Letter: Setting the Record Straight

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  Space News Business

Letter: Setting the Record Straight

By ROBERT DICKMAN

posted: 09 June 2008
01:27 pm ET





Thank you for your excellent reporting on the May 7 Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee
hearing
, and on our industry in general.

 

I would like to correct an error I made during my comments, and put in context the answer I gave that resulted in your item:
�”Congress Hears Launcher Alternative” [May 12, page 4].

 

During my oral testimony I stated that Exploration and Human Spaceflight took 93 percent
�of the NASA budget. That is incorrect – Exploration and Space Operations take approximately 62 percent
�of the budget. These two
�plus Robotic Missions take 93 percent
�of the budget.
�I regret my error.

 

During the
hearing the subcommittee chairman, Sen.
�Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), expressed his concern that the United States had invested
more than $100 billion in the international space station (ISS) and yet would make insufficient use of this national laboratory. He asked if I had any suggestions on how we might improve the utility of ISS. My answer was that the best way to improve the United States’ use of ISS over the near and long term would be to field a transportation system that was optimized for taking crews to and from the ISS. For reasons that I explained at the hearing, I suggested that an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) and a capsule designed for low Earth orbit
�crew transport should be used for this mission.

 

The principal
clarification
�that is necessary is that I was not offering a “Launcher Alternative” for the Exploration Program, as some may have inferred from the Space News article. I was not involved in the Constellation architecture development, but people with far more experience and access to much better data were. I accept the conclusions they reached.

 

We are now several years into the development of the launchers, capsule and related systems needed to return to the
Moon and live there. Changing
�or even revisiting the decision on the architecture at this point would certainly result in program delays, increased costs and possibly put the program at risk. I know of no alternatives today that would accomplish the exploration mission for lower cost and lower risk. As I stated at the hearing, I believe exploration is a human imperative, and I strongly support both the decision to make exploration a national priority and the architecture NASA has put in place to achieve the goal of returning to the
Moon, and going beyond.

 

Although a launch capability optimized for support of human space activity at low Earth orbit – primarily the international space station – is unlikely to happen within the current budget and priorities, there are several options to achieve it if it ever became a priority. Until a cost-effective, operational, reusable system is available, expendable and partially reusable launch vehicles can and should provide cargo transport. Many systems are available to do that: Soyuz, Ariane 5, the systems under development for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the EELVs and perhaps others. I believe that the cargo transport function should become essentially a commercial launch service, and that all providers should be evaluated on a level playing field.

 

Crew transport is a different story. There are valid reasons why the United States should be able to provide our own access to space for our astronauts, and for private citizens, for that matter. Until human transportation to low Earth orbit is available as a routine commercial service, NASA should have total responsibility and authority over government crew transportation to and from the ISS.

 

There are several options to achieve this capability. In an environment where we can afford only one system to carry NASA crews to space, the logical approach – and the one chosen by NASA – is to field a transportation system that meets the most demanding human spaceflight requirements, and use it for the lesser low Earth orbit
�missions as well. Hence, while the
Ares-Orion system is being designed for lunar missions, it can be used for crew transport to and from ISS when it is available. As many have noted, the schedule to do that is budget-driven, and can be accelerated.

 

COTS Capability D is another option. NASA would like an alternative to Ares-Orion to low Earth orbit
, presumably in both the near and far term. Capability D exists within the COTS program because they recognize that crewed missions to ISS are an inefficient and expensive use of exploration resources. While I believe both COTS participants will be successful in fielding good cargo delivery systems, I am less confident that crew transport will be available on anything like the suggested schedule.

 

EELVs are a third option – the one I addressed in my response at the subcommittee hearing. They are proven vehicles and could be matched with what Gene Kranz, a former NASA flight director, described as “a Mercury Capsule on steroids” to provide safe, reliable cost-effective transportation. The capsule could be one developed under COTS (such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon) or based on some other design. While I do not minimize the challenge of human-rating a vehicle, I find it very unlikely that it would cost nearly half the development cost of an EELV to human-rate a rocket that has been designed to be the most reliable we have ever fielded, as some have suggested.

In the best of all worlds we would have the resources to do all the things that I stated are important for NASA and the nation to meet our national goals for aeronautics, astronautics and related sciences. Contention for budget – NASA’s as a share of the federal budget, and specific areas within NASA as a share of the agency’s budget – is a fact of life. There is little prospect that NASA will be funded to the level that would meet the goals of the experts across the many important areas. Even so, I will continue to advocate that the overall NASA budget should increase significantly.

 

Returning to the point of this letter, Sen.
�Nelson correctly observed that the United States plans to make far less use of the international space station than
�might be expected from our $100 billion investments. If we want to do otherwise, if we want to have a transportation system that allows early and extended use of ISS without impacting the exploration program, and if there were funds available to do so without adversely impacting or placing at risk Exploration or any of the other NASA programs, we as a nation have the capability to do so. Although it is impossible to totally separate the issues of ISS support and the
gap
�between the
shuttle’s retirement and availability of alternate transportation to low Earth orbit
, Sen.
�Nelson’s question about increased ISS use was the only context in which I discussed an alternative launcher.

Robert Dickman

Executive Director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics