The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Ares 1 illustration
Should the development of key exploration components like the Ares 1 launch vehicle and the Orion spacecraft be driven by cost or schedule? (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Stress-testing the vision

Stress can bring out the worst in both people and objects. It can cause people to radically change their personalities and become dysfunctional in critical situations. Stress, in its physical manifestation, can cause structures to deform at critical points and even collapse. It’s hard to ever think of stress as a good thing.

Yet, there can be positives to stress. Some people rise to the occasion when times become difficult, even relishing the challenge posed by the situation. Stress-testing a design, be it an aircraft or a building or software, in the early phases of its development can reveal flaws that are much easier to remedy than if they were uncovered only after it was complete.

Under this fiscal stress, some inherent contradictions in the Vision emerge.

Those aspects, positive and negative, of stress are important to keep in mind because the Vision for Space Exploration is under some stress at the moment. In this case the stress is neither physical nor psychological but instead fiscal. The House of Representatives approved last week a spending bill for the rest of fiscal year 2007 that would give NASA about half a billion dollars less than what the Bush Administration had requested for the agency almost exactly 12 months ago, with virtually the entire cut coming out of the exploration program. The Senate is likely to approve the same budget later this week. And while the Bush Administration is expected to request another increase in NASA’s budget later today in its FY2008 budget proposal, for the first time this administration will have to convince a Congress now controlled by Democrats.

This stress has been building up for at least a year, since the release of the original FY2007 budget proposal that called for cutbacks in other programs, most notably science and aeronautics, to help pay for exploration given the higher-than-anticipated costs of the shuttle’s return to flight. Many scientists have, as a result, turned against the Vision, blaming it for stopping the growth science programs at NASA had enjoyed over the last several years. (They are unlikely to be mollified by the cuts to exploration funding that the House approved last week, since the same bill also cut NASA science funding by nearly $100 million compared the original FY07 request.)

Under this fiscal stress, then, some inherent contradictions in the Vision emerge. Supporters of the Vision, like the industry-backed Coalition for Space Exploration, argued last week that the cut “deals a heavy blow” to the Vision because it would delay development of the Orion crew exploration vehicle and Ares 1 launcher. The current budget, they argue, would cause NASA to miss the 2014 deadline for introducing Orion that was mandated by President Bush when he announced the Vision three years ago, and thus also risk missing the 2020 goal he set for returning humans to the Moon.

Yet, one of the early selling points of the Vision was that it would not require huge increases in NASA’s budget, but instead utilize existing funding that was freed up as programs like the shuttle and station wound down: it would be, as former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe put it, “go as you can pay”. Current administrator Mike Griffin continues to use similar language today. “We have adopted a ‘go-as-we-pay’ approach for space exploration, science missions and aeronautics research,” he said in a speech late last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Thus, the primary pacing item for new ventures is our nation’s ability to afford such capabilities.”

So, which is it? Is the exploration program schedule-driven, striving to meet deadlines set by no less than the President of the United States, or is it budget-driven, its progress based on the amount of money available? If it’s the former than the FY2007 budget is a major setback for the Vision. If it’s the latter, though, then the budget simply requires a recalibration of resources and schedules for key development programs.

One can make a strong argument that the Vision at least should be principally budget-driven rather than schedule-driven. There is no rush to get back to the Moon: it’s not going away any time soon, and, contrary to the occasionally overheated rhetoric and claims made by some, it’s unlikely any other country will get to the Moon until after 2020. (And, if they did get there before the US, it would hardly result in the collapse of the republic.) A budget-driven approach might be slower, but also more sustainable in the long run.

If the budget-driven approach were completely embraced, then a complete reevaluation of the implementation of the Vision would be in order.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that, realistically, most of the major long-term deadlines laid out in the original Vision for Space Exploration speech by President Bush are meaningless. The near-term goals, like completing the ISS and retiring the shuttle by 2010, are projects that can primarily be carried out by the current administration. By the time a new president takes office in January 2009 it will be virtually impossible for him or her to reverse the shuttle retirement decision, given the work already in progress to focus on this final batch of flights. However, efforts like the development of Orion, the Ares launchers, and other components of the current exploration plan will be far less mature in 2009, since they have deadlines of well into the next decade, and can be easily reshaped or discarded depending on the next president’s preferences.

If the budget-driven approach were completely embraced, then a complete reevaluation of the implementation of the Vision would be in order. Is the development of these new launch vehicles and other components truly the most cost-effective way to carry out the broad outlines of the Vision, absent any schedule pressure? There are several alternatives that have been proposed using Shuttle-derived, EELV-derived, and other hardware that, reanalyzed under a different set of priorities, might win out over the current approach.

That said, it appears unlikely that there will be any significant changes in NASA’s implementation of the Vision over the next two years, given the agency’s commitment to meeting the deadlines laid out three years ago with its current plan. It’s possible that some of the budget pressures NASA faces may be ameliorated in the near term, as well, if Congress fully funds the FY2008 budget proposal and if, as some have discussed, Congress passes a supplemental funding bill in the meantime to make up for some of the cuts in the 2007 spending bill. However, the events of the last year have put enough stress on NASA to illuminate some of the problems with the current approach and provide some insights, if not for the current administration then for its successors—if they’re paying attention.