A New Years' Resolution for NASA
Within the halls of Congress, the debate has focused not on the moon and beyond, but on the infamous gap between the end of Space Shuttle operations in 2010 and the beginning of Orion operations in 2015. Congress is justifiably angry that American spaceflight will be held hostage by Vladimir "Person of the Year" Putin during that period of time. If NASA wants to see funding for moon missions, it will first have to please Congress by demonstrating that the gap can be successfully shrunk.
If I were Michael Griffin, my resolution for 2008 would be to reduce the gap at all costs, except for crew safety. NASA needs a full-throttle surge to make up for the time that has been lost since January 2004 in fielding the shuttle's replacement.
The fast-track to a shuttle replacement isn't hard to figure out. Orion is too heavy, Orion is too fault-intolerant, and Ares I is the pacing item. The solution is to delay Ares I indefinitely and mate Orion to the existing Delta IV Heavy. Orion can scale down to 4.5 meters in diameter, and the associated mass savings can be used to restore the fault-tolerance that has been taken out of the spacecraft. Perhaps the landing bags can even come back. The Ares I budget can be spent on modest enhancements to Delta IV Heavy that will trigger the Orion abort tower if the booster should fail.
At this point, if NASA switches to Delta IV, the gap could conceivably shrink by 1-3 years. I'm hardly an expert in this field, and my assumption is that Orion will not be ready until 2013 unless the schedule is crashed with a major infusion of cash and personnel. My guess on Orion's schedule is based on the nearly seven years that elapsed between Apollo contract award and the first manned flight on Apollo 7.
Concurrently with NASA's resolution to make a shrunken gap its top priority, I would like to see NASA re-examine some of the assumptions that were made during ESAS. The most blatant of these trades include:
--Is lunar-orbit rendezvous the best method for supporting a permanent base at the lunar south pole? What are the advantages to L1 or L2 rendezvous?
--What is the baseline design for the Altair lander? Should Altair's functions be split between a habitat lander and a crew lander?
--From a science-return standpoint, what is the optimum number of man-days for a lunar mission? How do we balance the science return of that mission with the engineering challenges of supporting an exorbitant number of man-days?
--What is the lowest-lifecycle approach to launching the elements of the lunar transportation system? Standard EELV's? Evolved Atlas V? DIRECT? Ares V? Some combination of all aforementioned launchers?
It is worth noting that ESAS was a 60-day study that glossed over many of the debates that took up to two years to settle during Project Apollo. Is it too much to ask that NASA take an entire year to re-visit the ESAS assumptions, while the agency's development budget is being used to accelerate Orion and mate it to the Delta IV?
It's worth noting that in the space business, we rarely get more than one shot to get things right. I remember reading about the Space Exploration Initiative in my Weekly Reader back when I was starting grammar school. At the time, I had to scratch my head and ask what was happening when they stopped talking about humans on Mars. As an adult, I was initially excited that we would get another chance with the Vision. But now my tune is starting to resemble "It's All Been Done" by Barenaked Ladies.
The year 2008 represents NASA's last shot at getting the Vision right. Drastic changes need to be adopted in order to ease Congress's justified frustration in the short term. Even more deviations from ESAS will likely be required to make the moon and Mars affordable over the long term. I do not wish ill upon Mike Griffin, Doc Horowitz, Doug Stanley, or anybody else associated with ESAS. I want them to succeed, as much as they want to succeed. I merely ask of them to fix the Vision, and make sure it isn't discarded along with the Weekly Readers and the dreams of American schoolchildren.