The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon's Resources (2016)


Implementing the Vision

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) during a visit to NASA Headquarters. The product of almost a full year’s review by the White House and NASA, it outlined a strategic path to reestablish a sense of purpose and direction for the nation’s civil space program.1 The VSE consisted of four major elements: return the Shuttle to flight to complete construction of the International Space Station; develop and build a new human spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), and eventually retire the shuttle; set our space program on a course to the Moon with the object of “living and working there for increasing periods of time”; and eventually, undertake a human mission to Mars. No deadlines were declared for these milestones, although lunar return was given the scheduling guideline of “as early as 2015 but no later than 2020.” Budgetary direction to support the new Vision was articulated: a single, one-time budget augmentation of about $1 billion spread over five years, with the remainder of the funding needed for the implementation of the VSE, about $11 billion, freed up from existing funding through the retirement of the shuttle, since servicing and preparing it for flight was a labor-intensive activity that consumed a large fraction of the agency’s operational human spaceflight budget.

The announcement of the new VSE caught many off guard, and although its reception was mixed in some quarters, the overall reaction to it from most space program observers appeared to be positive. As part of the rollout, it was announced that a commission headed by former Secretary of the Air Force, Edward “Pete” Aldridge, would meet to study how to implement the new space vision and report the various options to the White House within 180 days.

The Aldridge Commission met for the first time in early February 2004 in an office complex in Arlington, Virginia. I was a staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory at that time. The other commissioners were planetary scientists Laurie Leshin and Maria Zuber, astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson, former Congressman Bob Walker, General Les Lyles, former Deputy Secretary of Transportation Michael Jackson, and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Most of us had served on various space advisory committees before and knew what was expected of us. At our first meeting, we went around the table, assessing exactly where we all stood in regard to our task and the Vision. While all were supportive and excited about the new VSE, everyone expressed a concern for the need to develop and to articulate a strong rationale for a continuing, sustained program. Perhaps with a bit too much optimism, we thought that we could weave such a rationale into the report, both as an underpinning logic to our recommendations (whatever they were to be) but also for use by both the administration and NASA to help “sell” the VSE to congressional appropriators.

Our work was prefaced with a series of presentations given by the various administrative codes of NASA (Space Science, Human Spaceflight, and so on). These summaries were designed to inform our group on what the various parts of the agency saw as their mission challenges and what they planned to do in response. Ed Weiler, then associate administrator for space science, gave one of the earliest presentations. A bullet point on one of his slides read, “activities on the Moon will be minimized and restricted only to those that support human Mars missions.” It was surprising to see this statement; after all, President Bush’s speech had been specific and concrete about activities for the Moon (something unusual in a presidential speech), indicating that learning to live and work on the Moon for increasing periods was a major objective of the VSE. It became clear that Weiler’s understanding, along with several others at the agency (especially in the Space Science section) was something entirely different from the straightforward language of the Vision. He took the position that the VSE was almost entirely about human Mars missions. When I pointed out this discrepancy to Weiler, my concern was dismissed without a meaningful response, only a comment to the effect that “this is how we understand the Vision.” Almost immediately, the lunar parts of the VSE were deemphasized, with a gradual yet perceptible shift towards using the Moon as a mere testing ground for the Mars mission.2

I was able to trace this evolution in a series of both official and internal agency documents, ending with the Weiler interpretation of “minimal activity on the Moon.” The origins of this intellectual disconnect go back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, with something called the NASA Decadal Planning Team—DPT, later called NEXT, for NASA Exploration Team.3 Chartered under Administrator Dan Goldin, this group was tasked with mapping a path for human missions beyond low Earth orbit, ultimately leading to a Mars mission. Although Goldin was fixated on Mars, the DPT focused primarily on nearer term objectives in cislunar space, including the libration points—that is, points in space that remain fixed in relation to Earth, Moon, and Sun—and the lunar surface. Additionally, both asteroid missions and missions to the moons of Mars were considered. The rationale behind the stepping-stone approach was to offer flexibility to some future administration that might be interested in a long-term, deep space goal for human spaceflight. The agency still maintained their fixation with Mars, and the idea was prevalent throughout the DPT that any activity on the lunar surface detracted from and delayed the Mars mission.4 In consequence, mission planning before the VSE did consider lunar missions but only in a cursory manner.

Although we knew by 2000 that the poles of the Moon probably harbored ice deposits, water production from polar deposits was not included as part of any lunar surface architecture. Moreover, the key finding from Clementine that areas of quasi-permanent sunlight could be found near the poles (enabling sustained permanent presence on the Moon) was acknowledged but not integrated into a useful surface operations plan. In fairness, during those years of the DPT-NEXT, the agency had no authorization to proceed beyond the ISS and shuttle, so their studies, while interesting and useful in terms of what capabilities could be developed, could not be implemented or even integrated into any long-range strategic plan.

The thrust of agency efforts in this era was the emphasis on the quest for extraterrestrial life,5 both the actual search for life elsewhere and use of “the quest” as a driving political and programmatic rationale for exploration beyond LEO. In part, this was a natural outgrowth of the parallel and continuing robotic Mars program. However, that intellectual milieu meant that when human missions were to be considered, lunar surface activities (which were thought then to be largely irrelevant to studies of life’s origins, an incorrect but widely held belief) tended to be deemphasized. I believe that this fixation with finding life on Mars held and still holds the agency hostage, unable to consider activities on the Moon to be anything other than a technology demonstration in preparation for a human Mars mission. Thus, when the VSE was announced, although considerable verbiage was devoted to detailing the activities to be undertaken on the Moon, the agency heard only one word as its destination: Mars. In consequence, the previous focus on the “search for life” carried over to become the underpinning science rationale for the new VSE.

