Nelson: NASA Should Start Heavy Lift Development Next Year

Ares 1-X

Space News has a report on where the Senate seems to be heading in terms of NASA’s human spaceflight program:

New authorizing legislation taking shape in the U.S. Senate would require NASA to begin development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle in 2011 that takes advantage of the U.S. space agency’s investment in the retiring space shuttle and follow-on Ares 1 rocket.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space, outlined key elements of the 2011 authorization bill he is drafting in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending. Nelson said his bill, which would set funding limits and dictate policy guidance for the agency in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, would address the future of space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and urge NASA to work with other nations to define near-term missions to deep space destinations.

“The authorization bill will direct NASA to initiate development of a heavy-lift vehicle in fiscal year 2011, both to support these new human space flight activities and to serve as a contingency capability to the [international space station],” he wrote. “The authorization will propose that both the heavy-lift and crew exploration vehicles leverage the workforce, contracts, assets and capabilities of the Shuttle, Ares 1 and Orion efforts.”

Nelson said his bill would take a “walk before you run” approach to the private-sector space-taxi services Obama proposed funding with almost $6 billion in new spending over the next five years.

“The bill would support the continuation and expansion of the current risk reduction, safety, and technology development effort known as the ‘Commercial Crew Development Program,’” he wrote. “The bill would also require NASA to complete a number of studies, assessments, and milestones as we progress from a commercial cargo capability to the commercial crew services.”

Well, let’s parse this out. On the political front, this helps to solve one of the problems that Nelson and others in Congress have with the President’s proposal: the large loss of jobs in their states related to the closing out of the Constellation and space shuttle programs. This certainly makes the plan more palatable. Its other benefits are not clear.

This plan seems to tie NASA to a shuttle derived heavy-lift architecture — and all the massive costs that go with it. This is seen by the Obama Administration as a millstone around NASA’s neck, dragging the agency down with old technology and a large standing army that is excessively expensive to build, operate and pay. The Administration would prefer to develop technologies and space infrastructural elements that could reduce costs. It would defer a decision on what type of heavy-lift vehicle to build until no later than 2015.

Nelson’s plan raises a number of questions:

1. Where would the money come from for heavy lift?

My guess is the proposed technology development program. Or perhaps money would be taken from the $2 billion infrastructure upgrade to Cape Canaveral. There might even be a reduction in the commercial crew program.

2. What are we going to be launching in the foreseeable future that requires a near-term heavy-lift vehicle?

It’s not really clear. Nelson talks about this being a contingency to ISS. The international partners have three active systems for cargo delivery and two more under development. Heavy-lift seems to be overkill for the purposes of delivering crew members to ISS. And if it takes that role, then what is the purpose of even developing commercial crew and cargo?

Nelson also talks about trips to Lagrange points and lunar orbit, which is exactly what a heavy-lift vehicle is designed to support. However, that would likely require the continued full development of the Orion crew capsule, which the Administration opposes. And it’s not clear when that would be ready for flights beyond LEO. It might not be ready until years after a heavy-lift system is available.

3. Would the commercial crew effort be slowed down from what the Administration proposes?

Possibly. The proposal for “NASA to complete a number of studies, assessments, and milestones” could be a way for Congress to cover its ass on crew safety issues. From that perspective, the request might be quite reasonable. On the other hand, it could add significant costs and delays to the planned program. It depends upon how restrictive the new requirements are, and how much more stringent they would be in comparison to the ones NASA planned for commercial crew.

It’s really not clear at what level Nelson wants to continue and to expand the CCDEV program. A slower and smaller program could make the effort less attractive to commercial operators – something that would please no small number of the plan’s critics.

4. Haven’t Lockheed Martin and Boeing already been running for decades?

NASA could launch commercial crew on either of the proven expendable boosters built by ULA, which is a Lockheed-Boeing joint venture. They already launch expensive military payloads. Boeing is willing to build a commercial crew vehicle on a fixed-cost basis to serve both NASA and Bigelow Aerospace’s private space stations.

If these companies aren’t ready to run after 50 years in the business, they never will be. What exactly does Nelson propose doing over the next five or so years that is suddenly going to prepare them?