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Reopening the Moon-vs.-Mars question

Aviation Week has a letter in its July 30th issue (summarized in a blog post on Aviation Week’s web site) from Apollo lunar module manager Joseph P. Gavin who is critical of the current direction of the Vision for Space Exploration: not because of the choice of architectures, but because of the decision to go back to the Moon instead of directly to Mars:

“I have been somewhat surprised to see the lack of active criticism of the administration’s vision for space exploration,” says Gavin in his letter to Aviation Week. “It seems to me to be more concerned with the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘why’,” he says.

Gavin thinks that, after the ISS, the next major priority for NASA should be enhanced robotic exploration of Mars to determine if human missions there would be “warranted”. Given NASA’s, and the administration’s, current commitment to the Vision, it seems unlikely such a reconsideration would be made before 2009, if even then.

55 comments to Reopening the Moon-vs.-Mars question

  • That’s the great thing about smart people: they’re full of ideas. You can have five smart people and twelve really good ideas among them, all of which seem equally valid. If you pick one, every one of them, including the one who’s idea you picked, will be glad to explain why you made the wrong choice.

    I’m not for exploring for exploring’s sake. I believe that we’ve got to leave this rock, and anything we do to scatter ourselves among the stars is the highest priority of our species. So to me the moon or mars is a moot point. Instead, it’s fascinating how much we seem to be building inertia not to go any particular place, almost, as Sagan speculated, that intelligent species are somehow hard-wired to implode instead of expand.

    If that’s the case, then Gavin’s comments make total sense. In that vein, we should open up the whole idea of what we’re doing, look at it some more, maybe have a complete change in direction. Heck — perhaps we could work out some new goals in space, like flying to venus in a ship shaped like a giant inflatable badger.

  • Monte Davis

    Badger indeed! That’s the kind of sloppy thinking that has stalled progress in space. I will be happy to share my 7MB .pdf outlining the compelling technical, economic and political arguments for Enceladus as a destination and the marmot form factor.

  • Brian Garrett

    I’d be most interested in seeing that .pdf file Monte.

  • That’s just the type of thinking that you [fill in political slant here] are always using. Everyone knows the Badger format has been proven time and time again. Somewhere.

    I’ve had the priviledge of working with some really smart folks in the technology sector. I’ll never forget my first team of 30-40. I was so used to being the “star” — the wonderkid, etc — that I was completely taken off-balance. Whatever I said, twelve people would announce why it was wrong. Even if I changed positions, another twelve (sometimes the same twelve!) would renounce that new position.

    I eventually realized that those wonderkid people get into a habit of differentiating themselves by taking contrarian views. It wasn’t a matter of science or logic, it was human nature. I suspect much the same is at work here. All of the arguments for Mars or the Moon — you could probably stack them all up and argue them any way you wanted to. At the end of the day, if we’re leaving, we’re leaving. I’d be glad to take the first ride to Enceladus in an inflatble marmot, even if I know the Badgers are a much superior means of transportation. And that the marmot people have long held with inferior technology and a unreasonable thinking process.

  • Monte Davis

    At the end of the day, if we’re leaving, we’re leaving.

    A long day at that — long enough that I don’t invest a lot in “USA vs China,” or “government program vs free enterprise,” or “manned spaceflight vs robotic science,” or the other ever-popular food fights. I expect that by the time we get into space on a meaningful, self-reinforcing scale, some or all of those will have changed beyond recognition, or been replaced by new themes we can’t foresee.

    The criteria that matter more to me are “does it teach us something we’re going to need to know sooner or later?” and “does it contribute to reducing cost and/or expanding capability?”

    (And, of course, “does it help to expose the absurd and illogical pretensions of the woodchuck and wolverine factions?”)

  • MarkWhittington

    Heavens, a sense a humor seens to have broken out here. I love it.

  • Rob Wilson

    You idiots and your In-Space Animal Architectures!

    Everyone knows we wont be going *anywhere* in space until we can bring down launch costs with the Giant Hypersonic Carrot! Only the Vegetable form factor can get us there!

  • I think permanent Amundsen-station-in-winter human presence on Mars before the Moon is not best. The support costs are about 100:1. I vote Moon. It also makes a better tourist destination until we get those Earth-Mars, one-week express rockets. I vote Marmot and Badger for how to get there. Because I’m an economist, I get an extra vote as long as it’s different from the first. But seriously, why go with anything other than a Bigelow hab? Now that this stuff is commercially available, why are we arguing about developing a Badger? Is it because it is easier to get a $90 billion program through Congress than a $900 million program?

  • Because the amount of federal dollars going to contractors is more important than results for mankind?

    I’m sorry. Was that a rhetorical question?

    Why not just take ISS, and over a period of years put it on a free-return orbit of the moon and earth? You’d already have 7 guys and a huge station available to both destinations. It takes a lot more energy to dock from either place, but then you only have to design a lunar lander that can dock with the space station. Store extra supplies up there, etc.

    I mean, once you put your thinking caps on, there are all kinds of ways we can prevent ourselves from doing any one thing.

    I still get back to bubble gum. Nobody argues about the cost of bubble gum, because it’s so cheap and we each make a decision whether to buy it. You pay your 5 cents, you get a yummy experience. Everybody argues about federal spending for space because it is so expensive and nobody gets to fly except special people — people that we don’t even get to choose.

    It’s amazing the program has lasted this long. I agree. If we can make one of those Bigelow habitats look like a Badger, count me in. But I was under the impression we’re still about five years away from true proof-of-concept, no?

  • I have some (non-animal-related) comments here.

  • Monte Davis

    Is it because it is easier to get a $90 billion program through Congress than a $900 million program?

