Opinion: “When Will We Go Back?” SEI, the VSE and the Hope for the Future

When will we have a clearly-defined objective to explore beyond low-Earth-orbit again? Image Credit: NASA

“Politicians,” astronaut John Young once said, “are a strange bunch of critters.” In its first half-century of life, NASA propelled humanity further than ever before: into space, to the Moon and to the farthest reaches of the Solar System, enabling us to dream unimaginable dreams. Our eyes have quite literally been opened on a new cosmos. Yet politicians and the public have always been notoriously fickle in their attitude and the enormous cost of space exploration has always proven a significant hurdle.

Whenever expensive new missions are unveiled, the same dreary proclamations arise: spend the money on the poor, spend the money on developing nations, spend the money on eradicating disease or even don’t spend the money at all. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, journalists questioned why such a venture was permitted, when rats infested Harlem apartments. A few years ago, during his election campaign, Barack Obama asked why people should fly into space, when there remained children in the United States who were illiterate. These are all valid points, of course, but blame for them can hardly be laid at the feet of the space programme. Today, there are still rats in apartments and one must wonder if, four decades hence, there will still be illiterate children in the United States, but the suggestion that the dream of progressing into space should suffer as a result is unconscionable. That dream has been shocked twice in the last two decades, as two separate presidents proposed two plans to return to the Moon and colonise Mars. Either one could have released us from the shackles of low-Earth orbit for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, both of them – the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) and the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – proved excessively costly, lacked the required political support or direction and were unworkable in terms of goals and planning. However, in 2012, as the International Space Station is finished, the Shuttle is retired and commercial providers pick up the slack of delivering cargo into orbit, can NASA capitalise on its mandate of carrying out ‘real’ exploration once again?

To be fair, there is renewed hope, but at the heels of that hope lie the lingering doubts of the past. Democracy, for all of its positive attributes, has much to do with this. In February 1988, the Senate published a report on Soviet space endeavours at the request of Ernest Hollings, chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. A handful of sentences from that report stand out. In their introductory comments, discussing the question of whether America or Russia was ‘ahead’ in space, the authors noted that the Soviet “ability to make long-term commitments is a function of its form of government”. Long-range planning for expansive space stations, they continued, “is inherently difficult in a democracy, where elections are held frequently, changing administrations may alter goals and annual budget cycles raise the possibility of programme cancellation every year”. In conclusion, it was cautioned that changing horses in mid-stride was “one of the prices we pay for a democratic form of government”. A few years later, post-Soviet Russia also paid the price as it transitioned from an era of single-party authoritarianism to one of multi-party pluralism and the Mir space station suffered enormously as a consequence. Such faults of democracy became self-evident in the United States, when the respective administrations of George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama implemented vigorous efforts to return to the Moon, then dashed them with equal vigour. Democracy has the power to do such things and, as a consequence, it often becomes whimsical in its stance and short-sighted in its outlook and has certainly caused the space programme much anguish. One must wonder if the future will be any different or if the price of democracy will force us to continue changing tired old horses for tired new horses.

Twenty years after humanity's first manned lunar landing, President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle unveil the SEI with Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Many have argued over the years that the SEI was always doomed to fail, but others have countered that better planning and preparation could have made the initiative a success.Photo Credit: NASA

On 20 July 1989, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, George Bush stood shoulder to shoulder with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins on the steps of the Smithsonian to unveil the SEI: an exciting endeavour to build Space Station Freedom, return to the Moon “to stay” and despatch the first colonists to Mars. Unlike his predecessor, John Kennedy, whose timescale for its goal was less than a decade, Bush proposed a more long-term and wide-ranging commitment, extending over a quarter of a century. The SEI would be nothing less than “a journey into tomorrow”. A series of unmanned lunar orbiters would perform geochemical and mineralogical surveys of the Moon, followed by a series of robotic landing craft, including rovers to probe the flat mare and the bright ejecta blanket from the crater Plinius. Eventually, a First Lunar Outpost would be established, possibly on the equatorial Mare Smythii or on the plateau of the bright Aristarchus basin in the northwest quadrant of the Moon’s nearside. This outpost would serve as a preparation ground for the technologies needed to reach Mars. The SEI was audacious, but was not snatched out of thin air. Three years earlier, America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride, led a task force to formulate a new strategy for NASA in the wake of the Challenger disaster: and its emphasis was upon a Mission to Planet Earth, followed by a robotic exploration of the Solar System, a permanent outpost on the Moon and a piloted voyage to Mars. Her group foresaw a crew of 30 people living permanently on the Moon by 2010, followed by a base on Mars in the early 2020s. Science fiction authors, convinced that a Mars mission was plausible, penned their own ideas; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for example, envisaged a landing on the Red Planet at around the same time. Today, we live between those two dates, but neither the Moon or Mars seem any closer to our human emissaries than they did when Ride’s group finished its report or when Bush spoke his words.

