So, most of you in the space policy world have heard about NASA’s report back to Congress about how it wants to build an Ares-V classic HLV, but that Congress wasn’t giving them enough time or money, and Congress’ dignified response that “Nu Uh! You can too!”
That exchange was annoying, but utterly predictable. What really torqued my screws though was the HEFT presentation that was released yesterday. On pages 26-27, they list a bunch of key technologies needed for exploration, and which missions they were applicable to. The only technology that was included in the list that was shown to be not applicable to any of the missions was In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Transfer…
The dirty little secret most people don’t know is that the only HEFT study that was actually well within budget goals was the one based on the original FY11 proposal, which focused heavily on propellant depots and advanced technologies. I hope Chris Bergin doesn’t get too mad at me for posting a teaser from L2 of NASASpaceflight from back in September:
As you can see, the only point at which it breaks the “budget bogey” is near the end of the commercial crew development, but for most of the exploration phase is well below the line. Now admittedly, this DRM is not compliant with the now-signed NASA Authorization Act, however the HEFT team had abandoned this idea long before that Act was signed into law. The only reason I could find for this was that this approach required “an excessive number of commercial launches”. The next two DRMs (DRM 2A and 2B) also featured propellant depots, but combined with a “modest” HLV. They ended up costing a lot more, but were still at least close to hitting budget targets. Unfortunately, they also got rejected for requiring “too many commercial launches”. The HLLV focused option (which dropped depots and any new technology) completely blew the budget guidance across the board, much like what NASA proposed in its report to Congress this week.
To give the latest HEFT report some credit, they did list depots as a potential commercial partnership with NASA. If that meant something COTS-like where NASA helped fund some of the risk maturation on a FFP milestone basis, but basically let the commercial companies drive most of the technical decisions, that would be great. I’m worried though that what NASA really means is the same “support” Griffin gave with his “we’ll buy propellant if you guys make it work on your own dime” comments.
But it’s really frustrating to see that it looks like depots were rejected for the same flawed reasons given in the ESAS report. Problems that industry is actively proposing good solutions to. It’s also interesting that NASA’s NEA missions end up being so big and bloated. I asked Josh Hopkins about this at his presentation last month, and he said part of the problem is that NASA decided that most potential NEOs were “too small” to be interesting, and therefore were focusing on the bigger, rarer, and harder to reach asteroids…and letting their whole architecture bet contorted by these initial assumptions. Just like ESAS.
Ultimately, I think the whole HEFT process illustrates once again the danger of having secret teams at NASA doing conceptual architecture development in a vacuum, and without public transparency. Instead of openly analyzing things, getting frequent feedback, or seeing if industry has ideas to deal with supposed show-stoppers, early decisions are made that drive things off the rails. When those early assumptions drive the analysis in completely unaffordable directions, there isn’t a good mechanism to rein things back in. Or at least, it’s hard to tell from the outside, because all the public gets to see is occasional summary reports released at the end, long after the flawed assumptions have been buried deep into the analysis in a way that will take years to pick out.
I guess the good news is that even though there are some elements in NASA that still don’t get it, there are a lot of other programs, particularly stuff in the Office of the Chief Technologist that give me some hope. If Congress insists on setting NASA up for failure again by forcing them to build their Zip-Code Engineered Ares/Shuttle Zombie Rocket, at least some of the commercial work will be funded that will enable us to pick up the pieces when this all flies apart another 5 years and $10-15B down the road. I’m hoping between the rendezvous and docking work we’re trying to do at Altius, depot work being done at ULA and Boeing, NEO exploration concept work at LM, inflatable station stuff being done at Bigelow, and all the commercial crew development projects, many of these excuses and wrongheaded assumptions will be impossible to make with a straight face next time NASA decides to do another internal, non-transparent, echo-chambered, insufficiently vetted paper-study project to figure out what they should do next now that the last Congressionally underfunded project goes flying off the cliff.