Review: “Back to the Moon”

“Back to the Moon” by Travis Taylor and Les Johnson. Published in 2010 by Baen Books, it weighs in at 303 pages with Afterword. Three editing errors noted.

The time is the near future,sometime late in the 20-teens or early 2020s. NASA is engaged in an a dry-run of the Altair system for a Lunar return. Probes are mapping the surface with increasing resolution in preparation for the next landing. On the private sector side, Space Excursions is about to embark on their first free-return trip around the Moon with paying tourists in the Dreamscape. Things are looking up for the space industry, and that has some folks jealous.

China launches their own probe to the Moon, but it apparently crashes. This leaves the media free to focus on the Dreamscape flight. Five paying customers, each for their reason, are going to where few others in the human race have been – out to the Moon. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill trip with various and sundry egos jostling for position, until they start passing behind the Moon. The pilot forgot to turn up the squelch on his radio, and in the static he hears a faint voice:

“sssssssss Emergency! Please help! ssssssssssss SOS! This is the crew of the Chinese exploration ship Harmony calling for help! We’ve crashed and are ssssssssssssssssssssss”

WTF? That wasn’t in the mission briefing. (the pilot is a Millenial, or Gen Y) They make brief contact, and a passenger is able to spot the crashed vehicle. Four people, little power, depleting air. It seems hopeless, as the Dreamscape can’t land on the Moon (yet), and its homeward-bound trajectory was set three days prior. And why did no one know there were people on board the Chinese craft?

Well, the Yankees, or at least Uncle Sam, is here to help. That Altair that was set to fly in a month? You’ve got a week. If anyone can do anything to help save the day, it’s the Americans. We’re just crazy like that. And off to the Moon scrambles a desperate rescue party from NASA.

Certainly an interesting premise. I think it takes the Chinese philosophy of “saving face” a bit to the extreme, first in their silence regarding the presence of a crew, and second in the rebuffing of U.S. offers of assistance. We’re assured of a technically accurate description of the Constellation transport architecture (Ares I, Ares V, Orion, Altair) by both authors’ close association with NASA, but the assumption at that all of the components would be available in the early 2020s seems to strain credulity a bit given that the Augustine Committee looked at the budgets and progress and didn’t see the Altair coming online until the late 2020s, early-to-mid 2030s at best.

The storytelling also suffers a bit from the focus on technical accuracy. Character development is okay, but really not much more than is needed to move the story. Pretty much every crisis or moment of danger is foreshadowed well-prior and easily spotted by astute (or ISU-trained) readers. At times the prose was dry enough that I felt like I was reading an engineering debrief rather than a fiction story.

I think the focus on the Constellation architecture works against the book, in that it will quickly date it as ‘just another Moon story’ (of which there are hundreds), rather than as a timeless work to be enjoyed again and again by succeeding generations. Sort of like with Erik Seedhouse’s “Lunar Outpost” (wait, or was that Michael Carroll’sSeventh Landing“?), which was less about setting up a Lunar outpost and more about the Constellation project. Which is effectively de-funded, and moribund at best at the moment. Something that Mr. Taylor has words about in the Afterword.

Unfortunately, Constellation was an answer to a question that wasn’t being asked. The Vision for Space Exploration promulgated by President Bush in 2004 specifically stated that NASA was not going to build a new rocket. By September 2004 there were a number of industry players promulgating transport solutions for crew and cargo to the ISS through the Concept Exploration & Refinement (CE&R) studies which were supposed to have led to a flyoff amongst at least two solutions in the 2008 (prob. 2010) timeframe. That was all out the window when Michael Griffin came on board and announced ESAS in early 2005. The Ares I and Ares V were around in 2004 (check out SafeSimpleSoon; I have a marketing CD from ATK with videos of the stuff dated August 2004), but didn’t compete in the CE&R studies (although there is an Ares I in the Boeing presentation). In essence, with the adoption of Constellation, NASA was building their own rockets that no one else could use, or perhaps dare to use in the case of Ares I. The Russians had a 100 mT to orbit rocket they used for the Buran, but seeing no other market for the rocket in the world they mothballed it. Ares V would serve only NASA, with the taxpayers footing the bill for something they couldn’t have – a chance to go to space.

