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NSRC 2023

CEV and lunar lander
While NASA has explained how it plans to return to the Moon, much of the public is still asking why. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

The reaction to the exploration plan

Two weeks ago NASA unveiled, with a decided lack of pomp and circumstance, its detailed plan for returning humans to the Moon. The Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) described the spacecraft and launch vehicles NASA would need to develop over the next decade-plus to have humans walking on the Moon by 2018. There was, for those who have been following the agency in recent weeks, little new in the ESAS study, from the planned 2018 landing date to the choice of shuttle-derived launch vehicles for launching the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and heavy cargoes.

The purpose of the ESAS was to explain how NASA would return to the Moon, not why: that is supposed to be explained by the overall Vision for Space Exploration unveiled last January. Yet much of the reaction to the plan has focused not on the technical nuts-and-bolts (so much for the heated debate between EELV- and shuttle-derived launch vehicle designs) but on the reasons for sending humans back to the Moon in the first place, and whether the nation can afford such a program in a time of many competing demands for funding. A review of reaction to the plan, at least in the media, suggests that NASA and its supporters need to do a much better job selling the plan to Congress and the general public if the ESAS has any hope of becoming reality.

Sticker shock

In examining the public reaction to the release of the ESAS report, this author reviewed 58 editorials and columns published in major newspapers and online news publications between September 20 and October 2. This should not be considered an exhaustive examination of the public reaction to NASA’s announcement, but certainly qualifies as a representative sample of that reaction. These responses appeared in a variety of sources, ranging from leading national newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post) to small town papers (McCook (Neb.) Daily Gazette) to college dailies (Univ. of Arizona Daily Wildcat, Univ. of Texas Daily Texan).

Much of the reaction to the plan has focused not on the technical nuts-and-bolts but on the reasons for sending humans back to the Moon in the first place, and whether the nation can afford such a program.

Of the 58 editorials reviewed, just over half—30—had a decidedly negative reaction to NASA’s exploration plans. Of the rest, 16 supported the plan, while the remaining 12 were either neutral or split on the plan, expressing both positive and negative sentiments. Most of that reaction was published in the first week after the ESAS announcement, with a third published within the first three days. However, the reaction continues to roll in: the Washington Post waited until October 2, nearly two full weeks after the announcement, before its editorial page weighed in.

It should be little surprise that in the vast majority of those editorials, the cost of the plan, $104 billion, weighed heavily in their opposition. NASA had the bad luck of unveiling this plan just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans. (Worse, the rollout of the ESAS report came just as another powerful hurricane, Rita, menaced much of the same area; fortunately, the storm weakened and, while causing substantial damage, was far less catastrophic than feared.) With the cost of hurricane relief and reconstruction expected by some to exceed $200 billion, coupled with a large budget deficit and continued expenditures associated with Iraq and Afghanistan, it has created an atmosphere where the public is highly skeptical, at the very least, of any new big-ticket items, even if (as is the case here) that cost is spread out over a decade or more.

“Maybe, in light of rising budget deficits, there really was no good moment for NASA to announce a $104 billion program for the next 13 years to take America back to the moon and possibly to Mars,” wrote the editors of The Day, a New London, Connecticut newspaper, in a September 27 editorial. “But timing for this announcement was not fortuitous, as it came during a month in which the most expensive as well as one of the most destructive hurricanes on record has wiped out towns in three states and caused the destruction of a major American city.” This sentiment was shared in many other editorials around the country.

Virtually every editorial and news report since the ESAS announcement has made mention of that price tag, but far fewer mention that this price is spread out over at least 13 years, and even fewer mention that NASA intends for the cost of the program to fit within its current budget, with allowances for inflation, over that time. The reaction is a sharp contrast to the original Vision for Space Exploration announcement, when the media floated trillion-dollar cost estimates while NASA and the Bush Administration countered not with its own price tag but the now-infamous “sand chart”, the projection of the NASA budget through 2020 that showed how the exploration program would get a larger and larger share of an essentially static overall agency budget. (At a February 2004 House Science Committee hearing, both then-administrator Sean O’Keefe and presidential science advisor John Marburger, under sustained questioning by one congressman, refused to give a dollar figure for the cost of the program; at one point O’Keefe advised the congressman to “integrate under that curve” of the budget chart to compute the total.)

While current administrator Michael Griffin wins points for being straightforward about the projected costs of the program, it appears that this price tag has become a target for anyone, from Democrats who would rather see the money spent reconstructing New Orleans to fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party who would rather see the money not spent at all. “The government is running massive deficits and the president refuses to rescind any of the enormously generous -- to be kind -- tax cuts to the richest Americans,” wrote the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin on September 20. “This is no time to be playing astronaut.”

“The government is running massive deficits and the president refuses to rescind any of the enormously generous -- to be kind -- tax cuts to the richest Americans,” wrote the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin on September 20. “This is no time to be playing astronaut.”

A related issue to that price tag, and whether that money would be better used elsewhere, is a nagging suspicion among many that the program will end up costing much more than $104 billion. Past experience, particularly with the ISS, leads many to wonder just how much more expensive the program will become. In its Sunday editorial, the Washington Post voices that concern: “We’d be more willing to finance this sliver [of the budget] if we didn't suspect it would ultimately grow into a hefty slice -- or risk being wasted altogether.”

That concern is not without justification. A Congressional Budget Office report on the original Vision for Space Exploration plans, published just over a year ago, projected that NASA would need 33% more than what it forecast then—$95 billion through 2020—to carry out the Vision. (See “Estimating the cost of the vision”, The Space Review, September 7, 2004) This problem is not endemic to NASA alone: the same CBO report found that both NASA and the Defense Department have similar cost-growth rates for their programs. However, the mainstream media tends to focus, and even exaggerate, the cost growth of high-profile NASA programs like the station, causing many to doubt the agency’s latest cost estimates from the ESAS report.

