The Human Space Flight Committee Report

By Chip Neville
West Hartford, CT

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee Report came out this week. Well actually, it was not the full report, but rather a Summary Report. A PDF is available here.

Because I am neither an aerospace engineer nor a rocket scientist, I don’t plan on taking issue with the recommendations of the report; I simply want to report on it. (Bragging time: It is uncanny how often the report echoed points I made in my July 20th “NASA’s Next Frontier” post, which you will find here.)

The summary report begins by saying,

The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today.

The Ares family options.

The Ares I-X rocket assembly, including the solid state booster, Ares-I liquid fueled rocket, simulated crew module and launch abort system. The Ares I-X flight test is targeted for Oct. 31. Source: NASA

The Ares I-X rocket assembly, including the solid state booster, Ares-I liquid fueled rocket, simulated crew module and launch abort system. The Ares I-X flight test is targeted for Oct. 31. Source: NASA

The report goes on to lay out eight options. The first is the “program of record,” that is the current program of building the Ares-I and Ares-V rockets and aiming for missions to the Moon first. For those of you who haven’t kept up with your Ares family rocket science, a brief word of explanation is in order. The NASA implementation of George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration,” the “program of record” option, envisioned the Ares-I rocket and Orion crew capsule (think the Apollo capsule, but bigger) as the transport system for crew to orbit. The lifting of heavy equipment, such as the lunar lander, was to be done by a huge Ares-V rocket. The idea was for crew and equipment to rendezvous in orbit, and then fly to the Moon, unlike the Apollo missions in the 1960’s and 1970’s which flew crew and equipment directly from Earth to the Moon. NASA, following George Bush’s directive, planned to land an exploratory crew on the Moon by 2020. To help pay for all this, NASA planned to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010 and de-orbit the International Space Station in 2015.

Many space experts criticized the Ares program because it was, they claimed, seriously underfunded. The Committee’s report validated these criticisms. The Committee found that the Ares program constrained by the fiscal year 2010 budget (with slight additional funds to allow for a safe pace for Shuttle flights needed to complete the International Space Station and to pay for de-orbiting the ISS in 2016), is now and would continue to be so underfunded that there would be no money to build the lunar lander and lunar systems needed to explore the Moon. It sacrifices the Space Shuttle after 2011, sacrifices the International Space Station after 2016, and leaves us with no human launch capability until after 2016 or later.

Table 4-1. A summary of the integrated program options. Source: Human Space Flight Committee Summary Report.

Table 4-1. A summary of the integrated program options. Source: Human Space Flight Committee Summary Report.

The September 10 Ares booster test. Source: Alliant Techsystems

The September 10 Ares booster test. Source: Alliant Techsystems

This, the “program of record” option is one of only two which use the Ares-I rocket system, for which we have already spent $7 billion. The other is the program of record option with additional funding. The Ares-I solid state booster was tested successfully on September 10, after a previous failure on August 27. A crucial flight test of the full Ares-I assembly, made up of the booster, a dummy second stage and a mock-up of an Orion capsule, is scheduled for October 31. We’ll find out then if the vibration problems some engineers have predicted will wreck everything. If that happens, or if it doesn’t work for any other reason, Ares-I will almost certainly be scrapped.

However, three of the other options use what the Committee calls “Ares-V Lite.” The Ares-V Lite option simply abandons the Ares-I and puts the Orion capsule (possibly reduced in size) directly on top of the Ares-V. (A second Ares-V would launch heavy equipment such as the lunar lander in the case of a Moon mission, and crew and equipment would rendezvous in low Earth orbit as before.) Ares-V Lite uses many components from the Ares-I program, including the solid fuel booster which was just successfully tested, so the full 7 billion may not go down the drain.

Commercial space flight.

The Committee laid out four options which do not use the Ares-I vehicle. All of these are very interesting in that they envision sending crew to low Earth orbit in COMMERCIAL LAUNCH VEHICLES. In section 2.3 of the report, “Lowering the cost of space exploration,” the Committee states,

The cost of exploration is dominated by the costs of launch to low-Earth orbit and of the in-space systems. It seems improbable that significant reductions in launch costs will be realized in the short term until launch rates increase substantially–perhaps through expanded commercial activity in space. How can the nation stimulate such activity? In the 1920s, the federal government awarded a series of guaranteed contracts for carrying airmail, stimulating the growth of the airline industry. The Committee concludes that an architecture for exploration employing a similar policy of guaranteed contracts has the potential to stimulate a vigorous and competitive commercial space industry. Such commercial ventures could include supply of cargo to the ISS (already underway), transport of crew to orbit and transport of fuel to orbit. Establishing these commercial opportunities could increase launch volume and potentially lower costs to NASA and all other launch-services customers.

The Committee goes on to warn, “This approach is not without technical and programmatic risks,” but it concludes that,

… it creates the possibility of lower operating costs for the system and potentially accelerates the availability of U.S. access to low Earth orbit by about a year, to 2016. The Committee suggests establishing a new competition for this service, in which both large and small companies could participate.

