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Disclaimer: These are my personal opinions. I emphatically do NOT speak for my employer.


Conflicting Visions for the Manned Space Program


Peter A. Taylor
August 2005


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:

  1. The Manhattan Project. There is some particular piece of breakthrough technology that the government needs to develop (hypersonic aircraft, single stage to orbit, anti-gravity paint, or whatever) that is of all-consuming importance in the conquest of space. Until this technology is ready, manned space flight is useful for little more than development testing.
     
  2. The Hall process. This was also a technological breakthrough, but the Hall process was a private invention, and not famously expensive to develop. The Hall process revolutionized the aluminum industry, turning it from an exotic material into something to make disposable soda cans out of. Many technological breakthroughs, such as the invention of vulcanized rubber, are entirely accidental.
     
  3. Steam engines. The development of steam engines during the industrial revolution was probably closer to pure capitalism than the early aviation industry. Thus radical libertarians may find steam engines a more attractive model for space development than the aviation industry. The development of steam engines was one of gradual improvement involving many designs by many people over many years, rather than a breakthrough like the Hall process.
     
  4. Christopher Columbus-style exploration. There is some spectacular discovery waiting to be made in space, probably by accident, which can only be made if humans are on board. This discovery will completely transform the economics of space travel in unpredictable ways. We can't predict it, so we just have to get out there and look. This is a popular theme in science fiction, such as the alien artifact in William Hartmann's Mars Underground.
     
  5. Scientific exploration in the style of Charles Darwin's journey on the HMS Beagle. It's hard to argue that humans are currently more cost-effective than robots in answering the important specific scientific questions about a place like Mars, but science is a nice side benefit of a space program. Werner von Braun looked to the scientific exploration of Antarctica as a model for space development, depending on the airplane as "enabling technology." I see Antarctica instead as an example of a scientific research area that never really became anything more than that.
     
  6. Exploration in the style of Captain James Cook. Columbus' discovery was accidental. He was actually trying to test a business plan that he hoped would make him some money. Cook, on the other hand, was deliberately seeking out the unknown to increase general knowledge (ie. cartography), with no business plan in sight. Human exploration was cost-effective in this context because no one at the time knew how to build suitable robots.
     
  7. Resource exploration. Another meaning for "exploration" is looking for valuable raw materials in places that have already been discovered, such as prospecting for silver or exploratory oil drilling. At something like $5000/lb. to put payloads into low Earth orbit (LEO), and many lbs. of propellant needed for every lb. of payload to be carried from LEO to anywhere else interesting, the resource exploration model is hard to take seriously except in conjunction with some other model that suggests how launch costs can come down.
     
  8. Private barnstorming (exhibition flying). The X-prize won by Burt Rutan's team was deliberately patterned after the Orteig prize won by Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh's flight was formal exhibition flying rather than "barnstorming," but they are essentially the same. The immediate outcome of barnstorming may have been a mixture of public and private entertainment, but barnstorming helped early aviators pay for their flying time, and the development of advanced aircraft required a lot of flying (and crashing and performing accident investigations). The barnstormers were mainly private, but the government supported the aviation industry through, for example, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, NASA's predecessor), which did such things as publish studies of different airfoil shapes.

    Note the contrast between Columbus and Lindbergh. No one claims that Charles Lindbergh discovered France, and no one can realistically hope that Mars-bound astronauts will discover a habitable planet.
     
  9. Subsidized air-mail. The US government also subsidized air-mail. This enabled the private airline industry to gain experience (ie. more accident investigations), pay for infrastructure (ie. airports) and pay for the development of newer aircraft, hastening the day when air travel and air freight would be able to pull their own economic weight.
     
  10. The DC-3. The DC-3 seems to illustrate a "threshold" phenomenon, where a series of minor technological improvements finally pushes an industry financially from red to black. The DC-3 was not a dramatic technological breakthrough, but it looked like one economically. The development of the DC-3 might be viewed in terms of steam engines, as a private development, but subsidies helped create the market for which it was built.
     
  11. Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry is credited for developing the technology that enabled Portuguese ships to sail around Africa to India. This was government funded commercial technology development. This was a long term effort to gradually improve ship technology. While it was "enabling" in the sense of sailing to India, the Portuguese shipping industry already existed and was profitable in waters closer to home.
     
