A Path To Nowhere

There’s an essay over at America Space worth a read, but a couple paragraphs are misleading:

Although President Obama inherited the decision to retire the space shuttle by the previous administration, he also inherited the rest of the Constellation program as well. The newly appointed President chose to terminate both programs, however, while apparently failing or not caring to properly take into account the U.S. dependency on Russia that would result by this decision for launching American astronauts to the ISS for many years in a row until new replacement vehicles could be developed. Since the retirement of the shuttle was tied to the development of the Constellation program, a cancellation of the latter should prompt a re-thinking of the decision for the former, something that ultimately didn’t happen. The space shuttles were finally decommissioned following the STS-135 flight in July 2011.

With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to and from the International Space Station is currently onboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. That point was also stressed by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) during a debate with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden at the recent hearing for the NASA Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, held by the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “When the Space Shuttle was mothballed, President Obama was President of the United States. He could have made the decision to have continued to use the Space Shuttle, or he could have made the decision to keep it available in the event of an emergency. He chose not to,” said Brooks.

Obama didn’t choose to terminate the Shuttle. There was no choice, because that decision had been made years before, and production of key components and facilities needed to make them started to be shut down before he took office. It would have taken years and billions to restart that capability. In fact, he extended the program to the summer of 2011, past the original planned retirement in 2010.

The retirement of the Shuttle wasn’t tied to the development of Constellation. Even in 2004, before the ruinous Constellation project even began, the plan was for a three-year gap, because the so-called Crew Exploration Vehicle (which later morphed into Orion) wasn’t expected to be available until 2014. When Constellation was canceled, Shuttle’s retirement already being a fait accompli, the Obama administration planned to get Commercial Crew going by 2015, but as the author notes, continuous underfunding by Congress has slipped that out to 2017 (officially, anyway, on NASA’s business-as-usual snail-like development schedule). So Brooks is either lying, or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can’t keep something like the Shuttle “available in the event of an emergency.” That’s a demonstration of profound ignorance of how it worked. It would have cost billions per year, even if we hadn’t shut down the production lines, and it would have been unsafe to fly it with no regular tempo, a point I make in my book:

It should be noted that NASA currently plans only two flights for the SLS—one in 2017 to demonstrate the 70-ton capability, and one with a crew in 2021, to . . . somewhere. They have said that, when operational, it may only fly every couple of years. What are the implications of that, in terms of both cost and safety?

Cost wise, it means that each flight will cost several billion dollars, at least for those first two flights. If, once in operation, it has a two- or three-billion-dollar annual budget (a reasonable guess based on Shuttle history), and it only flies every couple of years, that means that each subsequent flight will cost anywhere from four to six billion dollars.

From a safety standpoint, it means that its operating tempo will be far too slow, and its flights far too infrequent, to safely and reliably operate the system. The launch crews will be sitting around for months with little to do, and by the time the next launch occurs they’ll have forgotten how to do it, if they haven’t left from sheer boredom to seek another job.

As a last-ditch effort to try to preserve the Shuttle in 2010, some suggested that it be maintained until we had a replacement, but to fly it only once per year to save money.[11] The worst part of such a proposal would have been the degree to which the system would have been even less safe, given that it was designed for a launch rate of at least four flights per year. It was unsafe to fly it too often (as NASA learned in the 80s as it ramped up the flight rate before Challenger), and it would be equally so to fly it too rarely. NASA’s nominal plans for SLS compound this folly, which is magnified by the fact that both internal NASA studies and independent industry ones have demonstrated that there is no need for such a vehicle to explore beyond earth orbit (existing launchers could do that job just fine, with orbital mating and operations), and it is eating up all the funding for systems, such as landers and orbital propellant storage facilities, that are necessary. All of this is just more indication that actually accomplishing things in space is the lowest priority for Congress (and unfortunately, the space agency itself, otherwise, the administrator would be more honest with the appropriators on the Hill).

There another point in the essay to be addressed:

Even if Commercial Crew was fully funded tomorrow, the participating private companies would still have to go through the same development and certification process for their spacecraft, and their launch date would still be two years into the future, at the very least. “Engineering is engineering,” said Kelly O. Humphries, News Chief at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Texas, during an interview for Motherboard earlier last week. “We’re working with commercial companies to make sure everything is done properly so the spacecraft will interact properly with the International Space Station. You’ve got to do things the right way, to make sure things are safe for people.”

