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Space Advocate Reviews The Vision For Space In 2006

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by John K. Strickland, Jr
director National Space Society
Washington DC (SPX) May 1, 2006
After President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2004, NASA went to work to develop plans for the long-overdue return to exploration.

Since then, a major gap has emerged between what NASA is actually doing to pursue the new goals, and the perception of what needs to be done by those space advocates who still believe that NASA can and should make critical contributions to the space enterprise.

This article will examine this serious communications gap and the poor NASA decisions that some advocates believe are sidetracking the program by accident.

Any civilian activities in space by humans can be grouped into what I call the 4 pillars of the space effort: Exploration, Science, Development and Settlement. It is reasonable to expect that they would also occur in somewhat the same order.

For the last decade and more, it has been "Correct" to base support for the program on Science only. Dr. John Marburger (the Presidents Science Advisor) underscored the current Administration's fundamental shift in space goals in his major speech of March 15, where he pointed out that "The ultimate goal is not to impress others, or merely to explore our planetary system, but to use accessible space for the benefit of mankind." He went on to support lunar mining, and production of liquid oxygen for use in re-fueling commercial spacecraft (Space News 4/3/06).

During late 2004, work began under the auspices of the VSE, to define what is primarily a lunar transportation system. This work, based on most reports, was very competently done, but was apparently limited in scope (excluding any new re-usability features in vehicles and also excluding fixed or static components (such as fuel depots and crew refuges) by the directives and assumptions of the NASA leadership prior to Dr. Griffin's arrival. Very little if any of the information generated by this study was released to the public prior to his arrival.

When Dr. Griffin took over in the spring of 2005, hopes for the program soared based on general knowledge of his wider outlook on the purposes and goals of the program, his specific prior support of exploration and private enterprise, and his willingness to use the "S-word" (settlement), which had been banished from official NASA discussions for a generation. Most believe that he really does understand the huge, long-term stakes involved in the success or failure of the VSE program. He quickly established a "60 day study", later termed the ESAS (Exploration Systems Architecture Study), to review and build on the results of the previous studies. Some sources fully expected that some re-usable vehicle trade-off options would be included in the new study. During the summer of 2005, the release of the ESAS results was repeatedly delayed. Finally a small amount of draft text and images was made public at the end of the summer.

First impressions showed several very favorable and some unfavorable features. Most importantly, it affirmed the necessity of having a true Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV or CaLV) to get large integral payloads, (items that are hard to sub-divide, such as ferry vehicles and habitat modules), delivered to LEO (Low Earth Orbit), even though that rationale was not stated explicitly. Sources have indicated that it would be very difficult for existing industry to build the new infrastructure needed to produce a true HLV themselves in the required time frame, without a massive cash infusion from the Government. This is what NASA is trying to avoid and gives some credence to their rationale for the shuttle-based HLV.

Another fundamentally critical and correct decision was to conclude the Shuttle program by 2010, to free up funds which will allow the development of safer, more reliable, and more cost-effective vehicles for the exploration program under a fixed budget ceiling. NASA also indicated (in its released documents) its willingness to have cargoes (and later crews) delivered by private launchers to the space station, and eventually to support the Lunar effort when the private technology has proven itself.

Unfortunately, it also affirmed the indefinite postponement of any efforts to reduce cost of access to LEO by NASA itself. NASA could redeem itself easily in this area by committing to an even greater reliance on launch services via the COTS program, eliminating the contentious issue of dependence on NASA to successfully develop its own boosters for launching crews and medium weight cargo and payloads. In this vein, NASA also insisted on using combinations and modifications of existing shuttle hardware (most quite reasonable in design) to maintain existing team skills and jobs and to reduce total development costs of new hardware. This insistence is based on the unfounded claim that only booster and spacecraft development directly controlled, funded and managed by NASA is likely to be completed by the date the vehicles are needed, while being safe and reliable enough to meet NASA's needs. Authors such as Rand Sindberg have pointed out additional reasons to criticize this position (National Review 4/12/06), which may or may not be valid or fair.

However, the largest problem here is not the quality of the study, but the more fundamental failure to include the re-usable vehicle and static element options in the "trade space" selected for the study. These options were badly needed to try to reduce annual operational costs and make the program more affordable. NASA's own Exploration web site touts its commitment to "affordability and sustainability", and NASA is even sponsoring contests to develop technology for activities such as production of Lunar Oxygen.

