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A Peacekeeper (left) and Minuteman ICBMs, among those proposed for commercial use. Source: US Air Force

Of India and ICBMs: Two Current Concerns for American Small-Satellite Launch

Introduction

In recent weeks, topics with potentially lasting implications for American small-satellite launch capabilities have come to the fore – a proposal to allow stored and unused government Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) to enter and compete on the commercial launch marketplace, along with a U.S. Trade Representative review of the continuing ban on U.S. satellite launch aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Both issues have garnered considerable attention from policymakers and space policy professionals, especially those involved with American companies developing small-satellite launch vehicles, and have prompted back-channel dialogues, dueling opinion pieces, a FAA advisory committee recommendation, and a hearing on the matter by the House Space Subcommittee. Significantly, the reactions to these topics are telling of how the United States’ commercial launch industry perceives its market prospects and demonstrative of the competing interests among different segments of the broader American commercial space industry.

These discussions come at a time of convolution between multiple developments and market trends in commercial space. A non-geostationary small-satellite market, driven by substantial private capital investment and advancements in rapidly-produced small-scale hardware, is quickly emerging. Meanwhile, a number of U.S.-indigenous, dedicated small-satellite launch vehicles, similarly enabled by private investment, are entering their final stages of development. The crux of the issue for these industries, which has driven the debate and differences in interest, is the present-day lack of cost-competitive small-satellite launch platforms within the United States.

In light of this gap in capability, the United States’ small-satellite manufacturers and operators, many of whom have plans to fly large constellations of Earth-observation, telecommunications, or data-relay craft, are seeking to utilize as soon as possible whatever launch platforms are currently available and cheaply accessible. The companies developing these small-satellite launch vehicles, meanwhile, hope to forestall the opening of their intended market to undercutting competition, lest their market prospects and the perceived need for American-developed commercial small-satellite launch platforms erode.

Commercially-accessible ICBMs and non-restricted access to the PSLV would appear to offer American satellite companies the respite they desire while threatening the market prospects and perceived need of privately-developed small-satellite launchers. Such are the arguments issued by both sides of the industry in the continuing debate.

The Market Today – and the Issues Surrounding It

Underlying this debate is a growing commercial space market and huge influx of private investment in commercial space activities. In 2015, the commercial space industry saw historic levels of private capital investment and growth. According to a Tauri Group study on the overall commercial space industry marketplace, more than 50 venture capital firms invested in space deals in 2015 – the most in any year during the 15-year study period. Crucially, these investments totaled $1.8 billion in venture capital, and nearly $2.7 billion in total investment and debt financing. It is this investment that is driving all segments of the industry.

Planet Labs' "Dove" small-satellite. Source: Planet Labs

Planet Labs’ “Dove” small-satellite. Source: Planet Labs

Companies working on existing small-satellite capabilities and constellations, such as Orbcomm, IridumNext, GlobalStar, O3B, PlanetLabs, Terra Bella, DigitalGlobe, and OneWeb, among others, expect to fly at a comparably higher rates than years past. Meanwhile, several proposals for the development of large small-satellite constellations comprising of hundreds or even thousands of satellites to LEO are in the works, with the companies issuing them hoping to fly within the coming years.

Yet these plans are forestalled by a marked lack of cheap and available small- to medium-class launchers, which are best suited for small-satellite launch. The currently operational American launch vehicles similar to this class are in the Minotaur family, with the commercial Minotaur-C costing at least $40 million per launch. The Pegasus XL, the only operational dedicated U.S. small-satellite launcher, can send up to 1000 lb. to LEO at costs upwards of $40 million per launch. The market has responded to these constraints through ‘ride-sharing,’ the bundling of small-satellites as secondary payloads on launch vehicles designed for much larger satellites.

While ride-sharing offers small-satellite companies a ride to orbit, it comes with significant trade-offs and is therefore not their optimal nor preferred approach. These companies must align their launch schedules with the primary customers, are usually forced to go to the orbit of the primary payload, and are considered secondary to the needs and desires of the primary customers. This has forced small-satellite companies to defer or alter their constellation plans, with some privately suggesting that they may not be able to sustain business operations unless dedicated small-satellite launchers become available in short time.

