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Space Shuttle and Space Launch Initiative Hearing Charter - House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

Status Report From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2002

1. Purpose of Hearing

On Thursday, April 18, 2002, at 10:00 a.m. in room 2318 Rayburn, the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics will hold a hearing on the Space Shuttle and Space Launch Initiative (SLI) programs. The hearing will examine NASA's plans to operate and maintain the Space Shuttle and NASA's strategy for developing a second generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) to replace the Space Shuttle.

Specifically, the hearing will review NASA's plans for Shuttle safety and supportability upgrades, proposed reductions in Shuttle flight rate, the status of Shuttle launch infrastructure, plans for competitive sourcing of the Shuttle, ability of the workforce to support planned missions, and the status of studies to extend the operational life of the Space Shuttle beyond 2012. In addition, the hearing will review NASA's plans to develop and demonstrate technologies for a second generation reusable launch vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle under the Space Launch Initiative. Taken together, NASA's human space flight programs may cost $50-60 billion over the next ten years.

2. Major Issues

NASA Space Transportation Advisory Panel Criticizes SLI Program's Credibility. Last year, a NASA space transportation advisory group report concluded, "The basic structure of the SLI (program orientation, objectives, schedule, technology) renders the program impossible for successful completion. The elements are so obviously lacking in credibility as to discourage best efforts by either government or industry."

Safety Advisory Group Warns Against NASA's Human Space Flight Safety Risks. An Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report in March 2002 concluded, "The current and proposed budgets are not sufficient to improve or even maintain the safety risk level of operating the Space Shuttle."

How long will the Space Shuttle need to safely operate and when will the second generation RLV be ready? NASA's FY03 budget request for Space Shuttle upgrades, infrastructure refurbishment, and the Space Launch Initiative assumed that the Shuttle would be phased out by 2012. Subsequent to the budget submittal and based on advice by its Advisory Panel, NASA is now reassessing this assumed 2012 phase-out year and the possible need to safely fly the Shuttle through 2020. This change will affect investment decisions for Space Shuttle upgrades, launch infrastructure, and the Space Launch Initiative.

Deteriorating Launch Infrastructure. Kennedy Space Center infrastructure was built almost 40 years ago and has been refurbished numerous times to keep the facilities "launch ready." NASA's FY03 budget request plans $76 million in FY03 and over $365 million in infrastructure revitalization for FY02-07. This infrastructure revitalization budget assumes cost savings in other areas of the overall Space Shuttle budget of $3.2 billion per year. Much of these cost savings assume a reduced flight rate of 4-5 flights per year and Shuttle upgrades cuts. It is not clear what will happen to infrastructure revitalization plans if those cost savings aren't realized.

Space Shuttle Competitive Sourcing/Privatization: The FY03 President's Budget Request announced plans to pursue Space Shuttle Competitive Sourcing to enable the transfer of Shuttle operations and possibly some portion of infrastructure ownership to a private entity. The FY03 Budget Request identifies possible benefits of competitive sourcing as: greater flexibility to recruit and retain a skilled workforce necessary to safely operate the Shuttle, cost savings, and making NASA a purchaser of services rather than an operator of infrastructure. The impacts of Shuttle privatization on the NASA workforce and budget plans have not yet been fully explored.

3. Witnesses

Mr. Fred Gregory, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Enterprise, has been asked to address the following -

  • What is the rationale behind proposed reductions in Space Shuttle safety and supportability upgrades in the FY2003 budget request?
  • How might these reductions be affected by the recently announced study to safely operate and maintain the Shuttle to 2020?
  • What options and criteria are being considered for Space Shuttle commercial sourcing?

    Mr. Richard Blomberg, Chair of NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, has been asked to address the following -

  • What are the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel's findings and recommendations about Space Shuttle plans and budget request?
  • What are the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel's specific concerns and recommendations for Space Shuttle ground infrastructure and launch workforce?

    Mr. Sam Venneri, NASA Associate Administrator for Aerospace Technology Enterprise, has been asked to address the following -

  • What is the impact to the Space Launch Initiative program if NASA decides to operate and maintain the Space Shuttle to 2020?
  • What are the objectives and investment strategy for the Space Launch Initiative for each year (FY 2003-06)?
  • What information is required before a decision can be made to proceed with full-scale development of a second generation reusable launch vehicle?

