Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Future of Human Spaceflight

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to go to a public meeting of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, often referred to as the Augustine commission. They were here in Houston for presentations from various NASA officials as well as for public comment. If you're not familiar with the committee and their purpose, check out their website.

I took a ton of notes but for those of you who aren't space dorks, I'll summarize my personal impressions in the next section and I won't be offended if you choose not to read further, or if you only read certain parts; I'll try to organize it so you can pick and choose easily. I did my best to distinguish between my opinions and facts but no matter what, my impressions are biased, so do your own research as well!

My personal thoughts on the day
My overall impression is that this is one smart group of people. Hearing them have open and spontaneous discussion, I was impressed by the questions they asked and the way they interacted with each other. The panel is very diverse, with former astronauts, scientists, military personnel, a commercial spaceflight representative, and more. Although it was certainly clear that each member is influenced by their own background, it was equally obvious that they all want the best for this nation's future in space. They have a daunting task ahead as they have been asked to assess a lot of options in only 90 days, and whatever they propose is supposed to be within the current budget, which is almost impossible. It's important to note that they have been asked to present options, not recommendations, although by presenting only some options and not others they certainly have the opportunity to exert great influence.

A couple of the themes that came up focused on the tension between political and technical needs. Everyone agreed that once the US picks a course, we need to stick to it, because one of the easiest ways to waste money and lose focus is to hop from one project to another. In addition, a number of people brought up the need to invest more initially in order to save money overall. These have both been serious problems in the past and as long as NASA is funded on a year to year basis I'm not sure they will ever go away. Neither of those two observations were new to me but the next two were. First, there seemed to be a broad consensus that NASA should get out of the business of taking cargo (and possibly people) to low earth orbit (LEO). This should be done by Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) vehicles, such as those currently in development by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. In addition, there appeared to be strong support for working with International Partners (IPs). Hopefully that gets most of the acronyms out of the way for you non-space people but if I use some you don't recognize just shoot me an email!

It was great to see the variety of people who came to the hearing. There were college students, retired NASA engineers, current NASA employees, astronauts, and contractor executives, pretty much spanning the community.

This group genuinely wants to hear from you, and with only a short time at each meeting for public comment they are hoping people will send inputs through their website. Here's the link; use it!

Mike Coats, Johnson Space Center Director
After the opening comments from chairman Norm Augustine, Mike Coats came up to present some charts and answer questions. A lot of what he talked about was definitely an effort to show how important JSC is and will be for NASA. Coats said the two greatest threats to US human spaceflight are 1) the gap between Shuttle retirement and Orion flight, and 2) being stuck in LEO. He noted that in the past we have worked with IPs but have been reluctant to put them in the critical path, and thinks that may need to change.

Coats talked about a heavy lift vehicle to go beyond LEO and I thought it was interesting that he spoke about Orion but didn't mention Ares. I could be reading too much into that though since most Ares work is in Huntsville, not Houston. Coats supports Mars as our goal, with both the moon and ISS as training vehicles. He also spoke about spaceflight as a motivator for education to get more US students into math, science and engineering.

One interesting statistic he noted relates to choosing crew for long duration missions. A full 30% of the otherwise qualified candidates for the last astronaut class were not medically qualified for long duration missions.

Coats addressed a side effect of the spaceflight gap, which is losing technical knowledge. He noted the efforts JSC is making to avoid losing critical knowledge.

He said that the biggest difference between industry and government is competition and said that NASA needs to act with more urgency, as though it is in competition. NASA is competing for government resources and competing with other nations' space programs.

Next the panel asked him a number of questions. Former General Les Lyles asked about why he hadn't reached out more to other government agencies involved in space, such as DoD, the Air Force, the National Security Space (NSS) team, and the Pentagon. Coats noted that this is something he needs to do. He was also asked about the "paper NASA vs. real NASA", in that the agency has grand plans and gorgeous pictures on charts but often fails to live up to them. Coats gave a really honest answer. He said you can't fit a 50 lb weight in a 5 lb sack, and that right now the government is asking the impossible with the funding NASA has been given. He talked about minimizing lifecycle costs by increasing up front investment and finally said "I don't have a good answer." To me personally that was a better answer than glossing over problems. However, I didn't like that he was pretty much giving up on getting that large up front investment. I think that he and other influential NASA personnel need to push as hard as they can for the resources they need.