    Where space is concerned, all too true. Not just because of the district-pork and “iron rice bowl” factors so often discussed here — which apply more or less to all government spending — but because of the “mission” and “vehicle” orientation stamped on our thinking in the first years of the Space Age. Space is all about going somewhere new, or rolling out a clearly defined new piece of hardware with a mythological or astronomical name.

    We need either of those less than we need a thousand unspectacular, incremental improvements in a score of generic capabilities — steps that don’t lend themselves to ribbon-cutting and photo ops, but would add up over time. Sometimes we get them in the course of a mission-centered or vehicle-centered program, but they’re really hard to sell to Congress on their own.

  • Jeff Dougherty

    As I commented at Transterrestrial, I have to wonder about the mindset that thinks six landings near the equator on the light side means that we’ve “explored” the Moon and that going back there doesn’t count as “exploration”. Yes, we’ve been to the Moon- but only briefly, and certainly not in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of the idea that there’s no more exploration to be done on the Moon, or that there are no useful capabilities we could develop there.

    I’m not sure if this is still true, on reflection, but I know that for a long time we had better maps of Mars than of the Moon, and better radar maps of Venus. Has anyone done a mission to map the Moon in MGS-style resolution? I know that Clementine and Lunar Prospector did some radar imaging, but has anyone done a comprehensive radar map of the Moon?

  • Not only do we need thousands of little accomplishments, we need a thousand ways of combining accomplishments. The problem with large programs is that you’re inventing everything one time, to go together one way.

    If you had a hundred actors, each with the ability to combine the pieces for maximum result, you would eventually winnow out some combinations of technologies that were more efficient than others. As it is, you get what? Maybe two or three large vendors, each with some uber-version of whatever we need?

    We should really pay for results, not programs. There’s a difference. A program is something you manage and run. A result is something you use. In the technology industry, we have what’s known as a Service Level Agreement — it’s a contract that spells out what capabilities I’m providing to you. You can use them any way you want.

    As it is, we have it exactly backwards. The contractors have huge sway in the procurement process, so we create large financial structures to support contractors. If we were using more of a needs-based, commodity-like approach, such as the one we use to purhase telephone service, it might work a little better.

  • kert

    We need either of those less than we need a thousand unspectacular, incremental improvements in a score of generic capabilities — steps that don’t lend themselves to ribbon-cutting and photo ops, but would add up over time.

    You just described the modus operandi of Armadillo Aerospace, for example. Probably a few others cutting metal right now. It would be hard not to be a fan of theirs.

  • While I must certainly bow to the savage characteristics of the inflatable badger that make it ideal for a trip to Venus, I can’t help but wonder if alternative architectures might make more sense. The first thought that comes to mind is the well-endowed “engorged capybara” architecture, though research has found that it is exceedingly difficult to get into LEO, and it has a tendency to wander hither and yon without apparent direction.

    My banker instinct immediately thought of the weasel class of transport. Perhaps I’ve flown the airlines once too often. Promise lots and deliver the minimum that you can get away with contractually when read in the most favorably ambiguous way. Of note is that the airline industry is essentially breakeven over its 100 years of history. But it is important so we invest in it.

    If a checklist of destinations is what’s important, then I demand that we visit BOTH of Earth’s moons before we leave this neighborhood. To ignore Cruithne is to ignore what could be detritus of the formation of the Solar System, or the remains of Earth’s collision with Thea back in the early days that led to the formation of the Moon, perturbed into a near-Earth, 1:1 resonant orbit. This scientific marvel cannot be ignored so that we can go traipsing off to the wilds of Mars on a snipe hunt for other life. We must investigate this relic of the birth of our Solar System, perhaps itself seeded with life that didn’t quite make it to Earth.

    I insist therefore that we put Mars on the back-burner and redirect all current and near-future missions to Cruithne to study what could be the key to our understanding of the very foundations of our existence! NASA, hear my call!

    Badgers, marmots, wolverines, capybaras, weasels – however we get there, let’s get there!

    (though that sounds like a really messy combination of critters)

    [With all due respect to Mr.Gavin, who has done work in his life worthy of respect. I just think he's off the mark on this one.]

  • richardb

    To be short about it, this article in AWST illustrates why Washington will always be speed bumping itself on the road to space exploration. Paralysis isn’t a good thing.

    I am amazed that any intelligent person would care whether it was Mars or the Moon for the next 20 years. Just go to one or the other. Be quick about it.

  • i_s_s_alpha

    richardb wrote:

    “To be short about it, this article in AWST illustrates why Washington will always be speed bumping itself on the road to space exploration. Paralysis isn’t a good thing.”

    I think the reason for this is simply because no Space Race currently exists. Sputnik, Gragarian, the Apollo program, and the first space stations, were all products of the Cold War inspired Space Race. The benefits of this “healthy” competition were the ever more dramatic space firsts brought about by each side trying to up the ante.

    After that, both sides went their separate ways. The Soviet Union stuck with the space stations while the U.S. went towards the space shuttles. In both cases, the yawn factor set in due to the repetitive nature of these programs.

    The ISS program only further pushed the trend in this direction by removing competition all together and replacing it with *gasp* cooperation.

    Now, there is no need to up the ante (a very, very, very expensive thing to do) for the sake of national prestige. Without a driving competition, where to go from here?

  • Outside the Beltway

    In the words of Mr. Dougherty: “…six landings near the equator on the light side…” as opposed to the Dark Side of the Moon?

    He’s been listening to the Pink Floyd, methinks.

  • Jeff Dougherty

    My mistake. I should have said “Near side”. I think the point stands, though.

