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Launchbox PoD 7: Losing The Initiative - Sticker Shock kills the Space Exploration Initiative

By Andy Cooke

The Space Exploration Initiative

On July 20th, 1989, President George H W Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative. After decades of aimlessness, NASA finally had a clear purpose and a clear route forward.

As a space-mad sixteen-year-old who had been born too late to experience the thrills of Apollo, I was ecstatic. NASA was to complete Space Station Freedom (well, start it first, then complete it), and then return to the Moon – this time to stay. But that wasn’t all – they’d be going past that to land astronauts on Mars, and do so by 2019!

Everything seemed to be coming together at the right time. There was a President who was genuinely positive about space exploration. A National Space Council had been inaugurated in the United States to oversee this push into space. Even the popular mood in the US was pro-exploration to a greater degree than since before Apollo, with a greater proportion of the public favouring an increase in NASA funding than almost ever before.

On July 20, 1989, George H W Bush announced his new Space Exploration Initiative, which was to complete the space station, return man to the moon, and bring man to Mars for the first time. Source: NASA

So what was it going to be? Well, while Space Station Freedom was being constructed, there would be three strands of exploration going on:

  • It would start with precursor robot missions. A Lunar Observer program on year-long polar mapping missions. A Mars Global Network program with orbiters and multiple landers. A Mars Sample Return mission to obtain 10 kg (2 missions at 5kg each) of Martian rocks, soil and atmosphere. A Mars Site Reconnaisance Orbiter program with orbiters and communication satellites around Mars. Up to five Mars Rover missions to certify three sites for the best candidates for piloted landing and outpost establishment.

  • Meanwhile, a permanent Moonbase would be developed. A complicated set of missions with quantities of in-orbit infrastructure and multiple resource transfers, but it had to be this way to justify using the Space Shuttle and Space Station. There would be:

“Two to three launches of the lunar payload, crew, transportation vehicles, and propellants from Earth to Space Station Freedom. At Freedom, the crew, payloads, and propellants are loaded onto the lunar transfer vehicle that will take them to low lunar orbit. The lunar transfer vehicle meets in lunar orbit with an excursion vehicle, which will either be parked in lunar orbit or will ascend from the lunar surface, and payload, crew, and propellants are transferred. [Then] the excursion vehicle descends to the lunar surface.”

A Lunar Outpost that we never got - artist's impression of the early stages of constructing a Lunar Outpost from the SEI. Source: NASA

Following which, there would be multiple cargo and piloted flights to drop a habitation module on the lunar surface (to be covered with lunar regolith for radiation shielding) and associated support equipment. Then a constructible habitat would be erected to extend living space, and in-situ resource production would begin.

  • Finally, the piece de resistance – the Marsbase. A similarly complicated sequence of launches would send the crew, surface payload, transportation vehicles, and propellant to the Space Station, where the vehicles would be inspected and transfers made.

“Upon approach to Mars, the transfer and excursion vehicles separate and perform aerobraking maneuvers to enter the Martian atmosphere separately. The vehicles rendezvous in Mars orbit, and the crew of four transfers to the excursion vehicle, which descends to the surface using the same aero-brake. When their tour of duty is complete, the crew leaves the surface in the ascent module of the Mars excursion vehicle to rendezvous with the transfer vehicle in Mars orbit. The transfer vehicle leaves Mars orbit and returns the crew to Space Station Freedom.”

Artist's conception of Space Station Freedom, the Moon, and Mars - the three elements of the SEI. Source: NASA

It would involve 500 day missions with surface stays of 30 days initially, growing to 100 days and eventually 1000 day missions with surface stays of 600 days.

What happened

Very little. The Space Exploration Initiative became a byword for overambitious program design meeting reality on Capitol Hill. Every single element of SEI was surgically removed from NASA’s budget requests. Bush tried to keep it alive for a while, but it died, unlamented, in the early Nineties.

What went wrong?

The simple answer is “sticker shock” – the effect you get when you see something you want to buy, see the price, and go “HOW MUCH???”

NASA informed Congress it would cost between $471 billion and $541 billion over 30 years. They would need year-on-year increases to their budget of 10% until it reached double its existing value, where it would stay for quarter of a century.

And there were no real alternatives presented. “This is how much it costs to go to the Moon and Mars. Give us money now, please.”

Bush had requested alternatives. The alternatives given were largely in changing the timetable (of five “Reference Approaches”, the first four were all variants on each other with dates shifted around. The fifth was slightly different with a reduced scale of lunar activity, but the overall mission architecture was identical.

In effect, NASA had slipped its leash and put together its ultimate wishlist. Well, primarily the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) rather than NASA as a whole – JSC tended to ignore the other centres during the “Ninety Day Study.” The unspoken top priority was “We must justify the Shuttle Program” – which rather ensured the clunky and overly-involved mission architecture in order to use the Shuttle and for any alternative heavy-lift launcher to be Shuttle-derived.

