Thursday, July 30, 2009
Did Dr. Griffin give advice that attempts to expedite a new U.S. capability to support use of the ISS? No, he chose to defend the current Constellation situation. By definition, the current situation cannot deliver a capability faster than itself. In fact, he attacked an approach that might achieve this HSF objective. Did he give advice on fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration? No, he actually asked for more money. Did he suggest ways to stimulate commercial spaceflight? In fact he launched an attach on one promising area of commercial spaceflight. Did he suggest ways to make human spaceflight activities more productive through robotic activities or research and development? No. Did he give insight into how to extend ISS support beyond 2016? No. Did he describe a role for a mutually beneficial sort of international participation in exploration? No. Did he have a plan that is more safe, innovative, sustainable, and affordable than the current one? No.
In fact, the only HSF objective that Dr. Griffin addressed is "missions to the Moon and beyond". Recent suggestions that the Constellation approach will cost incredible amounts of money to develop, incredible amounts of money per mission to operate, and perhaps will not be ready for lunar missions until 2028 or 2035 do not make the Constellation approach without modifications seem attractive even for that particular objective.
Having described some of what Dr. Griffin did not write, it seems fair to evaluate some of what he did write:
As I write this, NASA and the Constellation Program are the targets of broad but shallow criticism.
This is an interesting use of language. The word "shallow" could be taken 2 ways - as an addition to "broad" in describing the structure of the criticism, or suggesting that the criticisms are not "deep" or substantial. It would be best to address the criticisms themselves rather than paint them with such a big brush.
At any rate, one wonders why the Constellation program is the subject of such broad criticism. Griffin would probably suggest that the criticism comes from "parochial interests". In fact the interests are no more, and are perhaps less, parochial than Constellation interests. ISS science, commercial space, aeronautics, Earth observation, robotic space science, grass-roots space activism of various sorts, NASA research and development, various national-level interests such those related to defense, security, energy, environment, education, and economics that could potentially benefit from different exploration approaches, and various others all oppose Constellation.
This is because the consensus reached within the last administration and by two prior Congresses as to what the broad objectives of the nation's civil space program should be, is not fully embraced by all members of the space community.
It is true that a consensus was reached about the broad objectives of the nation's civil space program. That consensus was represented by the Vision for Space Exploration and the related Aldridge Commission recommendations. However, as I have noted before, the current Constellation approach is completely different from the Vision for Space Exploration. It is also completely different from the Aldridge Commission recommendations. Supporters of the Vision for Space Exploration and Aldridge Commission recommendations are often opposed to the current Constellation approach for this reason.
Despite what some have said, Constellation is a carefully designed architecture put forth in response to a statement of broad civil space policy objectives by the last administration, which objectives were strongly supported in a hard-won consensus by two successive Congresses.
Again, Constellation in its current form does not address the broad civil space policy objectives defined by the last administration in the Vision for Space Exploration document. Follow the above links and read the Vision for Space Exploration and Aldridge Commission documents yourself. You will find that I only identified some of the points where Constellation doesn't follow this vision in the posts linked above.
How much this former administration policy matters now, with a new administration, remains to be seen.
I, and those at NASA who are responsible for its initial design, subsequent refinement, and present day execution, consider Constellation to be the most expeditiously attainable, broadly capable, lowest risk, and lowest life cycle cost design of which we know to meet those policy objectives, from among the many, many options we considered.
Once again, just read the original documents, and make your own assessment how well Constellation meets the policy objectives described there.
Taken at the rawest level, the Vision for Space Exploration's objectives are to implement an exploration program that supports the nation's economic, security, and science interests. How well does Constellation do that?
I would also note that many of the NASA managers that Dr. Griffin mentions were actually put in place by Dr. Griffin, and took part in Constellation's implementation so far. It's no surprise if they support Constellation. The NASA managers implementing the Vision for Space Exploration before Dr. Griffin became Administrator may have quite a different perspective on Constellation.
If the goals and objectives of our nation's civil space policy should change, or if the detailed engineering analysis which leads to the conclusions I offered above is found to be incorrect or incomplete, then of course Constellation can, and possibly should, be changed. But one must be cautious in such assessments. As I recently offered in another venue, your viewgraphs will always look better than my hardware.
