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L1 gateway station
Many of the exploration proposals considered by the Decadal Planning Team and the later NASA Exploration Team featured the development of a “gateway” station at the Earth-Moon L1 point that would be the jumping-off point for missions elsewhere in the solar system. (credit: NASA/LaRC)

Forging a vision: NASA’s Decadal Planning Team and the origins of the Vision for Space Exploration

Given the current White House’s obsession with secrecy, it is not surprising that little has been written about President Bush’s 2003 decision to pursue the Vision for Space Exploration. What has been written is vague and insubstantial. Whether or not the history of this decision will be better explored in the future depends in part upon how it ultimately develops—if Americans once again return to the Moon late in the next decade, scholars will examine the 2003 decision that started the process. If the plan falters under budget cuts or due to changes in political winds, it may never be researched in depth. Few people pay attention to failed policy initiatives.

Recently two members of NASA’s history office spoke at the National Air and Space Museum about a project that they are undertaking to explore NASA’s contributions to the decision-making that led to the Vision for Space Exploration. Stephen Garber and Glen Asner are researching and writing a monograph about NASA’s Decadal Planning Team, or DPT, which was first created in 1999 and produced a plan for NASA’s future, including plans to send humans beyond low Earth orbit where they had operated for decades. Several of the people who worked on the DPT later interacted with the Bush White House in 2003 during the decision making process that produced the Vision for Space Exploration.

If the plan falters under budget cuts or due to changes in political winds, it may never be researched in depth. Few people pay attention to failed policy initiatives.

NASA has long had an active and impressive history program, although its approach has always been focused more on narrative description than interpretation. Although this article was inspired by Garber and Asner’s talk and reports some of what they said there, it is also based upon new research by the authors (Day and Foust). Any errors or opinions belong to the authors alone.

Sneaking up on Mars

The existence of the Decadal Planning Team was kept a closely-guarded secret at the time, although its work did eventually surface in the fall of 2002 in the form of what NASA called the NASA Exploration Team, or NEXT. However, the DPT’s work and the NEXT exploration architecture have remained essentially an enigma until now, even within NASA itself. As the details of this planning effort emerge, the effort raises many questions, including what role the DPT played in influencing the NASA officials who interacted with the White House in 2003.

What makes the DPT different than previous NASA studies of lunar and Mars exploration conducted in the 1990s is that the operation was initiated by the NASA administrator and based primarily in NASA Headquarters. This was unlike previous studies that were largely conducted at Johnson Space Center in Houston, usually at a relatively low level. The extent to which the project had formal approval from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the White House itself is unclear. However, according to Asner and Garber, the project apparently did receive $5 million in funding from the OMB starting in the FY 2000 budget, and it may have been facilitated by Steve Isakowitz, who was then branch chief of Science and Space Programs at OMB.

According to Asner and Garber, in late 1998 Alan Ladwig, who was then a special advisor to Dan Goldin, undertook a project to look at the future of human spaceflight beyond the International Space Station. However, Ladwig’s project did not progress very far.

In April 1999 Dan Goldin called several of his top officials at NASA to a breakfast meeting. These included his associate administrator (AA) for spaceflight, Joe Rothenberg; his AA for science, Ed Weiler; and Johnson Space Center director George Abbey. Collectively the men represented both the human spaceflight and scientific missions of the civilian space agency. The topic of the meeting was the overall future of NASA and finding a new mission for the agency.

This was not the first time that Goldin had considered this question. Earlier in the 1990s he had initiated the Origins program to orient NASA’s scientific effort toward answering questions about the origins of the universe, the solar system, and life. He had also challenged the agency to produce a low-cost lunar exploration plan and had been disappointed with the results. Now, spurred on by the 1996 discovery of possible evidence of past life on Mars on a Martian meteorite (a discovery that remains controversial and unproven today), and the success of John Glenn’s 1998 space shuttle mission, Goldin wanted to revisit the topic of a new mission for the space agency.

