Friday, June 27, 2014

The Emperor's New Clothes

Click the arrow to watch the June 25, 2014 “Pathways to Exploration” hearing on YouTube.

The Emperor's New Clothes, published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, was about a ruler who was so vain and so arrogant that he could be duped by bureaucrats and noblemen into thinking he was wearing a cloth invisible to those who were unfit for office or “unusually stupid.”

One hundred sixty-seven years later, we watched this parable play out in real life as President George W. Bush proposed his Vision for Space Exploration.

The VSE was in response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which concluded that the Space Shuttle was “a complex and risky system.”

CAIB also cited “the lack of an agreed national vision” as a contributing cause for the accident, and repeatedly cited the lack of a vision throughout the report.

So on January 17, 2004, President Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration speech.

Click the arrow to watch the Vision for Space Exploration speech.

The elements of that speech were:

  • Complete the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010, then retire the Shuttle from service.
  • “... Develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.” The CEV would be used to ferry astronauts first to the ISS, and later to “beyond our orbit to other worlds.”
  • “... Return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.”
  • “With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.”

Two weeks later, on January 28, 2004, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the VSE proposal. He displayed a graphic that 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 chart revealed some facts Bush failed to mention in his speech.

Constellation, as the program came to be known, would be funded by ending the International Space Station program. “Complete Station Research Objectives” was scheduled for federal Fiscal Year 2016, which would start on October 1, 2015.

The Bush administration would complete the ISS in 2010 only to shut it down in 2015.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle would fly for the first time in Fiscal Year 2014, meaning it would serve the ISS for only one year.

And for the five fiscal years after 2004, the NASA budget would increase by a total of only $1 billion spread out over those five years.

President Bush proposed a grandiose plan, but didn't bother to pay for it.

That was fine with many members of Congress, who were only concerned with how many jobs Constellation would generate in their districts and states. Constellation would use Shuttle-era contractors — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) — who were big-money donors to their re-election campaigns.

For those willing to see, Constellation with its Ares launch vehicles and Orion crew capsule was the emperor with no clothes. But the bureaucrats and noblemen were happy.

By the time President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, Constellation was predictably in trouble.

In August 2009, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.” It was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. “While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts,” the report noted, “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.” Some of those technical problems, such as excessive vibrations during launch, might never be solved.

In October 2009, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee for its chair, Norm Augustine) issued a report estimating that Ares I would not fly until 2017, two years after the ISS would be decommissioned. Ares I would fly to a facility that would not exist. As for the Ares V that would be used for lunar missions, it wouldn't be available until at least 2028.

September 16, 2009 ... Norm Augustine presents his committee's findings to the Senate Space Subcommittee.

In early 2010, the Obama administration submitted its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget. It proposed that Constellation be cancelled, that the ISS be extended to at least 2020, and that the commerical cargo program be expanded to begin a commercial crew vehicle competition which would provide ISS transport.

The bureaucrats and noblemen were most unhappy.

When the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was signed by Obama on October 11, 2010, Congress had reluctantly agreed with the President to end Constellation — but Congress imposed another program called the Space Launch System. Called the Senate Launch System by its critics, Congress mandated that NASA build its “monster rocket” as dubbed by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) using Shuttle and Constellation contractors and technologies. Constellation's Orion crew capsule would now be launched atop SLS.

Once again, the bureaucrats and noblemen were happy.

But Congress didn't provide the funding necessary to build SLS on schedule, much less specify any missions or destinations.

Nearly four years later, SLS still has no missions or destinations. It is the new emperor wearing only his birthday suit.

The members of Congress who imposed SLS upon NASA complain that Obama doesn't request more money for their monster rocket — even though under the Constitution it's Congress that determines the final budget and appropriations, not the President.

All but forgotten in the 2010 act was a requirement for NASA to “contract with the National Academies for a review of the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight” in fiscal year 2012.

The language required the report to include “a review and prioritization of scientific, engineering, economic, and social science questions to be addressed by human space exploration to improve the overall human condition.”

The report was finally produced by the Academies on June 4, 2014. Click here to download a PDF of Pathways to Exploration.

According to the press release:

Arguing for a continuation of the nation’s human space exploration program, a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council concludes that the expense of human spaceflight and the dangers to the astronauts involved can be justified only by the goal of putting humans on other worlds. The report recommends that the nation pursue a disciplined “pathway” approach that encompasses executing a specific sequence of intermediate accomplishments and destinations leading to the “horizon goal” of putting humans on Mars. The success of this approach would require a steadfast commitment to a consensus goal, international collaboration, and a budget that increases by more than the rate of inflation.

Human Spaceflight Report Release & Public Briefing from The National Academies on Vimeo.

I'll leave it to you to read the report, watch the media briefing and the June 25 hearing at the top of this article.

My personal opinion is that this report is destined for the same dust bin as the last report ordered by Congress. In December 2012, the Academies issued a report titled, “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus”. That one went nowhere too.

In my opinion, the fatal flaw in the latest report is that Congress directed the Academies to assume that human exploration is the primary purpose of NASA. The Academies, therefore, had to justify it.

Several members of the House Space Subcommittee in the June 25 hearing used the report to criticize the Obama administration's Asteroid Initiative, specifically the Asteroid Retrieval Mission.

The report recommended dedication to one “pathway” leading to a human Mars mission, one that “minimizes the use of dead-end mission elements that do not contribute to later destinations on the pathway.”

It did not criticize ARM other than to suggest that some aspects of ARM might create dead-end technologies that don't contribute to the pathway.

The members misquoted that to attack ARM, but they missed the point. The report concluded that if the pathway is a human spaceflight to Mars, then ARM may not be the best way to do it.

But what if the pathway were to be something else other than a fixation with a government human exploration program?

