missions by 2012 and manned Mars missions as soon as 2016.

Heavy lift never

The community of entrepreneurs and their supporters has also found the ESAS approach undesirable. With its reliance on large spacecraft and launch vehicles designed almost exclusively for government markets, the architecture offers few opportunities for commercialization outside of ISS resupply. The Space Frontier Foundation has become so disillusioned with the architecture, as well as its acceptance by more mainstream space organizations, that it announced earlier this month that it was withdrawing from the SEA.

“[The SEA] repeatedly missed opportunities to support and promote ideas for inserting innovative private sector approaches into NASA’s plans, even though [NASA administrator] Mike Griffin has not only suggested he is open to such ideas, but is promoting them himself and asking for help,” the Foundation said in a statement announcing their withdrawal from the SEA. “Instead, the SEA has reverted to blind cheerleading for whatever design bureau government-centric approaches the agency has put forward, as tied to the old ways as they may be, as short-sighted as they may be, and as doomed to fail in the quest to open the frontier as they are.”

As a result, the Foundation and other alt.spacers share Zubrin’s dissatisfaction with ESAS. “The Vision for Space Exploration as currently enacted is a dead end, and some may even call it a ruse” said Foundation co-founder Rick Tumlinson in a talk immediately following Zubrin’s at the conference Friday. “At the end of this administration it’s dead. I don’t think we’re going to be able to change the program that much that quickly to save it.”

“Sooner or later, your missions are going to outgrow any one particular vehicle,” Vanderbilt said. “You going to have to start putting things together at some point; you might as well do it from the start and get good at it.”

That dissatisfaction, though, stems not from an impatience to get to Mars but a desire to create an infrastructure that can support not just exploration of the Moon and Mars but commercial applications as well. “We have to create an economically sustainable set of transportation options and infrastructure to go to and from the Moon,” said Tumlinson. “Or, we will end up with a dead-end Moon base, and we never make it to Mars.”

“Economically-sustainable transportation” doesn’t mean a heavy-lift launch vehicle like that proposed under ESAS and endorsed by Zubrin, however. Henry Vanderbilt, executive director of the Space Access Society, prefers using smaller vehicles and assembling components in orbit. “Sooner or later, your missions are going to outgrow any one particular vehicle,” he said. “You going to have to start putting things together at some point; you might as well do it from the start and get good at it.” He added that a shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher “brings some baggage with it” in the form of the “standing army” of technicians that will likely be required to support it.

Zubrin, though, rejected that argument, saying that multiple-launch scenarios won’t work because of the need to tightly schedule several launches without delays to avoid, in one example, cryogenic propellant placed in orbit by one launch boiling off before it can be used. (This point led to some contentious exchanges between Zubrin and several audience members, unconvinced of Zubrin’s claims, during a question-and-answer session after Zubrin and Tumlinson spoke.) Zubrin also places a lower priority on economic viability over the settlement of Mars. “To succeed in the long term it must be economically sustainable, but that does not mean these things are done for economic reasons.”

Why vs. how

Despite the fact that ESAS was instigated by Griffin, Zubrin in particular laid very little blame for the perceived flaws in the architecture with the administrator. “Griffin is the best NASA administrator we’re going to see,” he said. “The person who needs to be lobbied is not Griffin. The people who need to be lobbied are the political class.”

The political class, or at least those in Congress who support the Vision, are looking to industry and activist organizations for help supporting the Vision in the coming budget battles. Speaking earlier Friday in Washington, Congressman Bart Gordon, ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, said the industry in particular needs to do more to support the effort, such as “explain that we are going to the Moon not just on a tourist expedition but that there are good reasons for it,” quoted him as saying.

While Gordon is seeking outside help to explain the “why” of the Vision—a key concern that emerged during the immediate reaction to the ESAS report—the debate over “how” now rages. It is possible that the debate over ESAS could undermine overall support for the Vision, particularly if some start to see ESAS as the Vision itself, rather than as a means to implement it.

“At the end of this administration it’s dead,” said Tumlinson. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to change the program that much that quickly to save it.”

Some have taken pains to try and separate the two. “This confusion is potentially very dangerous for the community because it minimizes the importance of the other components of the Vision, indiscriminately lumps good programs in with the questionable ones, and creates a vacuum of clarity that causes the transition to a future administration/administrator a very dangerous time,” wrote Michael Mealling last week on his blog, Rocketforge.

On the other hand, many of the design choices made in ESAS were linked to the key attributes of the Vision itself, specifically the milestones of completing the ISS and retiring the shuttle in 2010, which limits what can be done in the near term on the development of exploration-specific hardware. In that respect, the Vision and ESAS are linked, in that changing significant aspects of the implementation of the Vision may require changing key milestones of the Vision itself—if, for example, you want to accelerate development of a heavy-lift launcher. The growing shuttle funding problems may open a window of opportunity to do just that in the next several months.

Despite the dangers of any confusion between the Vision and ESAS, both Tumlinson and Zubrin argued that such a debate was necessary now to avoid bigger problems down the road. “I don’t see it happening at all,” said Tumlinson of the current plan. “We’re moving towards flags and footprints, if we make it there at all.” He called upon those who supported human settlement in space and the formation of a “multi-planet species” to work together to communicate that message.

“This is a unique chance,” said Zubrin. “If we blow this, this may never come again in our lifetimes.”