Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That Would Have Saved Me a Lot of Time

Summoning the Future By Remembering the Past - SpaceRef - Dennis Wingo's statement describes what I've intended, in a rather long-winded way, to say on this blog:

When the Obama administration's FY 2010 budget was introduced it was a breath of fresh air. The unsustainable Constellation program was cancelled and commercial spaceflight was embraced to support the ISS, and technology game changing missions funded that would lower the cost and provide a flexible path for exploration. However, the abandonment of a destination coupled with no real rational for what to do in Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration erased the vision (i.e. sense of purpose) part of the exploration plan.


The economic development of the solar system was the core value that made George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration exciting and worthwhile to the nation. The implementation was horribly done in the most wrong way possible. The Obama plan is the right implementation, but without the core value of economic development starting at the Moon, it is bereft of a moral underpinning.

The Obama administration's implementation is the right one, and the one that was intended with Bush's Vision for Space Exploration: make heavy use of robotic precursor missions, enable strong participation by commercial space and international partners, ensure that the effort is affordable over the long term, make steady progress, and encourage practical technology innovation.

The Flexible Path idea of performing easier deep space missions on the way to the surface of rocky worlds also makes sense. However, as distances increase, these deep space missions tend to become more difficult themselves, and to become less immediately useful in an economic sense. A hybrid of missions to the earlier, easier, and more immediately practical Flexible Path destinations done often enough to develop space infrastructure and commercial capabilities at those destinations, followed by a strong lunar surface push enabled by that infrastructure as planned in the Vision for Space Exploration, would keep the best parts of both approaches, while in the long run making the more distant deep space destinations on the Flexible Path more reachable.

The Administration's plan looks particularly strong in the area of technology - perhaps too strong for some - but this appearance could be changed simply by renaming some of the Flagship Technology Demonstrations to be simply "Missions", "Modules", and "Spacecraft". For the initial set we'd have the Space Tug spacecraft, the Inflatable Habitat ISS module, the Advanced Solar Electric Propulsion mission, and the Aerocapture mission ... and we'd still have a couple "Flagship Technology Demonstrations" as well.

Switching the Heavy Lift and Propulsion Technology effort to an affordable, modest increase in EELV or similar capabilities (e.g.: to 40-50mT to LEO) with development starting fairly soon would also give the Administration's proposal more of an operational flavor, while still leaving NASA with a strong technology portfolio.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle

In the previous posts in this series (see the tag below for the whole bunch), I speculated on what might be accomplished with a compromise between the Senate and the Administration in the Exploration areas of NASA's FY2011-FY2015 budget. My hypothetical scenario took the Senate Authorization bill as a baseline, since that bill gives some idea what would happen over several years. In particular, that bill a good idea what the Senate has in mind after the Shuttle is retired. In the other posts, I showed areas that could be made much better by shifting funds from the Senate's Heavy Lift rocket and Orion budget lines (or the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as they are called in the bill). In this post, I'll look at what might happen to the HLV and astronaut spacecraft.

First, let's look at the funding that's available for the HLV and spacecraft in the Senate bill. Figures are in millions of dollars.


The Launch Support and Infrastructure Modernization program is

a program the primary purpose of which is to prepare infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center that is needed to enable processing and launch of the Space Launch System.

We are therefore justified in lumping this funding with the other SLS/MPCV budget lines.

If we project the trend here through FY2015, we have an SLS/MPCV program that would cost $21B or so over that period. That's after $10B or so invested in Constellation.


Now we know how the Commercial Crew, Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration, Robotic Precursor, Space Technology, and commercially-oriented KSC upgrade budgets all but vanished.

Our hypothetical example compromise reduced the SLS/MPCV budget by $1B/year, or $5B total. That still leaves about $16B dedicated to the SLS and MPCV over this period. It would still be a huge NASA effort. The question is, would cutting their budgets by this amount do the same thing to SLS/MPCV that SLS/MPCV did to Commercial Crew, Exploration Technology, Robotic Precursor, Space Technology, and the rest in the Senate budgets? I don't think so. I think we could still have a viable HLV and spacecraft program with $16B over this time period, perhaps building on some of the work already done for Constellation.