  • anonymous.space

    Setting aside all this talk of rodents, the really funny thing is that aggressive robotic Mars exploration was an original element of the VSE, to be conducted in parallel with the human lunar return effort. See pages 7, 12-13, and 19 in the VSE pdf here:

    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/55583main_vision_space_exploration2.pdf

    Unfortunately, the Mars program has been cut in half to feed Ares I/Orion. We shouldn’t have to make this choice. Had ESAS gone a more budgetarily conservative route (e.g., CEV crew of 4, actual use of heritage LVs and/or elements), most or all of the robotic Mars missions planned in the VSE would still be there. Breaking human space flight out of LEO sustainably, and the search for habitable environments and evidence of past/present life (whether on Mars, the outer moons, and/or at extrasolar planets) are both important activities — arguably the two most important activities to any civil space program today.

    But to the extent we do have to make a choice, I, for one, would be happy with either an aggressive robotic program of Mars exploration or a frontier/commerce-enabling human lunar return program. Unfortunately, we’re getting neither. Under its reduced budget, the Mars program will be lucky if it obtains its first sample return sometime in the early 2020s –and that will require missing mission opportunities in the teens to bank the necessary dollars — while the Orion project has been ordered to ignore lunar requirements in preparation for its first flights in the 2015 or later timeframe. If we can’t do both well and soon, we should be doing at least one of these programs well and soon. But instead we’re doing both poorly almost a decade or more from now to feed a duplicative and underpowered Ares I LV and an oversized human Orion capsule that together will only be capable of servicing the ISS.

    Sigh…

    Ignoring the current problems and talking more generally, Gavin is right that:

    “The argument that the Moon is a necessary training base for eventual manned expeditions to Mars is flatly unpersuasive”

    The differences in landings, environments, resources, flight durations, and communications are all wildly divergent. However, contrary to Gavin, I would argue that some shorter-duration human exploration effort will be necessary to build up and exercise the industrial and operational muscles that are required to mount a human Mars effort. That doesn’t necessarily require an expensive lunar polar base or a wait for lunar propellant production, but some small number and duration of lunar and/or NEO excursions are probably going to be required before taking on that giant leap to Mars. In the ideal world, the much more scientifically interesting and resource-rich environment of Mars would be located as close as the Moon. But it’s not, and the magnitudes of the distances and efforts involved probably require an interim human step, even if to a much less interesting and relatively resource-poor target.

    Finally, I would just note that if the case for habitable environments and life on Mars continues to build, there is the distinct possibility that we may never set foot on that planet, at least not in the foreseeable decades and centuries. There are some pretty heavy ethical questions posed by the possibility of forward-contamination, and even weightier questions posed by the possibility of back contamination. It would not surprise me that if NASA ever gets a chance to send astronauts to Mars, that those astronauts are confined to Phobos, Deimos, or an orbiting station, directing teams of sanitized and expendable robots on the Martian surface.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • Donald F. Robertson

    Anonymous, I agree with you about the political issues of potential life on Mars. I once wrote an Op Ed piece in Space News arguing that, since it is impossible to prove the absence of life on Mars, the political challenges of undertaking a human Mars mission are so difficult as to make it effectively impossible, and that we should look elsewhere for our next goal. Likewise, a full “don’t change the environment” and “back-out” capability, as suggested by Chris McKay, would effectively preclude much living off the land and thus greatly increase the cost, and thus the political difficulty, of human missions to Mars. (Depending on how seriously we take these preservation requirements, they might also seriously effect automated missions that try to explore under the surface.)

    However, what do you think of the Martian moons as your intermediate destination? I think they offer a lot and are under-appreciated as a goal. In terms of energy, they’re amongst the easiest places to get to in the Solar System, far easier than the surface of Mars and easier than the surface of the Moon. Meanwhile, they offer deep space experience, the potential for resource extraction, no life to complicate ethical questions, and the high scientific value of studying probably near-primordial asteroids. As a bonus, they are great natural platforms to study Mars itself and stage sample return missions from. A sample return staged from Phobos allows multiple flights at little additional cost, true biolicial isolation in both directions, and the potential of obtaining the fuel on site rather than shipping it from Earth.

    – Donald

  • Yeah. I think a manned Mars mission, at least funded by governments, is not going to happen, for the reasons anonymous outlined. I said as much in a previous blog entry.

    But there are “serious ethical questions” raised by life, even primitive life, on our nearest neighbor, what does that say for manned space exploration? Count me in as a pioneer: put me in a wagon, give me a gun, show me the Indians, and let’s head west. But those days, and those attitudes, have been demonized and denigrated. If Mars has water, and Mars has microbial life, and we can’t go there — where can we go? How would you ever know that you didn’t have an impact on the exo-ecosystem? (If there is such a thing) How could you prove a generalized negative like “there is no life that we would be disturbing”?

    It’s a philosophical chinese finger puzzle. One is either forced to admit that mankind has an impact on nature, that he is supposed to have an impact on nature, or you’re paralyzed. Frankly I don’t see politicians doing anything controversial with our space money. (I don’t see them doing much that is useful, much less controversial).

    So Gavin’s reasons for going to Mars are exactly the reasons why it won’t work. It’s too “interesting”. Perhaps a moon of Mars, where we hide from, er, study, what’s happening somewhere more worthy of our time.

  • Kevin Parkin

    “Reopening the Moon-vs.-Mars question”

    *rolls eyes*

    This is tantamount to the ‘best’ color is orange vs. gray question – it will never be won.

    This is the year 2007, I’m bored, and which color horizons NASA pushes toward and how much money it gets this year, to me at least, are completely besides the point.

    Today’s NASA is so lost in programmatic formalism it barely matters. Goals are secondary to compliance, and compliance costs just fill whatever budget you can afford. Hardware and numerical analysis are distant memories for technical personnel, most of whose careers have fallen into the compliance black hole. Massive skills wastage should be the issue of the day.

