Thursday, September 24, 2009

Funding NASA's Future

Credits: NASA

by Marcel F. Williams

The Augustine Commission testified before the Senate and the House of Representatives last week and were greeted with both praise and criticism by some of the legislators. Ironically, the commission was not criticized for reaching the conclusion that NASA would require a $3 billion increase in its annual budget since the legislators already knew that since our civilian space program has been underfunded for years-- if not decades. But they were rather critical about was the rather nebulous elevations of the alternatives to the Ares 1/Ares V architecture to return the US to the Moon-- especially since the commission appeared to conclude that all of the alternatives were almost equally as expensive as the Ares 1/Ares V architecture.

My own criticism of the Augustine Commission preliminary report was their odd treatment of NASA's Sidemount-heavy lift vehicle (SD-HLV) concept and the DIRECT concept for returning America to the Moon. For some reason, the Augustine Commission lumped them both together as so called shuttle derived concepts even though they are two significantly different concepts as far as complexity, development timelines, and cost. The SD-HLV only requires 8 new system starts for its development while DIRECT requires 18 and the Ares 1/ Ares V requires 35 new vehicle structural development starts. Secondly, they extended shuttle flights for 5 years onto the cost the shuttle derived concepts. There's nothing wrong with that since it would eliminate the gap between the old shuttle and the new manned space launch system. But no such financial burden was added to the Ares 1/ Ares V which would have inflated the cost of the Ares programs even more. Then in their budget analysis of the shuttle derived concepts, they required NASA to pay currently nonexistent commercial space companies to transport NASA astronauts into orbit even though both the Sidemount and DIRECT concepts are capable of transporting an Orion spacecraft to LEO just as the Ares 1 is capable of doing. Why?

The Orion vehicle is currently being funded at about $1.4 billion a year, a budget that's supposed to be increased to approximately $2 billion on average during the course of its development over the next 5 or 6 years starting in 2011. The Ares 1 is currently receiving over a billion dollars in annual funding with a budget that is set to increase up to another billion on average during the course of its development. Program integration and operations is supposed to add an additional billion on average to the cost of the Ares 1/Orion development starting in 2011. That's about a $2.6 billion dollar increase in the annual NASA budget with no funding for the development of the Ares V or the Altair lunar landing vehicles until the Ares1 and Orion vehicles are completed in 2015 or 2017. So that would mean no Moon landings until after 2020.

The current shuttle program cost about $3 billion annually. So a $3 billion dollar increase might could fund the shuttle until the Orion/Ares 1 vehicle is ready. Unfortunately, the Orion/Ares 1 would still be underfunded by about $2.6 billion. So only by canceling the shuttle program and raising the NASA budget by $2.6 billion could we fund the Orion/Ares 1. But if the space shuttle is decommissioned after 2010, this could leave NASA without a manned space vehicle for up to 5 to 7 years.

But NASA has argued that the SD-HLV could be developed for just $6.9 billion dollars over 5 to 6 years. An EDS (Earth Departure Stage) would be required to transport payloads beyond LEO at an estimated cost of less than $2.5 billion. NASA estimates the cost of developing the Altair lunar landing vehicle to be less than $4.2 billion. So in total, the cost of developing the SD-HLV plus EDS and Altair vehicles should be less than $13.6 billion. Over a 6 year vehicle development period, that would be less than $2.3 billion per year. So if the NASA's annual budget was increased by $3 billion and the Ares 1 program was canceled, there would be at least $4 billion dollars in extra funds. $600 million a year of this on average would go to the Orion program to raise its total budget close to $2 billion annually. $2.3 billion a year would go for the development of the SD-HLV, EDS, and Altair. That would leave over $1 billion a year of increased funding for program integration and operations. If the DOD (Department of Defense) has some interest in a heavy lift vehicle for launching larger satellites into polar orbit and maybe in having their own manned launch vehicle, maybe Obama can get even more funds for Orion and SD-HLV development from the military.

The main advantage of the SD-HLV over the Ares 1/Ares V architecture is that the heavy lift vehicle would be developed immediately and would be utilized for both the manned Orion and unmanned Altair launches. Additionally, there should be enough money to fully fund the development of the Altair lunar lander starting in 2010 instead of waiting until 2015 to 2017 to begin developing a lunar lander as would be the case with the Ares 1/Ares V scenario.

But what if these NASA estimates are significantly underestimated during the course of the vehicle development? Well approximately $5 billion a year in total funds would be annually committed to the development of the Orion, Altair, SD-HLV and EDS and associated infrastructure. Since all of these vehicles would be simultaneously under development and if one or more vehicles weren't ready by 2015 or 2016 then an additional $5 billion dollars would be available every year afterwords until all the vehicles are ready. That's up to $20 billion dollars in additional development funds if the vehicles are delayed until 2020 (the date when NASA is supposed to return to the Moon). So developing all of the vehicles simultaneously has clear timeline and budgetary advantages.

So in my opinion, President Obama and new NASA administrator, Bolden, need to:

1. increase the annual NASA budget by $3 billion
2. cancel the Ares 1 program
3. choose NASA's SD-HLV program to launch the Orion and Altair vehicles
4. begin fully funding the development of the Altair lunar landing vehicle as soon 2010

After the Orion, Altair, SD-HLV and new EDS vehicles are finally developed (perhaps as early as 2016!), the current shuttle can finally be retired and its $3 billion a year budget transferred to Orion and Altair HLV operations. But what will NASA do with the extra $5 billion a year in extra funds? Hopefully some of these extra funds will to used to build a continuously growing settlement on the Moon. But the rest should be utilized to develop the next generation of space vehicles designed for sending humans and habitat structures to Mars to begin the settlement of the Martian surface and for the exploitation of the natural resources of the moons of Mars.

NASA Budget info

Obama's NASA Decision

NASA's Ares Alternative: The Sidemount Shuttle


Dave said...


Having followed the Direct Team effort for quite a while (I had the pleasure of talking with Ross Tierney and other Direct members in Cocao Beach during the 30 July 2009 public meeting), I have worked over the budgets and time tables (now verified by the Aerospace Corp's engineers) and the Augustine Commission has sliced and diced the Direct architecture to NASA's disadvantage.

As you point out, the existing budget can accomplish most of the VSE, if one takes Direct seriously.

Dr Dave

Marcel F. Williams said...

It would have been nice if the Augustine Commission had done a proper and serious evaluation of both the SD-HLV and DIRECT concepts.

If the Ares1/Ares V configuration is rejected, I think Obama and Bolden will choose the SD-HLV (NASA's back up plan) over NASA's secret plan (DIRECT).

I think the DIRECT advocates made a mistake by not advocating a Jupiter SSTO (without the SRBs) as part of the DIRECT rocket family. A Jupiter SSTO booster with 6 SSME could be the simplest and safest manned and unmanned rocket booster ever developed, IMO.

Anonymous said...

The problem with SDLV SSTO without SRBs is that the SRBs are the structural supports for the rocket on the launch pad. The ET lacks the strength to hold itself upright.

LOX / LH2 engines (SSME) are not very efficient as first stage propulsion. That's why they stuck SRB's on the Shuttle. If you want a totally liquid fuel first stage, you would want a kerolox engine.

Dr Dave

Marcel F. Williams said...

NASA has contemplated developing ET derived rockets without SRBs in the past. But I assume that such concepts required more structural reinforcement of the fuel tanks.

I agree that a SD-SSTO vehicle would not be as fuel efficient as a multistage rocket. But fuel cost are tiny relative to the cost of the vehicle itself. The advantages would be in the safety, simplicity and lower cost of a single stage rocket booster relative to a multistage vehicle which might be very attractive to the emerging commercial launch companies.

I should also note that it may turn out that any LAS (launch abort system) may not be fast enough to escape from the fragments of a solid rocket booster explosion. Of course there hasn't been a serious solid rocket booster malfunction on the shuttle in more than 20 years. But the LAS in a Sidemount or DIRECT configuration may ultimately only give us the illusion of enhanced safety beyond the inherent safety SRBs already have.

Gary Hudson argued that such a shuttle derived SSTO vehicle could possible launch up to 36 tons into low earth orbit. However, Hudson wrote this article before the development of the Super Lightweight Tank which is about 3 tons lighter. That would mean 39 tons of lifting capability (35 metric tonnes). So if 10 tonnes of this mass was utilized to enhance the support structure of the fuel tank, then at least 25 tonnes could be lifted into orbit-- enough to launch the Orion CEV. This would also be the first demonstration of a SSTO vehicle which could be the first major step towards the dream of a totally reusable SSTO vehicle.

Gary Hudson has discussed this interesting concept in the past:

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