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.

No comments: