Andy’s Plan for a Robust US Manned Spaceflight Program

I haven’t said anything about this in deference to my job; some of you know I work for a space shuttle contractor in the safety and flight operations world.  But recent events have really irritated me to no end, and I now feel like I’m ready to lay out my thoughts on this whole thing.  The whole thing has gotten too political and too full of both hyperbole to get anywhere of any consequence, and the country deserves better than that.

I’ve been involved in the space program for most of my life in one way or the other, whether it was through building models as a kid, presenting “current events” during the Apollo program and my high school history classes, performing public speaking in support of the program, getting my aerospace engineering degree, and finally in working at Johnson Space Center since 1984 minus a three year break from 94 through 97.  I’ve been an astronaut and flight controller trainer, an ascent procedures specialist, an SMS team lead, and a Shuttle MER Safety Console operator  during shuttle missions since 1987.  I’ve been here at JSC through both shuttle accidents and closer to both than I wanted to be.   With my own eyes, I’ve seen launches of Saturn V’s, Saturn IB’s, and the Shuttle and have seen shuttle landings.  I watched Neil Armstrong dance on the moon on TV as it happened, after watching, from a Titusville beach, his launch vehicle head for the moon.  But I never thought I’d see what I’m seeing now.  NASA’s manned space effort has been thrown into a morass of paralysis, political in-fighting, and “can’t do-ism”.

I hadn’t been doing a lot of work on Constellation, but the program seemed to me to be in trouble from the beginning.  The common wisdom said that Ares I was underpowered and the resulting sacrifices in redundancy in Orion made many of us cringe.  Secondly, the vibrational modes showing up in the solid booster were posing a challenge to the designers they could not solve but could only mitigate at best, and I never heard that we got to a completely viable and accepted solution.  Personally, I thought the dual launch concept for lunar missions was a poor one, especially the idea of launching the crew first and putting them at risk while waiting on orbit for their lunar propulsion articles to launch. How were we going to explain ourselves when we had to bring a crew home for nothing when that didn’t occur?  But that’s just me and maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about.  The thing had made it through dozens of reviews.

Frankly, as the 2008 elections rolled around and it was clear the Obama administration was looking at what to do, I expected them to probably cancel Ares I/Orion.  That made a lot of sense to me considering what I knew about its problems.    But what would we do then about supporting getting crews to Low Earth Orbit and ISS?  There were only a couple of solutions.  One was to extend shuttle out until some other means were available, and those other available means could be via the Russian Soyuz (as currently planned) or via “commercial space” transport, as many people are now promoting.   Of course, there was a lot of political fodder with the use of the Russian Soyuz (well deserved when we’re talking about putting American space workers out of work instead) and the “commercial space” sector was still unproven, even though they are moving ahead.  Either one of those two entities were and are not a sure thing, though there is hardly ever such a thing in manned spaceflight anyway.

So, when the Obama administration came forward with a proposal to use “commercial space” to try to close the gap left by cancelling Constellation, that made sense.  I don’t believe that Ares I / Orion is any closer to being ready to fulfill the LEO crew support mission than Space X with a manned Dragon capsule is, considering the progress that Space X has recently made.   However, development programs often don’t proceed at the envisioned pace, and there is quite a ways to go before any entity can be sure to meet the desired timeline.  No matter what happens on the U.S. side, though, the Russians have a viable if politically unpopular means of supporting ISS crew transfer and our Japanese and European partners have the capability to assist in ISS re-supply.  Still, all those solutions leave open the need for ISS heavy lift support, which the current Obama administration plans appear to completely neglect.  Any one who thinks ISS can survive until 2020 without heavy lift support isn’t paying close attention to its malfunction history.  If I were in ISS management, I would be unhappy about playing the Roulette game that leads to.

