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ESAS illustration
The Space Shuttle and Space Station were originally conceived as elements of an integrated space exploration architecture, but political expediency and budget limitations reshaped them until they could no longer support that architecture. Will Constellation’s Ares, Orion, and Altair suffer a similar fate? (credit: NASA)

Somewhat as a clamor in the wilderness

<< page 1: the tortured history of our future

Hope returns amid tragedy

This second shuttle catastrophe prompted a re-evaluation of US space policy that brought new hope to the faithful. President George W. Bush, in his January 2004 speech introducing the Vision for Space Exploration, once again offered the promise of mankind’s expansion into the solar system with a tantalizing long-term commitment to explore and exploit a realm stretching from near-Earth space to the planet Mars and beyond. He made it clear that our initial focus, a return to the Moon, would serve as an essential stepping stone to grander voyages and he was careful (certainly in light of what had happened to SEI) to label the effort “a journey, not a race,” designed from the start as a go-as-you-pay program.

We all anxiously awaited NASA’s engineering answer to the President’s bold proclamation of vision. One worrisome development during those intervening 18 months was that NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who had helped bring about the VSE using his skills as an experienced Washington insider, resigned before implementation could begin. But we all breathed a sigh of relief when we learned who would replace him: Michael Griffin, one of our own, an engineer with an incredible list of space industry achievements on his résumé.

After waiting more than thirty years for the long-promised future of a coherent, integrated, permanent architecture that would open up the solar system to humankind, Griffin delivered (his actual words) “Apollo on Steroids.”

It was almost too good a combination: O Keefe, disparagingly tagged a beancounter by many of NASA’s technical people but actually a deft master of Washington-style give-and take (comparisons to James Webb were inevitable), had done an impressive job of guiding the White House as it formulated the necessary big-picture policy. 13 Now Griffin, the engineering wunderkind, would be able to guide the nuts-and-bolts implementation of that vision. We waited in mounting anticipation while Griffin’s summer-long Exploration Systems Architecture Study took place, the results of which would lay the technical foundation for how we were finally going to conquer the solar system. We knew it would unfold gradually—the President had made that clear—but at least we knew that our dreams were in good hands.

ESAS: That’s it?

On September 19, 2005, Michael Griffin rolled out the highly anticipated ESAS results at a press conference with a—let’s just say—less-than-enthusiastic delivery. The press and the public reacted with a—let’s just say—less-than-enthusiastic response. “Unimpressed” would be an overstatement. With the future of the solar system at stake, how could this possibly be?

Regardless of any underlying technical reality (I’ll address that below), in terms of perception Griffin presented us with Apollo all over again. “Back to the Moon” sums up the general impression of his pitch; if a grander vision of space exploration was up there on the stage with him, he kept it in the shadows behind his chair.

He provided little context regarding how the return to the Moon would serve as the initial piece of a much grander strategy. For example: he mentioned Mars primarily in the context of payload requirements that sized Ares 5; he never mentioned asteroids or other specific possible destinations; he barely touched on exploiting lunar resources; when discussing the lunar lander’s methane/liquid oxygen engine choice (since discarded), he didn’t even mention that the relatively unusual propellant combination was pointing towards eventual Mars in-situ resource utilization. And long-term reusability, that incredible milestone achieved through such painful hardship in the development and operation of the space shuttle and with which the public had become familiar, was cast aside as inconsequential.

And the folks on the inside—the scientists and engineers who down through the years had contributed to or had thoroughly studied the many architecture options for advancing space exploration—how did they react?

With groans of disappointment. After waiting more than thirty years—three decades—for the long-promised future of a coherent, integrated, permanent architecture that would open up the solar system to humankind, Griffin delivered (his actual words) “Apollo on Steroids.” Was it any surprise that more than a few of the faithful were unimpressed?

Deputy Administrator Shana Dale’s announcement the following year of NASA’s intent to focus lunar activities on construction of a lunar outpost at the Moon’s south pole did nothing to remove this stigma, nor did the release of additional information detailing how the ESAS team had worked backwards from Mars to define the requirements for the Ares 5 booster and the CEV. It was simply too late; what remained anchored in everybody’s mind was the image of a limited program for lunar exploration, not the establishment of the first essential pieces that would enable long-term exploration of the solar system. And quite inexplicably, the lion’s share of exploration material published by NASA (web sites, videos, press briefings) since the ESAS rollout in 2005 has reinforced this lunar-centric perception. “Apollo on Steroids,” indeed.

Now, let me make clear that this less-than-enthusiastic response isn’t a space-constituency-wide rejection of going back to the Moon, though a few voices in the media have been suggesting such an angle. Lunar exploration in its own right is far from complete, and the scientific and resource potential of the Moon is immense (See “A Moon full of opportunity”, The Space Review, January 22, 2007). Besides, anyone who has the slightest understanding of engineering and its history (or has merely seen footage of the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge collapse) recognizes the danger of reaching too far beyond the state of the art 14 and thus appreciates that building and operating an outpost on the Moon (three days and 240,000 miles away) before venturing on to Mars (many months and millions of miles away) is the safe, logical, and even economical way to go. Too many people forget the Gemini Program; relatively modest in its expense, its contributions to the success of Apollo in terms of operational lessons learned are undeniable. 15

My greatest fear is that the current designs are too highly susceptible to downsizing or descoping by the policymakers who will inevitably step forward with new priorities or restrictions.

