President Obama’s Vision for Space Exploration (part 2)
by G. Ryan Faith
|Although President Obama’s new plan represents a sharp departure from the Constellation program, begun under the previous administration, the new policy follows much of the same thinking that appears in President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration.|
President Obama’s new plan modifies President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) by changing the approach to crew and cargo transportation to low Earth orbit (LEO). In the previous plan, NASA was to develop its own crew transportation system, comprised of two different rockets and a crew capsule, to send astronauts to LEO, including to the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule component would be augmented over time to provide a deep space transportation capability. Simultaneously, commercial transportation capabilities would be allowed to evolve, eventually taking over responsibility for crew transportation to LEO. The plan announced by President Obama makes reliance on commercial transportation of crew to LEO the primary plan, while retaining a secondary NASA-developed crew capability by pursuing the immediate development of an “Orion-lite” lifeboat that would be launched as an unmanned vehicle but could return crew from the ISS to Earth. The Orion-lite could, in addition to being evolved for deep-space travel, also be modified to transport crew to LEO, in the event that commercial systems are not able to meet that need.
The new space exploration policy also stops development of the previously proposed heavy-lift vehicle, and delays final decisions on the design and development of a future heavy-lift vehicle until 2015. Under the previous architecture, existing equipment and designs would be evolved, leading to the development of a heavy-lift vehicle that would become operational in the latter half of this decade. In response to the growing costs and technical difficulties associated with the previous launch vehicle design, the new plan calls for several years of technology development followed by a reexamination of an exploration heavy-lift strategy. President Obama’s plan calls for the development of a number of specific space exploration technologies, in contrast to the previous approach of letting NASA’s architecture decisions drive technology development. The array of technologies mentioned in the new plan include on-orbit refueling, closed-loop life support systems, and in situ resource utilization—all of which are technologies that should, at least in the long-term, reduce the operational costs associated with maintaining a human spaceflight program.
As occurred with President Bush’s previous plan for space exploration, before NASA developed its specific plans to implement this policy—the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) and Constellation program—speculation about the ramifications of the new plan has outpaced announcement of specific architectural details. Consequently, the debate has prematurely moved discussion of the policy beyond any reasonable analysis based solely on the information actually available. This article, part 2 of an analysis of President Obama’s plan, examines the long-term political viability of the new space exploration plan by examining three elements: the appeal of the exploration objectives, the role of international cooperation in meeting these objectives, and how resilient the plan might be to future political challenges.
President Obama’s April 15th statement that the establishment of a base on the Moon would no longer be considered the primary near- to medium-term objective of the American human spaceflight program has generated some controversy. Instead, President Obama has made rendezvous with and landing on an asteroid in 2025 the next major goal for NASA. From there, NASA will continue with further deep space exploration, leading to a human mission to orbit Mars in the 2035 timeframe, with a landing to follow at some point thereafter. Those who have followed the deliberations of the Augustine Committee closely should not find this surprising, as the committee exhibited a preference for what it called the “Flexible Path to inner solar system locations, such as lunar orbit, Lagrange points, near-Earth objects and the moons of Mars, followed by exploration of the lunar surface and/or Martian surface.” There has been much discussion about whether either the older or newer approach presents viable objectives for space exploration. The newer Flexible Path approach has met with some resistance, owing in part to its perceived lack of concrete details and milestones, and, as a consequence, may be more difficult to sustain politically over the longer term.
|Without any immediate plans to land on major celestial bodies like the Moon or Mars, the very flexibility of the flexible path robs the approach of a certainty and concreteness that would be helpful in making a political case for exploration.|
President Bush’s previous Vision for Space Exploration, as well as President Obama’s current plan for human space exploration (and the Augustine Committee report on the future of human spaceflight), designate Mars as the primary objective for human exploration during (at least the first half of) the 21st century. To get to Mars, both presidential space exploration policies envision a modular, incremental, evolutionary approach to increasing the reach and duration of human activity in space, spanning several decades. The plans also specify or imply requirements for the development of the same key technologies, including closed-loop life support and in situ resource utilization. An objective observer would probably find these similarities heartening, since they suggest assessments of the technological hurdles to be overcome and the means of addressing these obstacles have been driven by the technological concerns of the era after the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), rather than a purely partisan agenda.
