Sustaining a Balanced Portfolio
Professor of the Practice of International Affairs,
Director, Space Policy Institute
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
Space Transportation Association Panel
9 September 2010
Good morning. It’s an honor to be on this panel with such accomplished friends and colleagues. I’ll try to be brief so we can get to questions and discussions.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar, and the Congress will soon be returning from recess to take up work on crucial legislation before adjourning in October for national elections. While the nation faces many immediate challenges, not the least being the economy and on-going wars, it is also facing a generational choice on what kind of human space exploration capability we will have. We are truly facing a new year and the choices before us are clear.
The Administration proposed a NASA budget for FY2011 that contained a lot of good things within a reasonable top line. However, it also sought to cancel the Constellation program and has upended the transition efforts put into place to minimize the kind of economic and technical disruptions that marked the end of Apollo more than a generation ago.
The FY2011 budget for NASA was the coup de grace after the dramatic reductions in
exploration in previous year. The Bush Administration underfunded Constellation compared to what it proposed in FY2005, leading to delays and inefficiencies. However, it was the Obama Administration reductions that led the Augustine Committee to observe that the Constellation program was untenable given the FY2010 budget levels. While I believe the Commission to be correct on this point, they made it without having an independent basis of estimate for the cost of
the Constellation program, as the Aerospace Corporation clearly explained in response to congressional inquiries.
The loss of Constellation created turmoil in the U.S. industrial base as it sought to adjust to the end of the Space Shuttle program. In parallel, the loss of the Moon as a near term goal for human space exploration beyond LEO created turmoil with the plans of our international partners. Mars is too far away, human NEO missions are undefined, and the fate of the International Space Station would be dependent upon one partner – Russia. The Russians have been excellent
partners, but reliance on any one state for access to a $75 billion facility is unwise, as experience has shown.
Every president puts his own stamp on the highly symbolic activity of human space flight – and
there was certainly expectations that this Administration would do the same – perhaps accelerate
commercial cargo funding or increase funding for long delayed technology programs – even at
the expense of slowing the schedule for human lunar return.
Unfortunately, the Administration chose an approach with deep practical and technical deficiencies. It discounted the need for NASA to regain in-house development experience with human space flight – skills that had atrophied for decades with the focus on R&D and operations as cancelled program after cancelled program failed to replace the Shuttle, until the Columbia
tragedy made further temporizing impossible. It sought to redirect NASA from being a mission-driven agency, to one that was more of a technology enabler like DARPA or the National Science Foundation. It assumed there was a commercial industry ready to take on human space flight – or at least one that could be created quickly with a few billion dollars of public money. In essence, it created an imbalanced portfolio that ignored political and commercial and engineering realities in pursuit of a romantic vision of space development.
The Administration’s radical course abandoned that most precious and rare commodities for the
U.S. space community, a bipartisan consensus. The Space Exploration Initiative of Bush 41 foundered on just such a that lack of congressional support. The Vision for Space Exploration of Bush 43 sought to gain that consensus and succeeded in two back-to-back authorization bills.
Thus, it should have been no surprise that the Congress was skeptical of a radical approach with little to no analytical foundation.
Whatever the merits of promoting new technologies and new launch providers – and those merits
are considerable -- the loss of known path forward with a replacement for the Shuttle and heavy lift capabilities for serious human missions beyond low Earth orbit was not an approach Members were going to vote for. Thus, they had to come up with their own approach. Normally, the Congress functions best as an incremental organization – making political judgments at the
margins to satisfy diverse constituencies. In this case, the Congress has no choice but to go back to basics.
Briefly, the challenge is to address the integrated problem of supporting ISS while trying to
move beyond LEO, and why that requires a launch system, rather than a point-design.
1. If current policy provisions are retained (finish ISS, retire Shuttle, build for human
exploration beyond LEO), then heavy lift capability on the order of 150MT is required to
support any goal beyond that achieved by Apollo, i.e., 2 crew on the moon for 3 days. 2. If the CAIB recommendations to separate crew and cargo, and to design the next human
space transportation system to maximize crew safety are to be respected, then a dedicated
crew launch vehicle must be developed.
3. If the utilization and support of the International Space Station is to be extended through at
least 2020, and if our agreements to supply crew and cargo transportation to our international
partners are to be respected, then an operationally affordable solution for access to low Earth
orbit is required; this goal cannot be attained by pressing a heavy-lifter into service for LEO
4. The result: a launch system akin to the Constellation ―1.5 launch solution‖ is required.
a. A simple/robust crew launch vehicle designed to maximize crew safety.
b. A heavy-lifter capable of carrying 150MT to LEO with large shroud volumes, e.g., 10
meter diameter or more.
c. Maximum commonality between Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and Heavy Lift Vehicle
(HLV) to reduce cost and improve reliability, i.e., the CLV is obtained at marginal cost
based on the design of the HLV. NASA’s own studies from 2009 show the marginal
development cost for an Ares I over and above an Ares V to be on the order of $3B.
The Senate and House bills are both supportive of the Orion crew exploration vehicle and a heavy lift launch vehicle that may look like the Ares 5. Both the Altair vehicle and human lunar exploration generally are still left for the future. Ares 1 is not mentioned in either bill, but the House draft specifically calls for the development of a U.S. government capability to put crew in low Earth orbit while the Senate bill does not. The construction of a heavy-lift vehicle would logically require a precursor vehicle just as the Saturn V required the engineering development and test flight of the Saturn IB – which was later used as the ferry vehicle for Skylab.
Reducing funds for commercial crew and new technologies that are not yet tied to particular missions or architectures pays for these programs. The numbers in the House bill for developing government capabilities are higher than those in the Senate, and thus have a better chance for programmatic success. The Senate bill has more funds for commercial crew and technology than the House, risking funds being spread too thin and schedules being slipped. That said, both the House and Senate bills are improvements over the approach originally proposed by the Administration and as such are the ―goal posts‖ on either end of the field for what direction
NASA will be given.
We know that NASA would like to acquire two flights a year for ISS crew rotation with any future demand still to be determined. The national space policy released by the Administration in June contains guidelines that define "commercial" space as:
―…goods, services, or activities provided by private sector enterprises that bear a
reasonable portion of the investment risk and responsibility for the activity, operate in
accordance with typical market-based incentives for controlling cost and optimizing
return on investment, and have the legal capacity to offer these goods or services to
existing or potential nongovernmental customers.‖
By these terms, ―commercial crew‖ is not yet actually commercial but in fact is a different type of procurement mechanism with the government bearing the risk and paying for it. In federal contracting terms, we have Part 15 programs that we’re pretending are Part 12 commercial items and Space Act agreements are used to make up the difference.
There is broad agreement on the potential value of cost-effective, commercial launch services for sending cargo and crew to low Earth Orbit, but that doesn’t mean that such services are
inevitable or will arrive when needed. To paraphrase Sally Ride in the CAIB hearings, there seems to be an ―echo‖ from a generation ago in the debate over the Space Shuttle. In that earlier
time, NASA and the White House accepted unrealistic flight rates – 40-60 per year – as part of a
―cost-effectiveness‖ argument. Despite their technical improbability, such rates were accepted
with a sort of circular logic: Shuttle was needed, the flight rates were needed, and therefore the Shuttle would meet those requirements. This is did not turn out to be wise, even though the Shuttle became a magnificent engineering achievement for three decades.
The echo today can be found in the assumption that commercial crew capabilities are close at hand because it would be really great if that were so. This year, the Administration asked NASA to put billions of dollars into vehicles the Agency won’t own in the hopes that undemonstrated
private demand appears that will lower the cost of conducting a limited number of government missions. Unfortunately, there is no public basis for the 6 billion dollar figure cited as adequate for building a new human space flight capability. In fact, the March 2010 Aerospace Corporation report to Congress clearly stated, ―Aerospace did not independently develop or verify the schedule estimate for the commercial crew capability.‖
The cancellation of Constellation was a choice – not an inevitable consequence of dispassionate
analysis. Some observers might argue that the destruction of the existing Shuttle industrial base and the careful transition path to a new government-operated space launch system was not an accident. Rather, it is a necessary step to remove any potential government competition to new private contractors and thus provide assurance that the government would have no choice but to make outsourcing succeed. Fortunately, there is a sobering antidote to this ―hope as a strategy‖ approach in the House bill. It lays out three simple conditions:
(a) COMMERCIAL SERVICES OPPORTUNITIES— NASA shall seek, to the extent
practicable, to make use of commercially available space services, including commercially
available services to transport United States Government astronauts to and from the ISS,
provided that— (1) those commercial services have demonstrated the capability to meet
NASA-specified ascent, transit, entry, and ISS proximity operations safety requirements;
(2) the services provider has completed, and NASA has verified, crewed flight
demonstrations or operational flights that comply with NASA standards, policies, and
procedures; and (3) the per-seat cost to the United States is not greater than the per-seat
cost for the system developed under section 202.
These conditions for proving that new suppliers are safe, efficacious, and cost-effective are ones that should find broad support. It would be clearly in NASA’s interest to use the services of suppliers meeting these conditions and a direct answer to the challenge once laid down by the late Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." We know the claims. We need the evidence.
The House and Senate bills are close in substance, yet the biggest challenge is the calendar. Given the desire of both sides to avoid lengthy continuing resolution and longer layoffs – which
are already happening and will accelerate after the beginning of the new fiscal year October 1 –
there is little time to conference two separate bills. Thus staffs should be working to pre-conference a common bill. My preference is to begin with the Senate bill which already passed that chamber but to use the funding numbers in the House bill to ensure the best chance of success to the government programs, enable commercial cargo demonstrations, buy time for commercial crew to work out the inevitable requirements tailoring, and create a defendable and sustainable technology plan with a defined architecture.
Lastly, the Congress should seek to reduce the volatility in U.S. human space flight efforts. We do not revamp the Navy or our astrophysics program with every election, even as budgets and technologies, challenges and opportunities, change. I am encouraged that the Senate bill
included language calling for what might become a ―decadal survey‖ for human space
―In fiscal year 2012 the Administrator shall contract with the National Academies for a review of
the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight, using the goals set forth in the NASA Act of 1958, the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, and the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, the goals set forth in this Act, and goals set forth in any existing statement of space policy issued by the President.‖ This would require a ―review and prioritization of scientific,
engineering, economic, and social science questions to be addressed by human space exploration to improve the overall human condition; and findings and recommendations for fiscal years 2014 through 2023.‖
The crucial element that potentially makes this effort more than just another commission report is that it seeks to prioritize questions to be addressed over a specific time frame. We know from science decadal surveys that technical change, international conditions, and budget constraints can all affect what missions actually fly, but the steady focus on answering broad, important questions ensures a degree of persistence that the human space flight community can only envy. There is an abundance of opportunities for human space exploration, but to realize them we need to build on firm foundations, create a logical strategy going forward, and deal with the universe as it is, not as we might wish it to be. A decadal approach to human space exploration has the potential to reduce the volatility of human space exploration and put us on a more sustainable course that encompasses government, international, and commercial efforts.
As a first step, the Moon should be considered a Near Earth Object. You can see it from here.