The Big Change: NASA Hits the Ground Running - Part 2

[Continued from Part 1]

If at first you don't succeed

At the time of its inception, SLI sought to replace the Space Shuttle by 2010 with a fully reusable launch vehicle - one which would also lower the cost of putting humans into space from NASA's official estimate of $10,000 per pound down to a target of $1,000 per pound. Moreover, this all-in one cost saving vehicle would improve the safety of its crew from the advertised Shuttle risk of 1 catastrophic loss in 300 missions down to 1 in 10,000 missions.

SLI was on the track towards a SRR (Systems Requirements Review) in Fall 2002, (and significant architectural and contractual decision points were to follow in 2003) when the Administrator called a delay to the SRR pending a re-evaluation of the SLI program.

In addition to SLI, NASA sought to develop even more advanced technologies which it dubbed "Third Generation". The research conducted under this program was much higher risk and was aimed at technologies that needed significant research before being considered for use in a launch system. The potential benefit, should these technologies pan out, would be significant. In many cases, it could leapfrog directly over current technologies.

Now, NASA needs to make yet another course correction - and make some hard choices in so doing.

Choosing among options

In rethinking SLI, NASA considered four main options. The first was simply to baseline the existing ISTP which would have led to a decision in 2006 to build both a new two stage RLV booster and a Crew Transport Vehicle (now called OSP) - both systems would be used to ether to replace the Space Shuttle System as early as 2012.

The second approach was to develop a Crew Transport Vehicle (OSP) and put off development of the advanced booster. EELVs (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) would be used to launch this crew transport in the early part the next decade.

The third option sought to develop an advanced RLV by 2009 in cooperation with DoD. Crew transport capability would be developed a later date.

The fourth option was to throw the dice again (as had been the case with X-33), cross fingers, and use high risk, high payoff technology .

In assessing these options, NASA considered how each provided enhanced safety, the potential for cost savings, flexibility - i.e. the ability of the architecture to evolve over time to meet changes in launch requirements, and assured access - providing an alternate, and independent, way to get humans to and from orbit so as to serve as a backstop to Shuttle unavailability or problems with Russian Soyuz supply.

Injecting reality and parsing risk

[click to enlarge] NASA settled on option whereby a crew transport vehicle - now dubbed the "Orbital Space Plane" (OSP) would be developed and launched aboard EELVs. The Administration's new approach seems to embody a NASA version of what Willy Brandt called "realpolitik" - the term he used in the 1960's to describe how the West should deal with the reality of the Warsaw pact - i.e. it existed and wasn't just going to disappear. Rather, life should be structured to accept that some things existed and that change might just take a long time.

Certain things (Space Shuttle) exist and can't be wished away simply by jumping onto a new technology bandwagon. Moreover, justifying new systems based upon poorly understood future demand (especially when that demand is over hyped) is an open invitation to cost escalation, delays, and inevitable Congressional inquiry.

NASA's new approach will bring the Space Shuttle. ISS, and SLI into a coordinated management, development, and operations infrastructure. Today, Only Shuttle and ISS coordinate. SLI has been free to do what it wished with little or no coordination with the launch system it was supposed to replace.

NASA will use an assessment of what the agency expects to need in the coming decade and a half. Then, armed with existing capabilities (Shuttle) and what could be developed, NASA will put forth a plan wherein existing programs and funds are refocused to more adequately meet that demand.

At the same time, while the reliance on tried and true technology is now allowed to limit where NASA needs to go, work would continue on advanced technologies which promised to lower costs and increase reliability. The important difference here is that NASA will not put one thing in the critical path of another - i.e. it is decoupling RLV design and crew transport capability - something that the X-33 program, and to a lesser extent, SLI failed to do.

The development of the OSP, using existing technology, will allow a crew transport system to be initiated rather quickly and to be done so in a complementary and transitional fashion with the current shuttle program. The OSP will fly on the existing EELV technology available in the Atlas V and Delta IV systems. Fortuitously, the EELV was developed with someone else's money (DoD). And although there are certain to be costs to NASA so as to adapt the use EELVs with the OSP, the significant cost savings are not lost on the Bush Administration. Add in a lackluster commercial launch market and the two EELV manufacturers are certainly not in a position to complain about a potential new (and long term) customer.

