Apollo Times Three: NASA Integrated Space Operations Summit

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As has been the case for the past three years, NASA's Space Shuttle family got together for a big meeting - NASA Integrated Space Operations Summit 2005 (ISOS). This year, in Nashville, they had a lot of new guests. The task before the attendees was to look at current human space flight capabilities and how they would need to be changed or "transformed" in the coming years to implement the President's new space policy.

Shifting Agendas

The 2003 meeting, which had a focus at that time on SLEP - Space Shuttle Service Life Extension Program - met shortly after the Columbia accident. This led to some real time changes in the tone of the discussions.

Last year, the meeting took place shortly after the announcement by President Bush of his new space policy - also resulting in some quick changes to items discussed.

This year, the event has morphed once again. This time the organizers had some stability in their planning timeframe. The meeting has been expanded to go beyond issues pertaining only to the Space Shuttle to include the International Space Station and he transition of these programs into the implementation of the President's space policy.

Last year, coming on the heels of the policy announcement, many did not quite know what retiring the shuttle by 2010 meant. Previously, these meetings had discussed what it would take to fly a four-orbiter fleet until possibly 2020.

Everything has changed

Now a 3-orbiter fleet will be flown - perhaps no more than 28 times, to finish the assembly of the ISS. And then that fleet will be retired. Indeed, according to many discussions, some aspects that retirement will begin to be implemented very soon. And for those who thought that NASA was drifting away from a firm commitment to a 2003 shut down, the tone of this meeting was quite the opposite. Both ISS completion and shuttle phase out and that term is used often are linked and focused on the year 2010.

In previous years, the shuttle program was being steered to a distant end point - one where improvements in the vehicles performance began to make some sense - if it was going to be flying for another decade and a half. Now the focus, in a post-Columbia era, was to make it as safe as possible during its remaining flights. To drive that point home, a common comment made by NASA officials was that the last flight needs to be as safe as the next one (STS-114).

According to Mike Kostelnick, Deputy Associate Administrator for International Space Station and Space Shuttle, the convener of this meeting, NASA's focus is now to "return to flight safely, complete the ISS, and then make this graceful transition - one which builds on the President's own words - to do the exploration mission affordably."

The shuttle, and later the space station program have been Earth orbital programs which went no where in particular, just round and round in circles, with the ISS as the shuttle's destination. Now, according to Bill Readdy, "ISS is not the destination for decades to come - it is a stepping stone to the moon, mars and beyond."

While many at NASA had spent decades touting Earth orbit research as having some possible future application to exploration, that has now been made a certainty. As to exactly what form the ISS will take as it is completed and what science will be done there is still not certain. No details were presented at this meeting. Future detail is expected to be announced - possibly as early as April.

Shutting Down Shuttle

The biggest task for the shuttle program, after returning to flight is going to be moving the program toward the shutdown of operations in 2010. The current planning manifests show 28 flights required to complete the ISS per agreements with the other participating nations. That number is somewhat flexible, but is not likely to get much larger - although there are many who question whether NASA can indeed fly 4 to 5 shuttle mission a year given the increased safety and operational constraints that have been levied on the program.

That said, there would be a finite number of shuttle flights. That allows an advance look at how many parts and services will be required. Some immediate things that have been identified include Aluminum-Lithium stock required to fabricate the shuttle's External Tanks. Enough of that is on hand to make the tanks NASA expects to require.

The same can be said for the segments used to construct the twin Solid Rocket boosters used on each mission. Enough are on hand to meet the agency's expected needs. Down the road, the Aluminum perchlorate required to fuel the SRB's will likely be on hand by 2008.

Of course, this means that the companies, which supply these items, are no longer going to have NASA for a customer. In the case of the Aluminum perchlorate, NASA's needs amount to around half of the domestic market. With NASA dropping out as a customer, it is likely that costs for the remaining DoD customers will go up.

As time progresses, additional changes will need to be implemented. Infrastructure (buildings etc.), which are not needed to complete the 28 shuttle flights, will be shut down. Similarly, things that will be needed for the remaining flights, but not thereafter, will be scheduled for shutdown, demolition, etc. at the appropriate time.

All told, companies will lose contracts, buildings will be shut down, torn down, reused, or abandoned in place as museum pieces. People will change their jobs or lose them. At the same time new contracts will be established, new jobs created, and new people hired. Indeed, the aspect of this transition that presents the greatest challenge to NASA is not the rocket science. According to Kostelnik:" Rocket science is not really about the science- it is more about the people."

