The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mars exploration illustration
Just as this dust storm threatened astronauts in this illustration from the SEI period, a storm was brewing over the costs and scope of the program. (credit: NASA)

Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two

Space as political liability

On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing at an extravagant and nationalistic ceremony on the steps of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, President George H.W. Bush praised the Apollo 11 astronauts in front of a giant American flag and models of the lunar lander and Saturn V rocket. “The U.S. is the richest nation on Earth, with the most powerful economy in the world. And our goal is nothing less than to establish the United States as the preeminent spacefaring nation,” Bush said. He declared that the space station was the “critical next step in all our space endeavors.” Then he outlined the basic goals of what the White House called the Space Exploration Initiative, or SEI: “And next, for the new century, back to the Moon, back to the future, and this time back to stay.” But he did not stop there. “And then, a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars.” Those words would lead the evening news and major newspapers the next day.

Bush’s new policy had remained a secret right up until the day before he gave his speech. In fact, Washington Post reporter Kathy Sawyer had reported as recently as a week before his speech that Bush would not announce any bold new space initiatives. But this tight secrecy around the plan collapsed immediately upon its announcement.

NASA’s detailed preliminary cost estimate of the plan, which was never a legitimate cost accounting based upon an approved architecture for achieving these goals, had been produced two weeks before Bush’s speech. It was leaked to Congress and the media the day of his speech and appeared in many of the articles reporting the new initiative. Later a myth would develop that the Johnson Space Center had initially produced a cost estimate of only $100 billion to achieve the Moon and Mars goals. According to this story, somebody had remembered that NASA Administrator James Webb had once doubled the initial Apollo cost estimate to $20 billion, which proved essentially accurate, so they did the same thing and doubled the $100 billion figure to $200 billion (different versions of the story have attributed this first increase to either a JSC official or NASA Administrator Truly). Then, somebody else, unaware of this first increase, also repeated Webb’s management trick and doubled the $200 billion to $400 billion (this is usually attributed either to Truly or to the Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman).

Like all quasi-conspiracy explanations this is story so good that it ought to be true. But it does not stand up to close scrutiny. First, as previously noted, NASA Headquarters had produced its comprehensive cost estimate by early July 1989, complete with various projects broken down into categories over a thirty year period. This 25-page document shows no evidence of such crude math tricks. If the story was true, somebody would have had to go back and rework all the original numbers, maintaining known values such as the cost of civil service labor, and dramatically inflating unknown variables far more than 400% in order to reach the mythical quadrupling of the original estimate. In addition, the costs of a number of the projects listed in this cost estimate, such as a Mars sample return flight (approximately $5 billion in 1989 dollars), are consistent with previously reported costs. Second, NASA was proposing an ambitious effort and it is difficult to believe that all of the things included in this effort would have only cost $100 billion over thirty years—the agency was simply not that efficient. The problem was not with budget shenanigans, it was with NASA adding too many projects to the plan. Finally, after the agency conducted an extensive study of its plans, the numbers were scrubbed again, and this time the $400 billion cost estimate actually increased. The origins of this myth most likely originated with disbelief that the 50% reserve in the initial budget figure was really necessary for such a project.

Later a myth would develop that the Johnson Space Center had initially produced a cost estimate of only $100 billion to achieve the Moon and Mars goals. Like all quasi-conspiracy explanations this is story so good that it ought to be true. But it does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Bush’s speech was widely criticized on Capitol Hill, where both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt quipped, “Mr. President, there’s no such thing as a free launch,” and others blasted the reported $400 billion price tag for such an undertaking. At the time Bush had been enjoying an extended honeymoon period after his inauguration. The high costs of this bold plan provided a means for his critics to try and bring the positive press to an end and portray Bush as someone unconcerned about serious problems on Earth.