There is no Ares I or Ares V rocket flying. There are alternate rockets, such as the EELVs, with a history of actual launches. Pointing out the contrast between viewgraphs and hardware does Constellation no favors.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that if NASA were receiving today the budgetary allocation that was stipulated when the Vision for Exploration was announced in January, 2004, this Commission would not exist.
It's impossible to prove this one way or the other, but I would make a case against it. Consider what the objectives of the Human Space Flight Plans Committee are. They are to bring an ISS support capability on board sooner, stimulate commercial space, make an exploration plan to the Moon and beyond, fit within the current exploration budget, and consider additional changes such as international participation, complimentary robotics, R&D, and longer ISS support. Suppose that Constellation got the originally expected funding, and then suppose that funding brought Ares 1/Orion ISS capability a bit closer in time. That wouldn't change most of the objectives of the committee one way or the other. Perhaps the ISS support objective would not be as critical as it now is, but consider that Ares I/Orion ISS support is now possibly delayed to 2017 or later. Even if it were 2016 or 2015, it would be too late.
Also consider that most of the Ares I/Orion budget problems are attributed to cost overruns, not budget shortfalls, real as those budget shortfalls are.
Finally, consider the political opposition if Constellation got this hypothetical funding at the expense of other NASA areas.
At any rate, the Vision for Space Exploration was supposed to work on a "pay as you go" basis. It was not supposed to crumble given budget changes, which any manager should have expected over the course of such a long-term program. The components of the Constellation approach are too interdependent. A budget shortfall or technical problem in 1 area has too many ripple effects in the rest of the program.
Present budgets are adequate to allow us to continue human spaceflight operations in low Earth orbit (LEO), but not much more. If policymakers do not wish to spend more, then we should stop talking about larger goals. As I write this, the most recent presidential budget request contains language supporting human lunar return by 2020, but that goal is unattainable with the funding allocated in the request.
Human lunar return by 2020 is unattainable given the current budget and Constellation, but that doesn't mean that 2020 is unattainable by any means. Of course we may have essentially lost 4 years, so 2020 will now be much more difficult.
Consider how difficult the Constellation approach has made it to achieve human lunar return by 2020. Constellation to a large extent fails to include U.S. commercial space as a partner in the main transportation effort. It doesn't include international participation. It doesn't include existing rockets. It doesn't include new, innovative approaches enabled by research and development. It increases political opposition from the science community and the public by delivering only a limited lunar robotic precursor program, and leaves questions related to long-term human lunar stays unanswered the same way. In its original form it required 6 ISS crew capability to the ISS per mission, and 4 to the Moon, when 3 and 2 would have been much easier to achieve. With such difficulties deliberately taken on, it is no surprise that Constellation cannot reach the Moon by 2020 without an unrealistic amount of funding.
It is my considered judgment that the capability for independent and assured human access to space is strategic for the United States. ... With that said, it follows that it cannot be left solely to the discretion and ability of private entities, whose interests can never, and should never, be wholly aligned with those of government, to provide such capability.
This is an amazing statement by Dr. Griffin. Let's first consider whether or not human access to space is strategic. ICBMs are strategic. Robotic military and intelligence satellites, delivering Earth observations, communications, and GPS services to military and intelligence services, are strategic assets. To the extent that they compliment and support the technologies and industries of these military and intelligence capabilities, similar NASA robotic capabilities could be considered to be somewhat strategic. The same goes for similar commercial space satellites. EELV launchers could be considered to be strategically important. Space capabilities that protect the country from natural disasters, or that enable the economy, could be considered to be strategic.
However, it is difficult to imagine how NASA human access to space, as currently done, could be considered to be strategic. NASA human access to space using Constellation hardware, with its high costs, would be no more strategic. It would be too expensive to mount military missions, develop a strong space economy, make operationally responsive space a reality, or to bring about similar changes using Constellation that could transform NASA human spaceflight to the strategic category.
Yet it is possible for commercial space to make human spaceflight strategically useful. A well-developed commercial space infrastructure could deliver strategic benefits. Operationally responsive space is possible with commercial human spaceflight. A lunar economy that delivers important resources could be strategically useful. Commercial suborbital RLVs could cross the strategic threshold. The commercial approach might deliver the cost savings that allow this. With this being a possibility, why does Dr. Griffin rule out commercial human spaceflight?