In fact, NASA is already doing this through its “COTS” program (see NASA Invests in Private Sector Space Flight with SpaceX, Rocketplane-Kistler,
August 18, 2006). The COTS program stems from a January 14, 2004 directive to NASA from President George W. Bush, and it looks as though it will be a success. The risks the Committee identified have already manifested themselves: Rocketplane-Kistler, one of the two original COTS participants, is experiencing financial trouble and NASA has terminated the contract. However, on July 16 SpaceX, the other original COTS participant, successfully launched a Malaysian satellite aboard their Falcon 1 rocket. Elon Musk, their CEO and CTO, (who is also the founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors) anticipates they will be launching cargo for the International Space Station robotically into orbit by 2010. Blogger and astrophysicist Sean Carroll has a nice writeup about the successful Falcon 1 launch on Cosmic Variance. The embedded video of the launch is spectacular, so check it it out.

July 16, 2009: The red hot Falcon-1 second stage engine.  The newly separated first stage is falling below. Source: SpaceX Corporation

July 16, 2009: The red hot Falcon-1 second stage engine. The newly separated first stage is falling below. Source: SpaceX Corporation

It turns out that commercial space flight has actually been with us since 1990, when the Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched a small satellite using their internally developed Pegasus rocket. The Pegasus has flown 40 missions since 1990, most of them successful. Though pound-for-pound the Pegasus is one of the most expensive launch vehicles available, it has found a unique and profitable niche launching very small satellites and has been a commercial success. After NASA terminated Rocketplane-Kistler’s contract, they awarded a COTS contract to Orbital. Though they willl have to develop a new and much larger launch vehicle, given Orbital’s track record, it is very likely they will succeed. So we may soon find that there are two firms competing for NASA contracts for cargo delivery and, eventually, crew transport!

What about the International Space Station?

Under the current program of record, President Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration,” the International Space Station is scheduled to be tossed into the sea in 2015. The Committee’s report is a bureaucratic document and has to include all policy options, so it included two that follow the present plan to junk the ISS in 2015. However, the remaining six options envision extending the ISS’s life until 2020, and the Committee strongly recommended against tossing the ISS into the ocean in 2015. As the Committee said,

… the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life to 2020. It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life. Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships. Further, the ISS should be funded to enable it to achieve its full potential: as the nation’s newest national laboratory, as an enhanced test bed for technologies and operational techniques that support exploration, and as a framework that can support expanded international collaboration.

What about the Shuttle?

The International Space Station is not yet complete. Under current plans, the Space Shuttle is to continue to deliver parts, supplies and crew to the ISS through 2010, and then be retired from service. This causes several problems, as the Committee pointed out. First,

… the projected flight rate is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since return to flight after the Columbia accident. Recognizing that undue schedule and budget pressure can subtly impose a negative influence on safety, the Committee finds that a more realistic schedule is prudent.

The Committee goes on to recommend extending the Shuttle’s life until 2011, and pointedly recommends BUDGETING sufficient funds for that.

Second, there is the problem of the “Gap.”

Once the Shuttle is retired, there will be a gap in America’s capability to launch humans into space. That gap will extend until the next U.S. human-rated launch system becomes available. The Committee estimates that, under the current plan, this gap will be at least seven years long. There has not been this long a gap in U.S. human launch capability since the U.S. human space program began.

Only one of the eight options presented by the Committee extends the Shuttle’s life beyond 2011; it extends it to 2015 and envisions refueling in space to augment our heavy launch capability. In my opinion, the Committee made a mistake. All six of the viable options should have included extending the Shuttle’s life to eliminate the gap. Further, the Shuttle is extremely useful not only for servicing the ISS but also the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble, which has shown us so much about the universe, should be serviced again if needed, and kept in operation for the foreseeable future. The Shuttle should remain in service until we have an equally capable vehicle for crewed missions to the Hubble.

Where to go?

The Committee rejected the Mars-first exploration plan that some have espoused, but strongly supported an eventual mission to Mars.

A human landing followed by an extended human presence on Mars stands prominently above all other opportunities for exploration. Mars is unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system, with a history much like Earth’s. It possesses resources, which can be used for life support and propellants. If humans are ever to live for long periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars. But Mars is not an easy place to visit with existing technology and without a substantial investment of resources. The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination.

The Committee found a Moon-first and “Flexible-Path” exploration plan were both reasonable options, and both equally good. The Moon-first option envisions landing on and exploring the surface of the Moon in detail, as preparation for an eventual human crewed mission to Mars. The Flexible-Path exploration requires a bit more explanation. As the Committee describes it,

On this path, humans would visit sites never visited before and extend our knowledge of how to operate in space–while traveling greater and greater distances from Earth. Successive missions would visit: lunar orbit; the Lagrange points (special points in space that are important sites for scientific observations and the future space transportation infrastructure); near-Earth objects (asteroids that cross the Earth’s path); and orbit around Mars.

