Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, November 01, 2007

2009: A Space Oddity

In the course of every struggle, a turning point emerges. NASA is currently struggling to implement its Vision for Space Exploration, in the face of three major adversaries. The first is a Congress that is hostile towards anything that's associated with the current president. The second is a growing realization amongst the technical community of how flawed the Griffin-Horowitz approach really is. The third is a groundswell of space enthusiasts who oppose the Griffin-Horowitz plan based on its vulnerability to the first two challenges I mentioned.

The pivotal year for the Vision for Space Exploration will be 2009. This is because of two interrelated events: the inauguration of a new administration, and the first launch of Project Constellation.

Michael Griffin's strategy all along has been to use Ares I as a "stick in the doorway" to keep the door open on the rest of his lunar architecture. As long as Ares I is politically immune from cancellation by the time the new administration rolls into D.C., the rest of Constellation should be safe. I find that logic flawed, as Ares V and the Lunar Surface Access Module require significant development that will not occur until well into the next administration.

The problem with the "stick in the doorway" plan is that Ares I will not go operational until 2015, meaning that it will have to survive the entire first term of the first post-Bush president. So Mike Griffin needs a second "stick in the doorway." That's where Ares I-X comes in.

Ares I-X uses a stock SRB from the shuttle, plus a dummy fourth segment, a dummy upper stage, and a dummy spacecraft. The avionics are coming from the Atlas V. So it has to be asked: what relevance does Ares I-X have towards the real Ares I? The answer is both "nothing" and "everything."

From a technical standpoint, the Ares I-X test has little or no relevance towards the real Ares I. With that established, it should be noted that Congress and the Executive Branch probably won't be able to tell the difference. The relevance of testing makes no difference to the budgetmakers, the White House, or the Congress. As long as a test is bold and flashy and makes good headlines, the money will keep on flowing.

The 2009 date for Ares I-X is based on the availability of LC-39B and the inauguration of the next president. The test will be carried out before the new administration can decide on a new space policy. If the test succeeds, the money to continue Ares I will follow.

At the same time, Michael Griffin and his supporters have to ask what will happen if Ares I-X should fail for some reason. I refer to this as the "bloody glove" moment for NASA. It's much like the OJ Simpson trial, where the prosecution had little to gain if OJ fit into the bloody glove, and much to lose if he didn't. If Ares I-X fails, you can say goodbye to the moon. NASA will scramble to close the post-shuttle gap, and it will do so by clearing house of the Griffin people, then mating Orion to a Delta IV Heavy for ISS missions. The shuttle program may even be extended, because Delta IV will not meet Congress's goal of retaining the shuttle workforce.

At the current state of the program, NASA has gone fairly far down the path towards getting Ares I to a level of progress where Congress cannot cancel it. It will be farther down that path by 2009, owing to Michael Griffin's unwavering support for the Ares launchers. The only thing I can see forcing Griffin to change directions is a major technical roadblock on Ares I. I mean, NASA is already gutting the safety features on Orion just to make it light enough to fly on Ares I.

Griffin will have probably left office when Ares I-X flies, having previously indicated that he would leave along with the rest of the Bush Administration. The messy aftermath of a possible flight test failure will be left to his successor. Even if Ares I works, the aftermath will still be messy if the rest of the lunar program is cancelled by the Congress and President we elect in November 2008. Thus, 2009 will be the crucial year for the Constellation Program. I'd hate to be the man appointed to run NASA in the wake of Michael Griffin.