Sunday, November 28, 2010

After Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle

Click on the arrow in the below frame to play the video of the January 28, 2004 Senate Science Committee hearing. You may need the free Adobe Shockwave Player to watch.

Third in a series. Earlier entries:

"Why Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle" (March 2, 2010)

"When Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle" (April 26, 2010)

President George W. Bush proposed his Vision for Space Exploration on January 14, 2004. (Click here to read the speech.) The VSE proposed the retirement of the Space Shuttle program upon completion of the International Space Station in 2010, followed by a minimum four-year gap where the United States would rely upon Russia to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. It called for a grand vision that would return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

How to pay for it? The President said:

Achieving these goals requires a long-term commitment. NASA's current five-year budget is $86 billion. Most of the funding we need for the new endeavors will come from reallocating $11 billion within that budget. We need some new resources, however. I will call upon Congress to increase NASA's budget by roughly a billion dollars, spread out over the next five years. This increase, along with refocusing of our space agency, is a solid beginning to meet the challenges and the goals we set today. It's only a beginning. Future funding decisions will be guided by the progress we make in achieving our goals.

Two weeks later, the Senate Science Committee met on January 28 to hear from NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe how the Bush administration planned to pay for VSE.

Committee chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said in his opening remarks:

I'm very curious to hear how Administrator O'Keefe thinks we can implement the President's proposal with the very limited resources that have been proposed. Two days go, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit in Fiscal Year 2004 would reach $477 billion. It's been reported that the President's new proposal could cost between $170 billion and $600 billion. Needless to say, the $12 billion that the Adminstration has suggested be spent over the next five years falls far far short of what might actually be required to return to the Moon and reach for Mars and beyond.

McCain said, "A vision without a strategy is just an illusion."

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) commented:

Space flight, you can't do it on the cheap. I just don't think that a billion dollar increase over five years, that's $200 million a year, is going to do it. I would love for you to explain on the reprogramming of the $11 billion over that five years how you can do that.

The "reprogramming" referred to cancelling other NASA programs to fund what eventually became known as Constellation. That included the Ares I rocket that would deliver astronauts to the ISS, the Ares V to take astronauts to the Moon, and the Orion capsule.

Nelson also expressed concern about the administration's reliance on Russia to transport astronauts to the ISS. "You phase out the Space Shuttle by 2010, and then if we don't fly this new vehicle until four, five, six years later, that means that our only human access to space is that we've got to rely on Russian rockets and European rockets, and I don't think that's good for the country."

Administrator O'Keefe presented what came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.

Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.

The proposal assumed the retirement of the Shuttle in 2010, the ISS in 2015, and reduced spending for human/robotic technology to pay for Constellation.

The immediate flaw in this proposal was that by the time Ares I would be ready, it was assumed that the ISS would be decommissioned. So where would Ares I fly? There seemed no point to building it.

Five years later, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report titled, "Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case Is Established." The opening page declared, "What GAO Found":

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case—including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time—needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase. Gaps in the business case include:

• significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements; and

• a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities.

In response to these gaps, NASA delayed the date of its first crewed-flight and changed its acquisition strategy for the Orion project. NASA acknowledges that funding shortfalls reduce the agency’s flexibility in resolving technical challenges. The program’s risk management system warned of planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. Consequently, NASA is now focused on providing the capability to service the International Space Station and has deferred the capabilities needed for flights to the moon. Though these changes to the overarching requirements are likely to increase the confidence level associated with a March 2015 first crewed flight, these actions do not guarantee that the program will successfully meet that deadline. Nevertheless, NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.

On Page 2 of the transmittal letter to the chair of the House Science Committee, the report stated:

We have issued a number of reports and testimonies that touch on various aspects of NASA’s Constellation program and in particular the development efforts under way for the Orion and Ares I projects. These reports and testimonies have questioned the affordability and overall acquisition strategy for each project and have stressed repeatedly NASA’s need to develop a sound business case — which includes firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — to support the Constellation program before making long-term commitments.

There are those who still claim Constellation was doing just fine until the Obama administration took over, that the Obama administration cancelled the Space Shuttle program, that the Obama administration was the one that created the gap where the United States would have to fly on Russian Soyuz rockets to the ISS.

The historical record is clear on who is responsible. And if you watch the C-SPAN video above, you can see for yourself.


  1. A good review of the start of the VSE and the failure to implement it. I'll note, though, that the Crew Exploration Vehicle in O'Keefe's chart did not become Ares I/Orion until after Griffin arrived in 2005. O'Keefe and associate administrator Craig Steidle had awarded CEV study contracts with several firms. It was generally expected that there would eventually be two systems that would compete to become the CEV.

    Griffin, however, came in determined to use the Ares I/V/Orion architecture that he had long advocated. (E.g., he had been co-leader of a Planetary Society study that had outlined that architecture). He used the ESAS process to eliminate all options but his system.

    I can't locate a quote but somewhere around that time, Griffin promised to reduce the four year "Gap". However, by insisting on a brand new rocket rather than using one of the existing EELVs, it was guaranteed that the Gap would only expand. The Augustine panel last year found that the Ares I would not be ready till 2017 at the earliest.

    - Clark

  2. Ya know, all these politicians were right.. maybe they're right now?