No, I believe that this underlying, seething dissatisfaction we see boiling in the blogs and bubbling up into the mainstream press is a variation on McCurdy’s thesis: reality has fallen far short of expectations. But this time, the expectations aren’t held by folks who had merely sat enthralled by von Braun’s colorful explanations on Disney television. Many in this disappointed crowd have participated in engineering analyses during the past thirty years (all reviewed by the ESAS team), they fully appreciate the political and economic realities constraining our efforts today, and they know that viable, possibly better alternatives exist beyond the three primary modes available to Apollo’s designers four decades ago. Claiming in defense of ESAS that the Apollo team “got it right the first time” rings a bit hollow in the ears of those who have themselves explored many viable alternatives that offer the potential to “make it better,” especially since future long-term outpost-oriented space exploration will be more akin logistically to today’s Antarctica research than to our initial forays to the Moon all those years ago.

Their skepticism is reinforced by the manpower question: it took 700 people a million man-hours to settle on LOR (granted, they were using slide rules back then). Could a team of less than 50 people working for a mere three months truly cull the best possible alternative for establishing the foundation of a solar system exploration infrastructure from four decades’ (they reviewed the Mode decision as well) worth of engineering analysis? Was that even enough time to ensure proper criteria for the trade study matrices?

Engineering versus communication

In 1962, after Administrator Webb and his team announced the selection of LOR for Apollo, all dissent inside the agency came to a halt while disagreement in some outside quarters faded away within two months. While the now-legendary strength of NASA’s leadership back then played its role, Houbolt’s side triumphed and Wiesner’s side folded primarily because the technical merits of LOR were so compelling and crystal-clear. And, best of all, LOR was astoundingly elegant in its operational simplicity.

I doubt few even on the ESAS team (unless they harbor a deep nostalgic affection for Apollo) would consider their EOR-LOR solution elegant or simple. Perhaps the political-programmatic labyrinth through which they had to weave was too convoluted to achieve engineering elegance. Yet even if the numbers overwhelmingly prove, per properly defined trade study criteria, that the proposed architecture is truly the best way to start off an integrated space plan for exploring the solar system, NASA hasn’t been terribly successful at conveying this either to the industry or the public, a fact undeniably demonstrated by a lingering rancor out there so intense that Griffin felt obligated to address it two and a half years after the plan’s rollout.

Simple questions. Simple answers?

In that recent speech defending ESAS, Administrator Griffin provided a slightly better recast of what he had said at the initial rollout back in late 2005. He explained more deftly how the hardware components that ESAS recommended were designed primarily with Mars, asteroid, and Earth-Sun Lagrangian point exploration in mind but had to be compromised to meet government policy dictates which required the hardware to be shuttle-derived and capable of servicing low Earth orbit, as well as ensure global lunar access. Unfortunately, Griffin’s speech left some important questions unanswered and, if mentioned in the ESAS report, were dismissed with sparse justification. The answers may be so obvious that he and they chose not to address them, but I’d like to offer up two particular question pairs because they touch collectively on the vital issue of public perception (i.e., looking back versus looking forward) that will ultimately determine the Constellation program’s sustainability:

Why was there an apparent unwritten prohibition against any in-space supporting infrastructure, such as refueling/refurbishment depots for space-based aerobraking orbital transfer vehicles or space tether momentum-transfer facilities in Earth orbit, lunar orbit, or at any of the five Earth/Moon Lagrangian points? How does launch of all hardware from the Earth’s surface (historically the most bottleneck-prone aspect of space operations) on every single flight contribute to the long-term viability of supporting a (presumably) growing outpost on the lunar surface that should in time provide in-situ resources, including rocket propellant?

Why are we choosing to throw away so much multi-million-dollar hardware (e.g., the Earth Departure Stage, the Orion Service Module, the Altair lander stages) with each and every flight to the Moon, when we spent the last thirty-five years of shuttle development and operations advancing the technologies of reusable spacecraft? What criteria determined that this disposable toss-as-you-go scheme was the optimum way to establish a long-term space exploration architecture robust enough to support continued operations on the lunar surface, asteroid exploration, and eventual manned Mars missions?

As I noted, perhaps these questions have straightforward answers, and the months-long analysis back in 2005 did successfully cast a wide-enough net to ensure that, yes, the ESAS architecture is the optimum means of paving an adequate technological path toward long-term, far-reaching, sustainable space exploration. I’m certainly open-minded enough to acknowledge that the specified architecture doesn’t inherently prevent the engineers from designing Ares, Orion, Altair, and the lunar outpost (Armstrong Base?) such that they can evolve toward more elegant configurations incorporating advanced technologies that will permit—even optimize—long-term operations.

Just enough rope?

