I figured that if I’m going to be considered a space pundit, I may as well share a few of my thoughts about the recent NASA budget situation. I would have put my two cents in earlier, if it wasn’t for the fact that “anonymous” over on Jeff Foust’s Space Politics blog beat me to the punch on most of my thoughts (as well as bringing up several I hadn’t thought about). Heck, if I knew how to contact him offline, I’d like to invite to join Ken as a guest blogger here on Selenian Boondocks.
But here are a few of my thoughts on the matter:
- A lot of discussion over the past year has centered on how ESAS was so clever for dealing with “political realities” regarding the Shuttle workforce. And that because this big workforce meant so many jobs in several congressional districts, it meant that the ESAS approach to implementing the VSE was politically impossible to kill. The whole idea that you could somehow make a program so pork-o-licious that it couldn’t possibly be canceled flies in the face of history. If jobs and inertia was all that was needed to keep a program funded, we’d still have the Saturn V. It provided tons of jobs after all. What it didn’t provide was a benefit even close to commensurate with the cost of keeping it around. Not to mention the fact that with the results of the 2006 midterm elections, I highly doubt that Utah jobs matter quite as much to Congress any more.
- The ESAS approach was also touted as a “go as you pay” type program. Basically claiming that it was perfectly capable of adapting to budgetary ups and downs. However, even Griffin himself recently more or less admitted this was a crock. Without large increases in the Exploration budget, Ares I/Orion are not going to fly in time. And the longer that program gets stretched out, the higher a percentage of the program funding is going to be tied up just in keeping the team together and paying fixed overhead. How are they going to retain all those Shuttle employees when the gap between Shuttle operations and Ares I operations starts getting bigger and bigger? While NASA is being forced to “go as you pay”, it isbecoming increasingly obvious that the ESAS approach is a really lousy fit for that funding method. It is front loaded with a lot of development cost filling a “badly needed gap in US launch capabilities”.
- If the Ares I launch manifest from LaunchSpace.com is to believed (and there are some who are skeptical that their launch manifest really is official), they’re now looking at cutting out unmanned test flights in order to avoid having the first manned Ares I flight shoved out too far into the future. But don’t worry boys and girls. In spite of MSFC’s complete and utter lack of recent successful launch vehicle design experience, their top men guarantee us (to four significant figures mind you!) that Ares I will be the safest launch vehicle ever, by a factor of about 8x. I mean, with top men like that working on the problem, who needs test flights? Why not just design it perfectly in the first place? What could possibly go wrong?
- Regardless of which manifest is correct, most of the scheduled Ares I flights between first flight and when Ares V, EDS, and LSAM are ready are crew/cargo flights to ISS. If COTS is successful however, and if NASA actually obeys the law and buys commercial, what exactly will Ares I do for all that time (other than soak up fixed operating expenses)? Without Ares V, EDS, or LSAM, Orion is pretty much stuck in LEO or thereabouts. They might be able to do a bit of a burn and try and simulate a lunar reentry, but other than that, Ares I is going to be mostly sitting around gathering dust for 4 years or more. All while burning through somewhere around a billion dollars a year in fixed expenses, to keep the team around for lunar operations. The sad thing is that this reality alone makes Ares I a severe threat to COTS. It’ll be very easy to argue that “we’ve got this national asset sitting around here that we’re paying for even if it isn’t used, and we have this space station. Why are we buying commercial services when we’re having to pay for Ares I anyway?”
- With the current NASA budget being so far below the budget request for last year, it will make it all the harder for NASA to actually get this year’s budget request. As some have pointed out, the FY 2008 budget for NASA represents a nearly 6% increase over the budget that just got passed, all the while almost all other discretionary spending is increasing at a much slower rate. Being realistic, there’s a good chance that NASA isn’t going to see big Exploration Systems budgetary increases any time soon. Which means even more delays, cost overruns, etc. Now I’m not saying that NASA couldn’t somehow stick with Ares I and Orion, and somehow keep slogging away at them till they get completed. I’m just saying that whatever technical “victory” that would be would be Pyrrhic at best.
- Most of the shuttle workforce that gets talked about is technicians, not engineers. You can’t just transfer a guy from tightening bolts on an SSME to designing the EDS. If you “retain” these people, it means that you’re having to pay for them while at the same time also paying for the engineering work that needs to be done to get Ares I/V built and flying. Now, some of these people have relevant skills that will be useful during the test programs for Ares I/V, but many of them aren’t really needed until Ares I and Ares V start flying. And some of these people can or will have to be retrained (at additional expense) for new tasks since their old expertise is obsolete.
- The argument often gets made that no Congressman is going to vote to end the US manned space program. But the question is, if in 2014 the Atlas V team (and/or SpaceX or RpK) are flying people into orbit and Ares I isn’t, how much water will this argument hold? If the ability to put people and cargo into orbit on domestic commercial launch vehicles becomes a reality before Ares I, why are Congressmen really going to care that much about continuing to fund an overpriced government competitor?
I could go on, but the main thing I take away from this is that the so-called “political realities” we heard about weren’t. And that by spending so much time and money trying to reduplicate existing commercial earth-to-orbit launch capabilities, NASA has likely blown its chance at a return to the moon. If NASA had gone with their original (pre-ESAS) plan, and built a “CEV” that could be flown on either of the existing EELVs (and consequentially on SpaceX’s Falcon IX if that ever flies), we would likely be in much better shape.