Let's assume, however, that human spaceflight is in fact already strategically important. Even if this is true, why rule out commercial human spaceflight? Does the military require its own rockets to launch its satellites? No. It supports and uses the EELVs. What makes human spaceflight any different from this? Is NASA human spaceflight as currently done more strategically important than the ability to launch military and intelligence satellites? What about NASA's own COTS program? How is cargo delivery any less strategic than crew transport? For the ISS, without the cargo, there is no crew. There are other examples similar to these where the government relies on commercial capabilities for vital functions.
What about the intelligence agencies? Yes, they use their own assets, but they also support and use DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. The military uses commercial communications satellites on a regular basis. This brings up the hybrid case that Dr. Griffin doesn't mention, where the government human transport capability is pursued, but at the same time the government encourages commercial participants to also meet its needs. The major example in our context is the unfunded COTS-D crew transportation incentive. Why doesn't Dr. Griffin advocate Constellation, but at the same time, make a push for COTS-D or something similar? Why is C0nstellation so much more important than everything else?
Finally, let's grant Dr. Griffin's proposal that human spaceflight, and government human spaceflight in particular, is essential. If that's the case, why did he pick an approach that is so difficult to implement, and that leaves such a long human spaceflight gap? Refer again to the Constellation 6/4 crew requirement, for example.
Interestingly, the Vision for Space Exploration and the Aldridge Commission were much more supportive of commercial space. In fact, they considered thorough commercial space participation to be essential for the success of the Vision for Space Exploration. In particular, the VSE states: 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. ... Pursue commercial opportunities for providing transportation and other services supporting the International Space Station and exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit ... Acquire crew transportation to and from the International Space Station, as required, after the Space Shuttle is retired from service ...
Much of the remainder of Dr. Griffin's statement concerns the first destination of the human spaceflight exploration effort, and in particular switching to a "Mars first" sequence. I don't disagree with Dr. Griffin in this respect, as I consider a "Moon first" sequence to make a lot of sense, as long as it isn't simply "flags and footprints" or "sorties" again. I will note, however, that some of the "Mars-centric" approaches that Dr. Griffin criticizes actually include many earlier and useful steps in space (rather than on planetary or lunar surfaces), and thus are not quite as easily dismissed as he seems to indicate.
One version of this approach the committee is considering is the "Flexible Path"; another is the Planetary Society Roadmap. If done in the spirit of the Vision for Space Exploration (i.e. addressing economics, security, science, and other national priorities, centered around commercial and international participation, including substantial robotic efforts, and driven by research, development, and innovation), this type of approach could fulfill the goals of that vision considerably better than NASA's current Constellation approach, in spite of the different initial destination.
Monday, July 13, 2009
"The need for the (current space study commission headed by Norman Augustine) is motivated solely by the public controversy over whether NASA got it right, if you will, in the architectural choices being made following the (explosion of the shuttle Columbia in 2003)"
It is true that the architectural choices under review were made following the Columbia accident. However, it's important to point out that they weren't made immediately after that accident. In fact, NASA made completely different decisions that were overturned by Dr. Griffin in 2005 with ESAS. So, which NASA got it right?
More to the point, though, I would argue that the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee is motivated not by the public controversy over NASA's current centerpiece architecture. Instead, the Committee is there because of problems with that architecture. The Committee, like the public controversy, is a result of these problems, not the cause.
Dr. Griffin repeats his famous "So what?" phrase:
"... if it isn't exactly right and isn't exactly perfect, I would argue, 'So what?' The question is not is it perfect? Is it good enough? Will it work? Is it one of the acceptable choices ... if so, shut up and move on."
These are interesting questions. One wonders why Dr. Griffin didn't think of them in 2005. One might also wonder why he doesn't consider the above response to those questions in 2009 now that he's no longer NASA Administrator, but in fact his continued public commentary is valuable both to clarify his point of view (and to some extent that of some of the NASA management he left behind), and to give an opportunity to discuss that point of view.
I would suggest that the most pressing problems with the current architecture are not of the "Will it work?" variety. There are a number of technical problems with the current architecture, and it remains to be seen whether or not these technical problems will be resolved. These are of concern.
