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DIRECT illustration
The DIRECT approach may avoid the pitfalls of both Constellation and NASA’s new approach to heavy-lift and human spaceflight. (credit: DIRECT)

A better plan


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Seven years ago the Columbia tragedy motivated Americans to re-evaluate their human space exploration and development objectives. It was determined that the expense in resources and lives inherent in this endeavor could only be justified by beyond Earth orbit destinations. While the possibilities of this new policy were effectively unlimited, the budget was not. Therefore the pace and scope of progress would be determined by the efficient evolution of existing capabilities through the incorporation of new approaches that lowered cost over time. Unfortunately, our first attempt at implementing this new policy ignored this reality and became driven by a self-imposed performance objective that was allowed to disregard the very real limits of budget.

There is a better plan that can combine the best elements of both extremes into a comprehensive solution that is better than either one alone.

At present the debate on the best way forward is unfortunately defined by two extremes. On the one hand are those who continue to support the Program of Record’s (PoR) Ares 1, a launch system that will duplicate at great expense capabilities we already have today. The other side advocates the destruction of our existing $40-billion heavy-lift industrial base and experienced workforce currently providing America access to space in order to fund future technologies. Their hope is that a notional set of new technologies developed years or decades from now will save us more money in the long term than we are throwing away. While the two extremes couldn’t be further apart in mindset, they both fail at achieving key elements of the well-thought-out policy that was born of the Columbia tragedy, defined by the Aldridge Commission, and enacted into law multiple times by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress. Fortunately there is a better plan that can combine the best elements of both extremes into a comprehensive solution that is better than either one alone.

Leverages the existing heavy-lift industrial base and experienced workforce

America has today a heavy-lift capability in the Space Shuttle system. Once the orbiter is retired the remaining stack, suitably modified, is capable of placing almost 100 metric tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), approaching the capability of the historic Saturn V. But both extreme positions, referenced above, destroy this existing heavy-lift industrial base and experienced workforce. In the case of the PoR this destruction is a direct result of the belief that only something significantly larger than the Saturn V was adequate. The other extreme attempts to convince us that the destruction of this infrastructure and workforce experience should be seen as a cost savings. Further, they intend to completely walk away from the significant progress made by the PoR, thereby wasting the $9 billion already invested, plus an additional expense of $2.5 billion in order to terminate the existing contracts.

The combined loss of the industrial base, progress, and experience under NASA’s new plan is three times greater than all the money their plan intends to spend over the next five years in replacing these existing national assets. At that pace it could take over fifteen years of additional spending just to rebuild, in different form, what we already have and are throwing away under this plan. It’s one thing to replace existing capabilities with proven lower-cost approaches developed as part of a comprehensive and complementary advanced technology program. It’s another proposition altogether to abandon what works in favor of wishful thinking. Regardless, both extremes will effectively destroy America’s existing world-leading position in human space operations, exploration, and development for decades to come. The last time we experienced a similar level of devastation to our human space program was after the Apollo program. Ironically, the justification then, as now, was that yet-to-be-demonstrated low-cost advanced technology would somehow save the day at some point in the near future.

A better plan would couple the full range of existing capabilities and PoR progress with a comprehensive advanced technology effort. This advanced technology effort would encompass the full spectrum of technology readiness levels ranging from theoretical physics investigations to operational systems improvements with the primary focus of lowering cost. This important initiative within the president’s plan could then be used to build upon our extensive human space flight investments rather than being used to backfill the hole in capability we are unnecessarily creating.

Maintains continuous and complete ISS utilization

Both extremes advocate the abrupt termination of the Space Shuttle program less than a year from now, thereby producing an indeterminate gap in American human access to space as a matter of choice and not necessity. This forced retirement of the Space Shuttle will not only starve the $100-billion International Space Station (ISS) of resources needed to achieve its objectives as a national laboratory but make it impossible to affect critical repairs over the next decade of operations. Further, just attaining crew access to the ISS for everyone involved will be entirely dependant on a single failure point, the Russian Soyuz, until the new American system finally arrives.

The combined loss of the industrial base, progress, and experience under NASA’s new plan is three times greater than all the money their plan intends to spend over the next five years in replacing these existing national assets.

