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Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two

by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, February 23, 2004

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.

The Space Council and NASA go to war

Some members of the National Space Council were shocked by NASA’s response to Bush’s challenge. The council convened a special blue-ribbon panel to review this and several other proposed plans. The committee consisted both of space experts like Carl Sagan, Buzz Aldrin and policy analyst John Logsdon, as well as others brought on to add intellectual diversity to the panel, such as Edward Teller and Tom Clancy. Clancy later boasted to the Washington Post about his influence over Quayle and his dislike of NASA, and claimed that he had talked Quayle out of allowing NASA to conduct the mission.

One of the alternative plans that the panel heard about came from Lowell Wood, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore and protégé of Edward Teller who was known as the creator of Brilliant Pebbles, a plan for a fleet of space-based missile interceptors that had produced much artwork but little hardware. Wood had previously pitched a radical space exploration plan at an academic conference a year before. Wood’s proposal involved inflatable spacecraft and the use of other unconventional techniques. It would have bypassed NASA completely and relied on ignoring traditional government procurement procedures. Wood’s estimate was that a program using his approach and including both Moon and Mars missions could be done for around $10 billion in 10 years, albeit with substantially increased risk. One calculation was that there was a 10% chance of a fatality during the flights, which Wood considered acceptable, although observers noted that he would not be flying on the mission. One critic in NASA labeled Wood’s inflatable spacecraft plan “Brilliant Condoms.”

Faced with NASA’s $541 billion proposal on the one hand and Wood’s significantly cheaper proposal on the other, the panel determined that more study was needed. Many members were also critical of NASA for what they viewed as the totally unrealistic approach in the 90-Day Study. The panel recommended that the National Academy of Sciences study the issue further.

Wood’s proposal involved inflatable spacecraft and the use of other unconventional techniques. One critic in NASA labeled Wood’s inflatable spacecraft plan “Brilliant Condoms.”

Wood had no established track record at producing affordable space hardware, and his approach was radical and totally unprecedented. There is no reason to believe that it would have cost as little as he claimed or even been workable. But his proposal did demonstrate that there were ideas other than the ones NASA was considering, and that costs might not have to be as high as the agency claimed. A former council staff member later admitted that they used Wood’s proposal to “scare the pants off of NASA,” not because it was necessarily realistic.

In fact, Wood had a small group of ideological followers who circulated between the National Space Council and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). They felt that space exploration did not have to be nearly as expensive as NASA claimed. They soon began looking for innovative ways of making this point.

By early 1990 Bush submitted a new NASA budget to Congress which called for a 24% increase in funding, much of it to pay for space station development. NASA was one of the few agencies to actually receive an increase in funds. In the same budget, the Office of Management and Budget projected a $100 billion federal deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, projected a $138 billion federal budget deficit.

Despite the strong criticism Bush faced from both the Congress and the press after he proposed his plan, and despite the fact that NASA continued to demonstrate an unwillingness both to establish clear priorities and search for innovative ways of achieving Bush’s goals, the president did not back away from SEI immediately. Bush made a speech in May 1990 at Texas A&M University in support of his new initiative, establishing 2019 as the goal for a human landing on Mars. When faced with a funding setback in the House in early June 1990, Bush indicated that he intended to fight for SEI. He declared that SEI was important to him, which in many ways made it a bigger target for his opponents.

By late June 1990 Congress zeroed out NASA’s SEI budget.

Outreach and the search for lower costs

In May 1990, at the impetus of the National Space Council, NASA created Project Outreach to appeal for suggestions from outside the agency about how best to conduct SEI. The RAND Corporation was hired to gather the materials from the public. The panel appointed to collate the proposals was known as the Synthesis Group and was chaired by former astronaut and retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford. Project Outreach was a clear indication of the council’s total lack of confidence in NASA’s approach to SEI. NASA Administrator Truly was opposed to Project Outreach and feared that it undercut his authority.

Other factors also intervened to damage SEI. One of the major problems reportedly was that Truly actively campaigned in private against a program that his boss, the President of the United States, had endorsed in public. Truly was motivated by concern that SEI posed a threat to both the space shuttle and the space station. Rumors soon surfaced that Truly regularly told members of Congress behind closed doors that he did not support the new space goals.

The Augustine Committee initially placed human exploration last on the list of missions that NASA should conduct, which would have been a stunning slap at Bush and the National Space Council. Quayle, Albrecht and others objected and so the listing was eliminated from the final report.

