Specific Plans

“A long term strategy and corresponding plans must also be developed . . . a set of notional milestones, launches, and hardware developments that are sufficiently defined so as to allow a cost estimate” – NASA Advisory Council finding April 2015

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that in the backseat of the car from NASA Headquarters to the White House to brief President Kennedy on the possibility of a moon landing, the legendary NASA Administrator James Webb decided to double the estimated cost of the program. Whether that part is true or not, the Webb estimate delivered that day in the spring of 1961 was significantly lower than the actual Apollo program.
Norman Augustine’s famous book of “Laws” concerning government acquisition states that all program cost estimates are subject to a correction factor of [1+ 0.52/(1+8t3)] where t is the percent of the procurement period completed. Or as he finishes the chapter with Law XXIV: “The most unsuccessful three years in the education of cost estimators appears to be fifth-grade arithmetic.”
During the so-called Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) days of the late 1980’s, the ’90-day-study’ came up with a very detailed plan to go to Mars . . . and the cost estimate made that plan dead on arrival at Congress. This lesson has not been lost on the NASA leadership.
A historical example may be in order. Look at the Apollo program hardware, specifically the Service Module and its rocket system the SPS (Service Propulsion System). That rocket engine is tremendously more powerful than the subsequent lunar landing flights needed. Why was such a large rocket engine installed on the Apollo SM? In 1961 when the first real plans for lunar landing were baselined, Direct Lunar Ascent was the designated mode. Some sort of huge lander would drop the entire CM/SM stack onto the lunar surface and the SPS had to be big enough to lift the astronauts, the Command Module, and the Service Module off the lunar surface and put them on a trajectory for the Earth.
To put that big stack – the CM/SM and the Landing Stage on a trajectory to the moon, the puny Saturn V was not big enough. Developing a much larger rocket was required – they called it Nova. Nova would have twice the number of F-1 engines as the Saturn V, tanks twice the diameter, much taller, more stages, etc., etc., etc. Exactly how the Nova rocket would be built was never figured out – it would be too big to fit under the ceiling of the factory at Michoud where the Saturn V first stage was made. The notions of how to transport that rocket to the launch pad were . . . notional.

Then along came some bright boys at Langley headed by John Houbolt who advocated an operationally more complex idea called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous – which only needed the Saturn V already under development.
The Nova rocket, the 100 foot tall Lunar Descent Stage, all went in the dust bin of history were never developed. But the contract for the SPS engine had already been let. Any real need to downsize that engine? No, but much less propellant would be carried in the tanks. If the Apollo CM/SM were somehow magically transported to the surface of the moon, the SPS had enough oomph to lift them off . . . but probably not enough gas onboard to get very far.
LOR was a good idea. Lots of folks are proposing ideas for future space travel. Some of them are actually pretty good. Locking a plan down means new, good ideas can’t complete.
History cries out with lessons. Some of them are subtle. Having detailed plans is generally good; believing in them too much is not. In the military they are fond of quoting the maxim: “No battle plan survives its first encounter with the enemy”. In space, the enemy is physics and chemistry . . . and finances. It may be that flexibility and leaving options open provides a better path for our long term ambitions in space. Who knows what may be invented in the next five years that could change the entire game plan?
Would we have made it to the moon if we tried to build the Nova rocket to do it? Maybe, maybe not.
The wrong plan can easily come with a forecast cost – a shock to the system – such that the program is never approved. Having a reasonable plan for the next step while keeping the goal in sight might actually be better. Waiting a little while doing some testing and development might be a good idea. Finding creative ways of controlling costs is mandatory.
Meanwhile, anybody seen Zephram Cockrane out there? Or at least the ghost of John Houbolt?

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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17 Responses to Specific Plans

  1. rangerdon says:

    I’ll send this to the Friends of Zeff Cochran. They’ll know where to find him.

  2. Victor Moraes says:

    I really liked your message. It’s true what you quoted on the maximum army “No battle plan survives its first encounter with the enemy.” I’ve fought a lot in the street when I was younger (boys my age did not like me because I had green eyes) and is always the same: everything happens different. Do you plan a punch, but before receiving a kick not expected.

    In recent years I have made a life plan, and unfortunately, I had to postpone the completion of the project for a few years (still delayed) simply because there are several factors, beyond our control, especially humans, and bureaucratic. We suffered a lot when plans go out the “script”.

    I imagine the suffering in NASA when you have to “improvise” a different plan than expected. But NASA always shows that it is able to do this, fortunately, with rare exceptions. I believe it is a matter of personal ability, work experience, and training. And, well, a dose of creativity and / or luck.

  3. Charley S says:

    Reminds me of a lecture showing the various forms of Space Station Freedom as it was downsized into the ISS. Every version had the same solar panels because the were already built.

    John Houbolt’s struggle for LOR and how it nearly died in the bueracracy is also instructive.