  • “Goals are secondary to compliance, and compliance costs just fill whatever budget you can afford.”

    That, my friends, is the voice of experience.

    Bang on, sir.

    How much time do you think Wilbur and Orville sat around wondering if their powered man-kite was “man-rated”? Somehow I don see a lot of paperwork, investigation, total-risk-elimination and committee meetings happening back then. If the Wright Brothers ran like NASA, they’d just now be getting working propellers, which would be made of polished titanium and cost about $2 Billion each. They’d also be circular — but totally safe from any form of accident, and guaranteed to provide jobs for as long as the man-kite program lasted.

  • Fed up and disgusted

    NASA better make up it’s mind, formulate a plan and stick with it or COngress will slice it up and we’llbe stuck in Earth orbit. Either that or let the private do the exploring which means never. Politicians do not see the merit of sending people the Moon or Mars. All they see is votes and the next election. The current electorate are like little spoiled children. “Give me health care. Give me child care. Give me an education. Give me a job. Please stuff more lard down my throat. Give me, Give me, Give me.” The media isn’t much help either. Whenever there’s a launch of the space shuttle of a space probe notice they are always quick to point out the cost. Then there’s the roving reporter who zeros in on some wayward soul to ask their insightful comments about NASA and invariably that person will say “I think we should spend the money we spend on space on better schools and feeding poor people.” This is of course non-sense. We piss more money away on education and anti-poverty programs than we will ever spend on outer space. But then again the electorate generally doesn’t have a clue about the federal budget let alone thier own state and local government. Face it folks, we’re not going anywhere. Hell! The current President who proposed the Vision for Space Exploration rarely mentions it in his speeches and won’t even fully fund it in the budget he proposes to Congress!

    But on the bright side the shiny pictures and artists conceptions of the VSE are very nice. To bad that is all that will ever come of it.

  • Paul Dietz

    that person will say “I think we should spend the money we spend on space on better schools and feeding poor people.” This is of course non-sense. We piss more money away on education and anti-poverty programs than we will ever spend on outer space.

    This argument is unconvincing and logically flawed. If the space program is not worthwhile, the mere fact that it is smaller than some other program (that that hypothetical person does think is worthwhile) does not save it.

    Your basic problem is not politicians, it’s that the public largely doesn’t agree with you. Many powerless minorities feel the same way, ‘Fed Up’. Deal with it.

  • anonymous.space

    “However, what do you think of the Martian moons as your intermediate destination?”

    Even setting aside the potential back- and forward-contamination issues associated with landing astronauts on the surface of Mars, I still think highly of using Phobos or Deimos as a trial run or as a staging area for Mars surface excursions.

    In the trial run mode, a mission to Phobos or Deimos would serve the same purpose for a human Mars program as the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission did in the Apollo program. It allows the program to bite off the risk of sending a human mission that far before biting off the additional risk associated with landing and ascents from the planetary surface. (Let’s make sure we can walk before we run.)

    In the staging area mode, if we wanted to mount either an extensive scientific campaign on the planet or were in the colonization mode, using Phobos or Deimos as a location to assemble resources from Earth (and maybe even make some local resources) before taking them down into Mars’ gravity well might make sense. The lunar analogy is staging from Lagrange points. But the cost/benefit of a Phobos or Deimos “base” could only reach breakeven if the surface campaign was really long and/or extensive.

    FWIW, NASA’s Decadal Planning Team looked at in-space staging scenarios for the exploration of Mars and Moon and found them fairly favorable (they especially liked Lagrange-point staging for the Moon), but that was before Columbia and the VSE.

    “man-kite program”

    LOL… funny.

  • Donald F. Robertson

    Fed up and disgusted: NASA better make up it’s mind, formulate a plan and stick with it

    Dr. Griffin has done just that, and, rightly or wrongly, has been under attack in this forum ever since.

    – Donald

  • Donald F. Robertson

    Regarding education spending versus space, I agree with Paul. In addition, it may be worth noting that I live in a city clock full of huge, architecturally beautiful, vastly expensive, Victorian public schools, far larger and grander than any almost other public construction. We once valued public education above almost any other public expense. Yet, these are the same people who built this city out here on the far edge of the continent, and built the railroads and the initial highways and mined the gold to create an economy here, all out of almost nothing. Maybe it is not a choice. It is at least worth considering that maybe the achievement of one is depent on the achievement of the other.

    – Doandl

  • Paul Dietz

    Dr. Griffin has done just that, and, rightly or wrongly, has been under attack in this forum ever since.

    Sticking with a plan would be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. It has to be a good plan. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to make a bad plan, and sticking with a bad plan just makes things worse.

    It’s not clear there is a good plan, though.

  • Paul,
    Sticking with a plan would be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. It has to be a good plan. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to make a bad plan, and sticking with a bad plan just makes things worse.

    The sad thing is that things like this even need to be said.

    It’s not clear there is a good plan, though.

    Unfortunately, there is a chance you might be right. Of course, we don’t actually need perfection from NASA. Even if 10% of their manned space budget was being well-spent, I think things would be better than they currently are….

    ~Jon

  • “sticking with a bad plan just makes things worse”

    That’s assuming, of course, that it is politically possible to choose the optimum plan. If that’s the case, I haven’t seen it. In lieu of a “good plan”, I would simply ask for a plan that has clear goals and is executed according to a schedule. Doing the wrong thing, if it involves advancing our spacefaring knowledge, is better than doing the best thing.

    The perfect is the enemy of the good.

