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Slow-Motion Train Wreck
There is at least one, and possibly two ignored elephants sitting in NASA's living room, that they're going to have to start to deal with soon, as a result of the president's new space policy. They're called Space Shuttle and International Space Station--the two fundamental components of what currently passes for the nation's civil government-funded space program.
As Keith Cowing reports, they're only starting to come to grips with the associated issues, but if the answers aren't forthcoming yet, it's partly because everyone knows them, but don't really want to say them out loud. We have a policy that we're going to shut down the Shuttle when station is completed, but what if we have problems along the way, and the station still has some way to go at the point we've a priori decided to shut down the Shuttle? And how do we transition personnel from the Shuttle to other programs, when it's not clear that the current skill set is what is needed for future activities? Dwayne Day examines these questions, and as already noted, the answers may not be very pretty.
More fundamentally, since the Shuttle phaseout plans are now being driven entirely by ISS considerations, to what degree does continuing to do ISS make any sense? In my opinion, of course, to the degree that NASA's space station plans ever made much sense (i.e., very little), that degree went to zero in 1993 when it became almost purely an instrument of foreign policy having almost nothing to do with the advancement of useful goals in space activities. Taylor Dinerman discusses some of the issues facing the international partnership (as does Jim Oberg), particularly in light of the politics with Russia and Iran.
I think that in announcing a 2010 end of the Shuttle program, the administration was just kicking the can down the road, but I don't think they can do it much longer, because hard decisions have to be made as to how much more Shuttle hardware must be procured (a decision complicated by the fact that some, including the incoming administrator, want to build a Shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle for the lunar and Mars program). It's probably not (yet) politically tenable to do so, but I think it's almost inevitable that once we really confront the realities of the mess that the past thirty years of space policy have wreaked, a decision will have to be made to just hand off ISS to the Europeans, Japanese and Russians, to do with as they will, allowing us to shut down Shuttle as well. Simply giving them the facility outright could obviate some of the diplomatic damage of withdrawing from our agreements, while allowing us to end the farce that is the current US manned space program and get on with something worthwhile.
Some will complain, of course, about writing off the many billions invested in station to date, but there's an old sayng in investment circles about throwing good money after bad. Unfortunately, Americans (and particularly the American government) aren't always good investors.
[Update a few minutes later]
Here's just one example of how absurd it is to continue operating the Shuttle, at least with the current risk-averse mindset:
NASA has from May 15 to June 3 to launch Discovery. Otherwise, it must wait until mid-July for the proper daylight conditions needed to photograph the entire ascent. The Columbia accident investigators insisted on multiple camera views at liftoff in order to check for debris or damage.
That constitutes a six-week period during which this vehicle cannot be flown, for the sole reason that they can't take good pictures of it during launch.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 04, 2005 09:30 AM
It seems to me that the administration's difficulties here would be resolved if there were to be another major shuttle accident. Then they could shut down STS and ISS without actually having to say they wanted to do that anyway.Posted by Paul Dietz at April 4, 2005 09:48 AM
The degree of the International Space Station's uselessness is almost tragic. Hopefully some of the hardware that cannot fit the 2005-2010 shuttle launch manifest can be salvaged for use as a lower inclination LEO or lunar station in the VSE.Posted by John Kavanagh at April 4, 2005 09:49 AM
Yes, that would certainly make it a fait accompli, but there'd be no way to do it deliberately and get away with it. Unfortunately they lost an opportunity in all the reviews of the past couple years. They could have just pushed things to a slightly more absurd level, and said that it wasn't possible to safely finish construction with a three-orbiter fleet on the schedule required, but apparently there was too much resistance within the administration to giving up the station at the time.
Though, I suppose that Mike Griffin could still come in and go through the motions of doing a review, and come to that conclusion. He certainly seems to be inclined that way, based on previous statements.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 4, 2005 09:52 AM
Rand, I agree with your post darn near 100%. Now, I am frightened. ;-)
I think that in announcing a 2010 end of the Shuttle program, the administration was just kicking the can down the road. . .
Exactly! But now the hard decisions are ripening perhaps sooner than expected.
= = =
Giving ISS to the ESA & RSA might represent a opportunity for an accurate use of the metaphor of the "white elephant" - - a gift that bankrupts the lucky donee.Posted by Bill White at April 4, 2005 09:52 AM
Rand, I agree with your post darn near 100%. Now, I am frightened. ;-)
I am frightened and confused. Maybe I should rethink my position. ;-)Posted by Rand Simberg at April 4, 2005 09:57 AM
Giving ISS to the ESA & RSA might represent a opportunity for an accurate use of the metaphor of the "white elephant" - - a gift that bankrupts the lucky donee.
Hrmmm, how expensive is it to maintain the ISS? I gathered that NASA had a lot of overhead and obstacles (eg, they couldn't pay the Russians directly for their hardware) that these other two agencies might not have.