Secondly, change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing.  The biggest problems the American manned space program have are a lack of vision, long-term goals to work toward, and the political will and courage to commit to them. While a manned visit to an asteroid might be a valuable thing to do at some point, I can see no real strategic reason at this time to do so.  Automated missions to the asteroids make a lot more sense to me from a cost, risk, and scientific return standpoint; let’s save our manned efforts for other more strategic interests.  The argument that we don’t need to go back to the moon because “we’ve been there and done that” makes about as much sense as saying that the U.S. didn’t need to push west to the West Coast after Louis and Clark had already been there.  We’ve only done the most basic exploration of our nearest neighbor and returning there and establishing a “permanent” human presence makes long term sense and may provide scientific returns we cannot anticipate. The cancellation of the rest of the Constellation did not make sense, though a near-term direct return might not either.   But it does make sense to continue working to get there while we do other things.  What other things, you ask?  Build infrastructure, I say!

One of government’s basic tasks is to build infrastructure to support our way of life.  This is now where NASA needs to go, i.e., to build infrastructure to expand our access to and explorations of outer space.  NASA’s job is to go where “commercial space” will not, to build the infrastructure that private and commercial enterprise may someday use to expand our influence (and I’m not going to get into the argument now about whether that is a good thing to do).  This is why turning LEO access over to “commercial enterprise” makes sense.  What doesn’t make sense is the Obama plan to throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon all government manned space operations.  JSC learned the hard way about fifteen years ago what happens when you run off all your space experience and how hard it is to get it back once it’s gone.  It’s not a mistake anyone here wants to repeat.

So, tired of all the paralysis, I came up with a 7-point plan I felt would give the U.S. a robust manned space program.   In proposing this, I ignored any immediate concerns about budget though I did take budget into account when looking at the plan strategically.  I had to leave the politicians something to do, and figuring out the budget is what they get paid for.

Here’s what I would have done had I been the guy calling the shots:

(1) Continue flying shuttles until 2015.  (Anyone who thinks ISS is not going to need logistical and even heavy lift support has never looked at the failure history of the station.  Shuttle can be there for replacing almost any ISS component and supplying logistics until the commercial sector is ready to do so.  To stand down shuttle without a heavy lift vehicle to service ISS risks shortening the ISS lifetime.)

(2) Continue stimulus of commercial low earth-orbit lift capability with the explicit target of handing over all LEO duties (except heavy lift) to the commercial sector by 2015.  This will include development of manned capsules/spaceships capable of a visit to ISS or any other LEO host.

(3) Aim Orion development toward lunar missions and perform preliminary design studies on variants for interplanetary travel.

(4) Continue lunar lander and habitat design studies.

(5) Proceed with NASA development of a heavy-lift vehicle that will first launch in 2015.  This heavy-lift vehicle will be capable of LEO, lunar mission, or interplanetary mission support.

(6) Proceed with design studies and building of NASA-sponsored manned craft to be launched from ISS to the moon or other planetary destinations.  This ship can include Orion as a component.

(7) Continue with technology studies (as the current administration desires) that will enhance spaceflight in the future.

Now, admittedly, flying the shuttle out to 2015 was a long shot, especially considering that many vendors and supply sources are ka-put.  Yes, I had heard the estimates that if we turned on the money tap today, it could take two to three years to get everything shuttle going again. What I hadn’t heard was whether that timetable could be compressed to closer to a year and, if so, how much money it would take. Despite its flaws, the shuttle is here and flying now and is the only vehicle that can supply both ISS crew and logistical support, including what I’m calling “heavy-lift”, i.e., bring aboard major station components or even a whole new section, if needed.  As I said earlier, I believe this type of support has not been publically anticipated and could likely be necessary within ISS’s projected lifetime.

