As Halloween approaches, I am reminded of how often our space program resembles a bad zombie movie. As our heroes try to stay alive, one by one they are picked off by the walking dead as they struggle to reach the new dawn. So goes the new space agenda, designed to correct the flaws of the past and breathe new life into our human exploration plans, as it faces off with the walking corpse of the Constellation program and its defenders, determined to gradually eat away at it until it too joins them in the never-ending cemetery 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 George W. 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 shanghaied by the very man tasked with carrying it out, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. He’s a good man at heart, but his ideas and obsession with doing things his way come hell or high water killed the dream, turning a major new American space initiative into a dead-end jobs program.
In the beginning, NASA’s effort was led by former Navy Adm. Craig E. Steidle, who was working for the agency under 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, which is 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 understand 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 recycling assets, using in situ resources and the power of commercial enterprise, they could not just get to a place but actually stay there 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 shakeup 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 supporters from Alliant Techsystems () 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 contractors’ 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 who are 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 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 by the Ares 1-X fiasco, a smoke-and-mirrors mock-up that in no way was worth the cost, but was built and flown to less than 60,000 meters 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 attests to this fact. NASA scientists were ready for new and creative ways to operate within a frontier approach, and several contractors were looking at 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, every team tasked with suggesting goals and plans came back with human settlement and permanence as the goal. They called for partnerships with the private sector, reuse 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 Mr. Griffin’s Constellation monster failed, utterly and completely — except in keeping the flow of cash pouring into certain congressional districts, the life blood of all projects, good and bad. And Constellation was and is demonstrably bad for America. It was too expensive, used an 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. Capitalizing on 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 playing the blame game. Yet it’s because Mr. Griffin and his team ignored 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 reinvention of old technology, 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 would 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 baby, and companies like ATK that are supporting his arguments are out to keep the money flowing to their outdated, polluting and dangerous 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 U.S. future in space.
Preferably, Mr. Griffin could offer his talent and engineering skills to helping design a real frontier-enabling system — including perhaps a redesign of Orion. Like the cut-off hand of a zombie, it still moves and has morphed from an in-space system that would be useful carrying astronauts between planets to an anti-competitive Earth-to-low-Earth-orbit capsule that could 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. It’s time to wake up from the nightmare. Like the screaming girl in the movies, those afraid of this new future need to sit down and shut up so we can get the job done. We have work to do, and we all need to work together to keep our dreams alive. This time, we will make it to dawn. This time, we can’t squander the people’s funds on illusions and keeping dead ideas alive. Instead, this time, we will build what we need to go where we need to go, and do it affordably and in a way that will allow us not only to explore, but to stay.
Rick Tumlinson is co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.