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Jupiter-1 rocket illustration
One alternative to NASA’s current approach: Jupiter-1 with Orion. (Image courtesy of www.directlauncher.com; created by António Maia)

Another voice in the wilderness

“The FY07 appropriations, if enacted as the House has resolved, will jeopardize our ability to transition safely and efficiently from the Shuttle to the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares 1 Crew Launch Vehicle. It will have serious effects on people, projects, and programs this year and for the longer term.”
– NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, February 5, 2007

Created by political forces to win the hearts and minds of free people everywhere, NASA is still defined by those same forces. NASA’s missions continue to inspire a grander vision for mankind’s future, bridging generations and social boundaries. While the recent reductions in funding for the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) is unfortunate, we need to focus our energy on what we can achieve rather than commiserate over what could have been if only unfettered by the same political forces funding our space exploration endeavors.

If we cannot increase the budget then we must alter our current approach or the gap in American human spaceflight could easily grow to over ten years.

The original congressional approval of VSE directed NASA to retire the shuttle by 2010 and also promised sufficient funding to field NASA’s replacement system before 2014. The recent budget reductions have now made it all but impossible to achieve VSE’s objectives on time using NASA’s current approach. Despite this fact, NASA continues to move forward with retiring the Space Shuttle in 2010. While “go-as-we-pay” is a practicality of year-to-year funding, it should not be confused with a realistic strategy of transitioning of our existing space exploration infrastructure and workforce towards the objectives of the VSE.

If we cannot increase the budget then we must alter our current approach or the gap in American human spaceflight could easily grow to over ten years. The last time NASA was forced to undergo a gap of this magnitude, it suffered through the tragic dismantling of our first heavy-lift vehicle infrastructure and talented workforce. Just like then, war and politics are now playing pivotal roles in forcing a similar future upon our generation. Ultimately we can only control how efficiently we use whatever time and resources are provided by the political process.

The Ares 1 concept was conceived after Columbia’s tragic loss by those who risk everything in order to achieve our nation’s objectives in space. All who have gone or are now in harm’s way at the request of our nation, along with the families that support them, deserve our eternal gratitude. Space exploration will always be dangerous and the sole domain of bold nations and brave individuals. The cumulative risk of space exploration grows rapidly with increasing distance from the Earth. As such, while it is a worthy objective to improve the safety of Earth orbit access it is not the defining objective of the VSE. The defining goal is to increase the value of our nation’s space exploration objectives to be worthy of the risk we ask our fellow citizens to assume in an undertaking as bold as space exploration. In order to significantly increase the value of human space exploration beyond what we can already achieve today, our future exploration destinations must go well beyond what Ares 1 can achieve.

While the Ares 1 concept preceded the VSE, significant alterations have now transformed it into a stalking horse by which important new hardware can be developed in support of the longer term more ambitious plans of the Ares 5 heavy-lift vehicle. Unfortunately, the rapidly increasing gap between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and beginning of Ares 1/Orion operations has also pushed out the earliest possible dates for fielding the Ares 5 as well. The Ares 5 represents the only vehicle in NASA’s current plan capable of sending humans beyond Earth orbit and therefore is the centerpiece of the VSE itself. Additionally, significant differences between the Ares 5 and the Shuttle’s current infrastructure will interact with the Ares 1/Orion delay requiring us to largely reconstruct our existing heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce many uncertain political and budget cycles from now.

Current demographics trends will only increase budgetary pressure on all discretionary spending as we press forward in the VSE’s implementation. It’s all too likely that savings from retiring the Space Shuttle and the significant resources need to recreate a heavy-lift system will simply be redirected year after year to other pressing national needs. The first flight of Ares 1/Orion may well be the end of the road for the VSE all together. If this should come to pass, American’s human space exploration efforts will be confined to low Earth orbit (LEO) again for yet another generation.

Current demographics trends will only increase budgetary pressure on all discretionary spending as we press forward in the VSE’s implementation.

There is an exchange in the movie Apollo 13 that is instructive to us in this regard. In the following exchange a NASA engineer, John White (Test Console), and astronaut, Ken Mattingly (Apollo Simulator), are desperately attempting to find an Earth reentry power-up sequence that would save the crew within the severely limited power budget they had on board the damaged spacecraft.

KEN MATTINGLY
- Here’s the order of what I want to do. I want to power up guidance, ECS, communications, warm up the pyros for the parachute and the command module thrusters.

CONTROL - WHITE
- The thrusters are gonna put you over budget on amps, Ken.

KEN MATTINGLY
- Well, they’ve been sitting at 200 hundred below for four days, John, they gotta be heated.

CONTROL - WHITE
- Fine, then trade off the parachutes. Something.

KEN MATTINGLY
- Well, if the chutes don’t open, what’s the point?

CONTROL - WHITE
- Ken, you’re telling me what you need, I’m telling you what we have to work with at this point. I’m not making this stuff up.

KEN MATTINGLY
- They’re gonna need all these systems, John.

CONTROL - WHITE
- We do not have the power, Ken! We just don’t have it.

