New NASA Plans Could Dramatically Limit Shuttle Flights And Halt Space Station Assembly


NASA is faced with a dilemma right now: It wants to fly 19 Space Shuttle missions - 18 to the International Space Station (ISS) and one mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope between now and the end of FY 2010. The problem is that NASA simply does not have the money to do this. As it has been preparing its FY2007 budget NASA identified $5.6 billion in so-called "over-guideline" costs needed to support these missions - at the rate it wanted to fly the missions.

Two alternate approaches are currently under serious consideration - in real time - at NASA. One, the so-called "Serial Processing" option would reduce the shuttle flight rate to 2 missions per year, cut the workforce, stop building the ISS, and live with the consequences.

The other approach would fuse current Space Shuttle, ISS, and Exploration development closely together such that existing capabilities could support emerging ones - all this serving to allow ISS assembly to continue further.

NASA is still deliberating internally on what approach to take with regard to the formulation of the FY2007 budget.

Serial Processing

The Serial Processing approach would only allow 2 shuttle flights per year and would not have any capability to add missions if the need arose. This would mean approximately 8 missions would be flown before the shuttle fleet would be retired - 7 to the ISS and 1 to Hubble. In the year that Hubble was serviced, there would be only one shuttle flight to the ISS thus requiring a new arrangement with Russia for crew transport (assuming Iran Nonproliferation Act changes have been made), a longer stay for any Americans on board, or a period when no Americans are on board ISS.

The assembly of the ISS would be halted almost immediately and the remaining shuttle flights to ISS would be for logistics purposes only - to support the configuration which is now on-orbit. The shuttle propulsion workforce would be cut and would only be able to support the reduced shuttle flight rate and would not be able to support any exploration development (CLV and Heavy Launch Vehicle). This propulsion expertise would then need to be recreated a few years hence when the CEV and heavy launch vehicles begin to fly.

Other issues to be considered include the construction and launching of a new docking adaptor NASA is planning for the ISS which would allow alternate launch vehicles to dock with and service the ISS - and whether this needs to be launched on a priority basis so as to allow private sector resupply of the ISS. An RFP on the topic of commercial ISS servicing was promised by Mike Griffin last summer - but has yet to materialize.

Under the serial processing option shuttle processing would be reduced to a single shift with one orbiter processed after another. There would no longer be any simultaneous or parallel shuttle processing as is now the case. At least one of the orbiters would also likely be retired sooner rather than later. Workforce cuts from United Space Alliance would start in FY 2006 with 600 or so people laid off - rising to an eventual total cut by FY 2010 of over 6,000.

Not flying ISS hardware developed (at great expense) by the International Partners is not going to go down well. Not only have the partners sunk substantial sums of money into the ISS program, they may have legal recourse to seek financial compensation for their investments. Moreover, although he has not made this an important part of his exploration plans, Mike Griffin would find greatly diminished enthusiasm among other countries for participation in NASA's exploration plans.

Plan B

The other approach, proposed by the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD), is to start development of shuttle derived launch vehicles as defined in NASA's exploration architecture with a merger of and SOMD and Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) staff and organizations. The two efforts would have their budgets integrated such that continuing shuttle work as well as CEV and CLV work would be done in a coordinated fashion. If the economic efficiencies are achieved then the serial processing approach could be avoided.

As part of this integrated plan test flights of the CEV's Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and heavy launch vehicle systems could be done utilizing existing shuttle personnel and facilities. The propulsion workforce that supports shuttle operations could also support CEV development and testing and thus provide the core of any future support the new launch vehicles would eventually require.

Of course, to anyone who has worked in human spaceflight over the past decades, this should sound familiar. This approach follows a long-standing NASA propensity to stick things together when they are apart (to save money or make things more efficient) and then pull them apart when that solution does not work (because of dissimilarities in approaches) - only to try and put them back together years down the road. This time, trying to force operations and development together is being proposed with the simple hope that it will save money.

This happened during and after the Space Station Freedom Program (Code M and Code D for those of you who remember) when Space Shuttle and Space Station (then under development) were together in one organization - and then split apart - and then put back together. More recently, SOMD and ESMD were created as separate organizations - one (SOMD) - with a focus on the operation of exiting systems, the other (ESMD) with a focus on the development of new systems.

Both of these proposed options aren't trying to build and operate the best hardware. Rather they are attempts by NASA to try and do as much as possible with an impossibly small budget - all while trying to take on a whole new development program which will inevitably suffer from the same problems as have plagued those that came before it.

What's Next?

Mike Griffin has give the go-ahead to take the next 90 days to try and see if this alternative plan could work. If the economics do not pan out, NASA would default back to the serial processing approach.

One has to ask, however, if killing the shuttle prematurely and deliberately hobbling the space station was what the President called for in January 2004. Moreover, you also have to wonder how this will sit with Congress. If NASA is so eager to halt the ISS before it can finally deliver on 20-plus years of promises - and risk international animosity in the process - what is to stop NASA from walking away from its new exploration plans next decade - just as things are about to start happening.

NASA has an attention deficit disorder. At some point NASA has to grow up and decide to finish things they promised the taxpayer, politicians, and foreign partners that they'd do - and not walk away from these things when the luster fades or the money is tight - or when the going gets tough.

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