A Lunar Visionary


My good friend Klaus Heiss is resting in the hospital after recently suffering a stoke.  Klaus is not widely known or familiar to many in the space community, but over the years, he has had a major impact on our national space program – a major player in both the Shuttle program and in helping to promote a return to the Moon.  His work is thoughtful and visionary and deserves a wide readership.

Klaus comes from the Tyrol of Austria, near the Italian border.  His academic background is in economics, specifically the economics of space transportation, but he also has considerable expertise in physics and engineering.   In the late 1960s and 70s he worked on the rationale for the Space Shuttle, calling for the development of a fully reusable, liquid-fueled version.  For a variety of reasons, such a path was not chosen and the Shuttle failed to live up to his expectations as an economical method for launching payloads into space.  In the 1980s, Klaus participated in a variety of studies for the Strategic Defense Initiative, including satellite interceptors.

In the wake of the loss of Shuttle Columbia in 2003, many were concerned about the future direction of NASA.  Why do we have a national space program?  What should we be striving for – pure exploration, space applications, or some combination of the two?  Is there some goal or objective that creatively combines these two threads of spaceflight and is it attainable on reasonable timescales and budgets?

Klaus had long held an interest and fascination for the Moon.  In the spring of 2003, he visited President Bush and Vice-President Cheney and presented to them his ideas about a return to the Moon.  In his view, making the establishment a lunar base as the next NASA goal offered the country two principal advantages.  First, the Moon is a strategic destination that is in reach within a decade or so without a substantial increase in the agency budget.  Second, he recognized both the scientific and cultural value of establishing a human community on another world.  The Moon is close and possesses the resources necessary to permit its permanent habitation.  Once there, we can use the Moon as both an observing platform and a natural laboratory for scientific and engineering research.

Klaus was tasked by the White House to develop his ideas in a more detailed manner.  He spent the next few months mapping a pathway from where we were to where he thought we should be.  His report, Columbia: A Permanent Lunar Base, cogently summarizes all the various threads of lunar return, including not only an architecture for launch and transportation (based on Shuttle-derived vehicle components) but also the spectrum of surface activities that we will undertake there.  This document was presented to the NASA Office of Spaceflight in December 2003.

I first met Klaus at a meeting on the future of the American space program convened by Buzz Aldrin in Washington DC in that same month.  At the time, there was a widespread rumor that at Kitty Hawk, during a ceremony celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers first powered airplane flight, President Bush would announce a major new direction for the American space program.

For years I had been advocating a return to the Moon mostly from the “bottom up” as I worked my way up the NASA chain of command from the field centers to Headquarters, telling anyone who would listen about the advantages of lunar return.  I was unaware that while I was pursuing the Moon from the bottom up, Klaus had been doing the same thing from the top down.  He knew of my work and told me that a major decision would be forthcoming from the White House and not to be discouraged by the lack of an announcement at Kitty Hawk – that I would be “pleased” with the new direction.  President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration about a month later, in January 2004.

As Klaus and I got to know each other over the next few years, we found that we saw space issues in a similar way.  Both of us were frustrated at the attempts by some in NASA to thwart the Vision, in some cases by slow-rolling it and in others by more deliberate action.  Yet at the same time, we both worked closely with and attempted to help our allies within the agency, a group of smart, dedicated people who were trying to do the right thing and implement the Vision, even when it wasn’t the desire of their immediate superiors.  For his leadership in fostering the Vision for Space Exploration, he was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in January, 2008.

Klaus was one of the first to see that the ESAS architecture (NASA’s chosen implementation path for the Vision) was unaffordable and unsustainable.  He specifically outlined a path by which the goals of permanent presence might yet be implemented, but his counsel and pleas fell on deaf ears.  Now, six years and $8 billion later, we see a new proposed budget that terminates the program designed to take us beyond low Earth orbit.  Despite the positive spin from many in the space community, a return to the Moon is as far away now as it was six years ago, before the Vision.  In fact, it’s actually farther away as much of the tooling for Shuttle parts that could enable the quick and relatively inexpensive fabrication of a moderately heavy-lift launch vehicle for the VSE are being mothballed or destroyed.

Klaus’s work on the activities of lunar settlement will stand as a lasting contribution to the literature of space travel.  We have too few clear thinkers in this business and we were indeed fortunate to have his informed and authoritative voice to help guide our journey out into the Solar System.  We need others who can clearly see the importance of a sustained lunar return to step forward and pick up where Klaus left off.

A growing catalogue of the resources of the Moon continues to spill out.  Much of this knowledge was gained through the vision and efforts of Klaus Heiss.  I am grateful for his contributions and his friendship.  Klaus will be with us in spirit as news of the Moon and its resources is presented at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference next week in Houston.

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