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Callisto mission
The NEXT effort was particularly far-reaching, and even included the examination of a human mission to the Jovian moon Callisto (credit: NASA/LaRC)

Forging a vision: NASA’s Decadal Planning Team and the origins of the Vision for Space Exploration

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From DPT to NEXT

Goldin’s post-election revelation of ISS costs overruns made NASA very unpopular with the new Bush administration. Nevertheless, it took many months for the White House to replace him. Dan Goldin left as NASA administrator by the end of 2001 and was replaced by OMB deputy director Sean O’Keefe, who had been sent to the agency specifically to bring its costs under control. The message from the White House seemed clear: fixing NASA’s finances was the primary space policy goal for the White House. The Decadal Planning Team briefed O’Keefe about their work and he was supportive. O’Keefe spoke publicly about the need to develop technologies for future space exploration, but specifically rejected the idea of establishing a destination for the agency’s human spaceflight program. His statements essentially mirrored the DPT’s philosophy.

By the summer of 2002 the DPT consolidated its various studies and surfaced publicly as the NASA Exploration Team, or NEXT. They unveiled their exploration architecture, called the NEXT Design Reference Mission (which the authors acquired independently of Garber and Asner).

The Design Reference Mission called for sustained development of “stepping stone” capabilities “that enable affordable, safe and reliable space exploration.” There would be five stepping stones:

  1. Earth and LEO (“Getting Ready”)
  2. Earth’s Neighborhood (“Getting Set by Doing”)
  3. Accessible Planetary Surface (“Going for Visits”)
  4. Sustainable Planetary Surface (“Going Beyond and Staying”)
  5. Go Anywhere, Anytime

As the reference mission draft stated “Each of these regimes can be associated with sites at increasing astrophysical distance from Earth.” But the steppingstones involved more than simply distance and also required defining the frequency and duration of human presence, as well as the degree of mastery of humans over operations.

The “Earth’s Neighborhood” steppingstone was a unique proposal for the agency, and included the possibility of establishing an “outpost” at the Lunar L1 Lagrange point. This would be a mini space station that would serve as a “mission staging and crew habitation platform… for assembling and maintaining large astronomical observatories and conducting expeditions to the lunar surface.” The outpost would consist of an inflatable habitat similar to the TransHab module that was developed by NASA and then canceled by Dan Goldin in 2000. Unmanned elements of the architecture would use high efficiency solar electric propulsion to move from low Earth orbit to a final destination. The propulsion stage would be reusable.

The “Earth’s Neighborhood” steppingstone was a unique proposal for the agency, and included the possibility of establishing an “outpost” at the Lunar L1 Lagrange point.

The Lunar L1 point, according to the NEXT team, was a compromise among competing requirements. Solar observatories could be assembled there and sent to the Sun-Earth L1 and L2 points, and the Lunar L1 outpost could also provide easy access to the lunar surface, as well as a jumping off point for missions to other planets. It could also serve as an assembly and maintenance point for astronomical observatories. The program’s focus would be on developing technology and using humans to support scientific research such as solar and astronomical observatories and eventually planetary exploration, or “science-driven, technology-enabled,” to use the original DPT group’s phrase.

The next steps in the architecture would be human missions to the Moon, and/or human missions to Mars. These missions would build upon the technologies and capabilities initially developed in the early stages of the project. Perhaps the most visionary aspect of the architecture was Human Outer Planet Exploration, or HOPE. “The initial effort of Human Outer Planet Exploration is to look at sending a crewed mission to Callisto to conduct exploration and sample return activities/experiments for a minimal period of 30 days.” From the surface of Callisto the crew would teleoperate a Europa submarine and excavate surface samples near an impact crater. The HOPE mission was unpolished and clearly had an element of science fiction to it, justifying such a mission on a theoretical discovery of “what appear to be life forms floating in the sub-surface oceans of Europa and embedded in the ice crust near an asteroid impact on the surface of Callisto.”

The NEXT proposal did not receive widespread publicity at the time. It was featured in articles in several newspapers in states with substantial space interests, such as Florida and Texas, as well as Aviation Week & Space Technology, and, but never got mentioned in the national press. It therefore did not attract the kind of criticism that bold, expensive new human spaceflight plans often receive. Leonard David, who had been aware of the DPT for some time, said that he had heard that the NEXT proposal would be unveiled at the October 2002 World Space Congress and was surprised when its actual debut was relatively low-key. He suspected that the debut had been deliberately under-emphasized by NASA’s leadership, which was still focused on the space station assembly.

Whether this lack of attention was good or bad will never be known, because it was soon overtaken by events: Columbia came apart in the cold Texas sky and changed everything.

