Grand Vision for NASA, or Unfunded Mandate?

Without a cost estimate for the president's new vision, the administration and Congress cannot truly embrace the investment.

by Walter Cunningham
Published in the Houston Chronicle, February 2004


It was wonderful to see President Bush identify himself with NASA and announce a new charter and grand vision for NASA. For any grand plan of exploration to succeed it must be championed at the highest levels. The president's plan can provide the focus that NASA has been missing for a long time. The plan, however, did not sound like it had much input from engineers and operational types.

I want to see an American standing on Mars or one of its moons in the worst way, but it won't happen in my lifetime. If it takes a return to the Moon to eventually get a mission to Mars funded, I enthusiastically support it. My two favorite rationales to justify exploring our solar system are:

1.    A commitment to return to the Moon and go on to Mars will do what exploration has always done: it feeds the human spirit. A passion for discovery and a sense of adventure has always driven America forward. These deeply rooted qualities spur our determination to explore new scientific frontiers and spark our can-do spirit of technological innovation. The continued leadership of our world depends on our enduring commitment to science, technology, research, and learning.

2.    Space exploration is a research and development "engine of change" that benefits sectors far removed from the space industry. The engineering capability developed in space initiatives is employed in a variety of activities across the economy. Without the research and development necessary to maintain an edge, America's position as the world's leading economic power will be in jeopardy.

 Whether it is advances in fire fighting technology, sewage recycling, communications, medical technology and instrumentation, manufacturing, agriculture, hurricane forecasting, or educational technologies, what NASA initially developed for astronauts in space has found its way into our daily commerce. Space technology improves our quality of life on Earth in ways that are transparent or unknown to most people.

Any great exploration is a risky undertaking, involving political, technical, human, and economic risks. The political risk rests squarely on the shoulders of President Bush because there is no huge constituency clamoring to send humans to Mars. According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans would rather spend money on domestic needs.

We should have the technical risk well in hand. We first went to the Moon thirty-five years ago, and our current technology is such that only the cost and the will to go keep us from having a Mars program today. Yes, it may be faster, safer, and better executed if it is pushed farther into the future, but a human mission to Mars is much more feasible today than was a manned landing on the Moon when President Kennedy announced it forty years ago. Ten years later, "man on the Moon" was history. President Kennedy enunciated a simple vision, and then the engineers and scientists determined how to do it right.

The human risk is great at a time when risky activities are just not acceptable to a large segment of our population. For many, human space flight will always be extravagant and illogical. Historically, there have always been those who opposed fording the next river, crossing the next sea, or traveling beyond the next ocean. Can anyone remember those who tried to fly the Atlantic before Charles Lindbergh? We celebrate successes after the fact, and conveniently forget the failures which are important to the effort.

There is a difference between a risky activity, such as the Apollo missions or a shuttle launch, and reckless activity, as when we continued to launch shuttle missions after we knew the external tank was regularly shedding insulation. In a risky activity, we can quantify the payoff or benefits, compare it to other known and estimated risks, and determine the cost/benefit ratio. In reckless activity, risks are unmeasured and unknown, and payoffs are ill defined and ephemeral.

Space is inherently dangerous: it is the most hostile environment ever explored by humans. But there are benefits to be derived from our exploration and utilization of space. It is NASA's job to reduce the risks until the benefits to be derived are judged to exceed the risks and then get on with the program. Astronauts will accept reasonable risks associated with meaningful objectives in which they truly believe.

The new initiative avoided any mention of the economic risk in returning to the Moon base and going on to Mars. Money is the real obstacle! Without clarification and commitment to the cost, the new vision for NASA is little more than an unfunded mandate. We cannot go into space on the cheap. The five-year funding to support new exploration activities of $1 billion in new money and $11 billion squeezed out of NASA's current projected funding is woefully inadequate.

It is not difficult to estimate the cost of the lunar portion of this grand adventure. The Apollo program cost $25 billion, equivalent to about $125 billion in today's dollars. Lunar exploration today will be at least as difficult and no less costly than it was in the Sixties. NASA may be more experienced today and armed with better technology, but it is also more bureaucratic with less efficient management. If we are optimistic, we can assume it could be done for the same cost today. Realistically, we could return to the Moon for $125-150 billion (about twice what Americans spend on alcohol each year).

It is a price we can not only afford, but it will be well worth the investment. Now is the time to make such a commitment, but not at the cost of ongoing programs.

The first casualty of the return to the Moon initiative is the 2005 servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble may not "contribute to completion of the ISS," as NASA says, but its contribution to scientific knowledge may well exceed that of the ISS.

Abandonment of the Hubble is as much a consequence of NASA's reaction to the
Columbia disaster as it is the new initiative. Regarding his decision to cancel the Hubble servicing mission, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe had this to say: "It was one based on risk exclusively." He describes a shuttle flight to Hubble as "a one-of-a-kind, unique, very different and riskier mission… that's not a risk that I could deem to be an acceptable one." He is talking about the world's greatest flying machine after spending two years and $500 million to make the shuttle system even safer! It only gives credence to those critics who say the ISS exists as destination for the shuttle, and the shuttle exists to service the ISS.

Can an organization, unwilling to accept the risk of flying a truly great spacecraft in familiar Earth orbits, accept the inherent risks of landing humans on the Moon, let alone sending them to Mars? Of greater concern, is NASA merely reflecting society's growing desire for a risk-free existence? That attitude would never have gotten us to the Moon in the first place and made us the world leader in human space flight. NASA was founded to explore the unknown, evaluate the risks versus gains, and take calculated risks to move our society forward.

It will be another great loss if the space shuttle is "retired" by 2010, long before we have an adequate replacement. The shuttle is the only vehicle capable of carrying to and from the ISS the biological and engineering equipment to perform research essential to future space goals.

Historically, NASA has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Congress whereby NASA over-promises on results and low-balls the cost of new programs, which allows Congress to fund the program. When the under-funded program is, inevitably, late and over budget, NASA is mercilessly criticized by Congress and the public. It would be nice, just once, to see Congress endorse a program based on realistic expectations and honest cost estimates from NASA.

Gus Grissom, famous for the remark "No bucks, no Buck Rogers," would understand the picture perfectly. Without a commitment for adequate funding, NASA's new vision of our destiny is just another unfunded mandate.

Walter Cunningham flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, and is author of The All-American Boys (ibooks, July 2003).