I’m somewhat curious about the math behind some of Griffin’s comments at the Senate Hearing today:
“we are focusing initially on cargo because, I just want to be clear with everybody, we already have a mechanism for getting crews to the station with the Soyuz system, but unless we can bring some new commercial capabilities online, we really have no cargo resupply. So, actually, of the two, the most important COTS capability to me right now is cargo, and I must be honest about that.”
No cargo resupply capabilities? Now I may not have as many academic degrees as Dr Griffin (I only have two so far–an neither of them in how to Pile it on Higher and Deeper), but at least by my count we have two existing, proven capabilities, and three more in the works. Progress is just as real for cargo delivery as Soyuz. ATV just docked with the station last week. HTV is slated for first flight next year. Plus there are the two COTS competitors, and a possible third based on the SOMD cargo flights RFP. That hardly seems like “no cargo resupply” capabilities to me. If you can count a sole-source foreign crew resupply vehicle that doesn’t meet the full needs of a fully-operational ISS, why can’t you count existing and near-term cargo resupply vehicles?
I find it ironic that when arguing for adding billions of dollars to an already bloated Ares-I/Orion budget, flying NASA astronauts on Soyuz is an unbearable problem, but when the possibility is raised of using that money to fund a program that actually has a chance of shortening that “gap”, the response is that it’s a non-issue. Ho-hum really, providing a fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth provider of cargo transport to ISS is a far more pressing matter.
I also found it amusing that Mark Whittington relies on the following statement from Griffin as an attempt to handwave away such a contradiction:
Griffin doubts that “even with their [the COTS companies’] best efforts, even if more money were provided, that COTS crew transportation capability will arrive in time to be available after the shuttle retires or even by the end of the current contract with Russia in 2012.”
The problem is that:
- Exercising COTS Option D does not necessarily imply giving additional money to SpaceX or Orbital for performing Option D. In fact, Orbital has more or less stated that they aren’t planning on Option D capabilities. SpaceX might be a reasonable choice (seeing as how they’re designing Dragon for manned flight from the get-go), but Option D funding could be recompeted and awarded to any of a number of companies, many of whom would likely be flying on existing vehicles.
- Ares-I/Orion is not going to be flying by 2012 either, no matter how many billions are thrown at the problem (well, maybe if you threw $10B+ at it over the next three or four years, but that’s political unobtanium wishalloy). That’s not an apples to apples comparison.
The question isn’t if COTS Option D could somehow, in spite of not being funded till the last second, eliminate the gap which Griffin’s poor decisions have created. The question is if putting more money into COTS is more likely to reduce that gap than putting an equal amount of money into Ares-I/Orion. The GAO seems to think that putting the extra money into Ares-I/Orion that Griffin seeks would most likely only increase the probability of a 2015 IOC for Ares-I/Orion to a more reasonable confidence level (85% or better), rather than the 65% confidence level NASA has been using to make their numbers look less bad. In other words, adding several billion dollars to Ares-I/Orion would only prevent the gap from growing even bigger than the current 4-5 years.
On the other hand, look at COTS. It’s total budget through demonstration of capabilities A-C is only $0.5B. If you had $1B from a Mikulski miracle to invest in NASA, which do you think has a higher probability of shortening the gap of time when we have to rely on Soyuz for all manned flights to the ISS? Putting that $1B into a $20-30B program that already only has at best a 65% chance of flying by 2015? Or putting at least some of that into a much smaller program that is intending to fly two cargo vehicles by late 2010?
I’ll be the first to admit that COTS isn’t a risk free venture. NASA’s intentionally avoided picking providers that use existing launch vehicles like Atlas V, in favor of ventures that have to provide both a cargo vehicle and a launcher. There’s a non-zero chance that one or both COTS providers won’t actually be able to deliver.
But the same can be said of Ares-I/Orion. It too is going with an all-new launch vehicle (which derives little more than the paint scheme from previous Shuttle hardware) that may or may not work right the first time. It too is using a team without a real track record–when was the last time MSFC designed and flew a manned launch vehicle? How many of its engineers were even around for the last time they completed such a program? The Ares-I/Orion program has also been running behind schedule (notice how the schedule seems to slip by at least one calender year per year of development?).
So, if you were a congressman or senator with a limited amount of money available, and you have two risky ventures to pick from to try and reduce the gap, what would you do? Would you place all your money on the one option where your money is going to be a relative drop in the bucket, and that even then has little or no chance of actually reducing the gap? Or would you invest at least part of your money in a much smaller program where it has a much higher probability of actually hastening the day when the US once again has manned spaceflight capabilities–and better yet, commercial manned spaceflight capabilities?
You do the math.