Shouldn't the money for the ISS come out of the State Department budget instead of NASA?Posted by Brad at April 4, 2005 10:26 AM
Rand: there would be no way to do it overtly, but I could see policies being put in place that would increase the risk of accidents. After all, if accidents are viewed as being without cost (or even with negative cost) it doesn't pay to work to prevent them. Let's see if safety budgets are significantly cut and shuttle processing workloads increased.
I think the reason STS/ISS weren't cancelled before was the importance of Florida in the 2004 election.Posted by Paul Dietz at April 4, 2005 10:52 AM
At this point, there'd be too much pressure from whistle blowers to play a game like that, and I think that there's little relationship between much of that stuff and safety, anyway, so it wouldn't be likely to result in another vehicle loss. Also, Florida's likely to be just as important in 2008 as it was in 2004. If they get cancelled now, it will just be due to an overaccumulation of reality setting in.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 4, 2005 11:00 AM
It is ironic that about the only thing the Shuttle could usefully do at this point is the one thing they won't allow it to do: Service HST.Posted by G. Drukier at April 4, 2005 11:09 AM
Let's just sell it as is...I know someone intrested in building a hotel in the area.Posted by JJS at April 4, 2005 11:21 AM
(1) Finish ISS with whatever lift we will use for CEV and to support VSE.
Even I admit SDV is not the only option here. The EELV-only VSE looks forward to Delta IVs with an RL-60 upper stage, lithium alloy tanks, small solids, slushed hydrogen and whatever else gets you 30MT, 35 MT or even 45 MT to LEO. Look into enhanced Atlas Vs.
Or buy Protons. Some may say "ugh!" and politically it may be a bad move but it would save the US taxpayers billions of dollars.
Part of NASA budget sandtable allotted to STS between 2005 and 2010 can be switched to re-designing the Delta IVH payload fairing (or the shuttle C cargo bay . . . heh!) to carry ISS payloads. It seems to me that if VSE will rely upon LEO modular assembly, then NASA would benefit from developing alternate methods for delivering ISS payloads other than orbiter.
If NASA cannot figure out how to install ISS components without the orbiter, I have much less confidence in NASA's ability to accomplish future lunar missions which require LEO assembly of 20MT chucks.
(2) Cancel STS and US participation in ISS today and stop throwing good money after bad. Let go and move on.
= = =
We can argue about whether (1) or (2) is better but to spend $30 billion (7 years x $4 billion) on STS merely to finish ISS without ANY ancillary or spin off benefits seems rather foolish. At least use some of the 2005-2010 STS budget to pay for SDV or EELV+ and to practice modular on orbit delivery and assembly in the post-orbiter context.
= = =
Otherwise maybe we release a great new tee-shirt for the American taxpayer:
"Even after 2004, we spent $30 billion and all we got for our money was this useless space station."Posted by Bill White at April 4, 2005 11:31 AM
If NASA cannot figure out how to install ISS components without the orbiter,
Certainly they could "figure it out," but it would require a major redesign of the station and its components, and not necessarily worth the money. Better to invest those resources into figuring out how to do VSE with existing vehicles.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 4, 2005 11:46 AM
Option (2) is more than acceptable to me. Better to cancel ISS outright and let Condi Rice mend some diplomatic fences than put the US space effort essentially on ice for 6-7 years and $30 billion dollars.
Whether option (1) is technologically feasible is a question for the rocket scientists, not me. If it is not feasible to loft ISS components another way than orbiter, then the cancellation option becomes an even more obvious choice.
Can't we even move the truss payloads to Delta IV or shuttle C with a rudimentary station keeping module and grapple point attached. Let orbiter collect that payload and install 2 modules during a single mission.
Anything to eliminate orbiter flights and begin the transition to the VSE. Otherwise we are looking at a "heroic" effort by the STS folks between now and 2010 followed by "Thanks guys, and please turn out the lights when you leave."
In that context, hitting the ground running with the VSE in 2011 seems unlikely.Posted by Bill White at April 4, 2005 01:29 PM
It is ironic that about the only thing the Shuttle could usefully do at this point is the one thing they won't allow it to do: Service HST.
It can't even usefully (read: economically) do that, unless ISS is there to help amortize its fixed costs.
What is so special about launching on the shuttle?
1) you have rendevezous and station keeping built in to the shuttle.
2) Launch loads. Are these that different? Are the modules that fragile -- I doubt it.
3) Mass/Size. Is Delta IV payload that much smaller than what the Shuttle can deliver to ISS orbit?
4) Power/data to the payload. Not hard or expensive to engineer.
