The Augustine Commission – Postmortem – SPI Symposium

The Space Policy Institute at George Washington University hosted a half day symposium “Assessing The Options Of The Augustine Commission For Human Spaceflight” on 28 September 2009, and has now released the Notes and presentations.

Some of the participants in the Symposium (and their presentations) were:

Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, began the proceedings by outlining the nine goals set for in the 2004 Presidential directives to NASA. Some have been, or will be, achieved:

  • Complete the International Space Station
  • Safely fly the Space Shuttle until 2010
  • No later than 2008, begin a series of robotic missions to Moon

Some are in danger:

  • Develop supporting innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures
  • Promote international and commercial participation in exploration

And some will not be met:

  • Develop and fly the Crew Exploration Vehicle no later 2014
  • Return to Moon with goal of 2015 and no later than 2020
  • Aggressive in-situ resource program and robust precursor program
  • Sustained human presence on Moon for national preeminence, scientific and
    economic purposes, leading to Mars and other places

Dr. Pace reviewed the steadily declining budget provided NASA over the past five years (see the Sally Ride Slides – especially this). These cuts total approximately $42 Billion through 2020 versus the original ESAS (Exploration Systems Architecture Study) program, which topped out at $10 Billion per year in 2016 and is now expected to be only $6.5 Billion.

A critical observation was that “Budget Proposals are Policy”. Irrespective of what is said and written about America’s space policy, the budget dictates what can and cannot be done.”

Finally, Pace asked “Are there economically useful activities in space that can sustain human communities in space? Citing examples in the chart below, he concluded that we just do not know if there is anything in the upper right hand box.

Chart 1

The first panel of speakers was led by Gen. Lester Lyles (ret), a member of the Augustine Committee. His comments (see the Notes), centered around the task of the Commission. The Commission was tasked with assessing the following:

  • Present human spaceflight program
  • Future of Space Shuttle and ISS
  • The necessity of heavy lift
  • Crew access to low earth orbit and alternatives
  • Strategies and alternatives beyond low earth orbit

Major themes to be kept in mind included: safety, reliability, innovation, affordability, and sustainability.

Finally, Lyles summed up the key findings of the Commission:

  • NASA needs the right mission with the right size
  • Without an adequate budget there is no way that NASA can take on the great things it is asked to and maintain a viable program for space exploration
  • International partnerships should be addressed in greater detail than they are currently – there is lots of opportunities for greater partnerships and activities
  • Shuttle program should be extended, whether it be for a few flights or longer, it makes sense to consider any way to minimize gap
  • “Great nations do great things” – human spaceflight is a task worthy of a great nation
  • Extending ISS a “no brainer”– bottom line is we are just now completing space station and the U.S. and its international partners have only just begun to utilize scientific capabilities – Could be extended to 2025
  • NASA needs heavy lift capability – Looked at Ares 1, Ares V, and Ares V Light, but did not recommend one or the other; rather it depends on your objectives in space
  • Committee views COTS program favorably; it should be continued – Strong potential for commercial space sector to service ISS
  • A non-mission specific, basic space technology program should be established to support exploration
  • There are human spaceflight pathways to Mars – Mars is the ultimate destination, but may not be the first
  • Committee laid out alternatives for Moon and Mars and defined risks as best as they could

Tom Young, former CEO of Martin-Marietta, spoke next. One of his major themes was that the current situation was being driven by budget, and that the decisions made today will influence the course of space exploration for the rest of the century. He hoped that following the great adventure of the twentieth century – landing on the Moon and returning – the twenty-first century would not be remembered for “we saved $3 Billion dollars”.

Quoting from the analysis by Dwayne Day at The Space Review:

Young also warned that in order for NASA to be a smart buyer and to ensure success, the agency needed in-house systems engineering talent. Echoing Scott Pace’s earlier comments, he said that during the 1990s the United States engaged in a number of “acquisition reforms,” including the Air Force’s reduction of oversight of contractor operation of launch vehicles like the Titan IV as well as some of the aspects of NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” program. (Author’s note: Young was clear that he was not criticizing faster, better, cheaper in its entirety.) “We just fired all of the experienced people,” Young said, and adopted a policy that “government would sit in the back of the room” and let the contractors run the show. “That was a horrible mistake. The net result of that experiment was $11.2 billion in failures. We tried that experiment, it was a horrible failure.”

Young finished by echoing previous speakers that human space flight was a policy issue, not a budget issue. He would quote Lyles: “Great Nations do Great Things”.

Next up was Dr. Doug Stanley, who has worked at NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation, and is currently from Georgia Tech. One of the items he discussed was the idea that the assumptions made by NASA have driven the designs. For example, if the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) had not been required to go to the ISS, then the Moon mission would have been best accomplished with a dual launch of two identical rockets and an EOR-LOR strategy (Earth Orbit Rendezvous – Lunar Orbit Rendezvous). A single Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle would be the most cost effective solution for the heavy lift requirements. But it would not be cost effective for ISS purposes.