    Mr. Gerard Elverum, Member of the NASA Space Transportation Subcommittee of the Aerospace Technology Advisory Committee, has been asked to address the following -

  • What are the Space Transportation Subcommittee's specific concerns and recommendations for NASA's Space Launch Initiative program objectives, schedule, technology, and need for program orientation?
  • If NASA decided to extend operations of the Shuttle to 2020, what changes to SLI would you recommend?

    4. Background

    Integrated Space Transportation Plan

    The Space Shuttle is the first generation reusable launch vehicle and is the sole means for the United States to launch humans into orbit and provide cargo to the Space Station. While the Space Shuttle has successfully launched 109 times since 1981 and is the most reliable space launch vehicle, the specter of the 1986 Challenger accident, the increasing costs to operate and maintain the Shuttle fleet, workforce reductions for Shuttle operations, deteriorating launch infrastructure, and budget cuts to safety and supportability upgrades have led to questions about its continued viability past 2012. Safe operation of the Space Shuttle and developing a more reliable and lower cost second generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) under the Space Launch Initiative is a major NASA endeavor. The FY03 budget request for the Space Shuttle program is $3.2 billion, and the Second Generation Launch Vehicle/Space Launch Initiative FY03 budget request is $759 million.

    In 1999, NASA developed an integrated strategy for space transportation. The objective of the Integrated Space Transportation Plan (ISTP) was to integrate NASA's diverse space transportation activities. The ISTP stated the following five goals: 1) Ensure continued safe access to space through the Space Shuttle with upgrades until the second generation RLV is operational; 2) Conduct safety, reliability, cost, and NASA mission definition trade studies; 3) Enable a competition at an acceptable level of risk for development of a second generation RLV no later than 2005; 4) Develop an integrated architecture to meet NASA-unique space transportation needs on a commercial RLV and potentially provide NASA assured access to space on more than one launch vehicle; and 5) Ensure secure, safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to space in the far-term through investments in third generation RLV technologies.

    While there is widespread consensus on the top-level goals for the Integrated Space Transportation Plan, two NASA advisory committees are concerned with the way NASA is implementing its strategy, cost growth in Shuttle operations and upgrades, NASA's budget cuts to Shuttle upgrades, and the time-phasing of investments between the Shuttle and a second generation RLV. Further, some analysts question NASA's credibility to execute this plan given its record over the last several years with reusable launch vehicle development.

    Space Shuttle Safety and Supportability Upgrades

    What safety and supportability upgrades as well as infrastructure refurbishment are needed for the Space Shuttle to safely fly to 2012 or 2020? Investments in Shuttle safety and supportability upgrades are predicated on when a Shuttle replacement will be developed and operational. While the 2012 phase-out year for the Shuttle has been called into question by two NASA advisory committees and many space transportation analysts, NASA decided to cut Shuttle safety and supportability upgrades based on this 2012 phase-out year. Debate over shuttle upgrades became more intense during the FY02 budget cycle after NASA decided to terminate what it earlier had described as its highest priority safety upgrade, the Electric Auxiliary Power Unit.

    The FY03 budget request further cut how much NASA planned to spend on safety and supportability upgrades in the FY02-07 time period. In the FY02 request, NASA planned to spend $1.836 billion on Shuttle upgrades. In FY03, the budget request is $1.220 billion, a 34% reduction. A detailed budget comparison between FY02 and FY03 is provided below.

    Space Shuttle Upgrade Budget Cuts Between FY02-FY03

    FY2001 FY2002 FY2003 FY2004 FY2005 FY2006 FY2007
    FY 2002 President's Budget 256.4 405.5 397.7 431.1 370.8 231.1 -
    Safety Upgrades 156.4 280.5 272.7 331.3 290.8 131 -
    Supportability Upgrades 100.0 125.0 125.0 100.0 80.0 100.0
    FY2003 President's Budget 245.9 311.7 240.7 267.1 263.6 136.8 98.0
    Safety Upgrades 145.9 186.7 148.0 163.7 172.1 74.0 38.0
    Supportability Upgrades 100.0 125.0 92.7 103.4 91.5 62.8 60.0
    Total Change FY02 to FY03 -10.5 -93.8 -157.0 -164.0 -107.2 -94.2 98.0
    Safety Upgrades -10.5 -93.8 -124.7 -167.4 -118.7 -57.0 38.0
    Supportability Upgrades ---32.3 3.4 11.5 -37.2 60.0
    Space Launch Initiative

