Thursday, October 08, 2009

NASA's Moon-Mars Chief Offers Candid Critique: White House Spaceflight Panel Way Off Base

The director of NASA's embattled moon-Mars program says President Barack Obama's human spaceflight commission is making false claims about the advantages of alternatives and ignores "anything positive" about the program NASA spent $9 billion on over the past five years.

In an e-mail obtained by Florida Today, NASA Project Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley also says the committee is "dismissive" of the recommendations of Columbia accident investigators.

To treat astronaut crew safety as a 'sine qua non' -- a given -- "is a cop out...plain and simple," Hanley said in a candid, 3,376-word e-mail to Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats.

The blue-ribbon panel was created to review NASA's ongoing moon-Mars program and provide alternatives. It found that NASA's Constellation program is on "an unsustainable trajectory" and that President Obama should consider options which effectively would cancel the agency's Ares I crew launcher and instead fly astronauts on commercial rockets.

Hanley said that idea raises significant legal issues and would put at risk future U.S. human space exploration. "We are betting the farm on severe speculation," Hanley told Coats, a veteran shuttle pilot and mission commander.

The blunt assessment of the commission's executive summary, which was delivered to the White House on Sept. 8, comes to light as the panel holds a final public hearing today. A full report by the 10-member committee, formed in May and led by Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, is due at the White House by the end of the month.

Efforts by e-mail and telephone seeking comment from Augustine, his committee's executive director and its chief spokesman were unsuccessful.

Hanley's comments "reflect the informed engineering judgment of someone who's been living with these issues for years," said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and a former NASA associate administrator.

"Where I might differ is that I think the Augustine Committee was clear in saying it was not making recommendations. Further, the document being discussed was an executive summary, so it's hard to say that evidence is lacking for various assertions as we just don't know without the final report," Pace said.

NASA since 2004 has been on course to complete the International Space Station and retire its shuttle fleet by the end of 2010; develop a new U.S. crew transportation system by 2014 and then return American astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Project Constellation is developing Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft as part of that mission, but the presidential panel said it doubted NASA could meet those goals on time. And the panel suggested commercial industry might be able to deliver crew transportation services faster and cheaper.

"This group of smart people has looked at the riskiness of the commercial providers compared to the riskiness of NASA, and apparently come to the conclusion that the risks are comparable," John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, told Florida Today earlier this year.

"They've looked closely at this and seem to have come to the conclusion that we are at a point in the evolution of space transportation where a commercial provider could balance risk, cost and profit and make a business -- with, it should be added, significant help from the government."

Hanley is not so sure.

In the e-mail and telephone interviews Wednesday, Hanley said U.S. commercial launch services companies have not demonstrated the capacity to fly astronauts safely and reliably.

It's unclear whether the companies have the intellectual capital to develop complex crew escape systems -- a job not undertaken since the Apollo moon-landing project, he said.

And it's unclear whether the U.S. government or a commercial crew transportation company would be legally liable for property damage or loss of life in the event of a Challenger- or Columbia-like disaster.

"How could NASA blindly 'trust' them to 'get it right' and then indemnify them for any loss of life?" Hanley said in the e-mail to Coats. "There are significant legal issues here as well as technical and intellectual capability issues."

Hanley raised other concerns.

++On the development of a heavy-lift launcher:

The committee noted that the Ares I launcher "has the advantage of projected very high ascent crew safety" but claimed its development would delay the Saturn V-class Ares V.

"Great heavy sigh," Hanley wrote. "This paragraph demonstrates either an intentional mischaracterization of the facts or a clear lack of understanding of Constellation."

The Ares I first-stage -- a five-segment version of the shuttle's solid rocket booster -- also will be used on the Ares V.

The Ares I second stage engine -- an upgraded version of a Saturn V engine -- will propel the upper stage of the Ares V.

The committee's claim is "patently false and untrue," Hanley wrote. "We are building the Ares V NOW."

++On the potential use of upgraded versions of existing Atlas V or Delta IV Heavy rockets for crew or cargo transport:

The committee claimed the use of these rockets could potentially lower development and operations costs.

"This is a claim unsupported and unsubstantiated with any assessment or data," Hanley wrote.

It also represents "a wholesale deconstruction of NASA's human spaceflight centers, and is suggesting that NASA has nothing to contribute to the launch vehicle development business anymore."


Anonymous said...

I am at a loss to understand how a $360 million "test" flight of Ares 1-X in it's planned configuration could have mustered approval.

Although allegedly intended to "test" the rocket's first stage flight control system, parachute recovery system, separation of first & second stages and establish vibration parameters, in reality it tests little more than how fast we can plow through cash.

