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Next illogical step

A critical look at the President Bush space initiative

Op-Ed by Anatoly Zak,

Published: 2004 Jan. 30

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new goal for the US manned space program, envisioning the return of American astronauts to the Moon “as the launching point for missions beyond.” Quietly prepared by the administration which previously displayed little interest in space program beyond cutting its budget, the new plan called for the most extensive revamp in the history of NASA. Not surprisingly, some recent critics of the US space agency instantly turned into cheerleaders of the administration’s sweeping decisions. Even some long-time enthusiasts of space exploration subscribed to the new strategy without much scrutiny of its engineering merits or its financial validity. However, sober minds saw a darker side of the “bold new vision…”

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Money talk

Skeptics immediately pointed out a possible cavernous gap between NASA's projected funding and the likely financial appetite of manned planetary exploration. To pay for the lunar initiative, the Bush administration earmarked only a $200-million annual increase in the NASA budget over the next five years. An additional $11 billion would have to re-allocated from within the agency's own budget. Although the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station would eventually end up on the chopping block, freeing bulk of money for the lunar venture, both programs would require almost full funding until at least 2010 and 2016 respectively, according to the plan. In the meantime, a multitude of NASA's diverse projects ended up in danger of being decimated for the sake of the manned program, critics warned. The first confirmation of these fears came within 48 hours of President Bush's space speech – on January 16, 2004, NASA officially abandoned plans to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, perhaps the most productive science spacecraft to date. Although NASA justified the decision by a new concern for the safety of Shuttle crews, few believed the official explanation.

(In the wake of the Columbia accident, NASA had planned to use the space station as a safe heaven for Shuttle astronauts in case of critical damage similar to the one experienced by Shuttle Columbia. The Shuttle missions to service Hubble would not be able to reach the station.)

Even if NASA succeeded in obtaining all the funds allocated by the Bush administration for the new space program, this money could be light years away from the real amount needed to lift such a complex endeavor off the ground, critics said. Estimates circulated in the popular press quoted an astronomical one-trillion-dollar price tag for a manned planetary program, apparently including a landing on Mars. Proponents of the Bush initiative blasted such estimates as greatly exaggerated. They argued that the latest improvements in technology combined with the use of existing infrastructure would keep the cost of human lunar exploration or even a Martian expedition relatively low.

However the history of space exploration is full of examples of endeavors of similar scale that exceed the projected cost by orders of magnitude. For example, the Apollo program had overrun its original cost estimates by 75 percent between 1963 and 1969. At the dawn of the Space Shuttle program, a single mission was expected to cost around $10.5 million, while the actual price tag per launch turned out to be over a billion dollars, including the development cost. (193) The space station project, originally priced at around eight billion dollars, ultimately ballooned to some $70 billion.

If the new lunar initiative ever dares to go beyond simple duplication of the Apollo capsules and, instead attempts to develop innovative technologies, such as powerful nuclear power sources and exotic propulsion systems, it is virtually guaranteed to run into nasty surprises in the form of technical problems leading to cost overruns. Unfortunately, the administration's plan in its present form provides virtually no margin for such developments.

A new vision?

Along with establishing new far-fetched goals, which may or may not be achievable in the contemporary social and financial climate, the Bush space initiative reversed the strategic direction that NASA had followed since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. At the time, the space agency essentially concluded that human expansion into deep space would not be financially sustainable without the development of a cheap and reliable space transportation system and the establishment of a permanent habitable platform in low Earth orbit. The Saturn-Apollo system, developed for the sole purpose of outrunning and outspending the Soviet Union to the Moon, was deemed unaffordable for long-term space exploration.

This philosophy gave birth to the Space Shuttle and, later, the space station program. Although the Space Shuttle spectacularly failed to reduce cost of space travel, NASA still viewed the system as a step toward the spacecraft of the future. In the same way, the space station, despite all its shortcomings as a science platform, could eventually evolve into a depot for reusable space tugs supplying a base on the Moon or become a shipyard for a Martian expeditionary spacecraft. Unfortunately, the two decades it took to build the International Space Station, negligible by historical standards, looked unacceptably long to a drive-through generation of Americans.

It took the Columbia disaster and blunt policies of the Bush administration to haul NASA back to the Apollo era, when a short-lived political agenda and nationalistic fervor rather than engineering logic drove the US space policy. Critics of the Bush administration named a chauvinist response to the emerging Chinese space program and an election-year gimmick as ingredients for the cocktail of reasons behind the 2004 space initiative.

As a result, NASA would be obliged to make another short-lived attempt to explore deep space, before economically viable human presence in Earth orbit had been established. It can be compared to the construction of a skyscraper before excavating its foundation.

Moon as a Stop to Mars?