First let's take a look at some of the provisions in the bill:

Requirements in new launch and crew systems authorized in this Act should be scaled to the minimum necessary to meet the core national mission capability needed to conduct cis-lunar missions. These initial missions, along with the development of new technologies and in-space capabilities can form the foundation for missions to other destinations. These initial missions also should provide operational experience prior to the further human expansion into space. ...
It is the policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.

In addition, the MPCV should have the

capability to conduct regular in-space operations, such as rendezvous, docking, and extra-vehicular activities, in conjunction with payloads delivered by the Space Launch System developed pursuant to section 302, or other vehicles, in preparation for missions beyond low-Earth orbit or servicing of assets described in section 804, or other assets in cis-lunar space.

This is exactly the sort of capability that I argue for in what I call "step 2", the centerpiece, of the Flexible Path to the Moon. The ability to usefully access destinations like GEO, lunar orbit, and Earth-Moon Lagrange points is crucial. Having a vehicle that allows EVAs, rendezvous and docking, servicing of space assets, and other jobs in cislunar space is a key enabler of future exploration, commerce, science, and security applications. I'm pleased the Senate focuses so much on this sort of capability, rather than Constellation which focused mainly on Ares I/Orion ISS access, causing the next step, straight to the lunar surface in decades-long slow motion, to be a leap too far. Lunar access needs to happen in a more incremental fashion, building on self-sustaining cislunar space capabilities.

I am concerned with the development cost of the SLS and MPCV and its effect on other priorities, and I am also concerned with the eventual operations costs of these systems. However, at least they are focused on appropriate goals, even if those goals might better be achieved with commercially-derived launchers such as the ideas based on EELVs. However, in the spirit of compromise, let's see if we can make this Shuttle and Orion-derived cislunar space capability work with $16B through FY2015.

The Senate bill requires

The initial capability of the core elements, without an upper stage, of lifting payloads weighing between 70 tons and 100 tons into low-Earth orbit in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit. ... The capability to carry an integrated upper Earth departure stage bringing the total lift capability of the Space Launch System to 130 tons or more. ... Developmental work and testing of the core elements and the upper stage should proceed in parallel subject to appropriations. Priority should be placed on the core elements with the goal for operational capability for the core elements not later than December 31, 2016.

This brings up a number of areas where the Senate could relax requirements, and thereby increase the ultimate chance of success for the SLS while allowing other programs like Robotic Precursors and Exploration Technology to function. First, the Senate could relax the December 2016 date. I don't think there's anything urgent planned that day, so why not push it back a year or 2? The same goes for the MPCV, which has similar schedule requirements.

Another item that could be postponed is the upper stage. Do we really need to work on the upper stage in parallel with the core elements? Relaxing that requirement will allow the program to concentrate on the core elements, and thus increase the chance of success in that area, while at the same time allowing other programs (potential SLS payloads in some cases?) to survive, thus removing several sources of political opposition to the SLS. The core elements should keep us busy for quite a while. The upper stage could be considered much later.

The SLS also has a requirement to launch the MPCV. The Senate could change that requirement so the SLS doesn't have to go through the expense of crew rating. The MPCV could be morphed into an in-space only vehicle, with crew space access enabled by commercial crew services.

The MPCV could be scaled back to a CRV as the Administration suggested this Spring. This could be a temporary move to allow funding for other areas, and the MPCV could later reach full functionality (as an Orion-like vehicle or an in-space only - perhaps even reusable - vehicle).

The 70 and 130 ton requirements also present a potential difficulty. They seem to lead NASA to an inline SDHLV, since the sidemount options can't reach 130 ton capability with reasonable upgrade paths. However, NASA's sidemount and inline development cost estimates (PDF; see slide page 7) are $11B and $15B, respectively, if Shuttle is cancelled. The same charts show sidemount being delivered 2 years earlier than inline, and being a low-risk development compared to what they assess to be the high risk of inline options. In addition, the sidemount has an early Block I variant that could be performing missions even earlier, and that variant could be developed for much less than the combined Block I and Block II, perhaps allowing much of the Block II development work to be done after our years of concern FY2011-FY2015. A chart from the NASASpaceflight.com article Completed SD HLV assessment highlights low-cost post-shuttle solution shows the Block I development costs as $2.5B, although there would be other costs such as KSC infrastructure work.

