The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

DIRECT illustration
The current NASA exploration architecture should be compared to alternatives like DIRECT (above) to see which one, based on current knowledge, is the best for the agency to pursue. (credit: DIRECT)

Confusion of vision, purpose, and mission

If you read any of the blogs about spaceflight these days you may conclude that there is no agreement regarding whether NASA is on the right course. There are proponents for using EELVs to launch the Orion capsule and canning the Ares 1 “stick”. There are proponents of the Direct 2.0 concept that builds from components of the existing Shuttle stack. There are those that believe we should transfer human LEO launches to a COTS-D model. There are people who are talking about reviving the Shuttle-C concept for heavy lift capabilities. And, yes, are people who believe in staying the course.

I firmly believe there are a number of practical architectures that could work at this time because, as an engineer developing new solutions for some difficult problems, I have always seen this to be true in what I do.

In both President Obama’s proposed FY2010 budget and the stimulus package there is additional money for NASA. In the case of the 2010 budget, that doesn’t mean the extra money will stay there once Congress has had their say. This makes it a bad time for NASA to only have an acting administrator. I understand that the president is a little busy with other issues, but this one also has major long-term consequences.

The president’s new budget affirms the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and the path to return humans to the Moon by 2020. However, what the budget doesn’t do is specify the architecture for returning to the Moon.

Other than fighting to keep NASA’s budget intact as it moves through Congress, there are two things that are needed to clear up NASA’s plans to execute the vision that has been set. The first is to appoint a permanent administrator. The second is to firmly decide on the architecture for carrying out the Vision for Space Exploration.

I firmly believe there are a number of practical architectures that could work at this time. I say that without being an expert in launch vehicles or having done more than read as much information as I have been able to find. I say that because, as an engineer developing new solutions for some difficult problems, I have always seen this to be true in what I do.

Right now the only relatively near-term solutions in the US for carrying people into orbit are the Orion capsule being developed by Lockheed Martin and the Dragon capsule being developed by SpaceX. Other concepts exist like the Dream Chaser being advanced by Sierra Nevada Corporation (formerly SpaceDev), though it would likely take longer to develop. The Dragon capsule is being designed only to be launched on the Falcon 9 launcher. The Orion capsule is being designed to be carried aloft by the Ares 1, but might be adapted to be launched by EELVs or the alternate Direct 2.0 Jupiter rocket. The Dream Chaser concept is being studied as possibly using the Atlas 5 for launch. Each option definitely has their pluses and minuses.

If no new administrator is selected for NASA in the foreseeable future, the existing plan of launching the Orion rocket on the Ares 1 will advance to the point of no return with no further official discussion of alternatives. Many people, me included, wonder if it is the best choice moving forward. If this choice just continues by momentum with no new administrator to affirm the decision; every time there is a problem along the way there will be second guessing and finger pointing.

The options for advancing the VSE need an independent near-term full public assessment to see what the pluses and minuses really are. If the Direct 2.0 stands up under scrutiny, it has huge advantages in my opinion over the Ares 1/Ares 5 architecture. NASA would only have to develop one new launch vehicle. When you have the single launch vehicle developed, you have it ready for both LEO missions and lunar missions. It does not need massive changes in support infrastructure. By launching the Orion capsule and the Altair lunar lander on one vehicle and the Earth Departure Stage on a second launch vehicle you still use two launches for lunar missions, but you are left with one set of production lines that help with economies of scale.

The options for advancing the VSE need an independent near-term full public assessment to see what the pluses and minuses really are.

Using the Direct 2.0 Jupiter vehicle for missions to the ISS the operating costs for such a mission would probably be more than using an Ares 1. For routine access to the ISS for cargo and crew transfer the COTS-D program would ideally handle it. I am assuming at the moment that the SpaceX Falcon 9 with a Dragon capsule could handle this task. If that turns out to be the case, the Jupiter launcher with an Orion capsule should only be used as an emergency backup in case of a problem that grounds the Falcon 9/Dragon combination for any length of time. The Direct 2.0 as a backup could also be available to deliver new modules to the ISS if the US or the international partners deem them necessary. This is something the Ares 1 will not be able to do.

SpaceX says that the Falcon 9/Dragon system could be ready to deliver people to and from the ISS by the end of 2011 if NASA exercises the Capability D option in its current COTS agreement soon. Even if they are delayed two years, this is still two years before the Ares 1 will be ready. This is an opportunity to shrink the gap in US human launch capability. It would keep the money and jobs for launching crews in this country instead of contracting with Russia for these services. The combination of COTS-D and Direct 2.0 provides a degree of flexibility that I don’t see in the current plans. It also potentially could offer these capabilities sooner, at less cost, while preserving more of the existing infrastructure and workforce.

If the main reason to push for the Ares 1/5 combination is to have the heavy-lift capability of the Ares 5 for future Mars missions, I think this is a mistake. With the commitment to the Moon, Mars is too far off to even consider for the current requirements. We do not know if new forms of propulsion, such as VASIMR engines, will change how human Mars missions eventually are carried out.

The Obama administration has met with some of the people behind the Direct 2.0 concept. I don’t know if this means that they are seriously considering it as an option moving forward. With the possible benefits in cost, capability, and schedule, Direct 2.0 should be given an honest independent assessment. I don’t think the administration should take too long in making a decision on it and on a new administrator. If Direct 2.0 is given an honest assessment and it can deliver on what it promises, I would recommend proceeding full speed ahead in this direction with a new administrator that backs this decision and is committed to carrying it out. If, after an honest open public assessment, the Direct 2.0 option does not pass as a better choice, it will be easier to rally support for the existing architecture. To firmly commit to a direction after a fair assessment of the options left on the table would go a long ways to clarifying the vision, purpose, and mission of NASA.