Note that the spacecraft (at least the Dragon) already “interacts properly with the ISS.” That was proven out with commercial crewcargo. What they’re doing now is “certifying” that it is “safe” to carry crew to and from it. But as I note in my book, “safe” and “unsafe” are not meaningful words, absent quantification. If Congress told NASA they had to put up crew on a Dragon on Monday, they’d figure out a way to do it. If we had to get American crew into space on American vehicles this year, we could do it.

What would the probability of loss of crew be? Who knows? If you look at the Falcon 9 over all (eight successful flights with no failures), it now has a Bayesian reliability approaching 90%. NASA flew to the moon on Apollo 8 on the very first manned Saturn V flight, when the previous flight test had been a disaster. That NASA chooses to continue business as usual in ending its reliance on the Russians shows just how unimportant the issue is.

23 thoughts on “A Path To Nowhere”

  1. I fear that the developmental and operational lessons of the Space Transportation System, as the Space Shuttle program was known when we worked on it, are fading fast. Some are preserved in the Challenger and Columbia failure reports, but many of the design trade-offs and calculated risk-taking will likely disappear as the early Shuttle program generation retires and dies. We always seem to devalue the lessons learned and experience from older projects, only to unnecessarily suffer failures for lack of that knowledge.

    1. Yes, and those lessons will have to be learned all over again at a huge expense. Meanwhile the nation is at the mercy of our New Cold War enemy, the Russians, for access to the ISS. Not to mention if there are any major malfunctions on the ISS there is no practical way to deal with them with the capability of the space shuttle.

    2. I think you seriously underestimate the advances we’ve made in motivational posters and safety banners.

    3. The Space Transportation System was more than just the Shuttle, it’s just that the Shuttle was the only part that got built. The IUS – originally Interim Upper Stage, later designated Inertial Upper Stage as it became apparent that nothing else was affordable because Shuttle was sucking up all the funding – was a poor substitute for what was supposed to be a true space transportation system.

  2. To repeat… If we had kept the shuttle, the worse thing would be to keep it as an emergency. The largest cost of the shuttle was the infrastructure around it. People have no idea the level of infrastructure the shuttle had. Look at the impact it had on suppliers. As we started shutting down delivery lines, companies that had been suppliers for decades weren’t exactly sad. They had literally kept open production lines for rather patriotic reasons. They had long ago quit using their support of the space program for marketing purposes, and while they were paid for their goods, the delivery lines had small margins compared to their other business. Once the shuttle quit buying, those suppliers destroyed the equipment to make room for newer things with higher profit margins. And as Rand noted, this happened years before the program ended.

    In an alternate universe where the shuttle was an emergency, those delivery lines would have to remain open as well. Then there is the more obvious infrastructure of Pad 39 complex, MCC, test stands at Stennis, etc. This would have meant jobs, but in some cases, we are talking very stale and old technology. We wouldn’t have been advancing spaceflight. We wouldn’t have been advancing technology.

    The issue now is that while we miss the days of the Space Shuttle, Apollo, and other glory days; we are not serious enough about moving forward. Planned 2 flights a year is laughable. It’s not worth doing. If the goal is to only visit space, then it will always remain costly and rare.

    1. Great points.
      I totally agree regarding keeping the shuttle on “standby” in case of “emergency”. Sounds good, until one looks at the details, and those details make it pretty much impossible.

      I was in high school when it became apparent, even to me, that we had nothing to replace the shuttle with. I thought (perhaps I was naive) that a good option would be to design a “Shuttle II” based on the STS, but using the lessons learned, such as reducing the vast infrastructure, and reducing the turnaround time and costs. Probably impossible due to the pork factor standing in the way, but I didn’t understand that then.

      Minor nitpick;
      They aren’t planning on 2 flights per year (which I agree would be laughable). They’re planning on one flight every two years, which is four times as laughable.

      1. There might be some merit in flying only every two years. For example, launching the SLS could perhaps be used to light the Olympic torch for the relay to the winter and summer games.

    2. Well, I think the mistake occurred much earlier when the need to justify the Shuttle left NASA extremely disinclined (an understatement) to build and maintain an alternative manned launch system, one that would probably resemble the commercial efforts currently under development. But it was the Shuttle or nothing, so of course one day they had to go with option B – nothing.

