Conflicting Visions for the Manned Space Program
Peter A. Taylor
Current NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and former astronaut Owen K. Garriot (et al) wrote a paper called "Extending Human Presence into the Solar System" (July 2004, Planetary Society) that strongly suggests how President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) is likely to be carried out. I read this paper, and to my surprise, liked it, despite the fact that several things about it are counter-intuitive to me. Ronald J. Kohl brought up the point in an email that the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) architecture proposed by Griffin is designed to carry people all the way from Earth launch to the Moon on the same vehicle; it does not deliver people to some "staging area" such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in one specialized vehicle and then carry them onwards on a different specialized vehicle, as I would have expected.
Griffin's plan, like the Apollo program, has little use for infrastructure associated with LEO. This comes after NASA has spent the last three decades wrestling with LEO infrastructure in the form of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). One reaction I had to the plan is that I was taken aback by the sudden and thorough change of emphasis away from LEO to regions beyond. The Space Shuttle Orbiters (the winged, reusable, manned component) are soon to be retired, and nothing remotely like them is on NASA's horizon. The ISS is being de-emphasized as much as possible given NASA's international treaty obligations.
Nor does Griffin's plan build very much infrastructure on the Moon. It visits the Moon eventually, before visiting Mars, after first visiting Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, and the moons of Mars. It is vulnerable to the same criticism made of Apollo, that it didn't leave us with infrastructure with which to build permanent settlements. Another of my reactions to the paper was pleasant surprise at this. Given the current economic infeasibility of permanent space settlements, this lack of infrastructure makes sense, but it rubs many of us space enthusiasts the wrong way, who have been dreaming of, and expecting such settlements Real Soon Now ever since July 19th, 1969.
A third reaction was discomfort at the use of the word, "exploration,"1 which is presented as the central purpose of the manned space program. If this means exploration in the fashion of Christopher Columbus or James Cook (two Orbiters are named after Cook's ships), it seems hopelessly inarticulate at best. As James van Allen put it, manned space enthusiasts' analogies to Christopher Columbus vary from "incompetent" to "massively deceitful," depending on how much thought goes into them. We know too much about the inner solar system already, and know too much about building robots, to be able to use these analogies honestly. I will argue shortly that Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic solo flight is a better analogy for the Vision for Space Exploration than Columbus's voyages, but I don't really think of Lindbergh as an "explorer."
A fourth reaction was to think of the flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne,
and of his plans for future vehicles to serve the suborbital space tourism
market. These sorts of flights are analogous to the "barnstorming" period in
the early days of aviation. Again, Charles Lindbergh comes to mind, but there
is no clear relationship between Rutan and the VSE.
I am probably like most space enthusiasts both in having a generally favorable reaction to the VSE and Mike Griffin, and in being argumentative and conflicted about it. I think much of this conflict stems from conflicting, poorly articulated historical analogies and expectations ("models," "visions," and "paradigms") about how the conquest of space can best proceed. Here, then, are some of the analogies that seem to be affecting people's thinking about the manned space program:
I mentioned earlier my discomfort with the word, "exploration," in the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) and in Griffin's paper. "Exploration" invites the ubiquitous Christopher Columbus analogies. It also seems to have little to do with the role of NASA's predecessor, NACA, in the development of aviation. I was thinking of the contrast between Mike Griffin, with his "exploration," and Burt Rutan, as a seeming throwback to the old barnstorming days, when the old saying suddenly dawned on me: "An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications."
If we set aside all the rhetoric about exploration, and look at the VSE as a form of public barnstorming, does it make sense? I think it does, and I find it attractive for two reasons. First, this public barnstorming approach to space development, while not my favorite model, is at least plausible--it does not require me to believe in alien artifacts, anti-gravity paint, or negative interest rates. Second, Griffin's plan seems to be internally consistent. It does not try to use the excitement of barnstorming as a justification for building a transcontinental railroad, or scientific curiosity as a reason for building an oil pipeline. The minimalist infrastructure reflects this consistency. The VSE pursues a series of increasingly difficult and novel missions, but it doesn't make long term commitments to maintaining expensive activity at any of the destinations. It builds a minimum of infrastructure and puts a minimum of refinement or specialization in the vehicles it builds. It gathers scientific data, but as with Apollo, cost-effective science is not the point of the trip.
The public barnstorming model is not my favorite approach. With LEO launch costs (using expendables) on the order of $5000/lb. (the Shuttle is more), I have concluded that the Shuttle's original purpose of reducing launch costs was, in fact, what NASA should have been trying to do all along. I would have preferred to see NASA go back to its NACA roots, or perhaps build some more X-vehicles, more with an eye towards operations research than technical performance, trying to get this cost down. But Griffin's approach to space certainly seems to me like an improvement over what NASA has been doing since Skylab.