This is a time of transition, after all. NASA has already begun to feel the pangs of change buyouts, reassignments, and the lurking fear of layoffs.

There is a scenario where such changes might not be as severe: if NASA decides to move ahead with launch systems that use some space shuttle hardware. Some concepts have been circulated which show the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) being launched on a modified SRB. Other concepts (animations for which were featured in NASA videos and in contractor's hallway exhibits at this conference) utilize shuttle components for a heavy launch system.

Based on the presentations at this meeting, it would seem, however, that NASA management is proceeding under the assumption that the Shuttle System will shut down - in all ways, by the time that the last shuttle mission is flown in 2010. Indeed, when asked about when changes needed to happen, NASA Acting Administrator Fred Gregory told me that 'we should have started in this already".

People

The skill mix of the workforce will change as well. Tasks unique to the shuttle system will go away - and with them the jobs needed to perform these tasks. Many people will be able to transition to new jobs supporting new launch systems such as the CEV - but the exact nature of these future systems remains uncertain - and thus the nature of this transition remains uncertain as well.

Even if jobs did not change in the decade ahead, and the shuttle flew until 2020. NASA would still have many people-related problems. The workforce is aging and will soon retire in droves. Recruitment is nowhere close to where it should be. In addition, the workforce has been buffeted about over the past decades with downsizing and buyouts and layoff threats serve to make the space industry somewhat less attractive - even for those for whom it is in their blood.

The challenge is not lost on Kostelnik either. "What do you do with a physical plant that is no longer required? The environmental cleanup? What do you do with shuttle hardware? How do you transition the people (the most important asset) and do it in an efficient way such that they will be trained to do exploration tasks?"

In order to address these issues head on, a series of working groups were assembled ahead of time, which met and formulated a series of recommendations and dove into these issues in greater detail - and reported their findings at the meeting. Workforce issues featured prominently in all presentations- even if that issue was not the focus of the working group.

Shifting Paradigms

As the conference drew to a close, I had the feeling that something was missing. For all the talk of what needed to be transformed, the reasons why, and how, perhaps this might be done, scant attention was paid to the lurking paradigm shift that was about to be embarked upon. If implemented as laid out, this new space vision calls for NASA to move from decades of staying very close to home - using an infrastructure focused on that way of thinking to a wholly different mindset - a mindset Apollo only scratched the surface of.

Indeed, the analogies that would be more apt would be the manner in which high altitude mountaineering expeditions are conducted - with the establishment of base camps along the way. More fitting, however, is the way in which Antarctica has been explored. It is one thing to resupply a space station in close orbit of Earth. It is quite another to build a multi-decade infrastructure that grows across the inner solar system and to forward provision the materiel needed to sustain the exploration that such an infrastructure needs to enable.

Bill Readdy, Associate Administrator for Space Mission Operations, closed the meeting with a lunchtime talk. Readdy was quick to jump to the issue of paradigm shifts

Readdy dug up several quotes. "Plans are for generals. Logistics are for lieutenants and wars are won or lost on logistics." he recalled. "And that is exactly what we are about to do now - put into place the logistics that will allow us to go beyond low Earth orbit to the moon - and then beyond."

Five years ago Readdy made a trip to Antarctica to observe the usage of NASA's TDRSS satellite system to support Antarctic science operations logistics. While there he spent some time in the Crary lab at McMurdo Base. "I thought this was the perfect example of the sort of beachhead we are building in low Earth orbit - and that we will build on the moon to support the plan that the President laid out on January 14 , 2004."

While in the Crary lab Readdy recalled "I was looking at this huge expanse of plate glass looking over a hundred miles in the distance at the Discovery Mountains. And here I am in a pressurized environment in shirt sleeves typing away at email." He noted that resources in that lab allowed scientists to interact in real time with folks back home, in the Antarctic dry valleys and at the South Pole station.

"This is another analogy for us to think about as to where we are today. This is not about Scott and Amundsen rushing to the pole and attempting to plant a flag. That's what Apollo was. This is about establishing a beachhead - the infrastructure that will allow us to conduct scientific missions. That is what this ISOS Summit will do: we will be leveraging what we have done before in terms of the hardware, the software, the facilities, the human capital that we have today. Not only harnessing those things for the here and now, but also building that foundation we will need for the future."

This is a much more daunting task that many appreciate. The standard scary caveat used by NASA officials to set the stage is that this plan has to survive 30 budget cycles, half as many Congresses, and 8 Presidential elections.

Apollo only had to work for a decade.


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