If one describes the presidential policies in the framework of the Augustine Committee report, President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration could be described as advocating a Moon-first path and implying the later pursuit of a Flexible Path architecture, leading eventually to a Mars landing. Although President Obama has initially dismissed a return to the Moon as an immediate goal, the inevitable reconsideration of destinations during the 2015 decision on a heavy-lift capability, as well as the clear need to demonstrate extended surface operations and in situ resource utilization capabilities before going to Mars, mean that a lunar landing mission will almost certainly creep back into NASA planning long before any 2035 landing on Mars. So, over the long term, President Obama’s space policy promotes pursuing the Flexible Path architecture first, followed by the implicit pursuit of a lunar presence before going onward to Mars.
The most near-term exploration goal in President Obama’s plan is an asteroid mission in 2025. Despite this, a common critique of President Obama’s plan is that it lacks direction, concrete objectives, and distinct timetables. It is quite likely that it will be more difficult to persuade people, not only in the US but around the world, that destinations in the “middle of nowhere”, such as Lagrange points, are valuable exploration destinations in and of themselves. Without any immediate plans to land on major celestial bodies like the Moon or Mars, the very flexibility of the flexible path robs the approach of a certainty and concreteness that would be helpful in making a political case for exploration.
Others critiques have asserted that President Obama’s plan represents a step backward, leaving the US space program in the same place it was six years ago. In 2004 President Bush gave NASA the task of completing its first major exploration objective—a lunar landing—no later than 2020. In contrast, President Obama’s 2010 plan has reset NASA’s first major exploration objective—landing on an asteroid—by 2025. So both plans tasked NASA with achieving a first landing of a human on some objective 15 years after the Presidential announcement of a goal. President Obama has essentially reset President Bush’s VSE, using a similar technological development philosophy, operating on similar time tables, with the same end goal. Whether or not this reset has, effectively, set us back six years by throwing out work done under the ESAS with the Constellation program depends on assessments of the health of that program. Given that the Augustine Committee found it would be impossible for the Constellation program to have achieved its objectives under projected budgets within any useful timeframe suggests that, absent an increase in NASA funding, the Constellation program implementation of the VSE was not usefully moving the United States towards the objectives outlined by President Bush. Therefore, whether or not the Constellation program was “moving us forward” or whether President Obama’s plan sets us back is a question intimately intertwined with questions about whether the level of support given to NASA is sufficient and represents a genuine intent of the United States to push the frontiers of space exploration forward. The more troubling question arising from the last several years is whether or not any implementation of a Presidential vision for space exploration will be able to survive similar political disinterest and budgetary constraints.
It worth examining the broader psychology associated with political support for space exploration. We have seen, at least during the Cold War, that competition can generate stronger support for space programs than the programs would otherwise normally enjoy, primarily because the existence of a competing space program provides an external confirmation of the value and validity of one’s own national space exploration program. Without some sort of external validation of the value of a space program, it becomes easier for skeptics to regard space exploration as something on par with a national quest to have the world’s largest ball of twine: a rather expensive and quite pointless exercise in gaining dominance in a field in which there is neither demand nor interest. If one does not have the ability to generate intense competition to support a national space program, the natural counterpart to competition—cooperation—becomes the next best alternative. International cooperation can validate a national space exploration effort, because cooperation implies some measure of international respect and recognition of the importance of one’s own efforts. Even if this validation is not sufficient in and of itself, the risk of being seen as having abandoned one’s own allies in their space exploration efforts makes cancellation of joint programs less attractive.
|Having failed to include strong international language in the rollout of his proposal, and having lost the opportunity for engagement during the rollout of his policy, current trends suggest that it is unlikely that the President Obama will pursue cooperation at this level in the near future.|
One common feature that both President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration and the vision outlined by President Obama do share is the lack of emphasis placed on international cooperation. In the space policy arena, two prevalent schools of thought about reducing the cost of space exploration—heavier reliance on the private sector and stronger international engagement—often operate independently, or even in opposition to each other. Given the likely overall budget outlook through the end of this decade and beyond, it is likely that all available means to manage costs and ensure political sustainability need to be pursued, including international cooperation and commercial competition, international commercial cooperation, and organizational efficiency measures, such as the ones recommended in Augustine Committee report and CAIB report.
