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Griffin's COTS Contradictions

Jeff Foust reports on the administrator's testimony before the Senate:

"Do not confuse my desire for international collaboration for a willingness to rely on others for strategic capability," he said in open remarks at a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. Dependence on Soyuz "is not an option we would choose, but it is where we are today. In fact, we must seek an exception to the Iran Syria North Korea Nonproliferation Act because we have no immediate replacement for the shuttle and no other recourse if we wish to sustain the ISS."

Given that statement, you would think that Griffin would be interested in accelerating domestic commercial options like COTS that would lessen or eliminate an reliance on the Russians. Yet, in his comments later in the hearing, he was not that interested in pursuing a crew option for COTS (also known as Capability D) on an accelerated schedule.

Yeah, you'd think. But I suspect that he fears that if COTS is seen to be making too-rapid progress, it will jeopardize funding for Ares/Orion, by making them seem superfluous. Of course, the traditional argument is that they are designed for the lunar mission, whereas a station crew transfer capability wouldn't have that additional capability. And Orion is supposedly not just for going back to the moon but for use in a Mars mission as well (though it is never explained what its role is in such a mission). I can't believe anyone seriously believes that a Mars mission would be performed in a glorified Apollo capsule--it's simply too small, and the crew would go nuts. If it's meant as the means to return them to earth upon return to earth orbit, well, OK, but it's pretty pathetic to think that, seventy years after the first lunar landing, we would still be returning people to the planet in a capsule on a chute (particularly if they end up with a water landing).

Of course, the real danger is that we'll get the worst of both worlds--a continuation of Ares/Orion, which are supposedly being built because they are necessary to go to the moon, but we drop the lunar mission from the policy, so they revert to simply replacing (or competing with) COTS crew capability. And unfortunately, as devoted Democrat Greg Zsidisin has discovered in a one on one, that seems to be exactly Obama's plan. The only saving grace of it is that, in delaying the development by five years, it really means that the program will die. But it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of space policy, and space hardware and development, on the part of Obama and/or his advisors. You can't "delay" a program like this and have any hope that it won't end up costing much more over the long run, particularly because you'll lose many of the key personnel for it, who aren't going to sit around twiddling their thumbs at no pay for half a decade while Obama solves the education problem. It's really quite absurd. But then, most of his proposed policies are--one of the many reasons that he isn't going to be elected.

As an aside, Jim Muncy said during the wrap-up panel last week in Phoenix that NASA has a bigger problem with the Iran Non-Proliferation Act than buying Soyuzes to replace Shuttle. Because the facilities are in the Russian segment, the ISS astronauts won't even be able to use the potty if they don't get a waiver, which could get pretty interesting on a six-month tour. The notion brought up the obvious jokes: "You'll just have to hold it," and "You should have gone before you launched..."

[Tuesday morning update]

Jon Goff has further thoughts:

...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.

Unfortunately, the only math that interests most congresspeople is the number of jobs in their district or state, with "the Gap" a distant second place. Mike knows that, which is why he can get away with this stuff, or at least why he has to date.



redneck wrote:

What, exactly, is 0 to 5 education going to accomplish that couldn't be done by improving the existing grades? There is plenty of existing quantity of school to do the job, if done properly.

Don't take this as defense of NASAs' budget. It
could be interesting to see what would happen to the agency if this happens, but I don't believe it would be for the better. It may not be for the worse either.

Mark R. Whittington wrote:

Rand, what you have conveniently left out is that Griffin is not so much interested in accellerating COTS as he is skeptical that it is even possible. He may be right or worng, but your account of his remarks, at least as Jeff reported them, is not accurate.

Mark R. Whittington wrote:

Addendum: Just in case you missed it, here's the opperative quote:

"He added that he would “very much like to see” a COTS crew capability developed, but that he doubted 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."

Jonathan Goff wrote:

Of course, one would expect that adding a given amount of money to a much smaller program is more likely to effect things than adding the same amount of money to a much bigger program. The Ares-I/Orion program is going to need at least $10-15B more before first flight. In order to substantially reduce the development time, you would likely need to add $1-2B per year. OTOH, COTS Options A-C have less than $.5B in their entire program, you'd only have to add a tiny amount relatively to provide a much larger relative boost. For instance, if even 1/4 of the "Mikulski Miracle" were put towards COTS, it would probably double the yearly COTS budget.

Do you honestly think that adding a couple of percent of funding to Ares-I/Orion is more likely to get us US manned spaceflight sooner than doubling the available COTS funding?

More to the point, there are fundamental reasons why Ares/Orion can only be sped up so much. It has long-lead-time items like the J-2X that can only be sped up so far by throwing money at them. OTOH, doing COTS Option D, especially if it was a new competition, might not face similar bottlenecks. For instance, for people proposing flying capsules on existing EELVs, the only projects are the capsule themselves--which would likely be a lot more amenable to being sped up than the development of a new, high thrust, high Isp, NASA-developed upper stage rocket engine like J-2X.

Just a few thoughts. But I think Griffin is on very shaky ground here. I think anyone who has been following this story can see that providing more money to COTS provides the highest probability for actually shortening the gap.


Cecil Trotter wrote:

"And Orion is supposedly not just for going back to the moon but for use in a Mars mission as well (though it is never explained what its role is in such a mission). I can't believe anyone seriously believes that a Mars mission would be performed in a glorified Apollo capsule--it's simply too small, and the crew would go nuts. "

Oh come on, you're being disingenuous. Orion's role in a Mars mission has been explained numerous times. You have to know that no one (or at least not anyone with any credibility) has ever suggested sending a crew all the way to Mars, and back, cramped up inside an Orion capsule. The capsule would simply be a means of transportation to and from whatever vehicle is used for the actual trip to and from Mars. There have been numerous studies, charts, graphics and even YouTube videos released showing this.

Come on Rand, you're better than that. Make your objections known using facts, not feigned ignorance of what is really being said and planned.

Rand Simberg wrote:

You have to know that no one (or at least not anyone with any credibility) has ever suggested sending a crew all the way to Mars, and back, cramped up inside an Orion capsule.

To be honest, I've paid very little attention to NASA's stated plans on Mars missions, because they are so far in the future that they don't seem worth even discussing. I'm only going on the kinds of impressions that the general public would get from reporting on it. And that does in fact "suggest" that, even if no one at NASA has actually proposed it. Which is a commentary on the reporting more than anything else.

Regardless, I don't see much of a path from Apollo on Steroids to Mars missions. If I did, I'd probably be more interested in NASA's stated Mars plans. If they were developing an orbital infrastructure to support extraplanetary missions in general, then I might take them seriously. And perhaps, in a new (non-Obama) administration they may do that.

jason wrote:

They got into Ares/Orion on History's The Universe earlier - yes, I'm a layman. It sounded to me as if they are expecting to use A/O to get to Mars eventually. Around 2040, or so - sigh.

Which made me think they're essentially trying to put a record player into a car instead of developing, say, a cassette.

ShittingtonIsAnIdiotRocketeer wrote:

True to form, Idiot Rocketeer Club founding member Mark Shittington fails to recognize the glaringly obvious conflict of interest in Griffin's comments. Of course, Shittington also has a hard time reading neon signs at night, so this comes as no surprise.

One also wonders when Shittington is going to learn how to spell...

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on April 7, 2008 2:12 PM.

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