In the universe of Shuttle-derived HLVs, inline options have their own advantages over sidemount variants (perhaps including growth options as well as safety if crew launch is to be supported), but if we put a premium on lower development costs because we want a compromise between the Senate and Administration plans, and thus want to have more funding for Exploration Technology Demonstration and Development, Robotic Precursors, Commercial Crew, or other Administration proposals, sidemount may be preferable overall, and good enough to meet the goals of the Senate.

In short, there are many ways the Senate can relax SLS and/or MPCV requirements, including schedule, performance, and functional capabilities. Depending on which of these options are taken, doing so could leave enough funding to bring other NASA budget lines from the Senate's non-viable condition to adequate, if limited, health. Even with such a compromise, the SLS and MPCV would still have every chance to succeed and contribute to NASA's work, and in fact they may be even healthier because they might gain payloads and spacecraft technology, as well as political support, from the other budget lines.

On the other hand, a stubborn line-in-the-sand approach would likely leave the SLS and MPCV with no technology and robotic precursor payloads, no exploration technology infusion into the MPCV, numerous political enemies, impossible schedules, difficult performance requirements, and expected functionality that will have to be dropped during development.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Commercial Crew

If you've been reading this series of posts from the beginning, by now you will have noticed a pattern. In the areas of the NASA budget where there is some disagreement, the Senate bills cut funding for the Administration proposals so much that those areas cannot accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. I don't intend to discuss all of them. Commercial crew is one example that deserves some discussion, though. Here's how commercial crew fares in the Administration and Senate Authorization proposals (the Senate Appropriations Committee was less favorable to Commercial Crew in the year it covered, FY2011):


If we extrapolate the Senate's post-Shuttle, post-COTS figures, over FY2011-FY2015, Commercial Crew gets $2.3B from the Senate, and $5.8B from the Administration. That's a dramatic cut by the Senate, especially considering the concern that some members of the Senate say they have for astronaut safety. Some members of the Senate are also critical of one commercial space company in particular, but it seems that if the Senate has a Commercial Crew line but drastically underfunds it, only companies like that one with a focus of low cost will be able to compete for the money in the commercial crew line!

It should be noted that Senator Nelson has stated that the Senate's Commercial Crew funding would be stretched to FY2016, and would include the full amount requested by the Administration by then. That's a bit hard to believe. Look how far behind the Senate is by FY2013 already. Then consider that a sharp increase in Commercial Crew funding would have to come at the expense of some other program. What budget will be cut for this far-future promised Commercial Crew increase? Will it come from the SLS? Orion? I doubt it. Will the SLS or Orion suddenly need far less funding in FY2014? I doubt it. Quite the opposite is more likely. Those programs will either hit the usual schedule delays and cost overruns, or they will need to start thinking about big end-of-development costs for major tests, followed by high operations costs. The promised future Commercial Crew funds sound like Dr. Griffin's promise of commercial markets on the Moon based on government lunar infrastructure needs. That's a good idea, but when it's obvious that your particular transportation architecture isn't going to lead to government lunar infrastructure in the first place, the promise has a particularly hollow ring.

In my hypothetical improvement to the Senate's Not-So-Great "Compromise", half of the $1B/year shifted from SLS/Orion in favor of robotic precursor missions, exploration technology development and demonstrations, and commercial crew would go to the Commercial Crew line. Over 5 years this would increase the Commercial Crew amount from the Senate's $2.3B to $4.8B, which approaches the Administration's amount. If we continue Commercial Crew development funding for an additional year as suggested by Senator Nelson, and use the same funding rate, we get to $5.8B, which is the amount the Administration proposed.

Suddenly the Senate's Commercial Crew plan that is scaled to almost ensure a risky corner-cutting effort is changed to one that can support a healthy competition with both traditional and new competitors and their differing approaches. It won't be quite as fast as the Administration's original plan, and it won't have nearly as much KSC support, since in the Senate Appropriations report the 21st Century Launch Complex line must give NASA vehicles like the SLS priority, but it should enable multiple independent crew solutions that have enough funding to provide the safety and reliability features we need.

So, to sum up the last few posts, with a $1B/year shift from SLS/Orion to robotic precursors, commercial crew, and exploration technology, we should be able to turn those funding lines from completely non-viable shadows of their intended capabilities to functional, if quite limited, focused, and lean, versions of the original plan. At the same time this compromise can leave SLS/Orion in functional shape, too, as I'll discuss in the next post. Of course there is nothing magical about the $1B/year figure - others could work, too.