In a sense, a lack of clear policy direction from the White House – and particularly Vice President Dan Quayle, chair of the Space Council – precipitated the failure of the SEI by relying too heavily on NASA to come up with the means to achieve the goal. Four months after Bush’s speech, working in virtual isolation from the White House, Aaron Cohen, head of the Johnson Space Center, oversaw a 90-day study on exploring the Moon and Mars with humans and unveiled its first hurdle: the long-term cost, spread across two to three decades, would run to around $500 billion…a truly horrifying and staggering amount, twenty times higher than Project Apollo. The National Academy of Sciences agreed with Cohen’s estimate and the cost alone aroused bitter resentment and hostility in the White House and Congress. Even pro-NASA lawmakers were irked that the agency insisted on using Space Station Freedom as a central tenet of the SEI – one congressman considered it “an unnecessary distraction” to reaching Mars – and many were united in their disbelief that the agency was seriously proposing an effort of such enormous expense in an era of steadily dwindling budgets. Five hundred billion dollars had no hope of Congressional approval. It was not the first time that a vice president had failed to properly grasp the relationship between space and the prevailing political and budgetary climate; in September 1969, Ted Agnew had chaired the Space Task Group to chart America’s future in the post-Apollo era and his expansive (and expensive) plan for a Mars expedition had been rejected out of hand by Richard Nixon. Even co-operation from Europe, Canada and Japan in the SEI would be unrealistic and far beyond even their combined capabilities.

The ambitious Space Exploration Initiative foresaw the completion of Space Station Freedom (foreground), followed by a return to the Moon to stay and ultimately a voyage to Mars. Unfortunately, poor planning, a lack of political support and dwindling budgets led to the demise of the SEI. Image Credit: NASA

Clearly, the issue of funding was the straw which ultimately broke the SEI’s back and rendered it unachievable. Many critics wondered why the Bush administration failed to properly secure cost estimates and seek out cheaper alternatives before announcing its inception, whilst others have criticised Quayle and NASA Administrator Dick Truly for consigning the SEI to the dustbin of history. Very soon, the focus was drawn away from the human exploration of Mars and onto other, more financially practical efforts. In the summer of 1990, Quayle asked Norm Augustine, chairman of Martin Marietta, to lead an advisory committee to evaluate America’s future in space. Augustine rejected a voyage to the Moon or Mars and instead placed emphasis on unmanned science missions, the scaling-back of Space Station Freedom and relegated human exploration to a lower rung on the priorities ladder. Less than a year later, in the summer of 1991, former Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford set about identifying the requirements needed to complete the SEI. His group was unequivocal in its insistence that NASA should develop a realistic, long-range strategic plan, centred on the SEI, and that ‘exploration’ – hinged on the creation of a new National Program Office, headed by an Associate Administrator for Exploration – should form the agency’s new backbone. Stafford’s group argued that aggressive acquisition plans for the hardware and technologies should be implemented, that a new heavy-lift launch capability should be developed, that nuclear power should be increasingly harnessed and that, pivotal to all of this, educating the public – the voters in a democracy – about space should be fostered. Only then could the dream of returning to the Moon and venturing to Mars be realised.

Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, as budgets shrank and Space Station Freedom came within a whisker of cancellation, the sheer cost of the SEI proved its death knell. When Dan Goldin became NASA Administrator in April 1992, he spearheaded a ‘faster, better, cheaper’ philosophy, focusing on unmanned space science ventures and removing near-term human exploration from the agenda. Several studies were undertaken by NASA in the next few years, but went nowhere. One of these was a $2.5 billion ‘Human Lunar Return’, which envisaged an open-cockpit lander, transported firstly to the International Space Station by two Shuttle flights and three Proton boosters and thence to the Moon. The aim would be to land a pair of astronauts and a small habitat at Aristarchus crater, possibly in the summer of 2001. However, as much as Aristarchus is the brightest of the large formations on the Moon’s nearside, its brightness with respect to a human return soon dimmed and expired. By the summer of 2001, plans for a return to the Moon, let alone an expedition to Mars, were gone. Astronauts spoke cogently about their hope that the International Space Station would establish a toehold in orbit, steadily acquiring the long-duration experience and amassing a baseline of data to understand the requirements for such missions, but their words remained little more than hopes.