The Vision, as originally articulated, was specific and quite different. The Moon in the VSE was to serve as a laboratory, a workshop, and a logistics depot. The idea was to learn how to use the material and energy resources of space (including lunar polar ice) to create new spaceflight capability.6 Many misunderstood or dismissed this latter concept. The Moon’s role in the VSE was mischaracterized as “landing the Mars spacecraft on the Moon for testing and refueling.” In fact, the significance of the Moon in the Vision was to use it to develop technologies useful for future missions, as well as to develop lunar resources to fuel the missions to distant destinations. This concept was the vision in the VSE.

The Aldridge Commission held public meetings in Dayton, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., to gather information and testimony from local experts and to give the public a chance to weigh in with their concerns and hopes for the direction of human spaceflight. Subgroups of the commission undertook fact-finding trips to the various NASA field centers with the aim of understanding whether all of the centers were needed to execute the VSE, or whether a different management model might be employed to make NASA more efficient. To evaluate the possible roles of the commercial sector in implementing the VSE, we gathered a considerable amount of information from the space industry. All the while, I attempted to revector the effort back toward its original intent of learning how to use space resources.7 Finally, we examined the configuration of management within NASA and deliberated on how to make the agency both more efficient and more accountable in the completion of its assigned tasks.

The Aldridge Commission report was issued in July 2004.8 Even though its recommendations were reasonable and moderate, only a few were seriously considered and even fewer were eventually implemented. Our idea for NASA to procure delivery of goods and people to low Earth orbit eventually resulted in the Commercial Cargo and Crew program. Engineering management buzzwords like “spiral development” were eagerly embraced by the agency, but such enthusiasm did not move the ball forward to any great degree. Some ideas were conspicuously ignored, such as resurrecting the National Space Council to act as an oversight body for NASA and the idea to turn field centers into federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC), a mode of operation in which a university manages an agency field center—NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by Caltech, operates this way. This structure permits easier personnel recruitment and turnover, and it allows centers to seek new business from the private sector—features designed to keep field centers technically strong and their management more nimble and responsive to rapidly changing fiscal and programmatic conditions.

That the commission’s report was largely tabled is probably not too surprising. However, I was surprised at what I perceived to be the extreme inertia of the agency in getting the VSE started. The obvious first step in any lunar return was to fly a robotic mission to follow up on the Clementine and Lunar Prospector polar discoveries. Mapping the Moon globally at high precision and resolution would create a database of strategic knowledge to help plan and execute future missions. An agency call went out to the scientific community (called an “Announcement of Opportunity,” or AO) to propose instruments to fly to the Moon on a mission called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Among the many specifications of new, required strategic data was one to “identify putative deposits of appreciable near-surface water ice in polar cold traps at ~100 m spatial resolution.”9 At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, I was part of a team that proposed an imaging radar for the LRO mission to address this requirement.10 We also proposed flying a smaller, less capable radar instrument that could fit on the Indian Space Research Organization’s forthcoming Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon as a guest payload. Radar would be useful to map the shadowed, cratered regions near the poles, data needed to study the RF reflection properties of the interiors of these craters to determine if ice might be present there.

To our surprise, the radar instrument (Mini-SAR) was selected for India’s Chandrayaan, along with a spectral imager (Moon Mineralogy Mapper or M3) as a second American guest payload—but not for America’s LRO mission. In fact, the selected payload for LRO contained no radar instrument at all. Instead, to infer the distribution of water, a Russian neutron detector was chosen, a design that experts told us was probably inadequate to produce hydrogen maps of the poles at the high resolution required by the AO. These decisions, made in early 2005, caused great concern among those of us working toward lunar permanence and resource use; it appeared to be a selection designed more to check off a box on a chart rather than one geared toward the gathering useful strategic knowledge. Our rejection was appealed to the Administrator of NASA and after some wrangling, the Mini-RF radar was approved for flight on LRO. This administrative fracas led to some resentment toward the radar experiment by some of the LRO project people at NASA–Goddard Space Flight Center. Our Mini-RF experiment was accommodated on the LRO mission as a “tech demo,” and although the project had been directed by senior management to accommodate Mini-RF, our team had to fight for observing time and spacecraft resources during the nominal mission.

Flying the radar on the Indian mission was more gratifying.11 Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first mission to deep space and the Indians were quite excited and proud of their maiden efforts in trans-LEO spaceflight. The Chandrayaan spacecraft was relatively small, about the size of Clementine, yet very capable. It carried not only precision imaging cameras but also flew instruments to map the mineralogy and chemistry of the surface. The two American experiments flown on Chandrayaan, our Mini-SAR radar instrument (built by Raytheon and APL) and the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (built by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) had to get approval from the State Department before we could fly them to the Moon. I was told at the beginning of this effort that because of sensitivities to export control issues, it was highly unlikely that we could get permission to fly the Mini-SAR on India’s mission. But it turned out that our application to participate on Chandrayaan coincided with a presidential-level initiative to improve US-India relations. As a result, the State Department was very supportive of our effort. A last-minute intervention by the White House led to the approval of the export license. Mini-SAR became the first American scientific experiment to propose and be selected to fly on an Indian space mission.

