The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion illustration
Orion won’t be flying to the Moon any time soon, but the program has been spared in the latest iteration of NASA’s human space exploration plans. (credit: Lockheed MArtin)

President Obama’s Vision for Space Exploration

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President Obama’s April 15th rollout of a new direction for the American space effort has elicited reactions ranging from Elon Musk’s praise for “an ambitious and exciting new plan that will alter our destiny as a species” to a letter from Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Gene Cernan warning that this new policy “destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.” However, much like the discussion immediately following the 2004 unveiling of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)—before NASA’s release of its plan to implement national policy, the Constellation program/Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS)—the value of this new policy won’t be fully apparent until more details about implementation are available for public discussion.

The strategy developed during the previous administration placed a premium on securing an American capability to send American astronauts into orbit.

It is important to note that Presidential space policies generally lack very specific budgets, mission architectures, and especially technical details, and the devils in any space policy inevitably lie in the details. Had the Space Shuttle been able to perform as originally planned, or had Space Station Freedom been built on time with all of its capabilities intact, or had the National Aerospace Plane, DC-X, VentureStar, or any one of a host of other vehicles become operational, we would be looking at a very different space exploration environment today. Nonetheless, there are a few elements in the new Presidential policy that open up a number of interesting opportunities.

This piece—the first of two parts—discusses implications of this new policy’s guidance on crew transportation and heavy lift. The second part of the article will discuss other elements of President Obama’s new policy regarding political sustainability, international cooperation, and other policy implications.

Crew transport

Much of the debate over the new plan involves how the United States will transport astronauts to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Under the previous national space exploration architecture, the Constellation program was tasked with developing a replacement for the Space Shuttle—a new capsule and launch vehicle, the Orion and the Ares I, respectively, based in large measure on significantly modified technology derived from the Shuttle and Apollo programs. In that architecture, plans were made to employ commercial launch services and spacecraft to transfer cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), with a potential for later crew transportation to the station.

The strategy developed during the previous administration placed a premium on securing an American capability to send American astronauts into orbit. The decision to make NASA directly responsible for the design and development of the Orion/Ares 1 system, rather than the traditional practice of relying on contractors, as well as the decisions to make a capsule with fewer crew than the Space Shuttle with no cargo capability, no robotic arm, and no EVA capability—at least in its baseline configuration—all implied a strong determination to be absolutely certain that the United States had something, anything, that could be counted on in years and decades to come to provide access, at a bare minimum, to LEO within a few years after the retirement of the Space Shuttle.

Complementing this emphasis on securing the national ability to send astronauts into orbit was the introduction of the then-revolutionary Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that would rely on a commercial service to provide cargo transportation to the ISS. Based on faith in this program, as well as the European and Japanese capabilities to provide cargo transportation to the ISS, in 2008 NASA opted not to renew a contract with Russia for delivery of cargo to the ISS using the Progress vehicle—a surprising development given the fact that keeping the ISS crew alive after the 2003 Columbia accident depended entirely on the use of the Russian cargo vehicles.

Removing the Orion capsule as obvious competition to commercial crew transportation should make it easier for commercial providers to make a business case for launching crew to the ISS.

Overall, ESAS planned to lock in a NASA crew flight capability, which could shortly thereafter be used for lunar and—eventually—deep space missions. Meanwhile, the architecture planned on cultivating a commercial capability to send cargo to ISS as soon as was practicable, which could then evolve to include the transportation of crew to ISS. If the commercial technology worked out as hoped, commercial services would be available within the decade and provide a substantial reduction in operating costs, assuming, of course, that the existence of a similar NASA capability wouldn’t crowd out commercial systems. A NASA-owned crew transportation system could have also reduced schedule pressure on the development of relatively immature commercial systems. Further, should commercial providers of crew transportation services become insolvent, an existing NASA capability would mean that bailout of that failed company wouldn’t be the only option for maintaining access to LEO. In essence, the ESAS approach revolved around locking in a government capsule as a sort of real options, risk management hedge to allow maturation of future, less expensive commercial technologies.

Crew transport and the new space policy

President Obama’s new space policy makes use of an analogous risk management approach, but implements this approach differently. First, the new policy has cancelled the launchers planned under the Constellation program, and will scale back the Orion crew capsule for use as a lifeboat on the ISS, complementing the Russian Soyuz capsules already docked at the station. Secondly, the plan shifts significant funding to commercial transportation of both crew and cargo.

There are several interesting questions regarding the new Orion-lite capsules. First, these capsules should, obviously, be human-rated to return people to Earth. However, this implies that they may not necessarily need to be human-rated for the flight up to the station. In other words, they could fly to the station as unmanned vehicles, but return with crew. This would eliminate both the need for human-rating whatever launch vehicle will send these capsules to orbit, along with dispensing with some of the heavier subsystems, such as a launch escape tower, which have delayed deployment of the Orion. Further, by eliminating some of the more troublesome subsystems, features that had been previously discarded due to their weight—such as the ability to touchdown on land, rather than water—could reduce operational costs associated with the vehicle. Given the February statements of Lockheed Martin Vice President and General Manager John Karas, that the fully capable Orion capsule (not the lighter lifeboat version), could be ready for flight as soon as 2013, and the suggestion in the Augustine Committee report on the future of human spaceflight that a shift to an Orion-lite would cost about a year, we should be able to expect an Orion first flight before 2015. Secondly, by removing the human rating requirement for launching the Orion-lite, it avoids cost and schedule concerns associated with the human rating of launch vehicle candidates to lift the capsule into orbit.