Does the plan give the Administration everything they want? No - it still limits and delays funds for robotic precursors, commercial crew, and exploration technology. It leaves the Space Technology line as it is now in the Senate bills. It leave Human Research as it is now in the Senate bills. It eliminates the Administration's Heavy Lift and Propulsion research and development line. It changes the purpose of the 21st Century Launch Complex line. It does all of this, but it gives the Administration some of what it wants by making some of its proposals viable. Unlike the current Senate bills, that would represent a real compromise.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Exploration Technology Demonstrations and Development

Like the Robotic Precursor missions, NASA's proposed Exploration Technology and Demonstrations program includes 2 main categories of work. In this case, the 2 categories are Flagship Technology Demonstrations and Enabling Technology Development and Demonstration.

The Flagship Technology Demonstrations are major demonstrations of exploration technologies. These missions are expected to cost from $400M to $1B each. The Enabling Technology Development and Demonstration efforts are smaller (typically under $100M), and could include lab work, field tests, and even demonstrations in space.

NASA's initial FY2011 Enabling Technology Development and Demonstration (ETDD) Point of Departure Plans (PDF) included the following:

  • Lunar Volatiles Characterization - Demonstrate ISRU technology in a thermal vacuum chamber followed by testing on the Moon as part of a robotic precursor mission.
  • High Power Electric Propulsion - Demonstrate a prototype > 100 kW solar electric propulsion system in a thermal vacuum chamber with the intent to eventually demonstrating the technology in space under the Flagship Technology Demonstrations program.
  • Autonomous Precision Landing - demonstrate an autonomous landing and hazard avoidance system on Earth, perhaps using a VTVL landing vehicle as a carrying platform. This would eventually lead to a test on a body like the Moon.
  • Human Exploration Telerobotics - Demonstrate telerobotics to and from the ISS to simulate telerobotics for NEOs or Mars.
  • Fission Power Systems Technology - Demonstrate components of a 40 kW fission power system.

NASA's ambitious Flagship Technology Demonstrations Point of Departure (POD) Plans (PDF) includes an initial set of 4 missions to demonstrate 6 exploration technologies. The initial set of Flagship exploration technologies is:

  • Advanced Solar Electric Propulsion - including advanced solar arrays
  • In-Orbit Propellant Storage and Transfer
  • Lightweight/Inflatable Modules
  • Automated/Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking (AR&D)
  • Closed-Loop Life Support - demonstrated in the new module on the ISS
  • Aerocapture and/or Entry, Descent and Precision Landing

These initial technologies would be demonstrated on 4 missions:

Like the Robotic Precursor line, the Senate drastically underfunds NASA's Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration line compared to the Administration's plan. Let's compare the Administration and Senate Authorization proposals for this account. Figures are in millions of dollars:


If we extend the Authorization Committee's post-Shuttle pattern to FY2015, we see that there is a about a 4-fold difference: about $7.8B in the Administration budget compared to about $2.0B in the Senate budget.

Let's see how much we can accomplish with the 2 budgets. This will require making some assumptions. Let's assume NASA doesn't scale its technology efforts to brush against the upper limits on the Flagship and Enabling programs (i.e. $1B and $100M, respectively), but when faced with the typical setbacks and delays in aerospace work, the projects wind up costing about those amounts anyway. In that case, how much can we get done with the 2 approaches?

I've described NASA's initial set of technology efforts. However, these are only the initial set. Even if we assume the 4 Flagship missions cost $1B each, and the 5 Enabling Technology efforts cost $100M each, we are still only at $4.5B of the planned $7.8B in the Administration budget. There is room for quite a few more Flagship Demonstration missions and Enabling Technology developments in that budget. Not only that, but for the later missions, the AR&D space tug vehicle will have completed a diverse set of demonstrations, so we could expect later Flagship missions that use the space tug to be cheaper or to demonstrate even more "payload" capabilities, since they likely would not have to fund development of new AR&D vehicle capabilities.

In contrast, the Senate doesn't allow us to accomplish much with this line. We could fund the initial 5 Enabling Technology efforts for $500M. We would have trouble taking successes from these efforts to the next level, though, in cases where the intent is to move the technology to a Robotic Precursor or a Flagship Technology Demonstration, since those 2 lines are drastically underfunded in the Senate bills. We could find ourselves with a number of technologies successfully demonstrated on Earth that wind up dying on the vine.

