Wednesday, 13 May 2009

US Manned Space Program under review

There's an awful lot of guessing and reading of auguries at NASA at the moment.

The first word on the upcoming review appeared in The Flame Trench ("Latest news and analysis from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral") about a week ago:
President Obama will order a comprehensive review of NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon when the agency's proposed 2010 budget is released Thursday.

Expected to last 60 to 90 days, the independent review will examine designs for the launch and exploration vehicles proposed for use by the Constellation program and the timeframe for flying lunar missions, according to sources familiar with the budget planning but not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Rob Coppinger's Hyperbola ("Orbitting the Blogosphere") gave more details a day later:
...Hyperbola has learned that the review is likely to take on the characteristics of a truth and reconciliation committee

Truth in terms of what has actually happened over the last five years, what things actually cost to develop and what budget NASA will actually get in the years to come. The full steam ahead "rosy picture" painted by some in NASA over the last few years is apparently light years from the harsh reality we have yet to learn about.

And by reconciliation Hyperbola does not necessarily mean the bringing together of previously warring parties but reconciling the need to extend ISS operations with the goal of "returning" to the Moon by around 2020.

If you are extending ISS operations, as Hyperbola is expecting NASA to do, you are going to have to review the Moon plan because you simply can not afford to go as far and as fast with one if you are doing the other at the same time
The problem is that Ares 1 is a great steaming pile of poo, but put it bluntly. A good idea, but it turned out that it was under-engineered, with insufficient allowance and over-performance for dealing with the inevitable problems with the weight of the vehicle. As I wrote about in a previous post on the subject. Now we may find out just how bad things are, and what it will cost to fix.

A day after Hyperbola's report, there came a Press Release:
The Obama Administration today announced the launch of an independent review of planned U.S. human space flight activities with the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space. The review will be conducted by a blue-ribbon panel of experts led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, who served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Democratic and Republican presidents and led the 1990 Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program and the 2007 National Academies commission that produced the landmark report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, as well as a number of other high-profile national commissions.

The "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans" is to examine ongoing and planned National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement. The panel will work closely with NASA and will seek input from Congress, the White House, the public, industry, and international partners as it develops its options. It is to present its results in time to support an Administration decision on the way forward by August 2009.
And the crowds went wild... well, not exactly. As was reported by the same day:
President Barack Obama's NASA budget does not match his campaign promises about the future of the U.S. space program, the Democratic chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA policy said Thursday.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla) said he expects the budget figures to change after a three-month review ordered by the White House to take stock of NASA's post-space shuttle human spaceflight plans.

Obama's 2010 budget proposal orders a review of NASA's plans to replace the space shuttle with new vehicles designed to serve the International Space Station and eventually carry astronauts to the moon.

Nelson said the budget, which supports completing nine space shuttle missions before the end of 2010, is a step in the right direction.

"But down the road the administration's budget does not match what candidate Obama said about the future of our space program. Still, he's assured me these numbers are subject to change, pending a review he has ordered of NASA," Nelson, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation science and space subcommittee said in a written statement. "This review, which should be finished in 90 days, is an opportunity to nail down support for human spaceflight."
Whether the money gets turned off, or the spigot turned all the way on, depends on the report.
The budget proposal endorses flying eight remaining missions before retiring the space shuttle in 2010. An additional mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station will be flown "after these flights if it can be safely and affordably completed in calendar year 2010," according to budget documents released May 7.

But Nelson said he had been assured by Obama that NASA will be allowed to finish "all nine space shuttle missions, regardless of how long it takes."

All told, Obama is requesting roughly $18.7 billion for NASA for 2010, a 5 percent increase that includes a roughly $150 million budget hike for the Exploration Mission Directorate - the part of NASA in charge of building the Ares I rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that comprise the early elements of the moon-bound Constellation program.

Of the nearly $4 billion Obama is requesting for Exploration Systems, $3.5 billion would go to Constellation. While that is nearly $200 million more than Constellation stood to receive next year under former President George W. Bush's final NASA budget, subsequent budget years are not as generously funded. Obama's plan calls for spending a total of $16.4 billion on Constellation between 2011 and 2013, or about $3.5 billion less than Bush had planned to spend during the same three-year period.
Nine space shuttle missions is the maximum we can have, because the production line for the fuel tanks has been shut down. There are 9 in stock, and one gets expended in each launch. I don't expect that all the launches will be completed before late 2011 - unless they are scrapped. Which just might happen.