Input from Local Government Officials
This next part of the day was the least exciting. There were letters read and video messages shown from local Senators and Congresspeople. Most of these were pretty boring and run of the mill, with the officials praising NASA and pushing for more money for their constituencies. Sadly one of the Congressmen who is actually on the committee that allocates funding for NASA twice called ISS Skylab! UGH!

Steve Lindsey, Astronaut Office
The next pitch was one of a few from the panel's STS/ISS subcommittee. Steve Lindsey is the head of the Astronaut Office at JSC. He stated again that LEO is a dead end and said that the next architecture should have the capability to take us to multiple destinations.

The panel noted that NASA's culture is often criticized as being risk averse, yet his charts emphasized that the next crew vehicle should be an order of magnitude safer than this one. They asked how he would balance that. He responded with one of my favorite statistics of the day. The chances of dying when you launch on a space shuttle are 1:64; in climbing Everest, 1:62; for a soldier on D-Day it was 1:62. He said that as an agency NASA is not risk averse because every time we launch a shuttle we roll the dice with the future of the agency. While that is entirely true, I disagree with him that NASA's culture isn't risk averse. In my experience risk is viewed as inherently bad and is avoided instead of evaluated. Lindsey and the panel went back and forth on this for a while and there was definitely some disagreement. Once they moved on from that discussion they talked a bit about COTS vehicles which Lindsey supports. He also talked about how much the shuttle program has changed from what it was initially designed for an emphasized again that the new vehicle and architecture need to be flexible to accommodate changing goals in the next thirty years.

There was widespread disagreement on using ISS, the moon, or both as training for Mars so I'll try to note what each person said about it. Lindsey supports using both the moon and ISS. He said that in his personal opinion we don't understand the moon as well as we think we do, and it would be worthwhile to learn more about it.

Jeff Hanley, Constellation Projects Director and Mark Geyer, JSC Project Manager
The next pitch was about progress on Constellation, particularly Orion. Most of it was just a status on where the program is so I'm not going to repeat it all here. Geyer did note that currently the long pole in the direct path for Orion is qualification, not hardware, which was surprising to me. Most of the interesting information came in the questions and discussion with the panel.

The panel asked about the 6 vs 4 person crew. The original plan was a 6 person crew but ISS and the moon only need 4 people. The panel asked what impact reducing the overall requirement to 4 would have. Geyer noted that at this point in the process it's too late for that to make a large difference, and that it would create packaging and scheduling issues. He said that lifecycle costs are generally not strongly affected by crew/vehicle size so it wouldn't help there.

Dr. Sally Ride, chair of Shuttle/ISS Subcommittee
It's going to be harder for me to be objective in this section because I was so impressed with Sally Ride. She really dealt in reality and said a lot of things I agreed with, although I didn't agree with everything. Her subcommittee is focusing on three primary questions: 1) How long, realistically, is the current gap? Can it be shortened? 2) What is the best flyout scenario for shuttle? 3) Can ISS be extended past 2016, and if so, how?

Dr. Ride noted that the committee's mandate is to come up with at least two options within the current budget, which is not an easy task. She said that her subcommittee is working firmly in reality and jokingly called them the "Doom and Gloom" group.

First, she talked about a reasonable Shuttle flyout scenario. I'm sure everyone reading this who works on the shuttle and ISS programs will agree with her that completing the current missions on the current schedule is just not going to happen. Since Columbia, there has been an average of 115 days between shuttle flights (which does include the full year gap between STS-114 and STS-121), but the current schedule shows an average of only 62 days between flights. Her group assumes 90 days is a more realistic number which puts shuttle's final flight in March of 2011.

