Sunday, July 05, 2009

How far is the ESAS Architecture from the Aldridge Commission Recommendations? Some Excerpts from the Commission's Report

As can be seen from its title, this post originally began in the spirit of the first "Restore the Vision" post, How far is the ESAS Architecture from the Vision for Space Exploration? Some Excerpts from the VSE. The idea was simply to take a look at the Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy (PDF) (i.e. the Aldridge Commission report), and point out a few areas where NASA's current plans, and in particular NASA's new launch and crew transportation efforts, diverge from the Aldridge Commission recommendations.

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.

1 comment:

John Kavanagh said...

Excellent work.