Beyond the Moon: Inside Bush's space plan (part 2 of 3)

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The Bush administration's new plan for America's space program is the product of a year of difficult choices made behind the scenes, resulting in a comprehensive approach to human exploration of the solar system and a sweeping restructuring of the country's space program. United Press International interviewed senior administration sources for these articles, including participants at the relevant meetings. Based on those interviews, this how the president's space plan was crafted.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- In the fall of 2003, the Bush administration's developing plan to return Americans to the moon required a series of white papers from the so-called deputies group -- White House, NASA and other administration officials involved in crafting the plan.

Steve Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, chaired the meetings, which were attended regularly by Richard Armitage from the State Department and John Marburger, the president's science adviser, both of whom supported the idea of a revamped space policy.

Marburger seemed to grasp early on that the plan would require a complete restructuring of NASA. He told NASA's chief, Sean O'Keefe, and the president repeatedly the purpose of the International Space Station should be for human research only, not for commercial projects. He also pushed for a return to the moon to build advanced, permanent bases there.

Returning to the moon faced formidable obstacles. For example, the new series of lunar flights would be the first for the country since Apollo 17 in 1972. In the years since, nearly every element of the Apollo program -- from skilled and trained workers to hardware and even launch pads -- had been either abandoned, converted to museum exhibits or refashioned to support the space shuttles, which began flying in 1981. No one knew whether -- or if -- the materials could be reconstituted.

The biggest issue was cost, however, which made the Office of Management and Budget the major question mark. In years past, NASA often found itself asking for one thing or another only to have OMB reject the proposal. The budget bureaucrats usually told NASA to focus only on what was already on its plate.

This time, there was a marked difference. Sources familiar with the discussions said OMB responded to NASA's developing plan by saying "OMB concurs in the NASA position." The agency had crossed a major hurdle in its quest to remake itself.

Sean O'Keefe began his tenure as NASA chief by undergoing a crash course in all things spaceflight. His experience as Navy secretary had left him with an appreciation for engineering, technology, and operations, but NASA operated a vast panoply of programs, as well as a unique culture that he needed to master. The NASA term for climbing up such a steep learning curve in a short period of time is to "drink from a fire hose."

O'Keefe had made it clear from the beginning he would not make grand pronouncements about space policy, and he shied away from any particular preference for a destination, such as the moon. Nonetheless, he held a clear opinion about what NASA should be doing. Repeatedly, he would say NASA needed to develop a series of enabling technologies before he could make decisions about destinations. That preference for preparatory work became interwoven throughout Bush's new space vision, because the president bought O'Keefe's ideas.

The Monday after Thanksgiving 2003, O'Keefe convened his associate administrators. To make way for manned flight to the moon and Mars, NASA would need to stop certain research programs. For example, it would halt most microgravity and material science research.

"Does anybody have a problem with that?" O'Keefe asked the group. No one responded. "This process is heading toward closure and exploration. If you have a problem, speak up." None did.

The bigger, harder choices involved the shuttle fleet and the International Space Station. Many at NASA yearned to reach for the stars again. Yet the agency seemed unable to make the sacrifices needed to muster the money to make it happen. If NASA once again was to send humans to other worlds, it would have to sacrifice its precious shuttle.

NASA seemed unable to make that decision institutionally, so O'Keefe caused the decision to be made from above -- by the president. The decision was perhaps the most controversial component of the new space plan. Only an attempt to close down a NASA field center likely would create more distress.

Getting rid of the space shuttle, considered by many to be emblematic of the agency, was a hard notion to consider. Indeed, NASA old hands would have branded it heresy. Prior to the Columbia accident, few at NASA spent much time considering it.

Until the Columbia accident, on Feb. 1, 2003, NASA had been working toward a plan to keep the shuttle fleet flying until as late as 2020. This had been reflected in the agency's Integrated Space Transportation Plan.

NASA's shuttle upgrades had been developed to ensure the shuttle could continue to operate safely. But now the plan was for more limited modernization -- to keep the shuttle working only until the International Space Station was completed. NASA sources indicated the task would require some 25-to-30 missions depending upon the precise point where the ISS was to be considered complete.

