Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When Heroes Lead Us Astray

May 12, 2010 ... The Senate Science Committee meets to discuss the future of U.S. human space flight. Starting at the one hour forty-eight minute mark, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan testify to criticize President Obama's space policies.

The monster does not need the hero. it is the hero who needs him for his very existence. When the hero confronts the monster, he has yet neither power nor knowledge, the monster is his secret father who will invest him with a power and knowledge that can belong to one man only, and that only the monster can give.

— Robert Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1994

President Barack Obama laid out his vision for the future of American spaceflight in April 2010, when he gave a speech at Kennedy Space Center's Operations & Checkout Building.

By his standards, it was certainly not the most lyrical of his speeches. Those hoping for a redux of John F. Kennedy's “because it is hard” Moon speech were disappointed.

Most news stories focused on his administration's budget proposal to cancel the Constellation program.

When President George W. Bush proposed Constellation in January 2004, it was in response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The CAIB report repeatedly declared that the U.S. space program lacked a “vision.” Bush's proposal therefore was called the Vision for Space Exploration, I suspect, to directly respond to the CAIB findings.

Constellation would culminate in a return to the Moon, Bush proposed, but when his Vision was presented to Congress two weeks later, the devil was in the details.

Constellation would not receive any significant new funding. The Crew Exploration Vehicle designed to replace Shuttle for International Space Station crew rotations would not be ready until at least 2014, four years after the end of ISS construction and Shuttle retirement. That meant the U.S. would rely on the Russian Soyuz four years for ISS access. In 2015, just one year later, the ISS would be decommissioned to transfer its funding into Constellation. The CEV would then be used for deep-space human spaceflight.

America's spacefaring partners, who had invested money and decades in ISS design and construction, would be left without their station.

The CEV evolved into the Orion capsule. The Constellation Ares I, a solid rocket booster based on Shuttle technology, fell years behind schedule. In October 2009, shortly after Obama took office, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee for its chair, Norm Augustine) issued a report estimating that Ares I would not fly until 2017, two years after the ISS would be decommissioned. 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.

An independent audit released August 2009 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.” That didn't seem to bother those at NASA, the legacy contractors, or their work forces, because all were being generously compensated for their efforts. Nobody seemed to mind the delays and drifts, so long as the taxpayer dollars kept flowing.

Almost nobody.

It did bother Obama, and he said so in that April 15, 2010 speech.

April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama delivers his space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.

But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change.

Motivated by the committee's findings, 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 for two Bush-era programs, commercial cargo (already in development) and commercial crew (on the books but not funded). Orion would continue as a “lifeboat” backup at the ISS in case crew needed to abandon ship.

The legacy aerospace industry was incensed.

Protection of the status quo was bipartisan, in both the House and Senate.

On May 12, 2010, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation held a hearing titled, “The Future of U.S. Human Space Flight.” There were two groups of speakers. The first group included NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and his boss, Director John Holdren of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They were savaged by Senators from states with NASA space centers and the legacy contractors who profited from them.

The second group drew most of the media attention.

Norm Augustine was joined by two Apollo-era astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan. Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon. Cernan was the last.

Along with Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, the three astronauts published an editorial on April 13, 2010 blasting the administration's proposal to rely on commercial transports. “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope,” they claimed.

Their editorial concluded:

Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.

One month later, Armstrong and Cernan sat before the Senate Science Committee. Why no Apollo astronaut with a favorable view was invited went unexplained; Buzz Aldrin had been present at Obama's April 15 speech and endorsed the new direction. Nor was it explained why heroic icons of the 1960s were considered to be experts about U.S. space technology and economics fifty years later. Sally Ride and Leroy Chiao, Shuttle-era astronauts much closer to the current state of affairs, served on the Augustine Committee but weren't invited either.

Armstrong and Cernan minced no words. Their opposition to the President made national headlines. National Public Radio reported, “Armstrong was skeptical of Obama's plan to rely on new space taxis developed by private companies after the space shuttles are retired. And while Obama has argued that NASA should be aiming for new destinations — like asteroids — Armstrong said he believes that there would be real benefits to returning to the moon, as NASA had planned.”