Although neither President Bush’s nor President Obama’s plan for space exploration particularly emphasized international cooperation, a cooperative approach could potentially yield greater political and budgetary sustainability, albeit at the risk of higher global project costs. In examining the programmatic tradeoffs associated with international cooperation, it is important to recognize that items which are contributed or procured by other partner nations are subject to different political trends, election cycles, and budgeting constraints, which in and of itself acts as a form of political and budgetary risk portfolio diversification. In addition to moving specific programs out of the purview of the American political cycle, international cooperation makes the decision to cancel a major program, such as the International Space Station, a potential diplomatic liability, strengthening the political safety of American programs involving foreign partners.
Further, by cooperating with the State Department, NASA could provide the United States government with a valuable and visible soft-power tool, broadening the political support for space exploration within the US. Granted, this could be rather more difficult than would be the case in something more concrete like the ISS or the establishment of a lunar base, owing to the inherent vagueness of the proposed Flexible Path architecture framework. President Obama did (and still does) have the opportunity to engage foreign leadership at the highest levels to pursue international cooperation, as President Reagan did with his Space Station Freedom project. However, having failed to include strong international language in the rollout of his proposal, and having lost the opportunity for engagement during the rollout of his policy, current trends suggest that it is unlikely that the President Obama will pursue cooperation at this level in the near future.
Over the last several years, some international partners privately expressed frustration in the continuing lack of equity in their relationship with the US, and hoped instead for the United States to take a strong leadership position as “first among equals”. In addition, international engagement related to civil space exploration is seldom coordinated at multiple levels, including at the head of state, foreign policy, and technical levels. In cases such as the International Space Station and the Apollo-Soyuz program, parallel engagement has yielded far greater dividends than engagement exclusively at the space agency level. In the current situation, NASA may find it advantageous in the new policy to provide technical assistance to the European and Japanese space agencies to upgrade their unmanned cargo vehicles so they can transport crews to and from the ISS, as well as the ability to return cargo to Earth, since this is a form of engagement that can be led at the agency level, but could still yield worthwhile dividends. Not only would this provide a much broader technological and political risk management hedge against the potential difficulties associated with a Russian monopoly on crew transport to the space station, the existence of other national capabilities could yield both strategic logistical redundancy for the ISS and a strategic political redundancy for US human spaceflight programs. Absent further cultivation of European and Japanese capabilities, the only other international alternatives would involve engaging Chinese—or, perhaps at a later date, Indian—cooperation on the ISS, both of which could involve significant diplomatic complexities.
There has been some immediate opposition to various elements of President Obama’s new plan from Capitol Hill, primarily in objection to the cancellation of the Constellation program, and to a lesser extent, a perceived lack of concrete direction in the President’s new plan. Should President Obama’s plan survive these immediate challenges without major alteration, success will ultimately depend on the long-term political ability of the program to avoid cancellation over the next several election cycles.
|Essentially, President Obama’s plan resets NASA to the period immediately following the unveiling of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, walking back from most of the major elements of the ESAS architecture.|
One critique of NASA is that it is a “jobs program” dedicated primarily to keeping people employed in the districts of key Congressional figures. One of the consequences of a more efficient space program that does more things with less money—i.e., one that is more fiscally sustainable—is that it employs fewer people in fewer districts, and therefore reduces the stake of any particular Congressional representative with NASA employees in their district. It doesn’t seem necessary that the commercial lobby for space transportation be any stronger in this scenario, since one can presume that commercial aerospace contractors already lobby on behalf of the programs in which they are involved. A switch to commercial transportation of crew to LEO could exacerbate this problem further, since NASA may not be as able to steer programs to particular Congressional districts in response to specific political concerns.