When the text of the revised ESAS report was finally released at the very end of 2005 and everyone could analyze it, it became more apparent that no consideration was being given to most of these issues in the design of the new Lunar transportation system. The report lists and acknowledges a series of reports, prior to 2004, that include strong attention to the issues of re-usability and sustainability. However, as the report continues, it becomes obvious that not a single trade-off study in the 800 pages that were released included new spacecraft re-usability options, static elements or near-term resource use in design alternatives to compare costs, risks, capacity and other factors. Neither, apparently, did any of the in-house NASA studies conducted after January 2004 and up to the start of ESAS work in spring, 2005. We should note here that (a) the Solid Rocket Booster segments are refurbishable, not re-usable, and the cost of refurbishment is comparable to the cost of new SRB segments, (b) that there is the possibility of re-using each Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) after re-entry, although none of the similar Apollo capsules were ever re-used for a manned flight, (nothing else would currently be recovered from a lunar flight), and (c) NASA timelines show operation of ISRU recovery units at a lunar base before 2020, but it is not clear either that the commitment and funding are in place to actually develop all of the required hardware by that time or that the hardware units would be large enough to actually supply significant amounts of oxygen.

Then, a series of confusing and contradictory events began. Shortly after the release of the ESAS report, a major change was announced, apparently signaling the abandonment of oxygen-methane engines for the Lunar Ascent stage and returning to the use of hypergolic (self-igniting), nitrogen-based propellants. This was in spite of the ESAS report which clearly showed that (in the context of extracting and using lunar oxygen) the methane-LOX system is better than the hypergolic one. The change indicated that the use of methane was not required, but was also not totally ruled out (NasaWatch - 2/15/06). In seeming contradiction, NASA then awarded 14 million dollars in contracts to continue work on methane engine technology.

The initial reactions to this, (such as by Dr. Zubrin (Space News 3/27/06), focused on the probable loss of development of the methane-oxygen based rocket engine which could effectively be used at Mars with in-situ propellants produced at Mars. Subsequent reports also indicated a switch from an expendable version of the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) to a cheaper-to-build but lower performance version of the J2 engine from Apollo for use on the CLV (Crew Launch Vehicle). Another unverified report (USSpaceNews.com 4/16/06) indicates that NASA has may have given up on the development of the 5-segment solid booster for the CLV due to soaring development costs. This reinforces an impression provided by other sources, and would also make that version unavailable for use on the Cargo Launch Vehicle (CaLV). Rumors have indicated that they might use three, 4 segment SRB motors instead of two.

About two weeks later, leaks of internal NASA documents, (such as covered by NasaSpaceFlight.com- 4/10/06) seemed to show that the decision to use hypergolics, and changes to the design of the new NASA CLV and CaLV had created major show-stoppers. Lower performance by the hypergolic lunar ascent module engines and the J2 engines for the boosters made all of the existing CEV and lunar vehicle designs too heavy. In addition, the proposed changes would force additional development costs, potentially tripling them for some systems such as the substantially new 5-segment solid boosters. If these changes were actually implemented when metal bending eventually starts, it would call into question the cost-based decisions to use these components in the first place.

Then, a week after the leaked reports surfaced, the posted material was withdrawn by NasaSpaceFlight.com (4/17/06), with the explanation that the numbers accompanying the material had been altered by the person who leaked it. Of the several issues covered in that material, two: the lunar lander de-scoped to barely better than the Apollo version, and the concept to land astronauts directly in the lander before the CEV had attained a stable location near the moon, were described as extreme concepts to define engineering limits. This is a normal and reasonable method, except that the concepts are also far outside of what would seem a reasonable limit of functionality and safety. In addition, there was no indication in the retraction that the posted graphs showing the overweight condition of the CEV and LSAM were invalid. At the same time, a successful test in development of the methane engine was touted by Marshall SFC press release. It is clear from the ESAS report that the methane-LOX system is better than the hypergolic one. What the leaked material does indicate is that the NASA engineers are apparently having to struggle with a series of intractable problems.

More fundamentally, this whole fiasco indicates a massive and unnecessary communications gap between NASA, its natural supporters (the advocate community) and the public. Many in the space community, who would be utterly fascinated if they could follow developments, have been very disappointed that all of these engineering and trade-off studies are being conducted as if on a "closed set" by a paranoid Hollywood producer, fearful that someone might steal his idea and beat him to the punch with a rip-off production. Since there is little rationale for anyone to steal general mission concepts from NASA, it is then reasonable to wonder WHY the secrecy. NASA is contributing to this confusion by its own misguided policy.

It is unlikely that protection of any of the proprietary technology is involved, but if it is, then the NASA flight concepts are too closely tied to either one or another company's designs. Therefore, I hereby call for some glasnost in NASA. (For those of you 30 or younger, glasnost was the Russian term, meaning "clarity or openness", that became popular during the Gorbachev years immediately prior to the collapse of the Soviet Empire). NASA should change its policy of conducting its studies for future programs in secret, or tell us specifically why they are done that way. In addition, the VSE program was initially declared by the president to be free of deadlines. If it takes an extra year to get something done right, take the year and forget the deadline, presumed Chinese competition or not.

