March 24, 2010
The report of the Augustine committee analyzes America’s space program through a very narrow prism. Much of their report argues that the existing program of record (more specifically, the Ares I and V launch system) is not affordable, a fact already apparent to most observers. Thus, the committee advocates human missions to destinations without deep gravity wells, eliminating the need to develop a lander spacecraft. The pertinent question about the original intent of the Vision for Space Exploration is not considered or addressed: Is a program to return to the Moon and create a permanent space faring infrastructure possible within the projected budgetary envelope?
So once again we have a space policy gap, a technical base mired in uncertainty and a citizenry that believes its once-heralded space agency has faltered – that NASA simply cannot send people on missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) because the government no longer has the interest or the money to support such efforts.
The administration’s budget proposal has directed NASA to concentrate on developing leap-ahead technology that will enable human exploration at some non-specific point in the future – “when we are ready” so as to excite and engage the public. As the shutdown of the Space Shuttle quickly approaches, people are surprised to realize that seats must be purchased on a Russian Soyuz to reach the International Space Station that we’ve been building for twenty years. And we must continue to do this until commercial space transportation (seeded with NASA money) develops hardware certified for human flight. It is impossible to escape the sinking feeling that something just isn’t right about this state of affairs.
The cost estimates of the Augustine committee report made by the Aerospace Corporation perforce assumed certain developmental and operational scenarios, some of which could be seriously questioned. One of the most interesting points about the Augustine costing exercise was that it focused almost entirely on launch vehicles and not deep space systems. No scenario examined by the committee looked at the leveraging possibilities provided through the use of off-planet resources, apparently because they believed that the technology was too far out in concept and too far off into the future. “When we are ready” apparently didn’t apply here.
In the committee’s view of the future, human missions beyond LEO will remain staged and launched from the bottom of Earth’s gravity well, along with all the required consumables for multi-week and multi-month duration missions of their Flexible Path exploration option. For any significant effort, the enormous mass is launched using either existing expendable vehicles or a new, to-be-developed heavy lift rocket (for which their cost models estimate many billions of dollars). Is it any wonder that the committee’s principal conclusion was that human spaceflight beyond LEO is “unaffordable?”
The cost estimates the Augustine committee relied upon are unrealistic, bloated and artificially high. Although there is always uncertainty in estimating program costs, a system can be developed within the existing budgetary framework that gives us a heavy lift vehicle and human lunar return on reasonable timescales. The key is to keep new developmental costs low by maximizing the use of existing assets. A launch vehicle derived from the existing Shuttle system can be developed from existing pieces while retaining virtually unmodified the existing VAB and pad infrastructure at the Cape. A single Shuttle side-mount can put 80 mT into LEO; two launches can mount a lunar mission. As shown in the accompanying illustration, this launch vehicle solution fits within the projected budgetary envelope of NASA, the very same budget profile assumed by the Augustine costing exercise.
Digging into the details of the cost numbers of alternatives suggests that Augustine assumed both significant developmental costs associated with the new launch system, along with relying on inflated recurring costs (as has been pointed out previously by others). But more significantly, they also assumed we would continue indefinitely the current paradigm of launching everything we need in space directly from the surface of the Earth. Again, no consideration was given to using space-based consumables – specifically, LOX-LH2 propellant made from lunar water – to improve access and reduce total costs for missions beyond LEO. And yes, the committee was thoroughly briefed on the benefits of the Moon’s extensive and accessible water; they were apprised of the dynamically unfolding knowledge involving the enormous quantity of lunar water (both current knowledge and findings soon to appear in print) before, during and after their hearings. They simply ignored its significant impact and consigned the discussion of space resources to a few paragraphs describing technology development.
An affordable return to the Moon is possible under the existing budgetary profile. Such an affordable architecture based on Shuttle-derived assets was understood and in hand prior to the Exploration Systems Architecture Study. But the better became the enemy of the good enough. The needed incremental build up of cislunar spaceflight capabilities through the use of lunar resources was discarded and a system was designed based on the assumption that mega-sorties and Earth-staged missions to Mars were the future of human spaceflight beyond LEO.
To unlock our Earth-bound budgetary shackles, we must employ the keys at hand. We must use existing flight assets to the maximum extent possible. We must use robotic missions and teleoperations to emplace surface infrastructure on the Moon prior to human arrival. We must begin water production from lunar resources as soon as possible using these robotic assets, with an eye toward integrating lunar propellant production into a reusable and extensible cislunar space transportation system.
To go forward, a determinate path to the Moon and beyond is required. The Moon is where humans will learn how to arrive, survive and thrive in space. To live and expand into the universe, we must take bold action to identify, access and harness those resources that are within easy reach. In order for America to remain a leader in space technology development – charting the way for human space flight – we need an objective to design and cost out, not just a budget to spend.
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