Thursday, September 10, 2009

Michael GRIFFIN's critique of Augustine executive summary

1) It is clarifying to see a formal recognition by the Commission that, based upon budgetary considerations, “the human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory”. Given that the Constellation program was designed in accordance with the budget profile specified in 2005, yet has since suffered some $30 billion of reductions to the amount allocated to human lunar return (including almost $12 billion in just the last five fiscal years) this is an unsurprising conclusion, but one which provides the necessary grounding for all subsequent discussions.

2) Since NASA’s budget as outlined in 2005 was hardly one of rampant growth (only a slight increase above inflation was projected even then), and since the Commission did not report any evidence of substandard execution of the Program of Record – Constellation – one wonders why the Commission failed to recommend as its favored option that of simply restoring the funding necessary to do the job that has, since 2005, been codified in two strongly bi-partisan Congressional Authorization Acts.

Of all the options considered, this is the most straightforward, yet it was not recommended. The so-called “less constrained” options merely provide partial restoration of budget authority that was removed within just the last few years. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Commission’ report is this: put it back.

3) The continual reference to the supposedly planned cancellation and deorbiting of ISS in 2016 is a strawman, irrelevant to consideration of serious programmatic options. While it is certainly true that Bush Administration budgets did not show any funding for ISS past 2015, it was always quite clear that the decision to cancel or fund the ISS in 2016 and beyond was never within the purview of the Bush Administration to make.

In the face of strong International Partner commitment to ISS and two decades of steadfast Congressional commitment to the development, assembly, and utilization of ISS, it has never been and is not now realistic to consider cancellation and deorbiting of ISS in 2015, or indeed on any particular date which can be known today. The fact that some $3+ billion per year will be required to sustain ISS operations past 2015 is, and has always been, a glaring omission in future budget projections.

Sustained funding of the ISS as long as it continues to return value – certainly to 2020 and quite likely beyond – should have been established by the Commission as a non-negotiable point of departure for all other discussions. Failure to do so, when the implications of prematurely canceling ISS are well known to all, is disingenuous. The existence of future exploration programs cannot be traded against sustenance of the ISS on an “either-or” basis, as if the latter option was a realistic option.

If the nation is to lay claim to a viable human spaceflight program, the requirement to sustain ISS while also developing new systems to go beyond low Earth orbit is the minimally necessary standard. If the nation can no longer meet this standard, then it should be so stated, in which case any further discussion of U.S. human exploration beyond LEO is moot for the next two decades.

4) Numerous options are presented which are not linked by common goals or a strategy to reach such goals. Instead, differing options are presented to reach differing goals, rendering it impossible to develop meaningful cost/schedule/performance/risk comparisons across them. These options possess vastly differing levels of maturity, yet are offered as if all were on an equally mature footing in regard to their level of technical, cost, schedule, and risk assessment. This is not the case.

5) “Independent” cost estimates for Constellation systems are cited. There is no acknowledgement that these are low-fidelity estimates developed over a matter of weeks, yet are offered as corrections to NASA’s cost estimates, which have years of effort behind them. No mention is made of NASA’s commitment to probabilistic budget estimation techniques for Constellation, at significantly higher cost-confidence levels than has been the case in the past. If the Commission believes that NASA is not properly estimating costs, or is misrepresenting the data it has amassed, it should document its specific concerns. Otherwise, the provenance of NASA’s cost estimates should be accepted, as no evidence has been supplied to justify overturning them.

6) The preference for “commercial” options for cargo and, worse, crew delivery to low Earth orbit appears throughout the Summary, together with the statement that “it is an appropriate time to consider turning this transport service over to the commercial sector.” What commercial sector? At present, the only clearly available “commercial” option is Ariane 5. Launching a redesigned Orion crew vehicle is a valid choice in the context of an international program if – and only if – the U.S. is willing to give up independent access to low Earth orbit, a decision imbued with enormous future consequences.

With an appropriately enlightened USG policy there may one day be a domestic commercial space transportation sector, but it does not presently exist and will not exist in the near future; i.e., substantially prior to the likely completion dates for Ares-1/Orion, if they were properly funded. The existence of a prudently funded USG option for cargo/crew delivery to ISS is precisely the strategy which allows the USG to take reasonable risks to sponsor the development of a viable commercial space sector.