  4. gmo says:

    I too am frustrated in our inability to find something other than chemicals to break the barrier of space. Remaining tied to chemical rocket propulsion is as about as effective for manned space exploration as finding a battle advantage with saplings, animal gut, feathers and sharpened flint. Our future space exploration goals leveraging chemical rocketry beyond LEO, the creativity and financial commitment required to attain them, will become harder and harder to justify due to the multi-generational budget/planning cycles this ancient technology requires. So politically, to have something approved, anything with man in space, we are stuck searching for low hanging fruit, a goal to somewhere to plant the flag within the generation that approved the program. And that is not going to happen easy enough with chemical propulsion. This drives our most brilliant minds to turn to automation, Ai and VR to circumvent the gravity barrier. Our robots are our eyes and hands, our messages in the bottle, investigating the rivers, estuaries and bays of near space. When, right now, we should be is perfecting the technologies that will support advances beyond LEO in the decades to come, such as centripetal gravity, radiation mitigation and cycler technologies. But somehow man exploring space has gotten stuck in the equivalent of Space Groundhog Day; where year after year we celebrate the rattling against our chests of another ISS cargo launch and listening to old men telling stories of landing on the moon.

  5. Brandon says:

    “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.” -Eisenhower, who planned one of the largest integrated military operations in human history.

  6. spacebrat1 says:

    always find your essays fascinating – thank you for them.

  7. denniswingo says:

    Direct Ascent with Nova was not the only other option. As far back as the 1958 then classified Horizon Report Von Braun and the ABMA (before its hand over to NASA), advocated Earth Orbit Rendezvous. In the Horizon report it would have used several Saturn I,s or II,s to go into orbit and assemble the lunar expedition. The Horizon report was basically and updated version of what Von Braun had advocated in the early 1950’s. The biggest fear at other NASA Centers was that it would take to long to put together the infrastructure in LEO to meet the Kennedy deadline. The biggest fear (turns out to have been right) that the LOR architecture was for a dash to the Moon only and that “without infrastructure in space, it would be easy for congress to kill the program after a few flights”.

    LOR got us to the Moon on time, but left us with nothing when the budget cutters came.

    Links to the Horizon Report.



    • savuporo says:

      Indeed. If EOR was selected, the history could have been very different.

      • waynehale says:

        Yes, like having the program cancelled in 1971 due to late schedule and huge cost and then seeing the USSR successfully landing cosmonauts n the moon around 1973.

        Would the Berlin Wall have still come down in 1989?

    • Ruben says:

      Fascinating to read in the Horizon report that in 1959 (if I understood it correctly), before anyone had gone into space (suborbital or orbital), the authors believed a U.S. manned lunar was possibly by 1965. I was in diapers at that time, so I wonder whether that was bravado to encourage funding or if it was an honestly held belief.

    • patb2009 says:

      I’ve always thought that a dual Saturn IB launch would have made a useful architecture. Launch the LEM on one bird, then 2 hours later launch the Apollo CSM on the second .

      Rendezvous in earth orbit, then burn for the moon, and do an LOR there.

      I have done only a superficial analysis to show its possible

  8. Roy Hobbs says:

    I’m surprised by your comments as you have been considered a visionary and optimist. I am convinced that with no plan nor strategy and no firm destination, NASA and the Nation will never go anywhere beyond LEO. Buying into the “flexible path” is a very bad mindset. It has been painfully obvious the last 5 years or so.

    • waynehale says:

      I remain optimistic. We have not been on “the flexible path” as foreseen by the Augustine commission. What has happened has been a contentious period of conflict between the Administration and the Congress which has impeded progress. What NASA appears to be doing is coping with that political reality and making progress the best it can.

  9. Dave H. says:


    Having attended the graduation of my son from Penn State yesterday (Architectural Engineering) it occurs to me that anyone who’s paid for a college education is intimately acquainted with the concepts of cost overruns and “mission creep”.

    When people are doing things never before attempted in human history, i.e., landing men on the moon and safely returning them home, anyone who assumes that a hard, definite cost number can be assigned to this task really needs to be tested for illegal drug usage.

    Borrowing a scene from “The Graduate”, I gave my son five words that every project manager (he minored in Project Management) wants to hear:
    “Ahead of time”
    “Under budget”

  10. Roy Hobbs says:

    “We have not been on “the flexible path” as foreseen by the Augustine commission.”

    I would dispute that. The current plan is exactly the flexible path as Gerst has explicitly stated many times that NASA is developing capabilities for all destinations, while a specific destination has not been budgeted for nor planned in detail with no specific dates or milestones defined. In comparison, the robotic Science teams have planned in detail specific destinations and designed missions for these destination and have been remarkably successful. This should be the blueprint for future human exploration activities.

  11. 1st Lion in space says:

    Surely, there must have been another reason the engine stayed. Maybe the weight penalty wasn’t enough to justify redesigning it. Now that the government has done dozens of design reviews of many canceled rockets since the shuttle cancellation, surely they won’t overdesign something if they ever fly anything again.

  12. Michael Mraz says:

    “Always WELL worth the wait” is all I can say about your pearls of wisdom. I’ll be honored to ghost-write your bio when you’re ready (retired professional writer and EE with aerospace experience here).

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