Steve Cook Assesses Constellation

AresI&VCollage_iPhone.jpgAmericaSpace Note: On May 6, Steve Cook, former chief of Ares I, gave a speech before the Alabama-Mississippi Section of the AIAA. In it, Cook provides a good analysis of where Constellation is as well as where the “competition” is not, and he also offers insight about claims made by others concerning the status of Constellation. Without further ado…

Steve Cook (pdf)

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to the AIAA in the past, and I’d like to thank Tom Hancock for this year’s invitation – it is truly my pleasure. Mike Griffin was unable to join us this afternoon, but sends his regards. Before I begin to convey our thoughts for the day, I would like us to all keep the families of the two employees of AMTEC yesterday who lost their lives, in our thoughts and prayers. This is an unforgiving business and we all need to stay vigilant.

We thought it would be helpful, during these times of heated debate in Congress regarding the future of human space flight to discuss why Constellation is what it is, and our thoughts on our future course to the stars through difficulties, Ad Astra Per Aspera!
Constellation was designed to implement a new civil space policy, articulated by the president in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, and modified, extended, and enhanced by both Republican and Democratic Congresses in the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2008.

At this point, after six years of discussion, it seems fair to say that the broad principles of the policy have provided a reasoned, and reasonable, consensus on goals for the American civil space program. Briefly, the United States will meet domestic and international commitments by using the Space Shuttle to finish the International Space Station (ISS), after which the Shuttle fleet will be retired and replaced by a new system to support space station crew transfer and logistics, enable human lunar return and sustained lunar presence, and pave the way for future voyages to Mars and the near-Earth asteroids. Other important points are captured in both policy and law, including especially the intent to foster commercial development of space, but this one sentence captures the essence of the policy and legal direction for NASA’s human spaceflight program for the past six years.

The policy is not without practical concerns. We are completing ISS and planning for the retirement of the Shuttle fleet by the end of 2010. At the same time, the first Constellation elements, Ares 1 and Orion, are being built. These elements were originally required to be in service by 2015, given the budgetary allocations then thought to be available for development, and we identified design alternatives that could have provided capability as early as 2011. However, in the wake of numerous administration budget reductions and three Continuing Resolutions, initial operational capability for Ares 1 and Orion is now projected for 2015, if we can stay the course we have pursued since 2005.

At issue are the implications of this timing for ISS support and utilization, and the geopolitics of depending upon Russia for five years for crew transportation to that facility. A multi-year gap in independent, guaranteed U.S. access to the space station whose development we led seems folly. However, as we continue to remind people, “the gap” is not a surprise, it is a known feature of the last five budget cycles. If now that we are almost upon it it seems a bad feature, the question becomes, what can be done about it, and at what cost in terms of money, risk, and foregone opportunities? We will have more to say on this later, but for the moment let’s continue with larger issues.

This policy mandates hard things. Returning the Space Shuttle safely to flight – I and many others in this room can tell you how hard that was. Finish the station; harder yet, but we’re doing it. Then, even harder: retire the Shuttle, a system we’ve been designing, building, and flying for forty years. The Shuttle is an American icon throughout the world, one that can be seen on billboards in Beijing. But it is also a system which, even when operated to perfection, cannot take us where we want to go again – out beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). And, finally, hardest of all, we are to build a new human space transportation system that can take us where we want to go, something we last initiated almost five decades ago.

This is a time of seminal change at NASA. The 2004 vision, codified by a both a Republican and Democratic Congress is the best policy direction NASA has received in decades. It established clear goals which follow logically from choices that, considered one by one, are simple. Either we will have a human spaceflight program, or not. We will, because for the United States to cede leadership on the frontier of human action will spell the end of who and what we are as a people.

History is not the story of those who stayed behind. As President Kennedy said so eloquently, “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.” If we are to have a human spaceflight program, it will either venture outward, or not. If not, then again we will be in retreat. The exploitation of low Earth orbit is vitally important to a spacefaring society, but it is no longer the frontier. When John Glenn flew into orbit the first time, it was. Today, we have had international crews working and living in space on the International Space Station for nine years. We have much to learn, but the frontier status of low Earth orbit is fading. We need to expand upon the knowledge gained there, but also press on to new frontiers.

So, if we are not to retreat, if we are to venture outward again, where do we go? The moon, the near-Earth asteroids, and Mars – these are the destinations that we can reach with technology we possess today or can reasonably foresee. These are the destinations that can and will fully occupy us for the remainder of this century. These are the places where we will create new options for our grandchildren’s grandchildren – or leave that privilege to others.

So in our view we had the right policy, not least because it directs us to follow the geography of the solar system in which we live as we go about rebuilding our spacefaring capabilities. We must surely do things right, but it is even more important to do the right things. With this policy, we are.

Thus, we should be wary of the broad redirection of our space program proposed by this Administration, because today we are spending our resources in pursuit of the right goals. We must not allow indecision and uncertainty to cause, again, the waste of billions of dollars already invested and the loss of any momentum we might have hoped to achieve. We have seen this in far too many NASA human spaceflight programs over the years, a situation which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board justifiably called “a failure of national leadership”.

Those of us in the space community must surely ask, do we want to repeat those mistakes? How many of us worked on programs like NASP, NLS, X-33, 34, 43C, SLI, ASTP, NGLT – all efforts to replace the Shuttle which were scuttled when difficult times set in during their development – “per Aspera”. One accounting places the cost of the cancellations at $16B – not including Constellation.

The Constellation architecture offers a system to meet the goals of previous space policy and current law. It is fundamentally designed to return Americans and our international partners to the Moon, to allow but not to require permanent human lunar presence, and to provide maximum utility of the near-term elements for later voyages to Mars and the near-Earth asteroids. Constellation is also designed to support ISS but, as clearly stated from the outset, only if commercial service fails to materialize. Constellation is not focused on or designed for maximum efficiency in LEO operations. Our goal is to establish a market niche for commercial cargo and, later, crew transportation to ISS, a niche in which government systems certainly ought not to be cost competitive with commercial systems designed for efficient LEO access. In fact, the question might be asked: as a matter of broad policy, do we believe that the taxpaying public should properly subsidize any commercial activity which cannot even be as efficient as the government?

The programmatic implementation of the Constellation architecture was designed to fit within NASA’s budget projections as enunciated in 2005. Further, it is designed to accommodate funding reductions – which have totaled nearly $12 billion future dollars in its first four years – by slipping schedule rather than by making technical compromises with which our successors would have to cope for decades. If we learn nothing else from the history of the Space Shuttle development compromises that were forced by budgetary considerations, I hope it is this: “late” is ugly until you launch, but “wrong” is ugly forever. But, more on budget later.

Constellation is a specific instantiation of a system designed to address stated policy goals. Others are certainly possible; it is almost never true in engineering that there is only one way to do something. It is reasonable to ask whether, given the goals and constraints that guided the Constellation design, another technical approach would produce superior performance, or could be realized in less time or at lower cost.

Now, requirements can be altered, policies changed, and decisions, plans and architectures can be reviewed, altered, or reversed. However, such actions come with a price tag. In fact, merely asking questions carries a cost. It takes a good deal of time and money – consequential damages, if you will, for the legal minds among us – to conduct an effective technical review. If it is to be of value, an engineering review must be done carefully and thoroughly, with enormous attention to the ground rules and assumptions employed by both designers and reviewers in order to produce valid “apples to apples” comparisons. Further, the game must be worth the price; to undertake a review with the idea of effecting serious change, there must be a reason to suppose that a significant gain is possible, and a healthy skepticism as to the likelihood of attaining that gain.

It is bad engineering practice to “churn” a system design merely because one can. In this vein, I call your attention to a book entitled “The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference”, about Adm. Hyman Rickover and his stewardship of the nuclear Navy. There is a great story about the early days of reactor development, when Rickover’s personal future and that of the Nautilus and the nuclear Navy were very much in doubt. Adm. Rickover offered an interesting definition of the difference between a paper reactor and a real reactor.

A paper reactor has the following characteristics. It is simple. It is small. It is cheap. It is lightweight. It can be built very quickly. Very little development is required; it will use off the shelf components. It is in the study phase.

