Commentary | NASA’s Vision and Upcoming Budget Decisions

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The problem staring us in the face is the NASA budget, which is likely to be soon reduced overall by 8 to 10 percent, or up to $1.8 billion. This poses a real dilemma for NASA’s future. We might see three major options:

  • Cut every line item 8 to 10 percent. This likely would be catastrophic to science/robotic exploration, aeronautics, the international space station and human space exploration, nearly all spent on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule. This looks to be a very bad option, but some in Washington could find it an easy way out.

     

  • Defer all human space exploration indefinitely, and restrict NASA efforts in this area to nebulous and wasteful “technology development.” This is essentially what the White House first proposed in 2010, and then backed off amid severe criticism and agreed with the Senate to add SLS/Orion. This option would mean the downfall of U.S. world leadership in space.
 
  • Cancel the single most expensive program — the unaffordable and unneeded SLS/Orion, which would cost nearly $4 billion per year for the next 20 to 30 years and, not being cost-effective and having no real mission, would probably need to be canceled anyway, sometime in the next two to four years. Funds freed would be used in developing a gateway base for human space exploration at the Lagrange point L2 in orbit around the Moon, and in preparing an alternate heavy-lift vehicle (Falcon 9 Heavy or Delta 4 Heavy). No reductions would be necessary in science and robotic exploration or in other important NASA programs.

There are many well-known and valid reasons that the SLS/Orion program is considered unaffordable. Independent cost assessments have affirmed that the program is significantly underfunded, especially in the years beyond 2016. SLS/Orion is quite similar to a major part of the canceled Constellation program that the 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, estimated would need an additional $3 billion per year for many years. Washington should listen to the Augustine committee about the critical requirement to match programs with available funds.

The giant SLS has no mission today and would not be needed for some 30 years, and perhaps not even then. A gateway base at L2 could be supported with launchers we now have or will probably have soon at relatively low cost. Falcon 9 Heavy and/or Delta 4 Heavy have been analyzed in the past by NASA technical experts and look practical, even without depending on a fuel depot. A gateway base at L2 is compatible with a long-range plan for human space exploration development (incremental, cumulative, developing synergism between robotic and human projects, and adjusting schedule to match available funds).

Orion was designed to be part of Constellation (“Apollo on steroids”). It is too big, heavy and expensive for the function envisioned as part of an L2 gateway base, or any other monthslong mission beyond L2. Its real function in a human space exploration program is to carry the crew to and from low Earth orbit, and to/from a habitat beyond low Earth orbit. At other times, the spacecraft can be docked to the habitat and be dormant, much like the current Soyuz at the international space station. A total systems engineering study is needed to compare a slimmed-down Orion with an enhanced commercial crew spacecraft.

The planned Orion one-shot test mission scheduled for 2014 would be a way to essentially waste more than half a billion dollars, returning very little value. This version of Orion would not contain most critical crew support provisions. It would return from beyond low Earth orbit at a velocity well short of entry velocity from lunar orbit, and thus be an incomplete test of the heat shield. In addition to the cost of a Delta 4 Heavy launcher, a goodly amount of one-time integration effort would be necessary. This appears to be an expensive stunt to falsely indicate real progress.

A large technology development program would have significant problems. After several years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent developing and flying a demonstration, even if successful, an additional long development cycle would be necessary to design and develop the real thing to use in a real mission. Supposedly, technology development efforts would be managed by technology specialists — whose unspoken real objective would be to uncover and promote additional technology development projects and demonstrations. If we must do technology development for its own sake, projects must be small and “proof of concept” only. Larger technology projects should be managed by a program manager with a real mission to accomplish, and designed to be a directly useful element in a real mission.

One overhanging long-range issue is the future of the international space station. Should the United States continue to support it to the tune of about $3 billion a year indefinitely? If not, NASA should consider transitioning the space station’s function, or actual parts of it, to the L2 gateway base. International partners might like this if they can be a part of the gateway base. NASA could transition low Earth orbit operations and costs to commercial interests.

Fast-forward about four years. The SLS/Orion projects will have been canceled after falling behind schedule and facing ballooning costs, suffering the same fate as the Constellation program. The United States will have spent tens of billions of dollars on Ares/SLS/Orion with no progress in human space exploration, and may have lost space leadership to China or other nations.

Imagine instead if part of planned funding for SLS/Orion were used to prepare to move the international space station to an L1 or L2 orbit around the Moon. We could have the ISS Moonship Enterprise soon on its way to a stable lunar orbit. The trip may take several years via proven ion propulsion. On the way, periodic visits by crews would keep the spacecraft supplied and in working order, much like the space station is maintained today.

When it gets there, it would become the ISS Exploration Gateway Base, where in time assembly of exploration missions to the lunar surface and outward could be conducted within practical U.S. and international partners’ future budgets and development schedules. No technological breakthroughs or new launcher developments would be necessary.

Most importantly, NASA technical expertise must be brought into policy decisions. NASA was consulted only briefly, and without field centers’ technical expertise, in the fiscal 2010 abrupt policy change. The agency was also not consulted in a meaningful way when the law was passed adding SLS/Orion without the budget to pay for it. Even today, it is very unfortunate that NASA technical experts are not permitted to study alternatives to SLS/Orion. We must turn NASA experts loose to help solve these overriding issues and permit the agency to establish a vision, accomplish as much as possible in the upcoming years, and do it within a necessarily restricted budget.

 

O. Glenn Smith is a former manager of shuttle systems |engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.