Virgin Galactic's "Launcher One" small-satellite vehicle, currently in development. Source: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s “Launcher One” small-satellite vehicle, currently in development. Source: Virgin Galactic

However, in the meantime and in response to this gap in capability, some American companies are deep into development of dedicated small-satellite launch vehicles. This development is driven by the broader launch industry’s meteoric growth, similarly powered by hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment and government contracts. Through a coupling of private investment and NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services contracts, Virgin Galactic is building Launcher One, Rocket Labs USA is constructing the Electron Launcher, and Firefly is working on its Alpha vehicle. According to the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, these vehicles should be operational by 2017, and must be operational by 2019 at latest to satisfy the requirements of NASA’s contract.

Herein enters the issues of the PSLV and ICBM rocket motors. Both are launch platforms suited for the needs of the small-satellite industry and both seem poised to readily compete with the American vehicles still under development.

The PSLV

The debate over the PSLV revolves around a U.S. Trade Representative review of a lasting ban on U.S. satellite use of the PSLV. The ban dates to a Commercial Space Launch Agreement (CSLA) in 2005. CSLAs are the United States government’s method for protecting the U.S. launch industry from competing government-controlled foreign launchers – such as the PSVL, which is operated by Antrix Corporation Ltd., the commercial arm of the Indian space program. These agreements set American commercial launch prices as the minimum for government-owned, non-U.S. launch providers. India has, to date, refused to sign the CSLA, leading the U.S. government to issue its ban.

SpaceX's discontinued Falcon 1 small-class launch vehicle. Source: Parabolic Arc

SpaceX’s discontinued Falcon 1 small-class launch vehicle. Source: Parabolic Arc

The impetus for this CSLA, once known as the “SpaceX Agreement,” was SpaceX’s introduction of the Falcon 1 rocket – which, designed for small-satellite launches, provided the capacity and capabilities desired by the U.S. small-satellite market. Yet SpaceX discarded the Falcon 1 when it moved to the larger Falcon 9 in 2009, leaving a hole in U.S. small-satellite launch capability. While the United States government can and does issue waivers to satellite companies allowing them a ride on the PSLV, it is nonetheless not at a rate desired and deemed necessary by the U.S. small-satellite industry. This, along with the significantly cost-effective price of a PSLV launch, has prompted a U.S. Trade Representative review of whether India’s refusal to sign the CSLA continues to warrant the ban.

In response, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, which advises the FAA and whose membership is comprised predominately of launch providers, issued a recommendation that U.S. satellites continue to be barred from the PSLV, concluding that “[Allowing] India’s state-owned and controlled launch providers to compete with U.S. companies runs counter to many national policies and undermines the work that has been done by government and industry to ensure the health of the U.S. space launch industrial bases.” On February 26, the Federal Aviation Administration announced its agreement with the COMSTAC’s recommendation, signaling that this opinion would be taken into consideration during the review. At the writing of this piece, the review continues.

The Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Source: ISRO

The Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Source: ISRO

A primary argument of the launch companies is that lifting the ban on the PSLV will enable foreign government-subsidized vehicles to compete against American commerce. The Antrix Corporation is mainly an administrative agent of India’s national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). ISRO provides the technical operations supporting Antrix’s commercial launches. The PSLV was developed as an ISRO program, and the profits made off commercial launch feeds back into India’s space budget. This does constitute government subsidy of the Indian launch market; in contrast, the American companies developing small launch vehicles have done so largely through private investment, with NASA purchasing their services through fixed-price contracts.

Of course, those issuing counter-arguments to the preservation of the ban note that the United States does not hold such bans against use of equivalent and similarly-subsidized Russian, European, or Japanese launch vehicles, such as the Dnepr, Vega, and Epsilon. According to the FAA Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation, the Dnepr is a medium-class vehicle suited for bundled launch of small-satellites at prices around $29 million. The Epsilon is specifically suited for small payloads at launch prices starting at $39 million. The Vega is a small-class vehicle launching at costs of $39 million.

