Monday, July 13, 2009

Griffin on NASA's Astronaut Plans

The Huntsville Times published an interview with former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin on July 12, 2009. This isn't the first time Dr. Griffin publicly discussed NASA since he left that organization; for example, see Griffin: Human Space Flight Review Not Necessary. In the latest interview, Dr. Griffin defends the centerpiece of NASA's current implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration, the architecture he chose to return astronauts to the Moon and beyond:

"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.

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