The Vision Thing

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President, calls Houston home.   He and Barbara can be frequently seen at Astros baseball games, he made his early career in business here, was a congressman from here, even once taught a course as an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Rice University. 


As you may recall, Mr. Bush failed in his re-election bid; there were a number of reasons for his loss, but one of the frequently cited reasons was “the vision thing”.  The critics felt that he had not clearly articulated his vision for the future of the nation, which is a vital function that an effective chief executive must do.  Keep that in mind. 


On July 20, 1989 – the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing – President G. H. W. Bush had made a speech proposing what would come to be known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  This proposal included a permanent return to the Moon and human missions to Mars.  In spite of the bold and visionary words, this initiative quickly failed. 


Thor Hogan has written an excellent book on the history of the fiasco.  His book is “Mars Wars, The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative” NASA SP-2007-4410, August 2007.  I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in how national space policy is made and how federal agencies can be dysfunctional at times.  Dr. Hogan is a Professor of Political Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.  Let me reiterate – I highly recommend this book if you are interested in these topics.


When  “Mars Wars” was first published in 2007, it was widely circulated in NASA management and caused considerable discussion.  Everyone was trying to make sure to avoid the mistakes made in 1989 and create a successful program.  There are many lessons to be learned from that earlier experience, and Dr. Hogan hit many of them. 


The most frequently cited lesson from SEI is the need to build a “sustainable” program.  That is a shorthand way of saying stay within an affordable budget.  One of the principle  reasons the Space Exploration Initiative failed was its price tag.  The SEI package was dead on arrival at Congress because of the high cost.  Trying to apply this lesson, the NASA program of the last five years to send crews to the Moon and Mars strove mightily to remain within the budget line announced in 2004.


But back to 1989, because there are other lessons to be learned there.  That year I was a rookie Space Shuttle Flight Director, learning the ropes in Mission Control, and I had no time to be involved in SEI.  But I was immersed in the NASA culture of the day and I remember that time with great clarity.  Dr. Hogan’s “Mars Wars” book does a wonderful job of capturing the motivations of agency personnel in those days. 


It was a bare three years following the Challenger accident and the wound was still raw.  Challenger was a driving factor in the SEI story.  Remember that widely held beliefs are important whether they are accurate or not.  That is because what people believe to be true motivates them.  So take the following paragraph not necessarily as historical truth but as the mythos which psychologically undergird folks running SEI.


NASA was not allowed to build the shuttle the “right” way, that is, to make both engineeringly elegant and safe.  Lives were lost in Challenger due to basic design choices forced on the agency by severe budgetary restrictions.  In the early 1970s, when NASA was authorized to design and build a revolutionary reusable winged space vehicle, the Office of Management and Budget capped the total development cost of the shuttle at $5 billion.   (Money went further back then.)  This cap was far too low to allow development of several of the more innovative design options.  Fly back liquid fueled boosters were out of the question, for example.  Operational costs were higher because of choices required to keep the development costs low.  Safety was lower.  So we got an aero-space plane with a big dumb drop tank and two scaled up JATO bottles. 


After Challenger, there was no money to significantly improve the basic design of the shuttle.  NASA was faced with the prospect of flying its less-than-safe shuttle for the long term, but with even higher operational costs and a lower flight rate.   Anger is the only term I can use to describe the general feeling back then.  Anger that NASA was forced to build something less than perfect by green eyeshade bean counters in Washington.  Anger that those decisions had been the basis for the loss of seven of our colleagues.  Anger that NASA wasn’t given the authorization to build a second generation shuttle to correct those problems.  So when the President announced a plan to build a spaceship to go back to the Moon and on to Mars, the most frequently heard comment around the human space flight institutions was “We’ve got to do this right this time.”  Even the NASA Administrator  Dick Truly was heard to “we’ve got to do it right this time or not at all.” 


So when the SEI plan turned out to be very expensive, a significant part of that cost was driven by the thought that it must be done “right”.


