Tag Archives: Commercial Crew

Catch-22

Here we are just a few weeks away from the release of the 2013 President’s Budget Request (PBR) and I can’t help but ponder the future.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t get the feeling that Congress is dedicated to making sure the path NASA is on will succeed.  And my fear is with the transition to the next President (assuming the current one doesn’t win re-election) the current plan will be scrapped once again and a re-direction of NASA will take place.  Is the current path sustainable?  Is a re-direction needed?

For those who have followed me on twitter the past few years and are readers of this blog, you know that I’m focused on manned space exploration and that’s what I pour my heart into.  So, we have three aspects to consider regarding manned exploration; commercial crew, Orion/SLS, and exploration infrastructure to enable missions to moons, asteroids, and Mars.

Regarding Commercial Crew, if the purpose is to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle Program and first flight of Commercial Crew then why does Congress keep cutting the Commercial Crew Budget?  The 2012 PBR asked for $850M to allow at least two companies continue developing their spacecraft and launch vehicle to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016.  Now, with the cut to $406M the date is pushing back to 2017 or even 2018 for first flight.  Does Congress lack the trust in the aerospace companies who either have been doing this for decades or have hired experts in the field who have been doing this for decades?  It can be done.  And safely.  The only thing missing is the money to do it because as of today there simply is no market for Low Earth Orbit.  But, once these companies succeed (thus proving the capability) then I foresee a great change in what happens in Low Earth Orbit.  I’m not saying anything anyone doesn’t already know or think.  But, the more we pull back from Commercial Crew the less chances of seeing a market develop.

I have to admit that Orion getting $375M more to do a test flight in 2014 amazes me from a process perspective.  Here we are with a Commercial Crew Program that is responsible for funding at least two companies if not three on a yearly budget of $406M and Orion gets an additional $375M for a test flight on top of the $1.2B for 2012.  I don’t doubt that most of the $375M will go to pay for the Delta IV and integration, but with a yearly budget of approximately $1B I think about what all we could do with that money.  But, the bottom line is when NASA is responsible for running a program (like Constellation, Shuttle, ISS, etc) you are embedded in the processes that exist at NASA which runs the cost up.  It would be great to see NASA go through Lean and streamline their processes to be more effective and timely.  I think in the long run they would save a significant amount of money thus allowing it to be spent on additional capabilities and programs taking us to the stars.  But, as with any government program when you mention streamlining or leaning out processes that means the elimination of people’s jobs because you have made things more effective.  And, in this economy that is the last thing people (those working the jobs) want to hear or experience.  I don’t blame them.  In the end, it’s all a Catch-22.

If we did streamline processes what would that extra money be used for?  I personally would want to put it towards exploration architecture.  Once you have SLS (the rocket) and Orion (the spacecraft) you still need more to go Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).  Perhaps a Lunar Lander to visit the moon.  A Habitation Module to go deeper into space to visit the Moons of Mars or Mars itself.  There is still so much to be developed and so little money.

But then again I think I should be grateful we have the 2012 budget we do given the realities of the economy.  It’s our job, the engineers to do our best and give the taxpayers the best value of every dollar.

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Beware of passion

Is there such a thing as having too much passion?  For wanting to change the world, one space vehicle at a time?

We are engineers.  We work at NASA or for a NASA contractor.  The programs we slave away on are given unrealistic budgets and schedules and we are the ones who think outside of the box to try and make all of the jigsaw pieces fit together.  Technically, we can do anything we set our minds too.  All of us have that mindset.  Anything is possible.

What does stop us in our tracks?  Or at least slow us down to a slow crawl? Politics.

In my first blog post for this site back in January 2010, I wrote that sometimes dreams need course corrections and that was written about NASA changing directions from the Constellation Program to some unknown future.  Here we are 21 months later and not a whole lot further down the road.  NASA is saying 2017 instead of 2015 for first flight of the Commercial Crew vehicle to the International Space Station (based on funding forecasts), the heavy-life launch vehicle has only recently come to life as a reincarnation of Saturn V (at least in paint colors), and I’m trying my best to stay positive and believe in a future  in the Aerospace Industry.

But I keep coming back to my naive dreamer post from October 2010.   It’s now 13 months later and I’m still a naive dreamer and keep getting hurt.  Why do I keep letting the government and thus NASA dim the lights on my passion?  NASA will never get the funding to do what we as children were told was going to happen in our adult lives.  At least they won’t in our lifetimes.  So why are we still here?  Why are we holding on?  Is it for the paycheck?  Do we think we can really make a difference so our children or grandchildren can experience what we dreamed of?

