I’ve been rather enjoying some of the discussions going on at the NASASpaceflight.com forums lately. Unlike some of my usual haunts where I occasionally lurk (like sci.space.policy), most of the people there aren’t people that I’ve been arguing with for just over a decade. It’s always nice to see new (or old) perspectives that haven’t yet been tainted by what sometimes passes for the alt.space conventional wisdom. I don’t think that the alt.space conventional wisdom is necessarily wrong, I just think that it’s sometimes refreshing to hang out in a place where people with a lot of experience disagree with you. It makes you think through and reconsider your stances on things, and even forces you occasionally to change your mind. It’s kind of an interesting learning experience. A lot of what I learned about space I learned the hard way by shooting my mouth off in forums like that.
Anyhow, I was participating in a Q&A thread that had been arranged with Dr Doug Stanley of NASA regarding the recently completed Constellation Propellants Options Study. Dr Stanley is a close friend of Mike Griffin’s and was one of the main people who Mike tasked with putting together the Exploration Systems Architecture Study. If anyone has some good insight into why decisions were made by the ESAS team, he’d be a good place to start. Anyhow, the thread had a lot of really good information, not only about propellants, but some things about lunar lander design concepts, and ISRU–I would recommend reading through it a bit if you have the time.
Then, in response to a question about forward applicability to Mars, Dr Stanley shared something that I find rather worrying. I was originally reticent to post this, because even though it was on a public forum, I’m not entirely sure that he wants his comments dragged out into the blogosphere, but I think what he said sheds a lot of light on the thinking behind NASA’s current architecture. Here’s the quote:
Now I am going to let you in on a little secret! Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, OK? If I were in charge of National Space Policy, I would not even go to the Moon! I am actually a Mars First/Direct person. I would like to get to Mars as soon as possible and think that the Moon will be a distarction from that. If we establish an outpost on the Moon, NASA’s entire exploration budget expected to be available will go to the operation of that outpost and the exploration of the Moon. I am afraid it will be the “tar baby” we will be stuck with that will keep us from going to Mars in my lifetime. NASA will need a significant budget increase to do both, which I don’t think is likely. Mars is 10 times more interesting to me because of the atmosphere, the water, and the possibility of life below the surface…I would prefer to focus on a robust robotic exploration program including sample return, including human precursor mission, followed by human missions within the next 15 to 20 years.
I was asked by a friend to do ESAS and was working within the requirements I was given as a part of the VSE. I could not change them. But, If the next administration wishes to re-focus on Mars, all of the building blocks will be there. We will have preserved the Shuttle components and momentum to build a Heavy-lift launch vehicle and have a CLV and CEV that can launch humans to a MTV and a CEV that can even serve as an Earth-entry vehicle with more TPS…We will not have yet spent any appreciable funds towards lunar transportation or surface systems…I made sure we reserved this flexibility…
Shhh…don’t tell anyone…
To be fair to Dr Stanley, everyone has their own preferences and opinions, and we’re all entitled to them. I have no more right to tell Dr Stanley to stop being a Mars nut than he has to tell me to stop being interested in Lunar development.
That said, I find it rather disheartening to hear that the guy who led the team that came up with the study that NASA is now going to blow something like $50-60B over the next decade or so implementing doesn’t think it’s affordable to do what the President wanted. Even more disheartening is the openly expressed desire for the whole Moon thing to go away so we can focus on Mars.
It does really explain a lot though, doesn’t it? I’ve found that a lot of the people that I talk with about who are firm believers in HLVs, when I’ve taken the wind out of their sails regarding the supposed need for HLVs to explore the Moon invariably fall back to Mars as a crutch. The argument goes that we absolutely must have HLVs to explore Mars, so we ought to develop them now. Because it’s “moon, MARS, and beyond”, don’t ya know. Thus saith the Zubrin.
I just really wonder. If Dr Stanley, and others like him, really want to go to Mars so bad, why are they intentionally endorsing an architecture that they admit is too expensive for the job? Say you absolutely feel at the bottom of your soul that while the Moon is interesting, that Mars is where we need to be gearing up for. Why the Shaft? Why the EDS? I can kind of understand the HLV–I think the fundamental logic is completely broken, but at least I can empathize with people who feel that way. But why support all these other things that in the end are what makes ESAS so unaffordable that it can barely sustain a tiny 4-man shack on the moon, and that’s with spending almost all of NASA’s multi-billion dollar yearly ESMD budget to accomplish even that?
If you really feel that HLVs are a must, and feel that we have to keep Shuttle Derived Vehicles around to keep the Congresscritters happy, then why support the other programs that amount to little more than redundant wastes of NASA’s finite resources. I’ve outlined several different alternatives here on this site for how to launch people into space on commercial boosters. That technology is not something NASA alone can do, and in fact is something they are required by law to do if the capability exists.
The EDS is little more than an over-glorified Upper Stage. Boeing, Lockheed, and others have been building those for coming on 40-50 years now. The 6-engine version of the ICES upper stage that I recently highlighted will be 50% bigger than ESAS, have a better mass fraction, will probably cost less, and will have the benefit of being flight proven by the time NASA needs to use it. Since Lockheed wants to go with ICES stages for all of their future Atlas V launches, that means that the “EDS” will still be available even if NASA doesn’t buy any on a given year. That’s one of the big benefits of using commercial hardware. If Saturn V had been cost effective enough that there was commercial demand for it (it wasn’t–sorry Sam), it would still be around today. The whole reason Congress was able to force NASA to close the line down was because NASA was the sole customer for it.
The Shaft is also a redundant waste of money. Lockheed is in the process of man-rating their Atlas V for space tourism applications. SpaceX and RpK are also working on the problem. SpaceX is designing its vehicle from the ground up to be man-rated. Even Boeing I think will get its head on straight in the near future. Why do we need another man-rated launch vehicle? Without the development and fixed operational costs (not to mention marginal launch costs) of the CLV, being able to do Moon, Mars, and Beyond instead of just picking one becomes a lot more feasible. If you really care about Mars exploration, don’t you think that freeing up several billion dollars for Mars exploration by finding a way to slim down the CEV so it can launch on existing launchers is a better way to go? Even if it has to be dry-launched (or semi-dry-launched)?
Look at it. Between CLV and EDS, you’re talking almost $2B per year in fixed costs. Even if you don’t fly a single mission. When you add in the costs of using CLV and current EDS for lunar sortie and base missions, you’re talking somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of NASA’s Exploration budget.
I just wonder why when the ESAS team was tasked with finding a way to sustainably explore the Moon, Mars, and Beyond, they picked an architecture that even their leader knew would be too expensive to do more than one of the three?
[Bleg: Maybe I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about these things, and most of you agree with Doug or couldn’t care less. But, if any of you guys feel the same way I do, and especially if you feel as strongly about it as I do, PLEASE post your comments here on the SelenianBoondocks, instead of cluttering up Doug’s Q&A thread on NASASpaceFlight.com. I don’t want him getting flooded with email and commentary from everyone. The best way to piss people off, burn bridges, and get peoples’ hackles up is to flood them with criticisms.
I sent him a link to my blog post, and if he wants to hear our opinions, he can read the comments here like everyone else. I figure that since he probably didn’t intend this to be the talk of the alt.space blogosphere, that would be the most courteous way of handling things. If you have questions for him relevant to the topic of that forum though, feel free to ask away, I’m sure he’d appreciate that. ~Jon]