  • CynicalStudent

    having been born long after the space race, and even after the advent of the shuttle, the only way it seems i can connect to that feeling of frequent headlining, the raising of the bar so to speak, with regards to space exploration, is through our science exploration. now im not going to push the argument that robotic exploration and LEO observatories are more important than human spaceflight – as a transhumanist i truly believe we have a moral and economic imperative to get off this rock.

    but what if to drive away that public sense of apathy, that total disinterest in space, we relied more upon cost-efficient headline-grabbing science missions to galvanize public support and offer more economically enticing investment opportunities for human exploration? my brother-in-law is a banker, and couldnt give a damn about NASA anymore than he cares about helping the poor or securing immigrant rights. but when i showed him the new photos from Cassini, told him about the Stardust mission, he got interested on an intellectual level. when i told him some of the estimates for heavy element mass converted to market prices for various asteriods in solar orbit, he started paying attention as a banker. meaning he saw money.

    i think that ultimately debates regarding the potential disruption of a Martian ecosystem, exploring Mars vs the Moon, or space stations vs planetary colonies all hinge upon two primary factors: getting public support and convincing the people who have money they can make more money on space.

    can anyone honestly say there is more opportunity to make money by exploring Mars than by colonizing the Moon?

  • Daniel,
    That’s assuming, of course, that it is politically possible to choose the optimum plan. If that’s the case, I haven’t seen it. In lieu of a “good plan”, I would simply ask for a plan that has clear goals and is executed according to a schedule. Doing the wrong thing, if it involves advancing our spacefaring knowledge, is better than doing the best thing.

    I dunno, that’s a rather unconvincing argument. Especially since for the most part Ares I/V are explicitly design to *not* advance our “spacefaring” knowledge. They’re specifically avoiding developing any new skills or knowledge such as orbital propellant transfer and storage. Basically it’s an Apollo rehash using somewhat more modern technology. If they were doing this for only say $10B, I might whine and complain a little, but nowhere near as much. But ESAS basically sucks all the air out of the room to fund something that: a) does not advance our spacefaring knowledge, b) develops/demonstrates no new technology, while c) being *less* cost effective than existing, proven alternatives.

    Do you have any other underwhelming reasons why we should do this?

    ~Jon

  • Let’s see. Underwhelming reasons. Let’s give it a shot.

    Let’s assume that you’re a management consultant. You have a large government client. From past history, it seems that the client is becoming more and more incapable of accomplishing anything of value. Large glory programs of the past faded away, big reusable systems fell under scope creep, fell behind schedule, had major malfunctions, ran way overbudget, and eventually were killed before they completely fell apart as a national disgrace. Currently they can run $100 mil programs with some degree of competence, but not a lot. They’ve got on their plate a huge monster that’s already off the rails (although no one wants that little secret out)

    First step is to analyze why this poor performance happens. Answers are: 1) mixed messages and funding from Congress, 2) Too many masters, 3) Scientific community — heck, anyone that’s ever watched Star Trek — is all too willing to critique every agency move (and loudly), 4) culture of complete risk avoidance results in incompetence, 5) every two years the agency has to suck up to a new set of laws describing what it’s supposed to do, and 6) limited outside source for hardware makes it a program-management boondoggle.

    And BTW, the guys down the street are developing similar, junior-sized programs for 1/10th the cost. There is a burgeoning political movement to privitize as much as possible — an obvious sign that the sponsors are beginning to realize the machine is broken.

    Now as part of this situation, the way I would approach it is to decide whether I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Sitting around with my thumb stuck up my behind pontificating on what we “should” be doing will not accomplish anything but make more noise. That’s part of the problem. So instead of playing monday-morning-quarterback, let’s step back a ways. Before we all go crazy defending our desires, can the agency execute anything at all? So far, I do not believe it can. So job #1 is working on agency execution.

    Why execution instead of goals? Because goals don’t matter if you can’t do anything at all. If you can’t execute, goals are just BS management kicks around to make itself feel better. If you can’t execute, and finally the people who are important REALIZE you can’t execute, then maybe we can get it fixed and you can start executing again. Then it makes sense to talk goals. On the other hand, if you can’t execute, and instead of acknowledging that, the team spins off in some new direction, then everybody slaps each other on the back for being so smart to finally pick the “right” goals. You’ve still got a broken agency (and you’ve lost 2+ years) Worse still, the clock starts over on acknowledging the problem.

    That work a little better for you?

  • Ray

    Daniel Markham: “Let’s assume that you’re a management consultant. You have a large government client. From past history, it seems that the client is becoming more and more incapable of accomplishing anything of value. Large glory programs of the past faded away, big reusable systems fell under scope creep, fell behind schedule, had major malfunctions, ran way overbudget, and eventually were killed before they completely fell apart as a national disgrace. Currently they can run $100 mil programs with some degree of competence, but not a lot. They’ve got on their plate a huge monster that’s already off the rails (although no one wants that little secret out)”

    I’d probably advise them to stick with lots of $100M or less programs, at least until they succeed with such programs fairly regularly. Maybe experiment with a handful of $150M programs to push the boundaries a bit. Keep teams that succeed with their $100M programs together. Give everyone a pat on the back and a nice bonus if they don’t make a program at all but rather successfully buy the service commercially. Don’t try to attack the huge monster with a huge monster program. Perhaps direct a few of those little programs towards learning a bit about the huge monster.

  • Yeah. The problem is the trajectory is all wrong. They started with multi-billion dollar programs and now are down to hundred mil ones. Give it another five or ten years and they’ll only be able to run 7-digit programs effectively, if they’re lucky. They’re already at the pont where, if you poked behind the scenes, you’d find the contractors doing most all of the program management heavy lifting, I’d bet.

    There are a few stock answers. One is to scale back. Another is to create a smaller program to figure out why the big programs are broken. (Yay management consulting! More money for us) Another is to clean house — a new broom sweeps clean. Still another is to keep the same folks and re-organize. There’s oversight committees, continuous improvement, six sigma — the list goes on and on.