There is bad news in Griffin's plan with respect to reducing launch costs, but there is also good news. The bad news is that Griffin is not directly interested in experimenting with any new technology or launch vehicle architecture that has the potential to reduce launch costs dramatically (ie. reusable launch vehicles). Nor is Griffin very interested in promoting the private sector launch industry by following the subsidized air mail model, such as by having NASA act as an "anchor tenant" in a private space launch market. He was quoted in The Space Review as saying,
I cannot put public money at risk, depending on a commercial provider to be in my series path. He might decide not to show up for good and valid business reasons. Okay? I can't put return to the moon and crew exploration vehicle capability, I can't put the ability to send humans into low earth orbit on behalf of the government at risk, based on whether or not a commercial provider decides that he actually wants to do it that day. But I can provide mechanisms where if the commercial provider shows up, the government will stand down and will buy its service and its capability from the industrial provider and let them have the competition among themselves.
But in a left-handed way, getting NASA out of the reusable launch vehicle business may be good news. NASA's track record with the X-33 and development programs such as the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) leaves much to be desired. These public programs have not only wasted a lot of money, they have also tended to discourage private development programs. As the saying goes, "When the elephants dance, the mice tremble." Griffin is keeping private business decisions out of the critical path for VSE, but at the same time, whether intentionally or not, he has removed NASA from the critical path for developing cheap reusable launch vehicles. Whether you think this is good or bad will likely depend on what historical models you think are realistic for the government's role in the conquest of space.
So what models are realistic for the government's role in space? A realistic model has to stand in the face both of current launch costs on the order of $5000/lb. and of competition from sophisticated and relatively inexpensive robotic missions (and telescopes). I have argued that "exploration" is a bad model unless perhaps one defines "exploration" broadly enough to include the sort of vicarious joyrides I have described as "public barnstorming." Massive government economic development projects (Panama canal model) such as Solar Power Satellites (SPS) are similarly indefensible at current launch costs. But several other models are still plausible. I am not convinced that Manhattan-style breakthrough physics or technology is necessary for a dramatic reduction in cost to LEO, but it could certainly be helpful. Government subsidized private development (the air-mail model) is plausible. The private barnstorming (with NACA-style public support) model is also plausible, especially to those of us who see current reusable rocket technology as very immature (more like the Wright Flyer than the DC-3). The public barnstorming model is also plausible. In fact, it may be that space-related science fiction and fantasy have sufficiently captured people's imaginations that it is impossible for NASA to follow any other model without elements of barnstorming entering into the picture.
It seems to me that much of the public discussion I've seen regarding the need to get people excited about the space program is an implicit endorsement of the public barnstorming model. But people seem to be embarassed to defend this model explicitly--the rhetoric is focused on exploration. It's as if the nature of barnstorming is that one can't really admit that one is doing it with public money without taking most of the fun out of it. It's also quite likely that many space enthusiasts are in denial about the weakness of the Columbus analogy. But the net effect is that the manned space community is collectively misrepresenting what the space program can realistically hope to accomplish, overhyping it in apparent hope of selling it to an increasingly disappointed and disillusioned public.
This unwillingness to defend Griffin's plans in sensible terms is a problem because, despite Griffin's relative popularity, there really is not a consensus within the space community or within Congress that this is the right way to go. There are lots of other ways to spend the money, and some people just want the elephants to stop dancing in front of the mouse hole. Assuming that Congress does fund the VSE appropriately, the inability to state a sensible rationale for it makes it hard for the people working on it to tell if they're doing their jobs right (and for people who insist on seeing "the big picture," it's bad for morale).
Does this exploration hype really help sell the space program? One of the hallmarks of the dysfunctional corporation in Scott Adams' "Dilbert" cartoons is that the marketing types are always making promises that the engineers can't possibly keep. In my opinion, what we need in the space arena is not "better" marketing to generate more excitement among the general public. What we need is to be collectively honest with ourselves so we can figure out which of our hopes and expectations are realistic, and build a consensus on what it is in the big picture that we are asking the public to support.
We need to have an intelligent public discussion about what we're trying to do with the manned space program. I challenge both supporters and opponents of the VSE to state clearly what model they think NASA should be trying to follow, and defend it in the context of $5000/lb. launch costs and cheap robots.
Again, these are my personal opinions. I emphatically do NOT speak for my employer.
1. Footnote on "exploration:"