I made almost a dozen trips to India over four years. Each one-way journey required roughly twenty-six hours in transit and lasted only a few days; the nearly twelve-hour time difference between India and America played havoc with my internal clock. The upside was that the Indians were a pleasure to work with. They were enthusiastic about going to the Moon and their mission received a lot of local publicity. Whenever I told anyone why I had come to India, the universal response was excitement and an eagerness to learn more about the mission. After selection, the actual work of flying an experiment in space largely involves attendance at innumerable meetings, where the arcane details of each system and every part are described and debated. During design, assembly, and test, scientists have little real work to do; we determine and define the parameters of the instrument and devise a plan to collect the data, but ordinarily, our work happens during and after the flight, when the data streams down and must be reduced, formatted, and interpreted. Many of us view preflight work as paying dues for the fun work to follow. And as many can attest, all of this planning and effort can just as easily go up in flames if the launch does likewise.

The LRO version of the instrument was a bit more challenging. The LRO radar was to operate in two radio frequencies at two different ground resolutions, but the Mini-SAR and Mini-RF instruments were basically the same. In terms of operation time, Chandrayaan was scheduled to launch about a year before LRO. It was hoped that we would obtain full data for both poles from Chandrayaan, which in turn would help us plan to take high-resolution data of interesting areas with the LRO Mini-RF build. During an extended mission and with a little luck, we might even be able to collect enough data to make a radar reflectance map of the entire Moon, detailing slope distributions and locating jagged rock fields on a global basis.

The Fate of the VSE at NASA: What’s the Mission?

Although much of my time was spent working on the two radar instruments, I was also on a number of advisory and analysis groups at NASA dealing with the implementation of the lunar phase of the VSE. Once the Aldridge Commission submitted its report, the new Exploration Systems Mission Division (ESMD) began its process to define the spacecraft, dubbed Project Constellation,12 and the missions that would constitute our nation’s new space program. Despite the clear, strategic direction NASA had been given regarding the Vision, in those early planning stages, there was growing cause for concern about the fate of the VSE.

The head of ESMD at NASA, Admiral Craig Steidle, who came to the VSE from another large engineering project, the Defense Department’s Joint Strike Fighter program, had no spaceflight experience. The then-current vogue in large engineering projects was a technique called spiral development.13 The spiral plan called for four sequential stages: develop requirements, analyze risks, build and test, and evaluate results. The product becomes the new “block” to be refined in the next spiral. Another name for this process is “build a little, test a little.” The idea is to pursue the most promising designs by not committing to a final version until significant experience and test data are acquired. NASA’s devotion to this new management voodoo was reminiscent of many previously embraced business school fads, such as Total Quality Management (TQM). One notable employer of spiral development, amazingly enough, was the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the project whence Steidle came and one renowned for being years behind schedule and billions of dollars over cost.

Thus, from the first step, with the development of requirements and a seemingly endless exercise called technology “road mapping,” the VSE at NASA started off slowly—and then tapered off. Many different experts in science and engineering were brought together at great time and expense to opine on what the new spaceflight systems had to accomplish, in what order, and to what degree of fidelity. This involved building complicated spreadsheets whose contents were populated by technologies, instruments, and knowledge needs. The problem with this activity is that too often, problem definition becomes a substitute for actual programmatic progress, since critical decisions can always be deferred while awaiting better defined or more perfectly understood requirements.

Lest it seem that no progress was being made, there was one activity in the post-VSE announcement era that warrants special mention. Associate Administrator for Spaceflight Bill Readdy had pulled together an informal study team (taken from his section of engineers and experts) to examine a possible path to implementing the VSE. While the agency had an internal “red team/blue team” study effort, which came up with the lunar “touch-and-go” concept, Readdy put together what was called the “Gold Team,” whose mandate was to examine unorthodox approaches to implement the Vision. The Gold Team looked at the issue of developing a new human trans-LEO capability, while at the same time returning the shuttle to flight and completing the construction of the ISS.

The Gold Team found that the original charge to the agency—to return to flight, finish building the ISS, and develop a new human space vehicle, all with the aim of returning to the Moon by 2015—was achievable if certain architectural choices were made early. The most significant feature of their approach was to retain the shuttle launch infrastructure to support the first two milestones and then use that asset to build the shuttle side-mount heavy lift launcher, a derived vehicle that used shuttle engines, external tank, solid rocket boosters, and all of the existing Cape infrastructure. The advantage of shuttle side-mount was that by using existing pieces, it would require minimal new development. As will become clear, the reason that Project Constellation was cancelled is rooted in escalating, higher than expected early development costs that continually pushed its projected first flight farther and farther out into the future. If NASA had chosen to go down the path of the Gold Team, we would have completed the ISS and retired the shuttle on schedule, and the new shuttle side-mount would have been ready to fly humans by 2015.

The advantage of the Gold Team approach was that by adopting shuttle side-mount, most of the development costs for new deep-space systems could be focused where they were most needed: on the new CEV and a robust program of robotic precursor missions to the Moon. The CEV at this stage was undefined; it could have taken the shape of an Apollo-type capsule, as it ultimately did under the Constellation program as the Orion spacecraft, or it could have been the more flexible “bent biconic” design,14 an aerodynamically shaped body similar to that of the Blue Origin commercial spacecraft. This latter design could have served as a pathfinder development for a Mars entry vehicle, as they have similar aerodynamic shapes and would be able to land on its tail under thrust, permitting soft, dry landing at the launch site, like the shuttle. Separate crew modules derived from ISS hardware would serve as cislunar transfer vehicles.

