The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Aldridge Commission member Paul Spudis warned that NASA is misinterpreting, perhaps deliberately, elements of the President’s vision. (credit: James Spellman)

Is the vision losing focus?

It has been six months since President George Bush announced at NASA Headquarters a new space exploration program for the nation, an effort now known as the Vision for Space Exploration. Since that time the path has hardly been a smooth one for the vision. It has been criticized in the press, in many cases being wrongly accused of being a trillion-dollar mission to Mars. Public reaction to the vision has been lukewarm, although a recent poll—commissioned by the Coalition for Space Exploration—suggests that a majority of the American public supports the plan to some degree. The President has not spoken publicly about the vision since that January 14th speech, despite a number of opportunities to do so, most recently last week when the Apollo 11 astronauts visited the White House. The plan has also faced opposition within Congress, even among members of the President’s own party. That became clear last week when the House Appropriations Committee slashed over a billion dollars from NASA’s 2005 budget, cutting deepest in programs linked to the exploration initiative.

The news certainly is not all bad. NASA has, by most accounts, played a significant role in shaping the new vision, and has shown a willingness to adapt to face the challenges of implementing that vision. In June NASA announced a reorganization of its management structure at headquarters. The agency’s new exploration office has also been open to new approaches, particularly in its dealings with the private sector, to making the vision a reality. Yet there are indications from a number of people, both within and outside of NASA, that the agency itself might be the biggest obstacle towards implementing the vision as intended by the President.

LRO: an early symptom?

One of the early efforts by NASA to implement the Vision for Space Exploration is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a mission planned for launch in late 2008 to orbit the Moon and return data that could be used to plan future robotic and human missions. LRO is an ambitious mission, costing several hundred million dollars, and will carry a suite of instruments to do everything from confirm the presence of water ice near the lunar poles to measuring the radiation environment in the vicinity of the Moon. It has also encountered some criticism from those who think such a large, government-run spacecraft is the wrong way to do lunar exploration (See “Moon, Mars, baseball, and football”, July 12, 2004, and “Lunar science missions: the smallsat alternative”, May 10, 2004).

“Killing LRO isn’t going to advance the cause,” Spudis said. “It’s not the way I would have done it, but it’s the way we’re going to do it.”

“You can take criticism with the way LRO is being implemented, and I do, actually,” said Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and a member of the Aldridge Commission. Spudis, who specializes in lunar research, said at the Space Frontier Foundation’s Return to the Moon conference in Las Vegas earlier this month that while he believed it was important to obtain the kinds of data LRO is designed to collect, it is not the best way to run that mission. “Fundamentally, it’s architecturally debatable how they’ve chosen to implement this,” he said, “but the idea is correct.”

“There are a lot of ways you can do this mission,” he added. “My preference is for small, quick, cheap things that don’t necessarily carry everything at once. You put multiple instruments on multiple small spacecraft. It’s a flexible architecture, but that’s not the way they chose to do this.”

For Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, his concerns go beyond the choice of sending small or large spacecraft to the Moon. “The vision can go off-track in a number of ways, and I already see it happening,” he said, referring to LRO. “That’s probably a traditional sort of thing for NASA, but that’s a very bad sign as one of the first steps towards returning to the Moon.”

Tumlinson believes that a lunar orbiter could be done far less expensively than LRO, citing the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions as examples. He said it was time for NASA to open up to new approaches and new ways of handling such missions. “We shouldn’t send a lunar orbiter, we should offer to buy data from companies that can go to the Moon and return that data,” he said. “If we need to put prizes up, let’s do it.”

Despite his disagreements with the approach taken with LRO, though, Spudis still supports the mission, and plans to submit a proposal to fly an instrument on the spacecraft. “Killing LRO isn’t going to advance the cause,” he said. “It’s not the way I would have done it, but it’s the way we’re going to do it.”

Moon vs. Mars

Beyond LRO, though, there is a greater concern about how NASA is implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. The vision, as laid out by the President in January, focuses through the end of the next decade on returning humans to the Moon, as a prelude for eventual manned missions to Mars and beyond. At the Return to the Moon conference, though, several people suggested that NASA, in its long-running desire to send humans to Mars, may be shortchanging its lunar exploration plans.

Spudis, for example, noted that unnamed NASA officials have suggested doing a “touch-and-go” on the Moon, landing humans there for a minimum amount of time before turning the agency’s attention on to Mars. “The thought here is that if we spend a lot of money on the Moon, we won’t have the money to go to Mars later. Because their goal is to go to Mars, we’ll do a touch-and-go,” he said. “The only problem with that is that’s not what the President said.”

“We use the Moon to go to Mars by touching down, and then saying, ‘did that’, and on to Mars,” warned Mendell.

Spudis also said another NASA official claimed the agency needed an “exit strategy” for the Moon. “Why do we need an exit strategy? Because the real goal is Mars,” Spudis recounted. “So if you go the Moon, and you do things on the Moon, you have to figure out a way to say, ‘we’re done, we’re leaving the Moon.’”

“That’s not the point,” Spudis said, sounding a bit exasperated. “The point is to use the Moon to enable voyages elsewhere. And plus, I dare say, we have a few things we might be able to do on the Moon as well. It is an interesting place in its own right.”

Wendell Mendell, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, concurred with much of that assessment, including the concept of “touch-and-go” landings being considered within NASA. “We use the Moon to go to Mars by touching down, and then saying, ‘did that’, and on to Mars,” he said.

Mendell described how, a month after the President’s speech, a person at NASA Headquarters put together a prominent team of lunar scientists. That group, he said, “was told to figure out what kind of science you could do on the Moon to learn more about Mars. The person who gave that direction was interpreting the President’s remarks ‘we’re going to the Moon to learn how to go to Mars’ as ‘we’re going to the Moon and we’re going to study Mars on the Moon.’”

“A famous NASA official said that we’re really focused on Mars, because that’s where the real science is,” Spudis said.


If NASA is truly misinterpreting the intentions of the President—and one must keep in mind that these comments were made at a conference of Moon, not Mars, advocates—the question is why? Is this part of the bureaucratic inertia linked with the difficulty in changing the course of a large agency in a short period of time? Or, is there a deliberate effort by people within NASA, either its top leadership or mid-level managers, to reshape the vision into something they find more palatable?

Spudis thinks that NASA officials are deliberately misrepresenting the vision. “My point is not that they misunderstand it, but that they are misrepresenting it,” he said. “This is all done deliberately, and the agenda is to kill this, or to morph it into something that it was never intended to be.”

NASA officials “are misrepresenting” the vision, Spudis said. “This is all done deliberately, and the agenda is to kill this, or to morph it into something that it was never intended to be.”

At the same time, there are also people within NASA that believe that this vision might be the last chance for NASA to avoid a death spiral. “There are people at the core of this who strongly believe that this is it, and if we don’t do this right, it’s over,” said Mendell. “Now the working troops don’t think much in those terms, but there is a very strong sense among those who have thought about this that this is it.”

“Right now, we’re at a critical crossroads in getting this vision going,” Spudis said. He called on advocates of the vision to make their support known, particularly to members of Congress, “because unless these people hear from you, they’re going to assume nobody cares.”

“The biggest frontier that we in our national space program have to face is not the Moon, it is not Mars,” said Tumlinson. “It is the psychology of our space program. It is changing the way we look at space, it is changing the way our government employees look at space. Otherwise it will fail.”