    From 1995 to 2000, NASA approached development of a new Reusable Launch Vehicle with "X" (for "experimental") flight test programs. The X-33, a large RLV based on single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) technology, was to fly at 13-15 times the speed of sound with a new, technically challenging aerospike engine and a new composite hydrogen fuel tank. After several technical problems and schedule slips, NASA terminated the X-33 program in March 2001. NASA spent $1.2 billion on the X-33, while Lockheed Martin invested $356 million.

    Rather than continuing with the X-33 program, NASA restructured its second generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) program. NASA initially selected 2005 as the next point at which it would decide to proceed with full-scale development of a second generation RLV. NASA now refers to that decision timeframe as either "mid-decade" or FY06. NASA began the Space Launch Initiative program to develop the technologies needed for a full-scale second generation RLV. Rather than focusing on a single vehicle design like the X-33, the SLI program develops generic RLV technology and system designs. The SLI is designed to encourage development of a variety of reusable launch vehicle technologies for lower cost to orbit and higher reliability than the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle's cost per pound to low-Earth orbit is approximately $10,000, while the SLI goal is to develop RLV technologies to enable only $1,000 per pound for the Second Generation RLV. The Space Shuttle's current reliability is approximated at a 1 in 265 Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF), and with the Shuttle safety and supportability upgrades, the reliability is expected to be 1 in 620 MTBF. The goal of SLI is a 1 in 10,000 MTBF for the second generation RLV. However, NASA advisory committees and space transportation analysts have expressed great skepticism about reaching these SLI cost and reliability goals. Further, these observers are skeptical of the development timeframe and NASA's ability to develop a Second Generation reusable launch vehicle successfully in the wake of the X-33 and X-34 program failures.

    At a House Science Subcommittee hearing on June 20, 2001, the General Accounting Office (GAO) testified about a study (GAO-01-826T) it conducted on the X-33 program, and cautioned NASA against making similar mistakes with SLI. GAO cited a lack of "realistic cost estimates, timely acquisition and risk management plans, and adequate and realistic performance goals" with X-33. It identified three critical areas: the technical complexity of SLI requires realistic cost estimates and risk mitigation plans and appropriate funding; NASA must ensure that the numerous interrelated, complex efforts involved in developing the technology move forward with effective coordination and communication; and performance measures must be implemented and periodically validated.

    Total planned SLI funding for FY01-06 is $4.8 billion and a detailed breakout is provided below. After FY06, total costs for a Second Generation RLV are unknown, but the costs will likely range between $10-$30 billion.

    Space Launch Initiative Second Generation RLV FY03 Budget Request for FY03-07

    FY01 FY02 FY03 FY04 FY05 FY06 FY07
    2nd Generation RLV Focused 289.4 467.0 759.2 1003.4 1056.1 1255.6 1347.5
    Sys Eng/Architecture Definition 49.9 83.8 64.1 42.6 42.8 42.6 0.0
    RLV Competition & Risk Reduction 94.8 280.1 501.5 749.9 580.2 784.6 0.0
    NASA Unique Systems 41.7 28.4 108.8 130.0 390.0 390.1 0.0
    Alternative Access 39.9 48.7 62.7 81.0 43.0 38.3 0.0
    Future-X / X-37 45.2 26.0 22.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
    X-34 17.9 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
    2nd Gen Full Scale Development 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 1347.5

    Space Shuttle Competitive Sourcing/Privatization Studies

    In 1996, NASA decided to choose a single prime contractor for the Shuttle, and the United Space Alliance, a Boeing and Lockheed-Martin joint venture, was chosen. Some observers view the transition of Space Shuttle operations and maintenance from NASA to the United Space Alliance as the first ning toward Space Shuttle privatization, although the precise meaning of that term remains unclear. Competitive sourcing may enable the full transfer of Shuttle operations and possibly some portion of infrastructure ownership to a private entity. Some advocates for privatization envision the Shuttle one day being operated entirely by the private sector, similar to an airline, with the government as only one of several customers. Others believe that the Shuttle's high operational costs will not attract private sector customers, and it will remain a vehicle primarily used and paid for by NASA.

