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John Houbolt
Can today’s critics of NASA’s ESAS architecture for Constellation rightfully claim kinship with John Houbolt, the impassioned crusader for Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous who played a vital role in Apollo’s success? (credit: NASA)

Somewhat as a clamor in the wilderness

If you were to meander into the deep recesses of the space blogosphere these days you would quickly find yourself immersed in a roiling, emotional turmoil. A sizable portion of the pro-space community has been voicing (sometimes quite pointedly) their dissatisfaction with NASA’s current architecture for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. Dubbed ESAS (for its genesis in NASA’s 2005 Exploration Systems Architecture Study), the overall plan and its many Constellation Program components (Ares 1/5, Orion, Altair, EOR-LOR, etc.) have come under both general and specific fire from avid space supporters of all stripes, some even offering their own elaborate visions of “how to do it right.”

Some eddies of this swirling chaos have disturbed the mainstream media’s usually placid surface layer of sparse space coverage. The Planetary Society is sponsoring a symposium this week to formulate possible alternatives for consideration by the next President, and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (who some suspect to be, in best government-conspiracy fashion, ESAS’s de facto ghost author) has acknowledged this debate’s persistence by recently dedicating one of his speeches to defending it (see “Defending Constellation”, The Space Review, February 4, 2008.)

Whence comes this rich passion that is fueling these vehement exchanges? Why are so many people getting so emotional over something that should be settled matter-of-factly with a straightforward technical assessment?

Now, for the sake of forthrightness, I must admit that I have strong opinions regarding both the origin and future potential of the ESAS designs, but I’ll leave the jousting over weight problems, vibrations, and water-or-land touchdown choices to folks more knowledgeable than I. My support of, or objections to, the current architecture, however, did not prompt this essay; it was born of my moment’s reflection on the intensity of emotion thereby attached. I feel very strongly about this, and given the evidence out on the blogs and even in the press, so do many others.

Whence comes this rich passion that is fueling these vehement exchanges? Why are so many people getting so emotional over something that should be settled matter-of-factly with a straightforward technical assessment? Griffin claimed in his speech that the 90-day ESAS analysis drove the NASA team point by point to each element of the defined architecture, yet it seems pretty obvious that quite a few folks in the space community either don’t believe him or they consider the analyses flawed or biased. Why? And why are they so angry about it?

“Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness…”

Back in the early 1960s, NASA faced a similar technical nexus with the so-called Apollo Mode Decision: how to accomplish President Kennedy’s mandate of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade. Of many possible “architectures” evaluated, three options surfaced as the most viable and were then vigorously debated: Direct, Earth-Orbit Rendezvous (EOR), and Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous (LOR).

As the story goes (I’m offering a grossly simplified version here; check out Enchanted Rendezvous for the fascinating details), the folks at Headquarters preferred going direct to the Moon’s surface and back with one big spacecraft. (Straightforward, but required a monster booster). Wernher von Braun and the folks in Huntsville thought that launching separate spacecraft components on two smaller boosters and then linking them together in low Earth orbit would be best. (Smaller booster, but required two launches for every mission and execution of then-untried rendezvous.) The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston (being created at the time from Robert Gilruth’s Space Task Group (STG) out of Langley) initially favored the Direct approach.

While each of these approaches had their merits and shortcomings, they both required the landing of a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon that was nearly the size and weight of a Mercury-Atlas. This was because this single vehicle necessarily contained a crew cabin robust enough to handle re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and all the propellant necessary to lift both that crew cabin and the trans-Earth injection propellant off the lunar surface again.

Then some other folks at Langley worked up this “crazy” idea of sending two separate spacecraft to the Moon atop a single booster, one of them a lander that would separate from the mother ship in lunar orbit to descend to the surface, then climb back up to rendezvous with the waiting return ship. Once the lander was discarded, the mother ship would rocket its way back to Earth. All that weight associated specifically with getting the crew on its Earth-return trajectory and back through the atmosphere would stay in lunar orbit, eliminating the need to carry the load down to the Moon’s surface and lift if back up again.

