Thursday, August 13, 2009

UPDATE: Presidential panel: future of U.S. manned-spaceflight is bleak

Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block
The Write Stuff
Orlando Sentinel
NASA's Constellation program, conceived four years ago to return Americans to the moon by 2020, can't afford to do that --and the agency's budget won't allow humans to explore beyond the international space station for two decades, a presidential panel has concluded.

NASA's annual budget of about $18 billion will pay to keep astronauts flying -- albeit aboard Russian rockets -- to the space station through 2020, the panel said Wednesday. But that would leave no money for the moon, Mars or exploring other parts of the solar system for at least two decades.

"We haven't found a scenario that includes exploration that's viable," said former astronaut Sally Ride, one of 10 committee members who have until Aug. 31 to present President Barack Obama with future options for NASA.

Panel chairman Norm Augustine, the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, said NASA is the victim of both budget cuts and technical problems with its Constellation program of new rockets and capsules that are supposed to return humans to the moon.

"The money available has declined considerably since the program began," he said. "On the other hand, the Constellation program has proven to be more difficult than it was thought to be."

Augustine added, "It will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area. On the other hand, there are things you can do to prepare ... It just won't come as soon."

The panel said it would take at least $3 billion more per year for NASA to have a "reasonable chance" of getting to the moon or elsewhere in the solar system before 2030. And while committee members seemed to support more money, it's not clear where, in a time of trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits, the cash would come from.

Ultimately, the panel agreed on four broad options, which it will present to White House budget officials next week. They include:

Pressing ahead with the Constellation program as quickly as funding allows; extending the life of the space station until 2020 and using commercial rockets to get there while working on future exploration rockets; flying the shuttle until as late as 2015 while working on a shuttle-variation design that could get to the moon; and developing a new large rocket to explore the solar system.

However, the panel acknowledged that none of those options would extend flights beyond the space station in the next decade without more money.

The panel's pessimistic assessment of NASA's manned-space future contradicts years of assertions by the agency that despite budget cuts totaling about $30 billion over the next decade, its moon-landing program was on track and within budget. However, the panel said those cuts, combined with expensive technical problems such as violent shaking by the Ares I rocket, have left its future in doubt.

Constellation has spent more than $9 billion since 2005 to develop the Ares I and V rockets and the Orion crew capsule. But the $81 billion projected through 2020 for that program, operation of the space station and flying the space shuttle through 2011 is not nearly enough, the panel said.

"We are on a path right now, for a system that requires [roughly] double the current budget just to operate," said Jeff Greason, a panel member and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace.

"If Santa Claus brought us this [Constellation] system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn't change, our next action would have to be to cancel it," he said.

"Yup," responded Ride.

Ed Crawley, an engineering professor from MIT, noted that NASA's budget would enable the agency to extend the space station from 2015 to 2020, or develop the Ares I rocket to take astronauts there by 2016 -- but not both.

"The Ares I option just doesn't make any sense" he said.

But Bohdan Bejmuk, an aerospace consultant who chaired the panel's Constellation review, said the program potentially could succeed.

"If the problem is money, let's try to figure out how to get NASA more money," he said. "Let's get to the root cause."

If there was one winner Wednesday, it was commercial space companies, which the panel said should take cargo, crew and possibly rocket fuel and fuel tanks into orbit. Ride urged $200 million more to further develop fledgling cargo capabilities and $2.5 billion for competitive programs that would help private companies develop capsules to ferry astronauts to the space station and elsewhere in space.

"We have all come to realize how important [commercial] cargo is to the future of ISS," said Ride.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Sad. The Committee spent all this time and money and seems to have overlooked the real problem (and several reasonable solutions).

Sally Ride's comment should have read, "We haven't found a scenario that includes exploration that's viable - THAT WE WANT TO HEAR." NASA is trapped within a bizarre paradigm where they just can't see certain options that are obvious to others. The committee members are apparently trapped in the same paradigm.

Do any of these committee members have private industry systems engineering or quality management experience???? If so, they should ask themselves, how did the Japanese go from severe resource poverty to dominating the worldwide consumer electronics market in under 20 years? It didn't take huge influxes of cash or even much people talent... it merely took the right paradigm, assumptions, and an unquenchable can-do attitude. NASA could utilize the exact same formula if they really wanted to.

I'll be submitting a paper soon with more of the gory details about how we can apply Japanese lessons-learned to NASA... but it won't do any good. Paradigm changes are violent events. If an organization doesn't want to go through hell and back in order to make the necessary changes, paradigm shifts can be forced by an outside competitor - so our best hope is probably one of the other national space agencies. Give them $2 billion/yr and the right paradigm and they'll put a person on Mars within ten years.

That last sentence probably sounds crazy, but so does the whole "Japanese dominating the consumer electronics market" thing. Recall how blindsided we all felt in the 1970's. ;)

- Brian Enke
Senior Research Analyst
Southwest Research Institute