Goldin then conceived the project as a small study group. It was not “secret,” but the project itself was embargoed. Thereafter he often referred to it as “sneaking up on Mars”—to emphasize the need to keep the effort quiet—although Mars was never the primary goal. Goldin told those present that human spaceflight required a strong justification to keep the program going.

What makes the DPT different than previous NASA studies of lunar and Mars exploration conducted in the 1990s is that the operation was initiated by the NASA administrator and based primarily in NASA Headquarters.

After that April meeting, Goldin formed a study team, co-chaired by Jim Garvin and Lisa Guerra. Garvin was a planetary geologist who had been a co-investigator on a number of NASA missions and participated in the development of the so-called “Ride report,” a 1987 effort led by former astronaut Sally Ride that proposed several future directions for NASA, including human exploration of the Moon and Mars. He was also an enthusiastic proponent of scientific discovery, and would later serve as NASA chief scientist. Guerra was an aerospace engineer by training with strong organizational skills. In the early 1990s she had worked on the Space Exploration Initiative’s First Lunar Outpost study at a time when SEI was essentially dead. She was the pragmatic one, whereas Garvin was the visionary. They also had the help of fifteen other people. Starting in June 1999 they had a goal of producing an initial study in six months and presenting it to Weiler, Rothenberg, and all the center directors and associate administrators. They named themselves the Decadal Planning Team, or DPT.


The charter of the DPT stressed that their project would be “science-driven and technology-enabled.” Garvin heavily promoted this concept for human spaceflight, which was a major philosophical shift in the way that NASA justified flying humans in space.

NASA is a large agency with many parts, and it has always had multiple goals and multiple missions. The agency was created in 1958 to assume the civilian spaceflight mission for the United States, and President Eisenhower wanted it to have a strong scientific component. Nevertheless, NASA also inherited a large engineering bureaucracy, as well as a symbolic mission to accomplish impressive tasks and symbolize American technological progress. As the agency evolved, engineering achievement became the primary goal of human spaceflight, and scientific research became the primary goal of robotic spaceflight.

This is not to say that human spaceflight did not have a scientific component—the Apollo lunar landings, although pursued for prestige goals, nevertheless returned substantial scientific information about the Earth’s moon. Similarly, robot probes could fulfill propaganda and engineering goals. But Apollo was primarily a prestige-driven project, another component of the Cold War, and the robots were primarily intended to gather science.

By the shuttle era human spaceflight had only a small scientific component. The shuttle itself was developed as a space truck, to haul payloads in and out of Earth orbit. These included scientific payloads, some of which were operated in the shuttle’s payload bay, such as dedicated life sciences missions. But science did not justify the shuttle.

The space station was started in the first Reagan administration for numerous reasons, including demonstrating that the West was united against the Soviet Union. Scientific discovery was certainly one component of the space station’s justification, but it was only one among several. Later, as the space station evolved, scientific research became a more public—and political—justification for the station, but it was not the primary reason for the project. Science initially influenced, but certainly did not drive the station design, and it was quickly discarded when costs became too high. Despite years of operation, almost no science has been conducted on the space station.

As the agency evolved, engineering achievement became the primary goal of human spaceflight, and scientific research became the primary goal of robotic spaceflight.

When science was associated with human spaceflight, it was narrowly applied to mean primarily the study of human biology in space, and to a lesser extent the study of microgravity and materials, such as crystal growth experiments, combustion, or fluid transfer. But the larger space science community at NASA—and its dependent organizations such as university researchers—have long tended to view life and microgravity science as not part of the “legitimate” space sciences. Indeed, NASA tended to fund these scientific disciplines differently than it did the other space sciences, and their money came from different budgets than other disciplines like astronomy and solar physics.

As a result, the primary justification for human spaceflight through the 1960s and up to the creation of the Decadal Planning Team had been prestige. The United States flew astronauts in space primarily to demonstrate American technological capability, not to achieve scientific results.

As the DPT conducted its work, those participating in it began to develop a new, scientific rationale for human spaceflight. Rather than being used to justify a program after it had been decided upon, science would justify the program from the start, determining what the humans would do in space and why. It was a substantial change from previous approaches to human spaceflight.