The Ares first stage is designed for five solid rocket motor segments. The 1-X "test" flight utilizes four actual motor segments and at Enormous Additional Cost, a "simulated" motor segment.

That means the fact finding "test" flight fly's lower and slower which obviously translates too less vibration. Less speed & vibration means less data on actual flight dynamics and structural integrity. Less vibration on a simulated Orion capsule means less data on launch survivability for an eventual crew.

Due to the simulated segment, separation will occur at a slower speed and much lower altitude, making first stage tumble and chute deployment much less representative of an actual flight.

Testing first and second stage separation adds no value as all subsequently planned Ares flights separate on an all together different plane.

The first stage flight control system being "tested" is essentially the same one in place for the last 128 Space Shuttle launches. You'd think we'd have a pretty good handle on how it might perform.

There's absolutely no testing of 1-X's second stage flight dynamics as following separation it simply continues on a ballistic arc, crashing into the Atlantic. What can we learn from such a "test" flight?

A very possible revelation is a vehicle with such a high slenderness ratio (14' x 327'), twice that of a Saturn V and almost twice that of a Delta IV, may very well break apart prior to planned first stage separation (ever see high speed video of a javelin in flight?). That is if it doesn't topple over on it's unsupported roll-out to the pad.

Someone really needs to re-think this.

Anonymous said...

Arguing with a man whose job depends on not being convinced is a fool's errand. It's not news that the Constellation Program Manager doesn't see the merits of the Augustine Commission's Report, but ignoring the facts does not change the facts.

Ares 1 mission is to carry crew to the ISS following retirement of the Shuttles. Best, not worse case scenario, Ares comes on line for launching those ISS astronauts After it's currently funded 2015 de-orbit date, making it a complete waste of time and money. IF, the ISS life is extended to 2020 (and that's iffy), Ares still not slated for station flights till 2018 leaving a 7-8 year gap in US Human Spaceflight launch capability. These facts are not in dispute.

Anonymous said...

As the legend goes, when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez landed in what is now Mexico in 1519, he ordered the boats that brought him and his men there to be burned.

Cortez, according to the story, burned his boats to force his men to move inland with no option of going back. The Shuttle program is, metaphorically, like Cortez' boats. After 2010, due to Bush's myopic vision, the Shuttles are gone. The Constellation project will provide the vehicles for the next big step in human space exploration... seven-eight years later.

The Space Shuttle program will end in 2010. The Constellation program is not scheduled to begin manned flights until 2017-18. Meanwhile, NASA faces dramatic job reductions among its 21,000 labor force at the close of the Shuttle Program. For example, the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, FL faces a cut of 8,000 contractor jobs. The Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans could lose 1,300 of its 1,900 jobs.

The Constellation Program is the follow-on to the Shuttle program. NASA is in the early development stage of the new Ares 1 rocket and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The plan is for them to take astronauts to the moon which will become a staging area for the eventual exploration of Mars.

Back to the Cortez analogy. The space boats are being burned on schedule as the Shuttle program phases out. The way forward is on the Ares 1 rocket and the CEV - Cortez's guns and horses. But Capitan Hernando Bush says, "Men, let's keep the guns clean and the powder dry, but not feed the horses for seven-eight years while we sit here on the beach and hope."

In the meantime what happens to NASA's cadre of scientists for the seven-eight years between US Human Space Flight missions? The answer is they move on because seven-eight years without US Human Space Flight is tantamount to killing it. Those scientists that can, retire. Many of those that cannot retire, find jobs elsewhere - maybe working in China's space program. Then, at some indefinite "7 year minimum" time down the road, the US Human Space Program restarts and they come back. Or not.

In the meantime, how do our astronauts get to the International Space Station? Simple, they hitch rides on Russian space craft until the Chinese enter the space transport competition.

All this while we leave the space exploration legacy of JFK sitting idle on the beach. Watching the boats burn.

Anonymous said...

Hanley's comments about "betting on the come" for commercialization is correct. Commercialization should be pursued, but not the way NASA nor the Augustine Committee have envisioned it; too risky. However, the utility and operational affordability of the Ares I product does not justify spending over five times the amount we've now spent. Cut our losses and work towards something that is really Shuttle-Derived and allows us to explore the solar system sooner, and more affordably. I think, too, that it may be time for a change in leadership at NASA. I don't get the impression they understand the economy we're in, and what brings true economic growth...and what holds it back.

Todd Halvorson said...


Point of clarification:

The Ares I mission is NOT to fly to space station and never has been. The Ares I was designed to return American astronauts to the moon but would be available for station duty if and only if commercial providers do not show up to do the job......

Anonymous said...

This is the change you voted for. You are the sheep being led to the slaughter.

Anonymous said...

That PINHEAD bush is who cancelled the Shuttle Program and even his original plan called for a four year gap (currently stretched to 7-8 years) in US Human Spaceflight capability.


Anonymous said...

For Todd Halvorson to clarify:

When then? What year does the public begin benefiting from the Ares I, again? Exactly how many missions, over what time frame, does the public reap the benefit of the estimated $50B investment?

Anonymous said...

I think the Ares will make its one test flight and then go straight to a museum. Obama will extend the shuttle to 2015 and say"look i'm saving jobs"with 2 launches a year,then when he gets re-elcted he can go ahead and kill NASA and give the money to his inner city supporters.

Anonymous said...

"NASA has nothing to contribute to the launch vehicle development business anymore."

At least he got that point right.

Anonymous said...

>This is the change you voted for. You are the sheep being led to the slaughter.

Like the LAST pResident Idiot Savant did ANYTHING to make his "vision" a reality, right?

Anonymous said...

To Todd Halvorson

You should be thrilled about the space reductions just as you were back in the day when they almost cancelled the shuttle program. You could not pen enough words of despair in your small column back then. I stopped buying the Today newspaper because of your "reporting". The amazing part is that your still around and I'm still not buying Today

Matt Wronkiewicz said...

You want misrepresentation of the facts? Hanley appears to know little about the program he's supposed to be managing. "The Ares I first-stage -- a five-segment version of the shuttle's solid rocket booster -- also will be used on the Ares V." Ares V uses 5.5 segment SRBs, not five segments like Ares I. That means that all the work we've put into upgrading the Space Shuttle's SRBs, we will have to do all over again for Ares V. "We are building the Ares V NOW." Playing with computer animations is not the same as building. On Atlas and Delta, "this is a claim unsupported and unsubstantiated with any assessment or data". It is, however, substantiated by the fact that these rockets have been flying safely since 2002.

Gaetano Marano said...

they always reach the right conclusions with months or years of delay... :(
this time, they say that the HSF Committee is WRONG over THREE months AFTER the days when I've started to say that, in my articles... :[
anyhow, the WORST consequence of the BAD work of the A.C. and of its (expected) BAD suggestions, is, that, following them, the politics can only take lots of BAD decisions!

Gaetano Marano said...

just to add that he is RIGHT about the (much higher!) costs of the "commercial space cargo" that will be over $60M per ton (for SpaceX) and over $95M per ton (for Orbital Sciences) carried to the ISS... up to FOUR TIMES the price to carry a ton with the Shuttle and 200-300% higher than the costs to carry a ton of cargo to the ISS with the (already existing!) ATV and HTV as explained here:
also, the ATV can dock to the ISS while the SpaceX and Orbital vehicles (like the HTV) must be captured by the Canadarm-2 and berted to the ISS
last, both Cygnus and Dracon are too small and can't be reused to build a new, small, ISS-2 with ARTIFICIAL GRAVITY that, instead, can be build (nearly FREE) reusing the ATV launched to the ISS:
in other words, the COTS/CRS programs just means $4 billion of NASA money BURNED

John Kavanagh said...

"[Ares 1] would be available for station duty if and only if commercial providers do not show up to do the job"

Want to bet billions on that promise? Any why would any commercial launch investors risk capital serving the commercial crew to ISS sector when NASA repeatedly demonstrates that it wants to remain in the same business as the last thirty years - namely being a taxpayer-subsidized competitor for Earth to LEO crew transport?

The comments of Jeff Hanley and Senator Shelby send a clear signal to spaceflight venture capitalists: NASA and its patrons in Congress will do all that it takes to discredit and cut funds for commercial alternatives that threaten the massive spending and massive employment required for NASA's government-operated space transportation system.

Anonymous said...

Like the Shuttle, why has NASA has put all of its eggs into one basket again with Ares 1? Why didn't it try to man-rate existing boosters such as Delta 4 or Atlas 5 years ago? Because most of NASA is bethroed to ATK - it seems!

Anonymous said...

Ares I mission was to support the ISS.
Ares V mission was slated to take
astronauts to the moon and Mars.

Anonymous said...

Commercialization of US space flight means the US won't have a space flight program. It's not that commercialization won't result in a space program, but it will no longer be ours. Commercial space flight will reach maturity on the coat-tails of NASA's efforts, then quickly move those technologies to a country like China. In commercial space flight costs will always outweigh risks. And profits will always outweigh location. We would be wise to support NASA. Unfortunately, the under funded 8 year delay between shuttle and a new manned vehicle is nothing more than a pretense to facilitate commercialization.