What Can We Learn from a Failed Return to the Moon?
The lessons of The Space Exploration Initiative, 30 years later
A first-term President makes a surprise announcement and directs NASA to return humans to the Moon and then on to Mars. NASA scrambles to redesign their existing plans to meet this new goal. The White House proposes significant and sustained increases to NASA's budget. The National Space Council, led by a pro-space Vice President, believes new technology and new ways of doing business will help limit costs and create a sustainable program of human exploration beyond Earth.
This isn't 2019. It's 1989. That's when the Bush Administration announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The ambitious plan proposed NASA return to the Moon in a decade and send by human missions to Mars in the 2010s. But distrust between the White House and NASA and a politically disastrous $500 billion initial cost estimate sank the initiative.
President George H.W. Bush Announces the Space Exploration Initiative
On the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11's lunar landing, President George H.W. Bush announced a new human spaceflight initiative that would have returned humans to the Moon and then on to Mars. The Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) failed to gain political support and NASA's human spaceflight program focused on low-Earth orbit for the following two decades.
Yet here we are, 30 years later, in a familiar set of circumstances: a sudden announcement with details yet to be worked out by NASA, a National Space Council, an involved White House, a promise of additional funds, and the hope that there are new ways of doing business that can somehow lower the cost. With so many similarities, surely the failure of SEI has something to tell us?
As you may have guessed from the length of this post, I believe the answer is "yes", particularly in this interim period after the announcement by the Vice President and before the release of a supplemental budget request.
In Mars Wars (full book PDF), author Thor Hogan examines the rise and fall of SEI and provides invaluable context for this discussion. My thoughts below accept and build upon Dr. Hogan's analysis. A conversation with Mark Albrecht, the executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Space Exploration Initiative, also informed my thinking. You can listen to this discussion in the May 3rd, 2019 episode of Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition.
Dr. Hogan states that the failure of SEI was not inevitable. Mistakes were made, as the saying goes, by both NASA and the White House leadership. We face the same situation now. Returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024 is possible, but there are many more paths leading to failure than success. Looking back at SEI can help us avoid some pitfalls, and perhaps increase the odds of finding the right way forward.
Lesson 1: Minimize sticker shock
Let's be honest: anything sounds expensive when added up over thirty years. The National Parks Service, a wonderful organization that manages national parks and other monuments, is not a large part of the budget each year. Yet over the next three decades, it will spend roughly $100 billion. That's just for parks! Space exploration costs more. That doesn't mean it's expensive, but lacking context it can certainly sound expensive. The United States regularly spends much more on many other programs. The Department of Defense, for example, will spend at least $21 trillion (yes, trillion) over the same timeframe, and has grown by tens of billions of dollars over the past few years with little public debate or notice. Space is cheap, by comparison.
But that message isn't enough. NASA's infamous "90-Day Study," which outlined its exploration ambitions for SEI in a 30-year time frame, estimated the program would cost between $400 and $500 billion (or close to a trillion of today's dollars). Even though these initial studies were never formally proposed by the White House, SEI was forever laden with a politically laughable half-trillion-dollar price tag.
We don't know what augmentation the Administration will ask for next week, but the lesson from SEI is that the initial estimate will likely be the number repeated ad-infinitum by the press and thus calcified into common wisdom. As such, NASA and the White House must be judicious in presenting its initial estimate, reflecting accurately the resources necessary to achieve the goal, but limiting the time horizon to the far more reasonable (and standard) 5-year budgetary window. Projecting spending over five years is hard enough for programs that have never been attempted before, much less over thirty. Limiting projections to a 5-year window will present a more accurate estimate, both in terms of actual spending and for public debate.
A particular challenge to keep in mind is that this supplemental request for NASA will be released in the context of proposed cuts to many popular programs, including many science programs. While these cuts are unlikely to happen (thank you, Congress), the fact remains that the space program—particularly human spaceflight—will be seen as benefiting from cuts to other science efforts. There is no way to address this besides being honest about the fact that NASA's budget does not depend on cuts to other programs, and that Congress can (and should) fund science initiatives across the government.
NASA today has an additional advantage compared to the NASA of 1989: "nobody cares" about deficits right now. As George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency, there was a political consensus that deficit reduction was a top priority. The Cold War was winding down and there was an expectation of a "peace dividend" from the drawing down of defense spending. The political moment, in other words, was all wrong for proposing a major human spaceflight endeavor.
Our current political dynamics are different. There is no consensus on deficits. Despite the domestic spending cuts regularly proposed by the White House, Congress, even under Republican control, has increased government spending for the past five years. It is likely Congress will raise spending caps again. This is good, as an increase in spending caps would provide both the budgetary and political space necessary to augment NASA's budget. In other words, the best way for the Trump Administration to sustain political support for its lunar ambitions is to support (or merely accept) increases in domestic spending.
