Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Adjusting the Heavy Lift and Propulsion Technology Budget

We have already seen several examples of how the 2011 NASA budget can be adjusted to support the Flexible Path to the Moon by emphasizing near-term space destinations like lunar orbit and Earth-Moon Lagrange points (the same early destinations that start the Augustine Flexible Path to Mars) as well as longer-term destinations on the lunar surface. We simply focus most of our efforts on the reachable destinations along this path rather than difficult destinations like the Martian surface. The 2011 NASA budget for Heavy Lift and Propulsion is no exception.

Early Flexible Path to the Moon destinations don't need heavy lift, and if we can lower launch costs through something closer to mass production of launchers, and at the same time we can demonstrate technologies like autonomous rendezvous and docking, propellant depots, in-space assembly, ISRU, reusable space-only vehicles, and/or reusable lunar landers, we won't need heavy lift for the lunar surface, either. We shouldn't expect success with all of these technologies, but success with a few should be good enough. Leveraging commercial and international participation should also help us develop affordable and sustainable lunar surface access and development without having to develop an unaffordable heavy lift vehicle like Ares V or its close relatives.

It may make sense to advance some sort of heavy lift capability to add to our bag of tricks, but only if it can be done in a way that is both useful and affordable. We don't need heavy lift, but we can surely benefit from useful and affordable heavy lift. Fortunately, the 2011 NASA budget already takes a useful and affordable approach. It develops an RD-180 class engine made in the U.S. that can be used on a future heavy lift vehicle. Such an engine doesn't require a heavy lift vehicle for its justification; it can be used in other rockets (the Atlas V uses the Russian RD-180). Thus, the budget's heavy lift development approach is inherently useful beyond the HLV. The budget's approach also appears to be affordable, leveraging the existing EELV infrastructure and expertise that will exist and need to be paid for whether or not NASA explores or develops an HLV.

The Flexible Path to the Moon would benefit from propulsion capabilities like the following:
  • reusable propulsion for astronaut vehicles to go back and forth between LEO and beyond-LEO cislunar space destinations
  • highly efficient (and possibly reusable) propulsion to get cargo from LEO to beyond-LEO cislunar space destinations
  • propulsion for (possibly reusable) vehicles to get cargo and/or astronauts to and from the lunar surface

If the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken, propulsion research and demonstrations should concentrate on these crucial areas as a higher priority over propulsion to shorten long deep space missions or propulsion for heavy lift.

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Adjusting the Technology Demonstration Budget

The new exploration technology demonstration budget includes a number of in-space demonstrations of new technologies to allow those technologies to be comfortably introduced into later operational missions. Like the robotic precursor missions, these are categorized into a set of larger "flagship" missions and smaller missions. Example technologies identified in the budget include in-orbit propellant transfer and storage, lightweight or inflatable space modules, automated rendezvous and docking, landing technologies, closed-loop life support, ISRU, in-space propulsion, EVAs and servicing, and others. These missions can be done in partnership with commercial or other government agencies.

