The pre-history of the Vision for Space Exploration

In some respects, it can seem like the Vision for Space Exploration sprung forth in January 2004 with little advance notice: other than rumblings and rumors that a new space policy was in the works in the months and weeks leading up to the announcement, there was little substantial indication that NASA and the administration were actively working on a new exploration initiative. However, as Dwayne Day and I write in the latest issue of The Space Review, NASA’s planning for a new exploration plan started in earnest back in 1999, when administrator Dan Goldin gathered some of his top executives and quietly started the Decadal Planning Team (DPT). This effort, with the backing of Goldin and later Sean O’Keefe, worked primarily behind the scenes developing architectures for human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the solar system (one particularly far-sighted proposal that was considered called for a human mission to Callisto, the outermost of Jupiter’s four large Galilean moons.)

One of the major outstanding questions in the article that neither we nor the NASA historians whose research on the DPT formed the basis of our article could answer is what impact did the DPT (and, later, the NASA Exploration Team, or NEXT) have on the ultimate VSE. The DPT’s efforts were intended to be “science-driven” and “destination independent”, yet the Vision is focused clearly on one particular destination—the Moon—with science a secondary concern. When, and whether, these questions get answered may depend on the ultimate success of the Vision: “if Americans once again return to the Moon late in the next decade, scholars will examine the 2003 decision that started the process. If the plan falters under budget cuts or due to changes in political winds, it may never be researched in depth. Few people pay attention to failed policy initiatives.”

14 comments to The pre-history of the Vision for Space Exploration

  • Keith Cowing

    With regard to:

    “Given the current White House’s obsession with secrecy, it is not surprising that little has been written about President Bush’s 2003 decision to pursue the Vision for Space Exploration. What has been written is vague and insubstantial. ”


    “While the board was conducting its investigation, some members of the Executive Branch began to discuss the future of NASA. Exactly who started and led this discussion remains largely unknown, in large part because of the secrecy of the Bush White House, as well as the fact that career civil servants in executive offices rarely speak on the record about their activities. But the early discussions in the Executive Branch appear to have started with career civil servants, eventually being addressed by more senior political appointees.”

    Jeff Foust apparently read our book “New Moon Rising” (since he wrote a review) which deals with the VSE – but he either did not remember or understand what he read. I don’t know if Dwayne Day read the book. Oh well. Funny how they have waited 2 years to start looking into what happened.

  • AJ Mackenzie

    Keith, do you have an actual comment about the article, or are you just grinding axes and shilling books? Surely even you recognize that your book is not the definitive, final history on how the VSE developed. What’s the matter with someone else looking at the issue at a different time, with different resources?

    The article itself is interesting, although I’m not sure what about the DPT set itself apart from the future exploration planning that always seems to have taken place, albeit at a very low level, at NASA for years (if not its entire history). Sure Goldin was its patron, but I’m missing the link between the pretty pictures of astronauts on Callisto and any effort to make this a real national policy.

  • Keith Cowing

    Of course our book is not “definitive”. But to suggest, as these two have done, that “little has been written about President Bush’s 2003 decision to pursue the Vision for Space Exploration” when there is an entire book on the topic is a little lazy to say the least.

  • Allen Thomson

    It’s worth noting that we have recently learned something about VSE than, in my opinion, is fairly significant:

    That is, whatever went on before, it led to Dr Griffin remarking to his senior leadership on 23 November 2005, as reported in NASA Watch,


    “The next step out is the Moon. We’re going to get, and probably already are getting, the same criticisms as for ISS. This is the ‘why go to the Moon?’ theme.

    “We’ve got the architecture in place and generally accepted. That’s the ‘interstate highway’ analogy I’ve made. So now, we need to
    start talking about those exit ramps I’ve referred to. What ARE we going to do on the Moon? To what end? And with whom? I have ideas, of course. (I ALWAYS have ideas; it’s a given.) But my ideas don’t matter. Now is the time to start working with our own science community and with the Internationals to define the program of lunar activity that makes the most sense to the most people. I keep saying — because it’s true — that it’s not the trip that matters, it’s the destination, and what we do there. We got to get started on this.”

    I’m tempted to interpret this as meaning that the mechanism that created VSE decided to cut Gordian knot of “Why?” by simply deciding that sending humans to the moon, Mars and beyond is the irreducible purpose of the undertaking and left “what do we do once there” to be worked out later. Dr. Griffin seems to find himself thinking about “later.”

    BTW, NASA’s PAO actually has a FAQ that has what, to my naive eye, provides not unreasonable top-level answers to the “Why” and “What” questions. It would be interesting to learn where they came from:


  • Dennis Ray Wingo

    If you really want to go back and see the Genesis of Mike Griffin’s thinking on going to the Moon and Mars (which is completely separate from what the White House did on the VSE) you need to go to the ASCE and look up the proceedings of the Space 1992 Conference where he was a keynote speaker.

    I took notes.



  • Keith Cowing

    Science was never a huge driver for VSE. Indeed, checking back to what is in our book, exploration was the motivation – not science.