  12. Government prize money. Britain offered a prize for the development of an accurate ship's chronometer. This may have been more for military than commercial reasons, but it is a model of publically funding a development project that requires minimal government oversight.
     
  13. The X-15. NASA and the Air Force are famous for building experimental "X" vehicles such as the supersonic X-1 and X-15. Most of these vehicles were built for military reasons. What I find interesting about them is that they are pure research vehicles, intended to enable their developers to learn about the technology, not to be practical commercial or combat aircraft. If you think you're working on a vehicle like a DC-3, and your co-worker thinks he's working on a vehicle like an X-15, this could mean big trouble. Arguably, this confusion is part of what happened to the Space Shuttle.
     
  14. The US transcontinental railroad. This railroad was nominally private, but it was heavily government supported. Rather than allowing the industry to develop naturally or with a general subsidy, the government provided loans, land, and protection from some legal responsibilities. The government's reasons (apart from graft) were largely political and military, to prevent California from seceding and in order to fight Indians, but there were also monopoly issues.
     
  15. The Panama canal. In the case of the Panama canal, the US government didn't just support the construction of the canal, but built the whole thing, including grabbing the land away from Colombia. The reasons for the government's involvement were partly military (naval traffic), partly political (getting the land), and partly monopoly-related. It was a huge public economic development project, but it had little to do with technology or science.
     
  16. Holland's dikes. Holland's dikes are similar to the Panama canal in being an important government program, but one with little to do with technology. But these dikes are largely a public good that protects people from environmental disaster. In some ways this is a better model for the space program than the Panama canal. One of the near-term motives for a space program is to protect the Earth from natural disasters (ie. asteroids). One long-term motive is to build colonies that would allow at least some people and technological infrastructure to survive other kinds of natural or man-made disasters (ie. biological war).
     
  17. Potemkin villages. One of Catherine the Great's ministers, Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, was accused, apparently falsely, of having fake villages erected along the Dnieper river in order to impress her on her riverboat tour of Crimea in 1787. "Potemkin village" is often used now as a metaphor for an economic development project that is not economically self-supporting, and nothing particularly good comes of it, but is touted as a success story. These "successes" may be seen variously as theatre, psychodrama, or fraud.

    Once it became clear that the Space Shuttle would never come anywhere close to its cost and schedule targets (fly once a week at $7M per flight), as it certainly had by the time of the Challenger accident, the Shuttle program for me took on some of the flavor of a Potemkin village. The International Space Station (ISS) had this flavor from the beginning.
     
  18. Superpower competition. The Apollo Program has been described as "a technical solution to a political problem." It was a spectacular display of technological prowess meant to reassure friends and discourage enemies. It has also been likened to a steeplechase, a race between two horsemen towards an arbitrary landmark. As a model of space development, it suffers from the modern lack of the superpower competition that drove it. Ballistic missiles seem of little relevance to asymmetric warfare.
     
  19. Public barnstorming. Recall that I described the role of private barnstorming as a way for aviators to recover some of the cost of developing an aviation industry. Governments can play this game, too. The Air Force's exhibition flying team, The Thunderbirds, also participates in air shows, but they're not a useful model for the space program; they're a recruiting tool rather than a way for the Air Force to pay for their flight hours. Instead, I look again to Apollo.

    While Apollo may have been motivated largely by superpower competition, it generated excitement far beyond reassuring people that the US could build large, sophisticated ballistic missiles. Nowadays, when space enthusiasts think of the Apollo program, and dream of recreating aspects of it, they tend to think of it more in terms of this excitement than in terms of the Cold War. In so far as this excitement is intentional, a society might be said to have "cultural reasons" for having a space program. Perhaps there is even something vaguely religious about it. But if the public think they are getting their money's worth of entertainment out of the space program, and some of the money is going into learning how to build and operate better spacecraft, this could be a sensible model for space development.
     

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:"

The way manned space advocates use the word "exploration" strikes me as a bit of a shell game. The first shell is to use exploration as a euphemism for "stunt" (like Charles Lindbergh). The second shell is to claim that exploration means "science" (like James Cook). The third shell is to claim that it means something like "prospecting" (pursuing a business plan like Christopher Columbus). Skeptics can argue against any of these forms of manned space "exploration" as not being cost effective, but unless they make all of these arguments simultaneously, with numbers, and add the numbers up, manned space advocates can exploit the ambiguity by telling them that they don't understand what "exploration" really means.
 

 

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