The reader should definitely check out the CE&R studies, as they are going to start looking familiar again (as with the CST-100 from Boeing).

Mr. Taylor reaches different conclusions in the Afterword, though his professional proximity to the Constellation project may influence him as much as my personal dislike of the Constellation architecture (engineering optimization gone overboard, giving us an expensive system for limited tasks, with little applicability to any other purpose) may influence the tone of my writing when reviewing books that tie their objectives to that particular architecture. Let’s just say that I found the Afterword a bit of a sour pill after an otherwise okay story.

And okay kind of sums it up. I’ll go with a waxing half Moon for “Back to the Moon”.

6 thoughts on “Review: “Back to the Moon”

  1. “The Vision for Space Exploration promulgated by President Bush in 2004 specifically stated that NASA was not going to build a new rocket.”

    I’m not sure where this myth comes from. Bush publicly stated, “Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the crew exploration vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. The crew exploration vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module.” This was one of the earliest descriptions of “Apollo on Steroids.” The Aldridge Commission, appointed by Bush, said that developing a new, super-heavy rocket should be NASA’s top priority. Aldridge, whom G.W. Bush appointed to head the Commission*, was a director of Lockheed Martin, which received all of the main contracts to build the new capsules and new rockets. It is hard to imagine that anyone was surprised or displeased by the outcome. The White House knew about the Aldridge recommendation, it knew about the efforts by NASA Administrators Sean O’Keefe and Mike Griffin to develop such a rocket, and it chose to fund those efforts. Nor has Bush expressed any disapproval or regrets about the program since leaving office.

    When did anyone in the Bush Administration say that NASA was not supposed to build a new rocket?

  2. Ed,

    Seriously? You’re conflating a spacecraft and a rocket? I know that you know the difference, but for your edification, let me quote from the published Vision for Space Exploration:

    p. 15 – Exploration Building Blocks

    “For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs – such as heavy lift – are not met by commercial or military systems.” [Emphasis added]

    FWIW, NASA certainly has not identified a critical need for an HLV (other than a really, really strong desire for one), leaving the operative clause – NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities – intact.

  3. “let me quote from the published Vision for Space Exploration”

    What published Vision of Space Exploration? The paragraph you’re quoting does not come from either of the two official White House documents (neither of which runs to 15 pages).

    “FWIW, NASA certainly has not identified a critical need for an HLV”

    Sean O’Keefe, Craig Steidle, and Mike Griffin would disagree with that statement. Steidle said, “My first priority is determining how to get heavy lift.” Not “if” but “how.” “New Moon Rising” has pages and pages of HLV pictures. (Used copies now available on Amazon for 36 cents.)

    Even if NASA officials hadn’t identified a “critical need” for heavy lift, the Aldridge Commission certainly did. Did you really expect NASA to ignore that? How do you think Aldridge would have reacted if they decided not to build a big rocket (which his company was planning on winning the contract for)?

    Even the paragraph you’re quoting doesn’t claim what you’re saying. It says merely that NASA would use existing or new commercial space transport “for cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010″ — the space station that the Bush Vision was going to abandon or deorbit ISS in 2016. While other “critical NASA needs” would be met by “develop[ing] new launch capabilities.” In context, those critical needs would be launching crew to ISS between 2010 and 2016 and launching crew and cargo to the Moon after 2016.

  4. Ken, is this the document you’re quoting?

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/995784/NASA-55583main-vision-space-exploration2

    If so, you should notice the chart on page 4, which shows commercial/foreign space transportation being phased out sometime before 2020.