At the same time that it pursues the OSP/EELV system, NASA will still continue to develop more advanced launch systems. Instead of previous efforts to develop advanced human transportation as an all-in-one, high risk program (X-33) or one broken into two parts (SLI), the new approach is to shift advanced RLV technology and take it out of the critical path for the development of new human transportation capabilities. If/when an advanced RLV comes along, the already-proven OSP will be able to be launched aboard the nee RLV. If the new RLV is delayed, the OSP/EELV combo will be in place - with Shuttle as a possible backstop.

Modifying Shuttle operations

Before this overhaul, Space Shuttle and SLI personnel hardly spoke on a day to day basis. With the merging together of planning for present Shuttle and future (OSP/EELV) human launch systems, that will change. Given that Shuttle operations are most certainly going to be continued for a decade or more, adapting current Shuttle operations contracts and concepts will be required.

One of the hallmarks of NASA's new plans is achieving some level of stability with regard to expected program lifetimes, and launch demand. The current working time frame for ISS operations continues put until 2016. Given that ISS is the Shuttle's major customer, Shuttle operations are at the heart of this issue. Among the decisions that face NASA is whether to modify the current contract or re-compete Shuttle processing.

NASA recently decided to exercise a two year extension in the Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC) held by United Space Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin)- but did not exercise the option of another two years beyond that. One option under consideration at NASA is putting a new contract out for bid - one with a potential lifetime of up to 10 years. If this is not something NASA can do right away, there is an option to renew USA's contract for another 2 years as options are given consideration.

NASA is looking to make decisions in this regard and to present a plan to Congress outlining its recommendations in February 2003. NASA hopes to have its final plans for Shuttle operations in place by 2004.

There is one other factor that has entered the equation. Although not a prime focus by any means, the possible launch requirements for the human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit is also listed as a factor to be considered.

Extending and then phasing out the Shuttle


OSP development comes into play, NASA will need to plan for the phasing out of Shuttle operations - at least as the prime means for getting humans into space. How the OSP comes into operations will affect whether NASA decides to extend Shuttle operations further - out to 2020.

Extending the life of the Shuttle is not a new activity. Currently, NASA has a program of "Shuttle Upgrades" which seek to improve the safety and reliability of the Shuttle while reducing cost at the same time. In rethinking human space flight, NASA is morphing (and expanding) “Shuttle Upgrades” into an activity which has been called both "Shuttle Enhancements" and later the "Service Life Extension Program". A new line in NASA's budget will eventually include the previous Shuttle upgrades budget as well as other activities including infrastructure revitalization. Based on discussions that went into the preparation of this amendment, over the FY 2004 - FY 2007 period, as much as $428 million could be added to this activity in the out years

Although NASA's plans look to phasing the Shuttle out as the prime means of sending humans and cargo into orbit, some consideration is being given to possible use of the shuttle system for automated delivery of cargo once human transport responsibilities have been handed over to the OSP.

The Orbital Space Plane: This is not a new idea.

Although many concepts have arisen in the past 40 years, probably the most familiar in the U.S. is the DynaSoar project from the 1960s. The general concept involves a small reusable winged vehicle lofted aboard and expendable rocket. Unlike the Space Shuttle system, wherein cargo and crew carrying capability have been merged, the OSP decouples these requirements. NASA's new plan takes advantage of this by opting for using an existing launch system (EELV) and focusing its energies on the OSP itself.

One additional requirement is being levied on the OSP that earlier incarnations did not feature: returning crew from the ISS in contingency situations. Previously NASA was developing the X-38 test vehicle which would have led to an operational Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) that would serve to return up to 7 humans from space. Crew members would still travel to and from the ISS (routinely) aboard Shuttles or Soyuz spacecraft. The CRV would remain on orbit for long periods of time awaiting a contingency wherein it would be used. Work on the X-38 was more or less halted in 2002 as NASA sought to focus ISS development on U.S. Core Complete, a configuration with 3 crew aboard, whose return capabilities are already met by the existing Soyuz "interim" CRV capability.

Under NASA's new plans, the OSP would serve first as a crew return vehicle beginning in 2010 after launch aboard an EELV. By 2012, the OSP would be used as a means to transport humans (and a small amount of cargo) to and from the ISS in a complementary fashion to the Space Shuttle (which would still be flying).