The new plan involved missions going much farther than the 200-to-300 miles up handled by the shuttle. These new mission would focus eventually on returning humans to the moon.

To guide NASA's new exploration, the agency would establish the Office of Exploration Systems, at its headquarters in Washington. Its associate administrator would be Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, former director of the military's Joint Strike Fighter program. The plan also would move the existing Office of the Space Architect, headed by agency veteran Gary Martin, into this new organization.

The new office at NASA headquarters also would manage development of the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, the new spacecraft meant to replace the shuttle. It also would oversee the agency's new nuclear program, Project Prometheus. Moreover, management of many other exploration and development-oriented responsibilities, which once resided at Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., would be run out of headquarters using expertise drawn from all over the agency.

"The lead center concept is dead," O'Keefe would say. So was the shuttle -- eventually. Following the wave of sadness and anger that resulted from the Columbia accident came a cold, hard realization the shuttle was never going to develop the operational capability NASA had been hoping for.

Though it was a space vehicle, magnificent in its capabilities even after a quarter century of flight, like the Concorde its time had past. If there was any lingering doubt, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report made that conclusion abundantly clear.

NASA had been planning to replace the shuttle's human transport function with one system -- the orbital space plane, or OSP -- while flying cargo on either automated spacecraft provided by station partners and/or vehicles launched by the U.S. private sector, with the possibility that the shuttle fleet still might fly some missions in a robotic mode.

NASA astronauts had been pressing for the proposed OSP as a way to lessen the burden on the shuttle fleet by carrying people and a small amount of cargo to the space station -- and to be ready to do so later this decade. Such a craft might reduce the need for the shuttle to perhaps one flight per year. But others questioned why NASA should invest millions on upgrading the shuttle fleet -- one so delicate that its use needed to be minimized. Why not just get rid of it altogether?

Putting an end to reliance upon space shuttles also would free up billions -- if Congress would allow NASA to redirect the shuttle's funding to a new craft. If NASA followed that direction, what need was there for the OSP? Why not cancel it as well as retire the shuttles, replacing them both with a new generation of spacecraft -- some for Earth orbit duty, others for missions further out?

So the form and function of the OSP was morphed into plans for the CEV. An early signal of NASA's intent came when the agency canceled its widely anticipated Request for Proposals for OSP development last November. At the time, some thought NASA was bowing to congressional criticism of the project. But the delay really was caused by emergence of the new, secret lunar mission plans. Similarly, work was halted on development of the winged unmanned X-37 space plane test vehicle.

The CEV is to be designed as a modular system where components could be mixed and matched to return crews from the ISS, as well as transport people on lunar and deep-space voyages. The plan is to first develop the vehicle to resupply and bring crews from the station, then to build ships that could fly a moon landing as early as 2015. NASA's funding plan begins as the shuttle fleet is retired and builds toward human explorations of the solar system. This new craft would almost certainly be a space capsule design, much like the earlier Apollo-style spaceships.

The advantages were obvious. The new capsules would not require a huge new rocket like Apollo's Saturn V -- even though the Apollo capsules did. Instead, Bush's planners proposed using existing U.S. commercial Delta IV and Atlas V rocket boosters -- keeping the cost relatively low.

Another way to enforce cost constraints was to hold open the possibility of using foreign boosters -- something that horrified U.S. launch firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Missions to ISS would be followed by flights to high Earth orbit -- above the Van Allen radiation belts -- then to the moon for 14 days. The lunar experience would then be expanded, possibly with a lunar base until technologies needed to mount more ambitious missions were developed.

NASA's new moon ships also would carry a series of modules, propulsion stages and small cargo units that could be mixed and matched depending on the flight planned. One of the biggest drawbacks of the space shuttles has been their lack of flexibility. Designed for hauling large payloads and modules into space in their cavernous bays, they could not be reconfigured to bring up just a small amount of equipment. NASA has a space trucking fleet which new only one type of cargo: big.