The original VSE called for a significant and robust program of robotic missions, but the Gold Team took this further by using such missions to emplace infrastructure on the Moon. A large robotic lander was planned, designed to use solar-electric propulsion (SEP) and large solar arrays to spiral out slowly from LEO to the Moon and then use a LOX-hydrogen rocket to land up to several metric tons on the lunar surface. After landing this payload, a mobile lander platform would separate and the large solar arrays that powered the SEP would become part of the electrical power-generating infrastructure of the outpost. Through this approach, we would begin to establish a permanent lunar surface outpost, a facility eventually to be used by humans. By predeploying habitats and subsystems on the Moon using unmanned spacecraft, we could make the human-rated systems smaller (reducing development costs), yet adequate (taking advantage of preemplaced assets). The innovative use of robotic missions by the Gold Team was a significant departure from ordinary agency practice, whereby robotic missions are used primarily for the acquisition of scientific and engineering data, which are then used to design the human vehicles. Instead, the Gold Team advocated using robotic assets in tandem, and in parallel, with the human spacecraft and missions.

Although the Gold Team architectural approach had much to commend it, both in technical and in fiscal terms, Readdy was not the agency point man designated to make these choices. Steidle and the Office of Exploration were aware of this work but did not take it seriously, insisting instead on pursuing their road mapping and spiral development approach—which, in this case, consisted mostly of deferring decisions indefinitely. The only effort proceeding to actual flight was LRO—planned as the first in a series of robotic exploration precursor missions sent by spacefaring nations around the world to the Moon.

A New Administrator and the ESAS

Early in 2005, Sean O’Keefe announced his decision to leave NASA to become chancellor of Louisiana State University. Michael D. Griffin was tapped as the new administrator, coming to NASA with an impressive background of engineering and management experience backed up by seven university degrees.15 I knew Mike from the Synthesis Group days, when he was one of our senior members, and from the Clementine project, where he was deputy director for technology in the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. Griffin also served as the associate administrator for exploration at NASA during the SEI days, although as we have seen, that program was abandoned. A visionary, Mike was and is a strong advocate for a vigorous and expansive human space program. Around the time of the VSE rollout, Griffin had led a study sponsored by the Planetary Society, outlining an architecture for human missions beyond LEO, primarily driven by the requirements for human Mars missions.16 This plan was notable for its use of a crew launch vehicle derived from a single shuttle solid rocket booster, an innovation that generated much comment and subsequent controversy.

Griffin decided that NASA had wasted the last eighteen months with road mapping exercises and spiral development and summarily dismissed Steidle. In his place, Griffin brought in Scott “Doc” Horowitz, a former astronaut and the engineer who had come up with the idea for the “stick,” the SRB-based launch vehicle. To move the ball down the field, one of the first things Griffin did after assuming agency leadership was to convene an ad hoc study group to design an architecture for missions beyond LEO. This effort, dubbed the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS),17 was conducted from midsummer to the fall of 2005. The lead engineer was Doug Stanley of Georgia Tech who led a team of mostly NASA engineers from Headquarters and the field centers. I was a member of this group, but my involvement was focused only on lunar surface activities and the identification of possible landing sites. I was not involved in any major decisions about the spacecraft and launch vehicles of the architecture.

The ESAS team began with a set of assumptions about the requirements of the new transportation system and how it would be used. The study embraced the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB)18 to separate crew and cargo, thought to be a safety issue, although no one could really give a logical rationale for it. There was a sense that launching a rocket with the crew positioned on the side of the vehicle, like the shuttle, was inherently unsafe, although this specific idea is not part of the CAIB report. It is difficult to justify this edict on technical grounds, since 134 shuttle flights safely launched people in this configuration and in the one accident that occurred during launch, Challenger, the crew and their cabin survived the explosion and would have lived had the cabin been equipped with parachutes; they were instead killed on impact with the sea. This ground rule was important because it meant that adoption of a shuttle side-mount design as a launch vehicle would likely require three vehicles per lunar mission rather than two, a consequence later used to justify the elimination of the side-mount option. The new architecture was mandated to serve ISS crew and cargo requirements, in addition to lunar surface missions, even though the then-current plan called for ending American participation in the ISS around the time that the new systems were to come online. Certainly this was not the first time in the history of the space program that an architecture was devised under the constraints of arbitrary and illogical ground rules, but serious consequences were to emerge from these boundary conditions.

The ESAS work came up with an interesting solution to the architectural problem of launch, something they called the “1.5 launch vehicle” solution. In brief, the study advocated the development of two different launch vehicles: a smaller (20 ton) crew launch vehicle identical to the Planetary Society’s SRB “stick” rocket (Ares I), and a larger (130 ton) shuttle-derived, inline vehicle (Ares V) to carry cargo and heavy payloads (launching two differently sized vehicles led to the nickname). A single mission would use both vehicles; the lunar lander and Earth departure stage would be launched on the large Ares V as “cargo,” while the crew would be launched separately on the smaller Ares I. The two spacecraft would rendezvous in Earth orbit, dock, and then depart for the Moon. The rest of the mission profile followed the same pattern as the Apollo missions: lunar orbit insertion, landing, ascent, rendezvous, and return to Earth in the Orion CEV. Both the Orion CEV and the Altair lunar lander were larger, more capable versions of the Apollo CSM and Lunar Module. Because of Constellation’s similarity of appearance and mission profile to the Apollo missions, Mike Griffin once referred to this architecture as “Apollo on steroids,” an unfortunate characterization that reverberates to this day.

The ESAS report was released in October 2005 to less than universal acclaim, with many noting the similarity of the new plan to the old Apollo template. In fact, although the new plan would create considerable capability, the flying of individual, one-off missions whereby most pieces are discarded after a single use, reverted us back to an earlier era of the space program. As in Apollo, only the crew command module (Orion) would return to Earth. The individual missions would carry a larger crew of four and stay on the lunar surface longer, up to two weeks. The large capacity of the Altair lunar lander meant that significant cargo could be placed on the Moon, permitting an outpost to be established with a minimal number of launches.

