Thursday, February 18, 2010

Consellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Health and Medicine

I haven't been able to determine any returns on taxpayer investment related to health and medicine with the Constellation approach.

The new NASA budget gives the following health and medicine benefits:

Full Utilization of the ISS - One of the suggested plans for the ISS is to deploy a centrifuge for human physiology research. In general, we can expect full use of the ISS to involve more pharmaceutical research and other research related to health and medicine.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - Closed loop life support systems is one of the technologies cited for demonstration in this portfolio. That is likely to involve some aspects of biotechnology and human factors.

Robotic Precursors - One of the jobs of the robotic precursors will be to assess hazards to human health at exploration destinations.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - Jump-starting a commercial crew industry and a stronger commercial cargo industry makes it more likely that a commercial space station or uncrewed space lab industry will develop. Related technology demonstrations also help make this more likely. These platforms are likely to be useful for health and medicine work.

Space Technology - It is possible that some of the work on low-cost space access in this portfolio will encourage the new reusable suborbital rocket industry. The services this industry seeks to offer could be used for various purposes related to health and medicine, such as aerospace medicine tests and qualifying pharmaceutical experiments destined for deployment in orbit.

With its destruction of the ISS in 2015 or 2016, Constellation has little to offer in the way of health and medicine payoffs to the taxpayer. The 2011 budget wins in this category since its competition, Constellation, doesn't even show up in this case.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Commerce

Both Constellation and the new NASA budget generate economic activity, at the expense of taxes that tend to inhibit economic activity. No matter what approach NASA uses, when it spends a certain amount of dollars, it's going to set off a certain "baseline" amount of economic activity as it pays for contractors, who in turn pay for employee salaries, pencils, hardware, computers, and so on. To some extend these events in turn result in more economic activity. What I'm interested in is identifying "value added" or "growth-oriented" economic activity beyond this baseline. First I'll take a look at Constellation.

Constellation is centered on building NASA rockets and spacecraft. This hardware isn't available for use beyond NASA's programs. Thus, the "value added" economic activity generated by Constellation is hidden in the matrix of suppliers for small parts and services. Since NASA's 2011 budget will have similar "value added" cases where suppliers are enabled to generate additional business, I'll consider this type of business as equivalent for Constellation and the 2011 budget.

Lunar Business - The major economic benefit promised by Constellation is the beginning of lunar space business. The theory is that once Constellation starts serious astronaut activity on the lunar surface, NASA will have a need for commercial partnerships to deliver supplies, mine resources, and contribute robotic helpers. These services would in turn be applied to other customers.

There are several problems with this promise. One major problem is the great risk that Constellation will never reach this stage. Another problem is that, since Constellation is not expected to be able to reach the lunar surface until year 2035 or so, economic activity is deferred so long that it's hardly worth considering today. Yet another problem with the theory is that there is no way to ensure that NASA will suddenly decide to use commercial services at that point, rather than using the Ares rockets and other NASA work more. Finally, there is nothing preventing NASA from shifting away from the Moon to some other destination once it's done a few astronaut sorties on the Moon. Thus, Constellation's promise of lunar business is quite weak.

The 2011 budget includes the following "value-added" economic activity.

Space Technology - Participation in this portfolio includes commercial partnerships, such as SBIR and STTR arrangements. The technologies chosen are meant to make commercial (and other) space activities more affordable and capable. Example technologies include sensors, smallsats, robots, materials science, communications, propulsion, and affordable space access. It's easy to see, for example, how improvements in these technologies would be useful in the commercial communications satellite industry. This portfolio includes prizes, which often include small business competitors that develop their businesses while competing.

Heavy lift and Propulsion research and development - The projects within this category can include commercial partnerships, and thus may enable "value-added" business if the commercial partners are interested in the technology as a business driver rather than as a source of profit.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - The projects within this portfolio can involve commercial partnerships, and thus may enable "value-added" business if the commercial partners are interested in the technology as a business driver rather than as a source of profit. In-orbit propellant transfer has the potential to be a driver not just for commercial businesses to supply fuel depots, but also for commercial businesses to supply fuel from Earth and perhaps even derived from space resources. ISRU is also one of the technologies cited here, and that could result in commercial businesses for fuel (as just mentioned) or other goods. Other technology demonstrations may have similar commercial potential.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - Naturally commercial crew and cargo services encourage commercial activity for the ISS. The overall level of economic activity is increased if a COTS-like approach is used, since the development funds include not just NASA money, but also commercial investments to implement the services. In other words, NASA "matches" commercial investments that otherwise would not happen.

