The Space Exploration Initiative

The day before this symposium in Houston, on 20 July 1989, President George H. Bush, the former Vice President under Ronald Reagan, announced the Space Exploration Initiative on the steps of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. In this speech he called for " ... a long-range continuing commitment. First, for the coming decade, for the 1990s, Space Station Freedom, our critical next step in all our space endeavors. And next, for the next century, back to the Moon, back to the future, and this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars. Each mission should and will lay the groundwork for the next.''

Vice President Dan Quayle was given the task of leading the National Space Council to formulate the ambitious plan to accomplish this in terms of time, technology and funds. NASA Administrator Richard Truly directed Aaron Cohen, head of the Johnson Space Center, to produce a ninety-day study that would define these major elements of the SEI. Truly presented the Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars to Vice President Quayle and the NSC in November 1989. The report outlined the missions, robotics, space transportation, surface systems, Earth-to-orbit transportation, Space Station Freedom, telecommunications, navigation and information management, human needs, science and technology elements. Interestingly, the report specifically called for robotic rovers for Martian exploration:

"On Mars, a rover with local access to the vicinity of its landing site will perform a preliminary characterization of the martian [sic] surface material composition, mineralogy, and petrology. This characterization will calibrate and validate the regional and local geological data from prior orbital missions. The rover will examine, in situ, a variety of biochemical and environmental indicators of ancient life-forms. The rover will also play a vital role in directing resource assessment of the site for subsequent manned landings.''

The Space Exploration Initiative was as expensive as it was ambitious. The report's estimated cost of SEI spread over a twenty- to thirty-year period was close to 500 billion dollars. It was a staggering figure, and Vice President Quayle and the NSC realized that this plan had to be assessed. Nevertheless, the report made its way to the print media, and it was predictably attacked. The U.S. Congress viewed SEI as overtly ambitious and prohibitively expensive. At the advice of his Vice President and the NSC, President Bush established a new committee, headed by Norm Augustine, to reassess the SEI and make recommendations for realistic implementation of America's future space exploration goals. The Report of the Advisory Committee On the Future of the U.S. Space Program was presented to the Vice President in December 1990. The twelve distinguished committee members had heard testimony from over 300 individuals, both inside and outside space industry and from all walks of life. From the Executive Summary, the Committee wrote:

"The question thus becomes one of what can and should the U.S. afford for its civil space endeavors in a time of unarguably great demands right here on Earth, ranging from reducing the deficit to curing disease and from improving education to eliminating poverty. The answer to this question is made all the more difficult because the space program touches so many aspects of our lives and contributes to the accomplishment of goals ranging from improving education to enhancing our standard of living and from assuring national security to strengthening communications among the peoples of the world. The space program produces technology that enhances competitiveness; the largest rise and subsequent decline in the nation's output of much needed science and engineering talent in recent decades coincided with, and some say may have been motivated by, the build-up and subsequent phase-down in the civil space program.''

The Committee unequivocally did not support the plans for massive increases in NASA funding for a return to the Moon and for future manned exploration Mars. It recommended Mission to Planet Earth and Mission from Planet Earth to emphasize Earth and space sciences, a scaling back of the design of the Space Station and a "go-as-you-pay'' strategy of manned exploration in returning to the Moon, and eventual missions to Mars. It did recommend, however, the development of Shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch vehicles with the inherent capability of getting cargo and crews to the Moon - something the Shuttle was incapable of doing. The Committee report was indeed broad in its assessment of America's current and future space capabilities, but the clear emphasis was on low-Earth orbit space activities.

America at the Threshold

Nevertheless, there was yet another comprehensive evaluation of America's space program underway at the same time, this being conducted by The Synthesis Group chaired by Gemini and Apollo astronaut Thomas P. Stafford. This group sought the input from a much broader range of individuals, corporations and advocacy groups from all across the United States, which was called the Outreach Program. The results of this study, America at the Threshold: America's Space Exploration Initiative, were published in May 1991. Its emphasis was decidedly different from the report produced by Norm Augustine's committee. America at the Threshold proclaimed the essential national need to establish a permanent lunar base and to use that to support the eventual goal of launching missions to Mars. The report issued the following recommendations:

• Establish within NASA a long-range strategic plan for the nation's civil space program, with the Space Exploration Initiative as its centerpiece.

• Establish a National Program Office by Executive Order

• Appoint NASA's Associate Administrator for Exploration as the Program Director for the National Program Office.

