Something Old, Something New, and If We do it Right, Maybe Even Something Bold!

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As a long time space advocate, I have found recent events to be extremely disheartening. Before my eyes, I am seeing the battle between the old exploration plan (Constellation), and the new plan put forth recently by NASA and the White House. This is battle is compounded by the fact that it is forcing a Congress unwilling to take on more fights before the election to allow NASA to operate for months under a continuing resolution (CR) for its next budget year.

The effect of this CR will be that NASA will have two zombie programs. By "zombie" I mean programs that were supposed to go away in FY 2011 but will be in a limbo state under a threatened Continuing Resolution - funded with their end dates no longer certain, but unable to truly move forward as they await their fate.

The Shuttle program, which was supposed to come to an end this Fall, will receive its full budget with the distinct possibility of maybe one additional flight at a waste of billions of taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the Constellation program, which the White House has decided to more or less eliminate, will also go forward. But Constellation will continue without any of the forward contracts that otherwise would be let this year for necessary work, leading to a protracted, looming dead end and more wasted billions. Couple this with the certainty of congressional chaos after this November's election and what we have is a recipe for disaster.

When Barack Obama and unlikely allies Dana Rohrabacher, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Walker, who support the new program, are pitted against Bill Nelson, Richard Shelby, and Kay Bailey Hutchison who supporting the old program, you know that something interesting is going on. The question I want to ask is this: is there a compromise or common ground between the old and the new exploration plan that can allow Congress to come together to get a budget for the agency before October 1?

To be certain the entire Federal budget (including NASA's small piece) may be under a CR, and this may be a moot point. But the argument must still be made that a compromise is possible - and needed.

Defending Constellation

There have been two major congressional hearings recently that brought together two of our most respected moonwalkers, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan. There are two arguments that they make. The first is that if Constellation was adequately funded, that it would be moving merrily on to success. The second is that the lack of a destination and clear timeline in the Obama policy abdicates American leadership in space.

This following is from Gene Cernan's testimony relative to the funding issue:

"Important to note is that the Committee was directed to base their conclusions and recommendations not on the FY2009 budget, but rather on the FY2010 budget from which tens of billions of dollars had already been removed between 2010 and 2020."

However, NASA's funding problems started long before the FY2009 budget. This can be seen in NASA's own earlier documents and a 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the Ares 1 program. The original Ares 1/Orion design was based upon a standard four-segment Shuttle solid rocket motor, an SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) with modifications for air start, and a 5.5 meter Orion capsule capable of carrying up to 6 people to ISS and 4 people to the EOR-LOR rendezvous point in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) (page 404 from the ESAS Final report TM-2005-214062).

The IOC (Initial Operational Capability) date was supposed to be 2011 for the Orion/Ares 1 combination (chart on page 56 of the ESAS doc [show in figure 1 here] plus Scott Horowitz's and Doug Cook's Exploration Strategy Workshop charts as late as April 28, 2006). Looking at the program in 2007, the GAO (GAO-08-51) found something completely different.

Here is the chart from the NASA Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) report:



Figure 1: ESAS Development Timeline (Page 56 of TM-2005-214062)

By 2007, long before the Obama Administration, this all had changed. When President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004 it was stated that in order to minimize costs and workforce disruptions that the new launch vehicles be based as much as possible on the existing Space Transportation System (Shuttle stack) design. However, NASA changed the original ESAS Ares 1 design from the standard four segment booster and an modified Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), to a five segment booster and the J2X engine. This is what the GAO found (from page 2):

"NASA has been taking steps to build a business case--demonstrating the project is achievable within the constraints of time and money and other resources NASA has available--for Ares I. This has included relying on established technology and adopting an acquisition strategy that emphasizes attaining knowledge on cost, schedule, and technical and development feasibility before commitments are made to long-terms investments. The project also acknowledges that many risks are present and is undertaking an array of activities to track and mitigate those risks. However, NASA has not yet developed the knowledge needed to make sound investment decisions for the Ares I project. Principally, there are gaps in knowledge about requirements, costs, schedule, technology, design, and production feasibility. Our work shows that successful program execution is dependent on having these elements in place at the time long-term investment commitments are made... "

The report had major findings in four areas, but the one most pertinent to finances is:
"Projected funding shortfalls: NASA's funding strategy for the Constellation program relies on accumulating funds in fiscal years 2006 and 2007 for work planned in fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010. NASA estimates its total budget will be insufficient to fund all Constellation activities during these years. These funding shortfalls could result in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. "

NASA knew in September 2007 that they would have insufficient budget for their planned work on Constellation in FY 2008-2010. Compounding this situation several changes were made to the Ares 1 vehicle that increased near term costs without any commensurate increase in funding by Congress. These changes, going from the four segment to the five segment booster, and changing from the SSME to the J2-X, required an additional $730 million over their existing 2007 budget, which did not happen (page 7). These changes also led to many unintended cost increases and schedule slips above that identified by NASA that were not anticipated or funded with the prime example being the Thrust Oscillation problem.

The GAO report indicated that moving to the J2X rather than the SSME would cost over 5 million man hours of additional effort and almost 2 million man hours for the addition of the fifth segment on the first stage of the Ares 1. It was also noted that the development time for this new engine, the first high-energy LOX/H2 engine developed in a generation, was accorded two years less time (7 vs 9), than for the Space Shuttle Main Engine. Time is money and all of this drives up the cost of the system.