There are many facets of this commercial crew and cargo transportation beyond just the ISS. The rockets may be used for all sorts of non-NASA business. The same is true of the spacecraft. For example, new rockets or existing rockets with more shared costs can address commercial and government satellite launches, commercial crew launches to non-NASA destinations, and "DragonLab" sorts of science missions. The crew and cargo capabilities could enable a whole new commercial space station industry with numerous additional business possibilities.

Earth and Climate Science - The additional traditional Earth observation satellites funded by the 2011 budget should at a minimum encourage new technology and satellite industry support that can be applied to NOAA, military, commercial, and intelligence Earth observation satellite missions. There is the potential for "hosted payload" or "data purchase" type of business in this category, too, although that is purely speculative. The small new Venture class missions may help enable commercial smallsats, reusable suborbital rockets, and other small aviation and space businesses with potential beyond the NASA market. Some of the additional funding may be applied to the computer market for data analysis, and that market has plenty of commercial potential.

Planetary Science - The additional funding here can be enabling for similar commercial businesses, such as spacecraft launch, satellites, and robotics.

Robotic Precursor Missions - This new line of missions can be enabling for similar commercial businesses, such as spacecraft launch, satellites, and robotics.

Full Utilization of the ISS - The ISS can be used to encourage new commercial rocket and spacecraft businesses to supply the station. The station can also be used for technology demonstrations with commercial potential, such as inflatable structures and refueling. Some of the research performed on the ISS may be for commercial interests, such as pharmaceutical companies.

21st Century Launch Complex - The overhaul of KSC may open up many new "value-added" business opportunities like cost-effective launch services.

Aeronautics and Green Aviation - The new programs for fuel efficient aviation, national airspace safety, and UAVs in the national airspace all have the potential to enable commercial business.

Much has been made of the new commercial crew opportunities in the 2011 budget. This alone might be enough for the 2011 budget to surpass Constellation in "value-added" economic potential. When all of the other opportunities to promote business growth are considered, the 2011 budget clearly has much more potential than Constellation in the economic category.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Education

Constellation is a single program that offers relatively few ways for students and academic organizations to participate. It is hoped that having a program to return astronauts to the lunar surface will inspire students to be interested in STEM fields as happened during the Sputnik and Apollo eras. However, it's difficult to see how this can happen when the Vision for Space Exploration's approach has been discarded by Constellation, and an "Apollo on Steriods" approach is used instead. An 8 year old third grader in 2005, when ESAS essentially replaced the Vision for Space Exploration, would have to be inspired by a program that may return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2035 or so, when they're 38 years old ... and since there's little commercial participation, international participation, or technology innovation of the sort envisioned in the VSE, at best ESAS will be able to do little more than Apollo did long ago. It's unlikely many students will be inspired by that prospect.

In contrast, the approach used in the 2011 budget encourages STEM and educational participation in a number of ways:

NASA Education - This includes educational activities like the new "Summer of Innovation". The overall budget also includes participatory exploration activities across various programs. Participatory exploration will encourage interest in STEM.

Space Technology - Participation in this portfolio includes academic partnerships. There should be many opportunities for universities and their students to get involved in the diverse efforts to develop improvements for sensors, smallsats, robots, materials science, propulsion, affordable space access, and other space technologies. Prizes, one of the methods used in this category, often include university teams and educational outreach.

Heavy lift and Propulsion research and development - The projects within this category can include academic partnerships, and thus participation by academic researchers and their students.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - The "enabling technology development program" within this portfolio can involve academic partnerships, and thus participation by academic researchers and their students.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - The commercial transportation services may result in lower-cost launch that makes space more accessible to education interests like universities.

Earth and Climate Science - The funding increase for Earth science missions should give opportunities for educational participation and outreach. For example, students should have access to mission science data, and the missions should include an outreach component. It would not be unusual for university researchers and students to supply missions with components like science instruments. The small new Venture class missions should be even more accessible to university researchers and their students.

Planetary Science - As with the Earth science budget, the Planetary science funding increase should give opportunities for educational outreach, student access to science data, and university participation in the missions themselves.

Robotic Precursor Missions - It's probably safe to speculate that the robotic precursor missions will include educational outreach activities, student data access, and university involvement in mission formulation like other NASA robotic missions.

Full Utilization of the ISS - One of the goals for the increased use of the ISS is to make ISS facilities "available to educators and new researchers".

The new NASA budget provides many opportunities to make an "Open NASA" that gives students and universities on-ramps to participate in and learn from NASA work. The best way to inspire students in space isn't to show them they may see astronauts on TV again when they're much older if all goes well, it's to allow them to contribute to real space activities.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Consellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Science

Constellation gives the following science benefits:

Ares V heavy lift - Science returns from payloads such as space probes launched by Ares V could be quite impressive. However, it's not clear that such expensive heavy lift rockets or their payloads are affordable by NASA science disciplines or other science organizations. Also, heavy lift would not be available until about the year 2028.