    In my opinion, FWIW, problems that have a trajectory like this are organic to the organization. That is, over time, paperwork and procedures build up (compliance anyone?), mostly as a way of CYA. Various kingdoms are sliced off and are mostly unaccountable to top management — lots of little things build up to the point where the system as a whole is unable to perform. It’s not the people at all. Probably some of the most intelligent, hard-working people we have in government work at NASA. But smart people, (especially smart people) have a tendency to engineer themselves into a spot where they can’t change a light bulb without a stack of paperwork.

    If all you wanted to know was: what’s the most value we could get from an organization like this right away? Then I’d agree with using small programs, set up to create private sector capabilities exclusively. But nobody is ready to really admit the problem, and the cards have been dealt. I say we play the hand we have. The more VSE goes off the rails, the more embarrassing it will be for everybody. We need that embarassment. Folks like Gavin changing the subject only give more breathing room to a sick organism.

    My opinion only.

  • Monte Davis

    CynicalStudent: …that feeling of frequent headlining, the raising of the bar so to speak, with regards to space exploration

    Beware of vicarious nostalgia for that period. A common mistake is to take the pace of 1957-1972 as a measure of “how much we wanted space” back in the day. No; it was a measure of

    1) how much had been invested in ICBMs, yielding capabilities that could be adapted quickly to space exploration as a side effect

    2) how much every activity of the USSR and US in those days was seen as Cold War competition

    3) how much both sides wanted ways to compete peacefully, symbolically, as well as through arms and alliances

    As those ulterior motives faded, the challenge became how to match plans and efforts to the real (much lower) level of desire for space… and how to fill in the steps omitted in that lunge for spectacular “firsts.”

    Finding more ways to make money on space is one of them. A lot of the New Space hype (as distinct from the real but modest substance) is really conscious or unconscious hope that it will bring back the glory days, with breakthroughs and milestones coming at a 1960s pace again.

    Ain’t gonna happen: there are a lot of omitted steps to make up, and the need to pay for step n+1 out of revenues from step n will impose its own pace. Realism and patience will serve you and your brother-in-law best in the long run.

  • Monte Davis

    Daniel: Another is to create a smaller program to figure out why the big programs are broken. (Yay management consulting! More money for us)

    Here I was hoping you were just an axe murderer, arsonist or child molester, and you come out with a truly ghastly confession. (OK, I worked on a “lean sigma” buzzwords-in-all-directions campaign recently. But I didn’t inhale.)

    Good analysis, even if it is as much autopsy as diagnosis.

  • Ray

    “Yeah. The problem is the trajectory is all wrong. They started with multi-billion dollar programs and now are down to hundred mil ones.”

    I’ve never thought about it this way. Do you think NASA will lose the ability to do $400M robotic missions, for example?

    I’ll note that the record in other agencies of very large space programs hasn’t been too good lately, either, if you consider large schedule or budget overruns to be failures. See NPOESS and various large military space programs. My outlook was that very large space programs (that aren’t large merely because they have lots of similar satellites – ie they push some kind of boundaries) are very difficult and prone to failure. Adding agency organizational problems on top of that make failure all but assured.

    If NASA could maintain a capability to do (fairly reliably, on schedule, and on budget), say Mars Rover and under sized programs indefinitely, I’d be satisfied with that. A lot can be done with robotic missions, small X vehicles, small research projects, etc – staying away from the very large robotic missions, rocket developments, etc. Stringing a few of these together can result in a good lunar program, for example. Merging them with private purchases (eg: using something along the lines of Jon Goff’s lunar technology developments) could some day get people to the moon … perhaps. Having multiple generations of a small hardware item that becomes more capable each successful round is another path to significant achievements.

    The multitude of small programs also are, I think, inherently easier to manage. They in easily digested chunks. They can be cancelled politically more easily if it turns out they deserve it. They allow you to address both the Moon and Mars, as well as other priorities. They can also be compared to each other. You can have 20 management techniques in 20 programs, each year, and over time more quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. For example, some level of paperwork, and some level of risk, is appropriate and useful … but there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Multiple programs would allow us to find those lines.

  • Fed up and disgusted

    The poor pitiful powerless minoritys have had the politicians wrapped around thier fingers for thrity years and they’ve achieved damn little except grow the entitlement portion of the federal budget. Now, briiliant Paul has said, “If the space program is not worthwhile, the mere fact that it is smaller than some other program (that that hypothetical person does think is worthwhile) does not save it.” This illustrates the probablm any large scale program will have. We have an electorate who beleives if you take from my pie someone is going to get a bigger slice and I will suffer. The key is to grow the pie so there are resources for all. Most of the electorate knows little if anyting as to how the federal budget process works and most people when asked want to seem thoughtful and wise and compassionate. It is very popular to state “Well, I think we should spend money on the poor and on Earth and blah,blah” They do not realize, or care that the two are in different appropriations in the budget and both requriements should stand on thier own merit. If not then money for either program should never be appropriated in the first place. That’s the basic problem. Ignorance of how government works. And this crack public educational system that we spend our tax dollars on does not address that shortcoming.

  • Paul Dietz

    And this crack public educational system that we spend our tax dollars on does not address that shortcoming.

    Absolutely! I mean, we have students who come out of school not knowing how to break their writing into coherent paragraphs.

  • anonymous.space

    “Yeah. The problem is the trajectory is all wrong. They started with multi-billion dollar programs and now are down to hundred mil ones.”

    “I’ve never thought about it this way. Do you think NASA will lose the ability to do $400M robotic missions, for example?”