On the other hand, if the focus had been solely on servicing the ISS, then commercial Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV – Delta IV) would have been selected. It would have been cheaper and quicker to operational status than building a new rocket.

Instead, NASA had to satisfy both objectives. And therefore, chose to develop two new rockets (new engines, new tanks, new solid rocket motors). This was the riskiest and most expensive course.

Young concludes with two sets of recommendations:

White House should immediately decide on:

  • ISS extension through 2020
  • Shuttle extension into 2011 and/or beyond 2011
  • Beyond-LEO human mission destination(s) and time-frame
  • Out-year available budget
  • General policy towards commercial and international ISS crew transport

NASA should be allowed to then define design reference mission(s) and requirements and perform ESAS-like architecture study to:

  • Perform apples-to-apples cost/safety/risk comparison of Augustine-defined options and selected other combinations of options
  • Re-visit EELV/SDV trades – including side-mount
  • Perform detailed definition and economic analysis of propellant depots
  • Determine true cost/risk of “commercial” crew transport
  • Examine workforce impacts of options
  • Define more detailed budgets to support 2011 budget cycle

[Ed: One has to look back at Young’s comment above about NASA thinking that a SDLV “…would not be cost effective for ISS purposes” and wonder why they did not realize that the SDLV would only need to be used for a year or so until EELV could come on line for ISS and other LEO missions. The implication is that EELV would have been cheaper than Ares I, and SDLV would have been cheaper than Ares V.]

The second panel discussion, on science and international relations, was begun by Paul Spudis from the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Dr. Spudis fundamentally disagrees with the “Four Canons” of the Space Program, enshrined in the Summary Report of the Augustine Commission:

  • Mars is the ultimate destination
  • Heavy-lift is a requirement
  • It is necessary to get the public excited
  • There is no problem at NASA that money cannot fix

He contrasts the Current Template with the Desired Template:

Current Template:

  • Custom-built, self-contained, mission specific spacecraft
  • Launch on expendable vehicles
  • Operate for set lifetime
  • Abandon after use
  • Repeat

Desired Template:

  • Incremental, extensible building blocks
  • Extract material and energy resources of space to use in space
  • Launch only what cannot be fabricated or built in space
  • Build and operate flexible, modular, extensible in-space systems
  • Maintain, expand and use indefinitely

Obviously, Dr. Spudis takes the Long View: “My objective is to move humanity into outer space. How do you do that? By living off the land.” He wants to find opportunities in the upper right corner of Pace’s matrix.

Next up was Tom Jones, with the Association of Space Explorers and a former astronaut. His comments are summed up nicely in the abstract to the paper he presented:

By conducting a series of piloted Near-Earth Object (NEO) missions beginning about 2020, the U.S. will reinforce the scientific, economic, programmatic, operations, planetary defense, and public outreach elements of its human exploration program. Astronauts exploring a NEO would provide synergistic scientific return from a new “planetary” surface, substantially different in origin, age, and composition from those of the Moon or Mars. Explorers would assay NEO resources vital to future U.S. economic activity in space, and demonstrate extraction and utilization techniques for water, volatiles, and valuable metals. Piloted missions will also provide structural and civil engineering data needed for future deflection of hazardous NEOs. Impact prevention is a common sense, “know your enemy” mission for human explorers; the public will support space-based efforts to better understand and prevent a damaging NEO collision with Earth. Astronaut expeditions to NEOs offer dramatic, high-profile opportunities to engage the public in ground-breaking exploration more than a million miles from Earth. Finally, in the event U.S. plans for a lunar return are delayed, NEOs offer a challenging suite of alternative destinations. Easier to reach than the Moon’s surface, NEOs will nevertheless broaden U.S. space capabilities, demonstrate a firm commitment to ambitious human space activities, and increase momentum toward the eventual exploration of Mars.

Dr. John Logsdon lead of his comments on the International Space Station and International cooperation by quoting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 16 July 2009:

“Our approach to foreign policy must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be. It does not make sense to adapt a 19th-century concert of powers or a 20th-century balance-of-power strategy. We cannot go back to Cold War containment or to unilateralism. . . . We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world.”

Dr. Logsdon advocated including India and China in multi-lateralization of space. The question in his mind was whether there would be Presidential leadership.

For the international perspective, Dr. Alain Dupas, Director of Strategic Studies at the Paris-based College de Polytechnique, presented his views on the Augustine Committee’s recent report. Europe, he said, has been under the impression that the United States had made a firm decision regarding it’s exploration program. Now, there are serious concerns about America changing its mind. Fortunately, he noted, the ISS would be supported at least through 2020. This bodes well for the discussions about the Global Exploration Strategy. Dupais noted that the Flexible Path option offered “interesting opportunities for Europe”.

Mr. Brett Alexander, from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, led the third panel of the morning on security and commerce. One of the main points he made was that the Augustine Commission had fallen into a false dichotomy: having to choose between Ares I and commercial EELV access to space. The real issue is choosing Ares I or the International Space Station. NASA does not have the budget for both.