A real reactor has the following characteristics. It is complicated. It is large. It is heavy. It is being built now. It is behind schedule. It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems.

Sound familiar?

It is crucial to recall that NASA is designing an architecture, a family of space vehicles with synergistic commonality. We were not trying to optimize the design for a single mission. Our analysis showed that for the complete architecture, the development costs savings for the Ares family are huge, about $14-17B lower than for an EELV-derived family, because of the commonality of Ares 1 systems with those on Ares 5. This was verified again in June of last year in the Aerospace Corp report on human rating an EELV; the costs for human rating the Delta IV to lift Orion were a minimum of $6B. Regrettably, his report was largely forgotten in the wake of the Augustine Committee last Summer.

In fact, given that we must develop Ares 5 for the lunar mission and, later, Mars, the additional development cost for Ares 1 is only about $3 billion. So, with the Constellation architecture, if you design the system to meet the demands of going to the moon and Mars, for an additional $3 billion you also get a new human-rated LEO transportation system that addresses the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that “the design of the system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria.” Aside from the upper stage tank structure, almost everything on Ares 1 – many elements of the 5-segment solid rocket booster, the J-2X upper stage engine, the upper stage main propulsion system, the guidance, navigation, and flight control systems – is common to Ares 5. There are even Ares V options which use the upper stage as is – ala Saturn IB / Saturn V. Constellation is not a point design.

A spaceflight system designed for a single task – say Earth to LEO, or Earth to Moon – can clearly be optimized for that one task. In a world where NASA had substantially more money, it would certainly be desirable to build and optimize different systems for different missions. We are not in that world. If we are lucky, we are going to get one new human space vehicle to follow Shuttle. Does anyone here think that Congress is going to provide funding for more than one? Anyone? … I didn’t think so. And if that’s the case, then it would be a mistake to optimize that one vehicle for access to LEO. If we want to be a spacefaring nation, we have to be able to go to more than one place and do more than one thing, and we’re going to have to sacrifice optimal performance on any single mission for versatility across an array of missions. That is why we must think “architecture” and not “point design”.

Beyond the costs involved, the independently verified probabilistic risk assessment for loss of crew on Ares 1 showed it to be twice as safe – I repeat, twice as safe – as a human-rated EELV-derived vehicle or heavy lifter. This figure of merit was a significant factor in our decision to go with the Shuttle-derived Ares 1, yet is ignored by almost everyone suggesting that we make a change. Again, Columbia Accident Investigation Board was clear on this point…. “The design of the system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria.”

This was a core tenet from Day 1 on Constellation, and we were dismayed when safety was effectively dismissed as a discriminator by the Augustine Committee. There are well-established methods of assessing and comparing the relative safety of systems, derived originally from the nuclear industry. We in NASA couldn’t responsibly ignore such discriminators, for reasons having nothing to do with money. But if to someone else safety in human spaceflight is just about the money, then the cost of unreliability must be considered. Incurring even one additional accident through the use of a less-reliable system wipes out all of the savings of the hypothetically cheaper vehicle. Solely from a fiscal perspective, we should be willing to pay a premium for safety, if necessary. It is the right thing to do for our astronauts, and it goes as well to sustainability – how many Columbia’s will our society tolerate?

Let me now turn to the current Administration’s proposal that we should focus for the foreseeable future on “ground breaking” technology development.

As we have discussed, the Constellation Program was borne out of the Columbia accident. Another key Columbia Accident Investigation Board finding was: “Attempts at developing breakthrough space transportation systems have proved illusory. The Board believes that the country should plan for future space transportation capabilities without making them dependent on technological breakthroughs.” By returning to NASA’s approach of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, which sought to develop advanced technologies without a defined mission, the Administration plan runs 180 degrees counter to the this recommendation.

The U.S. is the only country ever to conquer the high ground – the moon. With this plan, we are ceding that ground to others who are committed to landing their astronauts on the moon and maintaining a permanent presence. From the moon, other countries will be in a position – from the high ground – to monitor all of our technology assets in earth orbit.