The ability to use non-human rated launch vehicles opens up an opportunity to deploy an interoperable Orion-lite that could be launched with a Delta 4 Heavy, Atlas 5 variant, or even a foreign launch vehicle like the European Ariane 5. Moreover, any unmanned Orion-lite launched to the ISS could potentially even provide ad hoc pressurized cargo transportation to the ISS as well as a meager downmass cargo capability, a feature currently lacking in any of the existing station cargo vehicles other than the soon-to-be-retired Shuttle.

The old ESAS plan and Obama’s new exploration plan place opposite weights on commercial and government-provided capabilities.

Removing the Orion capsule as obvious competition to commercial crew transportation should make it easier for commercial providers to make a business case for launching crew to the ISS. Yet recent sentiment from major prime contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin suggests that their previous experiences with the development of the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), the difficulties of the Sea Launch program, and the failed X-33 VentureStar, to name a few, have made the some contractors reluctant to pursue commercial crew launch capabilities. For many of the smaller, newer companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, who are interested in commercial opportunities, this could be an excellent opportunity to shine and demonstrate their entrepreneurial prowess. However, being the only answer to the impending Russian monopoly on flight to the ISS could also tempt these companies to succumb to schedule pressures and push forward before systems are fully mature, producing devastating front-page disasters. If, ultimately, the capabilities of NASA or major prime contractors, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are needed to provide the ability to launch crews to the ISS, work on the Orion-lite capsule could help offset some of the development costs of upgrading the Orion to send crew to orbit.

Beyond the immediate prospect of transportation to LEO and the ISS, developing an Orion-lite now can also open the option for gradual spiral development of the capsule to, among other things, provide a deep space exploration vehicle, suitable for missions to the vicinity of the Moon and beyond. President Obama’s plan for crew transportation is essentially the same real options, risk management hedge present in the Constellation program, but by pushing for early deployment of Orion-lite capsule, implements this risk development strategy using different tactics.

The old ESAS plan and Obama’s new exploration plan place opposite weights on commercial and government-provided capabilities. The older ESAS plan counted on a government capability, while cultivating a commercial alternative, while the new plan, essentially, counts on a commercial capability while cultivating a governmental alternative. In both cases, the Orion is intended to be evolved into a vehicle capable of operation beyond LEO, and in both cases, commercial cargo transportation is seen as the essential foundation of continued American presence at the ISS. Which path is more sensible depends on risk preferences and assessment of the relative technological maturity of both NASA and commercial launch vehicle and spacecraft designs.

Cargo and heavy lift launchers

Noting that “Depending on future human mission designs, NASA could decide to develop or acquire a heavy lift vehicle later this decade,” President Bush’s space policy only enunciated the potential need for heavy lift in future mission architectures. The Constellation program developed in response to that policy does call for the creation of a heavy-lift vehicle, the Ares 5, which would have been roughly on the same scale as its Apollo-era predecessor, the Saturn 5. Unfortunately, as initial development of the Ares 5 continued, projected costs continued to increase, rising to $40–50 billion as of last year. Ultimately, the Ares 5 proved to be more costly than the nation was willing to pay for.

The new space policy framework delays any decision on building a heavy-lift vehicle until 2015, allowing five years to demonstrate new technologies that can reduce the cost and risk of large-scale human exploration of space. The most important of these technologies is on-orbit refueling. On-orbit refueling—the ability to launch payloads and their fuel separately—enables a heavy-lift vehicle to send two to three times more cargo to a destination on the Moon or in deep space. Alternately, such technologies could reduce the amount of cargo that a heavy-lift vehicle would be required to carry into space, or even theoretically eliminate the need for a heavy-lift vehicle altogether. The hope is that by scaling down the heavy-lift requirement, costs too can be scaled down, making the launch and operational costs more sustainable.

Even if it is not possible to mature on-orbit refueling technologies sufficiently to make a significant impact on the 2015 heavy-lift decision, President Obama’s new policy also calls for work on new engine technologies that should help reduce development and operations costs for a new heavy lift vehicle. In the long term, regardless of whether or not on-orbit refueling can be developed to a reasonable maturity level by 2015 decision, any human mission to Mars that involves more than “footprints and flag planting” will likely require both heavy-lift launch and on-orbit refueling capabilities.

One of the other interesting implications of the choice to delay any decision on a heavy-lift vehicle until 2015, is that it provides another opportunity to revisit many significant architecture decisions including destinations and international cooperation.