Yet the PSLV is a substantially cheaper platform with more expansive capabilities than most of its competition. It is capable of launching up to 7,165lb to LEO, enabling substantial bundling of small-satellites for constellation deployment, and is capable of small-satellite launch to GTO and SSO as well. The price for a launch aboard the PSLV runs around $33 million.

The concern of the United States’ small-satellite launch companies is that, with these foreign assets available for use today, American satellite companies would flood to those markets in order to deploy their constellations in short enough time to sustain their business case – thereby risking the substantial investment that has gone into the development of indigenous American small-satellite capabilities. In essence, their argument is that protectionism is necessary in order to preserve the market for their eventual entrance. Even if other current-day, foreign government-subsidized launch vehicles don’t have bans on their use, their launch costs are evidently high enough to dissuade frequent American satellite launch. On the other hand, the PSLV, in the eyes of small-class launch companies, is marketable enough to present serious undercutting competition that could wreck the United States’ small-satellite launch competitiveness.

Resolution of the issue has been deferred for now as the U.S. Trade Representative completes its review of the ban. Yet, even assuming the ban stays, American small launch providers are still not clear of potentially undercutting competition. A recent proposal making its way through Congress has called for excess U.S. Air Force Minuteman and Peacekeeper ICBMs to enter the commercial launch market, upending established U.S. space policy precedent that prohibits competition on the commercial market using spare government launch assets.

On ICBMs

The rationale behind this proposal is simple – the U.S. Air Force is currently in possession of over 1,000 excess ICBMs, which require annual maintenance, testing, and surveillance at a cost upwards of $10 million annually. These vehicles, should they remain unused within the government’s inventory, will eventually degrade to a point necessitating disposal – a process which, by virtue of the hazardous process required to handle the materials within them, will cost multiple more tens of millions of dollars. Selling these ICBMs to American launch providers for use on the commercial market will, the argument goes, significantly defray governments costs and enable meaningful use of otherwise ‘wasted’ assets. Significantly, these ICBMs, as small- to medium-class launchers, would fill the market need for dedicated small-satellite launch vehicles.

Regardless of the merits or shortcomings of the proposal, it runs counter to long-standing United States policy precedent. The Commercial Space Act of 1998, the National Space Transportation Policy of 1994, and the National Space Transportation Policy of 2013 seek to protect the commercial space launch industry’s competitiveness by expressly prohibiting the use of excess ballistic missile assets on the commercial marketplace, stating that they must be employed “for government use or destroyed.”

This standing policy was derived from past negative experience with government-subsidized launch services for commercial satellites. The Space Shuttle launch model, in which NASA’s launch vehicle provided lift for commercial space assets, was regarded as a failure. In 1980, the United States dominated the commercial launch market with nearly 100% market share. By 2010, the American share of the market had collapsed to nearly 0%, largely due to use of the Shuttle and price non-competitiveness from existing U.S. providers relative to foreign competition. It was not until SpaceX’s entry into the market, coupled with the growth of other innovative American launch providers, that this market trend was reversed, with the United States holding 60% share of the launch market at the start of 2016.

A Peacekeeper (left) and Minuteman ICBMs, among those proposed for commercial use. Source: US Air Force

A Peacekeeper (left) and Minuteman (center and right) ICBMs, among those proposed for commercial use. Source: US Air Force

Those advocating for the change seek to purchase the ICBM rocket motors at a substantial discount or simply have them supplied as Government Furnished Equipment, which has prompted rumblings of deep concern among American launch providers. While existing commercial small-satellite launchers derived from converted ICBMs, such as Orbital ATK’s Minotaur-C, sell for upwards of $40 million and are therefore significantly non-competitive, the use of furnished solid motors could substantially drive prices down. Of equal concern is that, at present, there are only 3 companies that have the standing technologies and expertise to readily use these motors ‘off-the-shelf:’ Lockheed and L3 for targets and Orbital ATK for launchers. To that end, selling these motors on the commercial marketplace, according to some, would leave Orbital ATK with an immediate de-facto monopoly on the market.