However, the crucial problem with the ESAS-derived approach is that even if it eventually works in the sense of getting astronauts to the Moon, it will not achieve the goals it was supposed to achieve. I have gone into more detail in other posts on the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration that were later emphasized by the Aldridge Commission, and how the current architecture completely misses the point of those goals. However, one only has to read the charter of the HSF Committee to see some of the flaws with the current architecture.
Of course the charter covers the basic capability to get astronauts to the Moon and beyond. However, it also stresses expediting U.S. support for the International Space Station. In this case the charter's term expediting implies from the very start that the current plan is not acceptable, and the ISS support schedule needs to be shortened.
The charter includes fitting within the NASA exploration budget, in particular if ISS is extended beyond 2016. We already know that the current plan does not fit within that budget, even if ISS is not extended. Again, the current plans are not "good enough".
The charter covers encouraging commercial space flight capability. It's plainly obvious that the current NASA lunar transportation plan does not encourage commercial space flight capability, at least in the decades of most interest, since it almost exclusively involves NASA and cost-plus contractor work to build NASA vehicles, not commercial work to meet NASA and market needs.
The charter includes international participation, which again is plainly not present in NASA's current astronaut transportation plans for the Moon and beyond.
Finally, the charter includes robotic activities that complement human space flight, and research and development to make human space flight more productive. As I've discussed in other posts, NASA's current plans do not include the type of research and development or robotic activity needed to make NASA's human space flight missions to the Moon and beyond worthwhile and sustainable. Diverse sources such as the Vision for Space Exploration, Aldridge Commission, and National Academies all favor R&D and complimentary robotic programs much more ambitious than NASA's current plans, so it's likely the HSF Committee will reach similar conclusions.
In short, the current NASA plan is simply not "one of the acceptable choices". It is far, far from "exactly perfect". There are many ways to bring NASA's plans to the "good enough" range, some of which involve completely new technical architectures, and some of which involve only modest but crucial changes. The HSF Committee's job is to provide some options that are "good enough" in the areas described in the HSF Committee charter where the current plans are "not acceptable". In contrast to Dr. Griffin's perspective, I view the HSF Committee's job as absolutely essential to NASA's human spaceflight program.
Griffin sees other worrisome trends, including "the trend of believing we can cut budgets on a yearly basis and make it up later. ... When you cut the amount you're willing to spend compared to what you told managers they could spend originally, they end up making different decisions ... and they always end up being less efficient."
The key point to recognize is that NASA's proposed exploration budget was never realistic. The Vision for Space Exploration was supposed to include an exploration plan that was sustainable, and that worked on a pay-as-you-go basis. It was not supposed to collapse because of budget shortfalls that should have been no surprise.
There are a number of approaches that NASA could have taken, and could still take, to make its exploration budget more sustainable:
- Use a flexible approach that involves multiple smaller, incremental achievements useful and sustainable in their own right, such as space infrastructure, instead of a monolithic all-or-nothing architecture.
- Incorporate commercial participation, and thus shared costs, allowing NASA to have more finanancial reserves. This would also increase political support, improving the chance that planned budgets will actually be funded.
- Incorporate international participation, and thus shared costs, allowing, if done correctly, NASA to have more finanancial reserves. This would also increase political support, improving the chance that planned budgets will actually be funded.
- Implement a less ambitious and thus more affordable transportation plan, in the sense of requirements like crew and payload delivered per mission and lunar surface destinations supported. This does not necessarily imply less overall capability, as it may allow more, or sooner, missions.
- Include more substantial, earlier lunar robotic ISRU, engineering, and science work, which would increase political support for the mission in the science community and the public. The public would see from the new types of robotics that there is more to the plan than Apollo revisited. The robotic work would also be a "force multiplier" for astronauts, relieving the astronaut transportation system from difficult, expensive requirements.
"We are less willing to take risks of any kind, whether it be financial risk, technical risk or human risk, or the risk of just plain breaking hardware," he said. "Being adverse to risk is not what made this country what it is. I'll just say that. The willingness to take measured risks is what made this country what it is."