Fast forward twenty years.  The recent program struggled mightily to stay within the budget because they perceived “sustainability” the principle lesson learned from the last time.  Smarting from the recent loss of Columbia, the organization believed that ‘it still had to be done right’.  So technical performance was not open for compromise.   In program management that means the only relief can come from schedule delay.  Delay that lead to an increasing gap.  Now, that analysis is very, very overly simplistic.  Blog level simplistic, in fact.  I don’t need to connect any more dots from that point, you can do that yourself.


I am told that over the last 20 years more than 15 major NASA Human Spaceflight programs have been cancelled.  I can’t recite the whole list but will give a few examples:  X-38, HL-20, X-33/VentureStar, Space Launch Initiative (SLI), and Orbital Space Plane (OSP).  Some never got past the viewgraph stage.  Some were cancelled because of technical issues.  Some were cancelled for budgetary issues.  And some were cancelled for political reasons. 


So, in hindsight, was the shuttle built “right?”  That program actually flew, well, late, and only somewhat over budget.  Of course the operations budget never went down like it was supposed to.  The shuttle is clearly not “safe” in the conventional sense, but will space flight ever be “safe” like putting your kids on the schoolbus?  At least the shuttle program actually kinda sorta worked and didn’t get cancelled before the first test flight. 


What constitutes “right” in advancing human space flight?  Something reasonably safe and not too costly, something that opens up the space frontier to many people rather than a few?  Is that the foundational paradigm that is being overturned today? 


There are more than a few lessons that you can extract from Dr. Hogan’s book.  I strongly suggest you read it.


And one more thing:  there is a saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  It might appear that we have been doing the “same thing” over and over again and wondering why the result turns out this way.  This time the paradigm is shifting at a foundational level.  Will the new paradigm avoid the same old outcome?


That a vision?   Hmm.

11 thoughts on “The Vision Thing”

  1. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I thought I’d point out for others who would be interested in doing so that the pdf of “Mars Wars” is available from several places on the NASA site. It’s pretty easily accessible if you search for the publication number. Wayne, maybe you could update your citation with a link?

  2. As I have stated in one of your previous blogs, statistically, to date, the Shuttle is the safest crewed spacecraft system, even safer than Soyuz which has had 2 fatal accidents and has flown less than the Shuttle. Apollo killed a crew before it got off the ground. No crewed spacecraft will ever be safe but they can be made to be safe enough. The reality is on current and mid term future technology 1 in 100 will have to be accepted as a realistic mission failure rate as that is what history shows. The more I think about the proposed cancellation of Constellation the more I think its really a major set back and has destroyed any Vision and US involvement beyond LEO with crew. By the time any commercial crew vehicle is ready the ISS may only have a few more years of operational life. At best it might be only 5 years if the ISS makes it to 2020 and that is a big if in my opinion due to likely hardware failures, the inability to replace big hardware items after the Shuttle is gone and lack of political will. What happens after that. The commercial crew companies will have no destination and no real customers other than a few rich tourists who can afford to fly into space for a few days, so maybe 2 or 3 flights out of the US per year for the lucky few. The time of the career NASA astronaut is also now over except for a few who will fly to the ISS each year on Soyuz for the next 5 or so years. The NASA astronaut office will not need anymore than 20 people after 2010 and after ISS is dropped into the Pacific maybe none. Sorry where is the Vision in all of this. I dont see it. I now think China might get to the Moon in the 2030 to 2040 timeframe but I now dont see any NASA or US private involvement beyond the end of the ISS in crewed spaceflight in LEO or beyond. The new Vision has become a nightmare, and a nightmare to get the US out of NASA crewed spaceflight sometime within the next 10 years. The new Vision will condemn several generations to mediocrity and to a very few lucky space tourists. Real Vision requires real leadership. Leadership requires real Vision. I currently see neither.

  3. It occurs to me that all of the canceled Human Space programs may be due to the fact that, when each of them were proposed, we currently had a Human Spaceflight program in place, the Shuttle. For some reason we expected the Government to be pro-active in supporting an improvement in a system that was already working.

