Commentary Magazine


Wrecking NASA

We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.?.?.?.?This is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us.?.?.?.?But space is there and we are going to climb it. —John F. Kennedy, September 1962

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On April 15, Barack Obama traveled to Cape Canaveral. Speaking there to a closed audience of political allies, the president laid out his soaring vision for America’s space program. Under the Obama plan, NASA will spend $100 billion on human spaceflight over the next 10 years in order to accomplish nothing.

It must be said that the president phrased his policy wonderfully so that—with the Kennedy Space Center workforce prudently excluded—the camp followers gathered for the occasion had no difficulty in providing the requisite applause. But beneath Mr. Obama’s flowery rhetoric, his message was anything but Kennedy-esque. Translated into the English of mortals, he said:

We choose not to go to the Moon, nor do other things, because they are hard. We do not want a goal that will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are unwilling to accept, one we are quite willing to postpone, and one which we will not win?.?.?.

The background to Obama’s speech is as follows. In 2004, the Bush administration launched a program called Constellation to develop a set of flight systems, including the Orion crew capsule and the Ares 1 and Ares 5 medium and heavy-lift boosters, that together would allow astronauts to return to the Moon by 2020 and subsequently fly to destinations beyond. Under the plan announced by President Obama, almost all this will be canceled. The only thing preserved out of the past six years and $9 billion worth of effort will be a version of the Orion capsule—but one so stripped down that it will be useful only as a lifeboat for bringing astronauts down from the space station, not as a craft capable of providing a ride up to orbit. With the space-shuttle program set to end in the near future, what this means is that the only way Americans will be able to reach even low Earth orbit will be as passengers on Russian launchers.

In his speech, however, the president chose to represent the abandonment of the Moon program not as a retreat but rather as a daring advance. “We’ve been to the Moon before,” he said. “There’s a lot more of space to explore.” Obama proclaimed it was now time to set our sights on points beyond, to asteroids near Earth, and to Mars. Indeed, he is correct on all counts. But the president’s plan makes no provisions for actuallyfollowing such a course. Instead, it initiates a long stall.

For example, as the first milestone in his allegedly daring program of exploration, Obama called for sending a crew to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. Such a flight is certainly achievable. All an asteroid mission requires is a launch vehicle such as the Ares 5, a crew capsule (such as the Orion), and a habitation module similar to that employed on the space station. Had Obama not canceled the Ares 5, we could have used it to perform an asteroid mission by 2016—during Obama’s own prospective second term. But the president, while calling for such a flight, is scrapping the programs that would make it possible.

The same holds true for the question of reaching Mars. From a technical point of view, we are much closer today to a manned Mars trip than we were to being able to send men to the Moon in 1961, when President Kennedy made his speech committing us to that goal. We reached our destination eight years later. Given true Kennedy-like commitment, we could have astronauts on the Red Planet within a decade. But president Obama chose to set that goal for the 2040s, a timeline so long and hazy as not to require him to actually do anything about it.

Thus, under the Obama plan, NASA will be able to send astronauts anywhere it likes, provided that it begins work toward doing so only after he leaves office.

In an effort to lend the new program some sex appeal, the administration announced, with great fanfare, that its future budgets would provide some funds to support deliveries to the space station by new launch companies. This is a good idea, and long overdue, but not terribly important for the overall future or character of the space program, since NASA has been buying launches from private space firms for the past half-century. A few more launches to low Earth orbit subcontracted out to corporate vendors will change very little.

The man responsible for devising the go–nowhere space policy is the president’s top scientific adviser, John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). According to Holdren, the program’s expensive ($10 billion per year) stalling game is justified. Eliminating anyfocused human-mission goals for NASA will supposedly allow the agency to develop more advanced technologies. This, in turn, will make everything much more achievable at some point in the future, when plans to go somewhere are finally drawn up. To the uninitiated, such arguments may appear plausible, but they are false to the core.

Over the course of its history, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first, which prevailed in the human spaceflight program during the period from 1961 to 1973, may be called Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing in the human spaceflight effort since 1974, may be called Shuttle Mode.

In Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows: First, a mission goal is chosen. Next, a plan is developed to achieve this objective. Following this, hardware designs are developed to implement that plan, and, if necessary, technologies are created to enable such hardware. The hardware set is then built, after which the mission is flown.

