Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thoughts on June 17 Human Space Flight Review Presentations - Part 1: Addressing Committee Objectives

These comments are on the Human Spaceflight Review Committee presentation documents made available here. I didn't see the presentations themselves, so I have no comments on them.

It's useful to remind ourselves of the "Scope and Charter" of the committee:

"Scope and Objectives: The Committee shall conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable. The Committee should aim to identify and characterize a range of options that spans the reasonable possibilities for continuation of U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the Space Shuttle. The identification and characterization of these options should address the following objectives: a) expediting a new U.S. capability to support utilization of the International Space Station (ISS); b) supporting missions to the Moon and other destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO); c) stimulating commercial space flight capability; and d) fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities.

In addition to the objectives described above, the review should examine the appropriate amount of research and development and complementary robotic activities needed to make human space flight activities most productive and affordable over the long term, as well as appropriate opportunities for international collaboration. It should also evaluate what capabilities would be enabled by each of the potential architectures considered. It should evaluate options for extending ISS operations beyond 2016."

The main objectives are faster support of the ISS (which I take to mean shrinking the ISS human spaceflight gap), going to the Moon and generally beyond LEO, stimulating commercial spaceflight (which I take to mean encouraging commercial spaceflight more than the status quo), and fitting the Administration's budget. Safety, robotic support, international participation, and long-term ISS use are also factors.

The main thing that struck me about the Constellation presentation is that it simply doesn't address the objectives. Follow this quick and to-the-point link; it captures my reaction exactly. Of the 4 main objectives, the only one it addressed head-on is "supporting missions to the Moon and other destinations". On the other issues, it didn't even attempt to present a solution. It didn't pass or fail - it got an incomplete.

On "expediting a new U.S. capability to support utilization of the International Space Station (ISS)", the Constellation presentation was silent. It mentioned having ISS crew transport by 2015, the current goal, and how they'd made changes to improve confidence they'd meet that date (eg: reducing initial crew size to 4 on ISS missions). However, "expedite" doesn't mean "increase confidence you'll make the current late date". It means "accelerate the process or progress of : speed up". The presentation doesn't suggest any ways to have Ares/Orion ready for ISS transport by, say, 2013, nor does it suggest any ways to have any other U.S. system ready by that time.

Even former NASA Administrator Griffin always claimed that Ares/Orion was only meant as a backup for ISS support, and commercial transportation services were the intended route. Thus the natural inclination should be for NASA management to encourage commercial services to take on that role. The Constellation presentation could have suggested a COTS-D or similar competition for human transportation services, or some other means to get commercial vendors working on basic ISS transportation. Then Constellation could concentrate on the Moon and Beyond. Alternately, the presentation could have suggested ways to alter Ares/Orion to be ready by 2013. It did neither.

On "stimulating commercial space flight capability", again the Constellation presentation was silent. It has a line about "promoting international and commercial participation in exploration", but no details on what that participation is. Where is this participation in the plan? The original goal of the Vision for Space Exploration was for launch support to be done commercially, except perhaps for heavy lift, if needed. Where is that in the plan? The presentation didn't suggest that any of the components of the Constellation architecture be implemented commercially. There's a picture on "Future Exploration Capabilities" with an Ares V linked to some "Commercial and Civil LEO" spacecraft, but what commercial activity is going to be launched by Ares V? There's a slide on "Economic Impact: Contractor" and others on billions of dollars of prime contract value (as if high cost is a virtue), but that's not commercial, it's government contracts. If a contractor is going to sell commercial services enabled by its government contracts, I'm willing to call that commercial, but how much of this Constellation contract work fits that description?

One gets the impression that commercial services are left for some distant future generation, after Constellation has become operational and the NASA base is constructed. Then, if the future NASA is so inclined, there might be some room for a little commercial supply to give NASA some room to work towards Mars.

Finally, on "fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities", the Constellation presentation is once again silent. There are notes about how "development and operations costs must be minimized", how life cycle costs are reduced, and so on, but the point isn't whether or not Constellation is straining really hard to reduce costs. The key question is: Does Constellation fit within the current budget profile? The budget profile is what it is. If, as former NASA Administrator Griffin has suggested, Constellation doesn't fit within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities, Constellation needs to change to fit, or be replaced. Either show that you fit the profile, or what changes will allow you to fit the profile. The Constellation presentation didn't do that.

Fitting the current budget profile is a key point. All sorts of trends suggest that the budget will continue to be difficult for NASA exploration in the years ahead, just as was often noted by many commentators starting in 2005. Note the wider political, budget, and demographic trends. Note the charter of the Human Spaceflight Review Committee, which opens up a real possibility of shifting exploration resources from Constellation proper to ISS support after 2016, expediting ISS support (shrinking the gap), and R&D plus robotic exploration activities that complement astronaut exploration. There's a lot of justification for these potential budget shifts, so it's important for the astronaut transport plan to fit within a budget that allows a sufficient amount of such actitivies. Fitting the current budget profile is just a start in that direction.

In contrast to the Constellation presentation, the EELV presentation addresses the central HSR key objectives head on, showing how it can fit the budget, expedite ISS support, implement Moon missions, and work commercially. It would be interesting to see if the ULA is willing to put "skin in the game" and also to not get funding until milestones are reached, similar to the COTS A-C arrangement.

1 comment:

Gaetano Marano said...

just posted my suggestion #3 for the Human Space Flight Plans Committee and NASA: "throw away NOW in the garbage the 5 and 5.5 segments SRBs!"