An important point to understand about the ESAS architecture is that its heavy lift launch vehicle (Ares V, starting out at 130 metric tons, but expandable to 160 metric tons) is scaled for human Mars missions staged entirely from Earth; its utility for the lunar missions is genuine but only incidental. A mission to the Moon requires roughly 100–120 metric tons in LEO (depending on how the mission is configured, its equipment and destination). This could be accomplished with two medium-class heavy lift launches (70 metric ton; shuttle side-mount) or the launch of a single, large vehicle (Saturn V-class). The Ares V is much larger than what is needed for routine missions to the Moon. But if the requirement is to deliver pieces of a 500-metric-ton Mars spacecraft to LEO, then transporting it with as few launches as possible greatly reduces overall risk. Clearly, the ESAS was looking ahead to the future where it was thought that NASA would get only one chance to develop an entirely new space transportation system in the new century and its objective was to plant the American flag on Mars. The seed of the problem had been planted and the future of spaceflight envisioned through the lens of the Apollo program—with disposable spacecraft and everything launched from Earth—became unaffordable and thus unsustainable. It still is. More important, it discarded the original point of the VSE: to learn how to use the material and energy resources of the Moon to create new spaceflight capability.

Lest anyone think that this latter point was unclear or had been inadequately presented—after all, the VSE had been unveiled in a relatively brief presidential speech two years previously—in March 2006, Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger gave one of the finest speeches I ever heard on the meaning of the VSE and on a rationale for spaceflight in general.19 Speaking at the annual Goddard Space Symposium, Marburger carefully laid out the physical difficulties of spaceflight and articulated why the Moon has a critical role to play in creating new capabilities in space. He posed a key question: “What is the purpose of our civil space program?” Marburger then stated that “questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the solar system in our economic sphere, or not.” And he provided an answer: “For a space program to serve national scientific, economic and security interests, we must learn to use what we find in space to create new capabilities, starting with the material and energy resources of the Moon.” Marburger also pointed out that such a mission had much greater long-term societal value than space activities “confined to a single nearby destination or to a fleeting dash to plant a flag.” Because the Moon is close, reachable, and useful, it was chosen as the centerpiece of the VSE. Mars was a destination reserved for the future, after we had mastered the new skills and technology needed for spacefaring.

Apparently, few in the agency heard or read Marburger’s speech because NASA either misunderstood their charter in the VSE or deliberately torqued it away from the intended direction. An Exploration Strategy Workshop, held in April 2006 in Washington, gathered an international cadre of about 150 space experts for a four-day meeting to identify why we were going to the Moon and how to best accomplish those goals. The boundary conditions were the features and limitations of the ESAS architecture; otherwise, the agenda was completely open. I was stunned by the premise of this meeting. The VSE speech of January 2004 was the clearest, most unambiguous strategic direction given to the space agency by a president since John F. Kennedy’s Apollo declaration.20 Yet two years later, NASA decided to convene a group to come up with a rationale for lunar return and to envision a set of activities once we got there. The agenda for and mindset of this meeting convinced me that the VSE was in serious trouble.

The workshop attendees deliberated over the course of three days, drawing up six major “themes” for lunar return: human civilization, scientific knowledge, exploration preparation, global partnerships, economic expansion, and public engagement. Flowing from those six broad-based themes was a “grid” of specific requirements and activities, 186 entries identifying what would become the input to the succeeding Lunar Architecture Team (LAT). Although the ESAS specified the hardware and mission profiles, exactly how they would be used, which events and in what order they would take place on the Moon, were yet to be specified. With workshop results having “told us” why we were going to the Moon, we could begin to focus on the “how.”

Among the topics to be grappled with were the sites on the Moon to be visited, whether to set up an outpost or conduct multiple sortie visits, and which investigations to conduct and in what order. The LAT consisted of scientists and engineers who would meet several times per year but would mostly perform their work at their home institutions. Tony Lavoie, an engineer from NASA-Marshall in Huntsville, chaired the first LAT. Tony and I had previously worked together on planning the later-canceled second lunar robotic mission, a lander and rover designed to map and characterize the ice deposits in the permanently dark areas near the poles. We knew something about the lunar polar environment from Clementine and LP, and the soon-to-fly LRO would add detailed knowledge that would allow us to pick the optimum landing sites for surface activities.

The first LAT came up with solid, defensible conclusions, especially in regard to mission mode and priority activities.21 The most important decision made was to focus lunar return on the establishment of an outpost near one of the poles of the Moon; which pole was to be decided after LRO and some surface rover data had been collected. The principal reason for an outpost is that you can concentrate assets at a single locality and rapidly build up capability. The alternate approach is to conduct sortie missions, which permit visiting many different sites with wide geographic and geologic diversity but preclude the concentration of assets, since the sites would be abandoned after each mission. The sortie strategy was the Apollo template writ large; the outpost approach would mean permanence, or at least long-term habitation, and the opportunity to build a production-level resource processing facility. Unlike many within NASA, Lavoie clearly understood the real meaning of the VSE: to return to the Moon and learn the skills needed for extended space presence and capability. Under his leadership, for the first time since its announcement, the VSE began to move toward a mission more inline with its original intent.

Despite its many good deeds, the LAT activity was still entrained within the NASA system and hence, was required to address the 186-entry “spreadsheet of death,” as we called the table of activities and events to be accommodated while on the Moon. The practical effect of this was to diffuse the LAT effort away from its primary mission direction—a resource-processing outpost—into a nebulous, NASA lunar exploration mission. Most insidiously, the lunar “touch-and-go” on the way to Mars, the “real” objective, slowly crept back into the architecture. This happened largely during the second round of architectural planning (imaginatively named “LAT-2”) in which sortie missions became the new baseline. In part, this was an agency reaction to an outcry during the public rollout of the LAT-1 plans in December 2006.22 The usual suspects—the Planetary Society, media, various individuals—were greatly concerned that a significant amount of time and effort was to be expended on the Moon, thus delaying their Apollo-type “sprint” to Mars. A common phrase during this time was the expression of desire to get to Mars “in my lifetime,” a requirement not derived from any programmatic principle I can discover. In short, the “sprint to Mars” cabal within and outside of the agency had struck back.