In addition, other factors damaged NASA’s image. In the summer of 1990 the agency suffered a series of setbacks, including hydrogen leaks on the space shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope’s flawed mirror. The press began to ask how NASA could explore the Moon and Mars if the agency could not properly check a telescope mirror or get its shuttles off the ground. These problems prompted Mark Albrecht, the council’s executive secretary, to urge Quayle to call for an outside review of the space program. The review, the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, was headed by the Chairman of Martin Marietta, Norman Augustine. The Augustine Committee issued its report in December 1990, concluding that the civilian space program was not in such bad shape as its critics charged, but did urge that the space program be refocused to make science the center of NASA’s mission.

The Augustine Committee relabeled SEI “Mission From Planet Earth,” and did not strongly endorse it. In fact, as Quayle later revealed in his memoirs, the Augustine Committee initially placed human exploration last on the list of missions that NASA should conduct, which would have been a stunning slap at Bush and the National Space Council. Quayle, Albrecht and others objected and so the listing was eliminated from the final report. What the Augustine committee did do was to propose that NASA adopt a “go as you pay” approach to human exploration of the solar system rather than an open-ended 30- or 34-year plan, and only propose projects that could reasonably expect to be funded. The committee also recommended that NASA consolidate its exploration efforts into a single program-level Office of Exploration (replacing the previous Office of Exploration that served merely as an advisory office under the Administrator). This new office would be headed by an Associate Administrator for Exploration.

In early 1991 Truly named Michael Griffin as the new Associate Administrator for Exploration. Griffin came to NASA after a successful stint in SDIO, which for a period during the late 1980s and early 1990s had essentially been running its own small space program. But although Griffin brought a new approach to SEI, a “smaller, faster, cheaper” approach, he had a hard time selling that approach to Congress for numerous reasons, including the fact that by 1991 Congress no longer trusted NASA or the White House with anything having to do with further human space exploration beyond the projects already funded. Griffin also failed to communicate well with the head of NASA’s Office of Space Science and Applications, Leonard Fisk, and they both ended up proposing redundant programs on Capitol Hill.

In the summer of 1991—two years after Bush had initiated the Space Exploration Initiative—Stafford’s Synthesis Group issued its report which in some ways was a further disappointment to SEI proponents. America at the Threshold was another glossy study illustrated by Robert McCall. It was focused more upon architecture and infrastructure—the ways of conducting exploration missions—rather than the why, or the ways of significantly reducing the costs.

Because they considered Earth-orbit construction too risky, the Synthesis Group stated that both Mars and lunar missions required a heavy lift launch vehicle on the order of the Saturn V—an expensive undertaking. Furthermore, the report strongly favored the use of nuclear propulsion to send humans to Mars. In essence, what the Synthesis Group said was that although the original, highly unrealistic SEI plan did not need to be followed, and less ambitious goals could be substituted at first, there still were no inexpensive routes either back to the Moon or Mars. NASA did not have the right approach to SEI, but there were no truly groundbreaking technologies even outside of NASA that would make human exploration of the Moon and Mars possible at low cost.

The release of the Synthesis Group’s report in summer 1991 led Space Council Chairman Dan Quayle to state that the end of the shuttle program was in sight. This resulted in a minor public spat with Truly, who was still advocating purchasing a fifth space shuttle in addition to the one already on order to replace the Challenger. Truly refuted the Vice President and claimed that NASA had no plans to end the shuttle program.

The public dispute between Truly and Quayle was only the tip of the iceberg, because by this time Space Council staffers had determined that Truly was a major obstacle to transforming the agency into a bureaucracy capable of achieving future space exploration. They were now actively attempting, apparently without Quayle’s knowledge, to get President Bush to fire him. Several of these efforts failed, primarily because Truly was skilled at playing the Washington political game.

Space Council staffers had determined that Truly was a major obstacle to transforming the agency into a bureaucracy capable of achieving future space exploration. They were now actively attempting, apparently without Quayle’s knowledge, to get President Bush to fire him.

Furthermore, the reputation of the space agency worsened at this time. There were problems with both the Galileo space probe and a NASA-managed project to build the United States’ next generation of weather satellites, not to mention continued management and design problems with the space station. In the spring of 1992 Bush finally did fire Truly in a messy and embarrassing way. The person the National Space Council got to replace him was Dan Goldin, who also brought the new “smaller faster better” management approach to the agency. By this time, though, the point was moot. SEI was totally discredited. Even small lunar probes conducting legitimate science about the Moon were canceled by Congress.

