Recently, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sent a statement to the Human Space Flight Plans Committee (see Statement by Michael Griffin to The Augustine Committee). Rather than try to help the committee achieve its objectives, Dr. Griffin chose to defend the status quo of the Constellation program. Since the committee's objectives concern improvements over the status quo, Dr. Griffin's comments thus completely miss the point.
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.