The report of the LAT-1 team at the end of 2006 was the high-water mark of the VSE. Although many in the agency still refused to “understand” precisely why we were going to the Moon, a solid, logical plan of action had been developed. Both the Chandrayaan-1 and LRO mission developments were proceeding well, as was our work on building the Mini-RF imaging radars to map the poles. Because LRO had grown in mass and had outgrown its original Delta II launch vehicle, a new Atlas booster with extra payload capacity was procured. Consequently, ESMD looked for a possible secondary payload to send to the Moon with the LRO spacecraft. A concept was proposed by the NASA–Ames Research Center to crash the expended Centaur upper stage of the Atlas launch vehicle into one of the poles of the Moon and observe the ejecta plume of that impact with a small spacecraft following behind, unlike the previous Lunar Prospector effort in 1999, which attempted to observe the ejecta plume only with Earth-based telescopes. If ice is present on the Moon, it was hoped that we would observe it in this plume. This add-on mission was called the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS).23 It was something of a gamble, since it might miss any putative ice deposits or fail to see those that are present, but was thought to be worth trying. As it turned out, this mission would be the first—and to date, the only—ground truth for the lunar poles that we would get.

The Decline and Fall of the VSE

As the momentum to demote the Moon’s role in the Vision grew, Project Constellation started to run into technical issues and mass growth, and consequently, budgetary problems. One issue was the sizing of the new Orion spacecraft. In order to accommodate its larger crew with amenities such as a kitchen and a toilet, the decision was made during the ESAS to adopt a 5-meter diameter for the vehicle (the Apollo command module was 3.9 meters in diameter). This larger spacecraft might have made travel around cislunar space more enjoyable, but such comfort came at a serious cost. The increase in size and mass meant that Orion outgrew its Ares I (“the stick”) launch vehicle. Despite an attempt to solve this problem by adding another solid rocket motor segment to the Ares I, now with a five-segment first stage, it was found that to achieve orbit, the vehicle would need to fire the service module engine, much as the shuttle orbiter used its orbital maneuvering engines to finalize its attainment of LEO. This issue was accompanied by concerns over a high-frequency vibration called thrust oscillation during the burn of the Ares I first stage solid-propellant motor; it was feared that this thrust oscillation could temporarily incapacitate the crew during critical abort phases of the ascent. Although these problems all had solutions, the problem was that they did not have any “no-cost, no-mass” solutions.

The basic problem with Orion was that it was oversized for its role as simple transport to and from LEO to support the ISS (part of the ESAS ground rules) and even as a cislunar vehicle. Worse, it was undersized in its role as a Mars spacecraft, being useful for only two phases of the mission: crew departure from the Earth and aerothermal entry upon return. For true, long-duration flights, Constellation would need to carry a separate habitation module. But such a requirement negated the rationale for providing Orion with a kitchen and toilet, which drove its larger size to begin with. Thus, we were (and still are) developing a new human spacecraft that was simultaneously too big for its early uses and too small for its intended later one.

As technical issues grew, the agency’s annual budget requests began to increase. When budgetary increases failed to materialize, the scope of agency activities decreased. An early casualty of this new austerity was the lunar robotic program. The second robotic mission to the Moon was to have been a surface lander and rover, designed to follow up on the water discoveries from orbit and measure the type and quantity of water present in the surface, critical information needed to use the resource. Other robotic missions were designed to emplace infrastructure such as communications relays so that landings at the poles and on the far side could be undertaken, and to test resource extraction techniques such as water production on the surface. Because of budgetary pressures caused by Constellation’s development problems, all these missions were deferred to “later,” which became “never.” This deferral of the robotic program was a blatant neglect of the specific direction within the VSE that a “series of robotic missions to the Moon be undertaken” as part of lunar return.

Few observers in Washington ever thought that the VSE would be fully implemented with the minimal new investment that NASA had been promised during the Bush roll out. But it seemed to many that the agency was not trying very hard to maximize the leverage provided by the use of legacy hardware. The Ares vehicles, although based upon an adaptation of shuttle hardware, required so many modifications that it became a completely new development. And given the problems with accommodating an oversized Orion, most didn’t even want to think about developing its necessary companion, the behemoth Altair lunar lander, supersized because of its dual role as a self-contained human lander/habitat and an automated cargo lander. There were increasing complaints about Constellation, initially from the space community peanut gallery. Over time, criticisms started showing up in congressional hearings. It didn’t help matters that some senior NASA personnel were incapable of explaining exactly why we were going to the Moon in the first place, including some who had been assigned this task as part of their job description.24

Figure 5.1. Mini-RF radar mosaic of the north pole of the Moon. Small craters with bright interiors near the north pole (arrow) are probably filled with water ice. More than a billion tons of water ice are likely available at each pole. (Credit 5.1)

