The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Ares 1 launch
NASA’s approach to human access to LEO has been sharply criticized of late from both the GAO and the Space Frontier Foundation. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Of NASA and NewSpace

The Vision for Space Exploration is in trouble.

Amidst mounting technological and budgetary criticisms levied against NASA since the unveiling of its Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), two reports released recently—from two very different sources—have crystallized the concerns which many in the space community have regarding NASA’s VSE implementation to date.

The first such report—a white paper policy statement from the free-enterprise oriented Space Frontier Foundation—harshly criticised NASA’s plans for developing its Block I Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), intended for post-shuttle servicing of the International Space Station (ISS). Aptly titled “Unaffordable and Unsustainable”, the SFF white paper contains four particular recommendations, all associated with the aim of abandoning government attempts at ISS servicing in favour of transitioning to privately owned and operated vehicles. (As the Foundation rhetoric goes, NASA should “buy the ride, not the rocket”).

Despite mixed reviews from the space community at large, the “Unaffordable and Unsustainable” refrain of the SFF was only further validated by a second report, released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) only a day later, alleging that:

NASA’s current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls… [committing] the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case… including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates.

(The GAO’s criticisms have garnered Congressional attention: the House Science Committee intends to hold hearings on the report’s conclusions following the current summer recess.)

At the heart of both reports lies great uncertainty with NASA’s ability to complete its most immediate task: that of sustaining American access to the International Space Station (filling the gap, as many have remarked, which will be left by the shuttle’s retirement), and creating a new US generation of human spacecraft.

The issue of how NASA gets to space—the resources it requires to do so, and the number of different avenues available in the post-shuttle world—will, many contend, ultimately determine whether NASA succeeds or fails in its larger mandate.

Two primary options currently exist for the agency in terms of space access: on one hand is the proposed Block 1 CEV—a new government spacecraft, to be built in the spirit of Apollo-style capsules and escape systems; and on the other is the little-publicized, but potentially revolutionary Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program, intended to provide $500 million of funding for the development of private launch vehicles through 2010. COTS is regarded by many in the space-interested private sector as NASA’s most important program at present—an effort to jump-start the “NewSpace” movement, and give private providers an honest shot at bringing independently owned and operated human launch services to fruition.

The issue of how NASA gets to space—the resources it requires to do so, and the number of different avenues available in the post-shuttle world—will, many contend, ultimately determine whether NASA succeeds or fails in its larger mandate: that of exploring the moon, Mars, and beyond. To that end, the issue of who provides such launch services, and how many are sufficiently financed to succeed, is one of the most hotly contended issues in the space community today.

Unaffordable and unsustainable

Despite a few outdated and poorly-cited references (which some contend severely undercut its credibility), the Foundation white paper should nevertheless be evaluated principally on the merits of its arguments: and indeed, many of those arguments have brought the general concerns of the NewSpace community into specific relief. In developing its current strategy, the white paper contends, NASA has seemingly ignored key recommendations made by the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, which strongly advised NASA to strengthen both its relationship to, and the role of, private industry in human spaceflight.

The Commission’s report explicitly suggests that “NASA’s role must be limited to only those areas where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity”, and that, “NASA [should] recognize and implement a far larger presence of private industry in space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately in accessing low-Earth orbit.”

Of the four principal recommendations put forward in “Unaffordable and Unsustainable”, numbers 1, 3, and 4 all explicitly advocate that NASA meet the Commission’s charge by abandoning its ISS servicing role and corresponding version of the CEV in favor of increased funding to COTS and increased focus on human lunar expeditions. (While some would contend that the Block 1 CEV represents both a logical and necessary step towards developing the Block 2 lunar version, many still appear to disagree. Very few cars designed to travel on roads transition particularly well to watercraft.)

Whether or not one agrees with such a radical course as cancelling the Block 1 CEV (which NASA remains resolute in going forward with, regardless of recent criticisms), it is certainly difficult to refute allegations that the agency’s actions to date have been inconsistent with the above recommendations of the Commission. Rather, the white paper argues that NASA’s decision to focus the preponderance of its resources on a single vehicle is tantamount to completely dismissing the Commission’s vision for the agency’s role in space access; and as both the Foundation and GAO reports sharply observe, problems with the agency’s existing role currently abound.

Critically underfunded

One of NASA’s primary answers to the recommendations of the President’s Commission has, of course, been the COTS program, which the Foundation strongly endorses as NASA’s most important step thus far in beginning to implement President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.

If the time for attempting a new approach is not now—after decades of inefficient LEO access, cost overruns, and NASA initiatives collapsing beneath their own weight—then when will the appropriate time be?

Yet many, including the Foundation, have contended for some time that COTS is critically underfunded—particularly in the context of rising cost estimates for NASA’s CEV/CLV combination. In spite of the Commission’s original recommendation that NASA “decisively transform” its relationship with the private sector “most immediately in LEO,” and that “NASA’s role must be limited to only those areas where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity”, with a planned level of funding less than 1% of NASA’s proposed budget over the next several years, the Foundation views COTS as little more than a “small tactical add-on” to NASA’s exploration plan, instead of the “central thrust it should be”.

While the language of the white paper is somewhat dramatic (and its recommendations perhaps unrealistic: particularly its first, that Congress specify as a matter of law that NASA cannot develop its own vehicle for LEO access), this author would argue strongly that the spirit of its recommendations are nevertheless absolutely correct, and even critical.

