From vision to reality

Those who had listened carefully to President Bush's announcement might have gathered that NASA already had a very clear idea of the direction for its future, and that the president's announcement only gave a general outline. In fact, NASA released its very detailed interpretation of its new exploration plan in The Vision for Space Exploration published in February 2004. The report was really a blueprint of the Strategic Plan NASA had issued with its budget request around the time of the Columbia accident. This was, perhaps, the first document published by NASA that stated the fundamental shift in the agency's exploration priorities from what had transpired for the previous twenty years.

In the Guiding Principles for Exploration, the document stated it that would use the Moon as a testing ground for Mars and beyond and that it would start immediately to realign programs and its organization to pursue the Vision as its highest priority. This document described Lunar Testbeds and Missions, Mars Research, Testbeds and Missions, Outer Moons Research and Missions, Extra-solar Planet Research and Observatories, Exploration Building Blocks (launch vehicles, spacecraft, surface shelters, surface vehicles and more), NASA Transformation, Resources (the NASA budget), and the National Benefits of Implementing the Vision. On this last point, the document stated: "Preparing for exploration and research accelerates the development of technologies that are important to the economy and to national security. The space missions in this plan require advanced systems and capabilities that will accelerate the development of many critical technologies, including power, computing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, communications, networking, robotics, and materials. These technologies underpin and advance the U.S. economy and help to ensure national security. NASA plans to work with other government agencies and the private sector to develop space systems that can address national and commercial needs.''

In the section titled Exploration Building Blocks, it was announced that NASA

Even before the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration, Johnson Space Center was at work on new vehicles designed to develop technologies for exploring the Moon and Mars. The Science, Crew, Operations and Utility Testbed (SCOUT) is pictured at Meteor Crater, Arizona in 2003. (NASA/JSC)

would initiate Project Constellation to develop the new Crew Exploration Vehicle. Project Constellation would operate out of NASA's Office of Exploration Systems. It would also include development of the Crew Launch Vehicle and other space transportation hardware. NASA exploited the full capabilities of the Internet to get its concepts across to the general public. From the Exploration Systems web page:

"Constellation is the combination of large and small systems that will provide humans with the capabilities necessary to travel and explore the solar system. Constellation will be made up of Earth-to-orbit, in-space and surface transportation systems, surface and space-based infrastructures, power generation, communications systems, maintenance and science instrumentation, and robotic investigators and assistants.''

Project Constellation set the ambitious goal of developing a new CEV and performing the first automated test flight in 2008. This would be a boilerplate version of the CEV to test its systems during the launch boost phase, its Crew Escape

System (much like that of the Apollo capsule) and its landing system on dry land. Unlike Apollo, the CEV would be designed from the outset to land on terrain, with the considerable saving of not having a recovery ship and all its crew at sea. Subsequent test flights of the CEV would test its performance in orbit and then its reentry system.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle became the hardware driver for the Vision. In March 2004, the Office of Exploration Systems issued its Program Overview, primarily for the major aerospace firms and their subcontractors to learn the design and development requirements and processes NASA anticipated, as well as the long-term program schedule. This was followed in May by a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) of the Concept for Exploration & Refinement at a Pre-solicitation Conference, to familiarize companies with the procedures regarding the competitive bidding process for the CEV and its related systems, and the acquisition strategy through 2008.

The President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy completed is fact finding and public hearings and published its report, titled A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover in June 2004. It was a very carefully drafted report reflecting not only the Commission's findings, but also the experience and expertise of its members, who knew what was at stake for the United States and what the nation must do to accomplish the Vision. The report summarized:

• The space exploration vision must be managed as a significant national priority, a shared commitment of the President, Congress, and the American people

• NASA's relationship to the private sector, its organizational structure, business culture, and management processes - all largely inherited from the Apollo era - must be decisively transformed to implement the new, multi-decadal space exploration vision

• The successful development of identified enabling technologies will be critical to the attainment of exploration objectives within reasonable schedules and affordable costs

• Sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure

• International talents and technologies will be of significant value in successfully implementing the space exploration vision, and tapping into the global marketplace is consistent with our core value of using private sector resources to meet mission goals

• Implementing the space exploration vision will be enabled by scientific knowledge, and will enable compelling scientific opportunities to study Earth and its environs, the solar system, other planetary systems, and the universe

• The space exploration vision offers an extraordinary opportunity to stimulate mathematics, science, and engineering excellence for America's students and teachers - and to engage the public in a journey that will shape the course of human destiny

The Commission report did make one specific recommendation with regard to America's launch capability. It said, ''Although the Commission has not tried to prioritize a list of enabling technologies, we have been particularly concerned that NASA pay close early attention to assessing options for a new heavy-lift space launch capability.'' A Shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch vehicle was illustrated in the report. This recommendation would be the source of much study within NASA over the next twelve to eighteen months.

The Planetary Society, founded in 1980 in Pasadena, California, and the largest space exploration advocacy organization in the world, issued Extending Human Presence into the Solar System in July 2004. The study team of nine members included two co-Team Leaders: Owen K. Garriott, who flew on Skylab 3 and later Shuttle mission STS-9, and Dr. Michael Griffin who would very soon return to NASA as its new Administrator. The Society's report called for the early retirement of the Space Shuttle as soon as possible after meeting its international obligations to the ISS, and accelerating the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Significantly, the report recommended the CEV ''. . . be launched on a new human-rated vehicle, possibly based on the existing Shuttle Reusable Solid Rocket Motor (RSRM), augmented by a new liquid upper stage.'' The report also called for the development of a Shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch vehicle having a payload capacity of over 100 metric tonnes. When NASA's Advanced Planning and Integration Office issued its Request for Information from its Management Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in November 2004, it did not take long for the Planetary Society's report to be delivered. In fact, NASA was probably already in possession of it. NASA was interested in ''. . . seeking information regarding strategies, mission concepts, investigations, capabilities, and technologies that may enable or enhance NASA's ability to carry out its mission for the nation.'' NASA planned a Capability Roadmap Public Workshop, to be held later that month in Washington, D.C.

On 15 November 2004, NASA selected seventy proposals, from a total of 485 evaluated, to support the research and technology goals and objectives for the Vision for Space Exploration from the Broad Agency Announcement issued the previous May. This followed study contracts awarded in September to eleven aerospace companies for preliminary human lunar exploration and Crew Exploration Vehicle studies. NASA was indeed breaking out of its low-Earth orbit mode and looking to the Moon and Mars for its exploration future. The first robotic lunar mission under the VSE has already been announced by NASA. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter would photographically map the Moon along a circular polar orbit, perform remote sensing, and collect deep space radiation measurements and other important data. It's announced year of launch is 2008, and it will be an invaluable lunar probe used to help decide the most desirable landing sites for future human exploratory missions.

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