Shuttle Mode operates altogether differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while Shuttle Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In Apollo Mode, technology is developed to support an overall mission, which means the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In Shuttle Mode, NASA’s efforts are random and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own home. The first couple decide on what kind of house they want, hire an architect to design it in detail, then acquire the appropriate materials to build it. That is Apollo Mode. The second couple poll their neighbors each month for different spare house parts the neighbors would like to sell and buy them all, hoping to accumulate enough material to build a house eventually. When their relatives inquire why they are gathering so much junk, the second couple hire anarchitect to compose a house design that employs all the knick-knacks they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is Shuttle Mode.

In today’s dollars, NASA’s average budget from 1961 to 1973 was about $19 billion per year. That is the same as NASA’s current budget. Yet because it had the focus provided by a definite goal that served to “organize its energies and skills,” the NASA of the Apollo period was vastly more effective than the equally well-funded agency is today.

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Comparing the brilliant record of achievement of NASA’s human spaceflight program during the Apollo period with that of the past decade speaks for itself. It also in no way lets administrations between Kennedy’s and Obama’s off the hook. In technology development, too, the Apollo-era NASA was far superior, creating rocket engines; heavy-lift launch vehicles; space communication, navigation, rendezvous, re-entry, landing, live support, spacesuit, and power technologies, and more—all during a 13-year period. In contrast, during the agency’s last quarter century of random research, no new technologies of major significance were developed.

It is this method of constituency-driven, unfocused, never-completed, and perpetually incoherent research activity that Holdren proposes as the basis for NASA’s flight into the future.

According to Holdren, the three new “game-changing” technologies that NASA must develop before it attempts to design missions to the asteroids or Mars are electrically powered space thrusters, orbiting depots for propellant storage and refueling, and advanced heavy-lift boosters.

Given current technology, we can do a round-trip mission to a near-Earth asteroid or a one-way transit to Mars in six months—a time no greater than a standard crew shift on the space station. Holdren claims that we need to develop electrically powered space thrusters to speed such trips up. Thus advised, President Obama argued in his April 15 speech that “critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems.” But without gigantic nuclear-powered reactors to provide them with juice, such “breakthrough” thrusters are useless, and the administration has no intention of developing such reactors. So far from enabling quick trips to Mars, the research effort on the unnecessary and unpowerable electric thruster simply provides an excuse for not flying anywhere at all.

The orbital propellant depot’s potential utility as a way to enable new manned missions has never been established. To the contrary, none of NASA’s recent designs for Moon or Mars missions has involved refueling spacecraft from orbital propellant stations. To insist that mission architects adopt such a strategy because “this is the technology we are working on” is to force the program to accept a suboptimal system design based on an arbitrary decision to favor onetechnology.

Finally, it is simply not the case that we need new technologies to create heavy-lift launch systems. We not only know how to build them; we actually flew our first heavy-lifter, the Saturn, in 1967, just five years after the Apollo-program contract to create it was signed. In the period since, however, instead of missions requiring booster-production contracts, NASA funded a series of launcher-technology research programs.1 None of these resulted in the development of any real-flight hardware. Under the Constellation program, NASA developed a fully satisfactory design for a Saturn 5 equivalent booster, which it called the Ares 5. Yet, instead of proceeding with its development, Holdren has canceled it, promising to produce a new design, after further research, by 2015. But all that is needed to give us a functioning heavy-lift booster is a decision to build it, which will never happen until there is a suitable mission.

Thus, without the guidance supplied by a driving mission, under the new Obama space policy another 10 years and more than $100 billion will be spent by NASA’s human spaceflight program without achieving anything significant. We may take part in another 20 flights to low Earth orbit, but together with the Russians, we have already flown there some 300 times over the past half-century. Spending a king’s ransom to raise that total to 320 hardly seems worthwhile. Under the Obama plan, we may research some interesting technologies, but without a mission plan to guide their selection, they won’t be the right technologies, they won’t be realized as actual flight systems, they won’t fit together, and they won’t take us anywhere.

The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. President Obama should give it to them. To do that, he needs to put real commitment behind his visionary rhetoric. That means a real program whose effort will commence not in some future administration but rather in his own; one whose goal is not Mars in our dreams but Mars in our time.

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To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness of strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes from freedom—these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

—Frederick Jackson Turner,
The Significance of the Frontier
in American History, 1893

For many years, some of those on the political left have opposed the space program on the grounds that its funding would do more good if applied to various social needs on Earth. This is, at least, an arguableposition.