In addition to the 5 smaller ETDD efforts, we could also fund the first Flagship Technology Demonstration mission, and start funding the 2nd one. At that point, with the cost assumptions I made, we will have exhausted our funds. The first Flagship Technology Demonstration mission will have demonstrated limited autonomous rendezvous and docking capabilities, an advanced solar array system like DARPA's FAST array, and a 30 kW solar electric propulsion system. That would be the end through FY2015.

In other words, of the 6 initial technologies proposed for the Flagship line, with the Senate we will have demonstrated 1 instead of what we could expect with the Administration budget: all 6 and several more.

The advanced solar array and solar electric propulsion system should find many practical uses in commercial, military, and civil applications, unlike, say, a NASA heavy lift rocket where NASA has to maintain an expensive infrastructure whether or not it uses it. Thus, completing only FTD-1 is not a complete loss. In fact, it is the potential for such practical uses, and the associated motivation non-NASA (commercial, government, or academic) partners (in this case probably including DARPA) have to demonstrate these technologies so they are available for production use, that will provide the additional focus (and perhaps funding) that will help these missions to succeed.

However, as practical as it is, by itself, even a successful demonstrate of the solar electric propulsion and advanced solar array technology on FTD-1 will not be enough to enable cost-effective, productive, and safe BEO astronaut work. It will have nice side benefits, but by itself it will not make much difference to exploration, its main purpose.

Essentially the Senate bill as it stands would cause the exploration technology effort to fail. With that bill, we will do what we can with existing technology, and that will be the end of it.

Is there a compromise between the Senate and Administration proposals that would allow the exploration technology effort to succeed, even though the ambitions of the effort would be more limited than those that NASA originally proposed? I think there is.

Earlier, I used an example $1B/year increase in robotic precursors, commercial crew, and exploration technology over the Senate proposal at the expense of the HLV, Orion, and Shuttle budgets as a sample compromise between the Senate and Administration proposals (i.e. this would fall much closer to the Senate proposal than the Administration proposal). In this rough example, Exploration Technology received an additional $250M/year, on average, compared to the Senate bill. That leaves it with about $3B from FY2011-2015 instead of the Senate's $2B or the Administration's $7.8B. In terms of money, we aren't going far from the Senate proposal here. What can we do with $3B given the above assumptions?

With $3B instead of $2B from FY2011-FY2015, with the assumptions I made, NASA should be able to implement the 5 initial Enabling Developments for $500M, and the first 2 Flagship Technology Demonstrations, which include solar electric propulsion, advanced solar arrays, and autonomous rendezvous and docking work in the first mission, and propellant depot technology as well as additional autonomous rendezvous and docking (space tug) work in the second mission. That achieves 2 of the 6 initial Flagship technologies, and most of the 3rd (AR&D vehicle/space tug). It's starting to get better.

The remaining funds from the $3B, $500M, should be able to achieve much of the work of the 3rd Flagship mission, which includes and inflatable habitat demonstration, closed-loop life support demonstrations, and the rest of the AR&D vehicle work. Perhaps with $500M the Exploration Technology line could fund the rest of the AR&D work, finishing the 3rd Flagship objective and getting the inflatable habitat to the ISS. Is it possible to build the inflatable habitat in the FY2011-FY2015 timeframe in the first place if that's where the technology money runs out?

The FY2011-FY2015 budget outlook includes a $2B boost to the ISS budget

to fully utilize the Station’s R&D capabilities to conduct scientific research, improve our capabilities for operating in space, and demonstrate new technologies

It seems to me that the inflatable habitat demonstration on the ISS, as well as the closed-loop life support demonstrations that would take place mainly on this addition to the ISS, could be moved within this enhanced ISS budget line. All of this work adds to the Station's capabilities, uses the Station's existing R&D capabilities, and demonstrates new technologies. If this effort is a little bit too big for the enhanced ISS budget to fund, the ECLSS demonstration, which includes numerous smaller technologies, could be scaled back a bit, pieces of it could be introduced more gradually than in the original plan, or some funding could come from the rest of the exploration technology line, if any money remains there (e.g.: if the AR&D work for FTD-3 doesn't use up the $500M). A commercial inflatable habitat partner might also pitch in some funding, for example, if they were allowed some control over the inflatable habitat for non-NASA commercial revenue purposes.

