Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Vision Thing

July 20, 1989, National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC - Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Apollo 11 and chosen venue for then-President George H.W. Bush's announcement of a proposed Space Exploration Initiative. (Left to Right, Chair of the National Space Council Vice President Dan Quayle, President Bush, Dr. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11 [NASA Image 89-H-382].

Wayne Hale
NASA Blogs

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 InitiativeNASA 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.

The notional Lunar Exploration Vehicle that arose from NASA's sketching out, in broad strokes, a frame work for the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative [Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars, November 1989].

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.

Read Wayne Hales post, HERE.

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