The fates of the Space Shuttle and the worthwhile utilization of the ISS are interdependent today. In the case of those supporting the Ares 1 this ISS utilization gap is a direct result of attempting to produce an all-new unconventional launch system that overlaps existing systems at great expense. The net result is that Ares 1/Orion systems arrive in orbit after the ISS is deorbited under all scenarios examined by the Augustine Committee. On the other extreme are those that imprudently want to place organizations that have never produced a human-rated launch system or spacecraft on the critical path to ISS support. Further, the time and resources allocated to this critical capability are just a fraction of the levels required by past successful projects delivered by experienced organizations. Even once operational, the specifications for these Space Shuttle replacements don’t even come close to what the Space Shuttle can do for us right now.

A better plan would continue to operate the Space Shuttle on an as-needed basis until a replacement system capable of maintaining the long-term effectiveness of our ISS investment becomes available or the ISS mission is superseded.

Achieves beyond Earth orbit capabilities less than five years from now

Both extremes delay the development of beyond Earth orbit capability until two uncertain decades from now. In the case of the PoR, the primary focus on a LEO-only launch system that duplicates existing capabilities at great expense was a serious strategic mistake. The technical and performance problems arising from the unprecedented Ares 1 configuration further amplified this strategic error by forcing the Orion spacecraft through multiple redesign cycles resulting in the elimination of lower cost reusability and beyond Earth orbit capabilities. The other extreme places beyond Earth orbit capabilities on hold for an indeterminate period of time, dependant upon when a hypothetical collection of technology breakthroughs occurs for a yet as undefined purpose or destination. As a result, both extremes effectively trap—by design or policy—yet another generation in LEO. There they will wait until the next tragedy forces them to once again ask the same question we answered six years ago after the loss of Columbia.

A better plan would achieve beyond Earth orbit capabilities less than five years from now by coupling the progress already made on PoR with the full range of existing launch system capabilities currently providing America access to space.

Develops a heavy-lift vehicle less than five years from now using existing assets

Neither extreme produces a large-volume heavy-lift vehicle (HLV) capability in the foreseeable future. In the case of the PoR the expense and difficultly of the Ares 1 is significantly delaying the development of the subsequent HLV. In addition, the two unique launch systems developed under the PoR make little use of the existing heavy-lift industrial base and workforce experience, resulting in a budget- and policy-busting increase in development cost, time, and risk.

The other extreme is defined by two lines of thinking. The first line of thinking is that a HLV capability is not needed and represents a counter productive fixed cost burden. The cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), now running many times their respective launch costs due in large part to the volume, diameter, and lift capability constraints of existing launch systems, remains a repeatedly ignored and inconvenient fact to that supposition. In fact the cost overruns of these missions are so large that they alone could have paid for half the development cost of a shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle (SDHLV). Given that the justification for all future missions is predicated on achieving more than past missions, the volume constraint issue will only get more costly to work around over time. Therefore, eliminating this constraint with a large-volume SDHLV will actually pay for itself in the long run and result in a world-leading capability. More importantly, how can we justify an American space program that spends more than all other nations combined while limited by the same launch system capacities widely available to all other nations?

How can we justify an American space program that spends more than all other nations combined while limited by the same launch system capacities widely available to all other nations?

The other line of thinking is that HLV capability will not be needed until many decades from now. Therefore, it is argued, beginning to build upon the existing HLV capital and experience base now is not practical given how long we must support its fixed costs until it is actually needed. If we choose to destroy rather than to build upon existing capabilities right now, it’s highly unlikely any brand-new HLV development effort will ever be funded under the even tighter discretionary budget environment ahead of us. Either we choose to get going on an SDHLV now, or we choose to abandon all high-volume HLV capability indefinitely, and thus relegate ourselves to either paying significantly more for volume-, diameter-, and mass-constrained spacecraft or resign ourselves to future missions that are only marginally better than what we can do today. There is no third path.

A better plan would leverage the existing $40-billion HLV capital base and workforce experience to produce a world-leading large-volume SDHLV less than five years from now. A commercialized SDHLV would operate at half the cost of the current Space Shuttle while simultaneously delivering up to four times the volume and payload to orbit on every launch. This eight-fold improvement in cost effectiveness to orbit, coupled with the significantly lower spacecraft development costs enabled by the increased volume and mass margins, will permit a new generation of breakthrough space exploration and development missions for decades to come. The new breakthrough missions now possible would encompass the full range of commercial, civilian, and military applications utilizing both manned and unmanned methods accomplishing a diverse set of space exploration and development objectives. To continue to grow beyond the impressive accomplishments of the last fifty years we must remove the launch system volume constraint right now, not two decades from now.