Meanwhile, progress continued on the two robotic lunar missions that had already been approved. In the fall of 2008, I once again made the long journey to India, only this time to the SHAR complex north of Chennai, on the eastern coast where India launches its rockets. SHAR is located on a flat, marshy coastal plain, similar in setting and ambiance to our own Cape Canaveral. On October 22, 2008, after a few days of constant monsoon rain, we finally launched Chandrayaan to the Moon. As it arced eastward over the Indian Ocean, I was able to catch a quick glimpse of the departing rocket through a miraculous break in the cloud cover.25 Following a four-day journey, Chandrayaan inserted into orbit around the Moon and began transmitting data back to Earth. I was at the Mission Control Center in Bangalore for our initial data collect in early November, as a single strip showing some lunar craters near the north pole was downloaded. With our instrument working, we began our first mapping cycle in early February 2009 and over the course of the next month, acquired nearly complete maps of both poles. It would take several months of analysis before we could understand what all the data meant—that water ice does exist in quantity in some of the craters near the poles (figure 5.1).26

The election of Barack Obama as president in November 2008 led to new uncertainty about the fate of Project Constellation and the VSE. During the election campaign, Obama made ambiguous statements of support for the space program, first suggesting that money expended on space might be better spent on “education,” but rapidly changed his tune during an appearance in the electoral vote-rich, critical state of Florida, where he pledged support for Project Constellation. Space supporters were cautiously optimistic upon his assumption of office. Mike Griffin hoped to stay on as NASA administrator but that was not in the cards and his resignation was accepted. While searching for a permanent replacement, Acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese testified to Congress that he did not know what “return to the Moon” meant in the context of his agency’s activities.27 At the time, I thought that this statement by the head of the agency assigned the job of implementing the VSE was the absolute nadir of the American space experience but unfortunately, even lower points were to follow. Eventually, former astronaut and Marine general Charles Bolden was named as the new head of the agency, with space advocate and “Astro Mom” Lori Garver assigned as deputy administrator. Completing this cast of characters was Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren, neo-Malthusian environmentalist and critic of human spaceflight.28

The first space policy decision of the new administration was to appoint a committee to review the space program and make recommendations on whether to continue current efforts or to reorient its goals and/or the means to implement them. This committee, named for its chairman Norman Augustine, formerly CEO of Lockheed-Martin, should not be confused with the earlier, 1990 Augustine Committee.29 This new Augustine committee conducted “independent” cost analyses, performed by the Aerospace Corporation, of current NASA programs, with an eye toward possible alternatives. The committee worked throughout the summer of 2009, holding meetings and listening to testimony from agency engineers on progress with various developments underway as part of Project Constellation. The lack of fulfillment of requested levels of funding was a constant refrain. During their meetings, the Augustine Committee also heard testimony from other parts of the agency, including engineers working on Ares alternatives and the value of using in situ resources to make consumables and propellant on the Moon. You will look long and hard in the committee report to find mention of this evidence, which led many of us to suspect that the committee was well on its way to a predetermined conclusion.

The 2009 Augustine committee report,30 given the grandiose title Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, outlined three possible paths forward. One path emphasized a human Mars mission, deemed technically a bridge too far. Another path described a return to the Moon, deemed too old hat. The third alternative outlined what was called the Flexible Path, deemed just right. In contrast to the first two options, Flexible Path advocated journeys beyond LEO to a variety of destinations beyond the Moon but short of the surface of Mars. Such targets included an L-point, a near Earth asteroid, or one of the moons of Mars. You might recall that this was the same “path of progress” advocated by NASA’s Decadal Planning Team.31 The perceived advantage of Flexible Path was that all of its possible destinations are low gravity objects, so that deep space systems could be developed incrementally without the need to simultaneously develop an “expensive” lander spacecraft. The committee had detailed cost estimates for the various options performed by the Aerospace Corporation to buttress its conclusion that no viable and affordable path forward was possible under the budget guidelines given to them by the White House.

The reaction to the work of the committee was mixed. It was widely and incorrectly interpreted as a slapdown of the Constellation architecture. In fact, the report noted that the chosen Constellation architecture would create the capabilities claimed for it. However, costing estimates suggested to the committee that an additional $3 billion per year was needed to meet the chosen schedule goals of Constellation. Attention mainly focused on the Augustine committee’s Flexible Path architecture, one that promised technology development in the near term and missions to unspecified destinations sometime in the future. Some thought this was a great approach, while others pointed out that nebulous goals and indefinite timelines are, in general, not a good recipe for a space program “worthy of a great nation.”

As always with committee reports, the devil was in the details. Cost estimates provided to the committee by the Aerospace Corporation included excessively large margins and totals came in much higher than other analysts estimated. Moreover, the committee had been presented with evidence showing that modifications to Constellation and other alternatives, such as shuttle side-mount for heavy lift, were possible and affordable without a funding augmentation. Leverage provided by and capabilities created through the use of the resources of the Moon to enable both lunar and martian missions were documented and presented to the committee. Yet, none of these alternative options were given serious consideration.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was on record making public comments suggesting he was not enamored of the VSE goals, particularly the one involving the Moon. He was critical of lunar return and indicated that while he was strongly in favor of a human mission to Mars, he believed that it was far away in cost and time. But no matter what new direction human spaceflight took, Bolden stated that he was against any future change to that direction.32President Obama’s science and technology advisor, John P. Holdren, indicated his desire to make NASA principally responsible for global monitoring of the Earth, with an emphasis on the tracking of climate change from space. It was clear that a correlation of forces was assembling to significantly change the direction and outlook of NASA and the US human space program.

President Obama’s April 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center in Florida outlined his administration’s new space policy.33 At first glance, it appeared to embrace the Flexible Path of the Augustine committee. Obama called for spending on technology development, to be followed by human missions to a near Earth asteroid. He also called for increased efforts to develop commercial capabilities to launch payloads to low Earth orbit. A planned return to the Moon was dismissed with the trite phrase, “we’ve been there—Buzz has been there,” a reference to Buzz Aldrin, who had flown on Air Force One to Florida with the president, apparently giving him the benefit of his vast space expertise during the flight.