Taking measured risk is fine. However, NASA's current plan takes huge financial risks, technical risks, and human risks without the likelihood of corresponding gains. We are asked to develop a transportation system for $105B or more over decades, missing rich opportunities for commercial space development, research and development advances, sustainable space infrastructure, and lunar robotic preparation for astronauts, with an outcome in 2020 or later that each year we will have the opportunity to fly 2 Apollo-style lunar missions for $10B or more. The end result is a type of mission that is too expensive to allow us to afford the big returns on our development investment.
"The reason enrollments are down is we're not, as a society, as a government, putting our funding on projects that would attract those kids to do them. ... We're doing something wrong when it is more exciting for mathematically inclined kids to development computer programs on Wall Street than to come to work building a new rocket."
In this case it seems that Dr. Griffin is out of touch with what inspires today's kids and young adults. Most young people are not interested in repeating Apollo. They are not interested in repeating Apollo but with somewhat longer lunar surface stays per mission, increased surface range, and more crew. They are not inclined to want to work in a big national design bureau. They are more comfortable with computer technology than the Apollo generation. If they are in college, they are much more likely to be in an academic major that has been hurt by the NASA cutbacks of the Griffin era than in a rocket building major. A third grader is not inspired by the prospect of a lunar mission that will start well into their working career.
Here are some ideas for NASA that might inspire kids and young adults to get involved with space more than NASA's current ESAS-derived plans.
- Don't cut back other NASA programs like the ISS and Earth observation science efforts to fund NASA rocket-building. Lots of today's kids are interested in technologies that use Earth observation data like Google Earth and similar digital globe/mapping software. Many college students are in majors that use NASA remote sensing data: Oceanography, Geology, Geography, Urban Planning, Agriculture, Real Estate, Forestry, Hydrology, Civil Engineering, Meteorology, GIS and related information systems, Petroleum/Natural Gas, Enviromental Science/Monitoring, Telecommunications, Insurance, Imaging Science, Education, Surveying, Energy Engineering, Planetary Science, Homeland Security, Cartography, Recreation/Parks/Tourism, Atmosheric Science, and many others. Don't alienate these students; bring them on board.
- Implement many more robotic precursor missions to the Moon on a timely basis. These would take advantage of today's communication and robotic technologies to show things Apollo never could, allowing today's students to see the lunar mission as a modern one. These would also do things Apollo never did, such as ISRU, robotic site preparation, exploration of new types of lunar terrain, and so on. Again, this would show the Vision for Space Exploration in a completely new light that students could see as something for their generation, not a repeat of Apollo. New space infrastructure and new research and development capabilities would also do this. A somewhat bigger rocket program than Saturn V with slightly better capabilities, and with little or no reusable components, is not enough to show today's generation of students that the program is theirs.
- Fund new NASA Centennial Challenges, and also fund more competitions specifically for students. Many student teams can try to win these challenges, and even if they don't win, they learn in the process. Centennial Challenges typically also include related student competitions.
- Give students and their teachers from elementary school through PhD many more opportunities to fly, or at least to have their experiments fly. This can be done using commercial reusable suborbital rockets, traditional sounding rockets, high-altitude balloons, parabolic aircraft flights, smallsats, and access to space stations and labs (like ISS, Bigelow stations, or DragonLabs).
- Include more "participatory exploration" involving more interaction with space missions. Also include more social media.
- Work with universities on more small, affordable space projects.
Today's students and young adults are the ones that will be paying for much of NASA's long-term exploration program. We need to bring them on board. As fascinating as Dr. Griffin and most of us in the space community find them, they are not enough to do this.
Sunday, July 05, 2009
How far is the ESAS Architecture from the Aldridge Commission Recommendations? Some Excerpts from the Commission's Report
However, it became apparent that this was an even more daunting job than it was for the Vision for Space Exploration analysis, as NASA's transportation plans contrast, if that's possible, even more with the Aldridge Commission's recommendations than they do with the Vision for Space Exploration. That may be hard to believe if you've read the post linked above, but suffice it to say that it's not practical to describe and discuss all of the areas where NASA's plans diverge from the Aldridge Commission document. I can only encourage you to read (or reread) the document itself.
In lieu of that more ambitious analysis, this discussion will be limited to two areas of particular importance to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (and the original Vision for Space Exploration). These two areas are documented in the HSF committee charter:
"stimulating commercial space flight capability" - This is one of the 4 main objectives outlined in the HSF committee charter.
