The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) met at Goddard Space Flight Center on Thursday, 12 October. During the morning session, reports on space operations, space science and exploration were presented. I had to leave before the aeronautics and workforce presentations were made.
Space Operations - Partner Disconnects - and Delays
Pat Condon made the Space Operations presentation. In essence, the path towards Space Shuttle retirement is very real and it would be nearly impossible to add flights after 2010 given that vendors and infrastructure would be going away. In addition, questions remain as to how the U.S. will be managing the gap between Shuttle and CEV, how it is going to be funding and using the ISS, and how it is going to overcome issues such as ITAR restrictions, as the ISS program continues.
According to NAC Chair Harrison Schmitt "the ISS budget run out seems to have an artifact which shows that U.S. funding of the ISS ends after 2016. [NAC member] John Logsdon reports that our partners look at this as reality in terms of their own ISS planning." Schmitt went on to suggest that NASA needs to be a little clearer about what this means.
Curiously, just as Schmitt identified an instance where there seems to be a rather fundamental disconnect between the U.S. and its ISS partners, another presentation was dripping with enthusiasm for how well everyone was communicating.
Giving the Exploration subcommittee report, James Abrahamson stood up and gave a uniformly glowing evaluation of how NASA is handling interactions with a large number of constituencies, companies, agencies, and international organizations. One has to wonder how good that coordination is if our ISS partners think we are going to walk away from ISS after 2016. Unless, of course, the U.S. plans to do so.
On a side note, although it was not discussed at this meeting, a chart presented in a early September 2006 NASA discussion of CR 009951 (a new ISS assembly sequence) notes that there is some urgency on the part of the partners with regard to the pace of ISS assembly and the effect of potential delays of their lab modules upon their continued participation.
A back-up chart notes: "Presidential direction to meet Assembly Complete and retire Shuttle by September 2010. 18 remaining Shuttle flights (including ULF1.1). ULF4 & ULF5 are "contingency" flights. Must complete ISS Assembly and launch sustaining H/W to support ISS functionality through 2015. ULF5 is July 2010 (using Current FAWG manifest). Provides only 2 months for slips at the end of the sequence"
This does not leave a lot of room for error. The charts go on to note some deadlines with regard to European and Japanese continuation with the program.
The chart goes on to say: "Must implement acceleration of IP modules per Feb 2006 SSCB/HOA. ESA requires 1E to be launched and in operation prior to Ministerial Conference early 2008 or face Ministerial blocking of further ISS Exploration funds. Currently planning launch of 1E in Oct 2007"
This chart then notes: "JAXA requires 1J/A and 1J to launch, assembly & verification in Japanese FY2007 (Apr 2007 – Mar 2008) to meet JAXA's five year, Mid -term Plan authorized by Japanese ministries. Failure to meet JAXA's Mid-term plan will negatively affect JAXA's overall space activity plans (including ISS) for the next mid-term (JFY2008-12). Currently planning launch of 1 J/A in Dec 2007. 1J current launch of Feb 2008"
Clearly there are a lot of tight curves NASA and its partners need to navigate as the remainder of the ISS is lofted into orbit. How the U.S. is going to use the ISS in the near term was also an issue. With an emphasis on assembling the station, utilization is all but non-existent until such time as the majority of the ISS is on orbit. The NAC is seeking to understand the utilization plans for ISS as well as what its designation by Congress as a "national laboratory" actually means in actual practice.
Space Science - Small Payloads, Too Much Data, and Not Enough Money
During the space science report, the issue of how to launch smaller payloads came up. Neil DeGrasse Tyson noted that when you have a diminished need for launch vehicles, small and medium-sized missions do not provide enough marketplace demand to these launchers and accommodating smaller missions becomes problematical. Lester Lyles suggested that the NAC looking at the various small and quick response satellite programs being conducted by the DoD.
Another interesting topic arose in a discussion between Tyson and new NAC member Alan Stern. The discussion centered on cutting R&A (Research and Analysis) budgets beginning in 2007. In essence, Stern reported an opinion that is pervasive in the space science community that there is a chronic need for the money need to do data analysis from missions and that there could well be support from the community for the delay of a mission here or there (perhaps a Mars mission opportunity) so as to restock the data analysis budgets.
Science Mission Directorate AA Mary Cleave replied, "we have not been told to consider passing on a Mars opportunity to put more money into R&A." Stern repeated, "I think it is the sense of the planetary science community that skipping a mission is well worth it" with regard to adding more money to R&A. Mary Cleave (who has already shown little reluctance to cut budgets and try to cancel missions) eagerly replied, "We can do that - if you (NAC) give us direction, that is something that we can do."
How The Moon Will Be Explored
The issue of how the U.S. is going to the moon was raised by Schmitt. "It is my impression that the VSE as described in the President's speech was to explore the moon with a global reach. My understanding is that the current architecture only focuses on the poles. Abrahamson more or less confirmed that this was the current approach but also said that this had not been finalized. He added that an interim architecture would released in July 2007 which would seek to formalize what NASA planned to do and how it planned to do it.
Unanswered Life science Issues
As for an oft-ignored issue, space life science, David Longnecker spoke of a lot of work that was being put into understanding what enabling research needed to be done to allow the VSE's mission to be conducted safely. Moreover he spoke of outreach efforts and a conference designed to bring in potential new partners from other agencies so as to leverage capabilities of mutual benefit and interest. A conference is being organized for 8 December 2006 wherein these issues will be discussed. The heads of NASA, NSF, NIH and other agencies would be invited to participate.