Waiting for NASA
By late August, the White House was getting gradually more worried about the progress NASA was making on the 90-Day Study. Mark Albrecht was concerned with the weekly status reports he was receiving from the Technical Study Group (TSG), which was the JSC-led team tasked with carrying out the study. “We didn’t like the reaction we got from NASA,” he remembered. “It had an uh oh’ quality to it. NASA reports seemed to be full of lofty verbiage but few technical outlines or alternatives for what a lunar base and a Mars mission would actually look like.” Throughout this period, Albrecht kept emphasizing that the President wanted to see a lot of technical and budgetary options. Based on the space agency’s responses, however, the council staff was beginning to get the strong feeling that it wasn’t going to get any alternatives. Although Congress wasn’t heavily engaged during this period, there was rising concern because of the increasingly frayed Space Council – NASA relationship. The feeling on Capitol Hill was that this strain was caused largely because NASA was “running their own plan, which wasn’t the same as the White House’s plan.”
As time went on, these stressed relations escalated into an all out war between the TSG and the Space Council. NASA’s Douglas O’Handley had actually made a few friends among the Space Council staff, and they were pleading with him to provide assistance. In the end, however, he was not able to provide any support because Admiral Truly and the TSG controlled all information relating to the 90-Day Study. Things got so bad that every time senior NASA officials returned from a White House meeting, there was another story about “those dumb [expletive] on the Space
Council. I have often thought,” O’Handley stated later, that the conflicting “personalities caused many of the problems. If, instead of fighting with the Space Council, we had tried to work with them, the outcome might have been different.”
While this external battle was being waged between the Space Council and NASA, there was another internal battle being waged within the agency. There was rising apprehension regarding JSC’s control of strategic planning for the initiative. Although the TSG was to a degree soliciting advice from other field centers, there was a feeling that the JSC leadership didn’t really take outside advice very well. Douglas O’Handley argued later, “I absolutely think a wider net should have been cast within NASA, but JSC deprived the other centers an opportunity to contribute to the initiative.” The aerospace industry also wanted to play a role in the mission development, but weren’t heavily involved. Although there were numerous technical concepts and architectural options floating about, the TSG essentially ignored them. JSC became “Fortress NASA” and outside ideas were not welcome.
Despite ongoing problems between the Space Council and NASA, and misgivings about the initiative on Capitol Hill, the TSG was allowed to continue compiling the 90-Day Study. The study group was staffed with about 450 people led on a day-to-day basis by Mark Craig, with an average of 250 people working directly on the study on any given day—although the core team was formed by the members of the AHWG. The study began by decomposing the President’s objectives into top level technology requirements. These requirements were then used to develop an end-to-end architecture, which included the following features:
• Characterize the environment in which humans and machines must function with robotic missions
• Launch personnel and equipment from Earth
• Exploit the unique capabilities of human presence aboard the Space Station Freedom
• Transport crew and cargo from Earth orbit to lunar and Mars orbits and surfaces
• Conduct scientific studies and investigate in-situ resource development
The TSG assumed the agency would utilize the Space Shuttle and Space Station Freedom to implement SEI. This, in essence, meant the group never considered whether leveraging these systems was feasible or desirable given the existing fiscal environment. The inclusion of the two systems was almost a foregone conclusion because JSC wanted to protect the Shuttle and continue Station development—in the near term, this meant the ultimate success of SEI was not necessarily the agency’s top priority. From the agency’s perspective, completion of an orbital station was part of a serial progression that started with the shuttle and would eventually end with a human mission to Mars—an idea that dated back to post-Apollo planning. This viewpoint was directly influenced by Admiral Truly’s decision to base the 90- Day Study’s technical analysis on past NASA studies. Douglas O’Handley argues, “this is where the Space Council and the agency were on a collision course. NASA was documenting the past and the Space Council wanted options and innovative thinking. None of the NASA principals knew how to go about” providing those alternatives.
The 90-Day Study alternative generation process was far from optimal. Because the TSG was so JSC-centric, technical and architectural concepts from other segments of the space policy community were not solicited. Perhaps more importantly, the group considered budgetary constraints last. This should have been the first thing that was evaluated, with all programmatic options tailored to the fiscal realities. Instead, the TSG put together a virtual ‘wish list’ for human exploration without taking into account the existing political environment. This eventually became an even greater problem because the group never paid “much attention to lowering the initiative’s costs by using emergent technologies.” There is some indication that part of the reason for this was because NASA had been directed to virtually guarantee the safety of the astronauts. Based upon the Apollo experience and a contemporary understanding of the life science challenges, the TSG had calculated that one member of a seven-person crew may not return. The Space Council staff told agency planners they wanted ‘seven out and seven back.’ This would have required 99-9999% mission reliability. As much as anything done by the space agency, this
White House decision drove costs up enormously.