If this can be arranged, we will have achieved 5 of the 6 original Flagship technology goal, perhaps with only partial credit on ECLSS. Only aerocapture remains from the initial set of Flagship technologies. I consider aerocapture to be a lower priority, since it seems to have less immediate non-NASA (i.e. commercial, DoD, etc) applicability, and thus does not help as much to build the space industry, which seems as important as developing the specific technologies themselves for exploration purposes. Also, if we are using SLS/Orion, I don't see aerocapture at Earth as the most immediate priority. Mars aerocapture may be important some day, but astronaut Mars surface missions will be very far in the future indeed if we're spending lots of money on SLS/Orion, so again aerocapture is not a near-term (i.e. next couple decades) concern.

Aerocapture could come in handy for near-term robotic science missions, so I'd suggest taking the remaining Exploration Technology funds (hopefully $100M or $200M, depending on the details of the 3rd Flagship mission funding), and encouraging a science mission to demonstrate smaller-scale aerocapture as a first step. The NASA robotic science DISCOVERY 2010 Announcement of Opportunity already includes a $10M increase on the lander mission cost cap if such a Discovery mission uses aerocapture, and a $20M increase in the cost cap on an orbiter mission if such a Discovery mission uses aerocapture. A comparatively large supplement from the Exploration Technology line could perhaps be enough to get an initial demonstration of aerocapture on a robotic science mission. This would allow us to achieve all of the initial objectives of the Flagship line, with the caveat that some ECLSS demonstrations could be delayed or forgone, and aerocapture could be demonstrated on a smaller scale than originally planned, simply by increasing the Exploration Technology budget a little bit closer to the Administration's proposal, and by using some ISS funds for work that's appropriate for it.

Of course this is still not nearly as ambitious as the original Administration plan, which included several additional, if less well-defined, technology demonstrations that would follow the first set (for example, more ambitious aerocapture and high-performance propulsion demonstrations). On the other hand, it does allow significant progress on technologies that can enable more ambitious and cost-effective astronaut missions, more ambitious and cost-effective support of astronaut missions via cargo deliveries, and a more successful space industry as NASA's commercial and government partners make use of the demonstrated exploration technologies with multiple uses. The ability to make steady progress on the original 6 Flagship missions would also give some reason to hope that those Enabling Technology developments that need a new Flagship Technology Demonstration mission to reach operational status would eventually find such a mission.

The current Senate "compromise" allows the Senate to achieve its objectives through the SLS HLV, Orion, Shuttle, and SLS-oriented KSC upgrades, but it doesn't allow the Administration to achieve its exploration technology development objectives. A modest shift from the pure Senate plan towards the Administration plan, while still keeping most of the SLS, Orion, Shuttle, and KSC upgrade funding in place as the Senate proposed, would allow much of the Administration plan to be achieved, too. Such a compromise would be advantageous for both sides, since the new exploration technologies could support the SLS and Orion while the SLS and Orion provide another reason to develop the new technologies. In addition, funding the new exploration technologies enough to make progress on them would take away a considerable amount of objection to the SLS/Orion approach from various communities (i.e. Science, Commercial Space, grass roots, etc). In other words, it's even in the interest of the SLS/Orion advocates to fund exploration technology development enough so those developments can succeed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Robotic Precursor Missions

In spite of the view held in some circles that "all we need is a good map", robotic precursor missions are essential if we are going to rocky destinations like the Moon, NEOs, Mars moons, or Mars, especially if we want to do so in an affordable, safe, and productive manner. We certainly do need a good map, and in fact we need many kinds of good maps. We also need much more than maps from robotic precursor missions. Example jobs for robotic precursor missions include assessing hazards to astronauts, measuring local resources, practicing use of those resources, performing various other technology demonstration tests, and evaluating potential locations for astronauts.

Let's compare the Administration and Senate Authorization proposals in terms of robotic precursor missions. Figures are in millions of dollars:


If we extend the Authorization Committee's pattern to FY2015, we see that there is a 6-fold difference: about $3,000M in the Administration budget compared to $500M in the Senate budget.