Science Hitchhikers - One proposal included hitchhiker packages in Orion launches. These packages could add bonus science value to Orion missions.

Lunar Surface Science - One of the goals of the lunar surface visits planned by Constellation is to do science there. This could include lunar science, astrophysics, heliophysics, and even Earth observations. However, these lunar visits would not be expected to occur until the mid 2030's, if then. That is so far in the future that it becomes difficult to expect that the program would survive after so many years. However, if it occurs, and NASA is able to deliver a large payload per mission and to afford a steady pace of missions, the science results at the lunar surface can be expected to be significant.

The 2011 budget includes many new missions that can return science results and many new technologies that can enable science.

Space Technology - Many, if not most, of the advances sought in this category would benefit science, especially science conducted by space missions (such as NASA planetary science, Earth science, heliophysics, and astrophysics, NOAA Earth science operations, etc). Examples identified in NASA's budget documents include sensors, robotics, materials, propulsion, low-cost access to space, small satellites, and rapid prototyping.

Heavy lift and Propulsion research and development - If heavy lift is to be useful to science, it needs to be affordable. This research and development effort seeks to make heavy lift affordable. Even if it's not successful in that goal, some of the results may lead to improvements in smaller launch vehicles that would benefit science payloads. The same is true for general propulsion research in this category.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - The exploration technology demonstrations in this line would, if successful, lead to improved human space exploration that can contribute science results. Some of the technologies are also useful for purely robotic science missions. Examples include in-orbit propellant storage and transfter, automated rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support, power generation and storage, telerobotics, ISRU, advanced in-space propulsion, and inflatable structures. It is possible that some of the technology demonstrations themselves will return science data, just as past technology demonstrator missions like DS-1 and EO-1 did.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - This effort is expected to result in more options to support the ISS, enabling science experiments and technology demonstrations that can lead to later science improvements there. It may also help enable commercial space stations and other services (eg: the SpaceX DragonLab) that can be used for science. It can also be expected to lead to lower-cost rockets to replace the role of the Delta II, as well as shared launch costs for science missions that use EELVs.

Earth and Climate Science - The budget includes a large increase in NASA Earth science mission funding, which should result in several more science satellite missions identified by the National Academies being flown this decade. In addition, it expands funding for smaller Venture-class science missions (also identified by the National Academies).

Planetary Science - The budget include a significant increase in NASA Planetary science mission funding. It increases funding for Near Earth Object searches, starts Plutonium-238 production for deep space missions, and continues the pipeline of planetary science missions.

Robotic Precursor Missions - These robotic missions are designed specifically to scout destinations for human spaceflight for resources and hazards rather than for science. However, it's a safe bet that scientifically useful data will be returned by these missions in the process, and that technologies useful to science will be introduced or supported by these missions.

Full Utilization of the ISS - The full use of the ISS for research and development considerably improves the expected science results from this facility, as do the intended support for the ISS through 2020 or beyond and a new program to continuously upgrade ISS capabilities.

Space Shuttle - The additional funding for the Space Shuttle ensures that it completes its missions to the ISS, and thus helps enable the science work that can be done there.

21st Century Launch Complex - This includes improvements in the Kennedy Space Center range and payload processing capacity that could be useful to science missions launched there.

In terms of science returns, the taxpayer wins in dramatic fashion with the 2011 budget. Constellation's large potential science return from lunar surface work is greatly offset by the expectation that it would happen so far in the future, if at all. There is a substantial risk that, with Constellation's high cost, long schedule, and all-or-nothing approach, it would never achieve its objectives.

The 2011 budget's broad push on multiple science missions and science-enabling technology fronts ensures that, even though there will be individual failures, a considerable amount of new science data and an increase in science mission capabilities per dollar spent will be achieved. Whether that science data and increase in capabilities succeeds in establishing the foundations for later beyond-LEO astronaut successes in science and other fields remains to be seen.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Consellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Energy and Environment

Constellation gives the following energy/environmental benefit:

Ares V heavy lift - Heavy lift could be used to launch major environment monitoring satellites. However, it's not clear that such expensive heavy lift rockets or their payloads are affordable by environment or energy agencies, or that alternate strategies like dry launch and in-orbit fueling, docking, and in-space assembly wouldn't work better even if such payloads can be afforded in the first place. Also, Ares V heavy lift would not be available until about the year 2028.