For commercial crew transportation to be a strong and resilient element of the US civil space exploration, it will be important for the commercial providers themselves to diversify their income streams to move beyond reliance on NASA contracts alone. One obvious route would be for the United States to meet its crew transportation obligations to the international partners by purchasing seats on a commercial launch system. But for commercial transportation to further strengthen its political position, commercial providers must stimulate demand for transportation to LEO destinations other than the ISS. If commercial transportation services are able to respond to the inevitable questions about prices, risks, and delays by demonstrating that the prices and services being offered to the government are comparable to offers found in a free transportation market, this will provide valuable political cover. This could prove particular critical in the event of a Challenger- or Columbia-like disaster involving loss of crew and vehicle. In previous years, the response to such disasters involved extended periods of time when the transportation fleet was grounded, and the idea of continuing a human spaceflight program was called into question. In the event of such a disaster involving commercial spacecraft, if the commercial provider must rely solely on NASA contracts, being grounded for extended periods might jeopardize the existence of the company. Beyond that, since commercial providers would probably lack the political staying power of a program like the Space Shuttle or the ability to keep Congressional funds flowing while flights are halted, the odds of complete NASA withdrawal from a contract could be much higher.
One of the possible means that NASA could use to shore up political support now and in the future arises from strategically using the characteristic flexibility of the architecture framework proposed in President Obama’s plan. Since the Flexible Path does allow, but not require, major international cooperation on major systems and an eventual return to the lunar surface, NASA could pursue an international lunar project within the context of President Obama’s broader Flexible Path framework. This could ameliorate some concerns about a lack of a discrete, concrete objective, while simultaneously providing the international cooperation necessary to diversify the political support portfolio for human spaceflight, without rejecting any of the main elements of President Obama’s plan. Over the longer term, a sustained human presence beyond LEO and the ISS could also provide a basis for growth of further commercial transportation services, should commercial transportation to LEO market prove workable.
In broad outline, both President Bush’s and President Obama’s space exploration plans are reasonably similar. Both promote human space exploration beyond LEO, eventually leading to a human landing on Mars, based on the development of a modular, evolutionary human spaceflight capability. These plans continue pursuit of the same basic mechanism for transporting crew to LEO: a capsule of some variety, with approximately parallel development of public and private sector capabilities. Likewise, the plans envision, at least implicitly, the strong need for development of a heavy-lift vehicle, able to transport somewhere around 100 tons of payload to LEO. Unfortunately, the NASA budget proposed by this administration does cut funding for human spaceflight activities now and in future years. In the balance, President Obama’s plan provides more explicit guidance on the technologies that NASA should pursue, which, in reducing operations costs, offset the direct cut in human spaceflight funding. Whether or not these technology programs and the reliance on commercial spaceflight reduce costs enough to counteract the reduction in the human spaceflight budget will be difficult to determine for many years to come.
|Globally, pursuing a “first among equals” leadership strategy hedges against both political and technological risk in the space program. Domestically, NASA can improve its viability by taking a more proactive leadership role in setting its own agenda, rather than throwing themselves to the mercy of other actors in government.|
Essentially, President Obama’s plan resets NASA to the period immediately following the unveiling of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, walking back from most of the major elements of the ESAS architecture developed by the previous NASA administrator, Michael Griffin. As stated earlier, the merit of resetting the ESAS architecture and discarding most of the Constellation program will doubtless provide the fodder for many heated space policy debates in future. Likewise, neither this nor the previous presidential plan seemed to be particularly interested in learning how to most effectively leverage international cooperation to help NASA meet its exploration objectives.
One thing that President Obama can learn from the fate of his predecessor’s plan for space exploration is that continued, periodic political support at the Presidential level is of great importance—or is perceived to be within the space community—because of the sentiment that the national space exploration program is a tool to be used by and within the prerogative of the executive. Should international cooperation play a greater role in American plans in the near future, engagement by the President and State Department on behalf of NASA will be quite valuable.
Regardless of how much Presidential support NASA can count on at home or abroad, the success of the current space exploration plan will depend most heavily on NASA’s leadership. Globally, pursuing a “first among equals” leadership strategy hedges against both political and technological risk in the space program. Domestically, NASA can improve its viability by taking a more proactive leadership role in setting its own agenda, rather than throwing themselves to the mercy of other actors in government. Finally, given the perceived perennial lack of a clear and actionable mission for NASA in general and human spaceflight in particular (see “Giving NASA a clear mission”, The Space Review, August 31, 2009), new NASA administrator Charles Bolden must declare and articulate a very clear and well-defined mission in order to guide the agency that he oversees, the broader government to whom he reports, and ultimately to the American people on whose behalf he explores.