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Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter illustration
Efforts within Code T like Project Prometheus and its Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission (pictured above) stand in sharp contrast to the other major Code T project, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. (credit: NASA)

Code T: goals, decisions and technology

NASA’s new Office of Exploration Systems, known in the jargon as Code T, has already given rise to a number of wisecracks about the agency’s new space race. Which will come first, astronauts beyond low Earth orbit or the end of the alphabet? In any case, the idea behind Code T seems logical enough if one accepts the premise that human and robotic exploration must be complementary.

How then, to explain the fact that the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission is going to be run by the new office? Humans are not going to go anywhere near Jupiter until someone invents some anti-radiation magic pixie dust. Obviously, the administration decided that the Nuclear Systems Initiative, now called Project Prometheus, was going to eventually develop propulsion for manned spaceflight. So, the JIMO mission is not a precursor for human trip to Jupiter, but for human trips to what NASA’s strategy documents called “accessible planetary surfaces,” by which they meant the moon, Mars and the asteroids.

The key question this year is how will Code T and Admiral Steidle begin their task?

Bob Zubrin pointed out that JIMO is not going to get to Jupiter any faster than a conventionally-fueled rocket would. The supporters of Project Prometheus respond by pointing out that the electrical power available for JIMO’s instruments, once it arrives, will be huge. This power surplus may be useful for human space flights, but NASA should make a clearer case as to how much more useful it would be. If a nuclear-powered ship were to arrive in orbit around Mars, after it sent down its lander, what good would a large amount of extra electric power do, if it were only available to the ship in Mars orbit and not to the crew on the surface of the planet?

In any case, Mars is a long way off in both space and time. The more important question for this year is how will Code T and Admiral Steidle begin their task? In their first presentation they quote from a previous report that pointed out that “requirements definition and control are dominant drivers of cost schedule and risk in space systems development.” To put it another way, deciding what you want to do—for example, setting requirements—determines what you end up doing. If I decide to pick up a glass of wine, I will almost certainly be able to do so. If I decide to pick up a Mack truck, I will certainly fail. My requirements process for a glass of wine is realistic, for a Mack truck it is not. However, unlike a glass of wine or a Mack truck, Admiral Steidle is trying to pick up something akin to a large, squirming dog.

Traditionally, with military systems, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, on which Steidle previously worked, changing requirements and changing specifications have been the two most important factors in creating cost overruns. Numerous changes to a systems design must not only be made to fit with the rest of the system, but often the whole program must mark time while even the smallest of changes is made in order to insure that it does not negatively effect the whole end product. The flip side to this is that sometimes the basic requirements no longer match the needs of the government, so the whole system becomes vulnerable to cancellation. This recently happened to the US Army’s RAH-66 Comanche helicopter.

Fortunately for Steidle, the Moon, unlike the Soviet Union whose army the RAH-66 was designed to defeat, is not going to collapse. The requirements for the Crew Exploration Vehicle are not going to be revised just because the moon has come up with new anti-human landing countermeasures. The great danger to the CEV development process is that at some point during the requirements development process, someone will either assume that a given technology is available or will be available. Another danger is that someone will assume that a given technology has not been developed or cannot be developed in a reasonable time frame and will thus create a need for expensive “workarounds.”

It seems a little odd that two such technologically and conceptually different projects—Project Prometheus and the CEV—are being run by the same office. So strange, in fact, that it just might work.

The CEV’s Level One requirements are supposed to be ready by September of this year. These will include the basic vehicle along with a plan to develop it into something capable first of a circumlunar flight and later of a lunar landing. This is a tough process and will require NASA to make some hard decisions between now and September.

The plan is for the Office of Exploration Systems to spend approximately 15 billion dollars between now and 2009. Almost all of this will be going towards Project Prometheus and the CEV. It seems a little odd that two such technologically and conceptually different projects are being run by the same office—so strange, in fact, that it just might work. The Prometheus developers will try and stay away from the CEV people and vice versa. Neither group will want to look bad in front of the boss, thus there will be a major incentive for everyone involved to keep their egos in check.

Getting the initial requirements right is going to need a team which has a solid, balanced idea of why the goals the President has laid out are important, and understands what technologies are readily available to accomplish them. NASA is not working from a clean sheet of paper. This will make Steidle’s task harder than what faced those who designed the original Apollo mission. The political and bureaucratic complexities are far greater now than in 1962 or 1963. Code T will need all the skill and luck they can muster.