Crucially, the impact of this policy reversal is not well studied, if at all. Media reports have indicated that the Air Force is interested in the policy change, but neither the Air Force or the Department of Defense has done the due diligence of assessing and ensuring that no undue harm would come to American commercial space transportation capabilities or private investment. This is evidenced by a Reuters article in which Doug Loverro, the United States’ deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, stated “I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that selling (ICBMs) will harm it, nor do I think that it won’t harm it. We don’t have any information one way or another.”

The proposal is presently working its way through Congress, where it is facing some opposition. On April 19, the House Subcommittee on Space held a hearing on the issue entitled “The Commercial Space Launch Industry: Small Satellite Opportunities and Challenges.” No witnesses spoke in explicit favor the proposal while no members issued or implied strong support for it. Yet the matter is far from over; the hearing signals only the beginning of dialogue and debate in Congress over the merits and consequences of a policy change on the use of ballistic missile assets, and back-channel discussions both in favor of and opposed to the proposal continue.

Take-Aways and a Perspective

Where one stands on the issues of India and commercially-available ICBMs depends on their perspective of what best serves the commercial space industry in the United States – supporting the satellite industry or fostering American launch capabilities, free-trade or protectionism. Both the satellite industry and the small-satellite launch industry have issued valid arguments in favor of their position, and no clear win-win exists that would satisfy both industries interests.

A conclusion to draw from the debate surrounding these issues is that the various subsets of American commercial space are witnessing a divergence in their interests and desired approach to fulfilling their needs. This is not a bad sign; rather, it is indicative of broad market growth in which there are unfulfilled needs that need to be met. While the current lack of capabilities may cause present-day harm for some in the industry, it also provides an opening for even further growth in investment and capabilities in the years to come.

More telling is that, per the vocal argument issued on their part, the United States’ small-satellite launch industry has concerns about their market prospects in the face of other readily available foreign and domestic assets. Until their vehicles reach operational status in the coming year or two, these companies are hoping to keep the gap in small-satellite launch capabilities unfilled so they can enter the market without risk of competition.

Firefly's proposed Alpha small-satellite launch vehicle. Source: Firefly

Firefly’s proposed Alpha small-satellite launch vehicle. Source: Firefly

This author stands on the side of the small-launch industry. The rapid development of American launch capabilities has enabled the United States’ to recapture leadership in the commercial space market and has brought about innovative new approaches which hold the promise of substantially driving down costs. In the end, the developments of the launch-side of commercial space will abet an increased ease-of-access for the satellite industry and foster an expanded array of space assets and applications. While a gap in small-launch capability has persisted for longer than what satellite companies have premised their business cases around, the launch industry is actively responding to those needs. To enable undercutting and government-subsidized competition to these privately-funded companies now, when their vehicles in development are only a year or two away from operational status, could lay waste to substantial private investment, call into question the need for indigenous small-satellite launch capabilities, and seriously threaten the United States’ continued capturing of greater share of the global commercial launch market.

Until these vehicles reach operational status, the United States government can and should continue to issue case-by-case waivers to small-satellite companies for rides aboard the PSLV. While not an optimal solution, it is a temporary one – doing so would provide the satellite industry enough breathing room to wait-out the year it takes for suitable American capabilities to come online.

On the matter of ICBMs, the constant reaffirmation of 30 years of U.S. commercial launch policy, regulatory stability, and pro-growth policies have fostered a healthy development of U.S. commercial launch service providers. The ban on ICBM use on the commercial marketplace has enabled private entities to engage in development of small-, medium- and large-class vehicles. The U.S. commercial launch industry has made significant progress in competitiveness and innovation over the past two years, in large part because of a lack of government-subsidized competition.

With the government ‘picking winners and losers’ in the commercial launch marketplace through sudden policy changes and the enabling of commercial monopolies through selling-off of assets, a strong signal is sent to investors that their investments may not be safe or sound. This would result in a weaker U.S. industrial base, less innovative approaches from start-up companies, and fewer new technologies to abet expanded use and application of space. A marginal cost savings to the United States government is not worth the irreparable harm it’d cause to the U.S. commercial launch industry, an industry that is bringing about high-tech, high-paying jobs, enhancing U.S. national security, and bringing humanity one step closer to the space frontier.

