Chair Force Engineer

Friday, December 07, 2007

Stay of Executrion for the Albatross

Rep. Dave Weldon is set to introduce legislation that will keep the Space Shuttle in service until 2015. Over the past week or so, I've been sensing that this option has been gathering political momentum. The rationale is Congress' justified concern that America will have to rely on Russia for space access for an entire five years.

We didn't have to get to this point. When President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, he wanted the vehicle now called Orion to fly sometime between 2011 and 2014. We're now talking about a 2015 operational capability at the earliest. The O'Keefe Administration at NASA spent the first nine months of the Vision paying its contractors to study different architectures for going to the moon. Then Sean O'Keefe quit, and Michael Griffin took over. Those initial architecture studies were discarded, and the 60-day ESAS study was commissioned. Hence, the first 18 months of the Vision were largely squandered. This represented 18 months that could have been used towards getting Orion ready by 2011.

Since then, the decisions made during ESAS have continued to incur schedule inflation. The development of the Ares I (including the five-segment SRB, J-2X engine, and all-new upper stage) has added to the cost, complexity and schedule for replicating the shuttle's ability to put humans in orbit.

Replacing the shuttle on NASA's limited budget has always been a tall order. The agency is expected to find the development dollars to fund Orion and Ares while still committing approximately $7 bil per year to the Shuttle and Space Station programs. Without a major funding wedge for Orion development, there will always be a lag in capability between the shuttle retirement and Orion debut. Unfortunately, this wedge will not open up until the shuttle's retirement.

Under the current plan, an extension of shuttle operations without a corresponding budget increase will only add to Orion's development time. Without the anticipated funding wedge that will open upon the shuttle's retirement, Orion development will stall.

There is one way to crash the schedule, but it involves dropping Ares I (at least until the shuttle is retired,) switching to Delta IV Heavy, and using the cost savings to accelerate the Orion program. Even still, it's unlikely that Orion will be ready before summer 2013. After all, it took roughly seven years for the Apollo CSM to progress from contract award to first manned mission. I would think that Orion development would take the same amount of time from its Summer 2006 contract award.

The Albatross that is the Space Shuttle continues to weigh down the necks of NASA budgeteers while serving as a mark of shame. Its continued operations represent a threat to the funding of a replacement vehicle. At the same time, that brilliant white bird will remain America's only means of reaching space for the foreseeable future.