"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" - This is one of a very small set of lesser, but still crucial, objectives of the HSF committee.
The Aldridge Commission document makes a very strong case for greatly expanded commercial space activity being a central enabler and benefit of the Vision for Space Exploration. This theme appears again and again in the report. For example:
"The Commission believes that commercialization of space should become a primary focus of the vision, and that the creation of a space-based industry will be one of the principal benefits of this journey."
The report makes it clear what it means by commercial space.
"Although an aerospace industry already exists and provides commercial launch services worldwide, its principal business currently consists mostly of corporate entities that perform contract work for various government agencies. The Commission uses the term space industry to refer to something much broader – a true space industry would consist of a variety of contributors, each vigorously pursuing their own diverse agendas, not tied to or dependent upon government contracts, but not excluding those activities either. Achieving such a state requires the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business."
The key is that commercial space business satisfies markets beyond NASA. It may have NASA as a customer for its products, but NASA is not the only customer. There are many possible "shades of gray" in this view. A government contractor simply fulfilling its requirements on a cost-plus contract is one extreme. A contractor that fulfills a NASA contract, and then uses the capabilities created during that contract to satisfy another government contract (for example, a launch capability applicable to multiple government agencies) is quite a bit different and probably much more valuable to the nation, though it is still centered on government customers. A commercial business that depends on government contracts that represent, say, 70-90% of its business for a product is, all other things being equal, even more valuable to the nation in growing the space economy. Such a product, even though not viable without government business, still provides value to government and private customers, and the different customers help each other by sharing fixed costs. The ideal case, as described above, is commercial business that doesn't rely on government contracts at all, but that may offer useful services to the government.
The implication is that NASA's implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration should encourage a broad range of space businesses to move closer to the ideal state just described.
It is worth considering at this point how well NASA's current ESAS-based plans satisfy this objective. Some of NASA's efforts, such as the COTS program, may satisfy parts of it, but those efforts are not the subject of this critique. The focus here is on NASA's main transportation architecture, and whether or not it encourages the kind of commercial space activity advocated by the Aldridge Commission.
Although it recognizes that in the near term (for 2004, when the report was published), the Shuttle will be launching crews, the Aldridge Commission is optimistic about the prospects for commercial space transportation in the launch arena:
The Commission believes that the private sector is willing and capable of providing the initial boost into low-Earth orbit for the payloads associated with the vision. To foster the continued development of this emerging market, the Commission believes that NASA should procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market. Fortunately, many of the laws and statutes to accomplish this are already on the books.
To emphasize the importance of encouraging the commercial space launch industry, the commission recommends that
"NASA recognize and implement a far larger presence of private industry in space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately in accessing low-Earth orbit. In NASA decisions, the preferred choice for operational activities must be competitively awarded contracts with private and non-profit organizations and NASA’s role must be limited to only those areas where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity"
Do these last 2 excerpts from the report sound like what Constellation is doing? Is it even close? If NASA isn't going to "procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market", it seems like it should at the very least move more in that direction. Considering the breakdown that NASA is currently using in its launch plans, there are 3 main areas of launch responsibility where introducing commercial services should be considered: ISS crew transportation, lunar (and beyond) crew transportation, and lunar (and beyond) cargo. I'll maintain here that at a minimum NASA should fully hand at least one of these 3 roles over to commercial vendors, and encourage those vendors to step up if the services aren't yet available.
This brings up the subject of encouraging commercial services where they currently don't exist. The Aldridge Commission considers this situation:
"One of the challenges we face is to find commercial rewards and incentives in space. Creating these rewards is an indispensable part of making this partnership work in the right way. It will signal a major change in the way NASA deals with the private sector, and the Commission believes that NASA should do all it can to create, nurture, and sustain this new industry. This should include efforts specifically tailored to small, entrepreneurial firms, as well as established larger firms. Each can do things the other cannot. Both are essential contributors."
