Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thoughts on June 17 Human Space Flight Review Presentations - Part 2: Science, Security, and Economics

Here's Part 2 of my comments about the Human Spaceflight Review Commission presentations. Again, I'll emphasize that these comments are on the publicly-available presentation documents, not the presentations themselves, which I did not see.

I'd like to discuss the central goals of the Vision for Space Exploration: economics, security, and science. The new Administration and the Human Spaceflight Review Commission may or may not focus on these VSE goals any more, but they still strike me as reasonable and useful ones as measures of exploration and human spaceflight benefits. Although in my previous post I contended that the Constellation presentation more or less ignored 3 of the 4 primary goals of the Human Spaceflight Commission, the same presentation actually does address all 3 of these central VSE goals. That is good, because it implies that they are engaged in finding ways to achieve these goals. However, I'm not convinced by the Constellation arguments in any of the 3 cases. I still think significant changes are needed to the current NASA Constellation plan to really achieve timely economic, science, and security benefits. There are many ways of doing that, though - some involving bringing in considerable commercial and international participation - but still leaving Constellation and its contractors with large and crucial exploration roles. Hopefully the Constellation position on Economics, Science, and Security will evolve in that sort of direction. At any rate, here's my critique of the recent presentation document:

Economics: The Constellation presentation has slides on the "Constellation Economic Impact". However, these slides merely show how taxpayer funds are sent to various geographical areas. Sending government money to various political districts is not the point of the economic benefit goal in the Vision for Space Exploration. This type of money distribution could be done with any government payments whatsoever. No space program is required for it. The VSE economic goal was to expand the commercial space economy, which means encouraging commercial space services that go beyond the NASA market. The Constellation program should figure out how it does this, or if it doesn't, how to change so it does it. Waiting 20 more years for the Moon base to be built to start a COTS-like lunar logistics program isn't by itself an attractive option, either.

Science: On one slide the Constellation presentation notes that Ares V can provide new capabilities for science. This is exactly the subject I'm addressing in another series of posts, and in fact the slide uses a quote from the document I'm reviewing. I'll just note that the authors of the document in question, although certainly wanting the science return that Ares V class science missions can return, are quite skeptical about the associated costs. Key considerations for Ares V science are opportunity costs in the form of unfunded science missions and technology development while Constellation is developed, the expected high cost of Ares V operations, and the difficulty in managing the cost of the types of large science missions that would use Ares V.

Security: The same slide mentions Ares V capabilities that could be used for Defense and Intelligence missions, such as an 8+ meter spy satellite in GEO to allow it to continually monitor an important location with sufficient resolution. Because of orbital mechanics constraints, LEO satellites are only able to observe particular locations on the Earth's surface every now and then. This GEO satellite with a huge mirror sounds like a great capability, and perhaps it is. However, it's worth noting that most, if not all, of the recent large defense and intelligence satellite programs have had extreme schedule delays, budget overruns, and similar problems. Can these agencies really afford Ares V launches, and, more to the point, the types of satellites that would use such capabilities? Note that many of these big security satellite programs have been canceled or had major restructuring events. How would such enormous satellites that would go on an Ares V fare in an era of "asymmetric warfare", where a cheap ASAT can take out a major satellite? How do they fit in with the current trends and needs for operationally responsive space? How do they fit with the recent Gates-driven budget changes that feature less "Transformational Space" and more "down-to-Earth" capabilities?

The bottom line is that having a NASA presentation about Ares V capabilities used for security purposes doesn't mean much. If NASA consults with its security counterpart agencies, and finds actual interest in such capabilities, then that's a different story altogether. The same goes for the argument, mentioned in the Aerospace Corporation presentation, about Constellation keeping the solid rocket industrial base strong for security reasons. Are any of the security agencies willing to back NASA by funding such Ares V class satellites (or at least serious investigations of them)? Are they willing to pitch in for the development of Ares V?

If either of these is the case, or if the security agencies show in some other ways that they are seriously interested in Ares V launches or other Constellation capabilities, then the Constellation program will have all at once considerably boosted its credibility. Until that happens, though, I'm going to classify Constellation's contribution to the central VSE goal of security as negligible.

I suspect that agencies concerned with national defense, intelligence, disaster preparedness and relief, homeland security, and the like would much rather that NASA:
  • use lots of EELVs so they can share fixed EELV costs with NASA and maybe get some new launch pads
  • encourage new commercial launchers so the security agencies eventually get lower-cost satellite launches which would help reduce the vicious circle of high launch costs driving high satellite costs and vice versa
  • fly lots of robotic spacecraft missions so they can share satellite industry maintenance and development for their comsats, GPS satellites, and Earth monitoring satellites with NASA
  • fly lots of commercial suborbital rocket missions to encourage this potentially useful type of asset for security and low cost space access purposes
  • do lots of technology development in areas of interest to national security missions
  • engage other nations in space cooperation without handing military technology to potential adversaries

This is just my impression. It seems to me that, if security is still one of the goals for human spaceflight, some effort on the part of NASA (as well as the independent Human Spaceflight Review Committee) should be made to find out what security agencies really need and can afford, and steer the Human Spaceflight plans in that direction to the extent that it's compatible with the other Human Spaceflight goals.

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