To get this program started, NASA will add $165 million to the OSP in FY 2003. Combined with earlier funds for 'NASA Unique Systems" this would amount to $296 million. NASA is looking to have an aggressive effort to both assess options and then come up with preliminary OSP designs in 2005. This will be a competitive activity with multiple (at least 3) contractors involved. One of the key aspects to NASA's new plan is to be streamlined and aggressive in its focus.

In order to keep things running under minimal outside interference, NASA looks to limit its participation, once the project is underway, to insight and requested participation. In addition, NASA vows to identify requirements early in the program and then adhere strongly to them so as to avoid one of the classic causes of cost increase. NASA had originally planned to manage the OSP at NASA Headquarters. Word has it that the OSP will be managed, instead, at NASA MSFC.

The current Alternative Access project including technologies such as assured access, rendezvous and docking will be incorporated within the OSP program.

To help knock down some of the technical risk, NASA will fly the X-37 to test, among other things, autonomous approach and landing, advanced thermal protection, the sort of ascent dynamics that would be experienced during EELV launch with a winged OSP-type vehicles. Such demonstrations are expected to occur by 2006. The X-37 is not intended to be a stalking horse for a OSP design - just an pre-existing testbed which will be used to beat down some of the OSP's technological risk.

NASA will also perform a DART (Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology ) flight test which is intended to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous and proximity operations between an orbiting satellite and a chase vehicle. Tests involving a crew escape demonstrator will also be conducted so as to test emergency escape from a failing launch vehicle.

Refocusing Next Generation Launch Technology

The third leg of NASA's ISTP is the development of launch vehicles utilizing advanced technologies. This activity will now include work done previously under the Third Generation RLV program.

Design efforts will focus on kerosene/liquid oxygen first stages and hydrogen/oxygen upper stages. In a precursor to this current programmatic shift, NASA stopped work on the COBRA oxygen/hydrogen stage in favor of kerosene/oxygen systems. This was done since NASA felt that it had the most to gain, in terms of risk reduction, in working on advanced kerosene designs. One of the benefits of this is that DoD studies had also leaned towards development of kerosene fueled first stages.

NASA will also continue working on advanced hypersonics research - also an interest of the DoD since this work still offers significant opportunities for breakthroughs in technology. Such risk reduction efforts will continue for several years until such time when NASA will need to make a decision whether to restart more aggressive RLV risk reduction efforts.

At some point NASA will have to make a decision as to whether an RLV design should be pursued. NASA now anticipates that this will occur around 2009 with full scale production of the vehicle could expected by 2015.

Renewed focus on the ISS

Following on the announcement of substantial cost increases in the ISS program in 2000, NASA implemented a variety of internal and external reviews. The most prominent and far reaching of these reports was the ISS Management and Cost Evaluation (IMCE) Task Force chaired by perennial task force chair Tom Young. While the ICME made many recommendations, the core of their advice was to move the project onto a new footing that would identify all costs; allow managers to manage the program will full authority over the things they need to make their portion of the program happen; focus the ISS back to its original purpose: science and technology research; and seek ways to reign in the cost of the program.

This resulted in identifying a stage in the development of the ISS - U.S. Core Complete wherein all developmental focus should lie. U.S. Core Complete is the point at which assembly has proceeded so as to facilitate the addition of all modules and hardware being provided by the ISS program's international partners. This would result, however, in a space station with only three crew (since the crew return vehicle had been eliminated from development) and a limited ability to do science.

Complaints were abundant from the international partners and the scientific community about these limitations. This lead to the development of the Research Maximization and Prioritization Task Force (ReMAP) which reinforced initial concerns about ISS capabilities, but added some prioritized structure to these concerns that the ISS could use to focus its research activities.

Initially, the IMCE's recommendations included limiting the number of Space Shuttle missions to the ISS to 4 per year. The hope as that this would allow some savings in the Shuttle program which could be translated into offsets against ISS costs. This flight rate was an underlying assumption of the original FY 2003 budget. This did not sit well with people either.

In this latest plan, NASA is now looking to fly the shuttle 5 times per year - the rationale being that this would more fully support ISS development and scientific utilization. The 5 flight per year launch rate will begin in FY 2006. NASA's amendment will move $234 million into Shuttle operations for FY 2004-2007 and $75 million towards life and microgravity science to support additional payload processing costs.


