Partial Agreement

Mark over at Curmudgeon’s Corner links to an interesting New Atlantis article (about NASA’s current budget situation) that I actually agree with quite a bit of. The basic gist of the article was that NASA is really going to keep struggling financially if they try to keep the Shuttle going till 2010, while trying to field the CEV. The problem being that the Shuttle program gobbles up $3-4B per year even if it doesn’t fly, while the VSE related projects are going to also be sucking up $3-4B per year over the next few years.

Their suggestion is to end the Shuttle program now. They make a good case that in order to finish the ISS before 2010, Shuttle is going to have to fly something like 16 more missions (and even that is predicated on a redefinition of “complete”), and with the continuing foam problems, any delays makes that number more and more unrealistic, and potentially even dangerous. Trying to rush shuttle flights in order to meet the deadline is just begging for trouble, with how complex, old, and fragile the shuttles really are. If we get to 2010, and have only managed to fly 4 or 5 more flights, will it have been worth the extra $20B? Is the probable number of succesful flights we can complete by then worth the cost? I really don’t think so.

Jim Muncy (who I respect a whole bunch) has argued that without finishing the station, the justification for the COTS program will be undermined, but I’m not sure how valid that argument really is. If 4 years from now the space station is only a little more completed, and $20B more money has been flushed down the hole, will COTS really be all that better off? In all the desparate attempts to scrape together enough money to fund two bloated MegaProjects at the same time (CEV/CLV and Shuttle), COTS may actually be at more risk of being defunded if we keep the Shuttle around than if we don’t.

There have also been worries expressed about “workforce issues” by many congresscritters. Basically, they don’t want to shut the Shuttle down early because that would end a bunch of lucrative tax-payer subsidized nerd-welfare jobs in their districts. They’re worried that if they let all those people go now, they won’t be able to have the manpower they need to run the CLV and CaLV programs when they gear up (now wouldn’t that be a cryin shame?). But the article makes a really good point about this. There is a planned 2-4 year gap between when the shuttle is retired and when the first CEV/CLV start anyway, and in order to keep the workforce around, we’d need to keep paying their salary over that time. Does NASA really intend to keep paying $1-3B in salaries and infrastructure upkeep costs over that whole timeframe just to keep people around? When you add the fact that even NASA is realizing that most of the Shuttle derived hardware was a bad idea, you wonder why they need to keep so many people around. How many shuttle employees have any more experience with ablative heat shields or RS-68s than your average high-school graduate? The only thing left in NASA’s architecture that is even remotely shuttle derived is the SRBs on the Shaft and the Longfellow, and even those are substantially different from the ones flying on the Shuttle right now.

So, I have to agree with Mark and New Scientist that there’s a really good case for just killing the shuttle here and now. I’ll go into some thoughts later about how I think we ought to handle issues related to our ISS commitments in light of retiring the shuttle, but I think this post is long enough for now.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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2 Responses to Partial Agreement

  1. Joseph Mahaney says:

    There is no denying that the US needs to meet its international commitments to the ISS. I feel that in an effort to reduce STS flight risk (NASA is quite risk averse just read some of their manned safety docs!) NASA has sacrificed its credibility in delivering on its agreements. Much of this, unfortunately, is politically motivated. It is the typical scenario of to many masters directing a group of people in various directions (read RLEP move from ARC to KSC).

    There are a options that I will offer for consideration. Excuse the sideline engineering rant. 🙂

    Unmanned Shuttle

    An unmanned shuttle could be fielded within 18 months, possibly less, if given the go ahead. Why? It allows the removal of the crew. The one element in the whole system that increases spacecraft complexity and safety issues. This could allow the continuance of ISS flights until completion beyond 2010 if required. Some of the human spport elements could be deleted from the shuttle itself thus eliminating time to refurbish the shuttle. It has been estimated that shuttle turn around could be reduced to 51 days. If you lose the shuttle, no human lives are at risk. Payloads such as GAS cans could be flown. In addition, more payload could be carried into space. This option is politically viable from the standpoint of keeping the workforce intact while the new exploration systems are brought online.

    There has been much talk about STS immediate cancellation. As the program currently stands I would agree with you. But how does these proponents of immediate cancellation suggest to launch the remainder of the ISS components without adapting the ISS components or their launchers for ISS component launch. Will each launched component need a guidance and thruster maneuvering system?

    RS-68 choice?

    I do applaud NASA for reconsidering the choice of a modified SSME as the main propulsion unit for the CaLV. However, I disagree with their decision to move to the RS-68. Another option exists – the RD-0120. Similar performance as the SSME. Cost would be increased due to having to restart production of the RD-0120 but development costs for adaptation to the External Tank should be similar. This choice could then allow the 8 m External Tank to modified for a thrust structure and propellant delivery underneath it. New infrastructure for the proposed 10 m tank need not be required. In future variants the SRBs could be replaced with modified and lengthened Zenit boosters (ala Energia – The Russians had the right idea). In addition, leaving payloads side mounted (for the time being) allows for less infrastructure and procedural changes for launch.


    It makes sense to use what exists. In this case, and Atlas V or Delta IV would make the most sense. In the past conversion of existing vehicle to man-rated has occured with a great amount of success. Why not now? Shuttle derived ‘Stick’ does not make sense. The choice to redevelop a larger conical capsule when reliable, manrated spacecraft already exist around the world. I also don’t quite understand the arbitrary choice of the number humans that have to be transported to LEO via the CLV.


    I think that if NASA really embraces COTS then a major cost savings could result leaving NASA to explore the unexplored. If regullar acces to the ISS is accomplished via several COTS companies other research organizations and companies could begin to take advantage of the availibility of regular access to space.

    The bottom line is that the engineers need to run the programs at NASA. NASA has been given a task and should develop for cost to get us there.

    I also believe that a mix of heavy lift and medium lift vehicles is needed to do the job to get us into LEO and beyond. Reliance on the medium launcher would limit your designs and complicate assembly issues. Does every payload need its own guidance and nav system?

    K, my 2 cents.

  2. Arthur says:

    Just a comment on “The New Atlantis”

    I was rather interested in this new journal a year or so ago – they ran a couple of good articles on space issues, though they didn’t seem to exercise a lot of fact-checking. Somehow or other I got on some list and received an issue in the mailbox – and discovered the journal seems to have a rather definite political/religious agenda. I was rather surprised, and decided not to subscribe, as their views on what they called ethical matters (stem cell research, evolution were two I seem to recall) were decidely different from my own.

    Does anybody know more about where this journal came from, and why they’re publishing a sizable fraction of space development articles?

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