The economy is also better today than it was 30 years ago. As President Bush announced SEI, the gross domestic product (GDP) was falling and the economy was sliding into a recession. Today GDP growth is stable, perhaps increasing slightly, and unemployment is very low. As in the early 1960s, the public's positive attitude about the economy helps enable the political justification for high profile engineering and exploration investments, as voters are not worried about overall spending as a proxy for the country's economic conditions.
The combined effects of a willingness to spend money on domestic programs and the psychological benefits of a strong economy will help limit any political backlash against increasing NASA's budget. However, great care is still called for when making and presenting the cost estimates for a lunar return. SEI reminds us that there are limits to what people will accept, no matter how good the economy is.
Lesson 2: Integrate institutional priorities
When Mark Albrecht, the executive secretary of the National Space Council in 1989, approached NASA administrator Richard Truly to ask if NASA was interested in returning to the Moon and Mars, the administrator initially demurred. He worried that NASA couldn't handle the additional burden of deep space exploration while NASA was struggling through constant revisions to Space Station Freedom and working to return the Space Shuttle fleet to full strength. Though the administrator embraced the idea the following day, his initial reaction betrayed that the institutional focus of NASA was (and would remain) shuttle and station, not the Space Exploration Initiative.
NASA's 90-Day Study reflected this. It re-stated the program of record (the Shuttle and a space station programs) and layered Moon and Mars programs on top of them. This simultaneously increased the cost of SEI and enabled Congress to lop out SEI parts from the budget while preserving existing programs, which it promptly did.
Space Station Freedom
An artistic depiction of Space Station Freedom, the programmatic precursor to the International Space Station. Announced in 1984, NASA struggled for years to gain the political support necessary to fund the program.
Today NASA's current programs of record—the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket and the Orion crew capsule—align with the lunar return goal and stand to benefit from it politically. These programs now serve a clear need in the context of a deep space exploration effort. The natural institutional responses now align with a lunar exploration effort.
The role of the Gateway orbiting station, however, is less certain. It's pitched as a critical component to ensure program sustainability—but it isn't required to land humans on the Moon. I see the Gateway as being the potential "Space Station Freedom" in this scenario, and care must be taken to ensure it is indeed necessary for sustainable lunar exploration, and not just an adopted program, first conceived for another purpose, included for institutional expediency.
Lesson 3: Treat Congress like a partner
The fate of a 2024 lunar return ultimately rests with Congress. And here lies the most daunting challenge for the Trump administration: ushering an executive branch proposal through a divided Congress. This isn't unprecedented, but ever-growing political divisiveness and upcoming presidential elections have further reduced the odds for significant bipartisan legislation. And the very fact that the Trump administration now associates itself with a lunar return in 2024 is likely to induce non-trivial political opposition. The threat of induced polarization for space is a topic I first discussed back in 2016. The fact that 2024 falls in the last year of a potential second term for President Trump doesn't help; it has already triggered skepticism by Democratic members of Congress. I dearly hope spaceflight remains bipartisan. Both the administration and NASA must work hard to keep partisanship out of spaceflight to succeed in their goals.
Thor Hogan identified congressional outreach as "one of the biggest mistakes" made during the effort to establish the Space Exploration Initiative. From "Mars Wars":
"The failure to adequately consult Congress was one of the biggest mistakes made by the Bush administration before announcing SEI. Considering both houses were controlled by the opposition party, and given the existing budgetary crisis, this should have been a crucial part of the policy making process. Congress and congressional staffers are among the most critical actors in any policy community. Despite this fact, the administration did not involve legislators in SEI's agenda setting process. Instead, the Space Council and NASA simply 'informed' key members and staffers, instead of 'consulting' them regarding the initiative's substance or political feasibility. Furthermore, there was no attempt made to build a coalition of supporters for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. This explains why SEI never had any true champions on Capitol Hill, even among constituencies usually supportive of the space program."
Though this characterization is disputed by those directly involved with SEI, the fact is that Congress never got onboard with the opportunity which ultimately stymied the initiative.
Hopefully, key members and congressional staff have been kept abreast of the developing plans since Vice President Pence's announcement, and have had the opportunity to privately share their feedback. Supporters from both parties are required for NASA to succeed. Coalitions are built by shared goals and mutual trust. NASA and the White House must do more than 'inform' Congress of its plans this time around. They must engage.
A strong congressional coalition will be even more critical if President Trump does not win a second term. An invested Congress would be the key to success in such a scenario.
May will be a crucial month
NASA will release its supplemental budget request in early May. It will be instructive to see how it plays in the press and the initial reactions from key members of Congress (i.e. those on the committees that authorize and fund NASA). The best case scenario is that the supplemental is viewed as reasonable, uncontroversial, and executable. Should the reaction calcify into negativity quickly, it will be hard to change. The failure of SEI should serve to remind us that the old saying, "space is hard," applies not only to the extreme technical challenges of spaceflight but to the political difficulties as well.