    Being an engineer, it makes perfect sense to me to improve on what you have, but I’m not sure that any government has the will to be pro-active in the same way. We can react all right, to disaster, war, even human suffering (sometimes), but being proactive in a positive sense may be beyond the scope of Government.

    So, if we proceed for a few years with no working Human Spaceflight program, perhaps the Government will react to this. I would certainly expect a reaction when the Chinese launch their first people to the moon.


  4. Thank you Wayne. Like may of you out there, I am guessing, I sent him a rather harsh comment, more out of sadness and frustration regarding the proposed CX of Constellation than anything else. I spoke of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days, as well as our fallen Astronauts and all of those who sacrificed for our Manned Space Program. Wayne was my “Wailing Wall “. I do remember though how the shuttle was “supposed to be” including early concepts from Max Faget of manned boosters etc, as well as what later budget constraints did to the vehicle. Story Musgrave said ” taking a butterfly and strapping it to a bullet”. I will read Mars’s Wars, and take a wait and see attitude, for a while at least, while the process takes its course. I trust Wayne and those like him. Lets see what transpires with Congress and Nasa over the next couple of months. We have to get this right, it may be our last chance.

  5. Commercial access will become real when a payoff is recognized to be available. The current political leadership could make a payoff available, in the way that federal airmail contracts encouraged scheduled air service. Does not seem to be likely just yet; certainly the political leadership has not pursued legislation.

    As for international competition, I sure hope China and India make progress in manned spaceflight. Maybe that will put fear in the political leadership of the US.

    I hope that sub-orbital passenger service will become a viable business. It might be cream-skimming at first, but so was passenger air service at first.

  6. An $18 billion agency that only muster powerpoint slides of a 3 seat capsule with no payload is hardly sane or revolutionary in paradigm unless you’re trying to show how to fleece $18 billion for doing nothing.

    NASA is now back to Gemini for 1000x the cost. China & Russia have 3 seat capsules with airlocks. For $18 billion you can skip the CCDEV program & buy 180 flights from China on a superior vehicle. Why do Americans even bother?

  7. Scaled up JATO bottles? Do you think we should let the big SRBs go completely? Part of the Obama plan is to develope new heavy lift technology. Perhaps something like flyback liquid prop boosters is part of the plan? Is that affordable? Will the OMB allow it to be paid for?

  8. A long time ago in a Constellation far, far away.


    Episode 4, A NEW HOPE. It is a period of internal war.
    Rebel Orion spaceships, striking from lunar orbit,
    have won their first victory against the evil Capital Hill Empire.
    During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans
    to the Empires ultimate weapon, the DEATH DRAGON,
    an armored manned space craft with enough power to destroy an entire Space Program. Pursued by the Empires sinister agents,
    Prince Griffin races home aboard his Orion starship,
    custodian of the stolen plans that can save his
    people and restore freedom to the Constellation.

  9. Again, you have very interesting information to share with the public about our country’s space program. Although I am very much in favor of developing vehicles that will carry humans to low earth orbit, back to the moon, to Mars and other places in our solar system I think that the Constellation program was a step backwards in the manner that we should be using to send humans into space. I have not read the book that you comment on, but I believe that we should look at a different model of how we should decide on a national space policy that is not subject to the whims of every different president that comes into office. It must be very difficult for the administration of NASA to develop any long range plan for the exploration of space, both manned and unmanned, in the face of budget and policy fluctuations that change some every year but have the potential of drastic changes every 4 or 8 years depending on what happens in our presidential elections and who the president chooses to be the administrator of NASA as that job is a presidential appointee!
    Thanks for sharing your comments about the current space shuttle design comprimises that have left it as a dangerous vehicle to fly, although I believe that NASA has done a fantastic job of working with the inherent danger of flying this vehicle with only two catastrophic accidents. I really believe that our next generation space vehicle needs to be built on what we have learned with the space shuttle but making safer and more economical to launch, fly, land, and return to space more quickly than our current shuttle.

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