Jeff Bell in his SpaceDaily article (4/12/06) has correctly listed a number of the issues covered above. Jeff's tone of cynicism (which in some cases has detracted from his often very valuable analysis) is in this case is quite justified. Any knee-jerk support for general increased NASA funding that is justified by calculated creation of fears of or promotion of a new space race with China, is more than adequate grounds for such cynicism. This is true even if real politics usually must depend on the use of such political "fear clubs" to force people to line up their support. If we are forced to depend on such tactics, the long-term goals of the program will probably be the loser to such a devil's bargain. Quality of spending is much more important than quantity of spending.

However, none of these sources noticed what I consider the most important, literally goal-stopping issue presented by the mere possibility of abandoning the methane-LOX engine. This would be the abandonment of any spacecraft which can practically use the lunar oxygen which would be generated at a lunar base site. (Understandably, early missions to Lunar exploration sites (sortie missions) have no need to be designed to immediately support such fuel generation or use.) The most practical point for such use of oxygen is at departure from the lunar surface. The next most practical point is departure from lunar orbit to the Earth. If the lunar ascent stage does not use oxygen, and there is no provision for moving extra generated oxygen to lunar orbit, the entire logic of using the moon as a near-term propellant source (once base operation begins) collapses. Further, reducing the footprint of the lunar ferry (LSAM) to only accessing sites along the lunar equator (as shown in the retracted material) invalidates a current urgent mission objective of the Lunar Recon Orbiter to establish that sources of hydrogen and/or water ice with oxygen for near-term use actually exist at the lunar poles.

In addition, the refusal to include the static elements, such as fuel depots, fuel re-liquefiers and refuges, into the transportation architecture has forced many of these probably bad decisions (and their subsequent domino effects), permanent or not, on the NASA planners. (1) The lack of an Earth orbit fuel depot has forced planners to allow for up to a 95 day "loiter time" in Earth orbit for one element of the lunar stack. This would force the dumping of fuel already carried into orbit by the cargo vehicle if the other launches occurred on time, and the requirement for the extra sacrificial boil-off fuel also critically restricts the weight allowances for the rest of the stack elements. (2) The lack of a similar depot and crew refuge in lunar orbit or at an L2 rendezvous point would endanger the crew on some proposed lunar mission plans, severely restricts the time a mission can remain in lunar orbit, and prevents accumulation of fuel for lunar operations from either terrestrial or lunar sources. (3) The lack of fuel storage and re-liquefication equipment on the lunar surface has forced the current shift away from the previous focus on methane fuel and thus also away from the use of oxygen as the oxidizer. Any site which assumes a 6 month stay time is by definition more of a base site than a sortie site, and should come equipped with such critical infrastructure before the crew arrives. (4) The lack of a re-usable lunar ferry in either version of the architecture endangers the crew on liftoff, since if the ascent stage has a failure, there is no backup escape method to save the crew. Parachutes do not work on (or above) the moon. (5) If the ascent stage should fail before liftoff, the lack of even a minimal crew refuge placed at sortie sites before the crews arrival means there is no way for a crew to survive until rescue.

Fears that administration or congressional officials might believe that including static elements like fuel depots are a "leader" for a second, wasteful, space station-like program, (like the useless "outposts" at the Earth-Sun L1 point that were touted a few years ago), can be easily allayed. A fuel depot and a refuge attached to it are not manned; they are intended to be used only when a crew is visiting the depot or during a flight emergency. The function of a depot or refuge is also clearly defined in advance of construction, (unlike the Station), and each one would take only one launch on an HLV booster for placement, not a fiasco extending over 3 decades of construction. Also, a single design would work for most uses and locations of both depots and crew refuges. A refuge would basically be similar to a minimal version of a crew habitat module for use on the lunar surface at a base, and if you do not design and build one of those, you simply will not have a lunar base - ever.

