Back in 2004, President Bush asked the question, "What does NASA do?" The answer was "We are building the International Space Station in low earth orbit to meet our international partner commitments." Knowing full well that this was a dead end, the President set his staff and senior NASA execs in motion to outline a more exciting program of exploration...complete the ISS, retire the shuttle, then begin a program of exploration to the moon, mars and beyond.
Of course, the government way is to put together a "tiger team" and come up with an answer in 60 days or less. Fortunately, at the time of the announcement of the vision, wiser heads prevailed and a more deliberate four pronged approach was outlined: 1. Define the objectives for lunar and Mars exploration. 2. Get started quickly on a space shuttle replacement. 3. Put a technology development program in place to increase reliability and reduce the cost of exploration. 4. Determine the best way to launch the exploration hardware. The government would define the requirements and the best minds from government and industry would participate in a refinement of those requirements.
NASA gathered eight teams from industry and asked them to examine different architectures for returning to the moon. Those eight along with another three also examined the requirements for a vehicle to replace the space shuttle and carry astronauts into space. That vehicle was called the Crew Exploration Vehicle or CEV. While the industry teams all defined different architectures and objectives for returning to the moon, an interesting thing fell out of the CEV exercise. A single vehicle could be configured to carry out the objectives of just about any exploration program. With that result in hand, a competition could be started to build the CEV while time could be afforded to properly define the other architectural elements to complete the lunar mission set.
Well, a funny thing happened as this disciplined path was being followed. The NASA administrator was replaced and most of the former administrator's team was disbanded. Of course, the new guys started their own 60 day study, blamed the old guys for all ills that followed, and now find themselves with a solution that does not close technically, financially, or by the original schedule called for in the President's Vision speech of Jan 2004.
In the days ahead, we'll examine the revisionist history being recounted by the incumbents, the poor, politically motivated choices they have made, and the terrible technical mess they have gotten themselves into. How's a $20B unaccounted for budget problem for transitioning from the shuttle to the CEV going to get resolved after all?
Here's a hint: Max Faget and Werner von Braun found a sweet spot in design space when they designed Apollo/Saturn. When you move out of that design space by inflating the objectives to do more, carry more, return more, etc. it isn't a given that you can just scale the preceding architecture and come up with the correct answer. In fact, it is likely that the architecture will have to change radically and will find a new sweet spot in design space. But the curent administrator is a guy who grew up under Faget and can't see past all of those biases set almost 50 years ago. Do you want a guy who a.) doesn't know what an XBox is, b.) probably doesn't know anything about Core Duo, c.) is allowing NASA headquarters to build its own email software applications, d.) and has surrounded himself with "yes people" under threat of eviction running America's 21st century space program??
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow we'll start to examine the wardrobe that the Emperor on E street has put on display for all to see...