The better plan

Ironically, neither of the extremes was even among the Augustine Committee’s set of viable options. This is because the committee was given clear instructions to only consider options that leveraged a significant portion of the current industrial base, minimized workforce experience loss, maximized the utilization of the ISS, and enabled near-term exploration and development beyond Earth orbit. It should be noted, however, that the DIRECT plan meets these requirements and as such was represented in two of the five viable options found by the committee. The DIRECT plan, as presented to the committee, is a comprehensive multi-phased approach that efficiently spreads development cost and evolves mission capabilities over time in order to fit the budget. Each phase is self-supporting with a full range of breakthrough mission capabilities justifiable in their own right. The pacing of each evolutionary step is determined by the effectiveness of the advanced technology program to reduce the cost of existing capabilities. In addition, on-ramps that enable increasing participation of commercial organizations and international partners are incorporated throughout the phased evolution. The DIRECT plan is the embodiment, if not inspiration, of the Flexible Path approach clearly favored by the committee.

DIRECT represents an ideal compromise position between the faithful supporters of the PoR in Congress and the new initiatives the president wisely wants integrated into the existing effort. DIRECT makes this compromise possible because it significantly reduces the life cycle cost of the PoR while still leveraging over 80 percent of the significant progress and inertia already achieved by the PoR. These savings enable the presidential initiatives to be incorporated in the overall plan, generating synergistic improvements in key aspects favored by both sides in this debate. For example, the savings enable significant year-over-year increases in commercial initiatives, accelerating the commercial delivery of crew to the ISS. At the same time, because an SDHLV development and an operational Space Shuttle share a common industrial base, tooling, launch infrastructure, and workforce, a significant portion of the cost of both initiatives is shared, thereby enabling the cost effective extension of the Space Shuttle to fill the gap in ISS support until the commercial replacement systems are available. In the next phase DIRECT incorporates the use of orbital propellant depots, opening up over 75 percent of the mass needed in orbit to commercial commodity-based bid and supply contracts. This in-space facility will not only increase the launch demand for commercial systems by two orders of magnitude over the ISS support contracts but also simultaneously increases the mass we can send beyond Earth orbit by two orders of magnitude over today’s capabilities.

The DIRECT plan also saves enough money over the PoR that we can reestablish a comprehensive Advanced Technology Research and Development activity that the PoR nearly starved out of existence in an attempt to cover its cost overruns. The savings from DIRECT not only restore this activity to its original funding level and comprehensive nature, but also can efficiently increase the year-over-year funding, enabling a higher rate of cost reduction over existing space exploration and development methods. The reduction of cost over the long run is imperative if we are to maintain steady progress against the headwind of ever-higher discretionary budget pressures in the future.

The window of opportunity to enable this “Better Plan” is rapidly closing and we may quickly reach a point in time where it is too late to save our extensive heavy-lift industrial base and dedicated workforce that our nation has depended on for decades.

Advanced Technology Research and Development works best though when coupled to an existing operational capability that is driven by beyond Earth orbit destinations. This coupling provides both the focus and business case that is absolutely essential for guiding technology portfolio decisions so that the improvements pay for themselves in the form of lower operational costs. By combining the best ideas advocated by both extremes we could produce a mutually-reinforcing implementation plan that will enable steady progress towards the policy objectives within the available budget. We have posted a modification to the currently proposed budget profile on our web site (in PDF and Excel formats) that will achieve all the key policy objectives advocated by both sides in this debate. These modifications still maintain the overall guiding vision set by the president in his recently released budget proposal but carries through a number of the key accomplishments of the PoR and existing capabilities sought by the Congress.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for achieving the better plan described above is closing fast due to the serious strategic mistakes made by both extremes in this debate. The window of opportunity to enable this “Better Plan” is rapidly closing and we may quickly reach a point in time where it is too late to save our extensive heavy-lift industrial base and dedicated workforce that our nation has depended on for decades. When the Space Shuttle program ends and its infrastructure and workforce are dismantled, we will be left with only two choices, one extreme or the other, the middle road having been closed. Time is ultimately the enemy of us all, and in this case, is the enemy of reasonable compromise. We must not allow the proponents at the extremes to delay the serious examination of this middle-road option. America needs now, more than ever, a space program that makes the impossible happen again, thereby inspiring a new generation of Americans to once again reach for other seemingly impossible individual and national objectives. For even though we may fall short, our achievements will far exceed those on the extremes who would have us abandon our hard won heritage as world leaders and explorers.


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