Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, January 03, 2008

I'm the Man Without a Plan

I am a frequent reader of Mark Whittington's Curmudgeons Corner. There's plenty of things I agree with in his monologues. There's also some things I disagree with. Overall, it's a quality blogging experience. Still, I had to take exception to his characterization of my previous column on what my resolutions for 2008 would be, if I were running the show at NASA.

There is nothing quite so off putting than someone claiming that "Unless you choose my plan, than doom and destruction will ensue." Unless, of course, one can prove it. But, of course, it is not proved. So the above is wasted bandwidth.

I don't think my rhetoric is "hyper heated." I'm asking where we went wrong between President Bush's goal of replacing the shuttle by "no sooner than 2011, and no later than 2014" and the NASA prediction (with 65% confidence) that Orion and Ares won't be operational until 2015. I would like to see NASA get back to the mission it was charged with. Maybe this is an article of faith on my part, but I don't believe that any kind of budget increase is necessary to return to the original goal of 2014 or sooner. I believe that minimizing near-term development to fit within the existing NASA budget (at least until the shuttle retirement) is the way to get it done.

I also will admit that I have no preferred architecture for returning to the moon. There are things I like about EELV's, things I like about evolved EELV's, things I like about DIRECT, and even things I like about ESAS (much to the surprise of my readership.) No architecture will be perfect. What I care most about is delivering a lunar architecture to the American taxpayers which can be sustained within NASA's existing budget, and delivers the best value (most crew-days on the moon) for the money.

I can't "prove" that one architecture is better than the other, or more cost-effective. But I've seen enough of the space business to know that there's much uncertainty that goes into the cost-estimating process and risk analysis process (especially when all-new hardware is being developed.)

What I do know is what the "sand chart" for the NASA budget looks like over the course of Project Constellation. When it was unveiled in early 2004, the "sand chart" showed modest increases in NASA funding for the first five years of the program, followed by only inflationary increases after that. The plan was shot in the foot when NASA's FY07 budget didn't receive the expected increase. This represents a decline in the buying power of the NASA budget as the US dollar loses value. Because the original VSE budget called for funding Project Constellation using money from the retirement of Shuttle and ISS, it means that Constellation will have its growth stunted until two critical events occur: retirement of the shuttle at the end of FY10, and American withdrawal from ISS after FY17. This is a dramatic departure from the days of Apollo, when the development budget was front-loaded to assure sufficient funds early in the program.

In such an environment, it's unlikely that ANY architecture can meet the president's schedule for returning to the moon. That's why I prefer to reuse systems that have already been developed, such as the Delta IV Heavy. DIRECT would seem, on the surface, to minimize development costs. But it's also true that adapting existing systems for new purposes often creates unforeseen challenges.

Admittedly, NASA is being asked to do a lot with a very small amount of money (by US Government standards.) We should keep in mind that there was a six-year gap between Apollo and Shuttle. As long as nearly half the current NASA budget is going to support Shuttle and ISS operations, the development of any new vehicle will be kept on the back burner.

So what is my "plan" to cope with this sobering budget reality?
1) We can either tolerate a gap of five years or more, or we can choose to accelerate the development of the spacecraft at the expense of the launch vehicle. Because we already have an acceptable alternative launcher (Delta IV Heavy,) I do not view this as a big loss.
2) Development of lunar-specific hardware will have to wait until later, when the Shuttle & ISS funding wedges open up. If Ares I development is dropped, the development of a lander or heavy-lift rocket (whether it be Evolved Atlas, Ares V, or DIRECT) can ramp up in FY11. Otherwise, Ares I will ramp up in FY11 at the expense of lunar-specific hardware.

Again, there's nothing technically unworkable about ESAS. But in the face of an unforgiving budget, the initial schedule promises from Summer 2005 are falling apart. The biggest question is whether America is willing to tolerate a gap of five years or more. I, for one, am not.

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