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CEV and LSAM illustration
Concerns about costs and technologies are raising new questions about the viability of the Vision for Space Exploration as currently conceived. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

A drifting, blurring, and dimming Vision

The Space Frontier Foundation published a white paper last month titled “Unaffordable and Unsustainable? Signs of Failure in NASA’s Earth-to-orbit Transportation Strategy”. To say it is critical of NASA’s VSE is an understatement. When I first heard about the paper, I though it was just another case of an organization putting forth a self-serving article. Then I read the paper and realized that they do have a point. While I don’t fully agree with what the Foundation recommends should be done, I do think that they bring up several valid points about the direction NASA is going. It has been reinforced by the GAO report that is also raising serious questions.

The VSE is moving in a direction that is already causing the costs to escalate. The original plan was to use several of the components of the shuttle program to save development costs. The paper correctly points out that very little of the standard shuttle components are going to be used. It is requiring new production tooling for items such as the external tank to new engines for the Earth Departure Stage. The mobile launch platforms and the launch pads will require expensive and time-consuming modifications. Each launch of an Ares 5 will be extremely expensive. The Foundation is also right that the VSE has drifted significantly from the idea of “pay as you go”. The new GAO report’s criticism of the cost estimates of the program also lends credence to the claims.

One of my customers told me that there is an old adage in engineering, “If you’re one step ahead of everyone else you’re a genius. If you’re two steps ahead, you’re an idiot.”

The Foundation and NASA both bring biases into their positions regarding which direction the space program should be going. I don’t believe anyone brings a totally unbiased perspective in making decisions on anything. They bring their experience, training, and judgment to how they approach a problem. No two people or groups bring the exact same values in these areas to any problem.

The Foundation is partly made up of members of and strong supporters of the “NewSpace” industry. They have a strong bias to push for a path that will financially benefit their industry and themselves. The bias doesn’t mean that they’re wrong about their criticism nor about their suggested path being feasible.

NASA brings to the table its history of how it operates, for both good and for bad. It is a large organization with inertia that keeps it going roughly in the same direction it has always gone. When I refer to the same direction, I’m referring to how it tries to carry out their missions and not the destination for exploration. This also doesn’t mean that they are wrong about their methods being feasible.

Outside observers have their own biases that bring their insights from their experiences in other avenues, but also—myself included—lack the experience of actually being part of a successful development of a launch vehicle. The combination of the three main sources of people interested in space makes it almost impossible for there to be a consensus as to which path is the right one. It is in part a debate between the “tried and true” and the “new and innovative”. I personally am usually in favor of a combination of the best of both.

One of my customers told me that there is an old adage in engineering, “If you’re one step ahead of everyone else you’re a genius. If you’re two steps ahead, you’re an idiot.” The point he was trying to make is that if you’re too far ahead of the current state of the art, most people will not understand what you’re trying to do, nor will they believe that what you’re trying to accomplish is practical or even possible. In most cases, decision makers won’t let you try. In many cases the decision makers really don’t have a clue as to which of these ideas will work. This is the problem that the companies competing for the COTS contract had.

The Foundation is right that NASA is repeating the mistake of putting all their eggs in one basket as they did with the shuttle. If there is a problem with any of many complex components, the entire system will be grounded just like the shuttle has been for a few long stretches. This could be a real threat to safety if a crew is stuck on the Moon needing immediate rescue.

The Crew Launch Vehicle, or Ares 1, was supposed to be made up of standard shuttle components. The reality is that the SRBs will have to be heavily modified to carry the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The key changes that are adding to the cost are extending it to five segments, adding a roll control capability, and developing all new avionics. The second stage will require the development of a new engine. This doesn’t sound like the vehicle is taking advantage of much existing technology. The GAO report says the $3-billion cost just to modify the SRBs is greater than the cost required to man-rate the EELVs.

As one NASA employee told me, “competence is not a high priority around here.” If competence is not the highest priority within NASA, the architecture of the VSE is too big of a reach for right now.

Michael Griffin recently said two things that significantly bother me about the Ares architecture. He said that the Ares 5 is being designed with the requirements of a Mars mission in mind. He also said that he didn’t foresee sending humans to Mars for at least twenty years. By deductive reasoning, the first journey to Mars would take place using twenty-year-old (if not older) technology. Isn’t old technology one of the reasons there are problems maintaining the shuttle fleet? If a Mars base is going to require a nuclear reactor and the Ares 5 architecture isn’t deemed safe enough to launch it, are we just adding a cost for capabilities that may never be needed? Are we committing NASA to using circa 2006 concepts and technology for two to four decades from now? Are we so arrogant that we think we know now what will be the preferred technology for possibly the next half century?

