Two Roads for NASA
by Robert Zubrin, President, Mars
October 27, 2003
Editor's note: "Two Roads for
NASA" first appeared in "Space News," the aerospace industry
weekly (Oct 6 2003 issue). After reading this piece, Senator
John McCain asked Dr. Zubrin to present testimony to the full
Senate Commerce Committee of Oct. 29 on the subject of the
future of the US space program. The hearing will begin Oct.
29 at 9:30 AM in Russell Senate Office Bldg room 253. NASA
Administrator Sean O'Keefe and former Associate Administrator
for Space Science Wes Huntress will also be testifying. Commenting
on O'Keefe, Zubrin promised The Tocquevillian that "sparks
should fly. I intend to make my testimony count."
In the recent Columbia hearings, numerous members of congress
continually decried the fact that the US space program is
"stuck in Low Earth Orbit." This is certainly a
serious problem. If it is to be addressed adequately, however,
America's political leadership needs to reexamine NASA's fundamental
mode of operation.
Over the course of its history, NASA has employed two distinct
modes of operation. The first, prevailed during the period
from 1961-1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode.
The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called
the Shuttle Era Mode, or Shuttle Mode, for short.
In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First,
a destination for human spaceflight is chosen. Then a plan
is developed to achieve this objective. Following this, technologies
and designs are developed to implement that plan. These designs
are then built, after which the mission is flown.
The Shuttle Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode,
technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord
with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects
are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful
at some time in the future when grand flight projects are
Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo
Mode is destination driven, while the Shuttle Mode pretends
to be technology driven, but is actually constituency driven.
In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission
directed reasons. In the Shuttle Mode, projects are undertaken
on behalf of various internal and external technical community
pressure groups and then defended using rationales. In the
Apollo Mode, the space agency's efforts are focused and directed.
In the Shuttle Mode, NASA's efforts are random and entropic.
Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house.
The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires
an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriative
materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second
couple polls their neighbors each month for different spare
house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping
to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When
their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so
much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design
that employs all the knick-knacks they have purchased. The
house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated
to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment.
That is the Shuttle Mode.
In today's dollars, NASA average budget from 1961-1973 was
about $17 billion per year. This is only 10% more than NASA's
current budget. To assess the comparative productivity of
the Apollo Mode with the Shuttle Mode, it is therefore useful
to compare NASA's accomplishments between 1961-1973 and 1990-2003,
as the space agency's total expenditures over these two periods
Between 1961 and 1973, NASA flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo,
Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions, and did all
the development for the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions
as well. In addition, the space agency developed hydrogen
oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy-lift launch vehicles,
nuclear rocket engines, space nuclear reactors, radioisotope
power generators, spacesuits, in-space life support systems,
orbital rendezvous techniques, soft landing rocket technologies,
interplanetary navigation technology, deep space data transmission
techniques, reentry technology, and more. In addition, such
valuable institutional infrastructure as the Cape Canaveral
launch complex, the Deep Space tracking network, Johnson Space
Center, and JPL were all created in more or less their current
In contrast, during the period from 1990-2003, NASA flew
about three score Shuttle missions allowing it to launch and
repair the Hubble Space Telescope and partially build a space
station. About half a dozen interplanetary probes were launched
(compared to over 30 lunar and planetary probes between 1961-73).
Despite innumerable "technology development" programs,
no new technologies of any significance were actually developed,
and no major space program operational infrastructure was
Comparing these two records, it is difficult to avoid the
conclusion that that NASA's productivity in both missions
accomplished and technology development during its Apollo
Mode was at least ten times greater than under the current
The Shuttle Mode is the expenditure of large sums of money
without direction by strategic purpose. That is why it is
hopelessly inefficient. But the blame for this waste cannot
be placed on NASA leaders alone, some of whom have attempted
to rectify the situation. Rather, the political class must
also accept major responsibility.
Consider the following. During the same week in September
that House members were roasting Administrator O'Keefe for
his unfortunate advocacy of a destination-free NASA, a Senate
committee issued a report saying that a top priority for the
space agency was to develop a replacement Space Shuttle system.
Did any of the Senators who supported this report explain
why? Why do we need another Shuttle system? To keep doing
what we are doing now? But is that what we actually want to
Congress and the Executive branch need to get together and
open a discussion as to what the nation actually wants to
accomplish in space. Hearings should be held, and the options
for a strategic objective examined in public. Is our primary
aim to keep sending astronauts on joyrides in low Earth orbit?
In that case, a second generation Shuttle might be worth building.
But if we want to send humans to the Moon or Mars, we need
make that decision, and then design and build a hardware set
that is appropriate to actually accomplish those goals.
Advocates of the Shuttle Mode claim that by avoiding the
selection of a destination they are developing the technologies
that will allow us to go anywhere, anytime. That just isn't
true. The Shuttle Mode will never get us anywhere at all.
The Apollo Mode got us to the Moon, and it can get us back,
or take us to Mars. But leadership is required.
In the beginning, there was the Word.
Two Roads for NASA
first appeared in "Space News," the aerospace industry
weekly (Oct 6 2003 issue), and is reprinted in The Tocquevillian
by permission of the author.
2003 Tocqevillian Magazine