Sometimes our space program is like a bad zombie movie. As our heroes try and make it through the night, one by one they are picked off by the walking dead as they hack and slash their way to daylight. So goes the new space agenda, designed to correct the flaws of the past and breath new life into our human exploration plans, as it faces off with the walking corpse of the Constellation program and its defenders, who are determined to gradually eat away at it until it too joins them in the never ending carnage of our dying dreams to open the frontier of space.
Constellation, like many a government fiasco, began as a visionary plan. I was there when President Bush announced we were going back to the Moon and on to Mars. I sat a few feet away from him as he spoke of humanity not just exploring but also developing permanent outposts beyond Earth orbit. We Texans are good at spotting another Texan when they are, shall we say, “stretching the truth” and I can say I feel Mr. Bush meant what he said and spoke from his heart. Unfortunately, the distance from his lips to NASA’s ears was far greater than that from here to Mars and along the way it was later shanghaid from a major new American space initiative to a dead end dream eating jobs program by the very man tasked with carrying it out, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. A good man at heart, whose ideas and obsession with doing things his way come hell or high water, he killed the dream.
In the beginning, NASA’s effort was led by former Navy Admiral Craig E. Steidle, who was working for the agency under its Administrator, Sean O’Keefe, seen by many as a non-space manager who had been brought in to clean up the space station’s disastrous finances. The Admiral, to his credit, at least knew what he didn’t know and brought in a wide variety of experts to help him draw up a roadmap to achieve the president’s goal.
Steidle’s early efforts led to the beginnings of a great partnership between NASA’s traditional science and exploration community and those like myself who are focused on permanence and what I call “Frontier Enabling” exploration – the finding of resources and means of using them to “live off the land” and the integration of commercial concepts and allies into their planning – the basis for establishing not just permanence but economic energy for growth. We were brought together at first in “secret” meetings and then more open forums.
After months of work the scientists began to “get it” and understood that by combining exploration with development in the right mix, by not just blowing early funds on one shot science missions, but along the way enabling and lowering the costs of follow on missions by re-cycling assets, using in situ resources and the power of commercial enterprise they could not just get to a place but actually stay their and expand their knowledge base over time.
Meanwhile, back at the NASA ranch, as those focused on the “what” we were going to do on the Moon and Mars gleefully began to develop their plans, there was a shake up and a new leadership team took the helm.
When he became administrator, Mr. Griffin had already decided how he was going to go to Mars and back to the Moon. He had published his plans long before in the Planetary Society magazine. In other words, since he “Knew” what to do, no one else’s opinion was needed. With his revolving door supporters from ATK and Lockheed Martin behind him, he promptly killed off all outreach into other communities, and began to implement his new Das National Rocket approach – an ill conceived throwback system dubbed “Constellation” which promptly drove President Bush’s whole concept of permanence beyond the Earth off a cliff. Rather than an economically sustainable plan to explore and open space, Bush’s vision was warped into yet another cost plus jobs program with the ostensible goal of building yet another government rocket – destinations and long term plans be damned!
Of course the local center managers given the task and their outlaying contractors jumped on the new deal. Since the end of Apollo, the marketing of huge rocket programs that pour money into space center communities and contractor’s pockets regardless of whether anything ever flies is a well-honed art in the halls of Congress and Constellation was made to order. The scientists and others focused on the destination and operations don’t have powerful lobbyists, and their expenditures are a fraction of those needed to build rockets – so they became expendable boosters.
The “Griffinistas” as they were called, rolled ahead with their plans, and as their budgets began the usual creep, funds for long term missions and habitation became the food for their monster. One by one such things as in situ resource development, science and other projects were eaten. It seemed as if a new race was on to simply fly something, as attested to the Ares 1X fiasco, a smoke and mirrors mock up that in no way was worth the cost, but was built and flown to less than 200 thousand feet, simply to retain political support for an unsupportable program. After all, big rockets look good on camera.
Let’s be clear. Mr. Griffin’s failure to launch was of his own making. Had the good people at NASA and their contractors been given a different set of marching orders they would have performed. The great work they had done on such things as surface operations plans and infrastructure like rovers, habitats and resource utilization work before being massacred by the Griffinistas attest to this fact. NASA scientists were ready for new and creative ways to operate within a frontier approach, and several contractors were looking at new and exciting systems to support long duration missions.
In fact, at an event thrown by NASA a few years ago by some in the agency who spotted the mistakes being made by their boss and attended by hundreds of experts from all centers and specialties, from Lunar scientists to Mars rover teams to commercial experts and others, every one of the several teams tasked with suggesting goals and plans came back with human settlement and permanence as their goal. They called for partnering with the private sector, re-use and sustainable systems and other pro-frontier approaches and most had NASA focusing on using the Moon to learn how to do Mars and then moving on, leaving behind a mixed use Earth/Moon infrastructure. It was amazing. Unfortunately, at the time of the final presentations, no major leader from NASA headquarters was present – a symbol at least to me of their state of mind.
And so Griffin’s Constellation monster failed. Utterly and completely – except in keeping the flow of cash pouring into certain congressional districts – the life blood of political support for all projects good and bad – and Constellation was and is demonstrably bad for America. It was too expensive, used an old Apollo era throw it away approach that cannot support permanent human operations and would have collapsed of its own weight well before delivering the first NASA explorers even to the Moon – let alone Mars.
Now Mr. Griffin has the temerity to run around Washington invoking President Bush’s well meant goal of taking us back to the Moon and on to Mars as if he wasn’t the one who blew it. Playing into the current pre-election “anything Obama does is evil” mentality, he and those who stand to gain from wasting more money on the seemingly unkillable zombie-like Constellation program are not telling the truth. Yet it was because he and his team ignored all outside ideas about how to build a permanent Earth/Moon infrastructure that could then be extended to Mars and beyond and instead insisted on a wasteful, anti-frontier opening re-invention of old technology program that we are in this place.
The new plan aims to fix the situation, creating a good mix of public and private investments and technologies that will allow us not only to go anywhere we want in space, but to stay where we go and do whatever we want there – including exploration and settlement.
Mr. Griffin is trying to save his own baby, and companies like ATK that are supporting his pathetic arguments are out to keep the money flowing to their own outdated, polluting, dangerous and dead end anti-frontier technologies such as solid rocket boosters, instead of re-inventing themselves (rather than just their name) developing new and sustainable systems and joining those of us who want a strong US future in space – which would mean a lot more paychecks for a lot longer for all of us!
Preferably, Mr. Griffin could offer his talent and engineering skills to helping design a real frontier enabling system – including perhaps a re-design of the Orion, which, like the cut off hand of a zombie still moves and has morphed from an in-space system which would be useful carrying astronauts between planets to an anti-competitive Earth to Leo capsule which will sabotage our plans to use commercial carriers in that job and thus free NASA to focus on Far frontier exploration.
Constellation is dead. (Please!) It failed. Now those who foisted it on us need to get with the program and help us or sit down and shut up so we can get the job done. We have work to do, and this time we are all need to work together and get it right. This time we cannot waste the chance to open the frontier, this time we cannot squander years and the funds we are given on dead ends and useless pork projects. Instead, this time we will build what we need to go where we need to go, do it affordably and in a way that will not only allow us to explore, but to stay.