    With the FY03 budget request, NASA announced that it is assessing different options using specific criteria such as safety, cost savings, and the business base for competitive sourcing or privatization of the Shuttle. According to the FY03 President's Budget request, the potential benefits of competitive sourcing include greater flexibility to recruit and retain the skilled personnel necessary to safely operate the Shuttle, the ability to avoid potential cost growth for Shuttle operations, and the ability to bring about significant culture change in human space flight at NASA by making it a purchaser of services rather than an operator of infrastructure. The RAND Corporation is currently conducting a study to support NASA's decision-making process for Shuttle privatization later this year.

    Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Warns Against Shuttle Safety Risks

    The independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) annually reviews NASA's human space flight safety plans. In its March 2002 report, the ASAP issued several findings and recommendations to bolster NASA's Shuttle safety plans. The ASAP concluded that "current and proposed budgets are not sufficient to improve or even maintain the safety risk levels of operating the Space Shuttle or the ISS." Citing shuttle upgrades as an area needing more attention, the ASAP noted that the commercial and military sectors have product improvement programs to extend the life of older aircraft. The panel argued that the Shuttle is similar, but is "not able to follow this proven approach" because of budget constraints. Further, the ASAP found that the Space Shuttle ground infrastructure has deteriorated and will not be capable of supporting the Shuttle to 2015-2020 and that NASA needs to better ensure the continued technical viability of its specially-skilled workforce to operate and maintain the Shuttle. The ASAP also recommended that Space Shuttle privatization plans include an assessment by safety professionals.

    Space Transportation Subcommittee Questions SLI Credibility

    The Space Transportation Subcommittee of the Aerospace Technology Advisory Committee has been advising the NASA Aerospace Technology Enterprise for several years. The last report of the Space Transportation Subcommittee stated, "The basic structure of the SLI (program orientation, objectives, schedule, technology) renders the program impossible of successful completion. These elements are so obviously lacking in credibility as to discourage best efforts by either government or industry. Major restructuring is needed along the lines of the four recommendations below." According to publicly available Advisory Committee meeting minutes, NASA management's response to the Space Transportation Subcommittee was that its recommendations "would get the Program into trouble and would not get it any OMB and Congressional support." The four recommendations of the Advisory Committee are summarized:

    1) NASA should give the Space Launch Initiative a program orientation by making an early, firm decision between the only two real alternative programs: (1) Design and produce a new multi-stage vehicle system (probably two-stage-to-orbit) to replace the Space Shuttle about 2015; or (2) Continue to operate the Space Shuttle (with upgrades, and possibly replacement Orbiters) for several decades.

    2) NASA should officially change its cost reduction objective for the Second Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle program from one-tenth of current cost to a fraction of that reduction. Similarly, NASA should change its safety improvement objective of the 2nd Generation RLV Program from one-hundredth of the current risk of crew loss to a small fraction of that improvement.

    3) NASA should officially change their "Initial Operational Capability" (IOC) date for the second generation RLV from 2010 to about 2015. Wisely chosen IOC dates are of inestimable importance to any development and acquisition program.

    4) At the first opportunity, NASA should shift the early (FY02-03) emphasis of the SLI from a very large number of wide-ranging R&D initiatives to a focused systems analysis effort to define the second generation RLV Program. Little will be gained by pursuing multiple, broad-scope R&D new starts without having a clear view of the desired system or the development time available.

    In addition to this report, the Space Transportation Subcommittee previously made the following recommendations:
    • NASA should establish the second generation reusable launch vehicle program office at NASA Headquarters, reporting directly to the Administrator;
    • NASA should focus its efforts on NASA-unique manned space needs without duplicating Space Station capabilities;
    • NASA should rigorously restrict the R&D efforts funded by the SLI, and
    • NASA's systems analysis should explore the possibility of cost savings from commonality with commercial cargo reusable launch vehicles, as commercial space activities must remain market-driven.

    // end //

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