The announcement of this new path effectively ended the VSE. More significantly, it was also the end of any strategic direction whatsoever for the American civil space program; that direction had been replaced with rhetoric and flexibility. The promise of spaceflight in the future became the stand-in for real spaceflight in the present. Instead of a mission for people beyond LEO, we were given vague promises of “a spectacular series of space firsts.” Inconceivably, a relatively small, preexisting program designed to help develop commercial resupply of cargo to and from ISS was heralded as the centerpiece of America’s space program—the “new” direction. Gone was the concept of creating a lasting, sustainable spacefaring infrastructure. Back was the template of one-off, stunt missions to plant a flag and leave footprints on some new, exotic, faraway target—it didn’t matter which one—sometime in the distant future, the all too familiar “exciting space program.”

What many forgot or chose to overlook was that with large bipartisan majorities, the VSE had been endorsed by the Congress in two separate NASA authorization bills, once in 2005 and again in 2008.34 Understandably, Congress did not react favorably to Obama’s new direction for the civil space program. In the new 2010 authorization bill, Congress laid out some surprisingly detailed specifications for a new heavy lift launch vehicle. It directed NASA to transform the planned Ares rockets of Constellation into a new heavy lift launch vehicle to be called the Space Launch System,35 or SLS, dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics. While enthusiasts for the new direction decried the Congressional actions as pork, the simple fact was that many on the Hill, sensing that a critical national capability was being irretrievably lost, were concerned with the unabated, scheduled retirement of the shuttle. Orion was retained as the program to develop a new government-designed-and-run human space vehicle.

Interestingly, the resulting 2010 NASA authorization bill kept all the potential destinations of the old VSE, including the surface of the Moon, something else that many have ignored. Despite the fact that this bill was a partial repudiation of his proposed space policy, President Obama signed it into law. NASA architecture teams examined possible human missions beyond LEO, including to an L-point and near Earth asteroids, but an achievable mission that would materially advance our spacefaring capability could not be identified. To disguise the embarrassment of not finding an asteroid that a human crew could reach, the agency embraced the preposterous idea of capturing a small asteroid and returning it to an orbit around the Moon: the Asteroid Return Mission, or ARM.36 At that point, the space rock would be accessible to a human crew using the Orion spacecraft, launched on the new SLS vehicle. This concept was roundly criticized, and most space stakeholders reviled and rejected it, except for those who had advanced the idea in the first place. Congress has yet to embrace the ARM and is split on possible future destinations, although it is still considering a possible Mars flyby, a Phobos landing, an L-point mission, or even (gasp!) lunar return. Everything is up in the air—and we are going nowhere.


So we arrive at the present: a space program without strategic direction and an uncertain future. We have seen the confusion and chaos that resulted from two different presidential attempts to set a long-term direction for the space program. These efforts were torpedoed by a variety of effects and events. Primarily, it was a lack of understanding of the objectives of lunar return or disagreement with them. We had experience with humans on the Moon during the Apollo program, and many, including some inside the space program, could not imagine anything that people could do there that was different than what the Apollo astronauts did—hop around, collect some rocks, ride in an electric golf cart, and fall down a lot. The characterization of Project Constellation as “Apollo on steroids” did nothing to convince and educate people that there were new and exciting possibilities involved in lunar return. Those who were offended by the idea that we were simply “repeating the Apollo experience” on the Moon did not notice that in their alternative program, they were endeavoring to perform that very experience on Mars, with a similar flags-and-footprints extravaganza.

Figure 5.2. Funding for NASA during the first five years of the Vision for Space Exploration. The light color is the agency funding without the VSE, the middle color is promised funding (an additional $1 billion, spread over five years with allowance for inflation) and the dark color is actual funding. In contrast to prevailing myth, NASA received all of the VSE funding that it was promised.

In the years since the demise of Constellation, a common complaint is that President Bush and the Congress did not adequately fund the VSE. This is untrue. On the rollout of the VSE, the amount of funding that NASA was to receive was specified: an additional $1 billion, spread out over the next five years (2005–2009), after which the agency budget was to rise only with inflation. NASA received this funding, although not in equal amounts over that period of time (Figure 5.2).37 The additional funding needed to develop the new CEV and launch vehicles was to come from the “wedge” produced as a result of money freed up by the shuttle retirement and the rampdown of the ISS program. Additionally, Congress formally endorsed the goals of the VSE in two different authorization bills; those two bills passed with large majorities by a Congress under the respective control of both Republicans (2005) and Democrats (2008). Thus, the VSE was a presidential proposal, adopted on a bipartisan basis as national policy by Congress and funded at the levels promised. NASA was tasked with coming up with a plan to return to the Moon under those boundary conditions, not to devise an unaffordable architecture and then whine about not having enough money to do it.

As we have seen, new data for the poles of the Moon show that the critical resources of energy and materials are available there in usable form. This appreciation requires that we rethink our purposes in space and on the Moon. The VSE was an attempt to test a new paradigm of space operations—instead of bringing everything we need with us from Earth, we would learn how to access and use what we find in space to provision ourselves and to create new capabilities there. As we endeavor to break the logistical chains of Earth and become a true spacefaring species, this effort holds the potential to give us unlimited capabilities in space.

What is the best path forward? Was the original plan to use the resources of the Moon to create new spaceflight capability the right idea? What can we do to advance our “reach” beyond LEO into the solar system? Why is such a thing even desirable? These are questions I hope to answer in the next few chapters as I examine the facts, the potential, the hype, and the possibilities for the future of the American civil space program.