Postapollo Proposals For Americas Future In Space

After the cooperative flight of Apollo-Soyuz in July 1975, no American astronaut flew into space until 12 April 1981, when John Young and Robert Crippen took Columbia into orbit on the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle, mission STS-1. America had entered a new era - the Shuttle Era - and it did not include manned exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. On 12 October 1984, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12490 establishing the National Commission on Space (NCS), in an attempt to focus America's future direction in space exploration. Specifically, it stated: "Pursuant to Section 204 of the Act, the Commission shall study existing and proposed United States space activities; formulate an agenda for the United States civilian space program; and identify long-range goals, opportunities, and policy options for civilian space activity for the next twenty years.'' On 29 March 1985, the president announced the members of the commission and appointed NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine as its chairman. Among the Commission members were Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong and Shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan. The Commission would issue a report on its findings and recommendations within twelve months.

Pioneering the Space Frontier

However, on 28 January 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated less than eighty seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members. The disaster stunned America and brought the U.S. human space flight program to a grinding halt. When the Commission report, Pioneering the Space Frontier, was issued several months later, it was overshadowed by the ongoing Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger accident. This national tragedy called into question America's space exploration capability, while many had forgotten or simply overlooked the fact that human space exploration could never be accomplished without risk.

Pioneering the Space Frontier, subtitled "An Exciting Vision of our Next Fifty Years in Space,'' made this call: "To lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology, and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.'' The report specifically cited twelve necessary milestones to implement this new vision:

• Initial operation of a permanent Space Station

• Initial operation of dramatically lower-cost transport vehicles to and from low-Earth orbit for cargo and passengers

• Addition of modular transfer vehicles capable of moving cargoes and people from low-Earth orbit to any destination in the inner Solar System

• A spaceport in low-Earth orbit

• Operation of an initial lunar outpost and pilot production of rocket propellant

• Initial operation of a nuclear electric vehicle for high-energy missions to the outer planets

• First shipment of shielding mass from the Moon

• Deployment of a Spaceport in lunar orbit to support expanding human operations on the Moon

• Initial operation of an Earth-Mars transportation system for robotic precursor missions to Mars

• First flight of a cycling spaceship to open continuing passenger transport between Earth orbit and Mars orbit

• Human exploration and prospecting from astronaut outposts on Phobos and Deimos

• Start-up of the first Martian resource development base to provide oxygen, water, food, construction materials, and rocket propellants

The benefits to mankind in general, and to the United States in particular, would be primarily threefold:

• By "pulling-through" advances in science and technology of critical importance to the Nation's future economic strength and national security

• By providing direct economic returns from new space-based enterprises that capitalize upon broad, low-cost access to space

• By opening new worlds on the space frontier, with vast resources that can free humanity's aspirations from the limitations of our small planet of birth

Pioneering the Space Frontier was as comprehensive as it was ambitious. The timing of its release and publication in the aftermath of the unforeseen Shuttle disaster, however, could not have been worse. NASA's focus was now on determining how the Shuttle disaster had occurred and how the Space Transportation System could be returned to flight. Congressional hearings were held from February to May 1986. The Rogers Commission, which included astronaut Dr. Sally K. Ride among the commission members, issued its report on 6 June 1986.

Leadership and America's Future in Space

Ride had become NASA's first woman astronaut flying, ironically, aboard the orbiter Challenger for STS-7 launched in June 1983. After the release of the Rogers Commission report, Ride was assigned to NASA Headquarters as Special Assistant to the Administrator for long-range and strategic planning. In the face of the Challenger disaster, NASA's new Administrator James Fletcher called for focused examination of American space policy and goals. Fletcher gave that task to Dr. Ride. With the approval of Administrator Fletcher, Ride established the Office of Exploration and began her work with a small group of Headquarters staff members.

She established a workshop that drew individuals from NASA Headquarters, various NASA centers, independent institutes, universities, and a few private corporations. Out of these workshops and discussions at Headquarters, Ride produced Leadership and America's Future in Space, published in August 1987. This report stated that America had lost its leadership in space exploration with relation to its presence in low-Earth orbit and with respect to exploring Mars. Worse, the country was at risk of losing pre-eminence in other areas of space exploration.

