NASA’s Journey to Mars or Journey Through Talking Points?

In this week’s Space News magazine, Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot submitted an editorial that for the newer followers of space policy, strategy and exploration, one could see it as an exciting report on the things going on at NASA and for the progress toward the plan set in motion years earlier to Mars. However, for those that have followed this closely, either professionally like myself, or as a volunteer advocate like others I know, reading this editorial was more annoying than informative. Why? Because this is nothing but a revisionist view of the current NASA administration talking points on space exploration and not a true “consensus” on the plan going forward as Lightfoot puts it.

This thought process derives from the evolution of the Obama Administration/NASA position or “plan” for space exploration post-Shuttle (since Feb 2010) one cannot help but be confused. Editorials like this one by Mr. Lightfoot indicate what appears to be a solid, supported direction that has been in development for years by the Administration and NASA leadership, despite the fact that the very hardware and destinations that they (NASA leadership, White House staff, etc. and friends in Congress) discuss in a tone as if they were always part of the plan, were not in fact part of the plan in the first place.

If you look and listen carefully to the space policy speeches, documents, and budget releases since the 2008 Presidential election cycle of the Obama camp, one can see this to be true. As Brian Berger reported in article in November 2008,  “The campaign released a position paper pledging Obama’s support for completing the International Space Station, retiring the space shuttle and replacing it with Orion and Ares sooner than later. The move put Obama’s space policy in synch with the exploration blueprint unveiled four years earlier by President George Bush and subsequently endorsed by Congress”

See the following link:

In 2009, he then created the Second Augustine Commission to look into options for future manned spaceflight. Then in Feb 2010, with the budget rollout of the FY11 NASA budget, Charlie Bolden opened up the floodgates of angst and negativity, even from Democrats in Congress, at the President’s plan for NASA and manned spaceflight. In the patter of “talking points” this rollout speech by Bolden created the phrase “President’s bold vision” Rather than continue his pledge to support Orion and Ares, and the already created commercial cargo program, his direction was to make NASA an “engine of innovation, and the catalyst for an ambitious new space program…” It was neither ambitious nor inspiring. NASA was to become a research and development agency such as DARPA and look into developing technologies for future space efforts. They remained “committed to the International Space Station” to at least 2020, but that budget “cancelled Constellation, including the Ares 1 and V rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle.” As a result, Obama and NASA’s “bold new vision” or “bold new course” was to remain in low Earth Orbit and continue commercial sector work, but no targets in the solar system for U.S. astronauts for the foreseeable future.

See link for speech on budget:

Following speeches by Democrats such as Gabby Giffords, then space sub-committee chair and Sen. Nelson from Florida, Congress began to wonder what was going on? Only two months after the budget rollout, the tone of the “plan” had already changed. President Obama’s “bold new vision” had morphed into something else at his speech at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. Now Orion, called the Multi-Purpose Crew vehicle, would be spared and used only as a “rescue vehicle”, not as a deep space exploration spacecraft. This was also the speech where Obama said that we would be going to an asteroid and Mars in the 2030s. His exact words stating that any new deep space exploration vehicles would be “designed” not built, by “2025, [and that ]we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space…. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history…. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.”

Some will say this is where NASA’s Journey to Mars began. But reading it closely, Mars was not a priority. Asteroids were the priority. He didn’t direct NASA to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s, he said “I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars…” People were not enthralled with the asteroid mission, in Congress or in space advocate circles. Partner nations who were excited to go to the moon as part of the Global Space Exploration Strategy and follow on roadmap, did their best to continue their work while NASA reps were forbidden from engaging in moon plans.

Then by 2011-2012 speeches began to include “Presidents bold vision” talking points to include a video made by NASA in time for the re-election campaign that took credit for the commercial crew and cargo ideas, which preceded the Obama/Bolden administration of NASA, (see my article in The Space Review ) but also seemed to indicate that Orion, the Space Launch System (the Ares V-like rocket mandated by Congress) and other activities were successes of the President’s bold vision for NASA, when had it not been for a Democrat controlled Congress, with Republican support, there would be no deep space program for manned space flight.

Over time, the talking points evolved and when Curiosity landed and films like the Martian came out, all of a sudden we as a country were on a “Journey to Mars”. NASA puts it in all of its speeches and even included it in their announcement for a new class of astronauts and in IMAX movies played at its visitor centers. (they even have t-shirts and patches for sale promoting this as well).


My view is: I understand that the reality of things are that there have been constant course corrections to the NASA plan for space due to the differences in policy directives from Congress, Senate and the Administration. This may be what Lightfoot means by “consensus” but also it could be a way to take credit for things that they had nothing to do with, in fact tried to destroy. Whatever your opinion on how to get out there and explore, we need to discuss it honestly and openly and not keep pushing talking points as if we aren’t paying attention to the facts of reality. Space is a team sport, stop making it look like its been the plan all along, when it hasn’t. Like this video NASA put out chopping up the speech from KSC.





4 thoughts on “NASA’s Journey to Mars or Journey Through Talking Points?

  1. Reblogged this on Space Thoughts and commented:
    A good examination of the politics, flip-flopping and otherwise convoluted message NASA has generated over its Mars ambitions. Personally, looking over the past 7 years NASA appears to have given more interested in Power Point presentations than actual missions.


    1. Thanks for checking in. I would add that its very difficult to lead an agency when the White House doesn’t provide the top cover it needs to lean forward. This NASA is very different from the days of Jim Webb and Robert Mueller. NASA Administrators had direct access to the President and the Vice President under the National Aeronautics and Space Council. Now the space policy is developed through OSTP and OMB and therefore, the clout that men like Mueller and Webb had to forge ahead with the President’s objectives have been pushed back in the priority list. That makes it challenging. Some books to recommend on some of the backroom pain that these guys deal with, Powering Apollo (about Jim Webb), Doing the Impossible (about Robert Mueller) and Logsdon’s John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon as well as his recent After Apollo. You can see the changes in the policy making and execution phase and why we are where we are…speaking in prepared statements and talking points rather than leading a robust effort. Thankfully, Congress intervened to maintain some capability rather than kicking the technological development can down the road and is working commercial and civil capabilities. Lets hope things transition better than they did in 2009 in 2017.


  2. Thanks for sharing your link. I see what you are saying, but I would say that NewSpace in the sense of real hardware and objectives can eventually become RealSpace. The business models must be proven and the reusability claims of the landing stages also needs to be more than just Twitter posts. The reason for my site’s name is because as much as I also dream of an America that is a true spacefaring nation state, and love some of the ideas that people in advocacy and so called NewSpace put forth, I also understand there is reality to deal with at the strategic, geopolitical level as well as at an international economic level. As long as we make progress in many areas and create a true commercial space economic system in cis-lunar space (to start with) we have something to look forward to. Thanks again for sharing the link!


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