Friday, January 30, 2015

Closing the Gap

Click the arrow to watch Barack Obama's Titusville speech on August 2, 2008. Original video source: Florida Today.

“I'm gonna close the gap.”

— Presidential Candidate Barack Obama
Titusville, Florida, August 2008

In the summer of 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stopped in Titusville, Florida to deliver a speech that was his first significant public statement of his space policy if elected.

I've written before about that event, in particular this August 2011 blog article on the third anniversary.

During that summer, the Space Shuttle had twelve missions left to fly. Nine were to complete construction of the International Space Station. One was to service the Hubble Space Telescope. A tenth ISS construction mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer would be added by Congress in the fall of 2008, and an eleventh flight for cargo delivery was added by the Obama administration in September 2010.

Based on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations, in January 2004 President George W. Bush announced that the Shuttle would be retired upon ISS completion. A new program would begin with the eventual goal of developing deep-space human exploration missions. Constellation, as it came to be known, evolved in subsequent years to a projected system of components. The Crew Exploration Vehicle, later known as Orion, would have two launch vehicles. The Ares I was for delivering crew to the ISS and other low Earth orbit missions. The Ares V would be for missions beyond Earth orbit, such as lunar exploration and launching heavy cargo.

The Vision Sand Chart presented by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Click the image to view a larger version. Image source: NASA.

The original proposal that accompanied NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to Capitol Hill projected a four-year gap between the final Shuttle flight in Fiscal Year 2010 and the first Crew Exploration Vehicle operational flight to the ISS in Fiscal Year 2014.

(Federal fiscal years begin October 1 before the year in question. FY10, for example, ran from October 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010.)

By the time candidate Obama appeared in Titusville, Constellation had fallen years behind schedule and gone billions over budget. A July 2006 Government Accountability Office audit concluded that Constellation lacked a sound business case. Three years later, an August 2009 GAO Audit repeated the warning:

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.

After Obama took office as President, he appointed the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, headed by Norm Augustine, to conduct an independent review of NASA's human spaceflight programs. The October 2009 report opened its executive summary with this paragraph:

The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most demanding and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today.

The proposed Orion/Ares I implementation schedule that accompanied the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget. Click to view at a higher resolution.

The final Constellation budget prepared by the Bush administration submitted to Congress in February 2009 showed that first Orion operational flight had slipped to Fiscal Year 2016. The same for the Ares I booster. The “gap” had widened by two years.

The Augustine Committee believed that target was optimistic.

An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.

The Bush administration had planned to deorbit the ISS in 2016, meaning Orion/Ares I were being built to go to a destination that would no longer exist.

(Section 601 of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act forbade NASA from taking steps to end ISS operations in FY15, and to plan for its extension to 2020. But NASA budget policy still assumed ISS would end in 2016.)

When the Obama administration submitted its first NASA budget proposal in February 2010, it recommended cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the ISS through 2020 (as required by the 2008 authorization act). In place of Orion/Ares I, the administration would fund the commercial crew program which had been on the books since 2005 but unfunded by the Bush administration; it built on a commercial cargo program that was a minor part of Constellation.

Click the arrow to watch the January 26, 2015 commercial crew media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Five years later, on January 26, 2015, the two commercial crew contract winners held a media event at Johnson Space Center to discuss their timelines for demonstration and operational ISS flights. NASA, Boeing and SpaceX plan to begin operational flights to the ISS in 2017 — the same year that the Augustine Committee believed Orion/Ares I flights would begin.

Did President Obama fail to close the gap?

The answer is that he tried, but Congress denied NASA the funding that would have closed the gap.

The commercial crew funding proposal that was sent to Congress in February 2010. Click to view at a higher resolution.

The original FY11 request sent to Congress in February 2010 proposed $5.8 billion over the next five fiscal years “to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles.”

The last budget proposal prepared by the Bush administration, submitted in early 2009, listed proposed numbers for Orion and Ares I up through FY14. So let's contrast the cost of the approaches by the two administrations for developing crew access to low Earth orbit:

Orion 1,938.9 2,056.1 1,931.0 1,751.7
Ares I 2,143.3 1,985.5 1,950.1 2,012.0
CONSTELLATION TOTAL 4,082.2 4,041.6 3,881.1 3,763.7
COMMERCIAL CREW 500.0 1,400.0 1,400.0 1,300.0

Keep in mind that Commercial Crew only awarded milestone payments for the crew vehicle. The vendor was 100% responsible for launch vehicle development.

One can't help but be struck by the significant cost savings for NASA by ending Constellation. The last Bush budget projected $15.8 billion spent on Orion/Ares I during FY11-14. The original Obama request would have spent $4.6 billion over the same period. Commercial crew was projected to deliver human low Earth orbit access for about 29% of the Constellation boondoggle.

One might think that Congress would enthusiastically support and approve such innovation and cost savings.

Their reaction, instead, was outrage.

I've written about this period many times, most recently on December 2, so we won't retread that subject.

But what I will do is present another table contrasting the years since the February 2010 proposal — what the Obama administration requested in each fiscal year, and what Congress authorized.

Orion 1,938.9 2,056.1 1,931.0 1,751.7
Ares I 2,143.3 1,985.5 1,950.1 2,012.0
CONSTELLATION TOTAL 4,082.2 4,041.6 3,881.1 3,763.7
COMMERCIAL CREW REQUEST 500.0 850.0 829.7 821.4 848.3
COMMERCIAL CREW ACTUAL* 321.0 397.0 525.0 626.0 805.0
* Actual figures taken from various NASA documents and may not reflect later adjustments.

According to a November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report, the actual amount received in those first three fiscal years was only 38% of what the Obama administration requested in its original February 2010 proposal. That original proposal intended for the first ISS operational flights to be in 2015, which would have reduced the gap by at least two years from what the Augustine Committee projected.

Page 16 of the report (Page 26 in the PDF) states:

Generally speaking, we determined that each year’s budget decrement has resulted in an additional year of schedule delay. Even if the Program receives its full budget request in future years, the cumulative difference between the Program’s initial budget requests and receipts over the life of the Program would be approximately $1.1 billion.

The Obama administration is scheduled to release its Fiscal Year 2016 budget request on Monday February 2. Last year's budget proposal projected that the FY16 request would be $872.3 million. If history repeats itself, Congress will respond with a yawn and widen the gap yet again.

If you're unhappy with NASA's continued reliance on Russia, vent your wrath at your local member of Congress and your two U.S. Senators. The White House did its part.

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