KEN MATTINGLY
- Okay, I’m gonna go back and reorganize the sequencing again and find more power. Let’s start from scratch. Clear the board.

There is little hope of significantly increasing VSE budget over the next three years. All that remains is attempting to find a new approach that will work within the available budget and time frames. I believe a solution can be found today by combining the complimentary strengths of the two approaches already put forward by the respective NASA teams of Administrators Sean O’Keefe and Mike Griffin.

The approach developed under Sean O’Keefe made exclusive use of commercially available expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). A consequence of this approach led to the complete dismantling of our existing Space Transportation System (STS) heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce after the Space Shuttle’s retirement. For obvious reasons this approach was not well received by those currently supporting STS operations or their elected representatives in Congress. The political repercussion of the all ELV approach was one of the factors in the most recent shift in NASA’s upper management.

There is little hope of significantly increasing VSE budget over the next three years. All that remains is attempting to find a new approach that will work within the available budget and time frames.

NASA’s current approach, led by Mike Griffin, first appeared in a 2004 Planetary Society paper co-authored by him and was later expanded upon in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) after he became the administrator. This new plan went to the opposite extreme of advocating an exclusively STS-based launch system. In addition, the current focus doesn’t build upon but rather reduces the inherent lift capability of the STS by leveraging only the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB). If NASA’s present approach remains unaltered within our limited budget we will end up expending precious time and money only to duplicate many years from now what we can purchase today. Even worse, this duplication will be at the expense of losing our only existing STS based heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce to time and increasing budget pressures.

Ironically, now both plans share the same fate for our existing STS infrastructure and workforce. Under Sean O’Keefe’s plan it was by design and under Mike Griffin’s plan it is due to budget limitations. Either way, America will once again lose the heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce we need to get beyond low Earth orbit if we do not quickly find a better way.

At the AIAA Space 2006 conference I presented an alternative approach of achieving VSE. Since that point we have made even more improvements in our recommendations and approach which will be the focus of this year’s paper. These improvements were made possible because we listened to all ideas and concerns regardless of source. At a high level our approach still revolves around improving the complex interaction of the two driving paradigms of lift capacity and mission scope.

Concerning lift capacity we propose using existing medium class ELV’s to field an entry-level International Space Station (ISS) class Orion spacecraft. This in turn allows us to redirect the Lunar Orion and the Ares 1 development resources towards fielding a direct derivative of the existing STS. By utilizing all capabilities resident in the current space launch infrastructure we can eliminate the gap in American manned spaceflight while simultaneously transitioning our existing STS heavy-lift capability, thereby securing the long-term foundation needed for more ambitious VSE objectives.

Having secured this base our second driving guideline is to adjust the specifics of our mission objectives, architecture development points, and timelines going forward to fit within what we can achieve given the constraints we are under. The boundary between a successful space program that makes steady progress and yet more space exploration art work begins with honest and clear thinking concerning budget and political realities.

In the end the laws of physics, economics, and politics will decide whether some version of what we or anyone else has proposed will ultimately succeed. Either way our limited budget will require any successful plan to leverage the complementary capabilities of the entire space exploration community in order to have any chance of achieving VSE within this generation’s lifetime. This also means that the path towards success must necessarily begin with facilitating an environment open to the exchange and debate of ideas, particularly those that may challenge the present orthodoxy.

During the Apollo program only one individual dared to openly challenge the baseline approach selected by NASA to achieve our first bold move beyond Earth. John Houbolt was ignored at first, then discredited and eventually branded an irritant by most of his peers and upper management right up to point NASA adopted his “voice in the wilderness” Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) approach. The LOR architecture worked because it fit within the narrow window of physics, economics, and politics that confronted his generation’s attempt to go beyond Earth’s orbit.

By combining our best ideas with our existing infrastructure and talented workforce we can achieve objectives that past, present, and future generations will be proud of.

Now our generation is at a similar crossroads. Before us stands the same challenge of finding our own narrow window of opportunity to leave Earth’s orbit. While I strongly believe that NASA’s current plan could have succeeded within the promised budget levels that path is no longer there. In the end Congress only provides resources based on their own narrow political objectives. It’s a fact of life that NASA ignores at the peril of America’s manned spaceflight program. Increasing the gap in manned spaceflight and losing our existing heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce is not worth the incremental improvements Ares 1 may have over ELV’s.

Out of building frustration with NASA’s first baseline approach to leave LEO, John Houbolt brashly asked in a letter to the then NASA Associate Administrator Dr. Robert Seamans, “do we want to go to the Moon or not?” I have the same question for NASA’s leadership today. While they publicly state that their objective is the Moon their continued defense of the Ares 1 suggests otherwise. More to the point, which is more important: achieving the objectives of VSE or the development of the Ares 1?

My answer to John Houbolt’s question is “yes” because, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.” Despite budget cuts we do not need to postpone this generation’s attempt to leave Earth orbit either. The solution is right in front of all us. By combining our best ideas with our existing infrastructure and talented workforce we can achieve objectives that past, present, and future generations will be proud of.

And now I ask you. What is your answer to John Houbolt’s question and John F. Kennedy’s challenge? Do we want to go to the Moon or not?


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