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A Translation Guide to the Obama Space Program

I find much of the current debate on the new policy direction quite infuriating, not least because many of the debaters don’t even understand it, nor does the media who report it. Here’s a recent bipartisan example, in an editorial by Congressmen Pete Olsen (R-TX) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), in which they equate NASA’s Constellation program with human spaceflight:

The administration’s decision to kill NASA’s Constellation program isn’t just the death knell for U.S. human space exploration, it is a decision to place America’s space program in the category of second, or even third, in the world.

But it isn’t the “death knell for U.S. human space exploration.” It’s simply the death knell for an egregiously unaffordable NASA program.

The upper house has been engaging in similar bipartisan foolishness. From Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Richard Shelby (R-AL):

President Obama’s proposed $3.8 trillion federal budget request strips funding for a return to the moon. It also would effectively outsource the transportation of astronauts to and from the International Space Station to private contractors.

Shelby characterized such contractors as “hobbyists” that lack a track record when it comes to successfully and safely launching space vehicles carrying humans. ...

"Based on initial reports about the administration’s plan for NASA, they are replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla).

But the most likely near-term commercial providers are either United Launch Alliance, which builds and operates the Atlas and Delta launch systems, both of which have a very solid track record in delivering satellites worth hundreds of billions of dollars (Atlas has a unbroken string of many dozens of successful flights), or Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new rocket and cargo/crew capsule sitting on the pad in Florida right now awaiting its first launch in the next few weeks. Some “unproven.” Some “hobby.”

The media is worse. One excellent example I roundly filleted at my blog. The reporter cheerfully interchanges the phrases “Constellation,” “space shuttle,” the “Vision for Space Exploration,” generic plans to return to the moon, space station resupply, etc. And even veteran space reporters, such as the Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor, get it wrong and confused:

A National Aeronautics and Space Administration study warns that budget and technical hurdles will likely delay development of the replacement program for the space shuttle fleet beyond the agency’s internal 2014 timetable.

The report is the agency’s most pessimistic public assessment yet of its ability to meet its own deadline for delivering the new system of rockets and exploration vehicles, called Constellation. ...

NASA officials project the total cost for Constellation at around $30 billion.

First of all, Constellation is not a replacement for the shuttle. It is both more and less than that. It replaces only the shuttle’s capability to get crew to and from orbit, and the lofting of large payloads, not its other features, such as payload return and orbital research and operations. And it is an entire architecture to get humans all the way to the lunar surface and back, something that the shuttle has never been able to do. And the total cost for Constellation is projected to be much greater than thirty billion. That price tag is for the Ares I rocket alone.

All of this mischaracterization and flawed reporting fuels hysterical and nonsensical cries of “the end of the U.S. human spaceflight program.”

To try to remedy it, I decided that it would be useful to put together a little glossary, so that people could understand what the old plan was, versus the new one, and have a better basis for deciding whether or not it is an improvement. Unfortunately, I’m sure those who take it to heart will continue to find themselves confused by the awful reporting and pontificating, or (as I am) frustrated.

Here it is:

Space Shuttle (also known as the “National Space Transportation System” NSTS)

What it is: It is the means by which NASA has been getting its astronauts and cargo to and from (though many cargoes stayed) low earth orbit for the past three decades or so. It is a specific vehicle design with a payload bay that can carry tens of tons to space (and somewhat less back) and up to seven astronauts, with the ability to stay in orbit for up to two weeks and even act as a short-term space station, with an arm to deploy and retrieve payloads as necessary and an airlock to allow astronauts to perform spacewalks for satellite repairs and other operations. The orbiter part is reusable, the first-stage solid-rocket motors are retrieved and rebuilt, and the large fuel tank is expended on each flight. Originally designed to perform all space transportation services for the nation, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, it was recognized that this was an unrealistic and dangerous goal.

What it is not: It is not a generic term, like “kleenex, or xerox, or google,” to describe any vehicle that takes NASA astronauts to space and back. There will never be a “replacement space shuttle,” because NASA will never again build a single vehicle with these kinds of capabilities. Numerous vehicles and orbital facilities will replace all of its functions, redundantly, in the future.

Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)

What it is: This is the new policy that was declared by President George W. Bush on January 14th, 2004, not quite a year after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, and it was a consequence of that disaster. Prior to that date, the official policy of the NASA human spaceflight program was to complete the International Space Station, and then to utilize it until a decision was made to change that policy. There were no plans to send humans beyond low earth orbit, and in fact, through much of the 1990s, NASA had been expressly forbidden by Congress to even contemplate such things, because Congress didn’t want to be committed to such an expensive project.

With the announcement of the VSE, that changed dramatically. NASA was authorized to go beyond LEO, first to the moon, where they would learn how to live on another world and utilize its resources, and then on to places beyond the earth-moon system, including Mars and other places. The space shuttle would be retired in 2010 (i.e., this year) and NASA would use the funds thus freed up (as well as the launch pads) to develop a new system, called the “Crew Exploration Vehicle,” to get its astronauts into orbit and on to the moon and other places. It was to be operational in 2014, implying that there would be a “gap” of three years during which we would rely on the Russians for access to the International Space Station (as we did from 2003-2005, during the stand down of the shuttle fleet caused by the Columbia disaster). By 2020, we would once again have NASA astronauts on the moon, this time to stay.