But my greatest fear is that the current designs are too highly susceptible to going the other way, to downsizing or descoping by the policymakers who will inevitably step forward with new priorities or restrictions. We (NASA, Congress, the White House—the whole techno-politico-industrial mish-mosh) have a long, sad history of backfilling well-conceived, forward-thinking space architectures with compromised, limited designs squeezed out of the engineers by politicians wielding political expediency and penny-wise/pound-foolish budget consciousness as their thrashing rods. At nearly every opportunity to significantly shape and advance space development and exploration, the then-current administration or congress did exactly this, leaving future administrations, congresses, and NASA administrators to pick up the pieces or discard them entirely. Both the space shuttle and space station were originally conceived as essential components of a larger, sustainable exploration architecture; current policy calls for abandoning them both. Why? Because their designs became, under the compromising influence of the powers-that-were, unsuitable for supporting their original exploration objectives.

History records only one NASA administrator who had the opportunity to achieve a vision as originally conceived that built for the future and weathered (in large part) the winds of political interference and compromise. James Webb and his team recognized the opportunity presented by the convergence of Sputnik, Gagarin, Kennedy, Johnson, and the mood of the American people in the early 1960s to build a truly substantial beginning for all our future endeavors. When NASA was making the Mode Decision for Apollo and John Houbolt was championing LOR, Webb and his team were intentionally building 16 a robust, nationwide infrastructure that enabled (and, forty-five years later, is still enabling) our country to accomplish truly spectacular achievements in space, achievements that have reached far beyond the original policy that directed NASA to place someone on the Moon. The shuttle and space station programs are using some of that technological investment today; current plans slate Constellation to use it tomorrow.

Are we confident the ESAS-defined architecture is that robust? Will the currently planned hardware suite be capable of serving our nation four decades or more? Do our current political leaders appreciate the decades-deep historical importance of the choices they are forcing on our engineers today?

I hope so.

Perception? Pah!

But those questions speak ultimately to hardware issues. My specific questions listed further above regarding the ESAS analyses actually go to the heart of a resource on which Dr. Griffin seemingly doesn’t place much value: public perception. “Too much like Apollo” is genuinely a criticism about impressions, not engineering. But as McCurdy’s analysis makes plain, it is perception by the public, and not engineering optimization, which will ultimately define a government program’s sustainability. And in the matter of public perception, NASA’s ESAS effort has been a dismal failure.

Regardless of the technical merits or shortcomings of the actual ESAS architecture, the depth of passion attached to this persistent debate is an unmistakable sign that NASA’s presentation of it, their “sales pitch,” has fallen short. With so much skepticism remaining on the inside among those who truly want the Vision for Space Exploration to succeed and who understand the technical challenges it represents, imagine just how weak the message reaching the public has become.

When we lose the public’s interest, when we disengage them from the broader, grander story of what we’re trying to accomplish in space and how our current efforts fit into that larger plan, we lose their support.

“Apollo on Steroids” has been planted so firmly in the minds of the press and the public that students aren’t asking “How does this help us get to Mars?” or “How does Orion support asteroid mining?” but instead ask “Why are we throwing away the shuttle and going back to capsules?” and “Why are we re-doing what they did in the sixties?” The underlying theme conveyed by these questions is just how uninspired they are by the ESAS architecture. Even if all the supporting engineering analysis fully justifies it, the public doesn’t care because they are not being offered the bigger picture, the grander vista. And remember, this is a public fully enamored of the idea of space flight as seen in their devotion to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other diversions that are the thought-provoking, emotion-tugging, inspiration-generating fictional descendants of von Braun’s original 1950s sales pitch that helped pave the way for Apollo.

NASA has failed to engage the public and win over the critics of its architecture because it has stripped the vision out of the Vision for Space Exploration. (Griffin’s recent suggestion that all the disagreement is “all just noise” only demonstrates his apparent ignorance of the true depth and extent of this dissatisfaction.) And this has been, and will continue to be, more damaging than any possible technical shortcomings of the ESAS architecture that the engineers might be forced to address.

When we lose the public’s interest, when we disengage them from the broader, grander story of what we’re trying to accomplish in space and how our current efforts fit into that larger plan, we lose their support. And as history has repeatedly demonstrated, when the public walks away, the politicians follow. Unless we start putting the Constellation components (assuming they survive past January 20 of next year) back into their proper context as the first bricks laid in a fantastically deep and bountiful well, the next generation won’t even have the opportunity to fumble along with any compromised designs that the current generation may impose on them.

If we fail to fix the public’s stunted perception of NASA’s current designs—if we do not re-engage them with the grander vision of how today fits into tomorrow—then all the possibilities, all the potential, all the promise of a sustainable and robust space exploration effort will evaporate, and the skeletons of the current architecture will crumble into dust and blow away on the winds of public indifference.


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10 McCurdy, Howard E., The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice, NASA/Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

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12 Hogan, Thor, Mars Wars: The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative, NASA, 2007.

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16 Swanson, Glen E. (Editor), “Before this Decade is Out…” Personal Reflections on the Apollo Program, Interview with James E. Webb, May 15, 1969, NASA, 1999, University Press of Florida (Paperback Edition) 2002.