Static in Washington

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Editor’s Note: This post is a collaborative effort by several people, of which I am particularly proud to be a part. We are asking members of the House in general, and House Science and Technology Committee members in particular, to advocate, as promised in Chairman Gordon’s letter earlier yesterday, the House Appropriators for the provisions of the Compromise Bill. This will ensure that our great nation has a human space flight program befitting it.

Columbia, Houston comm check – Columbia, Houston UHF comm check…

Those fateful words were spoken on February 1, 2003 as Mission Control lost communications with the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew. Following this tragic accident, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) performed a thorough investigation. The CAIB went beyond just determining the root cause of the accident to finding a solution to prevent something like this from occurring again.


In the CAIB’s Final Report, it found that:

  • NASA’s attempts to develop new space transportation systems over the past 15 years represent a failure of National leadership with no clear direction or mission for carrying crew to orbit.
  • The Columbia accident was not a random event, but one based on the history of NASA’s budget and resource constraints, political compromises, schedule pressures, changes in focus and lack of direction from presidential administrations.
  • Successive Administrations and Congresses have not been willing to commit the billions of dollars required to develop a sustainable launch vehicle.
  • History has shown us this approach is not successful and should not be repeated.
  • The highest risk is getting to and from orbit, not the mission or destination once in orbit.
  • The safest launch vehicle should separate crew from cargo, similar to the Russian transportation system.
  • The design of the transportation system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria, such as low cost and reusability, or against advanced space operation capabilities other than crew transfer.

The CAIB stated that a launch system would be successful only:

    If by the time a decision to develop a new vehicle is made there is a clearer idea of how the new space transportation system fits into the nation’s overall plans for space; and if the U.S. government is willing at the time a development decision is made to commit the substantial resources required to implement it.

NASA, the Administration and Congress initially listened. The resulting Vision for Space Exploration outlined clear goals and missions. The Constellation program architecture was defined and developed to support those goals. In a show of bipartisan support in 2005 and again in 2008 Congress approved and funded the development of the mission and crew launch vehicle of the future.

However, there was a communication breakdown in Washington. Even as Congress approved development of the Constellation program, the program was never fully funded at the appropriate levels. This persistent deficit of funding caused schedules to slip. And that schedule slip allowed Constellation critics free rein to inculcate and persist the false notion that Constellation was somehow flawed. Eventually, such sniping in the space community opened an opportunity for the current Administration to call Constellation’s cancellation.
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In response to the White House initiative to end Constellation, the House and Senate held several hearings, all of which gave the Administration and its critics an opportunity to state their case. Additionally, the House Science and Technology Committee sought from the White House and NASA documentation relevant to the creation of the Administration’s proposed human space flight plan. In the end, both the Senate and the House found that the White House’s new human space plan was short on details such as planning, architecture, cost or a clear path forward and that the premise underlying the plan may have been at fault. It seems that the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, was correct when he testified before the Senate’s Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee on May 12th,

    With regard to President Obama’s 2010 plan, I have yet to find a person in NASA, the Defense Department, the Air Force, the National Academies, industry, or academia that had any knowledge of the plan prior to its announcement. Rumors abound that neither the NASA Administrator nor the President‟s Science and Technology Advisor were knowledgeable about the plan. Lack of review normally guarantees that there will be overlooked requirements and unwelcome consequences. How could such a chain of events happen? A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the President that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program.

In response, the Senate passed a bill that not only stops the Administration’s human space flight efforts, but provides much direction for a sustainable and viable future for America’s Human Spaceflight program. The Senate should be commended both for its initiative and bipartisanship in crafting a space policy infinitely better than that proposed by the President on February 1st. Yet, as even the Senate would admit, its proposal is not perfect.

Equally, the House Committee on Science and Technology should be commended for its efforts so far in creating legislation with strong bi-partisan support that would build a human space flight program that a great nation may be proud of. While the Science and Technology Committee’s NASA Reauthorization Act may not be perfect, like the Senate’s NASA Reauthorization Act, it is infinitely better than that proposed by the White House.

It is clear that Congress not only listened to constituents, hearing witnesses, and other experts, but reading Section 304(b)(7) of the Compromise H.R. 5781 NASA Authorization , it is clear that Congress held to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s advise for developing of a Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, which states,

    “Shall strive to attain, to the extent practicable, the increase in safety relative to the Space Shuttle recommended by the NASA Astronaut Office in the aftermath of the Columbia accident.”

The above mentioned recommendations from the NASA Astronaut Office include the following key elements:

  • New programs should choose conservative, simple designs. They should adopt proven design standards and analytical approaches.
  • Designs should preserve healthy margins and factors of safety, and employ redundancy in critical systems.
  • Human rating should be designed in, not appended on. Well-understood, high-quality, high-reliability materials, components, and architectures should be selected.

House Committee on Science and Technology Chairman Gordon stated today that the House may consider the Senate version of the NASA reauthorization due to an inadequate timeframe for passing H.R. 5781; however, he raised several concerns, concerns that could have been taken line-by-line from the findings by the CAIB,

  • Inadequate funding – “Unfunded mandate to keep the Shuttle program going through the remainder of FY 2011… ensuring that other important NASA programs will be cannibalized.
  • Overriding design priority not given to crew safety – “Overly prescriptive for the design of the follow-on rocket… while being silent on the safety of the vehicle.
  • Lack of direction from National leadership – “The Senate bill does not provide a timetable for a government backup capability, which could make NASA’s access to space completely dependent on commercial providers.

As mentioned above, while the Senate Bill is a good start, it is not perfect. Chairman Gordon’s points concerning the Senate Bill’s short-comings deserve to be addressed. The House leadership, Science & Technology Committee leadership and members should not allow the future of our nation’s human space flight program to be determined alone by one legislative body. A great nation such as ours deserves a human space flight program forged in a bipartisan, as well as bicameral, manner. Only then will NASA have the mandate from the national leadership to develop a new space transportation system with clear direction and mission for carrying crew to orbit. Any House legislation should do as the Compromise H.R. 5781 did,

  • Ensure safety and human-rating is designed into the vehicle from inception.
  • Capitalize on the $9 billion of our investment made on the Constellation Program.
  • Allow NASA to determine the best approach in the design of the follow-on human spaceflight and exploration program.
  • Continue robust ground and test programs for skill retention and risk mitigation.
  • Provide a clearly defined mission and workforce transition for the future space launch system.
  • Fully fund those efforts to enable sustainability and success.

All of us who believe a great nation deserves a human space flight program urge you to work with the Appropriators to incorporate the provisions in the Compromise language in the Senate bill, and as you have in past decades, to provide a bi-partisan vote to pass this measure.

We know what went wrong during Columbia; let’s not repeat the past as we determine the path for the future. Do not let national leadership become the root cause of another disaster.

Washington, this is Houston, comm check.

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