• Establish a new, aggressive acquisition strategy for the Space Exploration Initiative.

• Incorporate Space Exploration Initiative requirements into the joint NASADepartment of Defense Heavy-lift Program.

• Initiate a nuclear thermal rocket technology development program.

• Initiate a space nuclear power technology development program based on the Space Exploration Initiative requirements.

• Conduct focused life science experiments.

• Establish education as a principal theme of the Space Exploration Initiative.

• Continue and expand the Outreach Program.

In terms of actual hardware, or architecture as it was increasingly being referred to, it outlined the types of heavy-lift launch vehicles that would be necessary to get crews and equipment to the Moon, and the vehicles and facilities that would be placed there. Regarding rovers, it advocated a preliminary unmanned mission to deploy a robotic rover to explore proposed landing sites for manned missions, coupled with an orbiting lunar reconnaissance and mapping probe. Subsequent manned missions included large, heavy, pressurized rovers for long distance exploration, as well as unpressurized rovers for short distance lunar exploration.

Once again, the price tag of all the launch vehicles, cargo ships, shelters, landers and rovers, along with an array of many other kinds of support equipment, was an aspect glossed over in America at the Threshold. The Synthesis Group wanted to avoid heated rhetoric over the cost of the ambitious plans outlined, and it succeeded by simply stating the program would be costly, but it would be more costly to America if it did not proceed to seize the moment and begin to implement the plans immediately. In fact, without drastically increased funding, NASA could not begin to implement the programs necessary to get the Space Exploration Initiative literally off the ground.

The recommendation to "Appoint NASA's Associate Administrator for Exploration as the Program Director for the National Program Office'' was a very specific one. The Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA at that time was

America at the Threshold, published in May 1991, was a comprehensive report produced by the Synthesis Group that outlined the Space Exploration Initiative as first proposed by President George Bush. SEI was criticized for its prohibitive cost. (NASA)

Dr. Michael Griffin (he would temporarily leave NASA in 1993). Griffin had worked to put the lunar portion of SEI on a sound technological footing by proposing the First Lunar Outpost (FLO) program. This involved less complex lunar surface hardware, the duration of the missions were shorter, and it naturally used all of NASA's facilities for launch vehicle preparation and launch.

The development and manufacture of the launch vehicle was, in fact, the largest single-line item in the FLO budget. The heavy-lift booster to be used was that proposed by the Synthesis Group, one that rivaled the Saturn V in its lift capability. The launch vehicle was called the Comet, and was over 124 meters tall - considerably taller than the 110-meter Saturn V. The first stage employed five uprated Rocketdyne F-1 engines, the F-1A, and would be aided by two strap-on boosters having two F-1A engines each. The second stage used six J-2S engines and the third (Trans-Lunar Injection) stage employed a single J-2S engine. The lunar lander was much larger and in fact included the Command Module as part of the design. A new lunar roving vehicle would accompany the astronauts to the lunar surface, but illustrations in the FLO presentation showed images of the LRV from Apollo. Comet would be transported to Launch Complex 39 on a reconfigured launch platform, with a Launch Umbilical Tower similar in design to that used with the Saturn V and the crawler transporter.

The FLO proposal was unveiled in August 1992. Testifying before Congress, Griffin stated that the program would cost approximately $25 billion. To get the program going would, of course, require Congressional funding, but the presidential election was coming up that November and there was little hope of even initial funding that year. President Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, and those within NASA did not hold out much hope for support for FLO from the new Democratic president. Their belief was well-founded. President Clinton showed virtually no interest in America's space program and the proposals to get the United States back to the Moon languished on shelves. Richard Truly left NASA as Administrator in 1992, and Daniel Goldin took over the helm. Goldin had less grandiose ideas for NASA's future and felt that robotic probes were most cost-effective in the exploration of space. He closed down the Office of Space Exploration in March 1993 and Michael Griffin left NASA (though, interestingly, he would return one day as NASA's eleventh Administrator). The hope of American manned space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit was now all but dead for the rest of the decade. NASA moved forward with the construction of what was now the International Space Station (ISS), its Martian robotic exploration programs, continuing the Hubble Space Telescope program, and of course on-going Space Shuttle missions. The first two modules of the ISS were launched in 1998, but the original grand scope of the ISS had been scaled down considerably in an effort to curb its spiraling cost.

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