    I apologize for answering a question directed at someone else, but the underlying difference between NASA’s execution of multi-ten billion dollar human space flight programs and NASA’s execution of multi-hundred million dollar robotic science programs lies with the organization itself. There are several different “NASAs”, and the part of the organization that does science is very different from the part of the organization that does human space flight in terms of culture, clarity of goals, programmatic approach, development experience, management, and leadership.

    This has been especially exacerbated in ESMD/Constellation. To be blunt, I doubt Ares I/Orion would be in the trouble they’re in if NASA’s human space flight development organizations were led by proven and professional aerospace development program managers instead of ex-astronauts and former mission ops leaders masquerading as managers in their first development jobs.

    The military requires its development managers, even former fly-boys and ops types, to get their “cards punched” on smaller programs before elevating them to leadership of multi-ten/hundred billion programs. There’s no reason NASA shouldn’t either. Experience and competence are precious commodities that need to be nurtured and spent wisely.

    FWIW…

  • CynicalStudent

    “The poor pitiful powerless minoritys have had the politicians wrapped around thier fingers for thrity years and they’ve achieved damn little except grow the entitlement portion of the federal budget.” – Fed up and disgusted

    im not sure i like the implications behind that statement or the implications behind the rest of your argument. ill have you know that expanding minority opportunities is a non-partisan issue for everyone interested in seeing every American achieve success. if you’re so worried about budget allocations to the poor, the unemployed, the unskilled, the uneducated, then maybe you should take a look at the discretionary spending breakdown for fiscal 2008. you know how much education, training, employment and social services combined get of the pie? 6%. the military? 59%. science, space & technology? 3%. so while all the money we spend to help those people who really need it doubles the amount of money we spend on NASA and NOAA and everything else, its about a tenth of what we spend on the science of death. this all according to national priorities project.

    i agree that the educational system does little if anything to educate future citizens on civic service. the National Assessment of Educational Progress holds that three-fourths of our high school students are below basic proficieny levels in understanding government processes and a citizens role in politics. so there is work to be done there certainly, but i would first argue that thats a problem with priorities (i recall my high school spending more on the football team than they did for the SGA and debate team and school newspaper combined), and second that control of funding needs to be shifted away from the district schoolboard committees in favor of the states’ budget offices while doing away with NCLB. but this is a forum on space, not education, so please excuse my divergence from topic.

  • Outside the Beltway

    “I doubt Ares I/Orion would be in the trouble they’re in if NASA’s human space flight development organizations were led by proven and professional aerospace development program managers instead of ex-astronauts and former mission ops leaders masquerading as managers in their first development jobs.”

    Agreed! You have put your finger on the larger problem, anonymous.space. If the managers are incapable of executing projects/programs, the goals are irrelevant.

  • Ray

    Anonymous.space: “This has been especially exacerbated in ESMD/Constellation. To be blunt, I doubt Ares I/Orion would be in the trouble they’re in if NASA’s human space flight development organizations were led by proven and professional aerospace development program managers instead of ex-astronauts and former mission ops leaders masquerading as managers in their first development jobs.

    The military requires its development managers, even former fly-boys and ops types, to get their “cards punched” on smaller programs before elevating them to leadership of multi-ten/hundred billion programs. There’s no reason NASA shouldn’t either. Experience and competence are precious commodities that need to be nurtured and spent wisely.”

    I agree with this, and unfortunately ESAS and the other big NASA human spaceflight programs are dissolving even more of the smaller programs that not only have a better record, but that also seem to be necessary training grounds before even attempting the bigger programs. I had a post on Space Prizes a few weeks ago on a report “Building a Better NASA Workforce” that covers this. My post is at http://spaceprizes.blogspot.com/2007/07/education-for-nasas-vse.html, but for the discussion at hand you’re better off going straight to the source, http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309107644, perhaps starting at p. 38 if the whole thing’s too big.

  • D. Messier

    Maybe an academic debate?

    The way things are going, the U.S. isn’t likely to get to the moon. First, Ares/Orion seems to have gotten off significantly off track. The massive overspending of the bush-cheney govmint coupled with underfunded entitlement liabilities in the next decade are likely to shrink non-defense related discretionary spending. It’s almost as if the whole plan was to build government up to unsustainable levels and then use that as an excuse the cut everything absolutely unnecessary (like lunar and martian trips – D’OH!).

    I imagine some other country might get there first. Or private companies will do it. Although Space Adventures lunar excursions are looking less likely now given the financial difficulties at Energia. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to send tourists swinging around the moon unless they do a couple of test flights first (not all the Zond missions went well, and they haven’t done anything like this for 40 years). That would cost some money, and it doesn’t look like Energia has it to spare.

  • Thomas Matula

    Hi All,

    Looks like CEV will now be using water recovery only.

    http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/content/?cid=5187

    Orion landings to be splashdowns – KSC buildings to be demolished

  • arnie

    i think off world expansion may not have a good case unless we learn to physically cope with the effects of zero to low gravity and radiation. until then we will have astronauts doing a max of six months in space rotations. so any missions we do will have that as a time limit. that puts anything except the moon and near earth astreroids (NEOs), outside our ability to visit let alone colonize. mars has no magnetic field to protect colonists from radiation and it takes too long to get there. astounauts would arrive physically dibilitated from the zero gravity trip. and might not be able to function upon arrival in gravity.

    i don’t really know how much of a lunar base is practical. lunar visitors will not be able to live there year round. so there will be rotations and periods when a lunar base might be un manned. you can do some science but you don’t really need people for that. you can go because of political reasons, but that kind of support can dry up fast. i am not sure what manner of useful economic exploitation can be done from a small outpost with a few visitors per year. maybe. you can go because its cool. i’m ok with that. but that does not support a lot of activity.

    i would rather see nasa invest in robot explorers and bigger astronomy missions. that would bring the best science return. i am not sure if there is a good reason to establish a perminant base on the moon considering the dust, radiation, low gravity and expense. mars is a pipe dream for anthing but robots.

    but we should also do some short manned visits to NEOs with orion because there is a lot of science to do. it is also an attainable first. as in first man to leave the earth moon system.