Why am I here?  What good am I providing?  How am I making a difference in the world?  Do I have too much passion for this field and thus destined to be disappointed? These are questions I’m currently exploring and I simply don’t know how to answer them right now.  Another phase of the naive dreamer coming to an end.

 

Then there is the House Version of the NASA Bill

While the Senate attempted to compromise on a path forward for human spaceflight through their bill, the House decided to take a vastly different approach last week.

If you watched the open debate last week, while it was refreshing to see, it was also incredibly sad that the  issue of the day that garnered the most attention was on where the shuttles should be located post shuttle retirement rather than the direction this country should take when it comes to the future of human spaceflight.

A quick summary of the House version (with Amendments)

Adds

  • Government launch vehicle/capsule to deliver crew to ISS with initial operational goal of no later than December 31, 2015.  If a commercial vehicle is available and meets safety standards, then government system will be for
  • Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle operational by end of decade

Adds an additional Shuttle Flight in FY2011

Guts Commercial Crew yet adds Loan Guarantee Program

Appears to gut the Flagship Technology Demonstration Missions, yet funds Space Technology for lower TRL technologies.

What surprised me the most was the comment by Pete Olson (U.S. Representative that includes JSC), that help is on the way implying that he believes this bill will save JSC and NASA.  In my opinion it is a short-term solution, that while it employs people for the next few years it does not nothing to sustain human space exploration long term.

I’ve maintained through conversations and tweets that the path to success is a balanced portfolio where NASA (aka Congress and the President) invest in current exploration missions and investing in R&D for the future.  Companies do this every year.  They have a product line they sell, they invest in upgrading their product line, and they invest in R&D for future products.  This isn’t rocket science.

We shall see what happens when the House and Senate bills meet one another in conference.

Is the Senate NASA Bill Passed by the Commerce Committee Better than Obama’s New NASA?

On February 1st, 2010 NASA unveiled President Obama’s new vision for NASA that ultimately did not go over well with Congress (primarily because it was not vetted with them before hand), with America (due to the media’s hold on the wording that manned spaceflight was ending), and with many incumbent NASA workers (do I need to explain why?)  Who did the new vision go over well with?  It was a huge success with those who call themselves New Space, those who say they aren’t waiting for the government to go explore Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the moon, and beyond.  There are some really interesting companies in this arena including Masten Space Systems, SpaceX, Google Lunar XPrize, and many others.  Why did they like the new budget?  Because it invested in them and their ideas.  The new budget invested in Commercial Space to LEO being that of the International Space Station (ISS) and Research and Development (R&D) for the future.  I think a future and interesting blog post will surround the idea of these companies who are branching out to do it themselves yet go after the government contracts, with SpaceX being a prime example with public statements being made that over half of their funding has come from NASA for the COTS (cargo delivery to ISS) program.

Fast forward to July 15, 2010 when the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously passed their response to Obama on the FY2011-2014 NASA Budget.  The 99 page draft of the Senate’s budget was posted earlier in the week, but was marked up with quite a few amendments of which many were approved.  I personally have not seen the individual amendments and you have an online link to where they are stored, please share them.  A summary of the Senate’s budget was posted, but the full version has not been made available yet as far as I know.

Even though the Senate Bill still needs to pass another Committee and the full Senate and we have yet to hear much from the House side of Congress, I thought I would take the opportunity to comment on the Senate Bill because there is still time to craft and mold the future.

Regarding extending ISS to 2020 and adding an additional Shuttle flight, in my opinion these are both no-brainers and don’t require discussion.

What I will address is Commercial Crew, Heavy Lift & the Multi-Purpose Spacecraft, and Technology Development.  The major flaw in Obama’s proposal was that he sacrificed current exploration beyond LEO by delaying them until no earlier than 2025 for R&D and technology development.  Any successful company can share with you that their success is not just based on a current product or R&D.  They invest in both.  They are always investing in their future while executing their current product line.  NASA too needs to take a good solid look at how they can best perform R&D and technology development for the future and execute exploration missions in the here and now.  The Senate Bill is a step in the right direction, however the funding levels remain unrealistic in the current environment.  Perhaps a future blog post will transpire on how NASA can change internally to save money and meet the goals and objectives of the future.

Commercial Crew

Why do I like the wording of Sections 402 and 403 in the Senate Bill?  Because it continues the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev) through 2011, providing funding for companies to continue to develop their concepts for Commercial Crew and allows time for NASA to figure out how to run a Commercial Crew program from human rating requirements to procurement.  Consider it the year of transition, and it is a year that both NASA and the Commercial companies will need in order to be successful.

Heavy Lift & Multi-Purpose Spacecraft

I did not understand why under Obama’s proposal NASA would study Heavy Lift alternatives and perform additional studies delaying the decision for what architecture would be used until 2015 (and the next administration) therefore delaying a built vehicle until the early 2020’s.   So it’s actually a good thing that the Senate Bill provides for a Heavy Lift capability and to start working on it right away which means we can begin exploring in years rather than decades.  In Section 302 of the Senate Bill it calls out for an evolutionary design of the heavy lift vehicle.  The spacecraft, built upon the years of work NASA has done on the Orion vehicle to go to ISS and the moon will be evolved to add Mars, Mars’ Moons, and Asteroids.

Technology Development

While not funded at the original levels under Obama’s proposal, there is still funding for technology development and it remains to be seen by the time the final Senate bill gets passed for how much will be funded.   Technology, including Research & Development is a vital component for the future.  However not at the expense of current exploration missions.

A Summary of NASA’s New Vision

(Originally posted on February 4, 2010 on the Space Tweep Society Blog.)

There were so many rumors and stories last week in the news about what was to occur on Feb 1st when the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) released the President’s Recommended budget for NASA for the 2011 Fiscal Year. I wrote my thoughts on course correcting our dreams to try and sum up where we were the weekend before the announcement and where I thought we needed to head.

For those of you who have been living under a rock this past week, Obama is recommending a major revectoring of NASA and the way manned spaceflight is conducted in our country. Here are some documents to peruse if you haven’t seen them:

The major changes are as follows:

  • Cancellation of the Constellation program; and $600 million in FY 2011 to ensure the safe retirement of the Space Shuttle upon completion of the current manifest. (For those of you who don’t know what Constellation is, watch this video for the pictures.)
  • Top line increase of $6.0 billion over 5-years (FY 2011-15) compared to the FY 2010 Budget, for a total of $100 billion over five years. (The $6B is allocated to commercial spaceflight development.)

Significant and sustained investments in:

  • Transformative technology development and flagship technology demonstrations to pursue new approaches to space exploration;
  • Robotic precursor missions to multiple destinations in the solar system;
  • Research and development on heavy-lift and propulsion technologies;
  • U.S. commercial spaceflight capabilities;
  • Future launch capabilities, including work on modernizing Kennedy Space Center after the retirement of the Shuttle;
  • Extension and increased utilization of the International Space Station;
  • Cross-cutting technology development aimed at improving NASA, other government, and commercial space capabilities;
  • Accelerating the next wave of Climate change research and observations spacecraft;
  • NextGen and green aviation;
  • Education, including focus on STEM.

A few initial thoughts:

So the question is, what does this mean?  It means that the President is overhauling NASA with a focus on research and development similar to what NACA was and attempt to develop a commercial market for spaceflight.  It gives the impression that Obama knows what he is doing with regards to NASA.  But, in reality – there are no executable plans.  They are all words on paper.  There are no guarantees that this will all happen per his vision.  Why?  Because Congress controls the flow of money to the governmental agencies, not the President.

Personally, I was disappointed in Obama’s rollout of his new vision for NASA.  First of all, the plan does not seem to have been communicated to the top leaders at NASA and each of the center directors.  Therefore they did not have time to put their thoughts together and a path forward to communicate the new vision with the NASA workforce of civil servants and contractors at each of the NASA centers.  In my opinion you do not cancel a multi-billion dollar program and redirect assests within an Agency without first communicating that to your leaders.   Secondly, the announcement was made on the 6th anniversary of the Columbia accident and on the surface (due to lack of details and plans for implementation) “seemed” to be an inappropriate time even though budgets nominally get rolled out on Feb 1st every year.

On a positive note, I’m very excited to see that the FY2011 budget extends the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2020 and substantially increases the Human Research Program to work at solving questions like how to keep the human body safe from radiation and bone deterioration during long duration spaceflight.  We truly can’t go to Mars without having answers for these questions.  This year NASA and it’s International Partners will complete building the ISS – the proposed additional funding allows science and utilization of this unique capability in low earth orbit for the next decade.

*Comments have been ported over.

Sometimes Dreams Need Course Corrections

(Originally posted on January 30, 2010 at the Space Tweep Society blog)

So much has been written this past week in newspapers, blogs, facebook, and twitter about the fate of NASA’s human spaceflight program. With every new American President the forward steps of our exploration into the Cosmos is up for renewal. That’s reality for NASA being what it is; a government agency.

The Orlando Sentinel is the newspaper that started everything this week with this initial article that Obama plans to cancel the Constellation Program and the mission to return to the moon. Throughout Wednesday and into the evening, those in the space industry who use twitter found themselves venting about the “change” and the unknown future. I was one of them. A second article stated that $6 Billion over 5 years is to be provided to NASA in order to develop commercial capability of reaching Low Earth Orbit and providing an astronaut transport service to the International Space Station.

I recommend the book, Who Moved my Cheese by Spencer Johnson because if you keep looking for where the cheese was you are going to be absolutely miserable. Those who adapt and are flexible with change will thrive. For six years we’ve been working towards a goal, to leave LEO, a dream come true for my generation. This dream is now threatened due to only knowing part of the story. Every article that’s been written over the past few months of Obama’s vision for American Human Spaceflight has been only a piece of the puzzle. Not one article tells the story and there’s a reason for that. The vision has yet to be unveiled. That comes Monday. A day we are all anxiously awaiting whether we work for NASA, a contractor, a private/commercial spaceflight company or are an NASA enthusiast, student, astronomer, physicist, #SpaceTweep.

I recommend these two blog posts as @dittmarml provides her thoughts in An Open Letter to the U.S. Human Spaceflight Community and @rikerjoe wrote End of NASA’s Human Spaceflight? Hardly. @BadAstronomer of Discover Magazine wrote Give Space a Chance which by the way is getting quite the response in comments. Take the time to check it out and provide your thoughts.

Reality is that Congress did not fund the Constellation Program to allow reaching the baselined milestones. Tasks were deferred to the right. Technical issues that arise in all new programs were resolved as money was available. The schedule slipped and slipped and slipped. Welcome to the government. Now we find ourselves in 2010 having digested The Review of the U.S. Space Flight Plans Committee’s final report which stated that in order for Constellation to be successful it would need an infusion of an extra $3 Billion a year each and every year for the next five years. Anyone whose been paying attention to the U.S. Economy including the bailouts for the banks and car companies knows this is just not going to happen. As most #SpaceTweeps know, NASA gets less than 0.6% of the federal budget, while most people think they get a quarter of the federal budget. @BadAstronomer provided a great post this past week about NASA’s percentage of the federal budget.

While we wait in anticipation for Monday’s announcement of Obama’s Spaceflight vision I can share with you my thoughts on what needs to occur. What is important is that the overall vision be sustainable, continue building on capabilities, uphold safety standards, and be fully funded.

I do hope for a flexible path type architecture that allows NASA to use a multitude of launch vehicles, capsules, and develop new technology and capabilities. But, what are the goals of flexible path? Where are we to go and what are we to do there? Remember, we are after sustainability, to maintain a human presence in space and build our capabilities to go further and further from our home planet. Well, that’s what I want. I don’t know what Obama wants.

Here’s what I think:

  • The future of human spaceflight is not a one nation venture. It’s an International Partnership.
  • The Moon and Mars should be part of our new Vision. I believe we have much to learn before we can even think of venturing to Mars; that learning takes place on the space station and on the moon. We still need to learn how to protect the human body from radiation on long duration missions and develop new capabilities in propulsion to reduce the mass due to chemical propulsion and minimize the time to travel to the destination so more time can be spent exploring at the destination.
  • We need to minimize the gap of having a launch capability in order not to lose the workforce expertise and knowledge as well as employ our future generation of rocket scientists.
  • It doesn’t matter who builds the rockets that take us to LEO because if NASA is going to pay for launch services of its astronauts they will demand safety standards be met. However, the vision must be realistic about the time it will take for those capabilities to become available. It won’t happen overnight.

Here is what I worry about. Obama will unveil his vision which may change the balance of jobs at various NASA centers thus starting (well, it already has started) a Congress backlash. Therefore Congress will battle (drag it on) for years to come keeping NASA’s budget to a minimum thus stretching out the time it takes to go beyond LEO.

I do not have experience going through the Presidential “NASA Change” at a Program Level. My first job was in 1998 and it was to work on the International Space Station. 6 months later we launched the first module, Zarya, or what I still call the FGB. The International Space Station went through numerous design changes over the past 20+ years. For me, I arrived at the right time to develop lesson plans to train astronauts and be part of the systems engineering and integration team that came up with the engineering solutions to the reality of congressional budgets.

I leave you with these two thoughts:

Sometimes dreams need course corrections.

What will you do with your passion and excitement of space exploration?

*Comments have been ported over.