Previous Administration’s Promises to Return to the Moon

For anyone who forgot or is too young to remember, both Bush administrations launched programs to return American astronauts to the moon and send them off to Mars. The first plan was announced on July 20, 1989 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The second was unveiled 15 years later on Jan. 14, 2004, just under a year after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Past isn’t necessarily prologue. NASA is in better shape to do something at the moon than is at the time when these two initiatives were unveiled. I would put forth the following reasons for optimism.

NASA is making progress on SLS and Orion, which are the two legacy systems from the second Bush Administration’s plan. No, they’re not the cheapest or most optimal vehicles to base the plan on, but there seems to be no appetite in the Trump Administration for a bruising battle with Congress over canceling them. Deal with it.

The commercial sector has grown substantially. NASA learning how to work with private companies on a partnership basis. And launch costs have been reduced due to SpaceX’s innovation on reusable vehicles.

Enormous amount of expertise has been accumulated on the International Space Station. The station’s international partners are eying the moon as the next step beyond ISS.

So, the conditions are there for venturing out to the moon. The question is whether the money will be there as well. Even with the participation of commercial space companies, NASA will need an executable plan and the funding to support it.

  • savuporo

    Yeah these are like Tugg Speedmans Scorcher movies. You know a next one is coming, but this time it will be .. different.

  • Douglas Messier

    The problem is the Trump Administration wants to do something ambitious in space. But, it also wants a massive tax cut, a large military buildup, and deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending (agencies like NASA) that are needed to pay for the other two priorities. The policies conflict with each other, leaving the real possibility NASA will find itself once again trying to do too much with too few resources.

  • newpapyrus

    Humans will return to the Moon, once there are vehicles being actually built and adequately funded to return humans to the Moon.

    Extraterrestrial landing vehicle concepts capable of placing humans on the surface of the Moon and even Mars have already been proposed by the major space companies: Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Space X, and the ULA.

    Since private commercial space vehicles are utilized by both NASA and the DOD, at least $1 billion to $3 billion a year in total funding from NASA and the DOD should be used to fund a commercial extraterrestrial crew landing vehicle program over the next ten years.


  • Doug, I’d like your take on this, but I think NASA (as an organization) has gotten smart on the planning front. From what I’m seeing of their continued use of ISS for new stuff (Dragon, Starline, BEAM, etc), and trying to reuse Shuttle in SLS and ISS in DSP, I think they are actually able to plan and execute a program.
    1)Budget? Whatever Congress sends this year.
    2)Schedule? It takes as long as it takes (see item 1).

    If NASA has finally learned how to live under a static budget and NOT overpromise (no meat behind Journey to Mars plan? That was a strategic decision!), then I think they can pull all this stuff off. It just might take longer than we all might like.

  • Douglas Messier

    I think a lot of that was Obama and Bolden. Obama did try to give NASA what it needed to get the job done. He was thrawted by sequestration and Congressional reductions in commercial crew. Bolden certainly understood from working at NASA how the agency was perpetually forced to do too much with too little.

    My worry is that Trump will want a space spectacular in time for his re-election campaign and that Bridenstine the politician will try to give it to him.

  • Your second comment is THE cause of loss of life in space (as I’m sure you’re aware from your own reporting). I think this is not sufficiently understood – the reason people die going-to, in, or returning-from space is because people let external pressures rush schedule in spite of KNOWN ISSUES. Look back at any fatal space accident, that is always in the accident chain.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem is also that NASA has been hooked on Mars as a goal since the 1970’s and turns any lunar return into just a pit stop on the route, over studies it to delay it so it will be killed when the next Administration takes office. Indeed you could even make an argument that is what it did with Project Apollo.

    The solution, the best solution is to treat a lunar return as a commercial partnership by creating a lunar infrastructure corporation using the successful model of Comsat, but modifying it for long lead times for lunar industrialization. This will allow government funds to leverage private investment, no longer threaten NASA’s budget which could continued to be focused on Mars, and by putting it in a couple of districts without major NASA Centers Congress critters (Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, come to mind), create a new set of Congress Critters to protect its funding, say a couple billion or so a year. NASA could be given a support role, as it was given with Comsat, but it would smother it by focusing on Mars as it did in these past instances.

  • windbourne

    SX and BO have this happening already.
    FH launches in a month or two, and it should be capable of STARTING us to the moon.
    Add to that, BO with New Glenn, in 2019/2020, and we are on our way.
    What is needed are multiple landers and base-building items.