The Foundation observes, accurately, that a universal key to success in any technology investment is the principle of diversification: or, more simply, not putting all of your eggs in one basket (or two or three baskets, for that matter). In financing new technologies, it is generally expected that the majority of efforts will be delayed or fail completely—and hence, multiple avenues are usually pursued towards a given end, such that the greatest chance of success can be afforded.

Despite this very basic principle—which has the appearance of being common sense—NASA has done anything but diversify its efforts to perpetuate ISS access from American soil. While NASA administrator Mike Griffin has strongly held in the past that it is “unacceptable” for NASA to not have a way of accessing LEO, NASA’s current choice—to fully fund, virtually regardless of the cost, a single new government vehicle hybridized from non-optimal hardware—is a problematic proposition at best. And while many observe that NASA is nevertheless providing a “fair amount” of funding to COTS as well, such little money apportioned between several competing companies gives little chance of success. With private launch providers minimally funded, and the preponderance of NASA’s exploration budget going into a single vehicle the success of which is far from assured, the agency has effectively created a “choke point” exactly where its administration has noted such a thing to be unacceptable.

Conversely, a more diverse, more substantially funded portfolio of private sector investments would do far more to ensure continued LEO access than a single, substantial investment in a single, government owned and operated vehicle. To do so brings NASA perilously close to losing, in the Commission’s language, “credibility in the stewardship of taxpayer dollars”. Indeed, in light of the past year, the agency may already have reached that point.

Unfortunately, in the decades since Apollo, NASA has evolved a culture of extremely expensive human spaceflight. Despite many attempts to counteract this effect, the agency has never been able to reduce the cost of orbital access with its launch vehicles; indeed, quite the opposite has occurred.

The space community would be remiss to not learn from history. If the time for attempting a new approach is not now—after decades of inefficient LEO access, cost overruns, and NASA initiatives collapsing beneath their own weight—then when will the appropriate time be?

Taking a step back

Creating a “new breed” of private orbital services means, barring other suggestions, an increased amount of funding for COTS. The Foundation recommends accomplishing this by cancelling the Block 1 CEV procurement, wholesale—which is not necessarily a bad idea, in the context of recent developments. At the very least, as the GAO suggests, NASA and Congress should be given pause by the apparent lack of “well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, [or] firm cost estimates”.

Both reports agree that, at a minimum, the agency should take a step back and reassess its current situation, and this need is perhaps most apparent with respect to NASA’s proposed Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV, or Ares 1). While the agency originally touted the CLV as taking “advantage of an existing booster with little risk to the manufacturing schedule and cost”, and that “overall, development risk is low with utilization of existing assets and experience”, the opposite now appears to be true. Engineering complications with both the Ares 1 (as well as the future Ares 5 heavy-lift booster) now appear to abound—and attempting to rectify the situation has caused NASA to redesign both vehicles to the extent that much of the workforce and manufacturing capabilities they originally sought to maintain will now have to be either modified or abandoned completely.

And from this comes what is perhaps the most realistic recommendation of the Foundation white paper, and possibly the most important one to finding the “missing money” wanted for COTS; to wit, that

NASA should re-open the CLV trade study options, since 1) Much of the original basis for rejecting [alternative options are] now gone, 2) There is plenty of time to do so if CEV does not go to ISS, and 3) Using [alternative options] will enhance national security consistent with White House policy.

Alternative options, of course, mean the Atlas 5 and Delta 4, developed under the auspices of the USAF’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

The argument in favor of using EELVs for CEV launch, as opposed to the Ares 1, is simply that two EELVs already exist, each having been flown with great success, on both counts contrary to the proposed Ares 1. Of course, there are drawbacks to the EELV launch option, the same drawbacks as were present when it was first considered. While the Foundation white paper accuses NASA of performing a “bait and switch” with the EELV and CLV, there were nevertheless legitimate concerns regarding both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4—particularly before the CLV issues provided wider context for a comparison of options.

The argument in favor of using EELVs for CEV launch, as opposed to the Ares 1, is simply that two EELVs already exist, each having been flown with great success.

Human-rating either the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 is likely to be an expensive proposition regardless of the fact that both boosters have already been developed (especially since no one really knows what it means to “human rate” these machines, beyond ensuring they don’t kill anybody). Also, since both the Atlas and Delta lines have very different assembly and integration processes (Boeing, for example, assembles its rockets horizontally for ease of access, while Lockheed uses a vertical integration facility), it may be particularly difficult to human-rate both varieties of launchers, and one option may inevitably gain preference as a result. Nevertheless, in the context of the issues now being experienced with the CLV, it may be time to re-evaluate the EELV option—and depending on whom you ask, this would likely be less expensive than persisting in the development of the CLV.

Were it decided to revisit this issue, the potential benefits to the COTS program become obvious. If a re-evaluation of the EELV option found that human-rating either existing launch system would be less expensive than continuing to develop the CLV, without sacrificing safety, NASA should change its plans accordingly; this, in turn, would liberate funds (in potentially large quantities) for COTS.

However, perhaps even better would be a re-evaluation of the CEV/CLV in the context of how private concepts are maturing themselves. While none of the six COTS finalists are ready to fly, nor will they be for some time, far more is known today about the odds that each has of success than was initially: and today, contrary to a year ago, an evaluation is possible in the framework of NASA’s actual progress. At the very least, the issues of the CEV, CLV, and ISS access in general warrant revisiting—and doing so just may result in a better choice, and more funding for otherwise cash-starved programs.

page 2: the “Fermi’s Paradox” of space access >>