So what has Mr Augustine recommended in previous reports? Well, the one he did many years ago put manned spaceflight in last place on the list of priorities NASA should be concentrating on, and on a "do it only if you have the money to spare" basis. From the Space Review:
The Augustine Commission put science as the highest priority of NASA, with guaranteed funding. Aeronautics, human spaceflight, and engineering were a distant second:

1. That the civil space science program should have first priority for NASA resources, and continue to be funded at approximately the same percentage of the NASA budget as at present (about 20 percent).
2. That, with respect to program content, the existing strategic plan for science and applications research proposed by NASA with input from the science community be funded and executed.
3. That the multi-decade set of projects known as Mission to Planet Earth be conducted as a continually evolving program rather than as a mission whose design is frozen in time.
4. That the Mission from Planet Earth be established with the long-term goal of human exploration of Mars, underpinned by an effort to produce significant advances in space transportation and space life sciences.
5. That the Mission from Planet Earth be configured to an open-ended schedule, tailored to match the availability of funds.

According to Quayle’s memoirs, the Augustine Commission initially put human spaceflight as the lowest priority. But Quayle and others objected and the section was removed. (See “Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two”, The Space Review, February 23, 2004) Even truly independent reviews are inevitably influenced by the government that created them.
On the other hand, he also said this :
It would be a grave mistake to try to pursue a space program “on the cheap”. To do so is in my opinion an invitation to disaster. There is a tendency in any “can-do” organization to believe that it can operate with almost any budget that is made available. The fact is that trying to do so is a mistake—particularly when safety is a major consideration. I am not arguing for profligacy; rather, I am simply pointing out that space activity is expensive and that it is difficult. One might even say that it is rocket science!
The results of the first Augustine review (nearly 20 years ago) is also open to interpretation. Here's Mark Whittington's take:
Back in 1990, with George H. W. Bush's Space Exploration Initiative going nowhere in the Congress, Norm Augustine headed a panel that issued recommendations to get the exploration initiative jump started.

The principle recommendations for SEI were as follows:

"a science program, which enjoys highest priority within the civil space program, and is maintained at or above the current fraction of the NASA budget;

"a Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) focusing on environmental measurements;

"a Mission from Planet Earth (MFPE), with the long-term goal of human exploration of Mars, preceded by a modified Space Station which emphasizes life-sciences, an exploration base on the moon, and robotic precursors to Mars;

"a significantly expanded technology development activity, closely coupled to space mission objectives, with particular attention devoted to engines + a robust space transportation system."

The recommendations of the first Augustine Commission were considered sound, sensible, and even visionary. They were not enough to save the first George W. Bush's SEI which was never really funded and was cancelled by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
See why the tea-leaves and goat-entrails are being examined so carefully? Not that the first Augustine report was ever acted upon, the funding was cut, and the SEI program axed.

I'll let Rand Simberg give one final, if forlorn, piece of advice:
Ignore the politics

Yes, of course Senator Shelby (R-AL) is going to want to see a new vehicle developed in Huntsville, Alabama, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) is going to want to ensure the maintenance of jobs at the Cape, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and various Houston-area congressmen are going to want to maintain jobs at Johnson Space Center That will take priority in their minds over actual accomplishments in space.

But your job is to tell the policymakers how to give the taxpayers the best value for their money — and how to maximize our space faring capabilities as soon as possible, so that if we do see something coming at us or find riches off the planet, we can take advantage of it.

Think of yourself like a Base Closing and Realignment Commission that provides recommendations for the nation as a whole, not local interests. Let the politicians argue about how to preserve jobs (while ignoring all of the jobs and wealth not being created due to the opportunity costs of their parochial decisions).
Yes, that's what should be done. It's the only way that the US is every going to get to the Moon alongside the Chinese (forget about being significantly before them). I do think though that the Augustine report will result in one of two chances that this will happen. If they report one way, there's a fat chance of this happening. If the report goes the other way, then the chance is slim instead.

Either way, the funding, and therefore the very existence of the US manned space program, won't depend on the technical issues: it will depend on the US deficit, and the hard decisions Obama's successor will have to make to remedy the catastrophically growing deficit that is planned to occur after he leaves office. That's if nothing untoward happens that makes it even worse.


Christine said...

"about $3.5 billion less than Bush had planned to spend during the same three-year period"

Bush also promised us a moon base and manned Mars mission. I'd rather see actual budgeted money than campaign hot-air.

Anonymous said...

I rather see a plan to reduce population and have world peace before we go into space.

Christine said...

I have a pretty good feeling that nature will handle our population problem for us.. we're just a pandemic away from that problem being solved... if not... there's always WWIII or just flat out mass-starvation as a result of economic collapse. If none of those happen then we'll be looking at an ice age as a result of global warming and then nothing will really matter from our perspective.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

"I rather see a plan to reduce population and have world peace before we go into space."

Yeah, well, speaking as a repented optimist - the humanity be better prepared to send off a few of its off-shoots before that world peace finally kicks in. Just in case, you know.

lucash said...

I rather see a plan to reduce population problem for us.
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Laserlight said...

"I rather see a plan to reduce population and have world peace before we go into space."

There is such a plan already, called "World War 3". It'll reduce the population substantially, and then we'll have world peace--for ten to twenty years, anyway.