Some at the Space Council had also begun their own efforts to shake up the NASA establishment, often through backdoor channels. In early 1992 several former Space Council staffers initiated the Clementine spacecraft under the sponsorship of SDIO. Although officially intended to demonstrate technologies necessary for space-based missile defense, the spacecraft’s proponents had ulterior motives, intending to use the inexpensive probe to embarrass NASA officials by gathering science data from lunar orbit at a fraction of the cost of a typical NASA mission. In 1994 Clementine did exactly this. That existence proof and the new philosophy of “faster better cheaper” initiated by Dan Goldin, led to a substantial reform of NASA’s robotic spaceflight effort. But by this time the Republicans had lost the White House and future human space exploration plans were dead.

After the fall

After it was clear to virtually everyone that SEI was dead, the space agency began taking some steps towards outlining cheaper alternatives to achieving initial parts of the lunar goal, starting by scaling back the initial goals of the policy from immediately establishing permanent human presence on the Moon to extended stays on its surface. Associate Administrator Griffin unveiled the First Lunar Outpost, or FLO, proposal in 1992. FLO would return a four-person crew to the lunar surface for a 45-day stay, rather than starting to build a lunar base from the start. The scientist-astronauts would conduct astronomical and geochemical experiments as well as evaluate the use of lunar materials for on-site support of future missions. FLO would still require a Saturn V class booster and would still have a hefty price tag—eventually calculated at about $25 billion to achieve the initial missions in a decade. About half of this amount would go for rocket development. Furthermore, FLO was a “go as you pay” approach, since it was only the initial step to a permanent return to the Moon, not a giant, hundred billion dollar leap. Had FLO been proposed back in summer 1989 rather than three years later, the Space Exploration Initiative might have had a greater chance of success.

By the time NASA unveiled FLO the presidential election was in full swing. Bush lost that election and in January 1993 William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as his successor. During the early months of the Clinton administration Dan Goldin’s future at the space agency was in doubt and he faced open revolt from several of the agency’s top civil servants.

Had FLO been proposed back in summer 1989 rather than three years later, the Space Exploration Initiative might have had a greater chance of success.

After it was clear that Goldin would remain at the space agency—if only because the new administration could find nobody to replace him—Goldin devoted his attention to securing a commitment from Clinton to the space station, and to bringing Russia into the program. He was ultimately successful at both of these efforts. After the embarrassing failure of the expensive Mars Observer spacecraft in fall 1993, Goldin was able to substantially overhaul robotic planetary exploration and introduce “faster better cheaper” development techniques into the agency’s robotic efforts.

The quest for cheaper space exploration

Because FLO had been intended to serve as a baseline, and it was now clear to industry that cheaper alternatives to NASA’s projects were necessary, in spring of 1993 the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics held a one-day conference on low-cost lunar access. Various contractors proposed methods of sending humans to the Moon for less cost than NASA’s FLO proposal. General Dynamics had the most detailed plan, which would have used two Titan 4 launches and two shuttle launches to place a two-person crew on the lunar surface for several weeks.

But many of these proposals faced an unfortunate conundrum: the largest launch vehicles in the American fleet, the space shuttle and Titan 4, were still not big enough for even dual-launch lunar operations. Even if the shuttle carried part of the spacecraft into orbit and then rendezvoused with another part carried into orbit atop a Titan 4, the performance margins were so tight that they would force safety compromises. A third launch would add significant cost and complexity. There were no easy solutions that did not require, for instance, a new rocket vehicle with greater power than either shuttle or the Titan IV.

In addition, the entire political environment that had framed American space policy for decades was changing. With the Cold War over, competition with the remnants of the Soviet Union turned to cooperation. Soon NASA’s budget was being cut as the Clinton administration sought to use the money elsewhere. In 1989 President Bush had declared that his goal was to achieve American preeminence in space. That goal could now be achieved at far less cost because nobody was challenging American space preeminence.

In 1989 President Bush had declared that his goal was to achieve American preeminence in space. That goal could now be achieved at far less cost because nobody was challenging American space preeminence.