I remember figures from several years ago that an estimate for developing the Shuttle C was $3 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that might be five billion now. If one or both of the EELV launchers could be man-rated for $2 billion, and the CEV could be developed for between $10 to $15 billion, the cost to develop a replacement for the shuttle and also support trips to the Moon would be in the $15 to $20 billion range. This wouldn’t require any massive modifications to the mobile launch platforms. The Delta and Atlas launch pads could be modified to support access to the CEV for probably less than the projected costs of modifying the infrastructure for the Ares architecture. I don’t see why an architecture to return to the Moon couldn’t be built upon a crew capsule on an EELV and a heavy-lift launcher based heavily on shuttle technology.

Government agencies are not the most efficient organizations for doing most things. My father worked for the federal government for 47 years with stints in both the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Forest Service. When he started in the Milwaukee office of the Forest Service it had roughly one hundred employees. When he retired the office had about four hundred employees. During his tenure they added many productivity tools that included satellite mapping, an IT infrastructure, CAD systems, and GPS surveying equipment. By the measurable statistics of productivity—miles of boundaries surveyed, miles of roads maintained, forest acreage effectively managed, board feet of lumber sold, etc.—all the numbers were down after the quadrupling of manpower and the application of modern technology.

My father told me that some of the reasons the productivity dropped off so dramatically were the same reasons that I’ve heard from current NASA employees that they’ve had a similar drop off. He told me that in the last few years before he retired that they were spending more and more time and money on programs that had little to do with the primary mission of the agency. As one NASA employee told me, “competence is not a high priority around here.” If competence is not the highest priority within NASA, the architecture of the VSE is too big of a reach for right now.

In my previous article “An alternate Vision for Space Exploration” (The Space Review, May 1, 2006) I wrote about what I think is a possible better direction for NASA. I don’t claim that I know with certainty what the best path for NASA is. I do, however, think I can recognize problems that are becoming evident with the VSE.

NASA just floated the trial balloon of putting a yearlong pause in research on the ISS to help pay for the development of the Ares 1. The trial balloon, according to a source, is one possible outcome of several the Station Program Office is looking at “if the House-passed appropriations language (which cut $33.4 million from the MUSS account within Space Operations, which provides the ground support for ISS research operation, among other things) is retained in the final FY 2007 appropriations.” This in my opinion is just part of the annual game of financial brinksmanship that is standard fare among Congress, the President, and government agencies. The reality is that high-profile program funding and Congressional micromanagement are annual political footballs that are used as bargaining chip in the negotiations between members of Congress for funding of pet projects. One has to wonder if more money is actually spent haggling over these little slices of large agencies then is spent on these slices in total. These annual games are very frustrating for space enthusiasts to watch as I am sure they are for people with interests in other agencies.

I don’t know if the VSE really is in a mess. However, I’m not alone in having concerns about it. I really think now is the time for a review. I don’t want it to stop during this review. I think NASA needs to make the case why the path they’re selecting is the right path. Those who have serious questions should be allowed to make their case as to why the path should be changed. If this program plan is to succeed we will be living with it for the next several decades, so we should be as sure as possible that it is the best possible path based upon what is known now without locking out future technology.

If the VSE is to survive beyond the current administration, it needs stronger support than it’s getting now.

NASA needs to improve public relations and how they disseminate information to the media. If they have good answers for the criticisms that are being leveled against them they are either not able to get them out or don’t feel it’s important to get it out to all of us who are paying the bills. They are supposed to be working for us. NASA also needs to make it clear to the public what they expect to accomplish with the COTS program so that both potential contractors and the public have a clear idea of what it is. If a clear message like this isn’t made public, why would any experienced venture capital funding source with management in their right minds back these companies?

I clearly don’t like the way political funding deals are done on Capitol Hill, but I grudgingly accept them as reality for the foreseeable future. I want the VSE to succeed and move forward faster and more efficiently than NASA has over the last few decades with other projects. NASA is an agency with an aging workforce, and the individuals running it now will not be in charge when the next person steps foot on the Moon. If the VSE is to survive beyond the current administration, it needs stronger support than it’s getting now. Otherwise, I could easily see the Ares 1 and Ares 5 joining the DC-X and the Orbital Space plane as vehicles started and never completed and becoming the subject of blogs as to what should have been done to make their development successful.