Friday, April 02, 2010

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: An Option to Start Beyond LEO Missions

The 2011 NASA budget changes I've described so far simply focus some of the budget categories more on destinations along the Flexible Path to the Moon. This allows us send robotic missions to those destinations to prepare for astronauts. It allows us to do in-space demonstrations of technologies to make astronaut missions to those destinations more affordable and capable. It allows us to place assets like serviceable satellites beyond LEO, where later they will be incentives to develop beyond-LEO astronaut capabilities. Meanwhile, the commercial LEO transport and use of the ISS continue as described in the 2011 budget.

Although this allows us to set the stage for later beyond-LEO missions as intended in step 1 of the Flexible Path to the Moon, it doesn't start us on steps 2 or 3. It leaves us without specific plans for astronaut missions to Lunar orbit, Earth-Moon Lagrange points, GEO, and the lunar surface. This causes controversy with the current NASA plan, and the approach I've outlined is similar in this respect, even though these plans replace a program that wouldn't get astronauts beyond LEO for decades.

We need to wait for results of robotic precursors, technology development and demonstrations, commercial partnerships, and international partnerships to fully achieve exploration and development of cislunar space and the lunar surface. These results will allow us to make the right decisions to complete these steps affordably. For this reason, I'm not alarmed by the postponement of exploration missions in the current plan.

However, we don't need robotic precursors to implement basic first-generation "foot-in-the-door" transport of astronauts or cargo from LEO to cislunar space destinations. We have experience with this sort of technology from Apollo, ISS, Shuttle, and numerous satellites. We don't need technology demonstrations to implement basic hardware like sensors, satellite servicing modules, pre-positioned supplies, or infrastructure letting astronauts accomplish a first set of important objectives at these destinations. We have experience with this sort of technology from the ISS, Hubble servicing, remote sensing satellites, and other missions. Budget allowing, we could start to develop some basic systems to reach and use lunar orbit, GEO, and Earth-Moon Lagrange points in the near term, and gradually bring in additional capabilities as the budget, partnerships, and demonstrated technologies allow. Thus, the 2011 NASA budget could optionally be modified to enable a first set of beyond-LEO missions.

If a commercial approach is taken, acknowledging potential beyond-LEO markets like space tourism and satellite servicing, a small initial funding line comparable to the CCDEV commercial crew effort could start the process. When the transition to the new NASA approach is well under way (i.e. we have gotten over the "Constellation Transition" and "Shuttle Slip Contingency" humps in the budget), we will have funds available to begin to develop some initial operational beyond-LEO systems. If the budget isn't increased, this might come from a moderate (perhaps 10 or 20%) cut to some of the other new budget lines. The result would still be several times larger than the $500M COTS commercial cargo incentive.

A mutually advantageous form of international participation could enable additional beyond-LEO capabilities. There could be a mixture of NASA, commercial, and international contributions.

Later, after a set of enabling technologies is developed and demonstrated, the technology lines can be scaled back to a modest long-term level to allow larger-scale operations along the Flexible Path to the Moon.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

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

... while at the Same Time Supporting the Earth Science, Heliophysics, Astrophysics, and Planetary Science Budgets

It's interesting to consider NASA's new Space Technology budget in the context of the Flexible Path to the Moon. The Space Technology budget is meant to be "crosscutting". It's not meant to serve the needs of NASA Exploration, or NASA Science, or the space industry, or other government agencies. Instead, it's meant to serve the needs of all of these U.S. space interests. NASA technology development that isn't specific to one area and its missions falls in the general Space Technology budget.

Satellite and observatory assembly and servicing includes a broad array of crosscutting technologies. These capabilities are applicable to exploration, as they provide one type of justification for astronauts reaching achievable exploration destinations like Lagrange points, GEO, and lunar orbit, all likely locations for this type of servicing and assembly. They are also applicable to all major NASA science areas. Earth observation satellites, Heliophysics observatories, Astrophysics observatories, and remote sensing Planetary Science (e.g.: lunar orbit) probes, for example, could all potentially benefit from astronaut assembly and servicing. Robotic servicing, possibly combined with astronaut servicing, is another variant of this capability. The ISS can benefit from new servicing and assembly capabilities, and can also serve as a platform for demonstrating or even operating new servicing and assembly capabilities. Satellite servicing also has the potential to benefit other U.S. space agencies, commercial space vendors with space assets to service or with the ability to offer satellite servicing, and international partners. This sort of servicing and assembly work is "crosscutting" in many ways, and thus should be featured prominently in NASA's new Space Technology budget. If the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken, satellite and observatory assembly and servicing will take an even more prominent role, since this is one of the main drivers and benefits of reaching early Flexible Path to the Moon destinations like lunar orbit, GEO, and Earth-Moon Lagrange points.

The 2011 budget features special budget lines set aside for "Small Satellite Subsystem Technologies" and "Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Missions". Satellite and observatory assembly and servicing are similar to small satellite technologies in that they are crosscutting, multifaceted, and potentially highly practical technologies that also deserve a significant slice of the Space Technology budget pie, especially if the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken. It might make sense to create special budget lines within Space Technology for satellite servicing and assembly technologies and demonstration missions.

Some satellite servicing capabilities are well understood, and just need to be transferred to new missions on the serviced and servicing sides. It might make sense to use some of the satellite servicing "demonstration" funds to augment mainstream satellite or observatory missions by adding fairly well-understood features that make the satellites easy to service as technology demonstrations. This could benefit relatively near-term NASA Earth science, Astrophysics, Heliophysics, or Planetary Science missions, missions of other U.S. government agencies, or commercial missions like communications satellites. Demonstrations on the servicing side could take place in the near term only if the satellites are in (or can be moved to) orbits that are reachable before operational beyond-LEO missions are ready. More advanced serviceability and servicing capabilities would be handled like any other pre-demonstration Space Technology work.

Another possible way for the Space Technology budget to support the Flexible Path to the Moon is to fund space exploration technology work through the Centennial Challenges prize program. Prizes could be offered for work at destinations on the Flexible Path to the Moon. We already have the private Google Lunar X PRIZE competition as a model for this sort of opportunity. Centennial Challenge prizes that take advantage of, or that dovetail with, the work being done for that private competition might make sense. This could include variations on lunar surface work, lunar orbit work, and many other possibilities that function within the private competition's limitations on government funding for the prize-winning missions. Using services of future winners of the private competition to deploy various Space Technology products should also be considered. (There are also many similar opportunities within the new HSF Robotic Precursor budget line, especially for "Scout" missions). The Space Technology budget has a good opportunity to support crosscutting needs of NASA Exploration along the Flexible Path to the Moon and commercial and other private space organizations.

There are many other ways that the Space Technology budget can support exploration along the Flexible Path to the Moon and support other U.S. space organizations at the same time. One of the benefits of the Flexible Path to the Moon is that its exploration concentrates on destinations that have many "crosscutting" overlapping needs and benefits with other space organizations focused on science, commerce, and operational needs of the government. The Flexible Path to the Moon specifically concentrates a great deal on destinations like GEO that are mainstays of traditional space work, unlike the Flexible Path to Mars, which doesn't mention GEO and which could be interpreted to skip past other near-term destinations as quickly as possible. This attribute of the Flexible Path to the Moon allows for many crosscutting technologies in the Space Technology budget to be applied to exploration along that path while at the same time benefiting other non-exploration space organizations that use the same destinations.