With that set, it made sense to continue support for “commercial space” efforts to provide LEO ISS crew support.  The companies would be tasked with supplying all US ISS crew support beginning no later than 2015, so they would be in place when shuttle was finally stood down.  This would eliminate the “gap” in US capability to provide this support.  This is also a timetable I would expect Space X to be able to meet and one in which other commercial entities could be ready as well.  How much support should they get?  Just what they need to meet this deadline with this capability and no more.  If they can’t do it with this, than maybe they’re really not as “commercial” as they’d like us to think.  (NOTE: I consider Burt Rutan’s suggestion made during AirVenture 2010 of 10% to 15% of NASA’s budget to Space X (and with no strings) as out of line and hypocritical.   This is taxpayer money.  In this market, Space X is no different than Boeing, Lockheed, Northrup Grumman, or any other private company that competes for government contracts.  And the big guys have a lot more experience…)

As for salvaging what the taxpayers have already spent on Orion, the best use of that would be to support what NASA’s mission needs to become, that of going boldly where private interests are not ready to go. Forget any LEO use of Orion but investigate how it could be used to go to the Moon and possibly be part of a vehicle that goes beyond (as an Earth re-entry vehicle, perhaps).  To this end, too, continue with studies that will support expanding human presence to the Moon or Mars so that when we find the will to actually do so, the design phase of the job is done.  You can throw an asteroid mission in here, too, if you want.

In any case, whether for heavy lift support of ISS, going to the Moon, building another more lunar-logistically capable space station, or whatever, a heavy lift vehicle is needed.  Target the capability for 2015 so it is in place when shuttle stands down.  No new technologies are necessarily called for here.  Just put the capability in place and spread out your development costs so they don’t pile onto your mission costs later.

Continue, also, with design studies of a craft capable from launching from our dream space station.  Make it a vehicle built and operated in space.  This will help drastically lower launch costs and provide routine access to the Moon.

Lastly, as the Obama administration desires, fund technology studies of any new technologies that could enhance capabilities and reduce costs. Frankly, some of these may pop out of any mission studies NASA undertakes as it pursues the rest of the initiatives, as spelled out here.  And there are some private enterprises like Ad Astra that may come forward with their own.   The Congress and the Administrator can have fun figuring out which funding pipeline to use to get there.

That’s my plan, and the reasoning behind it.  It combines some of both proposals that have been making the headline news, and the best of them from my perspective.

Now, go look at the Senate plan and compare it to this one.  I think you’ll find it is remarkably similar.  I don’t find that incredible since I sent this plan to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s website via their e-mail form on May 25th (or 26th) of this year.  I also sent the same plan in a letter to Representative Pete Olsen the next day.  I was happy to see what Hutchinson did and not so happy with what Olsen did.  The House’s restrictions on commercial space efforts and having an Orion back-up are a waste of time and money.  The Senate’s plan is much better, and I urge you to support it.

As for shuttle, it looks like we might get one extra flight and that’s it.  That’s sad but understandable considering where everything is.

There is a sentiment out there that the government can’t do anything right and that the private sector does everything better.  Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes, it’s not.  It’s true I admire and respect the accomplishments of Burt Rutan and company, Space X, and all the other “commercial” space companies out there.  But there is also a lack of perspective here.  NASA’s accomplishments have all been made by the government walking hand-in-hand with private industry.  Some of these companies have worked with NASA so often they have become associated with the agency in the public’s mind, and that is both a good and bad thing.  I’ve seen commercial interests lose perspective when it comes to balancing risks against profit, and that conflict will shape the new “commercial space” industry every day.  There will be redundancy (though not always safety) sacrificed in the name of profit, and there will be deaths associated with those compromises. How well the public tolerates those losses remains to be seen, and whether they will sing a different tune and scream for more government oversight would not be a surprise.  Additionally, there are several magnitudes of difference in risk, cost, and technical challenges between suborbital and orbital flight efforts.  The latter is what many of the “commercial space” companies have yet to tackle, and it is also what NASA has been tackling successfully for some time.  I would not count NASA out yet.  Indeed, NASA still has a lot of trailblazing it can do, if it is correctly funded and correctly managed.

No matter how we proceed, there is one thing that will be for sure:  it will be interesting and probably not turn out like any of us exactly planned at all.

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