That was the question never asked — because Congress hadn't allowed it.

The two witnesses testifying about the report noted that the exploration pathway could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and might not be achieved until the 2050s.

If Congress isn't willing to commit to one path over those many decades, to commit the money, then they recommended that the human Mars mission should be abandoned.

Co-chair Mitch Daniels summed it up with this question for the subcommittee: “I just start with a very simple question — do you want to go to Mars, or don't you?”

Some of the noblemen — Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Mo Brooks (R-AL) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS) — reflexively blamed Obama.

But Obama years ago warned that a government exploration pathway was not sustainable.

April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama proposes a new course for NASA.

In an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama said:

But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change.

Later in the speech, Obama proposed a “capabilities” approach for NASA that would enable the private sector to open up access to space, instead of the government bureaucracy:

... [W]e will extend the life of the International Space Station likely by more than five years, while actually using it for its intended purpose: conducting advanced research that can help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth, as well as testing and improving upon our capabilities in space. This includes technologies like more efficient life support systems that will help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.

Obama shocked the noblemen and bureaucrats, for he had committed blasphemy — he had said that the emperor has no clothes.

Members of Congress grew up in the Apollo era, and in my opinion most of them seem to think that's the only thing that NASA should ever do.

But they seem not to know that NASA was created in 1958 to be an aerospace research and development agency, not to spread humanity throughout the solar system.

That changed when President John F. Kennedy proposed in May 1961 that the United States land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s to prove to the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

And for the 45 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the Moon, the federal government has been trying to figure out what NASA is for.

Many of them seem to think NASA is a jobs program for their states and districts.

The Obama administration, in my opinion, wants to take NASA back to its purpose as defined by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 — to “contribute materially” to a list of objectives. “Contribute materially” is very different than own and run everything.

Nothing in the 1958 act requires NASA to fly people into space. The Academies' press release comments that, in itself, it's hard to justify the government launching people just for the sake of launching people:

The committee concluded that although no single rationale, either practical or aspirational, seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight, the aspirational rationales, when supplemented by practical benefits associated with the pragmatic rationales, argue for the continuation of a U.S. human spaceflight program, provided that the program adopts a stable and sustainable pathways approach. The aspirational rationales are also most in line with enduring questions the report identifies as motivating human spaceflight: “How far from Earth can humans go?” and “What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?”

The word “inspiration” is the first line of defense from those who argue for deep-space human spaceflight — but as the press release noted, it can't be quantified, much less proven.

The release suggests that “practical benefits,” coupled with inspiration, might justify the human exploration pathway.

But what if “practical benefits” were prioritized over inspiration?

That wasn't what Congress requested, so that question was never answered.

The Obama administration chose to emphasize practical benefits, or capabilities. Rather than making a government human spaceflight program the priority, it chose to build on the Bush administration's early ideas for a commercial space industry. The vision of “a robust space industry” was part of the original VSE proposal sent to Congress in February 2004, and articulated in detail by the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond in June 2004.

By the time Obama took office in January 2009, two 21st Century robotic craft were being developed to deliver cargo to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences Cygnus are both certified and now run deliveries to the space station.

The Obama administration chose to fund a crew version of that program, which had been on paper during the Bush administration but never went forward. Three companies are now in the running to deliver people to the ISS, perhaps in as soon as two years — although Congressional budget cuts have delayed the program by at least two years, as Congress prefers to prioritize the SLS.

A video animation of a SpaceX Dragon V2 mission. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

One of those companies, SpaceX, envisions reusable vehicle technology, with boosters and crew capsules that can return to a landing pad and be refueled for launch again.

Two of the commercial crew companies have agreements with Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas company developing expandable habitats to replace the aluminum-and-steel structures used as space stations for the last half-century. Based on 1990s NASA technology cancelled by Congress, the first Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is scheduled to berth at the ISS in 2015 for a two-year capabilities demonstration.

Bigelow and the commercial crew companies might partner with Golden Spike Company, which plans commerical lunar flights. Two astronauts might launch on a SpaceX vehicle and rendezvous with a Bigelow habitat module in lunar orbit, and stay on the surface in a Bigelow station.

The Asteroid Retrieval Mission might be a dead-end technology if your goal is walking people on Mars, but it might be of great interest to commercial asteroid mining companies. Two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, plan to harvest asteroids, perhaps by robotically capturing and returning those space rocks to cislunar orbits. On June 19, NASA announced that eighteen proposals had been selected to “mature system concepts and key technologies and assess the feasibility of potential commercial partnerships to support the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.”

All of these are capabilities that NASA has nourished under the Obama administration.

People will still go into space. They just won't rely on a big government program built by contractors favored by Congress.

Who is the Emperor?

The Emperor is the space-industrial complex, a triad of NASA, government politicians and their career bureaucrats, and the legacy aerospace companies that fund those politicians' re-election campaigns.

The Emperor really doesn't care if he ever accomplishes anything, so long as his needs are satiated.

Hans Christian Anderson's parable begins with this paragraph. Perhaps it explains why NASA is always dressed up with no place to go.

Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, except to show off his new clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The King's in council,“ here they always said. “The Emperor's in his dressing room.”

1 comment:

  1. [Apologize if this comment appeared already, but it wasn't showing up, so I've tried to post twice]

    NASA will never be able to fulfill the mission the world thought it would in the Apollo era - an enlightened, rationally governed institution for the bold advancement of all mankind. Basically the Star Trek Federation if it were real. Unfortunately, neither will business just operating as business, nor private NGOs just operating as they normally do. It will take people with uncommon resources and vision, such as Elon Musk, to come together with each other and bring together all sectors of society - public, private, business, government, individuals, universities, NGOs, etc. etc. - to constitute the kind of organization that NASA can never be.