  • anonymous.space

    “Orion landings to be splashdowns”

    TBD, per NASAWatch. ESMD management denies making the decision. (Although they’re not denying analyzing such a radical option or making such a decision in the future to bring Orion mass into line with Ares I performance.)

    My 2 cents is that would be sad if NASA went this route instead of dropping the current underpowered Ares I configuration. Orion would lose any practical reusability if exposed to seawater on every landing, driving operational costs considerably higher. And ocean retrieval itself would kick operational costs higher as well.

    While keeping a pulse on development cost estimates has been pretty straightforward because they’re in the budget, it’s been harder to keep track of where future Ares I/Orion operational cost estimates are at. But if NASA makes enough decisions to trade operational costs for development costs in order to make the low-performing Ares I/high-mass Orion combination work, they’re going to end up with another Shuttle that eats the future human space flight budgets just getting to orbit and leaves little money on the table for anything else.

    FWIW…

  • Donald F. Robertson

    arnie: i think off world expansion may not have a good case unless we learn to physically cope with the effects of zero to low gravity and radiation.

    Why not? We have never learnt to “physically cope with the effects” of living in salt water, yet we traverse the oceans with ease. True, it did take us 10,000 years to learn to do that, and we still lose somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people a year to accidents at sea, but we do traverse an alien environment in which we cannot survive. As in sea travel, there are plenty of options for workarounds (e.g., rotate your spacecraft, wrap your fuel around you, keep trips short).

    until then we will have astronauts doing a max of six months in space rotations. so any missions we do will have that as a time limit. that puts anything except the moon and near earth astreroids (NEOs), outside our ability to visit let alone colonize.

    Again, so what? We should not be trying more difficult projects until we’ve established early scientific bases on Earth’s moon, NEOs, [and, I would add, the Martian moons], and those have begun to grow into trading colonies, anyway. We can worry about harder destinations once we can deal with the (relatively) easy ones.

    would rather see nasa invest in robot explorers and bigger astronomy missions. that would bring the best science return.

    As I’ve argued before in this venue, that is very unlikely to be true, but I’ll spare everyone repeating myself here. If you’d like an alternative view, check out some of my earlier posts here, or my Op Ed in Space News called “Space Exploration: a reality check” (6th March 2007 p. 19).

  • Matthew Corey Brown

    Why not both? ;) (Yes yes money, politicial will, public perception of diffculty, and our own resistance to new ideas)

  • anonymous.space

    “’Orion landings to be splashdowns’

    TBD, per NASAWatch. ESMD management denies making the decision. (Although they’re not denying analyzing such a radical option or making such a decision in the future to bring Orion mass into line with Ares I performance.)”

    I should have also mentioned that even if NASA adopts ocean landings as the baseline, the removal of the Orion airbag landing system only saves about half of the shortfall in Ares I/Orion performance/mass for the lunar architecture. Other changes are still needed.

    As an aside, it’s unclear whether all the changes being contemplated (removal of the radiation shielding, deletion of various redudant safety systems, etc.), in combination with the airbags, are enough to address the shortfall. Even then, although the lunar architecture may technically close, the mass safety margin for Orion in the lunar architecture may still not meet the 20% dictated by ESAS.

    “My 2 cents is that would be sad if NASA went this route instead of dropping the current underpowered Ares I configuration. Orion would lose any practical reusability if exposed to seawater on every landing, driving operational costs considerably higher. And ocean retrieval itself would kick operational costs higher as well.”

    I should also have mentioned that shrinking Orion’s requirements (e.g., 4-ISS/2-lunar crew instead of 6/4) and dimensions would be another way out of the current mess. I personally would prefer that or a redesign of Ares I to losing reusability and driving operational costs higher. But I doubt NASA will go down either route. Too much ego is invested in Ares I to redesign it a third time, and a smaller Orion begs the question of why NASA is not using EELVs. My 2 cent prediction is that Griffin & Co. will go the route of a large but operationally limited Orion on the current Ares I, which may or may not be capable of technically closing the lunar architecture but almost certainly without adequate mass margin.

    FWIW…

  • Ray

    “and a smaller Orion begs the question of why NASA is not using EELVs.”

    That question is already out there, so this shouldn’t be a show-stopper. Having a smaller Orion that could be switched to other (existing or reasonably possible future) launchers without totally redesigning them – if that can be done – actually makes Ares 1 much more palatable. If Ares I doesn’t work out, there’s always the alternative launchers. If Ares I is built but has a failure, the other launchers could step in during the 3 year downtime. The other launchers would probably improve Ares I in the sense that the potential competition would help NASA get better performance out of its workforce and contractors. The reduced performance stress on the Ares I design with a smaller Orion would allow Ares I design decisions that tend to improve development cost, operational cost, or safety. To the extent that Ares I costs are reduced, this also would allow NASA to stop going after other parts of the agency, which would reduce the political opposition to Ares/Orion. The smaller payload may also be a driver for in-space refueling, so it should be popular among the crowd that supports that possibility and the commercial launch business it might inspire.

    I don’t see the average taxpayer worrying too much about how many people Orion can get to ISS or the Moon, so I really don’t see NASA looking bad if it made that decision. I actually think they’d be praised in the media, if any paid attention at all.

  • anonymous.space

    “‘and a smaller Orion begs the question of why NASA is not using EELVs.’

    That question is already out there, so this shouldn’t be a show-stopper.”

    For you and me, but not for Griffin and Horowitz.

    Unfortunately…

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