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.

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