Because of the secrecy, bad decisions and the currently shifting information sands, a series of unfavorable architectural elements has now accumulated, at least in the perception of a major segment of the space advocacy community, if not in reality:

  1. no re-usable spacecraft, except for (theoretically) the CEV capsule, or truly re-usable boosters, so that all flights are made on non-flight-tested components.
  2. no plans to definitely use lunar oxygen for spacecraft in the near-term for support of base operations.
  3. no significant NASA development of supporting booster technology to help reduce future launch costs.
  4. near-term abandonment of Mars-related technology and pushing of human Mars exploration plans into the far or indefinite future, de-coupling them from the Lunar exploration plan.
  5. lack of an fully integrated Lunar transportation plan which includes static elements (depots & refuges).
  6. consequent possible forced de-scoping of lunar exploration to fit reduction in booster and spacecraft capacity to de-facto duplicates of Apollo missions (as noted by Bergin and Handlin on the retracted material formerly posted on NasaSpaceFlight.com: 4/10/06).
  7. - no public commitment to development of in-situ resource extraction hardware in parallel with that of booster and spacecraft, so that this also seems to be pushed off into the far or indefinite future.
  8. no provision for crew refuges placed in advance at lunar sortie mission sites, so that if ascent is impossible, later rescue is possible.
  9. no redundancy or self-rescue for crew after departure of crew from lunar surface in lunar ascent module.

In response to these criticisms, various sources have issued reassuring comments, indicating that all of the desired improvements will eventually come in time. We are told that all of what has been put forward in definition of the lunar program is merely provisional and subject to improvement. For some of us who have watched events towards every new program progress, stall, and implode over the last several decades, we now find it very hard to accept the perpetual cry of "trust me" from NASA, even with the very respected Dr. Griffin at the helm.

For a lunar effort to be successful, productive and sustainable, and to maintain political support from the government and most sectors of the space community, several elements are mandatory.

  • Annual operating costs can not be so high as to risk program abandonment by the whim of Congress. The large-scale use of numbers of giant expendable Lunar Modules would virtually assure that the resulting high annual costs would quickly attract undesirable congressional attention, as they once did to Apollo.
  • The program (once physically underway) must not be planned nor perceived as a repeat of Apollo.
  • The program should include entrepreneurial solutions to many of the transportation and other capabilities needed to support the lunar program, especially where the time frame is not critical.
  • The program must be dynamic and must progress: it must create the impression that in the near term it is helping to start reducing transportation and operational costs, both in ground launch operations and in Cis-lunar Space. This can be accomplished by providing actual near-term products in quantities sufficient to support flights, such as a source of inexpensive Lunar oxygen for use by spacecraft departing the moon from established bases and also for use by other spacecraft where economical. (Cis-lunar space includes the Moon and everything out to and including the region of the Moon's orbit, such as Geosynchronous Orbit and the 5 Earth-Moon Lagrangian Points.)
  • To demonstrate this commitment, it must show how it will develop materials utilization equipment in parallel with (at the same time as) booster and spacecraft development.
  • A complete, integrated and semi-permanent Cis-lunar transport system must be the clear near-term goal to support Lunar base activity. This system should consist of both active and re-usable elements (boosters and vehicles) and passive or static (fuel depots, habitats and refuges) elements.
  • To make the transport system effective, aims and goals need to be established for lunar bases, and the minimum size and mass of critical integral payloads (such as habitats) that will need to be delivered to the base site need to be established before the final design of the transport boosters and vehicles.
  • The beginning of the human Mars exploration flight program must not be delayed more than a decade beyond the initiation of the human Lunar flight program. If this delay is accepted, the support of planetary exploration groups for the VSE could be lost. A decade is a quite reasonable delay factor, which would put a Mars landing in about the time frame that has been previously mentioned by the White House: the early 2030's.
  • There must not be a perception that failure to approve reasonable costs has prevented development and use of designs allowing for mechanical and system redundancy and mission profiles supporting greater crew safety.
  • All reasonable and cost-effective efforts must be made to include inexpensive pathways and design features (so-called hooks and scars in "softspeak"), for those vehicles which are not initially re-usable. This would ease the steps toward re-usability, so that when funding for conversion to re-usability becomes available, the conversions are actually and politically affordable.

    Currently, a partly-justified chorus of complaints from the science community on diversion of some science funding into exploration (due to the current extreme budget pressures) has prompted responses by Dr. Griffin. There is no such chorus from any group concerning the exclusion of re-usability, an incomplete transportation system, an incompatible propellant system and elimination of long-range Mars planning, possibly because there is no specific jobs constituency for these provisions. Probably since there is no "squeaking wheel" here, there has also been no re-assurance from Dr. Griffin or anyone else at NASA that the problems will be resolved.

    Some are now concerned that if the lunar program does not jell soon, it will collapse as soon as the Bush Administration leaves office, leaving us with no human space program at all. We appeal to Dr. Griffin to clear up these concerns and show us that a complete and integrated lunar architecture will be created, openly and in the full view of the space community, one that will carry us toward a new century of real space exploration, real science, real space development and eventually real space (or planetary) settlement.

    John K. Strickland is a director of the National Space Society, but his ideas and positions are his own. He is not speaking for the NSS.

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