Tuesday, January 14, 2014

VSE + 10

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration speech.

Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration speech.

It was a political and policy response to the conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, which was a scathing indictment not only of Space Shuttle technology and management, but also of political policy.

The report concluded that “the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.” The Board showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. They also blamed “the lack of an agreed national vision” as an organizational cause for the accident.

This lack of “vision” appeared repeatedly throughout the report, and so it was that President Bush's speech took on its conclusion directly by labelling his plan the Vision for Space Exploration.

Ten years later, the consequences of this speech remain the foundation of today's government space program.

Bush began by defining the vision:

I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel. We'll make steady progress, one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time.

Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station by 2010. We will finish what we have started. We will meet our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project.

Ten years later ... Mission accomplished, to borrow a phrase. The ISS was completed in May 2011. The station is finally fulfilling its potential as a microgravity research platform.

Only one vehicle on Planet Earth was capable of completing the ISS, and that was the Shuttle. Despite its inherent flaws, it would have to fly again — but once ISS was completed, it would be time for Shuttle to retire. Bush said:

The shuttle's chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station. In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.

Despite the partisan claims by some that President Barack Obama “cancelled” the Shuttle, the record is clear that it was President Bush — and with good reason.

Bush continued:

Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the crew exploration vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.

The crew exploration vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module.

The 2008 target date was a bureaucratic fantasy.

An early Lockheed Martin concept for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA selected Lockheed Martin as the winning contractor in September 2006. According to a Washington Post report that day, “Orion is expected to make its first manned flight by 2014, four years after NASA's three operating shuttles are retired.”

In any case, the four-year gap between Shuttle and its successor was there in Bush's speech. Retire Shuttle in 2010, first flight of the CEV by 2014.

Bush then announced a roadmap for returning humans to the Moon:

Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.

Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration.

Using the crew exploration vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods of time.

None of this happened, of course.

Many causes contributed to its demise, but a significant reason was inadequate funding.

Bush said:

Achieving these goals requires a long-term commitment. NASA's current five-year budget is $86 billion. Most of the funding we need for the new endeavors will come from re-allocating $11 billion from within that budget.

We need some new resources, however. I will call upon Congress to increase NASA's budget by roughly a billion dollars spread over the next five years.

Two weeks later, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the President's proposal.

January 28, 2004 ... NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe presents the Vision for Space Exploration to the Senate Science Committee.

Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) in his opening remarks called out the inadequate funding:

I'm very curious to hear how Administrator O'Keefe thinks we can implement the President's proposal with the very limited resources that have been proposed. Two days ago, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit in Fiscal Year 2004 would reach $477 billion. It's been reported that the President's new proposal could cost between $170 billion and $600 billion. Needless to say, the $12 billion that the Adminstration has suggested be spent over the next five years falls far far short of what might actually be required to return to the Moon and reach for Mars and beyond.

McCain said, "A vision without a strategy is just an illusion."

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) commented:

Space flight, you can't do it on the cheap. I just don't think that a billion dollar increase over five years, that's $200 million a year, is going to do it. I would love for you to explain on the reprogramming of the $11 billion over that five years how you can do that.

O'Keefe displayed a chart which became known as the Vision Sand Chart:

Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.

The chart revealed some facts Bush failed to mention in his speech.

Constellation, as the program came to be known, would be funded by ending the International Space Station program. “Complete Station Research Objectives” was scheduled for federal Fiscal Year 2016, which would start on October 1, 2015.

The Bush administration would complete the ISS in 2010 only to shut it down in 2015.

So much for “our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project.”

The Crew Exploration Vehicle would fly for the first time in Fiscal Year 2014, meaning it would serve the ISS for only one year.

The chart also showed a roughly $7 billion increase in NASA's annual budget between FY04 and FY20 — in total denial of how much deep space human spaceflight really costs. In today's dollars, the 1960s Apollo program cost roughly $150 billion. The aforementioned September 2006 Washington Post article stated that Bush's Moon program would cost $230 billion.

From the beginning, there was a fundamental disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

But when Bush's Vision for Space Exploration document was formally delivered to Congress in February 2004, it also contained references to a new commercial space program that the President hadn't mentioned in his speech.

On Page 15 of the report it stated:

For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs — such as heavy lift — are not met by commercial or military systems. Depending on future human mission designs, NASA could decide to develop or acquire a heavy lift vehicle later this decade. Such a vehicle could be derived from elements of the Space Shuttle, existing commercial launch vehicles, or new designs.

Two pages later was this paragraph:

As we move outward into the solar system, NASA will rely more heavily on private sector space capabilities to support activities in Earth orbit and future exploration activities. In particular, NASA will seek to use existing or new commercial launch vehicles for cargo transport to the Space Station, and potentially to the Moon and other destinations.

Near the end of his speech, Bush said:

I'll also form a commission of private- and public-sector experts to advise on implementing the vision that I've outlined today. This commission will report to me within four months of its first meeting.

I'm today naming former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldrich to be the chair of the commission.

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

Eventually known as the Aldridge Commission for its chair, it was officially known as the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond. Their report was released on June 26, 2004.

Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry,” argued for the creation of what we know today as NewSpace.

The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.

NASA announced on November 7, 2005 the creation of the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office. “The office will manage orbital transportation capability demonstration projects that may lead to the procurement of commercial cargo and crew transportation services to resupply the space station.”

Eight years later, NASA has two operational commercial cargo vehicles, produced by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Total NASA investment: about $700 million.

Three companies are developing commercial crew vehicles. They hope to be operational by 2017; it would be much sooner, but Congress cut the commercial crew funding 62% over the last three years from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017.

As for Orion and Constellation, those programs fell years behind schedule and went billions over budget, as had Shuttle and ISS before it.

An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report concluded that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.”

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case—including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time—needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase. Gaps in the business case include

  • significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements; and
  • a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities.

In October 2009, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee) issued a report estimating that Ares I would not fly until 2017, two years after the ISS would be defunded by the Vision for Space Exploration. Ares I would fly to a facility that would not exist. As for the Ares V that would be used for lunar missions, it wouldn't be available until at least 2028.

September 16, 2009 ... Norm Augustine delivers his committee's findings to the Senate Science Committee.

The Obama administration proposed in its Fiscal Year 2011 budget that Constellation be cancelled. The savings would be used to extend the ISS to at least 2020, and to prime the pump on both commercial cargo and crew. Orion would continue as a “lifeboat” backup at the ISS in case crew needed to abandon ship.

Congress eventually agreed, although it replaced Constellation with another heavy-lift program called the Space Launch System, which technologically is similar to the Ares V. Labelled the Senate Launch System by its critics, Congress directed NASA to use existing Shuttle and Constellation contractors to develop a vehicle based on Shuttle technology. Orion would be the crew vehicle, now carrying four people instead of six. In a sense, Congress simply ordered NASA to skip Ares I and move on to a “light” version of Ares V — while still failing to provide adequate funding or a mission other than to protect the NASA work force.

Comparisons of the Ares and Space Launch System technologies. Image sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer (left) and HowStuffWorks.com (right).

In August 2013, the NASA Office of the Inspector General issued a report concluding that Orion is underfunded, overweight and has no purpose. It's scheduled for an uncrewed test flight this year in September atop a Boeing Delta IV launching from Cape Canaveral's Pad 37.

The Space Launch System is scheduled for an uncrewed test flight at the end of 2017 from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39B. A test flight with crew is planned for 2021, but after that no one really knows. Congress still hasn't given SLS any missions or destinations. Last year, the Obama administration proposed the Asteroid Initiative, but Congress has yet to reach a consensus. The House of Representatives would prohibit an asteroid mission, while the Senate is silent on the matter.

On January 8, the White House announced its intention to extend the ISS to at least 2024. The announcement, confirmed that day at the International Space Exploration Forum in Washington, D.C., has received a positive response from NASA's spacefaring partners and other nations around the world.

President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration was a specific response to the criticisms levelled at NASA and policy makers after the Columbia accident investigation. It appeased those in Congress who treat NASA as pork for their districts and states, as well as those who want an Apollo redux. If you watch the above video of the Senate Science Committee hearing two weeks after the speech, many lawmakers blindly praised the proposal, without questioning the cost, the funding or the timeline. No one seemed to grasp that the minimum four-year gap between Shuttle and its successor meant reliance on the Russian Soyuz, nor did anyone acknowledge the ISS would be finished only to splash it into the Pacific Ocean, nor did anyone question why the Ares I (then known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle) would be built to go to a destination that wouldn't exist.

But the Vision also opened the door to NewSpace, although Bush didn't mention it in his speech. Some Republican members of Congress — Newt Gingrich, Dana Rohrabacher, Bob Walker — had supported space commercialization, and in 1984 the National Aeronautics and Space Act was amended to require NASA to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” That requirement wasn't taken seriously for decades, and the VSE's fine print about commercialization may have been no more than a sop for fellow Republicans. But the Aldridge Commission promoted the idea, Congress approved it, and by November 2005 the commercial space office was open for business at NASA.

Choices have consequences, some of which may be unintended. Constellation flopped, and its bureaucratic flaws are inherent in Space Launch System. But VSE also gave birth to NewSpace, perhaps an unintended consequence, which has entrepreneurs investing in 21st Century technology that is opening low Earth orbit to the private sector. Some of them — such as the Golden Spike Company and Bigelow Aerospace — are already planning enterprises for lunar missions.

If commercial crew members land on the Moon sometime in the next decade, some credit may be due President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Humanity will have returned to the Moon, only not as he intended.


  1. There is one key thing left out of your summary of what happened in 2010 vis a vis the Obama FY 2011 budget: The Obama administration proposed in its Fiscal Year 2011 budget that Constellation be cancelled. The savings would be used to extend the ISS to at least 2020, and to prime the pump on both commercial cargo and crew. Orion would continue as a “lifeboat” backup at the ISS in case crew needed to abandon ship.

    Congress eventually agreed, although it replaced Constellation with another heavy-lift program called the Space Launch System, ….

    You leave out a core part of Obama's proposal: an increase of (eventually) $1b/year in space technology development over a five year period, to re-energize a NASA space R&D budget that had been "decimated" (Bolden's word) during the Bush Administration. It was that space technology budget proposal, even more than commercial crew, that was raided to pay for the SLS by Congress. No development of reusable launch vehicle enabling technologies; no development of 'live off the land' in situ resource utilization technologies; etc. In short, all the true game-changing technology development needed to turn NASA once again into a technology generation engine was once more "decimated" by Congress, in order to continue to support 1970s technologies in certain districts. The decimation continues - and even gets worse, actually - under the current Omnibus spending bill.
    Dave Huntsman

    1. Dave, I was well-aware of President Obama's technology proposal, but the thrust of the article was the fate of the Vision for Space Exploration.

      Congress imposed SLS so that existing technology with current aerospace contractors would still have a use. It's as if 100 years ago Congress ordered the Army to continue using horses instead of tanks to protect the riding crop industry.

      One reason for Asteroid Initiative was to sneak in some new tech R&D to go along with SLS.

    2. At his all hands with GRC employees today, Charlie stated that the reason the space technology budget took an even further hit in the Omnibus bill was that it is associated in Congress' mind with ARM - which, while they didn't prohibit it, they refused to endorse it also.
      Separately, re: commercial crew underfunding in the Omnibus bill: Charlie said one of the reasons they were trying to rush the ISS extension through the White House was not, as some have said, to have it out by the space exploration forum recently held in DC; but rather to positively affect the commercial crew budget in the Omnibus bill. He seemed to imply he felt commercial crew would have been higher if ISS extension had been announced slightly earlier.

    3. Dave, I share your frustration with Congress failing to understand NASA was created originally to push the technology envelope.

      I remind people that the U.S. space program isn't just NASA any more. It's NASA plus the commercial cargo/crew partners. Congress won't allow NASA to innovate, but we've found a clever way to do it by awarding milestone payments to the commercial partners.

      That's why I was doing cartwheels last week when NASA quietly announced the commercial lunar lander program. It's yet another attempt to fly under the congressional lander.

      Yes, it stinks that NASA has to do business this way, but that's the reality of it so long as NASA remains one big trough for the congressional porkers.

      Thanks for sharing Charlie's comments. I know he tries his best, but he's in a no-win scenario. I have great admiration for the man.