There are a number of reasons that the next few years are a particularly good time to perform technology demonstrations. The obvious driver is that the Ares-based form of Constellation has failed and is being shut down and the Shuttle has been on a path for retirement for several years, requiring a focus on establishing a foothold in LEO again. Technology demonstrations allow us to make considerably more progress towards exploration than Ares-based Constellation would have made in the same years while much of our attention is necessarily focused on the immediate LEO access problem. Now is also a good time for technology demonstrations because a number of factors give us more opportunities for success with these demonstrations:
  • a focused driver and motivator for selecting and prioritizing technology demonstration choices - The Flexible Path to the Moon can provide this focus and motivation.
  • a backlog of technologies ready for demonstration
  • the near-term availability of the completed, funded, and fully staffed ISS as an in-space technology demonstration platform
  • the growing capabilities of the low-cost and responsive small satellite industrial base
  • the potential near-term availability of commercial reusable suborbital rockets as technology demonstration platforms
  • the near-term availability of robotic HSF precursor missions in the 2011 NASA budget that can serve as technology demonstration platforms
  • the potential for near-term incremental improvements in launch vehicle cost, availability, and responsiveness presented by new entries in the space access market, the NASA COTS program, and shared space access industrial base costs enabled in part by NASA's switch to rockets that can be used by multiple users like the EELVs
  • the potential near-term availability of commercial space lab platforms like the DragonLab that can serve as technology demonstration platforms
  • the availability of commercial space businesses that will likely be interested in partnering with NASA on certain technology demonstrations (e.g.: Bigelow Aerospace and others for inflatable modules, ULA and others for orbital propellant depots) and that will therefore likely be willing to contribute funding and focus to these efforts if they can benefit from the demonstrated technologies
  • the potential availability of early Flexible Path to the Moon destinations as technology demonstration locations - if we can squeeze a basic capability to reach these destinations into the 2011 budget
The approach that should be taken with the technology demonstration missions to enable the Flexible Path to the Moon is to focus most of those missions on technologies that are relevant to cislunar space and the lunar surface. This is just a shift in focus; there should still be room to explore technologies relevant to more futuristic missions. Here are a few examples:

Entry, Descent, and Landing Technologies; Autonomous Precision Landing - Focus should be put on demonstrating landing technologies relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon (precision landing and hazard avoidance on the Moon, landing on Earth following Flexible Path to the Moon missions) rather than on, for example, landing on Mars.

Advanced In-Space Propulsion - Focus should be put on demonstrating in-space propulsion technologies relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon (lunar lander propulsion, efficient and possibly reusable propulsion for cislunar space transportation) rather than on, for example, propulsion for quickly reaching distant deep space destinations like NEOs and Mars.

Human-Robotic Interactive Systems Demonstrations - Focus should be put on demonstrations relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon, like cooperative human and robotic satellite servicing or observatory assembly in cislunar space, or telerobotics for robots on the lunar surface.

Extravehicular Activity Demonstrations - Focus should be put on EVA demonstrations relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon, such as spacesuits usable on the lunar surface, and suits that enable servicing, assembly, and similar work in cislunar space.

You begin to get the idea. If the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken, each type of technology demonstration should be focused mainly on enabling or improving the cislunar and lunar surface destinations along the Flexible Path to the Moon.

The successes and failures of these technology demonstrations will help drive the operational missions on the Flexible Path to the Moon. At the same time, they will still break ground for more distant destinations, since there is room for some deep space technology demonstration work, and since many of the demonstrated technologies have applicability both on and beyond the Flexible Path to the Moon.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Adjusting the Robotic Precursor Mission Budget

NASA's 2011 budget proposal includes a strong line of HSF robotic precursor missions to follow the model of LRO and LCROSS. These precursor missions are intended to blaze a trail for astronauts at various potential HSF destinations like the lunar surface, NEOs, Mars moons, Lagrange points, and Mars. Unlike robotic science missions, these HSF precursor missions will concentrate on identifying hazards and resources of concern to astronauts. Collaboration with NASA Science and non-NASA missions, such has hosting instruments, can also take place.

The budget includes $3B over 5 years for these missions. Two classes of missions are planned: the traditional missions which are expected to cost less than $800M each (typically substantially less), and Scout missions that are expected to cost from $100M to $200M each. It doesn't take much math to realize that in order to do the many jobs required to chart a course for the Flexible Path to the Moon, such as resource assessment, various types of ISRU demonstrations, astronaut site selection, hazard assessment, astronaut site preparation, and others, we will need to concentrate most of these missions on the destinations in the Flexible Path to the Moon. The Moon itself needs to be the primary subject of this series of missions if we're to succeed on the Flexible Path to the Moon. It's worthwhile to spend some effort on later destinations like NEOs, Mars Moons, and Mars, but a "concentration of forces" is needed at the Moon. The same may eventually well be the case at more distant destinations as we begin to accomplish the goals of the Flexible Path to the Moon and turn our gaze to more distant destinations. Indeed, if NASA actually implements the Augustine Flexible Path to Mars as many expect, it should concentrate its precursor missions on the more achievable destinations along that path.

