The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

NSRC 2020

 
Jupiter rocket
Is time running out for alternatives to the current exploration architecture? (credit: DIRECT)

Saving America’s space program

The DIRECT team, composed of current and former NASA engineers, has finally been allowed to see a senior NASA management study done on our proposal over a year ago. Having now reviewed that study we reject the agency’s conclusions and stand by our engineering performance calculations. We believe that the additional margins added by management, on top of our already conservative engineering numbers, were excessive. The bias shown is especially glaring in light of the negative margins in the current plan. The good news is that even this biased study confirms that our plan can solve the serious Ares 1 performance problems and deliver an initial lunar mission capability at least four times greater than Apollo.

Steve Cook (NASA Ares 1 Project Manager) correctly framed the debate between our two proposals in an interview with Space News last month following the public release of the study:

NASA did not produce an independent cost estimate for Direct, or try to quantify how many people the Jupiter rockets would employ compared to Ares… It’s got to get past the performance gate. If it doesn’t, it doesn't make sense to look any further.

This statement shows the fundamental error in logic that has generated all the fatal problems with the current plan. The debate is not about which plan can arbitrarily set the highest performance objective requiring the biggest rocket. The debate is over which plan will deliver the best performance within the constraints of budget and policy. Specifically, the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) policy directs the NASA Administrator to:

  • Maximize the use of personnel, capabilities, assets, and infrastructure of the Space Shuttle program in developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle.
  • Maintain United States based access to space on a continuous basis.
  • Return Americans to the Moon no later than 2020.

A better way forward, then and now

Putting the performance debate aside for a moment, our proposal is the only way NASA can achieve all the policy objectives above within the available budget. The Jupiter Launch System we propose is based on 190 NASA engineering studies done between 1978 and 2005. Many of these studies are over a thousand pages long, providing detailed designs that are directly compatible with the Space Shuttle. The Jupiter Launch System builds upon this extensive and demonstrated NASA engineering heritage by maximizing the reuse of the existing Space Shuttle hardware, tooling, infrastructure, and workforce. As a result, more than eighty-five percent of what we need to build the Jupiter is already flying on the Space Shuttle and Delta launch systems.

The debate is not about which plan can arbitrarily set the highest performance objective requiring the biggest rocket. The debate is over which plan will deliver the best performance within the constraints of budget and policy.

In direct contrast, the Ares 1 is an unproven rocket configuration consisting of all new systems. Some of these systems have never been required, let alone successfully developed over the entire history of rocketry. If history is any indication, we may reasonably expect the Ares 1 to continue to suffer from even more unanticipated and serious problems throughout its already torturous development cycle resulting in ever-greater cost and schedule overruns. We are absolutely certain that an independent review of the Ares 1 engineering feasibility alone would prove that the serious problems already encountered are, in fact, fatal to both the near- and long-term objectives of the VSE.

Historically, no space system has ever been allowed to proceed beyond the preliminary design review (PDR) stage with the number of serious engineering problems persistently plaguing the Ares 1. While senior NASA management has only recently admitted to these serious problems, some were well known at the working engineering level over three years ago. Unfortunately, information regarding these serious problems was suppressed under the prevailing culture of “punishing the messenger”, and as a result even worse problems have yet to reach senior NASA management. Even those attempting to assert that it is somehow too late to switch from the Ares 1 must admit that the only thing worse than switching horses is to persist in flogging a dead one. Further, Ares 1 apologists are looking at the wrong horse. The horse we are currently riding is the Space Shuttle, and the Jupiter is a direct derivative of that system, as required by the law.

It is not too late to save our existing space access capability and workforce in order to build a true shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch system. Even a year from now the Ares 1 will have progressed little beyond its current paper rocket status. The Ares 1 development is hampered by the fact that it utilizes almost none of the existing Space Shuttle systems proven over decades of operation. In addition, unlike the Jupiter, the Ares 1 makes no use of American engines already placing other NASA missions in space. It is in fact the Ares 1, not the Jupiter Launch System, which is requiring America to “switch horses”. Provided $12 billion of Space Shuttle infrastructure is not destroyed, the Jupiter will still be further along three years from now than the Ares 1 will be under the current plan.

Keeping our options open

Time is short. Senior NASA management is committed to beginning the destruction of the tooling used to construct the Space Shuttle’s External Tank as early as next month. This destruction is completely unnecessary to support the current Ares 1 production plan because the floor space NASA plans to use is not occupied by the External Tank tooling. The only apparent objective of beginning the destruction of this $12-billion national asset next month, used by both the Space Shuttle and Jupiter Launch System, is to maliciously eliminate any competition to the current plan. In an attempt to put a halt to this unnecessary destruction of government property, the Senate version of 2009 NASA authorization bill sought to make this imminent action of the NASA administrator explicitly illegal. Specifically, the Senate provision directed the NASA administrator “to terminate or suspend any activity of the Agency that, if continued, would preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter after fiscal year 2010.” Unfortunately, this provision, that cost us nothing to include yet wisely keeps our options open, was removed from the Senate-House conference bill just before the summer recess.

