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Unaffordable and Unsustainable: NASA's Failing Earth-to-orbit Transportation Strategy - A Policy White Paper of the Space Frontier Foundation

Status Report From: Space Frontier Foundation
Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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Executive Summary

Over the past 30 months, NASA has made fundamental errors in its implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), errors which can be fixed today but will be fatal if left uncorrected. In particular, NASA has laid out a strategy for Earth-to-orbit transportation that is already showing signs of failure to meet its own stated goals: closing the gap in U.S. human spaceflight, supporting full utilization of the ISS, and enabling affordable and sustainable exploration beyond Earth orbit.

In developing this strategy, NASA has apparently ignored key elements of the White House's Space Exploration Policy and several critical recommendations of the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy ("President's Commission"). Instead of planning its exploration transportation in a way that maximizes economic (and national security) benefit, NASA is working with its incumbent contractors to develop a series of government-designed and owned space exploration transportation systems to service ISS as well as explore the Moon.

For example, many elements of Dr. Griffin's initial plan to "reduce the gap" in U.S. human spaceflight have had to be abandoned, and therefore the gap is likely to be larger than any U.S. politician expects. Worse still, the high cost of operating these systems to service the ISS, compounded with likely cost, schedule, and performance problems in developing the lunar transportation elements, will delay and make unsustainable and probably unaffordable the human exploration of the Moon and beyond.

The Foundation proposes a solution that will easily work within NASA's existing budget at funding levels already supported by the White House and Congress. We will explain why this solution:

  1. Is our nation's best chance to "minimize the gap" in U.S. human spaceflight,
  2. Is consistent with White House space policy and the recommendations of the President's Commission in specific areas where NASA's plans are not, and
  3. Will allow Congress to restore funding (and avoid future cuts) to NASA's technology, science and aeronautics programs.

We will show that NASA can expand its timid outreach to America's NewSpace industry (most notably its underfunded Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program) to solve the near-term challenges of minimizing the "gap" and affordably servicing ISS. Furthermore, we will show that turning over low Earth orbit (LEO) space operations to NewSpace is the only way NASA can focus its talents and resources on returning humanity to the Moon and achieve the goals of the VSE in an affordable, sustainable and credible manner. Also, turning LEO over to NewSpace will broaden the U.S. space exploration community, grounded in the traditional American values of free enterprise, entrepreneurship and opportunity that opened our first frontier of the West.

We propose that NASA can and should pay for this by immediately eliminating all work on Block 1 of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which is designed for missions to the ISS. Since COTS will become the primary approach to reducing the gap in U.S. human spaceflight, this eliminates the schedule pressure to fly the CEV by 2014. By focusing on CEV Block 2, which is targeted at the Moon and beyond as the President intended, NASA can transfer back the funds it moved from the Science Mission Directorate to pay for rushing the CEV Block 1 and Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV).

Furthermore, as the CEV-to-ISS schedule pressure will be gone, the urgent rush to develop the CLV will be removed. Because CLV has substantially changed since the decision to use the Shuttle SRB option, NASA should reopen its CLV trade study to fairly assess options such as the Atlas V or Delta IV, consistent with White House policy that the VSE should support U.S. national security interests.

Finally, consistent with the recommendation of the President's Commission to decisively transform the relationship between NASA and the private sector, the White House should enforce this by establishing a new policy after 2010 the U.S. will buy all crew and cargo services with a destination of low Earth orbit (like the International Space Station) from U.S. commercial providers using privately-owned and operated spaceships.

In summary, America is the world's most powerful nation and the world's leader in high-tech innovation because we are better at capitalism, not because we are better at socialism. Using the tools of capitalism is now our nation's best and only chance to have an affordable and sustainable human space exploration program, and the best way to minimize the gap in U.S. human spaceflight and turn the ISS into a successful initial human settlement in Earth orbit.

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