The DPT also adopted several other core principles. The team endorsed a plan that would integrate humans and robots working together. This was not entirely new—it is possible to find proposals for robotic astronaut assistants from the 1970s and 1980s—but it was increasingly possible because of new developments in robotic and computing technology. Similar discussions about integrating humans and automated machines were also taking place in the national security field.

Another aspect of the DPT’s proposal came from the 1990 commission headed by Norman Augustine that had reviewed NASA after problems were discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope and shuttle reliability. The Augustine commission had recommended that NASA devote itself to science, achieve sustained 10% annual budget increases, and adopt a pay-as-you-go approach of achieving incremental advances rather than pursuing major new initiatives. The DPT suggested that any new approach to human spaceflight should “buy technology by the yard” rather than seek revolutionary advances. However, another core principle of the group was that the new policy should be as close to budgetarily neutral as possible; it should not require substantial increases in NASA’s overall budget, because such increases were considered unrealistic.

Ed Weiler developed a highway metaphor: NASA would develop technology that would serve as a highway for getting the agency to interesting destinations. The agency would develop infrastructure, but the plan would initially be “destination independent.” Their goal would be to make it possible to go anywhere, including Mars, which many considered the ultimate human spaceflight goal. But actually going there would only be approved after the initial infrastructure was developed.

The group also concluded that “nuclear power was necessary but unpalatable.” Any exploration architecture that they developed could not rely upon nuclear power or propulsion, at least not initially.

Phase One of the project ended in December 1999 and they then started Phase Two, which broadened participation in the group. This is also when the DPT adopted the compartmentation approach to their work—some industry contractors, university researchers, and other NASA employees were enlisted to work on portions of the plan without being told what project they were doing the work for.

“Up until [an October 2000 meeting] Goldin really enjoyed talking with the DPTers,” Garber said one member of the DPT told him in an interview. But at the meeting Goldin “gave them a tremendous amount of grief for stuff that really wasn’t under their control.”

The secrecy was not complete, however. Leonard David, a well-connected reporter who frequently writes about planetary exploration, said that he was aware of the DPT effort. He knew that it was a big project run by Garvin and was “very hush-hush,” and those involved were paranoid about their work becoming public before its official unveiling. David never reported on it at the time because the information he received was vague, and he did not know if anything would ultimately result from the group’s efforts. Another Washington-based space policy analyst said that he also knew that the DPT was underway at the time.

By October 2000 the group planned for a “retreat” at Wye River, Maryland. But this time the group’s relationship with the temperamental NASA administrator changed dramatically in ways that would sound to familiar to anyone who knew about Dan Goldin. The group had always enjoyed a good relationship with Goldin, who had been friendly and supportive of their research. By October, though, Goldin had become aware of substantial projected cost overruns on the International Space Station program. When he went to Wye River he was extremely skeptical about the project that they had just spent over a year working on. Goldin managed to keep the ISS cost overruns secret until after election day, but thereafter the relationship between him and the DPT was strained. “Up until that point Goldin really enjoyed talking with the DPTers,” Garber said one member of the DPT told him in an interview. But at the meeting Goldin “gave them a tremendous amount of grief for stuff that really wasn’t under their control.”

In hindsight, Goldin’s attitude was understandable. One of the main reasons to keep the Decadal Planning Team effort hush-hush was that NASA was supposed to be constructing the space station and devoting its energies to getting it operational after long delays. Cost overruns for ISS called into question NASA’s ability to manage large projects, and proposing a new expensive project when NASA’s credibility was smashed made little sense.

Despite this, the DPT continued its work and by early 2001 Garvin was replaced by Gary Martin, who was at the time assistant associate administrator for advanced systems in the Office of Space Flight. Martin had a very different personality than Garvin: “He was more of an engineer type, one that thinks in boxes,” said Garber. “This shift of personalities represented a new phase of what DPT was doing.” The group began focusing on architectures for their plan—how to launch the payloads, carry the people, and keep them alive, as well as what they would do in space.

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