Why go?

A more fundamental issue associated with the reaction to the plan is that NASA has not done a good job explaining why we should spend any sizable amount of money—$104 billion or otherwise—to send humans back to the Moon. Since last January the agency, along with its supporters in industry and the activism community, have had the opportunity to impress upon the public the reasons why it is important to resume human exploration of the Moon and beyond. It would appear that they had some success in Congress, winning full funding for the exploration program in the 2005 budget and getting strong support in the 2006 budget as it winds its way through Congress. However, reaction to the ESAS announcement suggests that much of the public remains unconvinced.

To some, the ESAS plan promised to boldly go where we had gone decades before, in a manner very much like the original Apollo programs: an uncompelling vision, particularly at a cost of over $100 billion. “The retro feel of the exercise is somehow disappointing,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted on September 21. “[F]or the average American paying an estimated $108 billion to get back to the moon in several years longer than it took after President John F. Kennedy set the goal for the 1960s, there may be a letdown in the realization we have advanced no farther than the 1969-72 destination in space travel.”

The Miami Herald echoed those sentiments, noting its problem with the plan was not that it was too ambitious but that it was not ambitious enough. “This is news that should elicit a collective Y-A-W-N all across America. A moon mission? We’ve been there and done that… Where is NASA’s adventurous spirit to go boldly where no human has gone before?”

“This is news that should elicit a collective Y-A-W-N all across America,” the Miami Herald concluded. “A moon mission? We’ve been there and done that.”

“The primary question, however, is not whether NASA can accomplish this feat but rather why it would want to,” asks the Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald, in a September 23 editorial that was widely reprinted by other newspapers. “Haven’t we already been to the moon? In fact, didn’t we go there six times, not counting the Apollo 13 flight that came close? And didn’t we find that the moon consists largely of rocks, dust and craters?”

(An aside: Griffin’s description of the plan as “Apollo on steroids” was, in hindsight, perhaps a rather unfortunate choice of words, and not just because people saw this as simply repeating the Apollo program. The term conjured up the controversy about the use of the performance-enhancing drugs by professional athletes, like veteran baseball player Rafael Palmeiro, who was suspended for failing a steroid test just months after declaring at a Congressional hearing that he never used them. “To be on steroids, in this context, means to seek a shortcut to stardom that may provide a few moments of glory but that, in the end, leaves you either banned from the field or a burned-out hulk, wondering if it was all worth it,” the Salt Lake Tribune wrote on September 21. “And that’s just what NASA stands to become if it really believes we can return to the moon by 2018 simply by spending $104 billion siphoned from its other line items.”)

Some editorials expressed skepticism about the ESAS plan that extended to human spaceflight in general. “We are not opposed to space exploration,” explained the editors of the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times in an September 29 editorial criticizing the plan. “In fact, NASA’s budget should be increased to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope, send more unmanned space probes to the planets and their moons, asteroids, comets and beyond the solar system.”

An essay by Dan Neil in the October 2 edition of the Los Angeles Times Magazine makes a similar point. “Good government and the ministries of the space program are not my area of expertise, but given that the shuttle program is hobbled and the future of the ISS is in acute doubt, and given that we have rung up federal deficits large enough to be seen from space, and given the mind-blowing success of vastly cheaper unmanned space exploration—from Hubble to the Mars rovers to the Chandra X-ray Observatory to the recent Deep Impact comet rendezvous—it seems fair to ask why we would send men to the moon. Again. Haven’t we been there, done that?”

“We will always have better ways to spend our money here on earth,” wrote a columnist in a small-town Nebraska paper. “But for my money, there’s no better use of tax dollars than inspiring today’s first graders to do something great.”

On the other hand, some editorials had no problem with sending people back to the Moon—so long as the government wasn’t footing the bill. “What a concept! Let those who are really interested in space travel pay for it rather than seizing money from all taxpayers (some of whom are hardly enthusiastic) and building bloated bureaucracies that design jerry-built behemoths,” the Orange County (Calif.) Register concluded September 22, even while recognizing that the entrepreneurs it embraces, like Burt Rutan and Richard Branson, are still a long way from building spacecraft capable of lunar journeys.

Building support

The news, of course, isn’t all bad: as noted above, many editorials expressed support for the exploration plan. That support included newspapers in areas like Florida and Alabama, with much to gain from the implementation of the ESAS plan, but also from newspapers large and small around the country. Some noted the spinoffs that have come from NASA to date, while others saw the Moon as a steppingstone to the eventual exploration of Mars. The Harrisburg (Penn.) Patriot-News called the plan “practical and efficient”. The Indianapolis Star noted, “Space exploration has yielded discoveries and technologies that have created new industries, improved land management techniques, given better understanding of the climate and enabled the U.S. to be more competitive in commercial aviation.” And Bruce Crosby, a columnist for the McCook (Neb.) Daily Gazette, put it this way: “We will always have better ways to spend our money here on earth. But for my money, there’s no better use of tax dollars than inspiring today’s first graders to do something great.”

In the immediate term—the 2006 budget—NASA probably has little to worry about, since the House and Senate have passed versions of the budget that effectively fully fund the agency once again. However, as the budget cycle starts again for 2007 in just a few short months, NASA will have to expect sharp questioning from members of Congress and their constituents about the exploration plan. NASA has done an admirable job providing a first-order answer of how it plans to return to the Moon. The agency now needs to better explain why it deserves in the years to come the tens of billions of dollars needed to turn that plan into rockets, spaceships, and footprints on the Moon.