    Also the chart on page 14, which shows “Heavy Lift Decisions” being made before 2010. Clearly, NASA had not decided it was “not going to build a new rocket” since it showed decisions about new rockets taking place in (what was then) the future.

  5. Ed,

    Appealing to authority (Well, O’Keefe et al said so!) doesn’t hold a whole lot of credibility with me. What is the ‘critical need’? “those critical needs would be launching crew to ISS between 2010 and 2016 and launching crew and cargo to the Moon after 2016.”

    Something that the private sector is starting to step up to the plate to do, as they were starting to step up back during the CE&R studies in 2004, before ESAS. We’re up to what, five options being proposed for crew vehicles at this point? Gee, we could have been here five years ago if we hadn’t been sidetracked by ESAS.

    We can debate endlessly about the assumptions made and decisions effected thereby. Having read the Congressional testimony (and not just the commentary at the hearing) back in 2005 that got us into the whole ESAS mess, I had a fair sense of how NASA got to where they were, and Jon over at Selenian Boondocks has done a fine job pointing out some of the shenanigans in the studies.

    Additionally, making a decision by 2010 on whether to develop heavy lift (i.e., doing some research to identify said ‘critical need’) is not the same thing as committing to developing in-house capability.

    We had a wonderful opportunity with the VSE, and we blew it on ESAS.

  6. “Appealing to authority (Well, O’Keefe et al said so!) doesn’t hold a whole lot of credibility with me. What is the ‘critical need’?”

    The same as it always is in DC — money and power.

    In case you’ve forgotten, NASA’s Shuttle fleet was grounded back then and Sean O’Keefe was in a complete panic over SpaceShip One. He flew all the way out to Mojave just to stick his face in front of the television cameras and pretend that NASA had something to do with it. He was afraid that private enterprise and reusable launch vehicles were going to steal his thunder. Why do you think he pushed the White House space policy review in the direction of Apollo II and made sure the President never heard about alternatives like Cheap Access To Space? Why was there a complete press blackout on the process, with the only information being funneled through two tame journalists?

    If you don’t consider statements by the NASA Administrator and the President of the United States to be evidence of NASA’s plans and intentions, it’s no wonder you were surprised when NASA started to build an HLV. Those of us who paid attention to their statements knew what was going to happen from Day One.

    “Having read the Congressional testimony (and not just the commentary at the hearing) back in 2005 that got us into the whole ESAS mess”

    You can’t skip the first few chapters and start in the middle of the book. Go back and look at what happened when Bush I was in office. The first Bush vision of space exploration was already very similar to ESAS. Bush I even picked Mike Griffin to be in charge of the program. Those who ignore history…

    “making a decision by 2010 on whether to develop heavy lift (i.e., doing some research to identify said ‘critical need’) is not the same thing as committing to developing in-house capability.”

    As Admiral Craig Steidle stated, the decision wasn’t “whether” to develop heavy lift, it was *how* to develop it.

    If Bush “specifically stated that NASA was not going to build a new rocket,” there would have been no need to make a decision at all. But Bush never said that, and there is no reason to believe he intended any such thing. Bush and O’Keefe could have gone to Russia, bought a Soyuz capsule and a rocket, and sent astronauts to the Moon back by 2005 or 2006, if sending astronauts to the Moon was really important to them. It wasn’t.

    Wishful thinking gets one nowhere, Ken. You need to read every word that policymakers say, not just a few words that seem to be saying what you want to hear.

    “We had a wonderful opportunity with the VSE”

    We had wonderful opportunities with Centennial Challenges, Zero Gee Zero Taxes, etc. The Bush Vision of Space Exploration killed those off — just as the old guard intended. Cheap Access To Space is dead as an issue on Capitol Hill. The BVSE took the space policy debate right back to the Von Braun era. Instead of talking about how to open the space frontier for all Americans, we’re now listening to insipid debates over whether the next big rocket should look like DIRECT or Side Mount and whether NASA should send its next flag-and-footprints mission to the Moon or Mars.

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