Sometime in the s pring or s ummer of 1991, I was enjoying one of the great burgers and fries that you could get at The Outpost Tavern, not far from the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, and having a conversation with the head of JSC’s Exploration Project Office. He was bemoaning the poor prospects for funding programs for “Capital-E” Exploration.
I grabbed a napkin and drew a sketch which, to me, explained how I thought his concerns could be allayed. The sketch (right) was basically of a Parthenon-style building, with multiple columns holding up the overhanging portico. Across the triangular crown of the portico I wrote “Exploration.” Along the numerous columns I wrote, vertically, things like “NASA”, “DoD,” “DOT,” “International” and “Private Sector.” I drew broad steps leading up to the columns, with titles in ascending order like “Foundation/Support,” “Conceptualization/Strategic Plan,” “Program Planning ” and “Implementation Plans.”
Pretty crude, pretty elementary and obvious, I thought, but the key point that he and others — especially within NASA — seemed to be missing was that NASA, and its programs and resources, represented just one of the supporting columns. If one were to total up all the available or potential resources represented by all of the various columns that could be applied to the exploration effort, there was a massive amount of funding and supporting resources available.
The problem wasn’t a lack of resources, but a lack of thinking in aggregate terms about the potentially huge array of participants across a wide spectrum of the national and international scene that could be brought together in the effort to move beyond low-Earth orbit to return to the m oon or go on to Mars, or both.
The failure to think in those terms; the inability to conceive of a consensus activity that crossed institutional lines, including extra-governmental participants as partners, not simply contractors or suppliers; and the focus on exploration as a new NASA undertaking were, in my view, major factors in the decline and eventual fall of the Space Exploration Initiative articulated by President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
Thirteen-plus years later, the notion underlying that rough napkin sketch is still applicable — and, so far, still ignored. President George W. Bush has learned enough from the history of the previous Moon-Mars initiative to articulate a long-term, progressive effort to establish capabilities, followed eventually by successive programmatic efforts to one day lead to a return to the Moon and/or human expeditions to Mars — and beyond. He was able to avoid the trap of having a single dollar amount attached to a single massive program, despite several media and nay-sayer efforts to get him to do so.
He established an independent body, not to design an exploration program but to identify the key elements necessary to implement the v ision. The Aldridge Commission (the Commission on the Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Strategy) heard sufficient testimony and had sufficient insights to sense that something new and different was needed to support and sustain the new Vision for Exploration over the long haul.
They identified some key elements that will be necessary to success in evolving the vision into eventual mission realities. But one of their most important recommendations demonstrates that they too, and many of the witnesses they heard, are still unable or unwilling to draw the most essential line in the policy-making sand.
The c ommission recommended the establishment of “…a permanent Space Exploration Steering Council, reporting to the president … chaired by the vice president or such other senior White House executive that the president may designate.” The problem with the recommendation is demonstrated in the descriptive language that followed it: “The council shall be empowered to develop policies and coordinate work by its agencies to share technologies, facilities, and talent with NASA to support the national space exploration vision.”
In other words, a White House-level body will be established to ensure that all other relevant agencies support NASA’s activities to implement the national space exploration vision. I don’t know any other way to read that. And that’s all well and good, as far as it goes. But what it fails to recognize is that the true scope and breadth of the exploration vision is beyond NASA’s — or the U.S. government’s — ability to implement by itself. It is certainly useful to have an entity that can make sure that non-NASA governmental resources are coordinated with NASA’s activities, to avoid duplication of effort, counterproductive competition or turf-protecting, and effective use of limited government resources. It even makes sense to empower NASA as the lead agency in the government’s role in the Exploration Vision. But that is not enough; not in today’s economic and geopolitical reality.
The Aldridge Commission report correctly refers to the v ision as “the national space exploration vision,” but its recommendations are focused on ensuring that it is really “NASA’s space exploration vision.”
To be sure, other recommended changes suggested by the c ommission, such as changing the nature of the NASA field centers to something more closely resembling federally-funded research laboratories, and ensuring that there is greater opportunity for direct, private-enterprise involvement in near-Earth space operations, are extremely important and necessary evolutions, which can help stimulate needed “cultural change” within NASA and, by extension, the U.S. space community.
But those are not recommendations that directly affect the ability of our n ation — again, not NASA and not just the government — to explore beyond low-Earth orbit.
It is essential to think “out of the box” in order to truly become a spacefaring nation in the broadest sense of that term, which is what the Vision for Exploration offers. A mechanism is needed that embodies an “open partnership” of the federal government, the U.S. aerospace community and international spacefaring partners — and an unlimited range of other interests that can and should be a part of extending the habitation of the human species into the cosmos, because that is really the promise of the Vision for Exploration.
Perhaps that promise suggests one means by which we can identify the mechanism we need. We can begin by asking ourselves the following question: If (for whatever reason you want to imagine) we were given notice that we must vacate this planet — or at least establish a foothold on another celestial body — within 40 years from this moment, how could every part of our civilization contribute to that effort, and how would those contributions be identified, accepted and effectively managed?
Try not to get hung up on the plausibility of such a scenario; just think about how something like that could best be managed.
Finding answers to these questions will not be easy. But the most important thing, at the moment at least, is to begin asking the questions.
Jeff Bingham was chief of staff and legislative aide to former Sen. Jake Garn, a NASA consultant on the Synthesis Group that developed options for implementing the Space Exploration Initiative and has held a number of NASA jobs at Johnson Space Center and NASA headquarters in Washington, including Associate Administrator for Legislative Affairs in the early part of the Bush Administration.