Sunday, September 30, 2012

Incomplete Grade

In doing research about the early days of commercial space under the George W. Bush administration, I came across a May 2005 GAO audit of International Space Station logistics support.

For the unfamiliar, the Government Accountability Office is the federal government's non-partisan independent auditing agency. It is an investigative arm of Congress; contrary to occasional unsubstantiated assertions, the White House has no influence or control over the GAO.

This particular audit was written at a time when NASA was struggling to return to flight after the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003.

President Bush had given a speech in January 2004 announcing that the Shuttle program would end once ISS construction was complete circa 2010. His Vision for Space Exploration speech proposed a new mission which redirected NASA away from Low Earth Orbit and out into the solar system. The program came to be known as Constellation.

Click the arrow to watch the January 28, 2004 Senate Science Committee on the Vision for Space Exploration.

Bush didn't mention it, but buried in the details was a proposal to begin a commercial cargo program.

For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs—such as heavy lift—are not met by commercial or military systems. Depending on future human mission designs, NASA could decide to develop or acquire a heavy lift vehicle later this decade. Such a vehicle could be derived from elements of the Space Shuttle, existing commercial launch vehicles, or new designs.

Nowhere was commercial crew mentioned.

In the months following Bush's announcement, Congress held hearings to determine NASA's progress. Apparently some members of Congress questioned whether NASA was sincere in pursuing the commercial program. According to the May 18, 2005 GAO cover letter:

In May 2004 and again in February 2005, NASA testified before the Congress that it had assessed using alternative launch vehicles for completing space station assembly and providing logistics support. According to NASA officials, their assessment showed that using alternative launch vehicles would introduce unacceptable operational risks, technical challenges, long program delays, and would ultimately cost more than returning the space shuttle to flight. Therefore, NASA concluded that the space shuttle’s unique capabilities provided the best available option for these missions. Despite these testimonies, concerns have been raised about NASA’s conclusions, both within Congress and the industry. Due to the uncertainty regarding when the space shuttle would return to safe flight and concerns that additional flights would be needed to support assembly and logistics operations, you asked us to determine whether NASA’s assessment of alternatives was sufficient to conclude that the space shuttle is the best option for completing assembly and providing logistics support to the space station.

What did the audit find?

Not much. Because NASA didn't really do a proper study.

In early 2004, NASA performed an informal assessment of alternative launch vehicles that was incomplete and did not provide a clearly documented rationale to conclude that the space shuttle was the best option to support space station operations. NASA identified significant challenges associated with using an alternative to the space shuttle for space station assembly, which could preclude these missions from consideration. However, the assessment conducted by NASA did not include an analysis of the schedule impacts or costs associated with using alternative launch vehicles for logistics missions later this decade. While we recognize that the extensive experience of its senior managers is an important element in evaluating alternatives, NASA relied primarily on headquarters expertise to conduct the informal assessment. NASA officials did not document the proceedings and decisions reached in its assessment. As a result, the existence of this assessment of alternatives cannot be verified, nor can the conclusions be validated. (Emphasis added)

The timeline here is critical. The "informal assessment" of alternatives to Shuttle was performed in "early 2004." It was one year after Columbia. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report in August 2003 had declared Shuttle "a complex and risky system". The Board recommended several changes to NASA bureaucracy, but didn't believe that NASA would do anything about it. From Page 13 of the report:

This chapter captures the Board's views of the need to adjust management to enhance safety margins in Shuttle operations, and reaffirms the Board's position that without these changes, we have no confidence that other "corrective actions" will improve the safety of Shuttle operations. The changes we recommend will be difficult to accomplish — and will be internally resisted.

The GAO audit's finding proved that CAIB was right. NASA was determined to fly the Shuttle and wouldn't consider alternatives.

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