    That’s fine to get the discussion of where to go next going – but as Ed Weiler said “exploration without science is tourism”. Science needs to be in the equation when the actual plans are being made. I still don’t see it. Check http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewnews.html?id=1082 for today’s comments on that topic.

  • Jeff Foust

    [Disclaimer: I am speaking only for myself, not my co-author.]

    Regarding the statement “little has been written about President Bush’s 2003 decision to pursue the Vision for Space Exploration”: the only book that addresses the decisionmaking process in any detail is, in fact, New Moon Rising, and only part of that book is devoted to an examination of that process. I’m also hard-pressed to think of any other accounts (articles, papers, etc.) that go into great detail about the formation of the VSE. So it’s difficult for me to understand how stating that little has been written about that decisionmaking process can be construed as being “a little lazy”. But everyone is entitled to their opinions.

    Regarding Mr. Mackenzie’s question: another key factor that sets the DPT apart from previous planning efforts was that it was specifically funded by OMB, although why that money was given to NASA — a request by Goldin, a mandate by someone higher up in OMB or the administration, or simply by Isakowitz himself — is something that Garber and Asner, the NASA historians working on the DPT history monograph, are still looking into. This may have given DPT’s efforts more of an official imprimatur than previous low-level exploration studies.

  • Very well written Dwayne and Jeff!

    Whatever the genesis, however, the so-called vision is funny to me. Only in today’s climate do we use the term ‘vision’ as flippantly as we use ‘hero’.

  • There are two aspects that I find the space crowd seems to miss in all this:

    – The desire to reward Republican apparatchik Tom DeLay of Texas by putting a huge program in his district,

    – The need for Bush the Second to outdo his father on yet another front, as in Iraq and the imposition of Conservatism and religion on the Government.

    These seem likely enough influences on the “vision decision” to at least merit examination.

  • Nemo

    These seem likely enough influences on the “vision decision” to at least merit examination.

    No, not really. The only two indispensable influences on the Vision were:

    1) the Columbia accident, and
    2) the CAIB observation that lack of top-level vision was a contributing factor to the accident.

    Without those two, there would be no VSE, period. All other possible contributing factors are a sideshow, at best, and a distraction at worse.

  • Keith Cowing

    I agree with Captain Nemo

  • TORO

    The attempt for vision goes back at least to following Apollo 11. V.P Agnew and others had some formal meetings … and soon Nixon talking about government spending priorities, etc. … and so on …

    The bottom line is there has been no vision other than (1) controlling NASA spending and (2) having cheap airplane equivalent access to low-Earth orbit for later visions to come.

    But the space shuttle never achieved the cheap airplane-style access to LEO.

    Back to the future.

  • Nemo2

    COWING: “Science was never a huge driver for VSE. Indeed, checking back to what is in our book, exploration was the motivation – not science.”

    COWING: “That’s fine to get the discussion of where to go next going – but as Ed Weiler said “exploration without science is tourism”. Science needs to be in the equation when the actual plans are being made. I still don’t see it.”

    I think most of us agree that “exploration” is not sufficient, and that science should be “part of the equation”, but Cowing misses a larger point.

    Weiler makes a mistake that would not be tolerated in another agency in the U.S. government. Scientists (like Weiler) who leap to the conclusion that “science” is missing as an objective in NASA, are using fuzzy thinking. They are putting the cart in front of the horse.

    Science is a tool — yes, a fantastically useful tool — to satisfy an objective. But it is only a tool (and a process). And it is only one of several useful tools that can be used to meet an objective.

    If you visit the National Cancer Institute, they are all about science. It is fundamental. But you will NEVER hear one of their executives say “Science is the objective”. (But, as Cowing says “science is clearly in the equation”.) The same goes with the NIH, or the Pentagon, or NIST, or NOAA, or the EPA. All of these government agencies have very clear objectives, that are useful to focus their planning, but they do not confuse the process/tools of science with their real goals.

    Our nation’s leaders need to answer the “why” for NASA. At that point, we then apply the various tools/processes to support the objective (the answr to why), and choose to use science as appropriate.

    The first stumbling block with regards to our nation’s agenda in space is that we have many valid and legitimate answers to the “why” question. There is no “one answer”. Let me give three, each which instills passion among its backers, and each which is sometimes (and in some cases often) orthogonal to the others: 1) The permanent (and large scale) human settlement of space; and 2) The discovery of life (and intelligent life) in the Universe, and3) Improving (and protecting) life here on Earth (think both asteroid defense and Mission to Planet Earth).

    Yes, it is hard work for a large group to make choices among these competing objectives. But we should not make it even harder by adding “science is an objective” to the mix.

    Which gets me back to my original point –> “Science” should be seen as a critical and indispensable tool — but ONLY a tool — to support meeting these (and other) useful objectives. Depending on the specific objectives chosen, other “tools” may be more appropriate than science, or the objective may require a combination of tools. Other useful tools include “engineering” and “capitalism”.

    Let’s not put the cart in front of the horse.

    – Nemo2

  • David Davenport

    Other useful tools include “engineering” and “capitalism”.

    So where’s the “profit” in manned space flight?