Finally, with regard to safety, Alexander noted that Astronauts will not fly on unproven commercial vehicles, and notes ironically that:

  • The Atlas V has a long and proven track record, and the team that puts it together and launches has a demonstrated track that goes beyond the vehicle itself.
  • Falcon 9 and Taurus II will have conducted multiple cargo flights to ISS under COTS prior to being permitted to ferry human crew to LEO
  • Contrast this with the fact that Ares 1X/1 will have completed only two test flights prior to being permitted to carry crew to LEO

Eric Sterner spoke next. He is a former Republican House Armed Services Committee staffer and currently a fellow at the Marshall Institute. He made several points concerning international cooperation as a policy decision. First, that “International cooperation is useful but policy makers should be aware international partnerships have risks. You inherit or import into your program all their bureaucracy, all the budget woes. ISS proves you can do it, but it took us 25 years.” And second, considering China. “How would the U.S. deal with human rights issues if China were a partner in space exploration? It matters what values you take into space. How do you deal with proliferation issues? The Clinton administration threatened to cut off space-related payments to the Russia for its proliferation behavior with Iran”.

Next to last was Robert Read from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense. His remarks addressed the implications of NASA and space exploration for the Solid Rocket Motor industry. Historically, the Department of Defense (DoD) has relied on solid rocket motors for land base Minuteman III ICBM and sea launched Trident II D-5, as well as many other weapon systems. He notes that DoD is concerned that shutting down the Shuttle and SDLV programs will so shrink the market that the program might collapse. He points out that:

  • One Shuttle stack is equivalent to 10 Trident II D-5 and 17 Minuteman III missiles in terms of solid propellant weight
  • The DoD is concerned over the potential loss of SRM suppliers once the Shuttle is retired
  • The DoD will be studying the issue further, given the national security implications of further decline of the SRM industrial base.

From The Space Review article, Read’s comments concerning how delicate the industry is at the moment:

He recounted how a few years ago a small company was going to move its operations from Texas overseas. The company’s motivation was that 95% of its business was commercial and the government accounted for only 5% of its business. But moving its manufacturing overseas would have required the government to recertify all of the company’s components, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the DoD, and ultimately the American taxpayers.

Finally, John Karas of Lockheed Martin addressed the workforce issues. A major concern is the loss of talent. 35% of the workforce is eligible for retirement right now. Industry needs to see NASA with a realistic goal and adequate funding in order to attract new, young talent to learn from the old guard before they retire. America’s heavy lift capability is unmatched elsewhere, and will remain so. But it can, and is currently, slipping away with the confusion and disarray of the space policy and budget problems.

So what do we garner from this long discussion? The debate is a tug of war in many dimensions: practical, political, monetary and technical.

I would like commercial crew launch to Low Earth Orbit and the ISS, a single Shuttle Derived Heavy lift vehicle and propellant depots. But that’s just my opinion.

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2 thoughts on “The Augustine Commission – Postmortem – SPI Symposium

  1. I think its clear that the NASA budget has to be increased by at least $3 billion annually in order to get things done. The Space Shuttle program needs to be continued until the next manned launch system is ready.

    Orion development needs to be continued but the Ares 1 needs to be terminated ASAP. The SD-HLV (Sidemount shuttle) needs to be chosen as our heavy lift vehicle for launching both the Orion and the Altair lunar lander. Altair needs to be– fully funded– starting in 2010 so that we can return to the Moon perhaps by 2016. Why wait until 2020 when the SD-HLVs could probably be ready in 4 or 5 years.

    We need to start building a lunar settlement by 2017 by sending habitat modules to the lunar surface by 2017 and continue adding more and more modules at least for the next 4 or 5 years until we have a base that can accommodate a dozen or more people. I’d like to see at least 4 unmanned lunar base launches per year and two manned lunar base missions per year (that would actually be 4 since an Altair would have to be launched to get them to the lunar surface).

    These lunar settlements need to start attempting to live off the land as soon as possible. So I’d like to see regolith pyrolis machines for producing oxygen on the lunar surface introduced as early as possible.

    I’d also like to see simple mass drivers capable of launching a few kilograms to L1, L2, L4, and L5 assembled on the lunar surface as early as possible to test the concept. This could be a game changer that could allow us to cheaply regolith shield space stations and interplanetary space craft while also providing them with oxygen that can be derived from the lunar regolith for air and rocket fuel. Lunar aluminum could also be launched from the lunar surface into orbit for manufacturing interplanetary light sails capable of transporting hundreds and even thousands of tonnes of payload relatively rapidly through interplanetary space.

    • I still don’t understand the fascination with the side-mount shuttle derived vehicle versus the inline shuttle derived launcher.

      Development costs are higher, stresses are worse, payloads are lower.

      The trades are all against the side-mount. NASA has done the trades (several times), and side-mount has lost every time.

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