Forming the Vision

When the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed it called into question NASA’s competence and purpose in a way that was uncomfortable for the agency. Starting immediately after the accident an independent investigation took place. The investigation board expanded its purview from its original narrow charter, but resisted pressure to address the entire space agency’s direction, or even the entire human spaceflight program. The board investigated and deliberated until it produced its final report in August 2003. Although much of the report focused upon technical and managerial failures at NASA, it also addressed more general space policy issues that created an uncertain environment at NASA. Specifically, the report identified two policy weaknesses: the lack of a coherent and consistent space transportation plan to replace the shuttle, and the lack of a coherent and consistent long-term rationale for human spaceflight.

Perhaps the most visionary aspect of the architecture was Human Outer Planet Exploration, or HOPE, which featured a human mission to the Jovian moon Callisto, where astronauts would teleoperate submarines in Europa’s subsurface oceans.

While the board was conducting its investigation, some members of the Executive Branch began to discuss the future of NASA. Exactly who started and led this discussion remains largely unknown, in large part because of the secrecy of the Bush White House, as well as the fact that career civil servants in executive offices rarely speak on the record about their activities. But the early discussions in the Executive Branch appear to have started with career civil servants, eventually being addressed by more senior political appointees.

While these discussions were underway within agencies such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Council, there were also discussions underway within NASA about the future of human spaceflight. The NEXT team had never formally disbanded, but had been morphed into the activities of NASA’s Space Architect. NASA now created three separate teams that included members of the NEXT group: John Mankins headed a team to explore the potential of sending robots and humans to the Moon, Harley Thronson’s team addressed the potential for sending robots and humans to Mars and L1, and Gordon Johnson addressed a robotic exploration program. The robotics option had the strongest scientific rationale.

A major question about the decision-making leading to the Vision for Space Exploration was how and why the Moon became the primary goal. Certainly another question is the degree to which science was considered as a justification for any new program, versus the more traditional justification of engineering achievement.

By the summer of 2003 a vigorous debate was taking place in the Executive Branch, and several distinctly different plans were under consideration. The OMB was considering a plan known as “Mars in our lifetime” as well as another plan called “Human researchers, robotic explorers.” The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was evaluating a concept titled “Beyond footsteps: putting the Moon to work” that advocated a human return to the Moon. There was even a proposal from the Council of Economic Advisors for the commercialization of space. The process was overseen by the National Security Council and a decision to essentially adopt the OSTP proposal was reached by mid-December. But a presidential announcement was delayed in 2003 and ultimately pushed to January 2004.

No Mars, no science

When it was unveiled, the Vision for Space Exploration did not embrace science, Mars, or many previous goals and rationales for human spaceflight. Instead the new policy was focused on “exploration,” a term that the policy did not define. Even now, almost two years after Bush’s presidential announcement, the agency has not yet explained what exploration means, or what kind of scientific component it includes, although NASA has released a list of potential landing sites that were selected based upon their scientific value.

What was unveiled in January 2004 as the Vision for Space Exploration did not correspond to the earlier plans developed by the DPT, and it remains unclear how much influence NASA officials such as Sean O’Keefe actually had into the development of the Vision.

Why the Moon was selected over Mars is unclear, although the most probable explanation is that senior decision makers felt that a human mission to Mars was neither affordable nor technologically possible at this time. As various people have argued, most notably Johnson Space Center exploration manager Wendell Mendell, the Moon can serve as a useful practice ground for the kinds of technologies that will be required for a much longer and more autonomous mission to Mars. However, we do not know if this is the argument that tipped the balance in the Executive Branch toward the lunar goal.

What was unveiled in January 2004 as the Vision for Space Exploration did not correspond to the earlier plans developed by the DPT, and it remains unclear how much influence NASA officials such as Sean O’Keefe actually had into the development of the Vision. But Glen Asner noted that the policy process that resulted in the Vision was different from that which produced the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative. He and Garber believe that the agency’s Decadal Planning Team and NEXT efforts “served as strong indicators that NASA was behind human exploration and gave it deep thought,” and showed political leaders that NASA was serious about human space exploration. “We doubt that that President Bush, despite his personal enthusiasm for human exploration, would have supported an ambitious new mission—especially given his father’s experience—without a clear indication that NASA itself was prepared to take on the task.”

There are numerous unanswered questions about the decision making process that led to the Vision for Space Exploration. For instance, who initiated the discussions in the White House concerning the need for a new human spaceflight goal and why? Who championed the issue and how much interaction did they have with NASA? Why and how did the White House pick and choose between plans? Why was NASA’s science-driven approach rejected in favor of the more vaguely-defined exploration goal? Was Sean O’Keefe helped by the existence of the DPT’s studies, or did their proposals for a lunar L1 outpost and a human mission to Mars seem uninspiring, unrealistic, or too expensive to the White House?

Admittedly, the decision to adopt the Vision for Space Exploration is only one part of the overall story of this effort. Policy histories lack the drama of rocket launches and astronauts floating in the void. But they do provide an understanding of the political forces that lead to success or failure of a program. As NASA continues to try to explain why the agency is undertaking a bold and expensive new human spaceflight project, the agency leadership may be able to learn much from its recent efforts, although they will have to become aware of them first.