The final report from the Augustine Commission is out. And while the report suffers from the 90 day time constraint, what it does do is open the discussion of what we are doing in space. The answer the Commission gives is to “Expand Human Civilization into the Solar System”. Having given that answer, however, the report then goes back to its origins and begins its “Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans”.
Following some initial public meetings, the Committee decided that it should answer the following questions:
- 1. What should be the future of the Space Shuttle?
- 2. What should be the future of the International Space Station (ISS)?
- 3. On what should the next heavy-lift launch vehicle be based?
- 4. How should crews be carried to low-Earth orbit?
- 5. What is the most practicable strategy for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit?
The report then details how the Commission arrived at the potential programs that were evaluated. Starting with a matrix of over 3,000 possible combinations of destinations, hardware and missions based on the five questions, the Committee developed five options, which were explored and evaluated. Several of them had alternatives. The options are:
- Option 1. Program of Record as Assessed by the Committee, Constrained to the FY 2010 budget, providing funds for the Shuttle into FY 2011 and including sufficient funds to deorbit the ISS in 2016.
- Option 2. ISS and Lunar Exploration, Constrained to FY 2010 Budget. It extends the ISS to 2020, and begins a program of lunar exploration using a derivative of Ares V, referred to here as the Ares V Lite.
- Option 3. Baseline Case—Implementable Program of Record. This is an executable version of the Program of Record. Budgeting for the completion of remaining flights on the Shuttle manifest in 2011 and including additional funds for the de-orbit of the ISS.
- Option 4. Moon First. It consists of the content and sequence of that program–de-orbiting the ISS in 2016, developing Orion, Ares I and Ares V, and beginning exploration of the Moon using the Altair lander and lunar surface systems
- Variant 4A is the Ares V Lite variant. This option retires the Shuttle in FY 2011 and develops the Ares V Lite heavy-lift launcher for lunar xploration.
- Variant 4B is the Shuttle extension variant. It offers the only foreseeable way to eliminate the gap in U.S. human-launch capability: by extending
the Shuttle to 2015 at a minimum safe-flight rate.
- Option 5. Flexible Path. It operates the Shuttle into FY 2011, extends the ISS until 2020. The destinations include Near Earth Objects, the Lagrange points around the Earth-Moon system and the moons of Mars.
- Variant 5A is the Ares V Lite variant. It develops the Ares V Lite, the most capable of the heavy-lift vehicles in this option.
- Variant 5B employs an EELV-heritage commercial heavy-lift launcher and assumes a different (and significantly reduced) role for NASA. It has an advantage of potentially lower operational costs, but requires significant restructuring of NASA.
- Variant 5C uses a Shuttle-derived, heavy-lift vehicle, taking maximum advantage of existing infrastructure, facilities and production capabilities.
It is at this point that Chapter 1.0 Summary ends.
Chapter 2.0 U.S. Human Spaceflight: Historical Review offers a brief four page summary of the past 50 years.
Having laid out the summary questions and options, the report then elaborates with detailed work as follows:
- Chapter 3.0 Goals and Future Destinations for Exploration
- Chapter 4.0 Current Human Spaceflight Programs
- Chapter 5.0 Launch to Low-Earth Orbit and Beyond
- Chapter 6.0 Program Options and Evaluation
These are interesting chapters with lots of studies, trades, costs, schedules and contradictions destined to engage the various factions concerned with human space flight for a long time. We will return here in future posts to engage some of these arcane turf wars.
Problems Requiring Solutions
In the mean time, Chapter 7.0 Critical Technologies for Sustainable Exploration, has the significant factors required to eventually come to grips with a real vision for space exploration.
7.1 Fundamental Unknowns lists these three key problems:
- (1) the effects of prolonged exposure to solar and galactic cosmic rays on the human body
- (2) the impact on humans of prolonged periods of weightlessness followed by a sudden need to function, without assistance, in a relatively strong gravitational field
- (3) the psychological effects on individuals facing demanding tasks in extreme isolation for well over year with no possibility for direct outside human intervention.
7.2 Propellant Storage and Transfer in Space discusses the advantages of refueling rockets in space. The traditional mission involves launching your Moon rocket and payload and all the propellant needed to leave Earth orbit and land on the Moon. Not a lot of cargo gets landed on the Moon because most of the payload is propellant.
However, if you launch your Moon rocket and it arrives empty at the propellant depot, you can add propellant. Since you don’t have propellant in the rocket, the mass of the rocket and cargo constitutes the entire payload. This means a lot more cargo gets to the Moon.
7.3 In Situ Propellant Production and Transport involves using the resources from objects in the Solar System to produce propellant. These bodies include the Moon, Mars, asteroids and comets.
7.4 Mars Orbit to Surface Transportation. Quoting from the report:
“The entry, descent and landing of cargo on Mars is difficult because Mars has sufficient atmosphere to drive the design of landing systems, but inadequate atmosphere for feasible parachutes or wings to safely land astronauts on the surface. Scientific probes landing on Mars have used a complex mix of aerodynamic braking and rocket propulsion. These techniques will have to be improved before larger robotic or crewed missions can be sent to Mars. This research and technology development program needs to be started soon, because it will require many iterations and increasingly larger missions before NASA is ready to demonstrate a safe, crewed Mars landing. Meanwhile, the intermediate results would greatly benefit future robotic missions.”
7.5 Advanced Space Propulsion include solar and nuclear powered systems.
7.6 Technology Summary provides two charts covering a large number of items:
- Figure 7.6-1. Technology opportunities to impact near- and mid-term exploration capabilities and sustainability.
- Figure 7.6-2. Technology opportunities impact longer-term capabilities and sustainability.
Chapter 8.0 Partnerships covers the advantages and problems associated with partnerships, both International and intra-governmental, such as Department of Defense and national security interests.
What Are We To Do
The final report of the Augustine Commission ends with a series of concluding remarks and recommendations about costs, goals and management.
And we are left with the sense that something is missing.
We have a lot of pieces spread out on the floor in front of us. There are snippets of vision laying here and there. What are we to do with it all?
Let us try and bring about some order:
- What gets decided in the next 6 months is likely to affect the next hundred years of exploration.
- We have a lot of technological problems to solve, so we are not going to go as fast as everybody wants to go.
- Building in small steps and becoming good at each step means we can develop a robust infrastructure. Building the International Space Stations has taught us a lot of lessons about how to do things in space, as well as how not to do things.
- It will take more wealth than the American taxpayer can afford. The tasks require a concerted continuation by the rest of the nations in the efforts already underway.
- A sustained and sustainable program will have to learn to live off the land. The less we have to bring with us, the less we have to bring with us (getting mass up out of the Earth’s gravity well is very expensive).
The worst thing would be to make a mad dash to Mars, send pictures back of astronauts saluting the flag, and leaving nothing behind (except footprints).
No propellant depots, no interplanetary space tugs, no scientific observatories, no resource utilization, no jobs, no economic engine.
There is no guarantee that the rest of the Solar System actually has a future with human civilization expanding through it. If such a future exists, we will have to build it carefully.