The new NASA budget gives the following energy and environment benefits:

Critical Technology Demonstrations - This portfolio includes technologies useful for environmental stewardship on Earth like closed-loop life support systems (i.e. recycling). It also includes technologies that ultimately should allow us to better maintain and service environment monitoring satellites, such as in-situ resource utilization and in-orbit propellant transfer and storage. This effort also includes power generation and storage technologies that could have use on Earth.

Space Technology - This effort in general space technology includes many technologies that can benefit Earth observation satellites that can monitor the environment, help transportation systems on Earth run more efficiently, and assess energy resources on Earth. Examples presented in the budget documents include communications, sensor, materials, small satellites, and low-cost access to space.

Full Utilization of the ISS - Remarks by NASA management in the budget rollout indicate that one of the uses of the ISS would be to fly Earth Science payloads. Use of commercial crew for ISS transportation and demonstrations of inflatable structures on the ISS could help bring about commercial space stations that could be used for the same purpose.

21st Century Launch Complex - The upgrades to the Kennedy Space Center include enhanced environmental cleanup.

Earth and Climate Science - NASA's Earth Sciences portfolio gets a large increase, which is directly applicable to monitoring the environment. This includes accelerating the development of several new environment monitoring satellites. It also includes expanding and speeding up the new Venture-class Earth science missions, which are small Earth science investigations appropriate for suborbital rockets, small satellites, and other low-cost platforms.

Aeronautics and Green Aviation - The increases for Aeronautics include environmentally responsible aviation work.

It's pretty clear that the new budget is a win from the energy/environment perspective.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Consellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Security

I will define national security fairly broadly, and include the military, intelligence agencies, homeland security, disaster warning, and disaster response.

Constellation gives the following national security benefits:

Ares V heavy lift - Impressive security payloads could be launched by Ares V. However, it's not clear that such expensive heavy lift rockets or their payloads are affordable by security agencies. Also, heavy lift would not be available until about the year 2028.

Partial common hardware with EELVs - This commonality encourages lower cost to security agencies for some EELV components. However, this benefit pales in comparison with the alternative, which is actually using EELVs. Also, significant benefits don't begin until Ares I operations in 2017-2019, and they are still quite minor due to low Ares I flight rates. Only when Ares V becomes operational would this benefit be felt.

Solid rocket support - This advantage seems to be quite indirect and diluted compared to the more straightforward security benefits that come with the new budget.

The new NASA budget gives the following national security benefits:

Space Technology - Many of the investments in this portfolio, such as sensors, robotics, propulsion, materials, small satellites, low-cost access to space, rapid prototyping, and communications, can be expected to benefit the military, intelligence agencies, disaster warning and response, and homeland security. Some of this work will also share launch infrastructure costs with security agencies.

Heavy lift and Propulsion research and development - Research and development into cost-effective heavy lift may provide benefits to the various security interests. If heavy lift is ever to benefit such organizations, it is going to have to become affordable, so investments in affordable heavy lift now seem more useful than starting to build an unaffordable heavy lifter after Ares I is operational. In addition, even if affordable heavy lift doesn't pan out, such R&D results might be applied to other classes of rockets. General propulsion research and in-space engine technology development should also benefit security organizations.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - Some of these demonstrations will be very useful for security agencies. For example, in-orbit propellant transfer would be useful for providing a market for EELVs and new low-cost rockets, lowering their per-unit price. Such technology could also be used to maintain security satellites. The applicability of various demonstrations to security will depend on the individual technology, but many can be expected to be helpful. Some of this work will also share launch infrastructure costs with security agencies.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - The additional cargo funding could bring Falcon 9 and Taurus II rockets online faster, making these rockets available to security agencies. The commercial crew effort would bring more flights to EELV or new low-cost rockets, presenting security agencies savings by sharing infrastructure costs or by availability of new low-cost rockets (or both). This effect could be greater if additional markets for crew transportation are established. In addition, our dependence on the Russian Soyuz for crew rescue since the beginning of the ISS and for crew transportation has been cited as a security liability. The Augustine Committee estimates that Ares I would be ready by 2017-2019, whereas commercial crew would be ready by 2016 at the latest.

Earth and Climate Science - The new missions in this portfolio will allow more cost-sharing with national security rockets. In addition, the satellites and their sensors will allow shared industry support with national security satellites, especially those that observe the Earth (spy satellites, missile warning satellites, natural disaster warning satellites such as NOAA's weather satellites, etc). The new funding for Venture-class Earth science missions may encourage the reusable suborbital rocket and smallsat industries, which will present new opportunities for Operationally Responsive Space and other security functions.