The 2011 NASA robotic precursor budget actually gives the Moon a lot of attention, considering that the Flexible Path to Mars seems to be in favor. The budget starts 2 precursor missions in 2011. One will probably be a lunar surface mission to assess resources and demonstrate telerobotics at the Moon. A second mission could be centered on lunar or asteroid ISRU or NEO/Mars moon landing, so there is a chance that the second mission could go to the Moon, too. Mission starts would continue in later years. The new line of robotic precursor "Scouts" seem to be perfect for small commercial missions like those planned by Google Lunar X PRIZE teams. The Moon would naturally be an appropriate destination for such teams.

Nevertheless, if the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken, an even greater concentration of lunar precursor missions would be needed than is suggested in the 2011 NASA budget. This is just a matter of shifting the distribution of mission destinations within the precursor budget. Even with this shift, the limited funding for precursor robotics and the significant exploration and development ambitions of the Flexible Path to the Moon demand that this line leverages as much as is possible those opportunities offered by commercial space, international partners, and other parts of NASA like Science missions and new technology demonstrations. It is really here in the robotic HSF precursor missions where the Flexible Path to the Moon succeeds or falls short.

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Adjusting the Planetary Science Budget

The proposed Planetary Science budget from 2011 to 2015 includes a number of lunar science missions. The Lunar Quest Program funds LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) and the ILN (International Lunar Network). It also funds Lunar Research and Analysis. The LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) now orbiting the Moon is scheduled to be handed over to the Lunar Quest Program later this year. The ILN is currently under review by the Decadal Survey process because of cost reasons. According to Future Planetary Exploration blog, the Decadal Survey is also considering a Lunar Polar Volatiles Lander.

The Discovery Program is managing GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory), and one of the 3 finalists for the next New Frontiers mission is MoonRise, a lunar sample return mission.

The Lunar Quest Program has a relatively small budget - not much over $100M per year. That makes sense because this program is focused on small, affordable missions and research. Considering GRAIL, and assuming Moonrise wins New Frontiers and ILN or some mission to replace it is funded, an appropriately strong lunar science program to set the stage for the Flexible Path to the Moon would exist. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen.

Noting that the Mars Exploration science budget is about $500M per year, if the Flexible Path to the Moon is to be implemented, it seems appropriate to considerably increase the Lunar Quest Program budget to allow more small lunar science missions, or to start a separate line of larger lunar science missions. This would ensure a steady series of lunar science missions appropriate for the Flexible Path to the Moon. In the near term, this might come at the expense of other planetary science missions, but the capabilities developed along the Flexible Path to the Moon should in the long run build a strong foundation for more cost-effective and ambitious science missions across the solar system. The short-term effect on other planetary science missions might not be great anyway; GRAIL is already funded and it's possible that MoonRise will be funded too. This change simply ensures that a steady series of lunar science missions is funded to help pave the Flexible Path to the Moon, and to set the stage for more detailed lunar science and development when astronauts eventually reach the lunar surface.

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Introduction to Adjusting the Budget

This post begins to consider how to implement the Flexible Path to the Moon largely, but not entirely, within the constraints of the 2011 NASA budget. First, let's consider the first of the 3 steps in the Flexible Path to the Moon. From the original post, the first step is:

Establish a Foothold - The first phase includes developing commercial and international partnerships for the full Flexible Path to the Moon, beginning a long-term program to maintain and fully use the ISS through at least 2020, developing U.S. commercial crew and cargo services to support the ISS, establishing a vigorous technology development program, and starting an ambitious robotic lunar precursor effort for science, resource scouting, engineering tests, and more with NASA, commercial, and international participation. This phase could also include robotic precursors to destinations that are beyond the scope of the Flexible Path to the Moon, like Near Earth Objects and Mars Moons. Given the fairly large number of robotic missions envisioned here in support of the Flexible Path to the Moon, it is likely that there would be fewer outer planets robot missions.