Once the goal had been outlined in Bush’s July speech, it had to be further defined and translated into actual programs and spending plans. Presidents also cannot simply endorse large projects and then expect the executive branch to enact them. The president must be a strong advocate of the program. Occasionally, his intervention is necessary at key decision points and during major congressional votes. The president must also be willing to expend finite political capital to achieve the goals he values. However, Bush’s plan had immediately become a political liability, providing fuel for his critics. As time went on, the situation did not get better.

Congress reacted to the new plan by immediately zeroing-out parts of NASA’s budget that would develop enabling technologies for future exploration. These efforts, known as Project Pathfinder, had actually been initiated by the Reagan administration, and their cancellation was a shot across the bow warning Bush that he would not have an easy time funding even small parts of this new plan.

Many years later Bush apparently told NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe that he felt he had been poorly served by his advisors when he endorsed the space policy. Although what Bush meant by this is unknown, the planning process had clearly been rushed, and nobody on the National Space Council had apparently warned him about NASA’s willingness or ability to conduct such an ambitious project, although it is hard to believe that Bush was not told about NASA’s $400 billion preliminary cost estimate.

In addition, the White House’s Space Council never had very good relations either on Capitol Hill or with NASA. It was viewed by both, correctly, as an attempt to reassert the White House’s role in developing space policy at the expense of both NASA and Congress. While the concept of a space council had been appealing to members of Congress in the abstract, in reality it proved little different than the process it replaced, for it still wrapped civilian space policy formulation in greater secrecy than members of Congress liked. Furthermore, council staffers reportedly had an antagonistic relationship with congressional staffers, who often complained that they could not even get their phone calls returned.

If Bush had problems with the National Space Council, though, they were nothing compared to the ones he faced with NASA.

The 90-Day disaster

NASA’s immediate response to Bush’s speech was the “90-Day Study,” which was conducted primarily at Johnson Space Center and presented to the National Space Council in November 1989. It was intended to serve as a roadmap for SEI—a list of what to do and when to do it. As a policy document, it proved to be a total disaster.

It is unclear just how much guidance the council gave NASA. In his speech, Bush called for the council to establish realistic timetables and milestones for the next phase of exploration. But all indications are that NASA took Bush’s words about establishing a permanent presence on the Moon to mean that this was the immediate goal. This was a key point, because there was a major difference between starting with simple extended stay missions to the Moon and starting with the construction of a base.

One of the major problems facing NASA was a cultural one, an inability to think of new human spaceflight projects in terms other than the Apollo paradigm. During Apollo, NASA had gotten a huge amount of money and a great deal of autonomy and many at the agency still thought they would conduct SEI in the same manner. They therefore felt no pressure to keep costs under control.

But in addition to the cultural inability of agency personnel to stop thinking in terms of Apollo budgets, NASA, like all government agencies, had to deal with different internal and external constituencies, each clamoring for its own priorities. The space agency’s facilities are spread throughout the country at various field centers, each of which represents different interests such as human spaceflight and robotic exploration, and each having advocates in Congress. In addition, NASA has also had a less obvious rivalry between its scientists, who want to collect data, and its engineers, who want to build equipment. In many ways the 90-Day Study was a reflection of all of these conflicts within the agency, combined with an unwillingness by NASA Headquarters to clearly establish priorities, starting by saying no to some of its constituencies.

The 90-Day Study was intended to serve as a roadmap for SEI—a list of what to do and when to do it. As a policy document, it proved to be a total disaster.

Without strong leadership from Headquarters to establish clear priorities, the 90-Day Study essentially became a shopping list of every program that various NASA constituencies wanted, regardless of whether they were necessary to achieve the new space policy and regardless of how much they would cost. Furthermore, the study did not indicate which parts of the shopping list were necessary and which were merely desirable. As a result, the report contained everything from Lunar Observer, a robotic lunar probe ($700+ million), to a Mars rover/sample return mission ($5-10 billion). It included an early version of MESUR (Mars Environmental SURvey), a distributed network of probes on the Martian surface, using two expensive Titan 4 boosters. But the truly big-ticket items were a permanently occupied lunar base and a Mars base, using both the shuttle and a shuttle-derived heavy lift booster labeled the Shuttle-C (the Shuttle-Z was a bigger alternative vehicle briefly discussed at this time). They would use the space station as a jumping-off point, even though there were many station supporters who warned that this was unnecessary and could jeopardize other station missions.

