Friday, the Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger published a piece that touched on one of the most vexing issues surrounding NASA’s “road to Mars,” that being that of cost. How does one design a deep space exploration program that “the nation can afford,” to coin a phrase uttered by the old NASA hand interviewed for the article? The phrase is somewhat misleading since one of the truisms of federal budgeting is that the nation can afford quite a bit. A more accurate phrase might be, “that the nation is willing to spend.”
Part of the reason that the issue is so relevant is the trauma surrounding President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative and the infamous 90 Day Study that pegged the cost of going back to the moon and on to Mars at $500 billion in 1990 dollars. The results of the study caused the first Bush White House endless heartburn and Congress, then controlled by Democrats, to throttle SEI in its cradle.
At the dawn of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which died for different reasons that his father’s program, mainly having to do with the political pique of his successor, Dr. Dwayne Day published a multipart analysis of what went wrong with the 90 Day Study.
The first seed of the disaster concerned NASA’s corporate culture at the time, which persists to this day, that has been informed by the Apollo program.
“One of the major problems facing NASA was a cultural one, an inability to think of new human spaceflight projects in terms other than the Apollo paradigm. During Apollo, NASA had gotten a huge amount of money and a great deal of autonomy and many at the agency still thought they would conduct SEI in the same manner. They therefore felt no pressure to keep costs under control.”
However an additional problem cropped up, which caused the 90 Day study to include everything that had to do with going back to the moon and on to Mars, whether it was relevant to the mission or not.
“But in addition to the cultural inability of agency personnel to stop thinking in terms of Apollo budgets, NASA, like all government agencies, had to deal with different internal and external constituencies, each clamoring for its own priorities. The space agency’s facilities are spread throughout the country at various field centers, each of which represents different interests such as human spaceflight and robotic exploration, and each having advocates in Congress. In addition, NASA has also had a less obvious rivalry between its scientists, who want to collect data, and its engineers, who want to build equipment. In many ways the 90-Day Study was a reflection of all of these conflicts within the agency, combined with an unwillingness by NASA Headquarters to clearly establish priorities, starting by saying no to some of its constituencies.”
The enormous costs set out by the 90 Day Study have led many people to believe that it was part of a deliberate attempt by then NASA Administrator Richard Truly to sabotage the president’s proposal to protect the space shuttle and space station programs. Dr. Day finds some evidence to support this supposition.
“One of the major problems reportedly was that Truly actively campaigned in private against a program that his boss, the President of the United States, had endorsed in public. Truly was motivated by concern that SEI posed a threat to both the space shuttle and the space station. Rumors soon surfaced that Truly regularly told members of Congress behind closed doors that he did not support the new space goals.”
It did not help that the first Bush administration made numerous mistakes in presidential leadership, as detailed in this author’s Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon? The first Bush administration did not vet the Space Exploration Initiative with either the Congress, which would have to pay for it or NASA, which would have to carry it out. The White House was blindsided by the opposition from both quarters to its proposal.
Despite the factors that suggest that the 90 Day Study was a bogus exercise, the half a trillion dollar Mars program has become engrained in the public and journalistic collective memories. Even the Road to Mars, which many regard as too expensive because of NASA’s alleged Apollo mindset, will cost nowhere near that much.
Even so, the less expensive that a Mars program or a lunar return is, the better. A number of ideas, some detailed in the Chronicle story, along these lines are floating around.
NASA, for example, can be more like the private sector, not only streamlining its processes but buying hardware and services “off the shelf” from commercial companies.
The space agency could also opt for more advanced technology to get to Mars. While some parts of the evolving NASA Mars plans does involve using a solar electric propulsion drive to get pieces of the Mars architecture to the Red Planet, it could do more, such as creating a larger version of the VASIMR plasma drive to get astronauts to Mars faster, resulting in less exposure to the harsh conditions of interplanetary flight.
NASA could also go back to the moon first, currently not included in the Mars plan, and establish a refueling base using lunar water to create rocket propellant, eliminating the need to bring it all the way from Earth. A recent NASA funded study suggests that going back to the moon first would result in significant cost savings in the long term for the Mars program.
The really tempting way to try to lower costs would be to forge international partnerships. The reason that the space station is “international” is that it involves a host of other nations besides the United States. The same model could be used for going to Mars.
Here, of course, Earthly politics come into play. Some candidates for a Mars partnership are no brainers. The list includes the European Union, Canada, and Japan, the original partners on the space station. A number of technologically savvy countries such as India and Israel also come to mind.
But what about the two other leading space powers, Russia and China? Here, things get tricky. Both countries are human rights abusers. More importantly, both are behaving aggressively against their neighbors in a manner not seen since the Cold War. Could the United States be friends with countries in space with whom it is an enemy on Earth? The idea seems to be dubious at best.
In any event, any plans that NASA is working on for deep space exploration are written on sand. In under a year and a half, a new president will be sworn into office. He or she will want to place a personal stamp on space policy. While the principle that there should be a deep space exploration program is likely to be upheld, changes are likely to be effected. Some of those changes will likely include cost reductions to make going to Mars more affordable.