Infographic: Space Food

The human exploration of outer space obviously involves living and breathing human beings… human beings who, like those of us on Earth, survive through the consumption of water and food (along with other essentials such as breathable oxygen). The history of ‘space food’ has been a saga of tests, experiments, and growing experience toward figuring out how to best serve our astronauts a ‘good meal.’ Meanwhile, the future of human exploration, especially to distant locations such as Mars, will rely on innovative new approaches and techniques for sustaining the human body.

The infograph below, kindly supplied by labeley.com, explores the past, present, and future of ‘space food’ – a vital but often under-acknowledged element of our approach to exploration.

(Click on the image to enlarge)

space-food-infographic

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Exploring the Forest Haven Asylum: A Hopeless Home for Abandoned People

Hidden only a few acres behind the trees that line the side of Route 197 in Laurel, Maryland, is the Forest Haven Asylum, an abandoned facility as obscure and forgotten as the tenants who once occupied it. Today, crumbling in decay and disrepair after years of neglect, the facility’s compound has an eerie stillness about it, as though something straight out of a horror movie. Though, perhaps that is appropriate, considering the asylum’s troubling legacy.


DSC_0829It was a slow post-Christmas weekend for my girlfriend and I. Looking for a break to conventional routine, we settled upon the decision to explore an abandoned place in Maryland. Forest Haven came as a default; most of the abandoned locations near central Maryland – Henryton Hospital, the ‘Hell House,’ Ellicott City’s silk mill – have been torn down in recent years. Too many teenagers falling through floorboards and too many illegal parties were enough to convince authorities to demolish these run-down parts of our historical heritage.

The Forest Haven Asylum complex, however, remains standing. For sure, the place doesn’t look like it did when it opened in 1925 as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded,” but its 20-some buildings are mostly still there. As we quickly came to find, though, the compound sits well-guarded; not only are the ruins located on government property, the same property that houses Fort Meade, they share an access road to a present-day juvenile detention center.

Driving up to the unexpected guard post that kept watch on the road, we brainstormed a justification for our visit. Our true intentions, to spend a day exploring ruins while capturing some interesting pictures with her new DSLR camera, were doubtfully good cause for being there. Yet after briefly speaking to the guard we were waved through. Perhaps our excuse sounded reasonable enough: “we’re journalists, documenting the more forgotten and troubling parts of our region’s past.” In our defense, that last part was definitely true.


forest_haven_aerial-1

A present-day aerial view of the Forest Haven facility. Image source: Bing

When the Forest Haven Asylum first opened nearly 90 years ago, it was widely hailed as a forward-thinking institution, one designed around the progressive change in mental health treatment that was sweeping Europe and North America at the time.

Situated about 20 miles away from Washington D.C. on a 200-acre forested property, the asylum’s setting satisfied the period belief that the mentally ill – who often overwhelmed their families and languished at home – would do well if they  lived and received treatment away from the stresses of urban life. Their daily routines consisted of milking cattle, tending to gardens, and other ‘relaxing’ tasks designed to rehabilitate. Of course, also aligned with period beliefs were the facility’s treatment rooms for operant conditioning, post-dosage observation, and electroshock therapy.

DSC_0816While the first reviews of Forest Haven were positive, their conclusions were drawn more heavily from the facility’s concept and physical amenities than the institution’s actual execution. It was not long after opening that administrators found the place quickly becoming overcrowded and understaffed. Constrained by under-funding for decades, the staff found itself unable to offer proper treatment or find beneficial opportunities for all of their residents. Many regressed while under the asylum’s care. To make matters worse, when the District began suffering from a mid-century financial crisis, the asylum’s education and recreation programs were ended.


Forest Haven’s campus is large, but the buildings are clustered close together. The streets feel narrow from the overgrowth of grass and trees. Dormitories and support facilities, including a Chapel, surround the central office building. We started our tour in the flanks of the campus, working our way through what seemed to be an administrative office into the dormitories.

