The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Jupiter-120 illustration
Advocates for DIRECT argue that their concept takes better advantage of existing shuttle infrastructure and provides better performance than the vehicles currently under development by NASA. (credit: Image courtesy of; created by Philip Metschan -

There is a better way forward (part 2)

The better way forward

Dr. Griffin’s recent Space Transportation Association (STA) speech was one of the best he has delivered since becoming NASA Administrator. In his speech he specifically addressed some of the key advantages of our proposal to develop one STS-based heavy lift launch system rather than the current plan to develop two radically different launch systems with little in common with the current STS or each other, specifically:

“Indeed, the most obvious split involves launching two identical vehicles with approximately equal payloads, mating them in orbit, and proceeding to the Moon. When EOR [Earth Orbit Rendezvous] was considered for Apollo, it was this method that was to be employed, and it offers several advantages. Non-recurring costs are lower because only one launch vehicle development is required, recurring costs are amortized over a larger number of flights of a single vehicle, and the knowledge of system reliability is enhanced by the more rapid accumulation of flight experience.” (Page 15)

“However, this architectural approach carries significant liabilities when we consider the broader requirements of the policy framework discussed earlier. As with the single-launch architecture, dual-launch EOR of identical vehicles is vastly over designed for ISS logistics.” (Page 16)

First, the many advantages cited by Dr. Griffin for DIRECT do not outweigh the solitary “vastly over designed for ISS logistics” disadvantage. NASA support for ISS logistics and crew rotation after the Space Shuttle retires is very limited in duration. The current plan is to transfer ISS support to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program once their emerging capabilities are proven. Ironically, COTS may actual achieve this objective before Ares 1/Orion even flies. This makes the supposed ISS logistics advantages of the Ares 1 altogether moot.

Should we allow the Ares 1 to destroy our current STS heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce, there will be no going back.

Second, the “vastly over designed for ISS logistics” is also false. A closer examination of our proposal shows that we do not field the Jupiter Launch System’s upper stage until after the ISS return mission is accomplished. The first Jupiter Launch System (JLS) variant we field is the Jupiter-120, which provides a comfortable, but not excessive, 20-tonne margin over the Ares 1. This 20-tonne margin enables the Jupiter-120/Orion to be a less expensive and safer replacement for the shuttle’s current ISS crew rotation and logistics support roles until COTS is ready to assume both roles.

Third, the 20-tonne margin will enable the Orion design team to utilize the safer and lower lifecycle cost ground airbag landing system, eliminated due to the poor performance of the Ares 1 and overall negative lunar architecture margins. The removal of lunar-class mission reliability and crew safety systems from Orion late last year in order to pass the upcoming non-independent PDR is disingenuous to anyone who understands spacecraft and lunar architecture design.

With DIRECT there is no need to engage in this expensive and time-consuming bait-and-switch behavior ahead of PDR. With the margins provided by the Jupiter-120 in the near term, and the lunar architecture margins provided by a two-launch Jupiter-232 approach in the long term, the Orion design team can finally move ahead at developing a safe and fully capable lunar-class Orion. As a result Orion will have a lower lifecycle cost, improved mission reliability, increased crew safety, and be available at least two years ahead of the current schedule. By removing all the performance limitations and vibration mitigation uncertainties associated with the Ares 1, the Jupiter-120 will synergistically help the Orion design team reduce their implementation time and cost as well.

Fourth, unlike the duplicative Ares 1, the Jupiter-120 represent a lift and volume capability not available anywhere since the Saturn 5 was dismantled. Thus the Jupiter-120 is justifiable in its own right since it provides unique capabilities that don’t overlap or compete with existing or planned launch systems. The Jupiter-120 provides a number of good reasons for preserving our existing heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce over the long term should the next political cycle delay the lunar objectives of the VSE.