The Commission acknowledges the “risk” associated with its recommendation, but is not clear about the nature of that risk. If no USG option to deliver cargo and crew to LEO is to be developed following the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the U.S. risks the failure to sustain and utilize a unique facility with a sunk cost of $55 billion on the U.S. side, and nearly $20 billion of international partner investment in addition.

The Russian Soyuz and Progress systems, even if we are willing to pay whatever is required to use them in the interim, simply do not provide sufficient capability to utilize ISS as was intended, and in any case represent a single point failure in regard to such utilization. To hold the support and utilization of the ISS hostage to the emergence of a commercial space sector is not “risky”, it is irresponsible.

7) The Commission is disingenuous when it claims that safety “is not discussed in extensive detail because any concepts falling short in human safety have simply been eliminated from consideration.” Similarly, the Commission was “unconvinced that enough is known about any of the potential high-reliability launcher-plus-capsule systems to distinguish their levels of safety in a meaningful way.” For the Commission to dismiss out of hand the extensive analytical work that has been done to assure that Constellation systems represent the safest reasonable approach in comparison to all other presently known systems is simply unacceptable.

Work of high quality in the assessment of safety and reliability has been done, and useful discriminators between and among systems do exist, whether the Commission believes so or not. To this point, the Commission’s report is confusing as regards the distinction between “reliability” and “safety”, where the issue is discussed at all. The former is the only criterion of interest for unmanned systems; for manned systems, there is an important difference due to the existence of an abort system and the conditions under which that abort system can and must operate. Nowhere is this crucial distinction discussed.

8) “Technical problems” with Ares-1 are cited several times, without any acknowledgement that (a) knowledgeable observers in NASA would disagree strongly as to the severity of such problems, and (b) Constellation’s “technical problems” are on display because actual work is being accomplished, whereas other options have no problems because no work is being done.

9) The recommendation in favor of the dual-launch “Ares-5 Lite” approach as the baseline for lunar missions is difficult to understand. It violates the CAIB recommendation (and many similar recommendations) to separate crew and cargo in whatever post-Shuttle human space transportation system is to be developed. Further, the dual-Ares-5 Lite mission architecture substantially increases the minimum cost for a single lunar mission as compared to the Ares-1/Ares-5 approach, a recommendation which is difficult to understand in an already difficult budgetary environment.

Finally, the Ares-5 Lite is nearly as expensive to develop as the Ares-5, but offers significantly less payload to the moon when used — as will be required — in a one-way, single-launch, cargo-only mode. (The LEO payload difference of 140 mt for Ares-5 Lite and 160 mt for Ares-5 masks a much greater difference in their lunar payload capability.)

All parties agree that a heavy-lift launcher is needed for any human space program beyond LEO. Because of the economies of scale inherent to the design of launch vehicles, such a vehicle should be designed to lift as large a payload as possible within the constraints of the facilities and infrastructure available to build and transport it. This provides the greatest marginal improvement in capability at the lowest marginal cost.

10) The use of “fuel depots” as recommended in the Summary appears to be a solution in search of a problem. It is difficult to understand how such an approach can offer an economically favorable alternative. The Ares-5 offers the lowest cost-per-pound for payload to orbit of any presently known heavy-lift launch vehicle design. The mass-specific cost of payload to orbit nearly always improves with increasing launch vehicle scale.

The recommendation in favor of an architectural approach based upon the use of many smaller vehicles to resupply a fuel depot ignores this fact, as well as the fact that a fuel depot requires a presently non-existent technology – the ability to provide closed-cycle refrigeration to maintain cryogenic fuels in the necessary thermodynamic state in space. This technology is a holy grail of deep-space exploration, because it is necessary for both chemical- and nuclear-powered upper stages. To establish an architecture based upon a non-existent technology at the very beginning of beyond-LEO operations is unwise.

11) Finally, the Commission did not do that which would have been most valuable – rendering a clear-eyed, independent assessment of the progress and status of Constellation with respect to its ability to meet goals which have been established in two successive NASA Authorization Acts, followed by an assessment of what would be required to get and keep that program on track. Instead, the Commission sought to formulate new options for new programs, treating these options as if their level of maturity was comparable to that of the baseline upon which NASA has been working now for more than four years.

This approach completely ignores the established body of law which has guided NASA’s work for the last four years and which, until and unless that body of law is changed, must serve as the common reference standard for any proposed alternatives to Constellation as the program of record for the nation’s existing human spaceflight program.