Saturday, February 13, 2010

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

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