DSC_0835As you enter these buildings, it’s immediately noticeable just how decrepit the asylum has become. The buildings of Forest Haven are quite literally falling in on themselves: ceiling tiles litter the floors, drywall and insulation cover almost every interior surface, and mounds of dirt pile up in the staircases. Dark hallways give way to pockets of light shining down from holes in the roof above, while second and third floors, their foundations having given way, are broken by steep drops to the level below.

We wondered why the buildings still stood when other local sites had been torn down because of similar conditions. Walking across some creaky floorboards felt like an accident waiting to happen. Is there worth in keeping these buildings up when they pose such a liability risk? Even off-limits, the grounds are well traveled. At any rate, the buildings remain.

DSC_0808Although the institution sits on government property, it has not been taken good care of. Despite the guard posts, the place is a well-known hangout for vandals and the homeless who sneak onto the grounds. Graffiti, while not rampant, marks the walls of most buildings, with the occasional tag recurring in spots all over. The interiors are musky and the air is thick with the smell of dust and smoke; to our surprise, we found a fire still smoldering in a pile of papers sitting in the middle of a hallway of one of the buildings.

The basements, meanwhile, are veritable swamps, with inches of accumulated rainwater sustaining an ecosystem of mold and small plants. Signs for fallout shelters adorn the walls, testaments to the institution’s height of operations during the tenser years of the Cold War. The silence and stillness about the place is real, broken only by the clatter of our shoes against the cement floors, loose doors creaking in their hinges, and the occasional gust of wind blowing through openings.

DSC_0805Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine these buildings were ever inhabited, much less overcrowded. Yet it need not be imagined; the evidence of people past can be seen almost everywhere: in the medical documents and written reports pouring out of filing cabinets and littering the floors, in the gurneys and wheelchairs sitting in corners, in the various patient possessions that were left behind.

More than anything else, it was in the documents that we found the most insight into the people who called Forest Haven their home. While the buildings still remain as evidence of the place, the stories told in the papers strewn about the floor stand as testament to the people who knew it.


DSC_0793Though the asylum was originally instituted for individuals with severe mental handicaps, by the 1960s even people with treatable or mild learning disabilities were categorized as “retards” and sent to live at Forest Haven. So too were individuals deemed “undesirable” by their families or conventional hospitals, such as the deaf, dyslexic, epileptic, and illiterate. The facility’s resources, already stretched beyond their limits, were directed toward capacity instead of rehabilitation. Programs aimed at returning residents to normal life became untenable.

Coupled with the myriad other problems that befell Forest Haven, this would inevitably lead to cases of chronic abuse that would plague its patients in the decades leading up to its closure. Suits against the District for the mistreatment patients suffered in Forest Glenn were first brought to the D.C. Superior Court in 1972. They brought to light chronic mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the facility.

DSC_0824Throughout the 1970s, the families of abused residents continued to build cases against Forest Haven by tracking patient mistreatment and turning their findings over to the Justice Department. Visiting families spoke of residents being bound to urine-soaked mattresses in locked wards. One particularly egregious story was that of a woman named Bertha Brown, who suffered from a disease which caused her to eat anything in sight. Tied to a toilet and left unattended, she tried to eat her feces and choked to death.

Yet the real impetus toward reform came in 1976, with the death of 17 year old Joy Evans. Joy died from aspiration pneumonia, an infection of the lungs caused by food or saliva. Unattended, Joy choked on her own food, as patients were often fed lying or strapped down to their beds. Joy’s parents filed a Federal class-action lawsuit against Forest Haven, detailing the facility’s abuses:

The lack of comprehensive rehabilitation programs to meet individual needs of residents; the unsafe, unsanitary, and unpleasant condition of the Forest Haven facilities; inadequate staffing, lack of training, and abuse of residents by staff; inadequate medical, dental, and mental health care and nutrition; inadequate record-keeping; lack of after-care and rehabilitation programs and vocational training for former residents; and inadequate funding.

DSC_0832On June 14th, 1978, signing what became known as the Pratt Decree, Judge Pratt of the United States District Court ordered the institution to close. By the late 1970s, as patents were gradually moved out of the facility, the population of Forest Haven had fallen to around 1,300.

