Sunday, October 04, 2009

Thwarting Augustine

A recent Space News article, White House Seeks to Restore Human Spaceflight Funding, includes some thoughts on how NASA should react to the final options of the Human Space Flight Review Plans Committee:

Doug Stanley, the Georgia Institute of Technology engineer who led NASA’s 2005 Exploration Systems Architecture Study that picked Ares 1 and the heavy-lift Ares 5 designs over competing approaches that relied on U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, said that while the Augustine panel’s analysis provides useful budget and policy assessments of options for the future of manned spaceflight, the rapid pace of the review did not allow for a thorough analysis of cost, risk and schedule implications associated with those options.

I'd say the Augustine committee analysis of cost, risk, and schedule is a lot more credible than that of the ESAS. The Augustine committee and ESAS had a similar amount of time to do their work. Unlike ESAS, the Augustine committee is open about its deliberations, allowing independent parties to critique and evaluate its conclusions. Unlike ESAS, it is independent of NASA, and thus is able to make fair evaluations. The Augustine committee members are experienced and diverse, protecting the committee from taking the side of one of the various camps in the space industry, and protecting it from producing uninformed results. Finally, the Augustine committee has shown itself to be responsive to its charter, whereas ESAS completely discarded the most important parts of the Vision for Space Exploration.

I really think we need to do a fairly detailed architecture study as a follow-on to what [the Augustine panel] has done,” Stanley said during a Sept. 28 seminar on the Augustine report at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute here. “The purpose was not to do a detailed architecture study, it was to lay out and look at budget issues and policy issues we’d have to define.

Do we really need another NASA architecture study of the ESAS sort? ESAS ignored the important parts of the Vision for Space Exploration and the recommendations of the Aldridge Commission. Why would we expect a new NASA architecture study to do anything but dismantle the central results of the Augustine Committee, and replace them with something more or less like the current Ares plan? If that happens we should not be surprised if we wind up exactly where we are now, with a new human spaceflight review committee showing us that once again we're in a human spaceflight quagmire.

Such a NASA human spaceflight transportation architecture study isn't needed, since we don't need a NASA human exploration space flight architecture. There is nothing for the study to study. It's clear from the initial summary of the Augustine options that the things we need to do over the next few years are the following, and we won't be able to afford much else:
  1. finish the ISS

  2. extend the ISS

  3. encourage commercial space to develop and operate a crew transportation capability to support the ISS

  4. as currently planned, encourage commercial space to develop and operate a cargo transportation capability to support the ISS

  5. rebuild NASA's research and development capabilities related to human spaceflight

  6. negotiate mutually-beneficial roles for international partners

  7. start an ambitious robotic precursor program to prepare for human exploration (in part to demonstrate significant early progress, since the Augustine options show human exploration missions only happening in the distant future)
Notice the absence of a new operational NASA human spaceflight transportation system. There may be a single new NASA human spaceflight transportation component in the mix, such as something like Orion, but we cannot afford a multi-system NASA transportation architecture.

I will also go a little beyond the Augustine committee analysis, and assume we will not be ramping up NASA's human spaceflight budget to the tune of $3 billion per year. Perhaps NASA will get $1 billion more per year; perhaps NASA will get cut. A major increase does not seem likely given the overall Federal budget situation and current political trends. NASA's performance on Constellation also doesn't make new NASA human spaceflight development efforts particularly attractive to fund. That implies that the expensive heavy lift options presented by the Augustine committee in all of its options are not affordable. Thus we are left with a couple more jobs to start over the next few years:
  1. develop and demonstrate refueling capability

  2. possibly begin developing relatively modest commercial heavy lift capability - but if this is done, keep the risky HLV development off the critical path until it is built

With those ingredients, perhaps we will be ready for a NASA exploration transportation architecture study ... several years from now, when some of the points I've just listed have produced results.

Stanley said before the White and NASA can select a new space transportation architecture, they need to decide whether the shuttle will keep flying beyond 2010, whether the international space station will remain in orbit through 2020, where the United States wants to send its astronauts in the decades ahead, and define a general policy toward commercial and international transport of astronauts.

In other words, one of the Augustine options needs to be selected. That's true.

However, as I described above, we need to do a lot more than that before NASA selects a new space transportation architecture, or we will have the same problem with the Augustine analysis that we had with the Vision for Space Exploration and the Aldridge Commission. Without strong management, which we cannot count on with so many other big issues related to science and technology the Administration is focused on, the NASA space transportation architecture study will, if history is any guide, discard the earlier policies and results and come up with something more suitable to parochial NASA interests.

If any space transportation architecture study is done, such a study needs to be independent of NASA political and management pressure.

Once the White House embraces a direction for U.S. human spaceflight, Stanley said NASA should then be allowed to conduct a thorough architecture study to include apples-to-apples comparisons of the cost, safety and risk of the Augustine panel’s options, as well as alternative scenarios the panel might not have considered.

May I use my cynical filter to translate?

Once the White House embraces one of the Augustine committee options, NASA human spaceflight management should then be allowed to do an "apples-to-apples" comparison of the Augustine committee options, as well as alternative options the panel might not have considered that happen to serve NASA interests really well. They should then be allowed to discard the selected Augustine option, and pick one that benefits certain portions of NASA rather than the people of the United States.

In addition, Stanley urged that NASA be allowed to determine the true cost and risk of commercial crew transport in low Earth orbit.

In other words, NASA should be allowed to ignore the potential of commercial crew transport in low Earth orbit, and instead continue to buy crew transport services from Russia while NASA spends decades and tens of billions of dollars to build a government-designed and government-operated crew transport "business" to compete with U.S. commercial space business, but that does nothing to address national needs like security and commerce.

There is no need for a NASA evaluation of "the true cost and risk of commercial crew transport in low Earth orbit". We already know that such a generic NASA evaluation of "commercial crew transport" is sure to conclude that a NASA-designed and NASA-operated crew transportation system is by far safer, simpler, sooner, better, faster, and cheaper than any imaginable commercial crew transportation. Why even bother with the evaluation when you know its conclusion in advance?

If NASA arranges a crew transportation competition similar to the cargo portion of the original COTS program, NASA will have an opportunity to evaluate the development and operational cost, as well as the risk, of each proposed transport service. The only thing that needs to be done is to select the best ones.

The independent Augustine committee has already reached the same results that the Aldridge Commission and original Vision for Space Exploration did: commercial crew transportation in LEO is essential to human space exploration and the U.S. national interest.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said.