Yet the administration’s proposal to paralyze the space program hasn’t a thing to do with competition for funding. Quite the contrary: in order to make the plan palatable to NASA and its contractors, the president has offered to increase the agency’s funding by

$6 billion over the next six years. During the mid-years of the coming decade, for example, Obama’s budget proposes to fund the space-station program at a rate of $3 billion per year, even though the nation will neither be conducting any launches to the space station nor building any new modules for it. Billions more will be spent updating the shuttle launch pads, no matter that the shuttles themselves will no longer be flying and that no new launchers will be developed to take their place. Still more will be spent on crew capsules that can only fly down, orbital propellant depots for refueling nonexistent interplanetary spaceships, and electric rockets without sockets to provide them with power.

So if it’s not about the money, why does the Obama administration wish to derail NASA? The answer can only be that objections lie not with what the agency gets but rather with what it does. There is good reason to believe that the administration doesn’t like what NASA, and in particular NASA’s human spaceflight program, represents.

NASA may be a government agency with the usual bureaucratic attributes, but it is also something else—it is the epitome of the pioneer spirit. The agency’s formative adventure—and, in a very real sense, the agency itself—was launched by an administration whose slogan was “The New Frontier.” It is not without meaning that so many of its craft have names like Liberty, Freedom, Pioneer, Voyager, Discovery, Endeavor, Pathfinder, Opportunity, and so on. Its astronauts are heroes in the most classic Homeric sense of the term, voluntarily risking death to do great deeds and win eternal glory.

The values championed by the Obama administration are comfort, security, protection, and dependence. But the frontier sings to our souls with different ideals, telling stirring tales of courage, risk, initiative, inventiveness, independence, and self-reliance. Considered as a make-work bureaucracy, NASA may be perfectly acceptable to those currently in power. But for mentalities that would criminalize the failure to buy health insurance, the notion of a government agency that celebrates the pioneer ethos by risking its crews on daring voyages of exploration across vast distances to terra incognita can only be repellent.

There is still a more imperative and even transcendent way in which NASA’s human spaceflight program plays within our society’s war of ideas. This has to do with our general view of the human future and whether we consider it to be closed or open.

The closed-future theory is one based on the doctrine of limited resources. Its classic formulation can be found in the early-19th-century writings of Thomas Malthus, but in its general form, the construct boils down to this: (A) There isn’t enough of x to go around, where x = food supplies, lebensraum, naturalresources, carbon-use permissions, etc., as fashiondictates. (B) Therefore, human aspirations must be suppressed. (C) Thus, authorities must be empowered to effectsuppression.

The Obama administration has embraced the closed-future theory in its latest “global-warming-requires-carbon-consumption-constraints” incarnation. For Holdren, however, the closed future is not merely a current fad to incorporate into a political portfolio. It has been central to his ideology and preoccupations throughout his career, going back well before global warming became the Malthusian limit du jour.Holdren has co-authored several books with PaulEhrlich, the Stanford University insect ecologist and perennial panic merchant who wrote the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. (As a solution to this problem, Ehrlich advocated that the U.S. force sterilization programs on the Third World and set up a domestic Bureau of Population and Environment to issue childbirth permits to American citizens.) In 1988, Holdren and Ehrlich co-organized and led “The Cassandra Conference,” which put forth a menu of potential threats usable for justifying global regulation. These included overpopulation, industrial resource exhaustion, acid rain, deforestation, food shortages, energy shortages, the arms race, toxic pollution, runaway technology, and global cooling. In the first chapter of the proceedings of this conference, global “triage” advocate Garrett Hardin writes: “The idea of Progress has become a religion for many in our time. As evidence consider a statement made by the astronaut Scott Carpenter?.?.?.?‘I know—I am absolutely positive—that anything a man can imagine, he can accomplish.’”

Which is exactly the fundamental complaint that the closed-future folks have with the human space-exploration program: it makes people think that everything is possible. The issue is not that resources from space might disrupt the would-be regulators’ rationing schemes. Rather, it is that the idea of an open future with unlimited resources undermines the walls of the mental prison that the self-appointed wardens of mankind seek to construct.

The closed futurists require us to believe that our possibilities are exhausted. But by opening the expansion of the human domain to new worlds, the space program proudly relays the opposite message for all to hear; that we are not done, that far from living at the end of history, we are living at the beginning of history.

It is a message of true audacity and hope, and clearly not acceptable to John Holdren. The question is whether it is acceptable to Barack Obama.


Footnotes

1 Shuttle C, NASP, ALS, NLS, X-33, Spacelifter, and the Space Launch Initiative

About the Author

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is president of the Mars Society and author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.




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