Still, crimes against the mentally ill would continue.


DSC_0804In the facility’s administrative building, patient records sit out right near the open entrance. Reading them was a quick introduction to the medical diagnoses and evaluations that characterized every resident of the institution. At the time, we were unaware of the history of the place. From these papers, a voice was given to Forest Haven’s past.

Drug addiction, lack of education, and inability to find work came up often as items listed for the residents’ issues. Some had been listless in life before Forest Haven, unemployed and homeless. Others had faced trouble at home, usually coupled with trouble with the law. Yet in these papers were peoples’ stories, told through their brief medical histories and personal descriptions. These were people who, deemed as going nowhere, were sent to Forest Haven, where they found themselves with nowhere to go.

DSC_0807Not everything we stumbled upon was official paperwork. In both the administrative building and the dormitories, we came upon personal journals, notebooks, reading supplies and literature, and handwritten notes. Many of them appeared written by the residents themselves.

One note, written in neat cursive and covered in soot, stood out to me in particular. It was a list of goals, short-term and long-term: finish my GED, go to school. Stay drug free, give back to the community. The words seemed to speak for all of the voices we couldn’t hear, a humanizing and personal touch in a setting otherwise defined by decaying installations. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they succeeded. Or is their story, all their stories, lost, buried in a pile of loose writings in a crumbling corner of an abandoned hallway?

DSC_0812Themes of liberation and freedom ring out of the murals plastered on the dormitory walls. Images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. tatter with the failing paint. There didn’t seem much hope left in it anymore.


Because of the court order to close Forest Haven, no improvements or repairs would be made to the buildings for over a decade. Continuous use stressed the structures beyond their capabilities. The facility was crumbling, even as people continued to live inside it.

DSC_0809With patients being transferred out of the facility and into group homes, staffing and funding at Forest Haven saw even deeper cuts than before. The asylum sat as most of its Medicare and government subsidies evaporated. Qualified volunteers and staff members were few and far between.

Ten deaths occurred at the asylum between 1989 and 1990, a remarkable rate considering the institution had only 252 residents at the time. The rate of bowel obstructions, aspiration pneumonia, rashes, and muscle atrophy accelerated to obscene levels in the final months of Forest Haven. By 1991, only ninety one patients remained in the facility, yet they fared far worse than those who came before them.


DSC_0819It wasn’t only documents that littered the interiors of Forest Haven’s facilities. We were surprised just how many items – books, computers, clipboards, machines, equipment – were left behind. Rooms still sit almost entirely furnished.

It was enough to make us start wondering what happened at Forest Haven, and why it was left as it was. While today these virtual artifacts are deteriorating from age and the elements, they must’ve amounted to a considerable sum of worth at the time the facility closed. Walking among the scenes they set in these forgotten buildings was lonely, apocalyptic. One of us observed that the place felt like something out of Fallout 4. It was an apt assessment.

DSC_0837In the dormitories, we came across what may have been the library. Piles of books are poured across the floor. Their bindings are slowly unwinding, sitting in inches of water and muck. I found myself moved by the tragic scene, one which a line of graffiti scribbled along the wall satirized properly. “Drop out of school. Read books.”

We continued our tour through the facility. The idyllic buildings had grown imposing on me; the longer we stayed, the stronger I felt that the place belonged in a horror movie. As the day progressed, the sun’s light sent shadows flying across different surfaces; light areas grew dim, doorways ended in rooms of darkness. The movement of trees’ limbs shaking in the corner of our eyes sent us casting jumpy glances, believing someone was there. As we entered the administrative building, we thought we heard a sneeze. Perhaps we weren’t alone.

DSC_0833A dentist’s office sits ready in the administrative building, complete with chairs and equipment. It was cramped, liked many of the hallway’s other offices, perhaps as a dentist’s office should be. We found further medical facilities down the hall; a medical ward of sorts.