What it is not: It is not Constellation (see below). It is not any particular implementation of the goals expressed — the CEV operational date of 2014 and return to the moon by 2020.


What it is: This is the transportation architecture chosen by NASA administrator Michael Griffin in late 2005 to implement the goals of the VSE. It consists (or consisted) of the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV), based on a shuttle solid first stage and a liquid upper stage; the Orion spacecraft (the new name for the CEV proposed from the VSE) that would go on top of it, and then on to the moon; the heavy-lift Ares V (also known as the Cargo Launch Vehicle or CaLV), which was based on elements of the Ares I; an Earth Departure Stage (EDS) necessary to get the Orion from LEO to the moon; and a lander named Altair to get to and from the lunar surface. As of this year, only the Ares I and Orion were under active development, because funds wouldn’t be available for the other elements until the shuttle retirement. Orion was furthest along in development, but Ares was having schedule and technical issues, and it wasn’t expected realistically to be ready prior to 2017, which added at least three years to “the gap.”

What it is not: Many associate and even equate Constellation with the VSE, and even human spaceflight itself, but it is simply a particular and hyperexpensive means of implementing it. Others could have (and I think should have) done as well or better, including the new approach proposed in the Obama budget. It is also not a “space shuttle replacement.” It is also not just the Ares launch system and Orion spacecraft, but those are what people are fighting to preserve, because there are many jobs at stake in several states. It is what it is, and the Obama administration is canceling all of it, but the only practical effect is to cancel Ares I/Orion, because everything else is fairy dust right now. Other more cost-effective means of getting beyond earth orbit are planned in the new budget. Once they are developed, it will make sense to further define the architectural elements beyond LEO.

Commercial Space

What it is: It is orbital launch providers who offer vehicles that weren’t developed and aren’t operated by NASA, and can offer their services to other customers. Examples are United Launch Alliance (which offer the Atlas V family, developed by Lockheed Martin, and the Delta IV family, developed by Boeing) and Space Exploration Technologies. As already noted, ULA has many successful launches of multi-hundred-million satellites under its belt, and Boeing (which has a heritage of manned systems going back to Apollo) is reportedly developing an “Orion-lite” capsule with private space facility developer Bigelow Aerospace. SpaceX has completed its development and test program of Falcon 1 with the last two launches completely successful. It had a successful static-firing of its crew/cargo vehicle Falcon 9 on the launch pad in Florida this past weekend and its maiden flight will occur in the next few weeks, with following test flights throughout the rest of the year. It has also developed a crew module called “Dragon,” which will be tested in the same time frame. It only awaits the development of a launch abort system to carry passengers. Having this multiplicity of providers gives us a much more robust system, in which the loss of a single vehicle type (e.g., Ares I) will not result in a stand down of the NASA human spaceflight program, as has happened twice with the shuttle over the years.

What it is not: It is not simply SpaceX, so people who want to equate it with that to declare the industry “unproven” don’t know what they’re talking about. And actually, all of the companies in the commercial space community comprise most of NASA’s expertise in human spaceflight. Including SpaceX, because they’ve been hiring NASA vets, including astronauts, like crazy.

Here’s the bottom line for me, as an analyst who has observed and been steeped in this industry for years.

Has the Obama administration abandoned either “American human spaceflight” or the “Vision for Space Exploration”?

With regard to the first, people who argue that an official policy that has extended the ISS for at least five years beyond its previously scheduled splashdown date (2015 to 2020) has “abandoned American human spaceflight” look out of touch with reality.

More fundamentally, has the administration turned its back on the VSE?

That depends on what level you look at it. When I heard the president’s speech six years ago, this was the phrase that stuck out to me in the context of history:

We do not know where this journey will end. Yet we know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos.

This was a message that was implied by Kennedy’s Apollo speeches, and it resulted in a generation (mine) fed a false promise when the Apollo program ended, it having achieved its objective of winning a crucial (or at least so it seemed at the time) Cold War battle against the Soviets, and not really being about space exploration at all. But it was never explicit, and after Apollo, NASA was reined in to earth orbit, at least as far as humans were concerned, by the shuttle and station. The first president Bush tried to change this in 1989 with the announcement of the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), but it was still-born, never having won the support of Congress (or for that matter, NASA itself). In fact, as previously noted, Congress expressly forbade NASA throughout the nineties from any serious planning for human missions beyond earth orbit.

So when George W. Bush spoke those words and Congress accepted them as policy in 2004, it was a sea change for U.S. space policy. To me, they are at the core of the VSE, and the rest — 2010 Shuttle retirement, CEV, moon first, by 2020 — are details. Mike Griffin’s NASA got the details wrong, and we lost half a decade, but with the new policy, the fundamental new goal — that we humans are heading into the cosmos -- remains. Laurie Leshin, new head of the NASA Exploration Directorate, agrees. She gave a speech a few weeks ago in which she declared that “the goal remains the same.” In my opinion, the administration’s new approach, while far from perfect, has a much better chance of making that happen and is much more in keeping with the original criteria of the VSE set out by the Aldridge Commission (of which Dr. Leshin was a member): that it be affordable and sustainable, and support commercial and international participation — criteria that Constellation clearly never met.

The policy road ahead remains uncertain, as always, but with acceptance by first a Republican and now a Democrat administration and Congress, the big issue of space policy, that it is the goal of this nation to settle space, seems politically settled. In that respect, we are in a better position than ever in our nation’s history to finally get serious about that goal.