Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

Less Crime Fighting, More Space Boondoggling Ahead?

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 28, 2011
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Meanwhile, the sausage making continues on Capitol Hill…

Space News reports that pork barropriators* on Capitol Hill are considering some creative ways to fund the heavy-lift vehicle that NASA doesn’t want and the Orion capsule:

Congressional appropriators could tap the funding accounts of the U.S. departments of Commerce and Justice to help cover what some see as a $1 billion shortfall in NASA’s $18.7 billion spending plan for 2012, which allocates less money for a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule than Congress directed last year.

“There’s over a billion-dollar difference between the budget request and the authorized levels in [20]12 for the launch system and the crew vehicle, and now that falls squarely back on the shoulders of [the appropriations committees] to try and figure out where to come up with that money,” said a panelist at a March 23 breakfast on Capitol Hill. Sponsored by Women in Aerospace (WIA), the breakfast was held under the Chatham House Rule, an 84-year-old protocol fashioned by the London-based nonprofit think-tank to promote frank discussion through anonymity.

The panelist, one of six whose names and job titles were circulated by WIA prior to the meeting, said funding requested in NASA’s 2012 spending plan does not square with levels Congress set in the that U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in October. Specifically, the request called for spending $1.2 billion less than the $4 billion Congress authorized for the heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule in 2012. At the same time, the request includes $350 million more than the $500 million Congress authorized to nurture development of commercial vehicles to deliver cargo and crews to the international space station after the space shuttle retires later this year.

Brilliant. Less law enforcement and money to support American businesses to benefit one small part of the economy. It’s an interesting strategy by the White House: These are our priorities. You want something different, you figure out how to fund it. And don’t raid the commercial space budget.

Depending upon which version of NASA’s funding legislation that Congress hasn’t gotten around to passing yet, NASA must field one of the following by Dec. 31, 2016: a rocket with the capacity of lifting 130 tons to LEO; one capable of sending 70 – 100 tons to LEO that can be uprated to 130 tons eventually. Congress wants it to be derived from space shuttle components.

The erstwhile reason for putting this much effort and money into an HLV now is that commercial providers won’t come through.Thus, Congress is keen on spending a lot more money on SLS and Orion than on the commercial space effort, which pretty much guarantees that the latter won’t meet cost and schedules. At the same time, there’s no guarantee that the HLV will be ready on time.

At a luncheon on Friday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he doesn’t want to build Congress’s version of the HLV:

“Mr. Bolden explained that he does not think that the 130 metric ton lift capability prescribed in the law is necessary today and is not sure the agency can do it. He wants to build an ‘evolvable’ launch vehicle, working in ‘small incremental steps [to] demonstrate that we can keep to cost and schedule and then people will begin to have confidence that we know what we’re talking about…. There are things I do not know. … I don’t know what my 2011 budget is … and that plays a critical role in what I can do.'”

Small incremental steps and keeping costs down make perfect sense for a vehicle for which NASA has no immediate need. It would allow NASA to build a HLV designed to the missions it will fly that won’t cost as much to develop and operate. However, it also probably means laying off a lot of people and hurting the country’s fragile space industrial base in the short term. Which one do you think Congress cares about more?

Despite Bolden’s skepticism, NASA is working diligently to fulfill Congress’s mandate. A team of employees from across the agency are looking at two main options, one of which reaches back even further into NASA’s history:

With a Shuttle Derived (SD) Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) still leading the way via ongoing evaluations into the configuration of the Space Launch System (SLS), an evolvable vehicle – which can be delivered on time and on cost – is undergoing final refinements. It is understood that the only real competitor at this stage is based around a Saturn V heritage HLV, using LOX/RP-1-powered F-1 engines….

RAC-2′s leading vehicle configuration for the SLS is a Saturn V class vehicle, sporting a LOX/RP-1 first stage, with either a LOX/RP-1 or LOX/LH2 second stage. This vehicle is classed as being based around a highly extensible, adaptable and capable architecture, one which is very modular by design.

Meanwhile, Congress is sticking to its story that launching the Orion capsule into LEO on a 70-130 ton HLV is a sound idea. This is rather akin to commuting 20 miles to work every day in a Winnebago.Only in this case, you basically throw away the vehicle after each flight and buy a new one. And every trip costs like a billion dollars.

Orion could be launched on a Delta IV Heavy with a relatively low upfront investment of $1.3 billion to human-rate the booster and build the infrastructure. Given that NASA has no funds or definite plans for beyond Earth orbit missions that would require a HLV, it seems reasonable that the project could take a back seat to other priorities for the time being. Build Orion and test it in LEO on Deltas while working on a more affordable HLV.

Sound reasonable? Yes. Does reason rule in DC? No. Congress seems deadlocked on funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year, a task it should have completed last September. The most recent continuing resolution ends on April 8, which raises the prospects of a government shutdown of all non-essential services. NASA would be unable to move much of anything forward until the impasse was resolved.

I’m beginning to think Otto von Bismarck had it wrong when he said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” This ain’t like being in no slaughterhouse. It’s like watching pigs with the runs crap all over their pen.

I know, it’s a graphic image. But, it’s barropriate.

* Pork Barropriators: Appropriators of pork barrel projects

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