NASA presented some early ideas on what they would like to do with a well-funded robotic precursor mission line. In May, during an exploration workshop, the FY 2011 Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions (xPRM) Point of Departure Plans (PDF) included:

  • a series of main robotic precursor missions ($500M - $800M each)
  • a series of small "Scout" missions ($100M - $200M each)
  • development of instruments to be flown on science missions
  • data systems, research, analysis, and sensor technology development
The initial set of proposed missions included:

FY----Large Mission----Scout----Hosted Instrument
2014..NEO Rendezvous...yes......yes
2015..Lunar Lander..............yes
2016..Mars Orbiter.....yes......yes
2018..Mars Lander......yes......yes
2019..NEO Rendezvous............yes

This would have strained the available $3B budget from 2011-2015, but if some funding from later years is counted, perhaps it could be done. Probably the most serious flaw in this series of missions is that it emphasizes Mars too much, considering that Mars is such a distant goal in NASA's exploration schedule. NASA needs to focus much more on nearer-term destinations if it wants to succeed in the earlier steps on the way to Mars. We need multiple robotic precursor missions for our next rocky destination, whether that destination is the lunar surface as described in the Flexible Path to the Moon, or NEOs as described in the Augustine Flexible Path to Mars.

A more recent presentation shows that NASA's evolving robotic precursor plans are addressing both the funding and the focus problems I just mentioned. In the Explore NEOs Objectives Workshop (Explore NOW), the robotic precursor plans presented in the updated version of Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions (xPRM) Point of Departure Plans (PDF) include:

FY----Large Mission----Scout----Hosted Instrument
2015..Lunar Lander.....yes......yes
2016............................yes 2017..NEO..............yes......yes

One of the large Mars missions has been replaced by a NEO Scout. This makes funding the line more achievable (although still a stretch) with $3B, especially if we can count some funds in later years. In addition, the NEO missions are done sooner, allowing the results from these missions to inform astronaut NEO missions. Finally, with 3 NEO missions instead of 2 (1 of which was late in the original plan), there is a serious enough focus on NEOs to really be able to help the astronaut missions to NEOs succeed. On the Flexible Path to Mars, later robotic precursor missions could focus on the Moon or Mars and its moons, depending on what branch of that path is taken.

Ideas for the 2 main NEO missions include a NEO Telescopic Survey to identify a better selection of NEOs reachable on early deep space astronaut missions, or a NEO Rendezvous mission that could focus on a single NEO or give more high-level information about multiple NEOs using multiple small spacecraft. The 2 larger NEO missions are anticipated to cost in the $640M-$840M range through their complete life cycle.

Now let's go back to the Senate budget. Assuming their FY2011-2013 trend is kept, that budget gives $500M through FY2015. Another Senate committee's version of the budget only gives $44M in FY2011, so it would only have $444M through FY2015.

There is not enough money to run a single robotic precursor mission in the $640M-$840M class NASA envisions with the Senate budget even if that budget is projected through FY2015.

The Senate limits the robotic precursor line to 1 or 2 very small missions, 1 or 2 instruments, and supporting work like research and data systems. It acknowledges this limitation by giving the funding line the title "Robotic Precursor Instruments and Low-Cost Missions". I frequently find myself in favor of a strong emphasis on small missions, but there really needs to be a healthy mixture of smaller and larger missions.

Based on the lack of robotic precursor mission funding, my conclusion is that the Senate bills for all intents and purposes rule out any aspirations NASA might have for astronauts reaching rocky world destinations like the Moon, NEOs, Mars moons, and Mars.

Now we come to the question of compromise. Is there a viable compromise between the Administration and Senate proposals that achieves important objectives? I think there is if the Senate gives some ground on Heavy Lift rocket and Orion funding. Over the next few posts, I'll use an example of shifting a billion dollars or so per year from these lines to robotic precursors, exploration technology, and commercial crew. This would still give the Senate what it wants: funding on a massive scale for a Shuttle-derived rocket and Orion spacecraft, eventually flying astronaut missions beyond LEO. It would also allow efforts like the robotic precursor line to function, even if not as spectacularly as planned in the original FY2011 budget proposal. In my examples, I'll make a crude breakdown (ignoring details like funding profiles to match realistic project work levels over time) for the hypothetical shifted $1B/year by dividing it as follows:
  • 25% ($250M/year on average) for Robotic Precursor Missions
  • 25% ($250M/year on average) for Exploration Technology Development and Demonstrations
  • 50% ($500M/year on average) for Commercial Crew
In my examples, these amounts would be added to the original Senate plans for these 3 funding lines, thus representing a compromise between the Senate and Administration budgets.