In his prepared remarks, Armstrong said:

I am very concerned that the new plan, as I understand it, will prohibit us from having human access to low Earth orbit on our own rockets and spacecraft until the private aerospace industry is able to qualify their hardware under development as rated for human occupancy. I support the encouragement of the newcomers toward their goal of lower cost access to space. But having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident. The most experienced rocket engineers with whom I have spoken believe that will require many years and substantial investment to reach the necessary level of safety and reliability. Business analysts believe that at least two qualified competitors would be required to have any chance of reducing ticket prices. They further believe that a commercial market large enough to support even one competitor is unlikely.

May 12, 2010 ... Gene Cernan testifies before the Senate Science Committee. Image source: Zimbio.com.

Cernan's prepared remarks were more incendiary:

Based upon my background and experience, I submit to this Committee and to the Congress that it will take the private sector as long as 10 years to access LEO safely and cost-effectively. A prominent Russian academician is quoted as saying in order to bring a craft to the standard of quality and safety for piloted flight, the United States will be dependent on Russia until at least 2020. The Aerospace Corporation estimates an initial cost of 10-12 billion dollars, plus the added cost of modifications required to launch vehicle ground systems. Should such a commercial venture run into insurmountable technical problems, business venture concerns, or — God forbid — a catastrophic failure, it would leave the United States without a fallback program, unable to access even low Earth orbit for some indeterminate time to follow. In any event, under this proposal the United States will be abandoning its 50 billion dollar, 25 year investment in the ISS, leaving us hostage to foreign powers.

Cernan concluded, “With the submission of FY2011 budget, either the Administration and the originators of this budget proposal are showing extreme naivete or, I can only conclude, they are willing to take accountability for a calculated plan to dismantle America’s leadership in the world of Human Space Exploration. In either case, this proposal is a travesty which flows against the grain of over 200 years of our history and, today, against the will of the majority of Americans.”

Cernan implicitly accused President Obama of treason.

Their comments not only ignored one finding after another that Constellation was a failed government program, but also displayed a fundamental ignorance about the commercial cargo and crew programs that were becoming known as NewSpace.

Almost four years later, history has proven these heroes to be totally wrong.

Jim Lovell joined the NewSpace movement last year, when he was appointed to the Board of Advisors of the Golden Spike Company, which is developing a commercial lunar program.

In a September 23, 2013 column published in Space News, Lovell acknowledged that the NewSpace course is the correct one.

Some in Congress are at this very moment talking once again about forcing NASA to establish a program to sustain a human presence on the Moon. I, unfortunately, am not optimistic as we have been here before.

But there is hope. The private sector is stepping up to meet the challenge: an ambitious startup, the Golden Spike Co., is leading the way in creating commercial models to mount human expeditions to the surface of the Moon for nations, companies and individuals.

Until now I have been very doubtful and indeed critical of many existing commercial space ventures that are largely funded by taxpayer dollars. But after several meetings with Golden Spike executives, including the chairman of its board — my old friend — former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin, I became convinced that we truly are on the cusp of a brand new era of commercial lunar space travel.

In his concluding remarks, Lovell recommends:

In fact, NASA itself should look carefully at what Golden Spike is doing and incorporate its plans into America’s national space ambitions. The agency, in my opinion, should be among Golden Spike’s first customers and biggest allies.

Neil Armstrong passed away in August 2012, never publicly retracting his remarks spoken and printed that spring of 2010. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Armstrong never responded to his invitations to tour SpaceX facilities.

As for Gene Cernan, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who sits on the SpaceX Board of Directors, wrote in July 2012 that he encountered Cernan while collecting space artifacts and used it as an opportunity to set the record straight. Cernan had refused Jurvetson's earlier invitations to tour SpaceX and see for himself.

