Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional input about what actually went on during this meeting. Previous accounts were incomplete and somewhat misleading. I regret these omissions and hope my updates more accurately reflect what was said by those in attendance.
NASA has decided to dramatically alter its approach to developing new means of cargo transport to the International Space Station (ISS). In a meeting held at NASA headquarters on Tuesday, four companies under contract to study so called "Alternate Access" ("Alt Access") concepts, were given details of NASA's new direction.
The initial idea of Alt Access was to find ways to augment the planned cargo capability for the Space Shuttle, Europe's ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle), Japan's HTV (H-II Transfer Vehicle) and Russia's Progress vehicles.
NASA now uses the phrase "Assured Access" to supplant "Alternate Access" to describe its interest in new cargo capabilities to the ISS.
The companies originally under contract to participate in the Alt Access effort (funded out to the Space Launch Initiative - SLI) were: Andrews Space and Technology ($2.9 million); Lockheed Martin,($3 million); Boeing ($2.6 million); and Constellation Services International ($2.3 million).
These contracts were set to expire in July 2003. After concerns over this termination were raised in Congress, NASA decided to extend these contracts. $4 million in additional funds was divided among these companies for additional work to be performed in 2003. Data is due to be delivered to NASA no later than the end of December regarding cost and performance concepts. Final contract deliverables are due to NASA In January 2004.
NASA is now interested in having a reliable or "assured" means of delivering cargo to the ISS in the 2011 time frame. "Alternate" means of delivering cargo is no longer the highest driver - making sure that cargo can be delivered is. This "assured" capability is needed to replace the cargo carrying capability of the Space Shuttle which NASA now feels pressured to retire (at least as a vehicle carrying humans) much sooner than it had planned to - and to replace its human transport capabilities with the Orbital Space Plane (OSP).
In essence NASA is now looking to replace the capability of the Shuttle immediately aft of the crew compartment bulkhead - the trailer behind the cab, if you will.
Studies are reportedly under way at Code B at NASA Headquarters which look at the implications of halting shuttle missions sooner rather than later. At Tuesday's meeting NASA made mention of the fact that Congress and the CAIB were indeed calling for NASA to stop flying the Shuttle as soon as possible.
Editor's note: As additional descriptions of this meeting come my way it has become clear that the previous paragraph is in error. NASA personnel did not "mention of the fact that Congress and the CAIB were indeed calling for NASA to stop flying the Shuttle as soon as possible". Instead, such comments about replacing the Shuttle and Congress were actually made by a representative of one of the smaller companies in attendance at the meeting. Moreover, it was suggested by that company attendee that the outcome of this meeting would not sit well with some folks on Capitol Hill.
Rather, NASA representatives made note of the fact that this a potential replacement for the Shuttle, not a certain replacement. NASA' s representative stated the purpose of the effort was to get information to allow NASA to make the trades necessary as they develop the ISTP (Integrated Space Transportation Plan). This information will also help NASA to put together a Assured Access RFP if they decide that is the way to go.
However strong - or muted - the call NASA hears to stop flying humans aboard Space Shuttles, NASA still sees the need to have a heavy cargo carrying capacity in place - just in case future projects should require it. As such, NASA is still reluctant to do away with the Shuttle system entirely. Alas, NASA has no identified heavy lift requirements after the ISS is completed to actually drive future planning. Discussions are being held at the White House on possible new directions - but so far these discussions are, only discussions.
Providing this Assured Access capability will be run under a separate budget than the OSP - that of the NGLT (Next Generation Launch Technology). Moreover, the additional funds to develop this capability, (certainly to be in the billions) will also have to be found since no mention is made in current budget projects.
Dennis Smith from NASA MSFC as making the rounds on Capitol Hill last week and told Congressional staff that the cost of getting to a CRV (crew return) capability for the OSP - by 2008 - will cost between $11-12 billion. The cost to get the OSP to have a CTV (crew transport) capability atop an EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) is still not known - at least Smith has not been able to provide those numbers to Congress.
Attendees at Tuesday's meeting were provided with details of a Design Reference Mission (DRM) which is based upon the needs of the ISS program. The DRM calls for the transport of 48,700 kg (107,140 lbs) in upmass and packing and 34,800 kg (76,560 lbs.) in downmass and packing every year. There also needs to be the capability to carry at least two ISPRs (international Standard Payload Racks) up and down on any given flight. NASA claims that such a downmass requirement is needed in case there is a shortage of ORU's (Orbital Replacement Units) in the future - things that might no longer be manufactured by the original vendors.
No specific direction has been given by NASA as to whether such an Assured Access cargo capability is - or should be - a derivation of OSP systems - or of existing Shuttle systems. However, it is clear that NASA is looking to replace the functionality of the cargo bay of a Shuttle orbiter - and its ability to bring things back to Earth while human transport responsibilities are to be assigned to the OSP.
Also, instead of embracing the notion of multiple capabilities to deliver cargo to the ISS (as was the implication under Alt Access) NASA is now clearly looking in the direction of a capability that would have a single implementation.
Editor's note: At a meeting with reporters the following day, I asked NASA Administrator O'Keefe about this. (See Sean O'Keefe: Progress Report on Fixing NASA's Shuttle). O'Keefe cautioned that seeking to hastily replace one asset with another - one that does all things for all people would not be wise "Frankly if you read history the results of decisions made a long time ago, by putting many capabilities in one single asset, you end up with asset that performs all things minimally well - not as well if you had a stand alone asset. This approach - also creates enormous complexity."