With this budget compromise, Robotic Precursor Missions would see a dramatic increase from $500M to $1,750M from FY2011-FY2015. That doesn't come close to the Administration proposal, but it's a compromise. Can the Robotic Precursor Mission line do useful work with this amount of money? I think so. Unfortunately, that level of funding would probably require NASA to eliminate most or all robotic precursor missions to all destinations beyond their first expected destination for astronauts. If the first destination is NEOs, the plan might be cut back to something like this:

FY----Large Mission----Scout----Hosted Instrument

A similar view might hold for lunar robotic precursor missions if we choose to go to the lunar surface as the first rocky destination instead of NEOs.

With missions with life cycle costs from $640M-$840M, we could squeeze a couple large missions and a couple Scouts, as long as we stay much closer to the $640M side than the $840M side for the main missions. We might have to trim some capabilities off of those missions to make sure that happens, or we might have to turn one of the bigger missions into a Scout or 2. Either way, we go from the Senate's completely non-functional Robotic Precursor plan to one that is limited, but that can help chart the course for astronaut missions.

Would this be enough for safe, cost-effective, and productive astronaut missions? I suspect it would require additional help from NASA's Planetary Science community. If NEOs are the first destination, SMD might need to set up a NEO-specific funding line similar to the existing Lunar and Mars ones. With cooperation with NASA SMD, commercial space, non-profits, and international missions, we might even be able to form a quite capable, if focused, Robotic Precursor line.

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Introduction

It's an interesting time in the NASA exploration battle that has been raging since 2005 and the introduction of the Ares rockets that eliminated most of the Vision for Space Exploration, and made the rest of that vision unattainable. The Obama Administration's proposal to emphasize technology development, commercial participation, and robotic precursor missions, all essential parts of the Vision for Space Exploration, but to do so using a Flexible Path to Mars sequence, has met with counter-proposals from the House and Senate. Most supporters of the technology/commercial/precursor approach seem to favor the Senate's proposal over the House proposal, even though the House fully funds the Administration's ambitious Space Technology line. This is probably because the House proposal essentially wipes out robotic precursors, exploration-specific technology development and demonstrations, and commercial crew transportation, while continuing the troubled Ares rockets. I won't discuss the House proposal in any more detail, since there seems to be considerable opposition to it in Congress and industry, since most of its supporters in industry seem to have no preference for it over the Senate budget, since NASA and the Administration haven't favored it, and since I personally don't find it to be credible. It has some isolated interesting ideas that may see the light of day, but as a total package it utterly fails.

Does this mean that the Senate proposals are good? I don't think so. The Senate Authorization and Appropriations bills and reports have serious flaws. The Senate bills have been described as great compromises, but as they stand they merely compromise NASA's ability to explore and encourage the development of space. However, if blended with some of the Administration proposals, the Senate bills do, perhaps, put us within reach of a NASA that can achieve important objectives on a realistic budget. Somewhere between the Senate and Administration proposals is a real compromise that is better than either extreme.

One point of view holds that both House and Senate bills are valid compromises because they give the Administration exactly what it asked for in many areas, such as keeping and vigorously using the ISS, increasing Earth Observation funding, adding Aeronautics programs to fund things like green aviation, restarting Pu-238 production, and boosting NEO search funding. However, I wouldn't characterize these agreements as compromises. Senator Hutchison, a key player in the Senate discussions, will be just as supportive of ISS funding and JSC ISS work as the Administration. The Democratic House and Senate are going to be just as inclined as the Administration to support environment-friendly programs. The other changes are small in budgetary terms. No, any compromise should be viewed strictly through the lens of the areas where there is disagreement, like technology funding, robotic precursor missions, commercial space, and government-owned heavy lift rockets. In these areas of dispute, the Senate's cuts to Administration proposals are so drastic that, in their current form, they can't be seen as compromises at all.

They can, however, be useful as starting points for a real compromise.

In the next few days I plan to discuss some of the budgetary lines in more detail so we can get an idea what a real compromise might look like. Since the Senate Authorization bill covers 3 years compared to the 1 year Senate Appropriations bill, I will focus mainly on the Authorization bill. That bill gives a better picture of where we might go over the course of years with the Senate's approach, and the 2 Senate bills are not all that different from each other anyway.