How well is NASA's Constellation transportation architecture implementing this recommendation to "find commercial rewards and incentives in space"? Let's set aside the fanciful descriptions of thriving commercial business being started on the Moon some day in the far future after Ares I and Ares V have been used to build a Moon base. Such an event is much too far in the future to be pertinent to this generation's commercial space industry, and there is no reason to think NASA will have money available, or the inclination, to encourage commercial space at that time if it can do no better in that regard now. How well is Constellation finding commercial rewards and incentives now?
The Commission explores one particular way to encourage commercial space activity:
"Given the complexity and challenges of the new vision, the Commission suggests that a more substantial prize might be appropriate to accelerate the development of enabling technologies. As an example of a particularly challenging prize concept, $100 million to $1 billion could be offered to the first organization to place humans on the Moon and sustain them for a fixed period before they return to Earth. The Commission suggests that more substantial prize programs be considered and, if found appropriate, NASA should work with the Congress to develop how the funding for such a prize would be provided."
In fact no new NASA Centennial Challenges prize funding has been made available for several years. The total Centennial Challenges funding for all prizes combined is a small fraction of even the smaller of the amounts contemplated by the Aldridge Commission, and the funding for each individual prize is truly "in the noise" compared to the funding for NASA's government transportation plans.
What would it take for NASA to fulfill the role the Aldridge Commission describes?
"The Commission is convinced that NASA’s business culture must be changed to embrace a significantly different role for itself in our space exploration enterprise. NASA needs a much-improved capability both to learn from and partner with a more robust space industry. The new NASA will be frugal and more nimble. Perhaps most importantly, it will be driven by an overarching imperative to do only those things that are inherently governmental, thus not competing with, but encouraging the entrepreneurs who will build a new and robust space industry to support the vision. This is no modest shift."
Does this describe NASA's ESAS-derived transportation plans? Are these plans "frugal and more nimble"? Are they "driven by an overarching imperative to do only those things that are inherently governmental, thus not competing with, but encouraging the entrepreneurs"? Recognize that even former Administration Griffin did not think the Ares-based transportation system could compete with a commercial system for crew transport to the ISS, and in fact he considered the high operational cost of Ares I to be a benefit because of this. However, he was referring to competition based on price and merit. Ares can and certainly does compete with potential commercial systems through political means. One of the big concerns with the ESAS plan from the beginning was that the Ares I/Orion ISS support phase was likely to cost so much that the later phases would be cancelled, leaving Ares with no mission other than to eliminate, through political means, U.S. commercial servicing of the ISS. Here is a symptom of this problem that the Aldridge Commission statement above warns about: Sen. Shelby Gets His Way (NASA Watch, in reference to Constellation competing with the U.S. commercial space industry through political means).
There are many services that NASA could purchase from the commercial space industry while implementing the various parts of the VSE. Some typical examples include:
- additional cargo support for the ISS
- ISS crew rescue
- ISS crew transport
- use of commercial space stations or labs for work related to the VSE
- micro reentry vehicle for frequent space station sample return
- suborbital RLV use for astronaut training, instrument test, and many other purposes
- lunar surface robotics (science, construction, ISRU, etc)
- lunar orbit robotics (imagery, positioning, communication, etc)
- lunar crew and/or cargo transportation using propellant depots
- orbit-to-orbit crew and/or cargo transportation
- launch of Orion
- mixture of Constellation and commercial components for satellite servicing
To partner with commercial space to the level suggested by the Aldridge Commission, NASA would need to go well beyond current efforts like COTS cargo, the small Centennial Challenges prizes, and a few similar programs, and implement commercial participation at significant scale in several more areas like the ones mentioned above. This would still leave plenty of room for traditional aerospace cost-plus contracts and in-house NASA work, since there certainly are objectives in the VSE that do not lend themselves to commercial space.Now we turn to the Aldridge Commission's recommendations in the areas of technology development and robotics. The Commission identifies a number of technology areas that enable the diverse VSE human and robotic spaceflight exploration and development objectives:
"At this juncture, we identify the following enabling technologies, which are not yet prioritized:
Affordable heavy lift capability – technologies to allow robust affordable access of cargo, particularly to low-Earth orbit.
Advanced structures – extremely lightweight, multi-function structures with modular interfaces, the building-block technology for advanced spacecraft.
High acceleration, high life cycle, reusable in-space main engine – for the crew exploration vehicle.