Some of those involved in the 90-Day Study found the whole planning and costing process bizarre. One of the requirements for the lunar base was a crane for lifting cargo off the landers and depositing it on carts to be wheeled to the base. The price of the crane was $10 billion, or approximately the same as a nuclear powered aircraft carrier and its escorts. One of the more astounding projections in the report called for 14 shuttle flights a year in support of the program, which was greater than the maximum flight rate of nine shuttle flights in a year. In addition, at its peak NASA would launch six or more shuttle-derived vehicles per year. This would have required the construction of an additional large launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

The study also included new cost estimates. The initial cost of establishing a permanent lunar base was $100 billion between 1991 and 2001, with the Mars expedition costing $158 billion between 1991 and 2016, for a total cost of $258 billion. In order to continue operations on the Moon and Mars to 2025, NASA would need an additional $208 billion for the lunar portion and $75 billion for Mars. This was actually a longer timeframe than the original preliminary cost estimate produced in July 1989—34 years as opposed to 30. This would bring the total up to $541 billion. These estimates included a 55% reserve (up from the 50% reserve in the July 1989 preliminary estimate). All of these actions—increasing the number of years in the plan, increasing the complexity, and increasing the reserve—drove the costs ever higher and created the impression within NASA and the White House that the study’s authors were deliberately inflating the costs of achieving the president’s goals.

Today, many members of the media assume that the cost estimates produced by the 90-Day Study represent a realistic and legitimate effort to estimate the costs of a lunar base and Mars mission, rather than a biased and deeply flawed policy process.

It is for this reason that even today journalists refer to the 1989 estimates as running from approximately $400 billion (the preliminary cost estimate, which was widely reported in July 1989) to $550 billion (the 90-Day Study estimate). What they fail to mention, however, is that the assumptions behind all of these figures were questionable at the time and that the costs may have been deliberately inflated by NASA. They also often erroneously report that these large figures were for the Mars effort alone, rather than 30-34 years of both lunar and Mars operations.

Today, fourteen years after this exercise, many members of the media assume that the cost estimates produced by the 90-Day Study represent a realistic and legitimate effort to estimate the costs of a lunar base and Mars mission, rather than a biased and deeply flawed policy process. They routinely cite these figures rather than numerous other cost estimates produced by the agency around the same time. Because NASA has acquired a bad reputation for being able to project costs, the common impulse has been to simply grab the largest numbers NASA ever produced, regardless of their validity, rather than other numbers produced by the agency that were based upon more realistic and less ambitious assumptions.

However, the problems with NASA’s response to Bush’s challenge did not stop with the massive price tag. A well-balanced program plan should have offered the president multiple options with varying price tags and timelines, and clear priorities for projects. Cost should have been one of the primary criteria for the different options. The price could have been substantially reduced by proposing limited stays on the lunar surface and possibly even skipping some steps, like Mars sample return. This would have required somebody at NASA Headquarters to make tough choices about priorities.

But the 90-Day Study only offered the president timeline options, not cost or objective options. It offered five different ways of doing essentially the same massive and expensive mission—like selecting five different ways of paying for a Rolls Royce, rather than looking at cheaper cars. In fact, the only real cost alternative was known as Reference Approach E, which still had a price tag of $471 billion.

The new plan would require doubling NASA’s budget immediately, from about $11 billion a year to $22 billion a year and maintaining it for the next three decades. These were essentially Apollo spending levels without the external threat of a space race to justify them.

With the 90-Day Study NASA had given Bush an ultimatum: conduct SEI like Apollo or not at all.

page 2: the Space Council and NASA go to war >>