  3. Another really great and succinct rebuttal to the nonsense, Rand. I will keep a copy of this one on file and the info needed to properly reference it in my own work.

    Only one nitpick, your statement that “Note that the spacecraft (at least the Dragon) already “interacts properly with the ISS.” ” is totally right on the money. But I know you meant to say after it, “That was proven out with commercial cargo. ” rather than ” “That was proven out with commercial crew. ” I do similar mistypes all the time, so I thought you might appreciate a chance to change it.

  4. Dear Mr. Simberg,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to commend on my recent article for AmericaSpace, and raise some really interesting topics.

    I have tried to be as factually correct as possible, while commenting on the events of recent years regarding US space policy. By reading your insightful commenary, I suspect that some of the points I wanted to make, regrettably didn’t come through as intended.

    The retirement of the Shuttle was indeed one of the goals embedded in the Vision for Space Exploration, as it was outlined in 2004. http://web.archive.org/web/20041025212733/http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/55583main_vision_space_exploration2.pdf. Under ‘Bringing the Vision to Reality’ on page 6 of the above link, the Shuttle’s retirement was explicitly mentioned as one of the first steps on implementing the Vision. I should have used the phrase ‘the retirement of the Shuttle was tied to the development of the VSE’ instead, since Constellation was NASA’s chosen way to implement the VSE and not the VSE per se.

    In addition, my use of Rep. Brooks’ quote, wasn’t meant as a full endorsement of its context. Indeed, keeping the Shuttle in ‘standby’ would most probably prove to be impractical and costly. My attempt was to showcase that (according to my personal opinion), President Obama’s decision was poorly thought-out and ill-advised, leading to the series of events that ultimately widened the gap of US access to low-Earth orbit instead of closing it. Surely a gridlock between Congress and the White House, following a sudden and unprecedented major shift in space policy such as this endorsed by the President, should/must have been forseen. It was highly unlikely for Congress to just accept the new policy, for which it was largely unaware of. Unfortunately, this gridlock had resulted in more delays for Commercial Crew. If Congress was invited in the discussions concerning the formulation of the new policy and wasn’t completely left out like this, then a common ground would be more likely to have been met, helping the space program overall. I may ultimately be proven to be wrong, but that is my personal view.

    As for the flight-readiness of a manned Commercial Crew vehicle today, it would indeed be really wonderful if one of the CCrew participants could immediately start ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS safely. If this capability exists today, it hasn’t been mentioned at all by NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden, whose public speeches and testimonies on the subject, always point to the fact that the earliest date for this capability to come online is 2017. If the risk for ferrying crews to orbit onboard commercial vehicles today, can be deemed acceptable at the case of an emergency, then Mr. Bolden is making a disservice, by not aknlowledging this. Since NASA’s official position is that the launch of US astronauts onboard private space vehicles is scheduled for no earlier than 2017, I use that as a starting point in my commentary.

    Again, thank you for enriching the discussion with your insightful comments.

    Respectfully and with kind regards,
    Leonidas Papadopoulos

  5. Thank you for taking my commentary in the spirit in which it was offered.

    When you say that Obama’s decision was “poorly thought out and ill advised,” I’m not sure what you mean. If you mean his decision to accelerate commercial crew, that was the only viable option to minimize the gap. If you mean his decision to change the policy without adequate consultation with Congress, I agree that this would have been handled much better by a competent president who cared about space policy, but even under those circumstances, the parochial interests of those who make space decisions on the Hill would have inevitably resulted in the current policy fiasco. They simply do not care about sending Americans into space on American vehicles. They prefer to build big rockets instead, whether they’re needed or not.

    As for the safety issue, as I said, “safe,” “safely,” “unsafe,” and unsafely” are meaningless words absent the context of a quantification of the probability of loss of crew, and the perceived importance of the mission against which that risk can be weighed. Congress has made clear to NASA, as recently as in this past week’s amendment to the authorization bill, that “safety is the highest priority” and that sending Americans up on American vehicles is a lower one. As long as that remains the case, we are doomed to failure.

    1. You’re right, my critique on President Obama’s decision is focused on his swift and sudden unveiling of his space policy, without consulting Congress, leading to today’s gridlock.

