Saving America’s space program
by Stephen Metschan
|The debate is not about which plan can arbitrarily set the highest performance objective requiring the biggest rocket. The debate is over which plan will deliver the best performance within the constraints of budget and policy.|
In direct contrast, the Ares 1 is an unproven rocket configuration consisting of all new systems. Some of these systems have never been required, let alone successfully developed over the entire history of rocketry. If history is any indication, we may reasonably expect the Ares 1 to continue to suffer from even more unanticipated and serious problems throughout its already torturous development cycle resulting in ever-greater cost and schedule overruns. We are absolutely certain that an independent review of the Ares 1 engineering feasibility alone would prove that the serious problems already encountered are, in fact, fatal to both the near- and long-term objectives of the VSE.
Historically, no space system has ever been allowed to proceed beyond the preliminary design review (PDR) stage with the number of serious engineering problems persistently plaguing the Ares 1. While senior NASA management has only recently admitted to these serious problems, some were well known at the working engineering level over three years ago. Unfortunately, information regarding these serious problems was suppressed under the prevailing culture of “punishing the messenger”, and as a result even worse problems have yet to reach senior NASA management. Even those attempting to assert that it is somehow too late to switch from the Ares 1 must admit that the only thing worse than switching horses is to persist in flogging a dead one. Further, Ares 1 apologists are looking at the wrong horse. The horse we are currently riding is the Space Shuttle, and the Jupiter is a direct derivative of that system, as required by the law.
It is not too late to save our existing space access capability and workforce in order to build a true shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch system. Even a year from now the Ares 1 will have progressed little beyond its current paper rocket status. The Ares 1 development is hampered by the fact that it utilizes almost none of the existing Space Shuttle systems proven over decades of operation. In addition, unlike the Jupiter, the Ares 1 makes no use of American engines already placing other NASA missions in space. It is in fact the Ares 1, not the Jupiter Launch System, which is requiring America to “switch horses”. Provided $12 billion of Space Shuttle infrastructure is not destroyed, the Jupiter will still be further along three years from now than the Ares 1 will be under the current plan.
Time is short. Senior NASA management is committed to beginning the destruction of the tooling used to construct the Space Shuttle’s External Tank as early as next month. This destruction is completely unnecessary to support the current Ares 1 production plan because the floor space NASA plans to use is not occupied by the External Tank tooling. The only apparent objective of beginning the destruction of this $12-billion national asset next month, used by both the Space Shuttle and Jupiter Launch System, is to maliciously eliminate any competition to the current plan. In an attempt to put a halt to this unnecessary destruction of government property, the Senate version of 2009 NASA authorization bill sought to make this imminent action of the NASA administrator explicitly illegal. Specifically, the Senate provision directed the NASA administrator “to terminate or suspend any activity of the Agency that, if continued, would preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter after fiscal year 2010.” Unfortunately, this provision, that cost us nothing to include yet wisely keeps our options open, was removed from the Senate-House conference bill just before the summer recess.
|Time is short. Senior NASA management is committed to beginning the destruction of the tooling used to construct the Space Shuttle’s External Tank as early as next month.|
The President and Congress have been informed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA that America’s space program will experience up to an eight-year gap, massive layoffs, and the destruction of billions in infrastructure under the current plan. If the current President and Congress ultimately endorse the destruction of America’s access to space beginning next month, the next President and Congress will be forced to choose between two exceedingly bad options just as they enter elected office. Their first option for bridging the gap will be to send billions of dollars to the same Russian organizations helping Iran improve the range of their ballistic missiles. This, while we simultaneously lay off four out of five American workers currently supporting our existing space access capability and destroy $12 billion of space program infrastructure. Their second choice will be to abandon a largely American-built $100-billion International Space Station (ISS) only now nearing completion after two decades of effort. Either way, after spending over half a trillion dollars over the last fifty years, the destruction of American’s second heavy-lift system in less than forty years will make our space program less capable than even newly emerging space faring nations like China for more then a decade. The American people deserve much better than this after faithfully supporting NASA’s mission all these years at great expense.
The magnitude of the national and international problems generated by this watershed decision deserves its own separate up or down vote by the entire Congress should the Senate provision remain out of the 2009 NASA authorization bill. In the end, all those in the Congress that oppose the destruction of America’s only current human access to space should afford themselves the benefit of making that wise stand a matter of the public record for those they represent, regardless of the ultimate outcome.
At a recent hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) discussed all the facts above with the NASA administrator. After this interchange, Senator Nelson stated that this sounded to him like “an absolutely horrible plan.” We couldn’t agree more. Given these facts, now is not the time for some to turn a blind eye to an approach, endorsed by 190 NASA engineering studies conducted over three decades, that can eliminate the serious engineering, budgetary, policy, and geo-political problems clearly before us. The DIRECT team strongly believes that an independent review will quickly confirm the truth of everything we have stated. Senior NASA management and dependant proxies have repeatedly rejected our calls for an independent review of this serious national matter. The DIRECT team, by contrast, enthusiastically supports an independent review of both plans, for we have nothing to hide and stand to gain a great deal for present and future generations in the grand endeavor of space exploration and development. Accepting without question the counsel of those who finally release biased studies they denied doing over a year ago while simultaneously withholding the very Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) appendix they say supports the present plan is not a prudent stance given the magnitude of what is at stake.
Making a serious error in judgment at this critical juncture will squander America’s historic leadership position in space exploration and development for decades to come. This leadership position was attained at great expense and is built upon the sacrifice, risk, and lives of many Americans over the last fifty years. If the DIRECT team appears a bit passionate at times it is because we can clearly visualize the magnitude of the train wreck our nation is facing if we remain on our present path. Given what is at stake, an independent review of the engineering, performance, risk, schedule, budget, and policy advantages of DIRECT vs. the current plan is more than prudent. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to have an independent review prior to moving past this impending point of no return in which, for a second time in less than forty years, we set about to foolishly destroy an operational heavy-lift system and lay off the workforce that provides America access to space.
|If the DIRECT team appears a bit passionate at times it is because we can clearly visualize the magnitude of the train wreck our nation is facing if we remain on our present path.|
NASA has admitted that the Jupiter has more capability than the seriously deficient Ares 1 and can deliver an initial lunar mission capability at least four times greater than Apollo. The GAO has also agreed that the Jupiter will save time and money over the current plan. As American citizens we respectfully request that Congress pass a law placing a hold on the destruction of Space Shuttle External Tank tooling and launch infrastructure, by a veto-proof majority if necessary, before the end of next month. This law costs nothing to implement yet will save the American space program billions of dollars now and from certain destruction in the near future. Our second request, having protected our options for a little longer by the action above, is that a review board composed of individuals with the necessary skills, yet independent of NASA or its subcontractors’ influence, be assembled to determine whether the current plan or DIRECT is the best way to implement the VSE policy.
Less than fifty years ago President Kennedy set America on a path that led to our present position of being second to none in space exploration and development. The torch is now passed to this generation to reaffirm America’s commitment to being second to none in what President Kennedy called mankind’s new ocean. As American citizens we once again respectfully petition our elected representatives to determine the truth before it is too late. Americans will be still praising the courage and wisdom you show in the next month well past our nation’s 100th anniversary in space.