Then I approached Gene Cernan, and held my breath. I figured it would be a bit more difficult to break from the social proof of his esteemed colleagues. And so he listened. As with every Apollo astronaut who signed this photo, I was able to talk about SpaceX and answer his questions. Gene was interested in who financed SpaceX — what big money interests got it going. I told him that Elon Musk personally financed the company for all of its first $100 million, when no one else would bet on the venture, and he saw it through thick and thin, including the first three launches of the Falcon 1, all of which failed spectacularly. As I told him these stories of heroic entrepreneurship, I could see his mind turning. He found a reconciliation: “I never read any of this in the news. Why doesn’t the press report on this?”

The press did report on it, of course. Just not the media that Mr. Cernan apparently reads and watches.

If Cernan has subsequently recanted, I'm unaware of it.

We can only speculate about how much damage the three did that spring to the future of the U.S. space program. In my opinion, they were useful pawns for more powerful forces behind the scenes trying to protect OldSpace pork.

Even without their testimony and their column, it's likely that Congress still would have gutted the administration's commerical crew program in favor of Constellation's pork replacement, the Space Launch System, which critics have labelled the Senate Launch System. A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General noted that Congress cut the commercial crew funding by 62% in Fiscal Years 2012-2014 from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017. Contrary to Cernan's inflated numbers, “As of August 31, 2013, NASA has spent $1.1 billion on its commercial crew development efforts,” according to the OIG.

Commercial cargo is wildly successful. The SpaceX Dragon, which has already flown three times to the ISS, is scheduled for its fourth delivery at the end of March. Dragon was designed with the eventual goal of using it for people, and in January Elon Musk told CBS News that he hopes to have his first crewed test flight in two years. During a December 2013 press conference, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell estimated that development of Dragon and its Falcon 9 booster cost about $850 millon — $400 million from NASA, and $450 million from SpaceX investors.

Cernan's cost estimates and timeline were totally wrong.

For years, the Obama administration and NASA have warned Congress of the consequences from extending U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz. As this column is being written, U.S. and European relations with Russia are strained over Russian intervention in Crimea, part of Ukraine. The space community is already speculating what happens if Russia severs access to the ISS.

(For the record, the U.S. controls ISS communications and electronics, so Russia can't unilaterally control the space station.)

Space Politics reports this morning that Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who now chairs the Senate Science Committee, is calling for Congress to “properly fund and support commercial space flight” in light of the Ukraine crisis. But OldSpace pork defenders Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) inexplicably claim SLS is more important for national security.

The Obama administration earlier this month submitted its proposed FY15 NASA budget. It includes $848.3 million for the commercial crew program, an increase of about $152 million over the FY14 enacted $696 million — which was reduced 15% by Congress from the administration's request.

Four years ago, three Apollo astronauts thought they'd found another “monster,” as Robert Calasso calls it, to confront. They thought the monster was Barack Obama. They were wrong. The monster was the space-industrial complex — the legacy aerospace contractors who get fat off Congressional pork, and the members of Congress who get fat off their campaign contributions. OldSpace doesn't really care if it delivers on time, on budget, or at all — so long as everyone gets their slice of pork.

That's the monster. Those astronauts mistakenly fought beside it, not against it.

I would have a lot more respect for Cernan and Lovell if they would pen a new column, and testify before that same committee, about the importance of priming the commercial pump to free NASA of the Soyuz. It won't undo the damage of four years ago, but as patriots it would help assure launches of NASA and partner astronauts return to U.S. soil as soon as possible.

They would slay the real monster, and be heroes yet again.


  1. Too true. And I think all the Shuttle staff who'd be needing new jobs, would much rather see more rockets flying, than even more money going to the Space-Porkers. Because many (most? all?) would get new jobs in a much bigger Space Sector, that actually was making money from real industrial production rather than budget bloat. Get the damn space-lift price down and more demand will follow, given decent leadership from either (both) sides of politics.

  2. Well said. It is now obvious that continued reliance on the Russians for space access is now intolerable. For any Congressman who wants to increase commercial crew funding to accelerate an independent flight capability, all they have to do is ask of the other side, "Oh, so you think it is a good thing to be beholden to Putin for space access?"

    Bob Clark