History shows that whoever controls the high ground, controls the situation and becomes the leader in technology. By proposing $16B in new “game changing” technologies without a focused mission, the Administration’s plan will waste precious resources. The Administration’s approach is backwards – missions produce technology advancement, technologies do not produce missions. Technology programs have historically been used to fund other priorities when issues arise with on-going missions. This sets NASA up for substantial out-year cuts when budget realities arise; the agency will become a bill-payer for other priorities. From 1997 through 2004, one of us (Steve) ran several of NASA’s technology programs, and learned these lessons first-hand.

Please do not misunderstand – we are solidly in favor of spending funds on research and technology, we just firmly believe they need a clearly focused, achievable, near term mission to provide the “pull.”
Let us now address the Administration’s proposal that we should simply leave ISS support to U.S. commercial providers when and as they materialize, to international systems in the meantime, and that NASA should not even design Ares 1 and Orion with the capability to support the space station. With this approach, there would never be a U.S. government transportation system to support ISS. The best that can be said of this proposal is, if you like the present “gap” in human access to space, you’ll love this one.

Contrary to what some have said, we do not view commercial launch alternatives as a “threat” to NASA. We would love to see commercial capabilities for placing astronauts in LEO and supporting the space station; we believe that our nation should establish and embrace policy incentives to help bring about this outcome. But we also recognize that, at present, the “commercial” space industry barely exists. In fact, given that today’s commercial space transportation providers account for less than 0.02% of a $257B global market, it is a legitimate concern that placing the entire burden of human spaceflight on an emerging industry could in fact crush it.

At NASA, these thoughts have been backed with money. NASA staked $500 million toward the development and demonstration of nascent COTS capabilities, and billions more are payable upon successful execution of commercial resupply service contracts to provide logistics support for ISS after the Space Shuttle is retired. Those companies now need to demonstrate their capability to perform this role for the funds allotted – the proof of the pudding, my friends, is in the eating, not the making. If commercial companies wish to, and can, develop crew transport capabilities, then we applaud them, and NASA is legally bound to make use of their services, per the 2008 NASA Authorization Act. But when we use the term “commercial”, it implies an arms length transaction for an existing product or service. It does not mean, “give me enough front money so that I can become another prime contractor” without the oversight necessary for the proper stewardship of taxpayer funds. Both of us have worked for commercial space companies – companies that put up their own money to enter the spacecraft market so as to reap later rewards of sales.

We whole heartedly embrace this model. What we don’t embrace is the notion that the United States government should create a market where one does not today – that’s not free market capitalism. So, while you simply will not find more of a “true believer” than we are about the importance of providing incentives for the development of commercial space endeavors , we are also realists. It is our considered judgment that the risk of relying for ISS support solely upon not-yet-existing commercial products is simply too high.

We need a better plan than that to support a facility in which our nation has invested over $50 billion, and which is the centerpiece of the international human spaceflight program. It would be reckless for the United States to leave the ISS hostage to fortune, its utility contingent upon international partner capabilities and the hope that, eventually, commercial systems will be available. Hope is not a management tool. Human access to low Earth orbit cannot be a commercial set-aside. A government system offering independent, guaranteed LEO access, even if it is not as efficient as it could be if designed solely for that purpose, is necessary. It is necessary for ISS support. It is necessary as a control on the price we are willing to pay for commercial or international substitutes, as a curb on monopoly practices.

What happens, for example, when the U.S. government has eliminated its infrastructure to carry out human spaceflight and there is only one commercial provider or, worse yet, only one international provider – what price will we pay?

We will, by definition go from a leader to a follower for the first time in our history. A government system is also necessary if we want to imagine ever doing anything in low orbit that goes beyond merely flying back and forth to ISS. Want to do another Hubble servicing mission, or something like it?

Want to do something else in the future that you haven’t thought of today?