Time is short. Senior NASA management is committed to beginning the destruction of the tooling used to construct the Space Shuttle’s External Tank as early as next month.

The President and Congress have been informed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA that America’s space program will experience up to an eight-year gap, massive layoffs, and the destruction of billions in infrastructure under the current plan. If the current President and Congress ultimately endorse the destruction of America’s access to space beginning next month, the next President and Congress will be forced to choose between two exceedingly bad options just as they enter elected office. Their first option for bridging the gap will be to send billions of dollars to the same Russian organizations helping Iran improve the range of their ballistic missiles. This, while we simultaneously lay off four out of five American workers currently supporting our existing space access capability and destroy $12 billion of space program infrastructure. Their second choice will be to abandon a largely American-built $100-billion International Space Station (ISS) only now nearing completion after two decades of effort. Either way, after spending over half a trillion dollars over the last fifty years, the destruction of American’s second heavy-lift system in less than forty years will make our space program less capable than even newly emerging space faring nations like China for more then a decade. The American people deserve much better than this after faithfully supporting NASA’s mission all these years at great expense.

The magnitude of the national and international problems generated by this watershed decision deserves its own separate up or down vote by the entire Congress should the Senate provision remain out of the 2009 NASA authorization bill. In the end, all those in the Congress that oppose the destruction of America’s only current human access to space should afford themselves the benefit of making that wise stand a matter of the public record for those they represent, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

At a recent hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) discussed all the facts above with the NASA administrator. After this interchange, Senator Nelson stated that this sounded to him like “an absolutely horrible plan.” We couldn’t agree more. Given these facts, now is not the time for some to turn a blind eye to an approach, endorsed by 190 NASA engineering studies conducted over three decades, that can eliminate the serious engineering, budgetary, policy, and geo-political problems clearly before us. The DIRECT team strongly believes that an independent review will quickly confirm the truth of everything we have stated. Senior NASA management and dependant proxies have repeatedly rejected our calls for an independent review of this serious national matter. The DIRECT team, by contrast, enthusiastically supports an independent review of both plans, for we have nothing to hide and stand to gain a great deal for present and future generations in the grand endeavor of space exploration and development. Accepting without question the counsel of those who finally release biased studies they denied doing over a year ago while simultaneously withholding the very Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) appendix they say supports the present plan is not a prudent stance given the magnitude of what is at stake.

Discovering the truth before it is too late

Making a serious error in judgment at this critical juncture will squander America’s historic leadership position in space exploration and development for decades to come. This leadership position was attained at great expense and is built upon the sacrifice, risk, and lives of many Americans over the last fifty years. If the DIRECT team appears a bit passionate at times it is because we can clearly visualize the magnitude of the train wreck our nation is facing if we remain on our present path. Given what is at stake, an independent review of the engineering, performance, risk, schedule, budget, and policy advantages of DIRECT vs. the current plan is more than prudent. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to have an independent review prior to moving past this impending point of no return in which, for a second time in less than forty years, we set about to foolishly destroy an operational heavy-lift system and lay off the workforce that provides America access to space.

If the DIRECT team appears a bit passionate at times it is because we can clearly visualize the magnitude of the train wreck our nation is facing if we remain on our present path.

NASA has admitted that the Jupiter has more capability than the seriously deficient Ares 1 and can deliver an initial lunar mission capability at least four times greater than Apollo. The GAO has also agreed that the Jupiter will save time and money over the current plan. As American citizens we respectfully request that Congress pass a law placing a hold on the destruction of Space Shuttle External Tank tooling and launch infrastructure, by a veto-proof majority if necessary, before the end of next month. This law costs nothing to implement yet will save the American space program billions of dollars now and from certain destruction in the near future. Our second request, having protected our options for a little longer by the action above, is that a review board composed of individuals with the necessary skills, yet independent of NASA or its subcontractors’ influence, be assembled to determine whether the current plan or DIRECT is the best way to implement the VSE policy.

Less than fifty years ago President Kennedy set America on a path that led to our present position of being second to none in space exploration and development. The torch is now passed to this generation to reaffirm America’s commitment to being second to none in what President Kennedy called mankind’s new ocean. As American citizens we once again respectfully petition our elected representatives to determine the truth before it is too late. Americans will be still praising the courage and wisdom you show in the next month well past our nation’s 100th anniversary in space.


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