The Orbital Space Plane: NASA Racing On A Dead-End Street

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I was disappointed by NASA's latest plan for the enhancement of human space flight as described in an article on page 4A in the Houston Chronicle on Monday, September 1st, 2003 titled "NASA racing to complete light craft for space trips." The article stated, "In just five years astronauts may journey to the space station (the International Space Station or ISS) in a stripped down four-seater instead of the mammoth - and aging - space shuttle." The article states that NASA has budgeted 2.4 billion dollars for the craft design phase; but there were no estimates given for development, testing, and manufacture or for integrating the vehicle with an "off-the-shelf" booster in such a way 'that the crew is assured safe escape and survival in all flight phases (one of the major requirements for future human flight vehicles). The article also says that plans for this craft were announced before the Columbia accident, but the tragedy added a "powerful incentive to find a cheaper, simpler and more dependable way to ferry astronauts between the space station and earth." The article also states that the new vehicle, called the Orbital Space Plane (OSP), has been "applauded by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB)."

Why was I disappointed? Frankly because, (1) other than crew transport, the Orbital Space Plane will not have a single capability that supports the goals, missions, current activities or future plans that make the Human Space Flight Program worthwhile, (2) it will not produce any new technology or materials, (3) it will fly too late to meet the most critical ISS needs, and (4) it will consume funds and workforce resources that could be much better used elsewhere.

Lack of Capability

The OSP will have extremely limited volume and weight capacity to carry payloads to and from orbit (a few hundred pounds and a cubic yard or so) and it will have no airlock, no cargo bay, and no RMS (Remote Manipulator System, like those now used by the Shuttle and the ISS for external cargo and module handling and by the Shuttle for satellite capture). So it cannot carry large modules or replacement equipment (including new experiment packages to replace completed experiments) or big cargo items to the ISS, or return completed ISS experiment packages intact to earth for detailed analysis, or carry satellites to orbit and check them out on board prior to deploying them, or handle cargo on orbit, or support Extra Vehicular Activity (also called EVA or 'spacewalking'), or capture free flying malfunctioning satellites and take them on board for repair or return to earth, or support the kind of scientific missions that require an onboard laboratory (like SpaceHab). Furthermore, it will apparently have no autonomous on orbit inspection and repair capability nor any capability to rescue the crew of a sister ship in distress on orbit.

In short, the OSP will be totally dependent on other vehicles to provide the capabilities, accommodations, and tools needed to continue or extend the current array of activities in space that make human flight valuable. The Shuttle and the ISS now meet those needs, but by the time the OSP vehicle is ready to fly, the Shuttle and the ISS will be within a few years of their respective "end of service life" and "recertification" (required by the CAIB for the Shuttle at the end of this decade) may or may not be economically feasible. Without replacements for them, human activities in space will cease altogether when the "aging Shuttle and ISS" reach their end of service life. There are apparently no budgeted programs to develop new vehicles with the necessary capabilities.

No New Technology or Materials

The OSP program will contribute little or nothing to the development of new materials and technology. In fact the Chronicle article quotes the program manager, Dennis Smith of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), as saying "We're doing everything we can to get it up by 2008." The key to meeting this schedule, according to Smith, is the use of existing technology and existing materials, avoiding unnecessary bells and whistles and not holding out for "some material like 'unattainium' that isn't in existence." So no new technology or materials can be expected from the OSP Program.

Too Late To Meet Critical ISS Needs

It isn't at all clear that a new crew vehicle built and tested under considerable schedule pressure with existing materials and technology (most of which have never been proven in a crewed space vehicle) and mated with an "off-the-shelf" booster, will be much, if any, safer or more dependable or cheaper to operate than the Shuttle. Nor is it apparent that a vehicle with such limited mission capabilities will be an asset to human space flight. However, even if it is, it will not be available soon enough to meet the critical needs of the ISS.

The Space Station has been widely proclaimed to be a valuable research facility which will produce unique, important scientific and medical discoveries. Currently it is not living up to that promise, and if it continues to fail to do so over a period of two or three years NASA could be harshly criticized at a time when the agency's image is already tarnished by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report. The ISS desperately needs to begin producing meaningful research results now.

Three things must be done as quickly as possible to make the ISS a capable research facility: (1) its assembly must be completed with an adequate life support system and a full complement of research equipment installed, (2) the capability must be provided to return completed ISS experiment packages intact to earth for detailed analysis and replace them with new experiments, and (3) the number of on board crewmembers (which is presently limited by a lack of rescue capability and life support capacity) must be increased sufficiently to conduct the desired regimen of research. The OSP will not be available soon enough to support any of these requirements.

Consequently, the timely achievement of these ISS research goals depends upon the Shuttle and the Soyuz. The Shuttle is the only currently available vehicle that can deliver large modules, new equipment (augmentation for the life support system for example), replacements for malfunctioning equipment, and needed quantities of expendables. The Shuttle is also essential to ferry ISS experiments intact to and from orbit. The use of additional Soyuz vehicles is the only quick way to provide an adequate rescue capability to support an increase in crew size.

Better Use Of Resources

Total cost of the OSP, including integration with the booster, will likely exceed six billion dollars, and the overall effort will require hundreds of thousands of workforce hours. I believe there are several higher priority efforts that could better use these resources.

  • For the immediate future NASA should give the highest priority to making the ISS a viable research facility by: (1) focusing its resources on whatever modifications and procedural changes are necessary to return the Shuttle to flight status as soon as possible so it can provide the needed ISS support and (2) making arrangements to fully man the ISS by obtaining an exception to the Iran Non-Proliferation Act so that NASA can immediately acquire additional Soyuz vehicles (either as a Russian or European or Japanese contribution or by direct purchase) to provide the necessary rescue capability.
  • NASA should then turn to creating and testing new technology and materials that will be needed to develop a true Shuttle replacement system (crew and cargo carriers, booster, etc.) that can provide the capabilities, accommodations, and tools to support the goals, missions, current activities, and future plans that make human space flight valuable.
  • NASA should also initiate the development and testing of technology and systems that will be needed to someday resume human exploration of the solar system beyond low earth orbit. One suggestion is the creation of a special ISS module that would serve as a prototype "Deep Space Vehicle." where integrated of systems, technology, and procedures to support deep space human flights (e.g., water and atmosphere recycling, onboard food production, extended onboard medical treatment including animal experimentation to verify zero gravity medical techniques, counter measures to preclude zero gravity deconditioning, improved solar power systems and thermal radiators, and so forth) could be conducted in the actual space environment. An isolated ISS module dedicated to this task would capitalize on the capabilities provided by the station and constitute an ideal facility for this preparatory work. And this requires an all-up, fully manned ISS.

In Conclusion

The NASA workforce is the most talented, dedicated, ingenuous, industrious group of people I have ever known in my 43 years of aerospace experience. Surely, with this unparalleled resource, NASA management can find some better way to spend five or more years and billions of dollars than the creation of nothing more than a "Super-Sized" Soyuz. That's a dead-end street.


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