If so, you’re going to need something more than commercial transportation. The facts are that while it is touted as “game changing”, the Administration’s proposal is not a new idea, in fact it’s about fifteen years old. We tried this experiment in the 1990’s with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). If you recall, EELV was envisioned to be a commercial program, with $1 billion of seed money provided by DoD. The market projections due to “big LEO” commercial constellations were heady in those days – a May 1998 projection by the FAA had the number of satellites peaking at 240 per year with 61 launches. Well, as so often happens, reality occurred and the market never materialized – that projected peak of 61 launches in 2002 fell to 24. So – guess what, the DoD had to step in and save the program – it was critical for national security. According to a 2004 GAO report, EELV life cycle costs have ballooned by 70% – from $18.8 to 32.1B! Do we really want to bail out another set of failed initiatives in another few years? In fact, we are bailing out the COTS contenders now, with an additional $300M for “additional incentives” – to finish the job upon which we taxpayers have already spent $500 million.

We are all about accountability and transparency, and frankly it is nowhere to be seen in this proposal. The problem will be obvious when we have walked away from the fundamental capability to launch humans and heavy cargo to orbit, and reasonably priced commercial capability fails to materialize –then where will we be? Even the Augustine Committee, on page 71 of their report, called for government backup to commercial “because there are simply too many risks.”

Human spaceflight is a strategic capability pioneered by our nation. We must treat it as the important thing that it is. We must not make decisions today that would cause a future NASA to be forced to ask the Congress – again – for legislative relief from INKSNA and the “privilege” of using U.S. taxpayer funds to pay Russian aerospace engineers for rides to ISS at $50+ million per seat. This situation is unseemly in the extreme, but we are where we are. This is the “failure of national leadership” of which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board spoke so damningly. Let’s not repeat it.

Opponents of Constellation often cite that it was simply “unsustainable” and was “over budget and behind schedule”. Let’s address that in two pieces. In regard to the “unsustainability” claim, we note that the cost of returning humans to the moon by 2020 and supporting missions to ISS not later than 2014 was estimated in the ESAS study in 2005 to be $113 billion. (The cost of Apollo in the same currency would be almost $200 billion.) Through 2009, the estimate had remained effectively unchanged at $108 billion.

Now, it is true that NASA did shift internal dates for Ares / Orion flights from 2013 to 2015, but that was a cash flow issue – funding was not allocated by the Office of Management and Budget as promised in 2005, and was especially tight in FY0910 – critical ramp-up years. It is also instructive to note that the same week the Augustine Committee was announced, the Administration cut the Constellation program by almost $20 billion from FY11-20. That’s a 20% reduction; no program can be executed with such a reduction. In effect, this budgetary sleight-of-hand pre-ordained the results of the Augustine Committee, which stated that any viable exploration program would need funding restored to the NASA budget. Hence, in the President’s 2011 request, NASA top line was raised by an average of $1.2B per year. This is, in fact, the best top line proposed for NASA since 2005.

The problem, ladies and gentlemen, is not with the budget, it is with the strategic choices made within that budget. We ran scenarios with budgets close to that new top line, and folks, we can fly to the ISS by 2015 and to the moon very early in the 2020’s with the budget allocated to NASA in the FY11 proposal – provided we stay the course on Constellation.

As to “over budget and behind schedule” claim, let’s consider a few quotes from some of the Augustine Committee participants:

  • Space News (8/13/09) noted “that while Constellation…funding…has been significantly diminished since former President George W. Bush called for a return to the Moon…the Aerospace Corp. found that the
    program is largely on track and within the original funding profile.”
  • Norm Augustine, in testimony to the House Science Committee on Sept 15,2009: “We did review the program, its management. We believe it to be soundly managed… We saw no problems that appear
    to be unsolvable given the proper engineering talent, the attention, and the funds to solve them.”
  • Augustine Commission member Sally Ride in an interview with Space News said, “The program comes pretty close to performing as NASA advertised as it would. … NASA’s planning and development phase of Constellation was actually pretty good.”
  • I think these comments speak for themselves. Claims to the contrary are baseless, and demean the fine work of over 10,000 engineers and technicians working on Constellation today – 1/4 of which work here in the valley. In fact, let’s talk about the progress of Constellation. In the past two years alone, Constellation has:

  • Completed the PDR for the program and all major constituent elements. All elements are rapidly closing in on CDR.
  • Flown the Ares I-X – the first launch vehicle demonstration flight since the Saturn I series in the 1960’s. Knowledge from that flight is being incorporated into Ares and Orion now.
  • Fired the world’s highest performing solid rocket motor – the Ares I and V 1st stage. A second is being assembled in the stand right now in Utah.
  • Established an all-friction-stir welded tank process and set up a development manufacturing facility at MSFC.
  • Fired the core – the powerpack – of the Ares I and V upper stage engine at NASA SSC. The first full-up engine will be on the dock at SSC in December of this year.
  • Just today, flew the first demonstration of a launch abort system – PA1 – a very critical element in making Ares I /Orion as safe as it is. Hats off to the Orion team for this great accomplishment!! Nobody else – nobody – is even close to defining a launch abort system for any other rocket. This is hardware, its real, and it’s flying. And, when people tell you that LEO operations should be turned over to “commercial industry” and “NASA should do the hard stuff” – well, this is hard. We will put Constellation’s real human rated hardware up against anybody else’s paper concept for a human rated system.
  • In today’s environment, we’re doing engineering design in public. There is almost no such thing anymore as an “internal” meeting. That isn’t going to change. Accordingly, those of us who care deeply about the future of our nation’s space program must consider how we can better communicate technical matters to non-engineers. We are simply going to have to learn how to explain better what it is that we do to get from a sketch on a piece of paper to a marvelous flying machine. We did not do a good job as an agency in this arena, and it needs to be improved. But the sad fact is that NASA is more closed about its internal planning today than we were six months ago.

    The fundamental direction which the Congress has given us in 2005 and again in 2008 is the proper unifying vision for space exploration called for by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. To that end, our nation’s policy makers must maintain a constancy of purpose for NASA. The plan we have been pursuing for five years is the best we can produce given our budget constraints, but there are many things which could be improved or enhanced if more funds were made available.

    When we say that NASA requires a constancy of purpose it is because, while we are making tremendous progress in the design and development of new systems, they take a long time to build. Any changes in direction must be carefully considered if we are ever to produce anything beyond studies and cancelled programs. That is a major risk with this new plan – we have over 25,000 engineers and technicians working on Constellation and Shuttle today. They are the best in the field, and we are running a very high risk of losing them, of walking away from capabilities hard-earned over five decades in space.

    But no matter what decisions we make, NASA cannot possibly make everyone happy. Most decisions will produce an unhappy outcome for someone.

    That is not by itself a symptom of incompetence, bad intentions, or a lack of integrity on the part of the NASA career staff, as some have contended. The allocation of public funds to any particular alternative inevitably leaves behind numerous aggrieved parties – in fact, all of those who will not receive the funds.

    This is what it means to be a good steward of public monies. In conclusion, I would like to remind us all that last year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first human footprint on a world other than our own. It is a time for our nation to look back at what has worked right in space exploration, and also at what has not. Going forward, it is also time to re-commit ourselves to taking the next steps.

    We engineers must learn to communicate better the reasons why we explore space and the technical challenges we face in doing so. No one was better at this than President John F. Kennedy. His words speak across the decades to us today.

    So I would like to leave you with his thoughts from San Antonio, Texas on November 21, 1963, the day before he was assassinated: “For more than three years I have spoken about the New Frontier. This is not a partisan term, and it is not the exclusive property of Republicans or Democrats.

    It refers, instead, to this Nation’s place in history, to the fact that we do stand on the edge of a great new era, filled with both crisis and opportunity, an era to be characterized by achievement and by challenge. It is an era which calls for action and for the best efforts of all those who would test the unknown and the uncertain in every phase of human endeavor. It is a time for pathfinders and pioneers… “We have a long way to go. Many weeks and months and years of long, tedious work lie ahead. There will be setbacks and frustrations and disappointments. There will be, as there always are, pressures in this country to do less in this area as in so many others, and temptations to do something else that is perhaps easier. But this research here must go on. This space effort must go on.

    The conquest of space must and will go ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with confidence and conviction.”

    Ad Astra, Per Aspera my friends.
    Thank you.

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