      From his handling of things, it is evident that he just didn’t care about space and throwed in a new space policy, labeled as an ‘investment’ to America’s space program (excluding Commercial Crew, which is a right and much needed cocnept of operations in low-Earth orbit). Since policy decisions on Capitol Hill often come through a process of debate and mutual compromises between both parties, inviting Congress in the decision process for his new space policy, would stood a far better chance to produce something much more meaningful. Although Commericial Crew would have probably still faced some opposition, it’s no coincidence that Obama’s ovetrall space policy received an overwhelming opposition even by the members of his own party.

      As for the fixation on safey, that’s something that’s shared by both Congress and NASA alike. Their concerns regarding safety could be easily shown to be irrelevant anyway. If SpaceX is confident that the Dragon is capable of ferrying people today, what stops the company from making such a demonstration flight similar to the first COTS demo flight of the capsule away from the ISS, but this time with a crew? What a better way for SpaceX to make its case and be the hero of the day, while helping to guarantee the company a Commercial Crew contract.

  6. Mr. Bolden is making a disservice, by not acknowledging this.

    I’m not sure Bolden in a position to acknowledge what others are aware of. Elon has said he could already have safely (meaningful in the past tense) carried crew on flights that have already flown. This indicates the issue is more about willingness than engineering.

    What we need to do is whatever it takes so Bolden can acknowledge this.

    1. Granted, NASA probably doesn’t have such an inside knowledge about SpaceX. But my question remains. What stops SpaceX from pulling off a crewed demonstration flight of Dragon today, away from the ISS, if the capsule is flight-ready? If NASA’s safety regulations are such a pain, what a better way for Elon Musk to showcase the value of his company’s hardware for such a critical capability like crew transfer, by making such a demonstration flight. If he’s ready to transfer people today, Musk has the responsibility to showcase this capability, without waiting for more funding from Congress, or NASA’s certification approval.

      1. He doesn’t want to piss off NASA in the middle of a competition for commercial crew, and he doesn’t want to appear to be reckless. He won’t fly anyone until NASA asks him to, absent a request from some other major customer. On the Space Show the other day, Gwynne said that they would proceed “in lockstep with NASA.” The change in attitude toward risk will have to come from Congress.

  7. Something to think about regarding cancellations and loss of capabilities. We see government programs commonly get cancelled. But private companies operate for profit. Profitable operations are seldom cancelled unless something more profitable comes along to replace it. So you generally do not lose capabilities you need (unless you need to write to a 5.25″ floppy disk? or something like that.)

    So if we ever hear that the Dragon was cancelled it will be because we have better capabilities operational. Not… we no longer have a capability. This one thing alone should be reason enough for not having government compete with private industry which the SLS does.

  8. While I cannot speak on behalf of a former senior Senate Commerce Committee space staffer with decades of experience, I will let 51-D Mascot’s comment on NasaSpaceFlight.com speak for itself in refuting the notion that it would have cost “billions” to keep the Shuttle beyond the summer of 2010. In fact, if you look at other comments by him on this matter, you would see that quite apart from following the Bush Administration on retiring the shuttle or splashing the ISS in 2015, Congress felt the need to have Shuttle as a backup and keep the ISS going to 2020. I’ve included those parts for your readers.

    Comments by 51-D Mascot On Continuing The Shuttle Program
    This is from the 2008 NASA Authorization Act. It specifically preserved the option for continuing shuttle beyond 2010 for the incoming Administration–which was of course unknown when the legislation was drafted and even when enacted on October 15, 2008. Subsequent to the election, this provision was very clearly pointed out to the Obama Transition Team for NASA (headed by Lori Garver) and they clearly understood they had the option to continue–and that the Congress would likely support that move, given its history, since 2005, of concern about “The Gap,” especially with respect to the ability to support and sustain ISS. They “punted” that decision to the overall HSF Review Committee (Augustine), who, in the end provided a series of options among which was continuation of Shuttle to 2015, by which time it was expected that Ares 1 would be flying. The FY 2011 Budget Request the following year demonstrated THIS Administration’s DECISION:

    Section 611

    (1) IN GENERAL.—The Administrator shall terminate or suspend any activity of the Agency that, if continued between the date of enactment of this Act and April 30, 2009, would preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the Space Shuttle after fiscal year 2010 if the President inaugurated on January 20, 2009, were to make a determination to delay the Space Shuttle’s scheduled retirement.
    (2) REPORT ON IMPACT OF COMPLIANCE.—Within 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator
    shall provide a report to the Congress describing the expected budgetary and programmatic impacts from compliance with paragraph (1). The report shall include—
    (A) a summary of the actions taken to ensure the option to continue space shuttle flights beyond the end
    of fiscal year 2010 is not precluded before April 30, 2009;
    (B) an estimate of additional costs incurred by each specific action identified in the summary provided under
    subparagraph (A);
    (C) a description of the proposed plan for allocating those costs among anticipated fiscal year 2009 appropriations
    or existing budget authority;
    (D) a description of any programmatic impacts within the Space Operations Mission Directorate that would result
    from reallocations of funds to meet the requirements of paragraph (1);
    (E) a description of any additional authority needed to enable compliance with the requirements of paragraph
    (1); and
    (F) a description of any potential disruption to the timely progress of development milestones in the preparation
    of infrastructure or work-force requirements for shuttle follow-on launch systems.

    122 STAT. 4798 PUBLIC LAW 110–422—OCT. 15, 2008

    Added Note: Since the above provision expired at the end of April 2009, NASA, knowing of the HSF Review, elected to take only non-irreversible termination activities pending the outcome of that review, and pending the Administration’s formal response to that review as part of the FY 2011 Budget Request. Thus, the Bush-initiated termination “decision” could have been reversed as late as the Spring (and actually into the summer) of 2010. As added “insurance” for that option, the 2010 Act included language “protecting” ET-94 to enable the shuttle flow to ramp back up. Senator Hutchison also introduced a bill (S. 3068), the ‘‘Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act of 2010″, which provided for a recertification process for Shuttle, authorized funding for two flights per year for FY 2010, 2011 and 2012, and required a joint determination by the President and the Congress regarding a decision to terminate the shuttle. Rather than pursuing passage of that bill, it became the starting point on the Republican side of negotiations regarding the content of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, and the removal of those shuttle provisions became part of the “Compromise” that produced the 2010 Act.

    Continuing ISS Operations Beyond 2015
    The NASA Authorization Act of 2008, Title 6, Sec. 601, (a) and (b) preventing any activities by NASA to cease ISS operations in 2015. The primary source of the following language was Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.


    (a) In General.–The Administrator shall take all necessary steps to
    ensure that the International Space Station remains a
    viable and productive facility capable of potential United States
    utilization through at least 2020 and shall take no steps that would
    preclude its continued operation and utilization by the United States
    after 2015.
    (b) Plan To Support Operations and Utilization of the International
    Space Station Beyond Fiscal Year 2015.–
    (1) In general.–Not later than 9 months
    after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall
    submit to the Committee on Science and Technology of the House
    of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and
    Transportation of the Senate a plan to support the operations
    and utilization of the International Space Station beyond fiscal
    year 2015 for a period of not less than 5 years. The plan shall
    be an update and expansion of the operation plan of the
    International Space Station National Laboratory submitted to
    Congress in May 2007 under section 507 of the National
    Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005
    (42 U.S.C. 16767).
    (2) Content.–
    (A) Requirements to support operation and
    utilization of the iss beyond fiscal year 2015.–As part
    of the plan required in paragraph (1), the Administrator
    shall provide each of the following:
    (i) A list of critical hardware necessary to
    support International Space Station operations
    through the year 2020.
    (ii) Specific known or anticipated maintenance
    actions that would need to be performed to support
    International Space Station operations and
    research through the year 2020.
    (iii) Annual upmass and downmass requirements,
    including potential vehicles that will deliver
    such upmass and downmass, to support the
    International Space Station after the retirement
    of the Space Shuttle and through the year 2020.

    1. Thank you for clogging up my comments section with all that malformatted verbiage. The link would have been sufficient.

      I’m amused at your and Jeff’s quaint notion that just because Congress passes a law, it somehow alters reality. They could pass a law requiring that the ocean levels drop, or that pi equals four, or that Douchenozzle become smart, and it would have no effect on any of those things. At the time that law was passed, the program was already beyond the point of no return. Unless you think that Wayne Hale was unfamiliar with the program that he managed.

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