Seeing Double: The Vision for Space Exploration Ten Years Later

Credit : HST

Credit : HST

Recent years have seen a number of meaningful space anniversaries, and to some they can are increasingly somber moments of reflection on what we once could do, on what happened a long time ago. Today however, is something else. Today marks the ten year anniversary of something the we didn’t do at all, implement the path of exploration set forward in President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.  Or did we?

A little over a year after the Columbia disaster,  then President Bush introduced a new vision for space exploration, one which was arguably far more expansive than anything put forward by any other U.S. Administration, including that of John F. Kennedy.  This time, rather than going to the Moon in a narrowly defined time frame, and for a limited purpose, Bush 43 put forward a proposal for what amounted to an ongoing commitment to space exploration, a permanent base on Moon, human missions to Mars, which would have seen the U.S. actually become a spacefaring nation in the full sense of the word.

Of course it didn’t happen, and a great deal of the initial fault lies with the same Administration, which never really attempted to sell the program, or followed up after a slow start. Bush the younger, finding a much more responsive NASA than his father did when introducing the similarly themed Space Exploration Initiative on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1989, did go as far as appointing the Aldridge Commission to make recommendations for implementing the plan, and that’s where it gets a bit more interesting.

Although the Aldridge Commission’s recommendations were largely ignored (hardly unusual) what ultimately emerged as Project Constellation and the pursuit of two hyper expensive booster programs in the Ares I and Ares V, was the result of only one interpretation of the “Vision,” largely that of incoming NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in 2005.  Before he came into office, the somewhat slower paced model developed by then Administrator Sean O’Keefe and Admiral Craig Steidle might have seen existing EELV boosters just entering service form the basis of a very different interpretation of the “Vision.” But then again, given what has happened in the EELV program in the intervening years, the results might have also been very much the same; another review and another change of plans.

When President Obama cancelled Project Constellation in 2010 as unfordable, the painfully accurate assessment of a different body,  the Augustine Committee, a third interpretation of the “Vision” emerged, one which took one of the principle elements of the Aldridge commission, commercial crew and cargo service to LEO, already implemented under Griffin, and moved it to the forefront, a decision which saved the International Space Station from a swan dive into the Pacific in 2016. At the same time, the lack of consensus (also not surprising) and clear leadership from the Obama Administration allowed Congress to re-assert its very different vision, what many would say is more of a hallucination, in the Space Launch System and its Orion spacecraft.

So now, ten years after President Bush introduced the VSE, the American space program is attempting to implement two “visions” of human space exploration, one based on ongoing incremental research and development aboard ISS, and the other on a mega booster Apollo redux, albeit without any hardware to enter gravity wells.  It seems though, that future budget levels clearly cannot support both.  And thus the show goes on.

It very well may be however, that presidential leadership and a very different implementation of the vision will rule the day by the time another decade passes.  Not from President of the United States mind you, (any President of the United States) but from the presidents, CEO’s, CFO’s chief engineers, chief cooks and bottle washers, often represented by the same person, who are heading up the NewSpace companies entering the marketplace in record numbers, bringing the potential to expand the role of space commerce well beyond anything envisioned by an elected official 10 years ago. Perhaps it is not a singular vision, or “enduring value proposition,” which will shape the next decades in space,  but in fact that many disparate visions of NewSpace founders, employees and customers who will largely determine the next decade.  If that is the case, it may be the latter, the customers, some of whom envision themselves floating in Zero-G and ironically enough looking back at Earth, which become the emerging story in the next few years.

For those looking out rather than back, here is a point worth considering. SpaceX was formed before President Bush introduced the VSE, and ten years later, it is arguably much closer to reaching Mars than the program which emerged as Project Constellation.  At the same time, SpaceX would not be where it is today without NASA, and specifically the COTS, CRS and Commercial Crew programs.  Neither would Orbital Sciences, which at the moment is literally attached to ISS with its Cygnus spacecraft. Significantly, it is a vehicle which much like Dragon, clearly has a role to play beyond ISS if the circumstances arise.

In the end, while the Vision for Space Exploration is ten years in the rear view mirror, it is also very much alive, different to be sure, but still alive.  It may just be that ten years from now, it will be thriving.

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