Her group also predicts approximately a 2 year slip in the Constellation schedule, due to budget cuts, technical issues, and all of their research. This, combined with the predicted shuttle schedule, puts the gap at more than six years, which would be the longest for the US since we started putting people into space. They assumed that ISS will be extended until 2020. All this together would put us $15.3 billion over budget ($1.3 billion shuttle, $4.7 Constellation, $9.3 billion ISS). She said "[that $15.3 billion] is why we're here." She thinks it's unlikely that the gap can be reduced from the right (ie by moving Constellation up).

Her group discussed three shuttle flyout scenarios:
1) Current missions as planned, finishing around March 2011 (leads to $1.5 billion over budget)
2) Current missions as planned plus one more mission in 2012, because there is one extra external tank.
3) Extend shuttle for 1-2 flights per year through 2014. This would require restarting external tank production and re-certifying shuttle. Her subcommittee does not recommend this option.

As far as extending ISS life, the subcommittee strongly recommended supporting ISS through 2020, for a variety of reasons including science, politics, and international partner commitments. Lester Lyles talked about international cooperation. He has spoken with lots of countries, including some which are not current ISS IPs. He said that everyone he spoke to wants to be involved in future work, and also that they want to see ISS continue post 2015. They see it as proof of the value of international cooperation and as a valuable resource for climate research and other science. He said other countries are looking to President Obama to make a statement expressing support for international cooperation in space.

Overall Panel Discussion
Norm Augustine opened the panel discussion by making three controversial statements (his words) which the group talked over for quite a while. Here they are:
1) There have been a lot of great arguments for international partnerships. However, we currently have IPs in the critical path and everyone is complaining about it (by which he means reliance on Soyuz to transport crew to and from ISS during the gap).
2) Would taxpayers have been as happy to pay for the Apollo program if Neil and Buzz had put a UN flag on the moon?
3) Much of the scientific community has indicated that ISS really isn't a great lab for science. If it's not a lab, what is it a test bed for? Not Mars, because the moon is supposed to be a test bed for Mars.

The rest of this is just notes on an open ended discussion so apologies if it's not too well organized!

Sally responded to statement 2 by saying that in 1969 people probably wouldn't have been as supportive of a UN flag, but times have changed and now they would be. There was talk about how the US can influence other countries and someone (I wish I knew who!) said that leadership is making people want to do what you want them to do.

The panel talked about whether ISS retirement is even their decision (or the US' decision) to make, given the level of commitment by the IPs, and by us to them. They debated whether they should make ISS extension until 2020 a part of all scenarios. Dr. Chris Chyba outlined five reasons to keep ISS. Two political (the absurdity of de-orbiting a $60 billion investment after only 5 years; commitments to IPs); one that is both political and technical (encouraging private sector development of COTS vehicles); and two technical (the potential for important science, and ISS use as a testbed for Mars). He emphasized that the two technical reasons may not be credible and that the committee should not oversell them.

Someone questioned whether extending the shuttle would undermine COTS. Sally Ride referenced a graphic showing our huge (I mean HUGE) loss in upmass and downmass capability with shuttle retirement and showed that even if shuttle is extended we are still short of mass capability and need the COTS vehicles. Right now mass issues restrict us to about 50-70% of rack capacity on ISS.

Sally had said a number of times that she thinks working in reality assumes everything costs more and takes long. Jeff Greason (co-founder of XCOR aerospace, who had asked a lot of COTS questions) said he didn't like that assumption. He said that by turning on multiple competing crew providers we have a chance of one of them being on schedule and on budget and not to just give up now.

The session closed with public comments which were quite varied so I'm not even going to try to summarize them here.

Whew! That was a lot of writing! I hope this is helpful and interesting for people. Please feel free to pass this along or ask me questions about what I've said. Get involved! Contact the committee! NASA belongs to you; own it!

1 comment:

nujoud said...

Thanks for the summary! Since I was in Denver, I did not get to go but we did watch Geyer's Orion presentation during lunch at my meeting. I will say this though, from actually being on the program (Orion) being talked about, it was a generally accurate presentation... but there were a couple things not said about why we are in the situation we are in.