Eighteen months later, in February 2003, the loss of Columbia plunged America’s space programme into its deepest chasm since Challenger…and yet, surprisingly, from the ashes of despair came renewed promise. In January 2004, George H.W. Bush proposed the VSE. It centred on a new programme, called Constellation, which encompassed the creation of a new spacecraft, Orion, and a new family of heavy-lift rockets, known as Ares. This infrastructure would carry astronauts to the International Space Station, return humans to the Moon by 2020 and eventually head for Mars. Not only did Bush’s VSE pick up where his father’s doomed SEI had failed, but it paid fitting tribute to Columbia’s fallen fliers; an assertion that their deaths had not been in vain. However, uncertainty reigned throughout much of 2004 over how the VSE would be received by Congress, but in November a spending bill granted Bush’s request for $16.2 billion for NASA to kickstart the project. A few months later, Congress passed the 2005 NASA Authorisation Act, which explicitly endorsed the new vision. Political support, at last, had been secured.

“Apollo on steroids” was one derogatory description of Orion and, indeed, NASA’s next-generation manned craft bears many hallmarks of the past. Yet we can fervently hope that, someday, in the not too distant future, this vehicle will carry humans to the Moon, the asteroids, Mars and perhaps beyond. Image Credit: NASA

The VSE began with the same ambitious and trumpeted excitement of its predecessor: dramatic artists’ concepts of the Antares lunar lander, the gigantic Ares I and Ares V boosters and, eventually, the sight of ‘real’ hardware as the boilerplate Orion capsule underwent parachute drop tests and water landings. In September 2009, the first – and, as circumstances transpired, the only – launch of the Ares I booster was completed, to much fanfare. It was little more than a revamped Solid Rocket Booster, but it underlined that the VSE was gradually moving forward. Of course, it suffered huge criticism. In February 2009, the Aerospace Technology Working Group criticised a number of basic political and funding issues, and some observers argued that Orion was nothing more than ‘Apollo on steroids’ and represented a backward step from the Shuttle to the capsule days of the 1960s. Others doubted that the VSE offered much of substance in terms of insight or timelines for how and when the Moon and Mars would be reached. Costs continued to escalate and early plans for Orion to be operational by 2014 quickly moved to the right. Still, with many space supporters still smarting from decades in low-Earth orbit, there remained a positive view of the future; after all, the SEI had never gotten so far as Congressional approval, let alone actual hardware. Once again, however, expense was a crucial stumbling block, with the VSE estimated to cost upwards of $100 billion.

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, many space enthusiasts groaned, for the new president’s stance towards space had always been a lukewarm one. The following year began badly, when Obama declared the cancellation of the Constellation programme, the end of the plan to land humans on the Moon and offered only a handful of ill-defined proposals to send a crew to an asteroid in 2025 and Mars at some indeterminate time in the following decade. Obama’s plan to transfer crew and cargo delivery to the International Space Station to commercial providers, thus freeing up NASA to focus on exploration, was lauded and ridiculed, in equal measure, but at the dawn of 2012 the seeds of hope once again appear to have been sown. Despite being cancelled by Obama, the Orion spacecraft had progressed far enough in its development to be reinstated – and renamed, as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle – and NASA has finally unveiled its showpiece for unlocking the future: the gigantic Space Launch System (SLS) booster. Larger and more powerful even that the Saturn V, this vehicle has exciting potential. Although a precise roadmap of NASA’s exploration strategy remains elusive, proposals have emerged for a piloted circumlunar expedition, as early as 2018, with a strong possibility that a landing could be attempted shortly thereafter. Now that the agency is freed from the billions of dollars it annually spent on the Shuttle, it becomes easier to believe that this could happen. It is easy to be optimistic, but difficult not to be sceptical, for the space programme has always lain at the mercy of politicians. The SEI ended with all the drama of a damp squib, but the VSE had at least enough breathing time in its six years of life for some planning to bear fruit and form the cornerstone of the new vision for the future. What that vision will be is very much open to debate and hopefully by the end of 2012, NASA will some clarification. It may be a circumlunar flight in 2018, an asteroid flight in 2025 or Mars in the 2030s, but one thing is certain: at some stage, our species will return to the Moon…and Mars, too. As Tom Stafford rightly pointed out, it is primarily educating people – the voters in a democratic society – which will inspire and motivate the next generation. Robotic spacecraft might return the scientific results and the photographs, but it has always been humanity’s insatiable desire to explore new horizons. The words of George Bush, speaking on the steps of the Smithsonian, back in July 1989, spring eerily to mind. “From the voyages of Columbus,” he told his captivated audience, “to the Oregon Trail, to the journey to the Moon itself, history proves that we have never lost by pressing the limits of our frontiers.”

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