  • windbourne

    First off, it is NOT NASA that created the SLS/Orion monster. That is PURELY CONgress (both GOP/dems).
    Secondly, NASA knows that they have to get Next Step going ASAP to go to ANY OTHER LOCATION.
    CONgress has been a nightmare to NASA by turning it into a jobs bill.
    NASA knows that they need private space and more funding to accomplish what they need to do.
    Hence private space goes to the moon and provides services for NASA, as well as other nations.

  • windbourne

    uh no.
    Sequestration was O’s admin’s choice. Personally, I think it was BRILLIANT.
    But yes, the GOP is the one that pushed the reduction in Commercial crew, hoping to hit SX hard. And let me tell you that my Colorado GOP critters were MAD that NASA picked SNC to lose. It was well known secret (ULA/SNC backyard) in this area that the GOP expected SX to take the hit.

    and yup, your last paragraph is an almost certain issue.

  • windbourne

    which is exactly Doug’s concern.
    Thankfully, I doubt that private space will do it now.
    SX has learned the hard way that crashes cost them money.
    And Im sure that they know that loss of life up front might cost them everything.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I also thought that NASA could be used as an election ploy. However like its leader this administration has ADHD, they can’t focus and keep at problems long term. They drift from one self made crisis to another. Kelly and Mattis seem to be the two main administrators who know how to constructively maintain a thread of leadership, everyone else seems to be a wrecking crew who generate the weeks thread of administration timeline by causing some controversy or another. So far Trump uses the power of the executive to go into a office of government to destroy not to build. If he does that with NASA there’ll be no space spectacular ready for the election except the likes of 1986 and 2003.

  • Paul451

    While I hate to use the phrase… To be fair for Congress… ack… the design of SLS belonged solely to NASA. There was nothing in the language requiring them to specific design they chose. Quite the contrary, while the language merely called for reuse of STS parts, NASA chose a design that required changing nearly everything about the STS technology they were using. There were more conservative designs proposed in 2010 in response to the SLS legislation. Where in the legislation does it call for a 105t version?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, they could have just gone with a Shuttle-C which would have required simply an orbiter replacement.

  • delphinus100

    For those still hoping for Kennedy-esq ‘magic words,’ sorry, that only works once…

    Today (and rightly) it’s more nearly; ‘show me the money.’

  • We got exactly what we wanted (using we in a VERY inclusive way). Space advocates went for DIRECT in a big way, and NASA actually BUILT IT! (

    Just remember, per the DIRECT team, the alternatives would have been MORE expansive and taken longer. So, it could be worse? Maybe?

    (Take with appropriate salt)

  • Paul451

    per the DIRECT team, the alternatives would have been MORE expansive and taken longer. So, it could be worse?

    Except the design ultimately chosen for SLS was the alternative to DIRECT. And yes it is worse.

    Jupiter/DIRECT is actually a good example of a more conservative architecture that NASA management intentionally undermined. The first version of the Jupiter design was a standard 8m ET, built using the same moulds and equipment as the Shuttle ET; with 3 standard SSMEs salvaged off the orbiters, in their original triangular configuration; plus two standard unmodified SRBs. The very first version (J130) even lacked a second stage; that being handled by Orion’s service module for the first few flights, or an off-the-shelf Centaur-US for unmanned missions.

    Then while NASA is testing the basic J130 variant on early missions, they can work on expanding to 4 SSMEs and adding an upper-stage. While flying missions on that variant, they could chase whatever technology matures first: 10m tanks for a larger core stage, newer cheaper main engines, liquid boosters or larger/lighter SRBs, etc etc. Stretch goals, if you like. If any upgrades don’t work as expected, it doesn’t hurt the (then) existing program. You just add the bits that work, as they are ready.

    IMO, it would probably have taken longer and cost more than the DIRECT
    advocates claimed, but you can see how they are trying to actually use Shuttle parts. The whole core of the idea is that you make the minimal changes necessary to get the most basic configuration to work, then and only then work on higher-risk changes.

    So what did NASA choose?

    SLS starts with a larger 10m diameter tank (requiring multi-billion dollar development, and which, last I heard, Boeing still hadn’t figured out how to even weld); 4 SSMEs (which increases the heating, requiring extensive/expensive mods); modified SRBs (5 stage, composite case; requiring yet another development program); and the EUS (a new upper-stage).

    They started with DIRECT’s stretch goals, each of which pushed the design into experimental territory, and require every one of those upgrades and changes to work perfectly before the first SLS can launch.