Perhaps the most important element that every space program watcher was expecting to hear at the commencement of the lunar exploration effort would be the justification of such a project beyond flag-planting activities. Unfortunately, the purpose of the lunar base that President Bush outlined in his February 14 speech could hardly be considered a serious proposal.

“Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the Moon could escape its far-lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost,” President Bush said, “Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air.” If someone thought it was an accidental exaggeration, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe further reiterated the claim during one of the press-conferences, stating that the Moon base could be the most convenient launch pad for a Martian expedition, as well as a training ground for a landing on Mars.

Anyone familiar with the basics of space flight know that it takes tremendous amount of precious energy and other resources to deliver a spacecraft from Earth to lunar orbit, and yet more energy and bulky landing gear to bring it down on the surface of the Moon. For example, the Saturn-V-Apollo system was capable of delivering nearly 130 tons of payload into Earth orbit, comparing to 45 tons toward the Moon.

As a result, any deep-space expedition launched from the surface of the Moon or from its vicinity would be severely penalized in weight and cost, in comparison to a spacecraft assembled onboard an Earth-orbiting space station. Also, the processing of lunar resources into the rocket fuel would require extensive industrial infrastructure on the Moon, hardly available in early stages of the lunar colonization. The cost of delivery and deployment of such infrastructure on the Moon would negate any advantages of a lunar “gas station” in the foreseeable future.

Finally, a lunar base could hardly be considered a useful training ground for the Martian expedition, due to immense differences between the lunar and Martian environments. Mars-bound landers will have to feature an aerodynamically conscious design to penetrate the planet’s atmosphere as well as to be able to withstand much higher levels of gravity than the one present on the airless lunar surface.

All the tasks of testing and assembling hardware for the Mars exploration could be accomplished cheaper and faster onboard an Earth-orbiting space station. The construction of a lunar base for the sole purpose of establishing rocket-fueling stations and Mars training facilities advocated by the administration is truly ludicrous.

In this light, the US intention to abandon the International Space Station, (which might or might not survive with the European, Japanese and Russian funding) in favor of a lunar base looks even more reckless. Enthusiasts of manned exploration of Mars, who rushed to applaud the Bush initiative, might find their dreams stalled for decades by an aimless lunar detour. In the meantime, any realistic goals for a long-term lunar base are nowhere to be found in the President’s statement.

The big question -- the big rocket

No doubt, as it happened many times in history, proponents of the new space program will try to use the opportunities presented by a bizarre twist of fate in the human conquest of space. Within weeks after President Bush’s speech, the Boeing company released an array of concepts meeting the goals of the new initiative.

All the hardware Boeing proposed would be launched by the company’s Delta IV rocket, one of the most powerful standard boosters in the current US space fleet. The vehicle is capable of lifting up to 20 tons into low Earth orbit. Yet, a number of observers noted that even such impressive capabilities lay far below those delivered by the mighty Saturn V, the rocket that made Apollo expeditions possible. Advocates of the Bush plan argued that smaller boosters could launch separate elements of the lunar spacecraft, which would be later assembled in Earth orbit. Such a strategy, however, should take into account all the technical complications associated with Earth-orbit rendezvous, especially, in light of the president’s declared ambition for a long-term base on the Moon. Historians of space exploration know that at the dawn of the first Moon race, both Soviet and US engineers had the temptation to cut the development time of the lunar expedition by employing smaller, simpler boosters and using Earth-orbit rendezvous. Yet, despite the rush of the Moon Race and its temporary nature, both sides ultimately found such a scenario impractical.

Therefore, it is possible that soon after overly enthusiastic advocates of the new Moon race finish their fiery speeches, experienced engineers will have to break a news to them that another Saturn V or at least a Shuttle-derived booster would be required to replay the Apollo program.

The moral of the story

At the dawn of the 21th century, the human effort to explore space faced a challenge unlike any it had met before. Engineering dead ends of rocket technology coincided with changing economic realities and new threats to the civilized world. As a result, irreversible decisions had to be made, which could either limit or expand our horizons for several generations.

It would take the wisdom of greatest statesmen and the foresight of the most ingenious thinkers to steer the boldest and most complex human endeavor beyond ephemeral goals of today’s economics and politics toward the unforeseen promises of tomorrow. What’s more, it would take patience and determination of many of the people on Earth to continue exploring space for the benefit of future generations.

During his early days at the helm of NASA, Sean O’Keefe liked to say that advances in technology, not a particular destination should be real goals of NASA. Maybe it is a good time for NASA's Administrator to remind his superiors in the White House about this unique mission of the US space agency.

Editor: Alain Chabot


A concept of the Crew Exploration Vehicle launched by Boeing's Delta IV rocket. Credit: Boeing

Last flight

In 2003, the Bush Administration prepared a decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2011. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak