Wayne Hale: VSE Was a Giant Sand Castle

In a post on his blog, retired Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale has revealed what most of us have long suspected: the Vision for Space Exploration — George W. Bush’s grand plan to send Americans to the moon, Mars and beyond — was built of sand on sand by people with their heads in the sand. And, needless to say, it washed away with the first high tide.

Appalling? Yes. Surprising? Not at all.
Hale begins his story in 2003 as the nation’s brain trust tried to formulate a response to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. Their thinking apparently veered wildly from canceling NASA’s entire human spaceflight program and de-orbiting the half built International Space Station to reviving George H.W. Bush’s earlier failed effort to send Americans back to the moon. They selected the latter, and NASA CFO Steve Isakowitz came up with the numbers.

Translated into a chart, this became the famous Vision Sand Chart. Our first reaction on seeing the Vision Sand Chart was that we were appalled.  There was no way we could do our job with that little amount of money, and to develop a new deep space system for that pittance was beyond belief.  But we were good soldiers and went to work anyway.

The rickety sand castle that NASA had constructed was built upon quickly and inexpensively returning the space shuttle to flight, finishing ISS construction by 2009, and freeing up funding for the new Constellation program. That didn’t happen. Hale and his colleagues were soon seeking additional shuttle funding before NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, a numbers whiz who formerly headed up the Office of Management and Budget.

It was not a pleasant meeting.  It was the politest tongue lashing I have ever gotten.  But we stuck to our guns; we needed more money, a request for supplemental funding from Congress must be made.

Shortly thereafter the decision was made at some high level to take the money out of the existing NASA budget; there would be no new request to Congress.  So aeronautics and science were hit hard.  And the nascent exploration program was strangled for money.  So much for the ‘sand chart’.

The tide had come in. The castle began to wash away. O’Keefe didn’t stick around to oversee to watch everything dissolve; he bailed out of NASA in late 2004, saying his paltry public-sector salary was insufficient to send his kids through college.

Hale’s post doesn’t directly deal with the Constellation architecture that was the brainchild of Steve “Doc” Horowitz and O’Keefe’s successor, Mike Griffin. Many observers view the shuttle-derived architecture as an ill-conceived, carnivorous  Frankenstein monster that has devoured far too much of NASA’s funding. This is the reason the Obama Administration wants to cancel the program.It would be interesting to see Hale’s analysis of that effort.