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Ares 1 illustration
The Ares 1 does not take as much advantage of existing shuttle hardware and infrastructure as some desire, and that could be at the root of some of the other concerns about the vehicle. (credit: NASA)

There is a better way forward (part 1)

“From 1975–1981, between the retirement of the Apollo-Saturn system and the first flight of the Shuttle, the United States did not have the capability to send humans into space, our country was not driving the space exploration agenda, and our aerospace workforce was decimated. We lost valuable people from the program, people who never came back. We lost valuable skills that were relearned with difficulty, or not at all. We lost momentum. Let us learn from these experiences. Let us not repeat them. Let us at least make a new mistake.” – NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, August 31, 2005

Following the Columbia disaster our elected representatives produced what Mike Griffin described as “the best civil space policy to have been enunciated by a president in four decades or more, and the best authorization act to be approved by the Congress since the 1960s.” Two key directives of this policy required NASA to limit the gap in United States based access to the International Space Station (ISS) after the Space Shuttle’s retirement and that:

“The Administrator shall, to the fullest extent possible consistent with a successful development program, use the personnel, capabilities, assets, and infrastructure of the Space Shuttle program in developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle, Crew Launch Vehicle, and a heavy-lift launch vehicle.” – NASA Authorization Act of 2005

Griffin is correct in his assessment of the disaster that befell us as we transitioned from Apollo-Saturn to the Space Transportation System (STS). He is also correct in his assessment of the wisdom our elected representatives showed in crafting a policy that seeks to avoid these past mistakes. Unfortunately, the current Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) implementation plan is completely at odds with the directives of the VSE authorization. This misalignment between policy and execution is the primary reason we face the serious engineering, budgetary, workforce, programmatic, and international policy problems today. If the broader space community continues to remain silent or rationalize away these serious problems, we will experience a nearly identical repeat of the disaster Griffin warned us to avoid. Compounding this will be the need to sending billions to the Russian government for rides to the International Space Station (ISS) or abandon a national laboratory we just completed at great expense.

This misalignment between policy and execution is the primary reason we face the serious engineering, budgetary, workforce, programmatic, and international policy problems today.

Our concern over the serious issues facing the United States manned space exploration program compelled us to break ranks with Griffin and develop a significantly better VSE implementation plan. This alternate VSE implementation plan is not new. Rather, this plan builds upon the recommendations of over 35 detailed public studies done over twenty years by NASA engineers on STS-derived launch systems to follow the Space Shuttle. By adhering to the Congressional directive to maximize the reuse of the STS infrastructure and workforce we can avoid this looming disaster. Our plan fits the available budget, recovers the original schedule, fields a launch system with more capability sooner and protects the current heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce needed for the long term objectives of the VSE.

A new mistake

Nine months before becoming NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin co-authored a Planetary Society paper titled “Extending Human Presence into the Solar System”. When asked how he planned to implement the VSE as NASA Administrator Dr. Griffin specifically cited this paper as his “best knowledge”. The development of a Solid Rocket Booster (SRB)-based Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and a STS-derived RS-68 powered Cargo Launch Vehicle (CaLV) were among his key recommendations.

In an October 2005 interview, shortly after the release of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) overview presentation, Dr. Griffin went on to say “… I don’t believe there is someone else who knows the broader span of NASA better than I…When I was offered the job, I showed up at the front door knowing what needed to be done. I did not want to waste any time nor did I feel I needed to.”

Given Griffin’s disposition to alternate ideas, it is understandable why it took just 60 days for the ESAS team to “endorse” the SRB-based CLV (Ares 1) and the development of a new CaLV larger than the Saturn 5 (Ares 5). The only ESAS recommendation that went against Dr. Griffin’s “best knowledge” was the choice of a Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) over the RS-68 to power the Ares 5. Specifically the ESAS wrote: “The considerable additional cost, complexity, and development risk were judged to be unfavorable, eliminating RS–68-powered CaLVs”. These were the reasons that the ESAS team eliminated all RS-68 powered launch systems from consideration in the subsequent lunar architecture performance and life cycle cost trade studies. However, even before the ESAS report was released, NASA began to work on replacing the SSME with RS-68 engines for the Ares 5:

“Recent studies examining life-cycle cost showed the RS-68 is best suited for NASA's heavy-lift cargo requirements. The decision to change the core stage engine required an increase in the size of the core propulsion stage tank, from a 27.5-foot diameter tank to 33-foot diameter tank, to provide additional propellant required by the five RS-68 engines.” – NASA Press Release 06-226, NASA’s Exploration Systems Progress Report, May 18, 2006

Logically, once the RS-68 was chosen for the Ares 5 all RS-68 based launch systems should have been evaluated in the lunar architecture trade space. This serious oversight was only corrected late last year by NASA internal studies. These studies confirmed the superiority of DIRECT over all other approaches, including the Ares 1 and Ares 5, based on a broad range of technical and non-technical criteria. The detailed cost and performance information needed to independently confirm these recent internal NASA studies are in ESAS Appendix 6a. Unfortunately, Griffin has refused to release ESAS Appendix 6a or the recent internal NASA studies to anyone, including Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), despite formal requests.

Beyond this serious oversight in ESAS trade space, the RS-68 engine switch required the Ares 5 core diameter to increase from the 8.4-meter design priced in the ESAS to the 10-meter configuration today. Because the current STS is based on an 8.4-meter diameter core, the disparate Ares 1 and Ares 5 development plans utilize almost none of existing hardware, tooling, integration, and launch infrastructure of the STS. As a result, the current VSE implementation plan is in complete opposition with the Congressional directive that the NASA administrator maximize the utilization of the STS infrastructure and workforce.

It is too late to switch horses now

It is becoming increasingly clear that most of the ESAS recommendations were seriously flawed from the beginning and that we now face critical engineering, budgetary, workforce, programmatic, and international policy problems as a result. Nonetheless, many still council our elected representatives to stay with the current plan because, they say, to switch horses now would be worse than sticking with the Ares 1 and Ares 5 regardless of how flawed the ESAS was.

Like it or not, the STS configuration is the “horse” we are currently riding, not the Ares 1.

We agree that many times the risks of switching horses are serious, but let us consider the following. First, the J-2X engine development was cited by the GAO as posing a serious programmatic risk to achieving the already unacceptable March 2016 Ares 1 operational date. Second, the performance and vibration mitigation issues associated with the unprecedented Ares 1 configuration have resulted in schedule, cost, and mass impacts not only to the Ares 1 launch system but to the Orion spacecraft as well. These facts have caused the GAO to have serious doubts that NASA could pass a “true” preliminary design review (PDR) of Ares 1/Orion anytime soon. The forced removal of key safety systems and redundancies in order to pass a less-than-objective PDR board is disingenuous at best and could prove fatal in more ways than one. Even assuming no further development problems or “surprises” arise in the next eight years, the gap between the Space Shuttle retirement in 2010 and the first operational Ares 1/Orion flight has actually increased from the two years projected in 2005 to more than six years today.

While Orion is being blamed for this, the backward movement in the current VSE implementation plan stems from two key aspects of the Ares 1 configuration. First, attempts to mitigate the serious vibration problems arising from the unusual Ares 1 configuration and the falling performance of the Ares 1 have caused both the Ares 1 and Orion development teams to reset their design cycles multiple times. Second, the Ares 1 configuration requires a new engine and upper stage development effort while simultaneously utilizing almost none of the existing STS hardware, manufacturing, integration, launch infrastructure, or workforce.

This early Ares 1 development experience makes it abundantly clear why switching horses is usually a very risky proposition. This is precisely why we need to stay as close as possible to the present STS configuration, hardware, infrastructure, and workforce as directed by Congress. Like it or not, the STS configuration is the “horse” we are currently riding, not the Ares 1. Given all the new hardware required, the destruction of the existing STS infrastructure and the massive workforce layoffs that will result, it is the Ares 1 that is requiring us to “switch horses”, not the Jupiter-120 we advocate.

We must take the long view

Having lost the short-view argument above, the next line of rationalization is that we must take the long view. We should see the five-segment SRB and J-2X engine being developed for the Ares 1 as necessary elements for the Ares 5. Unfortunately, the requirement to build a new launch system far larger than the Saturn 5 will likely not be fundable based on the increasing discretionary budget pressures we will be facing in that time frame. Without the Ares 5 the current VSE implementation plan will ultimately stall at the Ares 1 implementation level. This will leave us many years and billions of dollars from now with a more expensive and less capable launch system than we can buy today. To make matters worse our existing STS-based heavy-lift infrastructure will have been destroyed and most of the workforce laid off in order to make way for the STS-incompatible Ares 1 and Ares 5 launch systems. With no ability to recover from this disastrous mistake, we will be forced to implement the VSE using launch systems with less lift and volume capacity than we had forty years ago and that even newly-emerging space powers will have shortly.

Constraining VSE to launch systems optimized for low-mass satellite delivery will result in serious spacecraft and mission design compromises. These compromises will significantly increase the complexity, schedule, mass, and lifecycle cost of the VSE. Even today, the cost of placing a spacecraft in orbit represents less than 20% of the mission life cycle cost. As such, even if the launch cost was free, these limitations in the launch system’s payload diameter, volume, and lift capacity will significantly increase the VSE life cycle cost over what our STS-based heavy-lift system could have provided.

“I hope we’re smart enough that we never again try to place such a large system [ISS] in orbit by doing it in twenty-ton chunks. I think we all understand that fewer launches of larger payloads requiring less on-orbit integration are to be preferred.” – NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, January 22, 2008

Achieving the goals of the VSE under the current plan all hinge on developing a new launch system larger than the Saturn 5 (Ares 5). As fate would have it, funding the extensive development of the Ares 5 will occur at about the same time that the United States is beginning to face the highest pressures on discretionary spending since World War 2. Ironically, while Griffin will have long since retired from NASA at this point, the legacy of his plan will force us to repeat nearly all the same mistakes he correctly warned us to avoid.

Trying to fix a bad plan with more money

The support of the America public has been invaluable in providing our elected representatives the impetus needed to increase the NASA budget faster than inflation since the post-Apollo low point of 1979. While we need to keep pressing for even higher budgets, the pressure on all discretionary spending will only increase as we go forward with the VSE implementation. This means that improving the implementation plan’s efficient use of current assets and ability to bring in international partners will be progressively more important in maintaining steady progress over the long term.

By becoming more efficient stewards of our existing infrastructure and available resources we can achieve the objectives we could have only dreamed of just five years ago and far sooner than what is even remotely possible under the current plan.

While all VSE implementation plans could be accelerated somewhat if more money were made available, we should be under no illusions that we are placing hope ahead of recent experience. Unfortunately even if more money should become available, staying with the current plan will only accelerate the rate at which we destroy America’s second heavy-lift infrastructure only to make way for a launch system (Ares 1) less capable and more expensive than what we can buy today. Further, this additional funding will do nothing to minimize the massive layoffs to be borne by the same workforce we are relying on for the remaining Space Shuttle missions. Many who stay at their posts up to the last shuttle flight will have their loyalty rewarded with unemployment later.

Although a solid majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of NASA, the support of our fellow citizens should not be construed as forgiving of the gross inefficiencies apparent in the current VSE implementation plan. America has waited long enough for a space policy that once again sets our manned space exploration objectives beyond LEO. Our fellow citizens and our elected representatives have done their part. It is now up to the space exploration community to develop a better VSE implementation plan.

By becoming more efficient stewards of our existing infrastructure and available resources we can achieve the objectives we could have only dreamed of just five years ago and far sooner than what is even remotely possible under the current plan. While public relations will always be a vital component of the Vision for Space Exploration there are no good replacements for the success that comes from good engineering superintended by a management team dedicated to open and honest communication. Trying to get more resources in order to expand upon demonstrated success is much easier than using nostalgia to mask stagnation brought on by inefficiency.

Next week: Part 2: The better way forward


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