Should we allow the Ares 1 to destroy our current STS heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce, there will be no going back. In a scenario in which the lunar objectives of the VSE are delayed the Ares 5 will not be funded by definition. This will leave NASA in a very poor position of defending the Ares 1 against two or even three less expensive and more capable domestic launch systems. Bottom-line: without the follow on Ares 5 there is no intermediate justification for the Ares 1. This is why our first launch system must be justifiable in it own right (Jupiter-120) while being easily upgradeable to the beyond LEO VSE objectives (Jupiter-232). The ability to sustain steady progress over multiple political cycles requires an implementation plan based on an efficient sequencing of near term and self-sufficient objectives.

We strongly agree with Dr. Griffin that the VSE needs a heavy-lift launch system. Fortunately, we already operate a Saturn 5 class heavy-lift launch system. Every time the STS launches it place more mass into orbit than the Saturn 5. The big problem is that most of that mass is in the form of the shuttle orbiter itself. With the planned retirement of the shuttle the inherent cost and mass inefficiency of the STS can be eliminated. The reconfiguration of the STS stack into the Jupiter Launch System (JLS) will increase the payload delivered to orbit five-fold and cut the current launch cost in half. This combination results in a ten-fold improvement in the cost per kilogram delivered to orbit over the Space Shuttle. So the JLS will not only be the world’s leading launch system in terms of payload mass, diameter, and volume but will also deliver the lowest cost per kilogram to orbit provided we have at least three launches per year. The JLS can uniquely achieve this objective because it leverages the billions of dollars expended over the last thirty years on the current STS hardware, tooling, integration, launch infrastructure, and workforce experience.

The power of freedom

Some have argued that our internal debates over the VSE implementation plan may provide a rationale for rescinding the VSE policy itself. The current VSE policy arose from the soul-searching that followed the tragic loss of Columbia and her crew. The reasons that gave rise to the present VSE policy stand on their own merit and preceded “all” VSE implementation debates and plans. Further a VSE policy cannot, by definition, be threatened by an implementation plan that actually aligns with and reinforces that policy. Rather, it is the current VSE implementation plan that is the primary threat to the VSE policy. The destruction of the STS infrastructure, significant new hardware requirements, increasing spaceflight gap, looming massive workforce layoffs, and increasing budget requirements are all a product of the current VSE implementation plan. What we are about to experience under the current VSE implementation plan would have never been approved by Congress as a matter of civilian space policy. There is nothing wrong with the current policy. It is the current implementation plan that is flawed.

Sustained progress can only be made if the space exploration community is allowed to engage in free and open debate without the threat of reprisal.

Some have argued that our internal debates over the VSE implementation plan may reduce the support of the American people. A great deal of the positive support NASA continues to receive from the American public is a direct result of the contribution NASA makes to our collective self-image as the leading nation in all of mankind’s most visionary endeavors. For this association to be sustained through successive generations NASA must continue to make demonstrable progress. Because these early implementation debates occur many years before demonstrable progress is achieved they have little effect on the perception of NASA by the general public. What the general public does perceive very readily though is the lack of sustained progress beyond LEO over the last thirty-five years.

Sustained progress can only be made if the space exploration community is allowed to engage in free and open debate without the threat of reprisal. Space exploration and development continues to be a very difficult business. It requires constant effort to maintain our current competency and even more effort to exceed the prior generation’s achievements. In the end, even the best educated and most experienced among us can at times be dead wrong. This is precisely why we need to foster an open culture based on honest communication with the objective of watching each other’s blind spots. We need to detect mistakes before they become serious problems. For while we must overcome a number of political and social challenges here on Earth our final test will be in space. Space deals harshly with hubris and those who enable it by stifling open debate. All good implementation plans can by definition withstand open debate and are always improved in that process.

During the successful Apollo program people were fired for covering up problems and promoted for finding solutions to those same tough problems. The current upper management at NASA is doing the exact opposite. Punishing engineers who find real solutions to the fatal flaws in the current approach while rewarding those who ignore, excuse, or promote the same must be reversed or we aren’t going anywhere soon regardless of how much money we spend. America is living proof that on balance the benefits of free and open debate are far superior at producing results than authoritarianism. We cannot showcase to the world the advantages of a free society via our achievements in space by denying those charged with implementing the VSE those same benefits.