NASA has also chartered a number of cost estimates which look to understand deficiencies in the current way of doing things and make estimations as to what the final costs will be for the ISS. Cost overruns and management issues have dogged the space station program from its inception. In recent years, a steady series of cost revelations has led to a diminution of confidence among members of Congress as to NASA's ability to project realistic costs and then manage a program in adherence to those costs.

Making the dramatic changes suggested by NASA's revamped ISTP would likely fall on deaf and/or disinterested ears- both in the White House and in Congress - unless some attempt was made to rehabilitate NASA's image. NASA has attempted to do just that. As part of the supportive rationale for the proposed ISTP changes, NASA has been presenting detailed evidence as to how it has been mending its ways.

The activity of several independent cost teams showed that NASA's own estimates for completion of the ISS to U.S. Core Complete and overall program lifecycle costs are credible within an accuracy of 10%. None the less, credible risk remains that NASA has not thoroughly address. Based on the confidence derived from these reviews, NASA has decided to place $660 million in additional funds into the ISS program between FY 2004 and FY 2007. This will assure that NASA can meet the U.S Core Complete.

Back to the Baseline: Beyond U.S. Core Complete

It is important to note that deployment of ISS configuration beyond U.S. Core Complete up to - and beyond - the original (baseline) 7 crew capability are not included in these current estimates. In addition, there are uncertainties which have not had cost impacts assessed that could incur significant programmatic risk such as problems with Russia's ability to meet its commitments,

Unlike the old way of doing business when the ISS program was run out of Johnson Space Center, the ISS program is now operated out of Headquarters. This is likely to be a permanent situation. This is, of course, a pendulum situation: first the space station was run out of JSC, then it was run out of the Space Station Freedom Program Office in Reston, then it was transferred back to JSC, now it has been transferred back to NASA HQ.

Evidence in this regard comes from NASA's plan to keep all ISS program reserves under NASA HQ control. While these additional reserves are being set aside, it is not a given that they will be tapped since reserves are already being held against programmatic risk. Should these additional reserves not be used (in part or in whole) NASA plans to direct these funds to enhancing ISS research - and what it calls "future science-driven human exploration."

While NASA's focus has been on reaching U.S. Core Complete, there is some effort to look at what it would take to move the program towards adding back capability so as to add additional research capability and additional crew. To preserve these options, NASA will be putting $46 million in additional funds in FY 2004. NASA will spend $42 million on these issues in FY 2003 but will do so using offsets from the FY 2002 funds. [Editor's note: For a more detailed examination of NASA's recent ISS cost estimation activities, see "A Confident NASA: Back in the Saddle Again?" for further detail on these cost estimates and the views of NASA's Comptroller Steve Isakowitz.]

Run Don't Walk

Within the human space flight and launch systems portion of NASA, It would seem that there is a palpable urgency at NASA headquarters to re-establish cost and management credibility. Once achieved, there is an equally obvious effort to move out aggressively to refocus to re-focus and pursue the agency's human spaceflight agenda. In may ways it seems like NASA is seeking to regain lost ground.

To date, this urgency has been focused within a small cadre at NASA Headquarters. With the release of this new NASA plan, as embodied in this amendment to NASA's FY 2003 budget, the entire agency will get its first glimpse of the possible shape of things to come.

Of course, while this enthusiasm is an important (and a welcome) change after a decade of crisis management, a number of people, agencies, centers, communities, constituencies, and interests all remain to be brought on board. The traditional NASA approach is to do so in an ever-so-cautious, slow motion fashion with incremental consensus building each step of the way. The net result is often that NASA can't get out of its own way when trying to reform its way of doing business.

Here, with this new change, Sean O'Keefe and his team have developed an 'express' version of this traditional process. They have put together a plan (keeping it rather close to their chests in the process), gotten buy-in from the White House and then hit the ground running. This approach has the benefit of momentum - something which has often been sadly lacking in NASA's plans and initiatives in the past decade. This approach also presents less of a moving target than an idea that floats through the budget process for a year, taking hits, and being diluted along the way.

If this approach works, the stage will be set for a more expansive plan which is set to appear in the FY 2004 budget. The race has begun.

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