    The whole supposed point of requiring SLS to “reuse” Shuttle parts and technology was to reduce costs. NASA chose the option that made as many changes as possible, while merely superficially resembling a Shuttle-Derived-Launch-Vehicle.

    Look, I was never a Jupiter/DIRECT fan. The basic concept of any SDLV is bad. Using a low density, low thrust LH/LOx first stage is incredibly inefficient. Using solids on a manned design makes the LAS and capsule heavier, blowing out the rest of the payload budget.

    And more importantly, the Shuttle’s components are much more fragile and specialised than SDLV advocates claimed. When you want to use existing components in a new design, you choose the most flexible and robust systems; the Shuttle parts were the opposite. In order to get the Shuttle to fly, the engineers had to push every system to its absolute limits, and exploit interaction between components to maximise that further (like a house of cards, versus Lego bricks, each card can only stand by leaning against other cards and so everything has to be exactly balanced). Using Shuttle components in a new design is like trying to build a tractor out of parts from a Formula 1 car… to save money.

    Worse, the Shuttle design was thirty years old. No-one who worked on the original design was still working at NASA or the contractors. For thirty years they were operators and technicians, replicating the original design. There were a few upgrades, but many of those merely proved how fragile the design of the Shuttle was, and how difficult and expensive it is to change.

    Nonetheless, the DIRECT team did at least try to minimise the unnecessary changes as much as possible. That would have made it easier to learn what they were breaking by changing from side-mount to in-line. Once they understand that, only then do they think about adding new changes.

    NASA chose the alternative.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Jeff, one correction, Mars advocates got the Ares V they long wanted.

    Massive Saturn V type vehicles were never needed for the Moon. The Shuttle itself could have taken the elements needed to Earth orbit with support from an EELV launch or two. Even now you could do a Lunar architecture with existing vehicles, you just need to add EOR to LOR to do it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Tell me. Exactly what was wrong with doing Shuttle-C? Sure it might take two launches to put your stack together in orbit, but you had two Shuttle pads already and it would have been much cheaper per launch.

  • Thomas, I totally agree. We could have done the Moon with what we had (or have today). We (the entire community being the we) seem to go for the “silver bullet of the day”. 10 years ago it was “scrap Shuttle, rebuild Saturn V”, 5ish years ago it was either “no Ares V, DIRECT” or “no Ares V, small rockets”, today it’s “no SLS, private Saturn Vs”.

    Maybe the reason NASA can’t stick with a plan for more than a few years is because our representative form of government perfectly represents US!

  • Paul451

    Exactly what was wrong with doing Shuttle-C?

    I didn’t say anything about or against Shuttle-C. Not sure why you think I did.

    However, apparently it didn’t work as advertised, although better designs (the so-called “not-the-Shuttle-C” concept in early 2000’s). The expendable pseudo-orbiter cargo stage would have been heavier than originally proposed and apparently would have required more changes to the stack than the original advocates thought.

    It looked easy, a simple swap-out, but changing anything about the Shuttle was expensive and complex.

    Had they developed a cargo variant of the Shuttle stack in the mid to late ’70s, before the manned Orbiters, then it’s likely that all the hardware would have ended up more robust by design. Plus they would have had the advantage of being able to test the stack without people would have allowed them to try things earlier, without the added cost and complexity of trying to solve every possible anticipated problem before you know if it actually is a problem… And most importantly, you would have the original designers, many of whom cut their teeth on Apollo development and/or earlier work. Much more hands-on experience than anyone making proposals 30yrs later.

    By the time the crewed orbiter was flying, in ’81, it was probably too late for Shuttle-C. STS was too fragile to tolerate changes without an expensive redesign. (It still would have been a cheaper program than NASP and X-33.) And by the ’90s or early 2000’s, you’ve also lost the continuity of workforce, so it was way too late.

    By 2010, I don’t know whether Not-the-Shuttle-C would have been easier or cheaper than Jupiter/DIRECT. But either would have been better than SLS. But neither would have been cheaper than a non-SDLV architecture.

  • Paul451

    Your timeline is a little leaky. The decision to replace the Shuttle was made nearly 15 years ago, 2003. And the moment Mike Griffin forced his Ares concept onto the Agency, back to 2005, most of us knew it was a dog’s breakfast and opposed it.

    We certainly knew SLS was a stupid idea before it passed Congress in 2010, nothing in the last 5 years has changed, only confirmed it as NASA threw bad decision after bad decision.