As it turns out, the 2011 NASA budget proposal includes the ISS, commercial crew and cargo, technology development, and robotic precursor elements. In other words, it's a good start for step 1 of the Flexible Path to the Moon. My guess is that the Flexible Path to Mars rather than the Flexible Path to the Moon will be selected, so the focus of the commercial and international partnerships, technology development, and robotic precursors may include more emphasis than the Flexible Path to the Moon would warrant on destinations that come after that path such as NEOs and Mars, but in its general form the 2011 budget matches this first step.

Future posts will look more closely at some of the prominent items in the 2011 NASA budget proposal to see how they could be shaped to better lay the foundation for the Flexible Path to the Moon. These posts will cover Planetary Science, the other NASA Science directorates considered collectively (Earth Science, Heliophysics, and Astrophysics), Space Technology, Technology Demonstration, Heavy Lift and Propulsion Technology, and Robotic Precursor Missions. Finally, I'll present some thoughts on actually starting beyond-LEO missions.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Background

I recently coined the phrase Flexible Path to the Moon for an approach to exploration and development of space by astronauts and robots intended to reach the Moon using gradual, incremental steps that are useful and sustainable. This phrase is based on the Augustine Committee's "Flexible Path to Mars". In fact the Flexible Path to the Moon uses the early destinations of the Augustine Flexible Path to Mars: Earth-Moon Lagrange points and lunar orbit. It also uses various Earth orbits used by satellites will be accessible if these other destinations are accessible. However, the Flexible Path to the Moon takes more time to build infrastructure, establish commerce, gather science data, and develop various operational capabilities at these initial beyond-LEO destinations. As implied by the Augustine Committee, such steps can and ultimately should be a solid foundation for additional exploration at more distant deep space destinations like Earth-Sun Lagrange points, asteroids, and eventually Mars. However, the intent of the Flexible Path to the Moon is to first use that foundation to explore and develop the lunar surface for science, commerce, and security, while at the same time making more distant exploration more achievable through the use of lunar resources.

There are three steps in the Flexible Path to the Moon, with potential overlap between steps. Each step might take a considerable number of years, depending on the available budget. The steps are to establish a foothold in low-Earth orbit that leads to the next steps, to go to beyond low-Earth orbit to lunar orbit, Earth-Moon Lagrange points, and beyond-LEO satellite orbits for immediate practical benefits and to enable later exploration, and finally to reach, explore, and develop the lunar surface.

With the recently-announced 2011 NASA budget proposal, It may be useful to consider how the Flexible Path to the Moon might fit in that proposal. The 2011 NASA budget contains many changes. Very briefly, it cancels the Constellation program intended to support the space station and eventually reach the Moon's surface. It replaces Constellation with human spaceflight precursor robotic missions, a general space technology program, an exploration technology demonstration program, a heavy lift and propulsion effort, a more fully used International Space Station that will be maintained longer and expanded, additional funding for the existing COTS commercial cargo program to account for the more intensely used space station, a program to encourage commercial crew services to the space station, and a considerably expanded Earth observation program.

Although there is some confusion about what the physical destinations will be for the astronaut exploration component of NASA, all indications are that something like the Flexible Path to Mars is planned. Like the Flexible Path to the Moon, this path might include visits to nearby destinations in space as well as the lunar surface. However, it probably would not develop as much infrastructure and capability at these destinations as would the Flexible Path to the Moon. Instead, it would reach more distant deep space destinations before the lunar surface, and would move as quickly as possible to Mars. There is little information yet about what we would do at various destinations. Would the missions be focused on science? Resources? Exploration? No specific exploration hardware or missions have been spelled out. Some details may come soon, and others may have to wait years for results from robotic precursor and technology demonstration missions.

I would argue that the Flexible Path to the Moon is more achievable and affordable than the Flexible Path to Mars, and is also more rewarding. Even though it seems likely that the Flexible Path to the Moon will not be taken, it could be taken, given the decision to do so. The 2011 NASA budget could, with some minor changes in emphasis, begin to implement the Flexible Path to the Moon. That opportunity will be the subject of later posts.