The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

STS-119 landing
As the number of remaining missions dwindles, some want to keep the shuttle from coming in for a final landing in 2010, a decision that could have consequences for Constellation. (credit: NASA/KSC)

The Constellation squeeze

NASA’s Constellation program, in particular the Ares 1 launch vehicle and the Orion crew exploration vehicle, has generated strong reactions in the space community since the current architecture was unveiled three and a half years ago. Many have supported and defended the program as the best possible way to fulfill the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration, including returning humans to the Moon by the end of the next decade. Others, though, have sharply criticized it, citing a litany of technical programs as well as cost and schedule issues.

Now Constellation’s future, like many other NASA initiatives, are in a limbo of sorts given the lack of a NASA administrator as well as a lack of details about the new administration’s space policy. While the White House has endorsed the key goals of the Vision for Space Exploration, it has not—yet—explicitly supported the Constellation architecture. This has encouraged some to step up their calls to revise or cancel Constellation. Meanwhile, Constellation is facing pressure from another direction: from those who want to keep the shuttle flying after 2010, a proposal that would further strain NASA’s budget and perhaps force NASA and the White House to choose between shuttle and Constellation.

Shuttle supporters’ full-court press

For the last few years there have been a few members of Congress who have expressed concerns about the multi-year gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of Constellation, particularly those who represent Florida’s Space coast region, where thousands of shuttle workers could lose their jobs once the shuttle is retired. In recent weeks, though, Congressional interest in extending the shuttle’s life has increased, with no fewer than five members of Florida’s Congressional delegation speaking out or otherwise taking action on the subject just in the last week.

“It just doesn’t make sense to shut down the shuttle program, lay off Americans workers who are some of the best technicians in their field, and pay Russia to replace their services until a shuttle replacement comes online,” said Posey.

Some have expressed their interest in extending the shuttle based on their concerns that a “hard” 2010 deadline for retiring the shuttle could create schedule pressures that could jeopardize safety, similar to the schedule pressures in the shuttle program (in this case for completing the ISS) prior to the Columbia accident in 2003. “As the recent delays in launching Discovery have shown, a Shuttle launch schedule can be unpredictable,” Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) told Florida Today in a statement last week. Kosmos, whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, made that statement after voting against a budget resolution that, unlike the Senate version, contained no provision about enabling the shuttle to continue flights after 2010. “Setting a hard deadline for Shuttle retirement could cause dangerous schedule pressure and risk jobs.”

Rep. Alan Grayson, an Orlando-area Democrat, made a similar argument in a letter to President Obama last week. “Mr. President, the current schedule to end the Space Shuttle Program is too compressed, and therefore potentially dangerous to the crews,” he wrote. “I strongly encourage you to space out the remaining NASA missions as long as possible, preferably until the Constellation Space Exploration Program is funded, constructed and ready for launch.” The Orlando Sentinel added that Grayson had “personally lobbied” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel on the topic.

They and others have also raised another argument: ending the shuttle in 2010, several years before Constellation is ready, could cause thousands of shuttle workers, primarily on the Space Coast, to lose their jobs, creating a blow to the regional economy in the midst of a deep recession. “It will be a talent drain for Florida if we allow that [shuttle retirement in 2010] to happen,” Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) told the Sentinel last week. The Miami-area congressman, who is considering running for the US Senate in 2010, said the shuttle program’s future would be a major issue for him. “As far as I’m concerned, as we look at state issues, this will be a major, major issue for me… I hope that we will get some extension out of NASA and the administration out of the shuttle program.”

Late last week two Florida representatives took more concrete action. Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) introduced last week the American Space Access Act in the House. The bill, HR 1962, would require NASA to continue to fly the shuttle until either Constellation comes online or a domestic commercial service becomes available. The legislation is similar to the “SPACE Act” introduced in late 2007 by Rep. Dave Weldon (who retired in 2008, and whose seat is now occupied by Posey), with the exception that that new bill includes a provision lacking in Weldon’s version for retiring the shuttle if a commercial vehicle enters service.

“It just doesn’t make sense to shut down the shuttle program, lay off Americans workers who are some of the best technicians in their field, and pay Russia to replace their services until a shuttle replacement comes online,” Posey said in a statement accompanying the bill’s introduction. “Our investment in space has yielded major advancements in technology that have created millions of jobs for Americans and helped make America safer.”