There were other proposals that sprouted from the failure of SEI. In 1990 Martin Marietta engineers Robert Zubrin and David Baker produced an innovative plan for a Mars mission called Mars Direct. Most of the concepts used for Mars Direct dated from earlier NASA research, and the project at Martin Marietta was initiated by the company to secure SEI contracts. Throughout the 1990s Zubrin worked tirelessly as a zealous advocate of the plan, which he claimed would be significantly cheaper than NASA’s more conventional Mars approach. Another lunar proposal developed within NASA in 1993 called LUNOX also would have used in situ resources to lower costs compared to the First Lunar Outpost, to $19.6 billion. Its primary benefit was that it no longer required a Saturn V class launch vehicle.

Starting in 1995 NASA administrator Dan Goldin challenged industry and NASA personnel to develop a manned lunar landing spacecraft under a “faster better cheaper” approach. This effort was labeled Human Lunar Return, or HLR, and had a tight schedule, calling for a human landing on the Moon by 2001. The plan that agency personnel produced called for developing precursor technologies that would also be used after the initial landing and would have a total cost of $4.17 billion. Not included in this cost, however, were the launch costs, which would have been significant—11 large Titan 4 class launch vehicles, two Delta 2 class launch vehicles, and one Taurus-class launch vehicle, plus several shuttle launches. Those launch costs would have at least doubled the overall cost.

Goldin was unhappy with the costs and wanted his people to bring them down substantially. This forced a revision of the plan that further cut safety margins. But by 1996 the entire effort was abandoned as Goldin and NASA turned more attention to robotic Mars exploration and the problems of the space station and the shuttle.

The initial HLR estimates were far cheaper than the SEI costs only six years before and in fact cheaper than the First Lunar Outpost costs of 1992. However, as one observer has noted, during this period NASA’s cost estimates for human spaceflight were notoriously unreliable and it is doubtful that the project could have been pursued at anywhere close to these estimates. Still, the space agency has produced many plans for lunar missions that would not even cost $100 billion.

Once the HLR effort was abandoned in 1996 NASA continued to conduct internal studies of human Mars and lunar exploration, such as the Mars Design Reference Mission in 1997 and Project NEXT in 2002. But nobody at NASA pretended that these were anything other than viewgraph engineering.

Déjà vu all over again?

There is no way to view the Space Exploration Initiative as anything other than a policy failure. For whatever reasons, President George H.W. Bush approved the policy without even a basic assurance that NASA was capable—and willing—to conduct it. Even if Congress had been inclined to fund new human exploration missions, the agency provided no indications why it could be trusted to conduct them. All indications are that the Space Council did a poor job both of warning Bush of the problems implementing the plan, and providing NASA with proper guidance on how the project was to be conducted, particularly the need to keep the costs manageable.

SEI’s legacy was not entirely negative, however. It did help to discredit the Apollo paradigm and highlighted the need for management reforms—and personnel changes—at the civilian space agency. The ridiculous cost estimates also led to greater attention on cost and performance at the space agency, and eventually the adoption of new management philosophies to achieve them.

For whatever reasons, President George H.W. Bush approved the policy without even a basic assurance that NASA was capable—and willing—to conduct it. Even if Congress had been inclined to fund new human exploration missions, the agency provided no indications why it could be trusted to conduct them.

There are some parallels between the new space plan laid out by President George W. Bush in January 2004 and that endorsed by his father in July 1989. Both presidents endorsed the plans at a time of high federal budget deficits and both plans immediately drew strong partisan and media scorn. In addition, in both cases NASA had a bad reputation for managerial problems. Finally, both presidents embraced lunar and Mars exploration goals together rather than clearly selecting one over the other.

But there are also many significant differences between the two time periods. Unlike his father, George W. Bush does not face a Congress controlled by the opposition party. NASA is also not threatened institutionally by the new policy, because agency leaders now accept that both the space shuttle and space station will end and the new goals will replace them. In addition, although the costs of the plan remain unclear, a method of funding it is more clear—ending both the shuttle and space station programs will eventually free up money to pursue other human spaceflight efforts; the only question is when this will happen and whether or not Congress will choose to divert the money elsewhere. Rather than starting with the question of how much the agency would need to accomplish these new goals—as it did back in 1989—NASA started with how much the agency could realistically expect to have available. The agency also has more flexible options in space launch—the Delta 4 and Atlas 5, for instance, can theoretically be upgraded to significantly more powerful boosters. In addition, NASA also has much more efficient ways of conducting robotic precursor missions than it did in 1989, freeing up money for the human projects.

But, perhaps most importantly of all, the current president does not face the active opposition of the space agency’s leadership and a conflict between NASA and its own policy makers.


Dwayne A. Day is a Washington, DC based space policy analyst.

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