How much will it cost?

The Committee found that “Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit (what we do now) is not viable under the FY 2010 guideline.” However, meaningful human exploration on either the Moon-first or Flexible-Path plan can be successfully done for about $3 billion extra (above the FY 2010 budget) per year. Specifically, they recommend a “budget <which> increases to $3 billion above the FY 2010 guidance by FY 2014, then grows with inflation at a more reasonable 2.4 percent per year.”

Why go in the first place?

This is the weakest part of the report. The Committee never makes a compelling case for continuing human spaceflight beyond the International Space Stations’s life. Here are some of the things the Committee does say:

There is now a strong consensus in the United States that the next step in human spaceflight is to travel beyond low-Earth orbit. This should carry important benefits to society, including: driving technological innovation; developing commercial industries and important national capabilities; and contributing to our expertise in further exploration. Human exploration can contribute appropriately to the expansion of scientific knowledge, particularly in areas such as field geology, and it is in the interest of both science and human spaceflight that a credible and well rationalized strategy of coordination between them be developed.

Exploration provides an opportunity to demonstrate space leadership while deeply engaging international partners; to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers; and to shape human perceptions of our place in the universe. The Committee concluded that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system. This is an ambitious goal, but one worthy of U.S. leadership in concert with a broad range of international partners.

It is worth examining these less than stirring arguments. It certainly is true that one field geologist on Mars could discover more in a day than a robotic explorer in a month. In fact, one of the tragedies of the Apollo program was that only one scientist, geologist Harrison Schmitt, ever set foot on the Moon. So it is a welcome development that the Committee stressed that, “it is in the interest of both science and human spaceflight that a credible and well rationalized strategy of coordination between them be developed.” However, though it may take much longer, robotic exploration is much cheaper, much safer, and ultimately yields the same data.

So we are mostly left with the whizz-bang arguments: demonstrating space leadership (also known as “national prestige”), inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, and shaping human perceptions of our place in the universe. The Hubble space telescope and our brilliantly successful robotic missions to the planets have done far more to “to shape human perceptions of our place in the universe” than crewed missions are ever likely to do. Ditto with inspiring scientists and engineers.

Earthrise over the Moon.  Apollo 8 Christmas, 1968. Source: NASA

Earthrise over the Moon. Apollo 8 Christmas, 1968. Source: NASA

However, there is one significant element missing from this pessimistic analysis, and that is the element of unanticipated consequences. It turns out that the development of integrated circuits was greatly spurred by the Apollo space program. So the iPhones and laptop computers we enjoy today, not to mention the generation of American digital technological leadership which we are now rapidly loosing, are, in a very real sense, grandchildren of the Apollo space program. The Committee might have tried saying a little about this in their Summary Report. Maybe it will make its way into the full report.

As for shaping our perceptions, it turns out that the Apollo era images of the Earth as a fragile and beautiful blue sphere suspended in the blackness of space were more crucial than anything else in helping us realize that we all live on one shared world, and we all need to take care of it. There has been nothing since, not even the magnificent images from the Hubble, which have so affected our perception of our place in the universe.

This leaves us with the Committee’s conclusion that “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” It sounds good, but there is a problem the Committee fails to address. There are no places outside Earth in the entire solar system which are hospitable to human life. Even Mars, even if it could be “terraformed” — converted into a more Earthlike place by releasing large amounts of water and oxygen into the atmosphere, would remain unhospitable because we are adapted to 1 g gravity and Mars has a gravitational field of only 1/3 g. This means that the muscles of long-time residents would atrophy and their bones would become fragile. So why go? The only answer is, “because it’s there.”

How to reduce the cost.

Past epochs of exploration have been driven by economic motives. The new lands found in the Age of Discovery were fertile and ripe for exploitation for economic gain (often much to the discomfort of the people already there). It may turn out (unanticipated consequences again) that we will find something in the solar system outside Earth worth exploiting, even given the enormous costs of transporting whatever we find back to Earth. But in the foreseeable future, it is most likely that whatever resources we exploit will be the ones already here on Earth. Thus, we lack the economic motives of previous exploratory epochs and are left with simple curiosity. This makes it all the more important to find ways to reduce the cost to us. The easiest way to reduce the cost to us is to share the burden with others, and the Committee recommends just this:

First, space exploration has become a global enterprise. Many nations have aspirations in space, and the combined annual budgets of their space programs are comparable to NASA’s. If the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant benefits could follow. Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today’s multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources, and enhance the exploration enterprise.

If, after designing cleverly, building alliances with partners, and engaging commercial providers, the nation cannot afford to fund the effort to pursue the goals it would like to embrace, it should accept the disappointment of setting lesser goals.

I couldn’t agree more.

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