The House authorization committee seems determined to put off as far as possible the day that we get back there. Their proposed text makes the Senate bill look visionary, bold and enlightened. I’m just reading through it now. It seems to completely ignore the recommendations of the Augustine panel, except for one point. In the findings, they like (out of context) these words:
While there are many potential benefits of commercial services that transport crew to low-Earth orbit, there are simply too many risks at the present time not to have a viable fallback option for risk mitigation.
I’d have to go back and find the context, but as I recall, that was one of the weaker parts of the report — an ugly compromise necessary to reach consensus (for instance, I doubt if Jeff Greason really agrees). As has been noted before, when you’re buying an insurance policy for risk mitigation, it’s insane for it to cost an order of magnitude or more than the main plan. Unless, of course, you’re indifferent to cost, and just want to create jobs for your constituents.
This next finding I completely disagree with:
It is in the national interest for the United States Government to develop a government system to serve as an independent means—whether primary or backup—of crewed access to low-Earth orbit and beyond so that it is not dependent on either non-United States or commercial systems for its crewed access to space.
Why? Why is this in the national interest? Why aren’t redundant commercial systems adequate? We don’t make this demand for moving troops to a war zone — we rely on commercial systems. Again, why is space access more critical in that regard that we need to spend an order of magnitude or more money on it when we don’t do that for moving troops? I can only think of one reason. That is, it’s not in the national interest of the US government — it’s in the parochial interest of representatives with jobs in their district.
Next we have the “safety” excuse:
Development of the next crewed space transportation system to low-Earth orbit should be guided by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s recommendation that ‘‘the design of the system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria, such as low cost and reusability.
First, I disagree the both the CAIB and the authorizers. If the “overriding priority” of the design is crew safety, and it cannot be traded against anything else (such as low cost and reusability), then we will be guaranteed high costs and lack of reusability. What the CAIB and the Congress are saying, if they really believe this, is that space isn’t important. Not important enough, at any rate, to risk the lives of astronauts. But if this is the case, why are we spending so much money on it?
Second, even if we believe that safety should be the highest, overriding priority, there is no guarantee that we are going to get it. After all, if you had asked NASA on January 27th, 1986, or January 31st, 2003 (the eves of the Challenger and Columbia launches, respectively) if safety was their highest priority, they would certainly have assured you that it was. Why would it be any different this time? We spent billions of dollars on Shuttle in the interest of crew safety, and we killed fourteen astronauts. So even if safety is important, maybe the way to get it isn’t to throw the hardware away, or to spend billions of dollars on it. There is certainly, despite all the “safesimplesoon” propaganda to the contrary, no reason to think that Ares/Orion would be any safer than any of the proposed, lower-cost alternatives, but it is clear that this is where the authorizers want to go.
And now come (at least) two fallacies in one paragraph — sunk cost, and begging the question:
In an environment of constrained budgets, responsible stewardship of taxpayer-provided resources makes it imperative that NASA’s exploration program be carried out in a manner that builds on the investments made to date in the Orion, Ares I, and heavy lift projects and other activities of the exploration program in existence prior to fiscal year 2011 rather than discarding them. A restructured exploration program should pursue the incremental development and demonstration of crewed and heavy-lift transportation systems in a manner that ensures that investments to provide assured access
to low-Earth orbit also directly support the expeditious development of the heavy lift launch vehicle system, minimize the looming human space flight ‘‘gap’’, provide a very high level of crew safety, and enable challenging missions beyond low-Earth orbit in a timely manner.
If we truly are in an environment of constrained budgets (and we certainly are), then any sensible analysis will be based on what course will minimize future expenditures while achieving the goal, regardless of past ones. The only budgets we can control are those going forward. There is an implicit assumption that the way to minimize costs is to build on the past “investments,” but it’s one not only unsubstantiated, but false. In fact, continuing down the Constellation/Shuttle road is a way not to minimize costs, but to maximize them, while actually increasing the gap, relative to using existing launch vehicles and almost-existing capsules. Again, it is clear that the priority here is not saving money, or closing the gap, but saving jobs.
This next finding is clearly in conflict with their others:
NASA should be vigilant in taking all necessary steps to control cost and schedule growth in
mission projects, including the development of an integrated cost containment strategy, and adopt measures that improve the performance and transparency of its cost and acquisition management practices.
NASA should approach cost and schedule management with the same level of innovation, rigor, and technical excellence that it applies to the execution of its mission projects.
Well, it’s hard to see how they can do that unless they ignore the other congressional recommendations. There’s certainly nothing innovative or technically excellent or cost controlled about Constellation.
In looking at their requirements for implementation in Section 202, it’s clear that they would like to resurrect Constellation. I see, though, that there are plenty of loopholes in it that would allow NASA to do pretty much whatever they want (the word “practicable” is a very useful one in this regard). I would also note that they beg the question again:
The crew transportation system shall have predicted levels of safety during ascent to low-Earth orbit, transit, and descent from low-Earth orbit that are not less than those required of the Ares I/Orion configuration that has completed program preliminary design review.
Problem is, while Orion has completed PDR, Ares never did. So beating its level of safety should be pretty easy.
Look. Imagine that someone took a Rubik’s Cube, took it apart, and put it back together in a such a way as to make it unsolvable. That’s this bill. The conflicts are irreconcilable. You can fly in 2015, but not with anything resembling the POR. You can “build on the investment,” but not without breaking future budgets. You can build a (relatively) safe vehicle, but not by sticking with the current direction. You can be a proper steward of the taxpayers’ money, but you can’t do that and “build on the investment” of an unaffordable system.
This isn’t a space bill, it’s a jobs bill. The good news is that it’s sufficiently different from the Senate version that it may not be reconcilable in conference. Or it may end up looking so much like the House bill that the administration (which has at least hinted via Lori that the Senate version is acceptable) that the president won’t sign it. My hope is that there won’t be an authorization bill this year (because the likelihood of getting a good one is low). Despite the apparent desperation (more than usual) to get one out, I think that remains the likeliest outcome.