The new plan calls for an evolutionary mode of development, with each step moving astronauts further away from Earth and closer to the moon -- a fleet of modular capsules and interchangeable units. In the trucking fleet analogy, these would be NASA's tankers, small pickup trucks, delivery vans, SUVs and campers.

NASA's revised thinking also produced a sharper U.S. focus on the space station's purpose. Its mission has been fuzzy since its inception, a reality that often led to clashes between prospective users over design, resources and funding. The result was a confused tapestry of projects large and small, short-term and far reaching. Over the years one attempt after another sought to bring order and some strategic prioritization to all of these payloads and research venues. Yet a clear unifying focus never had emerged.

With a new focus on human exploration, the ISS will now be focused specifically on human physiology and factors needed to flight certify humans for long-duration space travel. Any research failing to contribute to this focus will be dropped from NASA's space station research plan.

So-called microgravity science investigations into metallurgical and materials sciences will be dropped, as will overtly commercial and fundamental life science research that does not have a human life science linkage.

Other nations will likely continue their own research plans using their resource allocations on the ISS -- but the U.S. portion will have a human exploration focus first and foremost. And even that will probably end by the middle of the next decade, with the station possibly taken over by the international partners, or perhaps a commercial concern.

As this policy was being developed, the issue of how to move from use of space shuttles to carry humans to the ISS and the assumption of that role by the CEV reached a bit of an impasse. Many felt that it was unacceptable to have a gap between the end of space shuttle operations and the beginning of CEV operations. As is now the case with the grounded shuttle fleet, this would require the United States to depend on Russian Soyuz ships as the only way to deliver people to and from the ISS.

That situation is complex, however. Russia has been found guilty of supplying Iran with nuclear components, in violation of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000. This prohibits NASA from buying space on Soyuz vehicles or any other space hardware from Russia. Nor has the White House been inclined to try and have that law amended to allow it to do so.

To obtain use of Soyuz vehicles, NASA has turned to the European Space Agency to arrange for financing and, in turn, some bartering was done between the United States and ESA. Indeed, close observers of how space vehicles are painted would have noticed something interesting on the Soyuz rocket that recently carried Russian cosmonaut Sasha Kaleri, ESA astronaut Pedro Duque from Spain, and American astronaut Michael Foale to the ISS -- the rocket only displayed Russian and Spanish flags reflecting the paying customer nations.

O'Keefe often speaks with a certain pride that despite predictions of gloom, "not one cent" has been paid to Russia for any additional services or hardware.

Due to NASA's budget constraints, it was obvious there was no way to keep the shuttle fleet flying and develop the CEV quickly enough to launch it while the shuttle fleet was still operational. The soonest a CEV could launch to the moon was perhaps 2013. NASA needed to retire the shuttle as soon as possible, so it was decided to terminate the program in 2010, when ISS assembly was completed.

This action would leave a three-year gap, however, wherein NASA would depend on Soyuz spacecraft. The things to be bartered for such a capability have yet to be identified. In essence, O'Keefe was willing to make another leap over a period of uncertainty based on the success he had been able to achieve during the current, similar period of unknowns.

O'Keefe also saw this looming gap as an opportunity, one he hoped both NASA and industry would see as a challenge -- one that could be narrowed with some creative thinking.

As was the case with all previous space policies, this administrator would have to run the gantlet of Congress and industry. Though some would pleased with the new plan, others would not. One complaint: The plan was drafted perhaps too quietly. A lot of people thought they should have been involved in its preparation and they were determined to make their voices heard.

To mollify Congressional critics, Vice President Cheney headed to Capitol Hill to hear what they had to say.

Just as Christmas loomed and everything was coming to a close, the president sprung a last minute surprise -- George W. Bush was not satisfied with just the moon.


Part 1|2|3

Frank Sietzen Jr. covers aerospace for UPI Science News. Keith L. Cowing is editor of NASAWatch.com and SpaceRef.com. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

Copyright 2001-2004 United Press International. Reprinted with permission.


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