Here are the final words in the GAO report regarding funding:
"NASA's approach to funding is risky, and the current approved budget profile is insufficient to meet Constellation's estimated needs. The Constellation program's integrated risk management system indicates there is a high risk that funding shortfalls could occur in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. As we reported in 2006, NASA's basic approach for funding all of the Constellation program, including Ares I, depends on a "go as you can afford to pay" concept, wherein lower-priority efforts will be deferred, descoped, or discontinued to allow NASA to stay within its available budget profile. 14 This approach relies on the accumulation of a large rolling budget reserve in fiscal years 2006 and 2007 to fund Constellation activities in fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010, when NASA estimates its total budget authority will be insufficient to fund all necessary Constellation activities."

As a result of their concerns about funding the GAO recommended the following: We recommend that the NASA Administrator direct the Ares I project manager to develop a sound business case--supported by firm requirements, mature technologies, a preliminary design, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time--before proceeding beyond preliminary design review (currently planned for July 2008) and, if necessary, delay the preliminary design review until a sound business case demonstrating the project's readiness to move forward into product development is in hand.
NASA responded to this recommendation as follows:
"NASA stated that the Ares I project manager will be required to demonstrate that the project meets all system requirements with acceptable risk and within the cost and schedule constraints, and that it has established a sound business case before the project is allowed to proceed into the implementation phase. NASA also stated that the NASA Agency Program Management Council and NASA Associate Administrator will review the Ares I project at the preliminary design review and determine the projects' readiness to proceed into the implementation phase and begin detailed design.

Has anyone actually seen this "sound business case"?"

The New Administration

It is clear with almost three years going by since the GAO report that the previous NASA administrator, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) Associate Administrator, and Constellation program manager did not establish the business plan as they agreed to do and continued beyond Prelimiary Design Review (PDR) even in the face of daunting technical and increasing funding challenges.

When the Obama administration came in NASA was asking for more money than the White House was willing to give for Constellation. Indeed, what NASA was asking for even was still insufficient to get the job done. The Augustine Commission was chartered to look at the "Program of Record" (PoR), as it came to be called, to see what could be done. It did not take a group of rocket scientists to figure out that funding was the issue, at least on the surface. The commission found that even in a scenario of completely unconstrained funding, (page 86 of the report) that NASA would require an additional $59 billion from 2010 to 2020, which is $6 billion per year above the new administration's budget plan and $3 billion per year beyond their less constrained scenario. Yet this additional funding would still not result in an outpost on the Moon until the mid 2020's.

The Augustine Commission came up with a set of recommendations (they called them "options") that did not include the PoR as the new administration was unwilling to fund a program that the previous NASA administrator had promised not allow to go forward if the business plan did not close. The Augustine recommendations were accepted by the new administration and NASA and a new plan was developed that closely followed one of the scenarios set forth by the commission. This new plan harkened back, in its technical implementation, to the NASA CE&R studies of 2004-2005 timeframe. Many of the "Flagship Technology" demonstrations come directly from those studies. The big difference is that the Moon has been deleted as a destination, a deficiency that I agree with Armstrong and Cernan is shortsighted.

Conclusions

It is clear that the PoR has been underfunded from the beginning. The previous administrator and the Constellation program compounded the problems by implementing major changes to the ESAS Ares 1 that increased near-term costs by billions and added additional schedule risks. The news flash is that the PoR was never financeable with any budget that Congress was likely to provide. This is beyond the fact of its limitations as an architecture would never have been cost effective or timely for exploration. Any architecture that requires between 7 to 15 Ares V launches to Mars at a $1 billion per launch before humans are even sent should have been dead on arrival. This was realized by most observers when the ESAS architecture was unveiled in 2005.

The question is, why were Armstrong and Cernan brought only into this discussion in 2010 when it would have been far better to have their input in 2005 or 2007 when it could have really counted? Another question: did the same former NASA people who have been coaching Armstrong and Cernan on their testimony provide the GAO report to them so that they would understand the entire context of the issue? I would bet quite a lot of money that this did not happen.

These men are being used by the same people that support the PoR as a bludgeon to beat up the current plan without being fully informed that the PoR would have resulted in the exact same concerns regarding execution that they so passionately are arguing regarding the new plan.

Developing a Compromise

Armstrong and Cernan are 100% right when they say that the new plan is unfocused in its execution and uninformed in the finding that "We have been there and done that" on the Moon. Unfortunately, Constellation was never going to get us to the Moon or anywhere else in a sustainable manner. By abandoning ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) and an outpost, the lunar mission of Constellation was nothing more than practice for a $20 billion per flight Mars program.

If a lunar outpost is utilized that incorporates, as a core principle, ISRU, then exploitation along with the new plan for commercial crew in LEO and technology development for sustainable exploration beyond LEO, that Armstrong and Cernan would be brought on board. In reality this is nothing more than Craig Steidle's "spiral development" plan and the CE&R studies put into practice. This would neuter the charge that the new plan was done in secret, without any vetting in the traditional manner.

Indeed, in reality, it is the Constellation plan that is the departure from the last 20 years of progress since the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), beginning with the NASA OASIS plan from 1997 and extending through the CE&R studies that were all abandoned (along with the $100 billion dollar taxpayer investment in ISS), by the previous administrator in his quest to do "Apollo on steroids". Therefore, the table is set for compromise if Armstrong and Cernan are willing to abandon an unworkable Program of Record for the new plan - and the Moon. If this happens , then we will get what Gene Cernan was so passionately and correctly arguing for. Both Armstrong and Cernan are correct in saying that our six missions to the lunar surface barely hinted at our possibilities there and I would argue that we will never go to Mars without learning how to operate in a sustained manner on the Moon and to learn how to use its resources.

If Congress is truly concerned that we are abandoning our spaceflight heritage, then they need to fund the new plan before October 1 while mandating the Moon and a strong presence there. Within 24 months we could begin sending missions to a lunar outpost location on the moon and building up a capability that humans could use when they get there. By doing this we will preserve our workforce, leverage the $100 billion dollar taxpayer investment in ISS, and provide some stability for our national program.


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