The beauty of this approach (or so the calculations demonstrated) was that it enabled the use of a much smaller booster than the Direct approach while retaining the logistics advantage of a single launch per mission. Its “crazy” tag stemmed from its including then-untried rendezvous in lunar orbit. While the Langley guys became depressed to discover that a team at Chance-Vought had scooped them (having already worked out the details of this scheme), it didn’t stop John Houbolt of Langley, located far outside the primary Apollo channels, from championing it, even to the point of sending a potentially career-ending nine-page letter to Robert Seamans, then Associate Administrator, claiming to be “Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness…”

A three-way debate ensued, and thorough evaluation of these options took place (different centers were assigned to study different approaches—JPL got assigned lunar surface rendezvous for good measure). And if you think today’s rancor over ESAS is intense, some of the exchanges back then have achieved legendary status (e.g., at a formal presentation by Houbolt and another Langley engineer, Maxime Faget reportedly stated bluntly “His figures lie. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” 1).

But to make a long, dramatic story appear much more simple than it was, Lunar Orbit Rendezvous won out. Once selected, the entire NASA team fell in behind the decision.

And in yet another example of recent events being, as Yogi Berra put it, “déjà vu all over again”, completely different architectures also came forward once the primary debate had gotten underway. James T. Chamberlin, tasked with defining the then-new Gemini spacecraft and specifying objectives for it to accomplish, offered up lunar mission scenarios employing “his” two-man derivative of Mercury. One involved LOR using an unpressurized lunar lander, lofted to the Moon with the Gemini spacecraft on a Saturn C-3 booster. 2 James Webb, NASA Administrator, and Gilruth, director of STG/MSC, wisely chose to restrict Gemini to more helpful pursuits, including the mastering of rendezvous which would be essential for either EOR or LOR.

But to make a long, dramatic story appear much more simple than it was, Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (using all-Apollo spacecraft) won out and the term “Lunar Module” entered the vernacular. The top NASA brass announced its selection at a press briefing on July 11, 1962. 3 Once selected, the entire NASA team fell in behind the decision.

And it was absolutely essential that they did so. It is important to keep in mind that this all took place back in the heady days immediately following President Kennedy’s initial declaration before Congress, when NASA was still defining the entire Apollo architecture literally from the ground up. Launch Complex 39 in Florida (including the Vehicle Assembly Building), the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston (today’s JSC), and the Saturn test stands at Huntsville (and later in Mississippi), were still being or were yet to be designed 4, 5, 6; their precise configurations depended heavily on this critical “mode” decision.

That was then; this is now

So, in light of Griffin’s recent speech, can you imagine James Webb, then Administrator of NASA, actually needing to defend the Mode Decision in a public forum after he had publicly announced the selection of LOR? Actually he did, two months later, after a testy public exchange with President Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, in front of President Kennedy and the press. During a tour given by von Braun in Huntsville, Wiesner began correcting von Braun as he described the details and merits of LOR, forcing Webb to step forward in his defense. Kennedy finally ended the argument by stating that the matter was still subject to final review.

Wiesner and his advisory council remained vehemently opposed to lunar-orbit rendezvous, preferring a two-man Direct approach using either Apollo or Gemini. After all the previous analysis that had led to the decision (one estimate suggested 700 people across Headquarters, the field centers, and industry working a million man-hours), Administrator Webb and the NASA team had to assemble a defense for both Wiesner and the press. Wiesner kept pushing for more detailed information, right down to proprietary weight estimates offered by various companies bidding on the spacecraft contracts. Webb finally sent Wiesner a letter expressing his own confidence in LOR and challenging whether or not he was so concerned that he felt the President had to intervene. With President Kennedy dealing at the time with the Cuban missile crisis, Wiesner backed down and let the issue die. 3 Lunar orbit rendezvous, with Apollo spacecraft, was to be the way America would reach the Moon. Period. And of course, it worked.

From whence this passion?