"Leadership in space does not require that the U.S. be preeminent in all areas of space enterprise," the report stated. "The widening range of space activities and the increasing number of space-faring nations make it virtually impossible for any country to dominate in this way. It is, therefore, essential for America to move promptly to determine its priorities and to pursue a strategy which would restore and sustain its leadership in the areas deemed important."

The report called for four bold missions for definition, evaluation and study:

1. Mission to Planet Earth: a program that would use the perspective afforded from space to study and characterize our home planet on a global scale.

2. Exploration of the Solar System: a program to retain U.S. leadership in exploration of the outer solar system, and regain U.S. leadership in exploration of comets, asteroids, and Mars.

3. Outpost on the Moon: a program that would build on and extend the legacy of the Apollo Program, returning Americans to the Moon to continue exploration, to establish a permanent scientific outpost, and to begin prospecting the Moon's resources.

4. Humans to Mars: a program to send astronauts on a series of round trips to land on the surface of Mars, leading to the eventual establishment of a permanent base.

The emphasis of the report was that America must regain and retain its leadership in space exploration. It should pursue not one individual initiative as it did with Apollo, but should demonstrate leadership by pursuing several which would serve the national interest.

Leadership and America's Future in Space came to the attention of President Reagan and his advisors during this tumultuous time in NASA's history. On 5 January 1988, the president signed National Security Decision Directive 293 on National Space Policy. An unclassified Fact Sheet, "Presidential Directive on National Space Policy", was released by the White House on 11 February 1988. Significantly, the first paragraph in the Fact Sheet under "Goals and Principles'', read: "The directive states that a fundamental objective guiding United States space activities has been, and continues to be, space leadership. Leadership in an increasingly competitive international environment does not require United States preeminence in all areas and disciplines of space enterprise. It does require United States preeminence in key areas of space activity critical to achieving our national security, scientific, technical, economic, and foreign policy goals.''

The Directive highlighted three key areas of United States space policy that would receive emphasis:

NASA initiated several studies in the 1990s to examine the new hardware that would possibly be used on the United States' return to the Moon and the establishment of a permanent base. This pressurized lunar surface roving vehicle was one such concept by the Johnson Space Center's Lunar and Mars Exploration Office from February 1990. (NASA)

NASA initiated several studies in the 1990s to examine the new hardware that would possibly be used on the United States' return to the Moon and the establishment of a permanent base. This pressurized lunar surface roving vehicle was one such concept by the Johnson Space Center's Lunar and Mars Exploration Office from February 1990. (NASA)

1. Establish a long-range goal to expand human presence and activity beyond Earth orbit into the solar system.

2. Create opportunities for U.S. commerce in space

3. Continue the U.S. commitment to a permanently manned space station.

The Directive announced the establishment of "Project Pathfinder'' for a broad range of manned or unmanned missions, with an initial one hundred million dollar funding request from Congress for technology development. It also outlined a fifteen-point Commercial Space Policy, and addressed other vital U.S. space issues. However, 1988 was a presidential election year, so Congress and the space community took a "wait and see attitude'' until after the November 1988 presidential election. That year also marked the return to flight for the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle fleet had been grounded for more than two-and-a-half years, until the successful launch of the Shuttle Discovery on 29 September 1988.

On 21 July 1989, twenty years after the first Moon landing, a workshop was held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to bring together some of the key players during Apollo and videotape their comments on the lessons learned about successfully managing such a gigantic program. Participants included Howard W.

Tindall, George E. Mueller, Owen W. Morris, Máxime Faget, Robert R. Gilruth and Christopher C. Kraft. John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, moderated the discussion.

Toward the end of the discussion, Logsdon asked the panel some rather prophetic questions: "How do you do a program that lasts for a long time? Could you capture the spirit, the elan, the excitement of the 1961 to 1972 period, of that program, with a continuing multi-decade program of humans in space?"

Dr. Mueller stated, "What you need is a commitment, a national commitment to a continuing program that doesn't depend upon a spectacular success, but depends upon some results in the economy.''

Dr. Kraft answered by saying, "How you can excite an organization or a nation like we did in Apollo again is, in my mind, extremely difficult to do. To try to come up with an event which is going to recapture the imagination of the United States and the world [in the same way as Apollo] I don't think is possible. So, I think George is absolutely right. We have got to take a different tactic which says look, space is extremely important to the economic structure of our country. It is just as important as defense. It is just as important as education. It is an integral part of what we have got to do in this country to remain preeminent, competitive, and technologically ahead.''

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