Posted by Fred K at April 4, 2005 02:09 PM
NASA could buy several Bigelows and place them in equatorial orbit to support the VSE buildout. It's time to pull the feeding tube on ISS/Shuttle.Posted by Jeff Arnall at April 4, 2005 02:34 PM
NASA has no current capability to deliver payloads to equatorial orbit. Only Sea Launch can get there with any significant payload (though Ariane can also get there, with some performance penalty for steering, because Kourou isn't precisely on the equator). Also, Bigelow would be uninterested in that orbit, because it's not very interesting from a tourism standpoint.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 4, 2005 02:45 PM
why is everyone assuming that RSA or ESA actually want the ISS for themselves ? Its costing them money as well and they dont get anything worthwhile out of it.Posted by kert at April 4, 2005 02:52 PM
Its costing them money as well and they dont get anything worthwhile out of it.
It allows ESA to pretend it has a real space program, which other than making sure that the jobs are spread around the member states, is all they really care about.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 4, 2005 03:02 PM
"Launch loads. Are these that different? Are the modules that fragile -- I doubt it."
Actually, those are serious issues. Many payloads were designed to take their loads through the sides, assuming that they would be held inside the shuttle payload bay. They were not designed to sit on their tails.
Accoustic loads are also different for other vehicles.Posted by Trevor Joosten at April 4, 2005 03:29 PM
>They were not designed to sit on their tails.
Why not pressurize them during launch?Posted by Kevin Parkin at April 4, 2005 05:09 PM
It looks like NASA is betting on drawing to an inside straight?
For non-p0ker players, this is known as a sucker bet. The question is how long do we let NASA play on our tab, before we put our chips on a table with better odds?Posted by Mark Reiff at April 4, 2005 10:59 PM
I believe one of the available Delta IVH payload fairing options is the exact same size and shape as the orbiter payload bay. As I recall, an off the shelf Delta IVH can lift (to 51 degrees) very close to the same cargo mass as orbiter but would lack the lift capability and perhaps payload fairing volume to add a station keeping module to keep the ISS component stable until someone came and retrieved it.
Some ISS components mass more than a little below the orbiter's total capability. Those payloads would be the prime candidates for an alternate launch vehicle. Trusses are the most obvious choice for alternate lift, in my opinion, if a rudimentary staion keeping module could be attached to both ends along with grabble points for the orbiter arm to retreive the equipment when floating in LEO.
Send orbiter from Pad 39 a few days after a Delta IVH from Pad 37 and install two modules per orbiter flight.
Shuttle C can carry 3 ISS paylaods by mass and 2 by volume and could incorporate the OMS engines and station keeping capability along with a fairly exact facsimile of the orbiter bay. Especially since we would use the same molds for shuttle C as used for building orbiter.
Launch a shuttle C from Pad 39A or B and fly the thing to within a mile or less of ISS. Then launch orbiter a few days later from the other half of Pad 39.
Now you have delivered THREE ISS payloads to LEO with a single flight of orbiter.
Knock 2 or 3 years off the ISS completion timeline (orbiter flies maybe 10-12 times instead of 28) and the cost of deploying shuttle C fits inside the current STS/ISS portion of the budget sandtable (i.e. its a freebie upgrade).
"Send orbiter from Pad 39 a few days after a Delta IVH from Pad 37 and install two modules per orbiter flight."
This is Legoblock Engineering. So many of your posts show this same naivete of what it takes to do real aerospace engineering. You act as if all we have to do is take the long red blocks off the short blue blocks and reconnect them differently and then we can throw the whole thing onto a Shuttle-C, which you've just drawn on the back of your napkin.
Why not go and educate yourself on this stuff instead of just playing "assemble the Legos" in your posts?Posted by Trevor Joosten at April 5, 2005 10:35 AM
Okay, boss. Then explain why we should believe the VSE can do "lego block" engineering with EELVs.
Please, explain why this won't work. . .
= = =
By the way, build a true HLLV and the ISS would have been a ONE or TWO launch mission.Posted by Bill White at April 5, 2005 09:42 PM
PS to Trevor.
Perhaps you are correct and perhaps it is NOT feasible to loft any of the remaining ISS components on either Proton, Delta IV plus or shuttle C.
=IF= that is true then I am even more convinced that spending $30 billion on ISS & STS through 31 Dec 2010 is just a huge waste of money. Just give ISS to the ESA & RSA and get going on the VSE.
But if we can combine ISS completion with deployment of the VSE chosen lift, we can get a two-for-one deal.
Whats wrong with that?Posted by Bill White at April 5, 2005 09:55 PM
...and on the subject of Legoblock engineering this is really cool:
replace [dot] with .
...and for the Lego loathers out there here's some NASA propaganda in which a Lego set is heartlessly thrown aside without a second thought:
http://anon.nasa-global.speedera.net/anon.nasa-global/exploration/Reach.mpgPosted by Kevin Parkin at April 6, 2005 05:16 AM
Quote: "The Columbia accident investigators insisted on multiple camera views at liftoff in order to check for debris or damage."
Well, then they probably should of thought about making the new foam a florescent glow in the dark material so we could see debris fall away with low light cameras.Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at April 6, 2005 09:59 AM
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