The major challenge to such efforts—beyond technical issues such as the availability of components needed for additional shuttle flights—is the cost of extending the shuttle’s life. Estimates vary, in part because of varying estimates of levels of activity beyond 2010, but flying the shuttle beyond 2010 is widely estimated to cost at least a couple of billion dollars a year for even a barebones program of a couple launches a year. That money would have to come from somewhere, and barring an increase in NASA’s budget big enough to cover that cost—possible but unlikely given growing Congressional concerns now about the size of the White House’s fiscal year 2010 budget proposal that already includes nearly $1 billion more for NASA—Constellation could be the crosshairs.

“I prefer that they just say, hey, get your job done… but don’t do anything stupid to get [the shuttle missions] done by the end of FY2010,” said Shaw.

Some in industry, while not necessarily supporting the calls of shuttle supporters to extend the program, do acknowledge some of their arguments. At a Boeing media breakfast at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last week, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s shuttle work, said he had only “medium” confidence that the remaining missions on the shuttle manifest could be flown out by the end of 2010. “We have conducted this number of missions at this flight rate, so it’s not without precedent,” he said. “However, there’s also not a wonderful track record for meeting your schedule dates.”

“One could consider that [the 2010 retirement deadline] schedule pressure from the highest levels,” said Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut who is vice president and general manager for space exploration at Boeing. “I prefer that they just say, hey, get your job done… but don’t do anything stupid to get them done by the end of FY2010.”

Shaw also said that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 workers at Boeing and the other major companies working on the shuttle program could lose their jobs once the shuttle is retired. He suggested that one way to mitigate those losses would be to move up development of the Ares 5 launch vehicle and Altair lunar lander to 2010, allowing some—but not all—of those workers to transition directly from shuttle to those programs. “No matter what happens, some people are going to be laid off,” he said.

Mind the space gap

While some people are lobbying to extend the life of the space shuttle, others are using NASA’s current uncertainty to press for radial changes to Constellation, up to and including cancellation. The latest effort along those lines is the Space Frontier Foundation’s “Mind the Space Gap” campaign, discussed by Foundation co-founder Jim Muncy during the Space Access ‘09 conference in Phoenix on Saturday.

Muncy noted that a gap in US government human spaceflight capability between the shuttle’s retirement and its successor’s introduction was inherent in the Vision for Space Exploration, lasting up to four years. However, when Mike Griffin became administrator, he sought to reduce that gap to two years. “That four-year gap was unseemly,” Muncy said, using the word Griffin himself ascribed to the gap. “That became the idée fixe, the central goal, the organizing principle of his exploration architecture,” which took form in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS).

“NASA has failed by its own standard, the gap,” Muncy concluded. “In the words of the former NASA administrator, this architecture is ‘unseemly’.”

If ESAS was intended to narrow the shuttle-Constellation gap, it failed. Muncy referred to an Orlando Sentinel article last week that put the total price of Constellation to initial operational capacity (IOC) at $44 billion, with IOC slipping to late 2016 or even 2017. In other words, in the 3.5 years since ESAS was announced, IOC had slipped by up to five years, with consequences for the goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2020. “You’re not going to get to the Moon by 2019 or 2020; you’re not going to get back there in the first half of the following decade,” he said.

“NASA has failed by its own standard, the gap,” Muncy concluded. “In the words of the former NASA administrator, this architecture is ‘unseemly’.” He argued that ESAS be cancelled and that NASA should try to reduce the gap through efforts like COTS Capability D or other “non-traditional crew options”, a reference by proposals by Craig Steidle, when he was associate administrator for exploration at NASA early in the implementation of the Vision, for ways of enabling crew access to the ISS.

Orion, in turn, should be redesigned to fly on an EELV, he argued. The counterargument to that has been that Orion is too heavy to be launched on an EELV, but Muncy noted that launch abort system for Orion on Ares 1 is 8,000 pounds [3,600 kilograms] heavier than the system needed for an EELV, in order to get the capsule safely away from the powerful, accelerating Ares 1. “When NASA argues that the EELV is not capable of launching Orion, you have to realize that they’re kind of fudging the numbers” because that difference in launch abort system masses, he said.

Muncy said the Foundation would be stepping up its efforts to kill ESAS and Ares 1 and put through the alternative he outlined in the Space Access talk. “Today is the beginning of that effort,” he said, with more information about it forthcoming from the Foundation in the near future.

Between that effort and those of shuttle supporters to extend the program, on top of the general policy uncertainty in Washington, Constellation may be facing its biggest challenge yet.