Advanced power and propulsion – primarily nuclear thermal and nuclear electric, to enable spacecraft and instrument operation and communications, particularly in the outer solar system, where sunlight can no longer be exploited by solar panels.
Cryogenic fluid management – cooling technologies for precision astronomical sensors and advanced spacecraft, as well as propellant storage and transfer in space.
Large aperture systems – for next-generation astronomical telescopes and detectors.
Formation flying – for free-space interferometric applications and near-surface reconnaissance of planetary bodies.
High bandwidth communications – optical and high-frequency microwave systems to enhance data transmission rates.
Entry, descent, and landing – precision targeting and landing on “high-g” and “low-g” planetary bodies.
Closed-loop life support and habitability – Recycling of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water for long-duration human presence in space.
Extravehicular activity systems – the spacesuit of the future, specifically for productive work on planetary surfaces.
Autonomous systems and robotics – to monitor, maintain, and where possible, repair complex space systems.
Scientific data collection/analysis – lightweight, temperature-tolerant, radiation-hard sensors.
Biomedical risk mitigation – space medicine; remote monitoring, diagnosis and treatment.
Transformational spaceport and range technologies – launch site infrastructure and range capabilities for the crew exploration vehicle and advanced heavy lift vehicles.
Automated rendezvous and docking – for human exploration and robotic sample return missions.
Planetary in situ resource utilization – ultimately enabling us to “cut the cord” with Earth for space logistics."
Like the Vision for Space Exploration itself, the Aldridge Commission recommends a serious, ambitious technology development effort to enable cost-effective implementation of VSE objectives. NASA has pursued some of these technologies vigorously since the ESAS implementation started, but by and large has neglected them. In fact, since ESAS was started, NASA has halted the New Millennium technology demonstration program, has barely supported the Centennial Challenges innovation prize program, has scaled back ISS use, and has removed the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. This follows earlier technology development cuts earlier in Administrator Griffin's term, such as those related to JIMO.
One technology on the list that NASA has pursued is heavy lift. However, this technology is described as "affordable heavy lift capability" in the Aldridge Commission's list. Given the HSF Commission's objective related to the human spaceflight budget, and the numerous NASA programs that have been eliminated in the wake of ESAS, it would be hard to justify calling the current Ares HLV effort "affordable" either to develop or operate, especially considering that the Ares V development plan includes Ares I as a stepping stone.
It should also be noted that one of the Aldridge Commission members, Paul Spudis, is one of the authors of Going Beyond The Status Quo In Space, a recent document that outlines an approach to exploration and development that doesn't use heavy lift. Perhaps our experience with ESAS has show that particular technology to be a dead end, or at least not affordable in a broadly ambitious exploration program.
Although the situation varies on a technology-by-technology basis, it's fair to say that NASA's current technology development plans, viewed broadly, do not live up to the expectations of either the VSE or the Aldridge Commission. This can be largely attributed to NASA's focus on expensive government space transportation systems. The implication is that NASA should reduce its efforts in government space transportation systems, rely more on more cost-effective commercial space transportation systems, and increase technology development and demonstration work, including lunar robotic demonstrations, to allow additional cost savings as efficient technologies are introduced.
The Aldridge Commission recommends a particular approach to managing its technology development efforts:
"... we suggest that the Administration and Congress create within NASA an organization drawing upon lessons learned from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is a highly successful organization that is chartered to fund high-risk/high return basic research in support of national defense priorities. The Commission concludes that such an agency within NASA would be extremely useful in addressing the development challenges regarding numerous technologies associated with the vision. In addition, such an organization can be the incubator of cutting-edge technologies and concepts that may not yet have known applications. The Commission believes that the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts may serve as a nucleus for such an organization."
No NASA version of DARPA has been implemented, and in fact, as mentioned above, the NIAC has been cut. So much for that recommendation.
Clearly NASA's current approach does not address the objectives and recommendations outlined by the Aldridge Commission in the crucial areas of commercial space participation and technology development. It will be up to the HSF Commission to present options that allow NASA to succeed in its commercial engagement and technology development missions. The HSF Commission can find useful advise in the Aldridge Commission report and the VSE itself, but it will be a challenge, to say the least, to overcome the institutional barriers that thwarted the original Vision for Space Exploration and the Aldridge Commission recommendations.