So what of the current debates over ESAS bubbling below the surface today? Should we rank them in the legendary company of Houbolt’s impassioned pleas that eventually carried the day (and the nation) to success, or should we dismiss them alongside Wiesner’s after-the-analysis objections that took on the appearance of a meddling power play that eventually faded into the obscurity of also-ran history? I think I can say with reasonable confidence that the loudest ESAS critics would likely place themselves in the former, while Mike Griffin and Jeff Hanley (Constellation’s program manager tasked with making ESAS actually work) would probably relegate them to the latter.

Without having all the detailed numbers and calculations in front of me, I’m not going to pass judgment—yet. (Ask me in about ten years.) However, one undeniable aspect of the current debate is that it shares with that previous nationwide discussion a depth of conviction and fervent energy that is resonating across the decades. How can this be, when the number crunching and policy dictates are supposedly behind us? Aren’t we already letting contracts and redesigning the shuttle ground infrastructure to support the new vision? Administrator Griffin rolled out the architecture in front of the press and the world more than two years ago. What is fueling this teeth-gritting, ear-smoke-generating dissatisfaction with ESAS and Constellation?

Doomed to disappoint

To find the answer, I’m going to step away from all these technical discussions and address something much more subtle but equally important: perception. When Michael Griffin first introduced the public to the ESAS architecture on September 19, 2005, it landed on the world stage with an unmistakable, resounding thud. Precisely why goes beyond technical specifications and even policy constraints, and we need to back up a bit to fully appreciate this.

(One important note regarding pronoun association: I’ll frequently be employing the term “we” in the communal sense, i.e., that amorphous, collective throng who have cared deeply about space and/or have worked in the industry down through the decades. I myself was six when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out onto the lunar surface.)

Howard McCurdy 7, in his study of space policy and the initial 1950s “sales job” undertaken by von Braun and others to generate public enthusiasm for space exploration, describes an inherent challenge facing all public endeavors: to get public monies approved for any given project or program, the advocates more often than not end up overselling what they want. While they may do so in all earnestness, they still end up painting overly grandiose pictures of the promises to be derived from their particular project. Implementation in the real world seldom achieves the impressive expectations that the advocates had planted in the minds of the approving authorities and the public; it becomes almost inevitable that the final reality, no matter how impressive an achievement it may be, falls short of the initial vision.

This, he offers, happened in a big way with America’s space program, more than once. The imagery in the paintings of Bonestell and his contemporaries, supported by the matter-of-fact descriptions of von Braun, Ley, and others, suggested that a truly spacefaring civilization was just around the corner, and that huge bases on the Moon and Mars would arrive by the turn of the century. Movies and television followed this lead and went beyond it, and soon Captain Kirk was zooming around the cosmos in a starship like it was this week’s trip to the grocery.

Implementation in the real world seldom achieves the impressive expectations that the advocates had planted in the minds of the approving authorities and the public; it becomes almost inevitable that the final reality, no matter how impressive an achievement it may be, falls short of the initial vision.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the NASA team overcame significant obstacles and achieved incredible feats of engineering with our first tentative steps into space. They even conducted some limited geological exploration on the surface of the Moon, a location that had been beyond the realm of belief just twenty years prior. But three-day excursions in the tiny lunar module were a far cry from the expansive Clavius base of 2001; the incredible future promised by the original sales pitch and fueled by our imaginations remained disappointingly far away.

The tortured history of our future

But even then, we (particularly many in the space program itself) firmly believed that achieving the bigger picture would be just a matter of time and continued investment. Under the creative guidance of Robert Gilruth (MSC Director) and George Mueller (the Manned Space Flight administrator made famous—or infamous—for introducing “all-up” testing to Apollo), NASA formulated an “integrated space program” architecture that would have included fully reusable winged shuttles ferrying people and supplies to a space way-station in low Earth orbit, nuclear space tugs ferrying personnel to a base on the Moon, and eventually multi-crew expeditions to the surface of Mars. This architecture would reduce the overall cost of space operations through reusability and commonality of hardware (e.g., the lunar base and Earth-orbiting station would use identical crew modules; the nuclear tug and the Mars transfer stage would use identical nuclear engines) while also exploiting the impressive Apollo infrastructure. When President Nixon created a Space Task Group (not Gilruth’s original STG) to define post-Apollo space activities chaired by Vice-President Agnew and including the new NASA administrator Thomas Paine, the Gilruth/Mueller architecture essentially became the group’s recommendation to the President. 2, 8

