Destinations in Rhetoric

Orion ISS Rendezvous.jpgAmericaSpace Note:This guest blog by Eric R. Sterner appears in Space News. We bring it to you in full but hope you will still go to Space News to check out its great coverage of all things Space.

June 16, 2010

Since releasing its fiscal year 2011 budget, the Obama Administration has muddied the water over the ultimate purpose for its proposed changes to NASA’s exploration program. The destination changes depending on the audience and the context in which Administration officials are speaking. The White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) budget documents were generally silent on the destinations associated with the administration’s revamped plan. But, at the budget rollout in February, NASA’s Administrator listed a range of destinations one could imagine reaching as a result of the administration’s budget.

He stated, “Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of ‘firsts’.” Indeed, NASA’s own budget documents expanded the range of possibilities, adding Martian moons, Lagrange points, and asteroids to the endless list of possibilities.
Many in Congress did not look favorably on such an unfocused program. Perhaps they recalled any number of commissions, studies, and analytical reports that recommended giving NASA a focus. Perhaps they remembered the agency’s historical drift when its constituent parts pursued their own, separate interests (a drift the President criticized in 2008 as a candidate). Perhaps they had reflected on the years-long debates over destinations the country had already gone though and the efforts it took to build a bipartisan, bicameral political consensus around a focused destination—the Vision for Space Exploration—which called for developing the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.

The Administrator attempted to put a finer point on the administration’s purposes during his Congressional testimony in March, asserting that Mars was the ultimate goal. But, his comments came largely in response to continued Congressional prodding and still were not reflected in the prepared budget material. As such, they had the feel of someone throwing out destinations in order to fend off pointed political attacks. It was not clear that they reflected anything more than the Administrator’s personal preference.

In April, the President added to the murkiness about NASA’s direction and destination in his speech at Kennedy Space Center. He declared, “Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.” He only offered up Mars as something that we “can” do, not as a set destination. The speech contained no plan, no resources, and no decision-points to develop them, while the destinations proposed remained outside the budget.

In May, the Administrator restated that Mars is the ultimate destination, stating at the International Space Development Congress, “The fact that today we are seriously, finally, contemplating what steps we need to take to get to Mars, is amazing. Theoretically, we’ve discussed it for decades. Now we’re talking the real thing.” He continued, “We plan to fly a crewed circumlunar mission by the early 2020’s; an asteroid rendezvous with a human and robotic crew by 2025; and a crewed trip to orbit Mars by [the] early 2030’s followed by an actual landing of humans and their robotic companions.” Whereas the President wanted to start with an asteroid rendezvous mission, having adopted the view that Apollo missions had exhausted exploratory options on the moon, the administrator wants to begin with a lunar orbital mission.

So, over the last four months, the administration has raised a number of possible destinations for the human spaceflight program, but hasn’t yet settled on one or an order in which to pursue those possibilities it has raised. Meanwhile, the budget supports none of them. Rather than building capabilities to accomplish any of the mission options it raised, it seeks to improve technologies that may be relevant to a mission architecture the administration has not identified, and cannot identify until it selects a destination and someone decides whether to pursue a heavy lift rocket in 2015. (It should be noted that the media is reporting on a Congressional staff study that finds this approach underfunded and that the administration has indicated it will shift funds from developing exploration technology into the space station lifeboat and its heavy-lift launch vehicle.)
This is silly. It’s like deciding you’re going to begin studying the internal combustion engine so you can make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase a car five years from now with the expectation that you might then use the car to go someplace interesting, without committing enough resources to complete your studies. NASA cannot design mission requirements in any disciplined way (something NASA already has extraordinary difficulty doing) if it doesn’t know what will be demanded of the hardware. Without requirements, it cannot design a system and without a system, the country isn’t going anywhere. At the end of the day, the administration’s FY11 budget is revealed for what it is — a cancellation of the program of record in order to spread the wealth among a range of science programs, aeronautics, and technology programs that may be relevant to human spaceflight. In other words, you get exactly the program OMB laid out in its budget documents, visionary rhetoric about possible destinations notwithstanding.

In isolation, each of the administration’s initiatives is worthy of a great space program and, in many ways, overdue. They do address many of the resource-driven shortfalls in the program the administration inherited. But, the fact that the administration feels compelled to raise the possibility of new destinations, some of which aren’t so new (Moon-Mars), without truly committing to them suggests that it recognizes the obvious. Its initiatives may be worthy of a great space program, but in eliminating the focus of returning to the Moon and going on to Mars—as well as the political consensus behind it — the administration has robbed the nation of a great space program.

Bio: Eric R. Sterner is a Fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute and a national security consultant. He held senior staff positions on the House Armed Services and Science Committees and served in the Defense Department and as NASA’s Associate Deputy Administrator for Policy and Planning.

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