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DC-XA photo
The DC-X, originally an SDIO project, offered hope to space enthusiasts for low-cost space access for missions beyond missile defense. (credit: NASA)

You can’t get to heaven on a Pentagon spacecraft

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The 2011 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) just concluded in Huntsville. I missed it, for a good reason. I was busy. Actually, I was holed up in my bunker, waiting for Judgment Day, which was supposed to happen on May 21. I was ready to fight off the Demon Hordes with my Barrett M170A1 sniper rifle. Alas, that didn’t happen. But I wanted to go to ISDC. Huntsville has some neat space sites, and the Davison Center with its Saturn V is pretty spectacular, and the ISDC is, well, fun.

What nobody at ISDC back in May 1989 realized was that some things were about to change big, and some things were about to not change big at all.

Way back in 1989 I went to my first ISDC in Chicago. It was an incredibly well-run conference and I was impressed at just how much stuff was going on at once. I don’t remember much from the conference (other than the fact that my hotel room required an old-fashioned key—which I broke off in the lock), but a few things still stick with me. I remember meeting Frederick Pohl, having an impassioned conversation with space illustrator Carter Emmart about exploring Mars, and realizing for the first time that there was such a career as “space policy analyst.”

In 1989 a major topic of debate at ISDC was whether the US should first send humans to the Moon or Mars. Space Solar Power was not on the agenda, probably because its credibility had taken a hit when the Space Shuttle, which was supposed to make SPS affordable, had proven to be such a major disappointment. Several speakers discussed the space station, which was supposed to be launched… soon. There were also a number of Apollo retrospective discussions. Although many NASA speakers were on the agenda, you could also hear a lot of attendees frustrated that NASA was not exactly making space settlement possible. At the time, ISDC had more of a NASA cheerleader atmosphere and had not been heavily influenced by the libertarian-leaning activists expressing open contempt for the agency.

What nobody at ISDC back in May 1989 realized was that some things were about to change big, and some things were about to not change big at all. Not even two months after the ISDC, President George H.W. Bush stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced a bold new Space Exploration Initiative to return humans to the Moon and send them on to Mars. In many ways, the attendees of ISDC apparently got their wish and America was going to send humans out beyond Earth orbit.

We all know how that worked out. Bush’s initiative lasted less than a few months before it was squashed into the ground by a Congress worried about budget deficits. (If you really want to be cynical about it, the Space Exploration Initiative was dead on arrival, as soon as somebody leaked the results of an internal NASA cost estimate that placed the cost of both a lunar base and Mars base at close to $400 billion.)

Bush’s space plans proved ephemeral, but there was an even more important event that occurred in late 1989. That fall, the Soviet Bloc started to crumble, culminating most spectacularly with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War ended rather abruptly, and along with it the political context for much of the American human spaceflight program. Human spaceflight continued, but it was propelled more by inertia than a clearly defined political justification, until a different political justification—cooperation with our former enemy, the Russians—emerged a few years later.

Pohl argued that military space was not going to enable space enthusiasts to accomplish goals that they could not get with NASA.

Space enthusiasm and science fiction fandom have many close ties (and are often indistinguishable from each other). At ISDC 1989 there were a number of science fiction authors on the agenda, most giving individual talks as well as participating in panels where they offered their perspectives on the “real world” space program. They included the late Robert L. Forward and the late James P. Hogan. I had previously hosted Forward at an event at my university and had found him to be a little pompous. But I was excited to meet Fred Pohl after having discovered his Gateway novels in the mid-1980s.

Pohl gave a talk titled “You can’t get to heaven on a Pentagon spacecraft.” President Reagan created the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in 1983 with the goal of creating a defensive shield against ballistic missiles, which detractors (starting with Senator Ted Kennedy, who coined the term) immediately called “Star Wars.” Soon the government dramatically increased its spending on strategic defense research, investing in many different areas, but particularly on space-based defenses because they offered the only possible way to destroy ballistic missiles early in flight—on the other side of the world from the United States. Historians have gotten mired in the politics and the ideology of SDI and devoted considerably less attention to the actual research and the technology. But SDIO had flown a number of spacecraft by the late 1980s and done so fast and inexpensively. Space activists had taken notice, and were starting to flirt with the idea of hitching their goals of space settlement to the running horse of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Although I don’t remember the specifics of Pohl’s talk, I do remember the context, and of course his title explains a lot. Pohl argued that military space was not going to enable space enthusiasts to accomplish goals that they could not get with NASA. The military was even less aligned with their ultimate interests than the civilian space agency was. And Pohl warned that if the activists were frustrated with NASA bureaucracy, they had not seen anything yet—the military can out-bureaucratize NASA any day of the week.

Pohl’s arguments (to the extent that I can remember them) were insightful, and of course all that is history now. But human events rarely conform to the deterministic model we have in our heads when trying to interpret history—in other words, events rarely follow clear cause-effect models but instead are much messier and more convoluted. Soon after Pohl’s talk the Cold War ended, and although the Strategic Defense Initiative continued on, its raison d’être disappeared. SDI was substantially reduced and redirected and renamed, and became ground-based.

But despite all of that, SDIO did initiate several projects that were embraced by the space enthusiasts. SDIO sponsored the Clementine spacecraft, supposedly to test sensors capable of tracking ballistic missiles, but going to the Moon to test them. Clementine returned multispectral images of the lunar surface, adding new data to the claim that the Moon’s south pole held supplies of water. SDIO also sponsored the DC-X rocket, supposedly to help develop cheaper ways of launching SDIO payloads into orbit.

SDIO became the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in 1993, then the Missile Defense Agency in 2002. But by the 1990s BMDO was pretty much out of the space game, and by the late 1990s the rest of the military space program was a mess, entering a dark decade of massive cost overruns and slipping schedules and program cancellations. Any talk of hitching space development fortunes to that Pentagon space program was a distant memory.

There was, however, another offshoot of this SDIO work. SDI helped develop the concept of “faster, cheaper, better” which eventually found its way to NASA. It also helped foster the ideological argument that it was possible to develop space hardware vastly cheaper than NASA did at the time. Thus, SDIO, which Pohl did not think provided a direct path to heaven back in 1989, may still be pointing the way for some true believers today.