Robotic Precursor Missions - These missions will also share industry support with security agencies for launch vehicles, satellites, and robots.

Aeronautics and Green Aviation - New funding for unmanned vehicles in the national airspace may help broaden this technology used for security.

Full Utilization of the ISS - Closer ties with ISS partners helps certain international relationships which may be advantageous from a security standpoint.

Planetary Science - The new budget restarts plutonium-238 production in support of deep space exploration. Our current dependence on Russia for plutonium-238 has been cited as a weakness, and this budget would begin the long process to remove that weakness. In addition, the Near Earth Object survey is strengthened, delivering a certain sort of security to the Earth.

The security benefits of the new NASA budget seem more numerous, direct, timely, widely applicable, likely to actually happen, and of larger magnitude than their Constellation counterparts.

Consellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Overview

Now that the 2011 NASA budget proposal has been released, we know that many dramatic changes may be in store for the space agency. These changes include, among other things
  • a modest budget increase (in a difficult budgetary environment)

  • a large new exploration technology development and demonstration program for ISRU, in-orbit refueling, inflatable modules, and more

  • a new research and development program for exploration propulsion and heavy lift

  • a general space technology program that includes existing programs, but with a considerably larger budget

  • a robotic human spaceflight precursor program with a budget that is considerably larger than the historical budget for such missions

  • a larger budget for space station use, with the intent to continue the ISS until 2020 or beyond

  • a major new program for U.S. commercial crew transport to the ISS, and new incentives for the existing commercial cargo effort

  • additional funding for the Space Shuttle to ensure it completes the ISS

  • major upgrades to the Kennedy Space Center

  • a big increase in the NASA Earth sciences budget

  • an increase in the planetary science budget, with continuing work on missions to potential HSF destinations (GRAIL, MSL, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars 2016) and other destinations, more NEO search funding, and plutonium-238 production start

  • an increase for Aeronautics

The budget also cancels the whole ESAS-derived Constellation plan to build a NASA system to transport astronauts to the space station and later to the Moon. It does not replace Constellation with another beyond-LEO astronaut program; the nature, schedule, and destinations for any such program are still being evaluated. This cancellation has prompted a considerable amount of debate and commentary in the media and various space interests.

Even though there was a budget increase, the planned increase over several years is smaller than that envisioned by the Augustine Committee, so we may see something that more closely resembles the Augustine "ISS Focused" option than any of the others, but with stronger technology development and commercial transportation efforts than we might have expected.

In light of all of the controversy over the 2011 budget proposal, including calls that "NASA is cancelled," and "U.S. human spaceflight is cancelled," I'd like to compare the budget with the Constellation program of record using a number of measures based on what I'll call "national benefits". The comparisons will be qualitative, but I think it's useful to look at the budget proposal from these different perspectives to get a better overall picture of what the changes are. Although the views are individually narrow, I hope that in combination we get a good overall view of the changes, what they can deliver for the taxpayer, and how they compare to NASA under Constellation.

I don't intend to compare the new budget to other proposals, including the Flexible Path to the Moon that I prefer over the new budget since it attempts to do achievable exploration and development in the near term using existing rockets while retaining most of the strong research and technology development, ISS use, and commercial participation seen in the 2011 budget. Instead of comparing the 2011 budget to this or that idea for NASA, my focus is simply to compare the new budget to the status quo Constellation-based program of record to see if the changes are an improvement. I will refrain from giving the new budget plan credit for exploration results that may occur in later years, since we don't know what the detailed exploration plan is.

The national benefits I've selected as measures for this evaluation are security, environment and energy, economy, science, health and medicine, and education. These are areas where there are national-level problems and opportunities, where taxpayers have historically been willing to invest tax money in, and where space can have a role to play.

I could compare the current budget and Constellation using many other criteria, such as ability to make reasonable progress given a changing budget (i.e. sustainability), international partnerships, commercial participation, robotic (non-science) HSF precursors, ISS and general space station use, technology development, and affordable space access, but I think it's pretty obvious that the new budget is better than the Constellation version of NASA in all of those areas.

I could also attempt to compare the current budget and Constellation in terms of destinations and specific exploration plans, but the current budget's exploration plans are not available yet and are likely to depend on results of robotic precursors and technology developments. In addition, Constellation's small chance of being able to do "Apollo on Steroids" in the mid 2030's strikes me as falling far short of what is needed for a space exploration and development program worth the cost. As far as beyond-LEO astronaut exploration is concerned, I simply have to consider both plans as "incomplete."

The following will show links to the various comparisons as they are completed.

Consellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Security

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Energy and Environment

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Health and Medicine

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Science

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Commerce

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Education