The SEI wishlist. Source: "Report of the 90-Day Study on the Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars", NASA

Analyses of what went wrong point out a number of key issues:

  • An unnecessary rushing of the original proposal. Bush wanted to announce a space spectacular at the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. He did not, however, need the specifics to be clarified so urgently – as he had been personally distracted by international issues (the collapse of the Soviet Union, amongst others), he did not get to give close direction.

  • The nascent National Space Council (NSC) was underconfident and did not make its desires clear to NASA, who took the impression that the were in for a massive increase in spending; what would they like to spend it on? NASA accordingly considered the budget last rather than first.

  • The new NASA Administrator, former astronaut Admiral Dick Truly, did not see things the same way as the NSC. This only became apparent over time. NSC had wanted a variety of time frames, a variety of cost profiles, and a variety of technologies so that the President could choose from different options. Truly did not like this idea, wanting to simply pull together the reports that had been generated previously and churn out a proposal in only three months. He therefore insisted on basing the Study on past NASA studies and prioritising the Space Shuttle (as a former Shuttle commander).

  • The unnecessarily quick turn around of the Ninety Day Study practically guaranteed the outcome – it gave no time to explore anything other than “off-the-shelf” proposals and hardware. Coupled with JSC and Truly’s insistence on defending the Shuttle, no real alternatives could have been explored.

  • JSC did not bother soliciting technical or architectural concepts from elsewhere in the space policy community.

  • There was a near-complete failure to engage Congress or key Congressional Staffers prior to the report coming out. Prior to the original announcement, the NSC briefed four “key” groups: “Space Advocates” (enthusiastic), the science community (positive), CEOs of aerospace companies (who were lukewarm and dubious about whether it would be carried through) and Congressional staffers – particularly from appropriations (very doubtful and concerned about the budgetary impact). The lessons from these (especially the most crucial one of the appropriations people) were ignored.

The House Appropriations Committee hearings in March after the announcement and after the publication of the Ninety-Day Report – and an evaluation of the Report by the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) was brutal. Administrator Truly was asked a series of questions:

  • Did Truly agree with the NRC report, which concluded the approach suggested would be technically challenging and very expensive? He did.

  • Would implementing the plan as laid out really require doubling the NASA budget? It would. Truly added that regardless of the technologies or strategies selected, exploring the Moon and Mars would be expensive.

  • Could NASA accurately forecast this program over such a long term; was Truly confident in the estimate of $541 billion for “Reference Approach A” [The primary proposed schedule]? Truly answered that it was premature to say, but it would be “very expensive.”

  • When would NASA be able to provide firm numbers? Truly answered that it would take three or four years of focused technology development before he could do so. In effect asking for Congress to commit to investing vast sums of money before it could be told how much it would actually cost…

An attempt to marshal public support to pressure Congress by an organised public relations campaign the following June across multiple newspapers and magazines across the United States was derailed by the bad news over the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror flaw, rapidly followed by the complete grounding of the Shuttle fleet due to hydrogen leakage from unknown causes. This rather knocked the public’s confidence in – well, anything that NASA said about what it could do and when. Support for increases to NASA’s budget tumbled.

What could have happened

Artist's conception of a developed Lunar Base. Source: NASA

Had Bush not decided to follow an accelerated public reports process, but instead confined himself to announcing that NASA would “Commence an immediate review of its purpose with an intent to revitalise this nation’s presence in space exploration,” or words to that effect, the NSC and NASA could have explored options in slower time. He could have started a competition of ideas to explore what alternatives were feasible instead.

The NSC could have ridden closer on NASA – as they did (belatedly) from February 1990 onwards, and ensured that NASA explored genuine alternatives. Technical studies from outside actors (government contractors, universities, think tanks, national laboratories) could have provided input, rather than solely NASA, and almost entirely one Centre within NASA.

With closer supervision by the NSC and soliciting buy-in from Congressional staffers involved in the appropriations, the aggressive development sequence requested by the Ninety Day Study would not have been announced. Breaking the overall programme into standalone components would have made it far more palatable, as would being willing to sacrifice components such as the Space Station (A key staffer, Dick Malow - the most powerful staffer on the House Appropriations Subcommittee - later said he would have been “more positive if NASA had taken Space Station off the plate and focused on going to Mars. The budget envelope that would have opened up would have been sufficient to get the initiative going. I never felt space station was critical to going to Mars, never made any sense to me, if anything it may even have been a detractor.”).

Alternative mission architectures (such as using new launchers, experimenting with innovative propulsion concepts, exploring remote resource production on Mars) could and should have been explored.

A developed Lunar Outpost exploring in-situ resource production and utilization. Source: NASA

The universe of missed possibilities is huge:

  • Alternative heavy lift launcher and, alternative reusable launchers for human flight (and possibly retiring the Shuttle fleet early and avoiding the loss of Columbia).

  • A focused attempt to return to the Moon and demonstrate in-situ production of liquid oxygen and other materials. Yes, a Moonbase producing rocket fuel.

  • Testing of solar sails and ion drives for transfer of large unmanned payloads to Mars.

  • Inflatable modules tested in space and on the lunar surface.

Some of these may have failed. Others would have worked. Still others may never have been attempted. One thing is for sure – the entire space presence of the human race could have been very different.


Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP


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