Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dr. Griffin on the Augustine Committee - Part 6 of 11

6) The preference for "commercial" options for cargo and, worse, crew delivery to low Earth orbit appears throughout the Summary, together with the statement that "it is an appropriate time to consider turning this transport service over to the commercial sector." What commercial sector? At present, the only clearly available "commercial" option is Ariane 5.

This is false. Dr. Griffin must be aware that there is a huge commercial space sector in the communication satellite field, among others. He must know of the Atlas V rocket. He must have heard of the Delta IV rocket. These rockets already exist. The government support for these rockets is irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is using commercial rockets in the sense that they are run and operated by private businesses, and thus are available to address other markets at the same time they address NASA's needs.

Griffin must also know of the Falcon 9 and Taurus II rockets that will be used in the COTS cargo program that Griffin, to his credit, supported. These rockets have not been proven yet, but they are far ahead of Ares I and Ares V.

Launching a redesigned Orion crew vehicle is a valid choice in the context of an international program if - and only if - the U.S. is willing to give up independent access to low Earth orbit, a decision imbued with enormous future consequences.

The U.S. already gave up independent access to low Earth orbit, a decision that was imbued with enormous future consequences that we are now facing. This happened when Dr. Griffin chose the Ares I plan, and didn't fund a commercial crew transportation effort to go along with it. This loss of independent access to low Earth orbit is expected to last until 2017 to 2019 if Ares I is the only approach used.

Anyway, even setting that point aside, we could, but don't have to, launch a crew vehicle on a foreign rocket. Why does Griffin suggest that's what we'd have to do if we used commercial transportation services?

... a domestic commercial space transportation sector ... does not presently exist and will not exist in the near future; i.e., substantially prior to the likely completion dates for Ares-1/Orion, if they were properly funded.

It is interesting that Dr. Griffin can predict this with such confidence. I suppose it's possible he will turn out to be right, at least for orbital crew transportation (he is already wrong for other commercial space services), if NASA doesn't properly fund a commercial crew effort.

... If no USG option to deliver cargo and crew to LEO is to be developed following the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the U.S. risks the failure to sustain and utilize a unique facility with a sunk cost of $55 billion on the U.S. side, and nearly $20 billion of international partner investment in addition.

Why is Dr. Griffin so concerned about the ISS when he got rid of most of the ISS science and non-assembly engineering?

Why is he so concerned about the ISS when his exploration plan requires the ISS to be abandoned in 2016? If the commercial COTS cargo services do not get built, Griffin's plan already leaves us with no ability to get cargo and crew to the ISS until 2017-2019, after the ISS is abandoned! Even if the ISS is kept until 2020, and funding appears out of the blue to both support ISS and develop Ares I/Orion at a "brisk" pace, having Ares I/Orion in, say, 2018 does not make that much a difference. Plus, let's be clear: keeping that schedule is highly unlikely given the funding needs of the ISS.

The Russian Soyuz and Progress systems, even if we are willing to pay whatever is required to use them in the interim, simply do not provide sufficient capability to utilize ISS as was intended, and in any case represent a single point failure in regard to such utilization. To hold the support and utilization of the ISS hostage to the emergence of a commercial space sector is not "risky", it is irresponsible.

What is Dr. Griffin's point? We already have this single point of failure in Griffin's current plan, since Ares I/Orion arrive so late!

Also, what is his "hostage" concern? Why does he use loaded words and phrases like "hostage" and the committee "failed to"? Why does he put quotes around words like independent, commercial, fuel depots, and technical problems?

The plan isn't for NASA to stand back and hope a commercial space sector emerges. It's to sufficiently fund commercial crew transportation, at perhaps $2.5B for development from NASA, and more from the vendors, to make sure the commercial space sector emerges. With the commercial vendors pitching in their own money, why would this approach be less likely to succeed than NASA giving contractors money to build Ares I/Orion? The commercial vendors won't want to waste their money, so they'll be even more motivated to succeed. Also, there will be more than 1 commercial competitor if the COTS cargo model is used, so we will no longer have a single point of failure at all.

The Augustine Committee's independent judgment is that commercial vendors will in fact bring ISS crew transportation services to the ISS before Ares I/Orion could, even though Ares I/Orion have had a 4-year head start. This is presumably because of the potential use of existing rockets and other hardware, commercial skin in the game, commercial focus on the ISS transportation job (instead of that and the Moon and Mars), and possible use of near-term COTS cargo hardware.

Also note that the Augustine committee recommends addition money for COTS cargo to make extra sure that effort comes in on schedule.

Also note that in Dr. Griffin's plan, if COTS cargo didn't pan out, and Ares 1/Orion did pan out, and Ares 1/Orion somehow became operational much earlier than they are now expected to, they would use just about all of their funding to supply the ISS. There would be no beyond-LEO exploration even in this scenario that is supremely optimistic for government systems and supremely pessimistic for commercial systems.

If Dr. Griffin really wanted to have both Ares 1/Orion and a secure ISS, he should have funded a COTS crew transportation effort alongside Ares 1/Orion when he had a chance.

As a side issue, I will also note that when Dr. Griffin paints the stark picture of the ISS supplied only by Soyuz and Progress, he is ignoring the European ATV that was already demonstrated and the Japanese HTV that was just launched. We have numerous cargo options, so it seems to make sense to fund a COTS crew effort if we're doing that for COTS cargo.

The Augustine Committee has the job of identifying ways to stimulate the commercial space sector. It isn't surprising that they endorse commercial crew and cargo transportation services, since those also help address other concerns in their charter at the same time (expediting ISS support, fitting the budget, and enabling exploration). However, there are many other legitimate services and ways for NASA to encourage commercial space: data purchases, innovation prizes, more ISS cargo services, lunar surface vehicles, suborbital RLVs, hosted payloads, fuel delivery, and many more. My personal preference would have been to focus NASA's initial use of commercial services on non-crewed areas: lunar robots, cargo delivery, fuel delivery, data purchases and various other satellite services, uncrewed suborbital RLVs, etc. Only later would I have carefully ventured into crew transportation services. However, Dr. Griffin's plan has boxed us into a corner so we really don't have a choice in the matter -- or rather the choice we are faced with is either commercial crew transportation, or no crew transportation.

1 comment:

Matt Wronkiewicz said...

Great work, I had read through Griffin's email but I hadn't picked through it like you have. Keep it up!