I tried to imagine the sounds of bustle in the place, of doctors going through their files, sick patients coughing down the halls, medical supplies banging around in their containers. I tried, but the gentle whistle of the light wind squeezing through the collapsing ceiling drowned out the phantom bustle I sought to conjure. And then: another sneeze. Was it my mind playing tricks, twisting a dropping tile or a collapsing desk into what they were not, or did we have company? Footsteps. I glanced over at my girlfriend, who seemed far less perturbed, grabbed her arm, and quickly made down the building’s winding staircase and out the open frame that was once a loading dock. Leaving, we heard, from back in the building, slight murmurs. Who it was, we never found out.


Forest Haven’s final weeks were, to say the least, hectic. As residents were readied to move, the staff packed their belongings into small footlockers and tucked away their suitcases in empty corners of the facility. The last fifteen residents were moved out in late September 1991, 13 years after the order was given to close the institution. Finally, on October 14th, the Forest Haven asylum officially closed. It had served the District for 66 years.

DSC_0813Yet an official declaration of closure is merely a bureaucratic tool, some mid-level government worker placing a signature upon a promptly filed-away piece of paper. Though Forest Haven had closed in its capacity as an asylum, new uses were found for its premises. One of the buildings toward the far end of the grounds became a holding block of sorts for troubled female youths. As it turned out, a lack of communication between the agencies responsible for the site had left some officials unaware that the building was crumbling and packed with asbestos.

The remainder of the buildings sat. And sat. A March 2004 audit of the facility, nearly 12 years after its official closure, found gross mismanagement on the part of the District. None of the unused buildings had ever been secured. Many still had power and running water; documents were shuffled into different buildings instead of being destroyed. Even the medical equipment and computers, while stored, remained functional. Finally, in December 2011, 20 years after Forest Haven was shut down – 30 years after the order to close its doors was given – the District allocated the funds to properly handle and secure what remained at the property.

DSC_0792Much, but not all, of the equipment in Forest Haven – enough to fill a museum – was removed following the 2011 destruction order. Yet, as we experienced firsthand during our visit 5 years later, enough remains to tell the story of the place; documents litter the floor, chairs and gurneys sit unused, filing cabinets are spilled across rooms. The photographs in this post are testament enough to what remains. One need not search long or hard to get a sense of the Forest Haven’s purpose or its legacy’s meaning.


We left Forest Haven through its main access road as the sun began to set, walking past buildings casting dark shadows upon our path. We coming across a service vehicle – or, more aptly put, the service vehicle came upon us, its driver quickly booking it down the road to cut us off. He met us with a stern look and a series of interrogatives. We repeated our story to him and, though he seemed perturbed, he let us walk by and back to our car. Did he know about the troubling history of the facility he guarded? Was he paid enough to care?

DSC_0810Driving home from Forest Haven, I was enthused about the opportunity to write this blog post. How often does one explore a still-furnished yet long-abandoned facility? I had hoped this post would be a fun little travel log, a story of our wanderings if nothing else. I had already begun writing this post when I decided, on a whim, to search a little into the asylum’s backstory. Maybe – I reasoned – it would provide some good context for the reader. I’d devote a paragraph, maybe two, to that history and then be done with it. No need to bore my audience with insignificant tokens of the past.

In the end, our exploration of the facility turned out to be what was insignificant, a simple justification to devote discussion to the place’s history. And that history, far from being a token of the past, was, is, and will remain a troubling scar upon and a damning indictment of  our mental health system and of our dealing with our historical heritage.


According to various sources, some 3,200 patients spent time at the institution while its doors were open. Considering the 387 deaths that occurred at Forest Haven, it had a residential death rate of twelve percent. Statistically, one in ten people who showed up at Forest Haven – often the disabled, the troubled, the rejects of society – wouldn’t expect to leave alive.

The Forest Haven Asylum: a hopeless home for abandoned people.


Further Reading:

http://sometimes-interesting.com/2014/04/12/abandoned-home-for-the-abandoned-forest-haven-asylum/ – (all credit goes to this truly fantastic write-up, from which I drew most of my information)

http://dcist.com/2013/11/abandoneddc_haven.php#photo-1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/march99/grouphome14.htm

http://articles.latimes.com/1994-04-03/magazine/tm-41569_1_forest-haven-bleak-house-institutional-abuse

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_Haven

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