The power of individual and team persistence in the face of adversity

A little over a year ago the DIRECT Team wrote an article for The Space Review, titled appropriately “Another voice in the wilderness”. Therein we proposed that our next launch system be a “true” direct derivative of the STS as directed by Congress. We also asked the same question that John Houbolt brashly asked the then-associate NASA administrator “do we want to go to the moon or not?. In order to discount John Houbolt’s Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) plan NASA managers and engineers alike accused him of developing a risky scheme that violated the laws of physics. In his April 3, 2008, House testimony the current Associate NASA Administrator Dr Gilbrech leveled the exact same criticism at the DIRECT plan as well. It appears that history is not without a sense of irony. Regardless, the longer NASA upper management withholds from Congress the ESAS Appendix 6a-f and the recently-completed internal Jupiter Launch System studies that confirm our performance calculations, the more aggravated the speculation becomes that NASA upper management is attempting to cover up serious errors in ESAS. Whether these serious errors were from omission or commission, such delays call into question the purported thoroughness and objectivity of NASA upper management.

The next fifty years will bring a series of VSE implementation debates in which the space exploration community will be looking for optimal or even just feasible solutions along the multi-generational VSE journey before us. Then as now, spirited debates over technical issues should and will occur behind the scenes. Even after history records some of these internal debates they will still be largely unknown or appreciated outside of the comparatively small space exploration community. Only the most infamous of these debates, like John Houbolt’s LOR proposal, will become known to any significant portion of the general public and even then many years after the missions have been successfully accomplished.

The current stewards of our civil space program are repeating our past mistakes by destroying America’s second heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce—all to develop a new launch system that is less capable and more expensive than what we can buy today.

Success of the VSE will ultimately be determined by those who find the right balance between the synergistic yet opposite natures of the individual and the team. While there is “no ‘I’ in team” we must never lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of “I”s in Inspiration, Initiative, Insight, and Innovation. In the journey ahead we will be inspired by leaders who align individual initiative into a cohesive force. These same leaders will also rely on individual insight to find innovative ways around the tough problems confronting the team. The inspirational story of Apollo 13 proves just how uniquely capable even a comparatively small but well led team of individuals can be in bringing forth success from seemly impossible situations. At the same time the tragic stories of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia councils us to not discount, let alone punish, individuals that voice legitimate concerns. A team leader’s best friends are the ones that help them avoid big mistakes not those who cheer them on as they approach the cliff.

While many may hold it against us that we broke ranks with Dr. Griffin, the DIRECT team could not in good conscience stand idly by and let history repeat itself. The current stewards of our civil space program are repeating our past mistakes by destroying America’s second heavy-lift infrastructure and workforce—all to develop a new launch system that is less capable and more expensive than what we can buy today. Further, we firmly believe that the United States will simply not have the resources needed to create an entirely new launch system significantly larger than the Saturn 5 (Ares 5) with the discretionary budget environment that is clearly ahead of us.

Our sincere admiration for the NASA workforce and the national importance of their mission compelled us to produce the DIRECT proposal. Working on our own time, utilizing publicly available sources of information and drawing upon over six hundred years of collective and diverse experience, the authors and contributors to the DIRECT plan have provided detailed and workable solutions to the serious problems facing our nation’s space exploration program.

As citizens we respectfully petition our elected representatives to please review the current VSE implementation plan in the light of what they originally authorized. We agree with Dr. Griffin that it is “the best civil space policy to have been enunciated by a president in four decades or more, and the best authorization act to be approved by the Congress since the 1960s.” It is not too late to save the STS infrastructure and talented workforce we need to implement this policy from destruction by the Ares 1. All we lack is a NASA leadership committed to leveraging rather than destroying a national asset the citizens have faithfully funded for over three decades in order to implement the “best civil space policy since the 1960s.”

James R. Hansen, the space historian who chronicled Houbolt’s story in Enchanted Rendezvous, demonstrates that Houbolt’s contributions would not merely be measured by Apollo, but would reverberate forward into the future. “Sometimes one person alone or a small group of persons may have the best answer to a problem,” Hansen wrote. “And those who believe passionately in their ideas must not quit, even in the face of the strongest opposition or pressures for conformity.”