But political reality, manifested most specifically in limited federal budgets, stepped in. As hundreds of thousands of aerospace workers lost their jobs and already-assembled Apollo hardware became museum displays or lawn ornaments, NASA persevered and tried to develop the first piece of the Gilruth/Mueller architecture, a reusable space shuttle. However, further compromises across the government under the ever-present shadow of limited funding gave us, after nearly ten years, only a partial realization of the original vision’s intent.9 Not fully reusable and terribly fragile, the shuttle demonstrated nevertheless that a reusable spacecraft of significant capabilities, while still extremely expensive to operate, was technically possible.

Despite its limitations and riding unfortunately on the wave of a launch-frequency projection based more on fantasy hopes than engineering assessment, in 1981 NASA began flying this shuttle in earnest. The larger immediate picture of a manned solar system exploration infrastructure fell away from the public’s consciousness as operations in low Earth orbit came to dominate the headlines. But on the inside, members of the space community kept the vision alive, holding industry technical conferences to discuss “the next logical step” and what such a step might eventually enable.

Finally, during the Reagan era the NASA upper brass convinced the powers in Washington who held the purse strings to pursue the second component of that greater vision, the critical space way-station in low Earth orbit. Initially the designs incorporated the “station” aspect of the original larger architecture, but political circumstances and budget realities across three presidential administrations slowly stripped away all these pretenses 10, leaving behind only a limited microgravity laboratory in an orbit ill-suited to support the remaining elements of the original integrated plan. Now, 24 years after presidential/congressional approval and nearly four decades after Gilruth’s and Mueller’s grand post-Apollo architecture recommendation, our space “station” remains unfinished and offers far less capability than its original intent. Official policy has even marked it for abandonment within the next decade alongside the first element of the architecture, the space shuttle, like so much old furniture at a garage sale.

Now, I must note that the initial phases of retreat on the space station design came right on the heels of the release of The National Commission on Space report, published as a glossy book chock full of expansive space vistas that offered an even grander vision than von Braun’s, one that built on the original 1969 recommendation but added additional wondrous technologies such as aerospace planes and space tethers. 11 (It’s no coincidence that the chairman of this commission was none other than Thomas Paine.) This group of dignitaries (Neil Armstrong, Luis Alvarez, Chuck Yeager, Gerard K. O’Neill, and Jean Kirkpatrick among them) proclaimed a bold future that would exploit potentially unlimited resources through lunar and asteroid mining as American democracy and commerce took hold across the solar system. (Numerous other reports and studies followed, but none painted as grand a vista as Pioneering the Space Frontier.)

Three years later, before the space station got de-scoped a second time and during the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the first Moon landing, the next president stepped forward and proposed making this expansive vision manifest as official policy with the Space Exploration Initiative. Unfortunately, when NASA came back with an expected price tag, the Congress and the proposing President, George H. W. Bush, got sticker shock… and SEI evaporated as quickly as a cancelled science fiction TV show. 12 Subsequently, the space station got descoped three more times and Russia came on board as one of the space station partners amid the post-Cold-War geopolitical debris of the 1990s.

So, on the 20th anniversary of the first Moon landing, we were on our way to Mars; by the 25th, we were on our way to Moscow. But NASA and the American space program slowly gathered its resolve to make the most of what remained of That Which Might Have Been: a fragile but highly capable earth-to-orbit reusable shuttle (we had lost Challenger immediately prior to publication of the Paine Commission report), and an orbiting laboratory design that all but excluded (because of its limited hardware and high-inclination orbit) direct servicing support of any future exploration operations. On-orbit delivery and assembly of this International Space Station commenced in 1998 and continued apace until early 2003 when Columbia was lost.

page 2: hope returns amid tragedy >>