Illustration by Mark Maxwell/Skycorp
Dennis Wingo: The Augustine commission, in its last public meeting in Washington delivered a stunning blow to NASA in finding that the program of record, (the current architecture) was not affordable, giving the FY2010 run out of the NASA budget. At first, this was a cause for consternation for many of us, thinking that a repeat of 1993 and the retreat from exploration is on the way. However, I don't think that this has to be the case as the president seems to be supportive of exploration beyond low earth orbit, just not overly generous with the checkbook. This is ok, and maybe this dose of reality from the commission can begin a new thought process for space exploration. In fact, it may be that the Augustine commission, by being this honest about the course that we are on may finally lead to some progress in exploration.
Breaking The Highlander Syndrome
Several years ago a space advocate named Ed Wright coined the term "Highlander Syndrome" to denote a mindset to where "there is only one way to do space" (referencing a cult Si-Fi movie from the 80's). Now that the Augustine commission has basically said that we cannot afford to go beyond Low Earth Orbit through the Apollo/SEI/ESAS heavy lift paradigm, which has basically ruled the "one way" thought pattern of NASA as unaffordable, what do we do?
In the 1990's NASA had its Orbital Aggregation and Space Infrastructure System (OASIS), that was a good stab at a non heavy lift architecture for lunar exploration. Going even behind that, the idea from the Human Exploration Initiative 1989, 90 day study of using the space station as an anchor to a reusable cislunar human spaceflight transportation system. This makes enormous sense in that if you reuse a lander or a transfer vehicle only once, you save most of the estimated $500M dollar price tag of each of them.
We have several spacecraft today orbiting the Moon and taking unprecedented multispectral, optical, and radar data, probing the Moon for its secrets. Those of us in the lunar community have been waiting for 30 years for this quality of data. What if they find something? Hypothetically speaking, what would be the effect of finding a more water on the Moon than the estimates that most people use? Would there be enough water in the polar regions for propellant? What if there were? Just think of what could result if we had an emphasis on reusable spacecraft for transit to and from the Moon, and a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) no from the Earth, but from the Moon?
There are many ideas that have been scoffed at or sidelined, like In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) that could be brought back into the mix. Ion propulsion space tugs are also much closer to reality than what most people think. Advanced computers and electronics could be introduced into space as well. There is no reason for not flying state of the art computers, software, and advanced analysis capability. This reluctance to use the advances in computers in space that we take for granted on the ground is a major impediment to lowering the operational costs of space exploration.
I noticed a huge wedge in the Augustine commission power point charts that Dr. Sally Ride presented that represents ground operational costs. If you shifted the power of a desktop workstation to a reusable cislunar lander or transit vehicle, you could dramatically reduce ground ops costs. The Gene Kranz model of ground operations is only necessary when the local system is too primitive and dispersed. The Kranz model was completely appropriate for the Apollo era, but maybe not today. If you had, say a MacIntosh workstation running Labview, Matlab, and Satellite Tool Kit, three excellent software packages for this type of activity, you would have real time computer control tied to real time sensors to give you all the data that you would need to successfully navigate in cislunar space.
This one workstation represents more computational horsepower than the entire computer industry in the 1960's. Could you imagine the star ship enterprise being controlled from the ground? This would cause a shift in operational planning that would dramatically lower its costs and the total cost of space missions. Who cares if you have to wrap it with 50 kilos of lead, it is still a bargain.
There was a budget wedge presented, that if implemented, would make all the difference in the world. On page 33 of Dr. Ride's charts a reinvigorated technology program is planned and its wedge is in the budget. This is a good thing. What we have learned by the exercise in ESAS, as well as SEI and before, is that congress is not willing to fund the type of program that senior people wanted, so we now have to figure out what to do with the amount of money given. It is my strong personal opinion, after traveling to Europe to build a on orbit servicing satellite, working with NASA and the defense department on various technologies and systems, is that all of the parts that are needed to field advanced systems exists, they just need to be brought to operational status (TRL-9 in the lingo).
A robust technology development effort that funds ISRU research, ion propulsion, In situ food production, space computers and software, could help us leapfrog past the limitations of not having an Ares V class vehicle and put us into a position of not just flying a few with the right stuff, but to be able to fly anyone, for no more than the cost of an ISS ticket today. People talk about single stage to orbit vehicles like that is the only other solution. Today it costs about $10,000 per kg worst case to get mass into low earth orbit. It takes $80-100,000 to get that same kilogram on the lunar surface. Where would reusability make a greater payoff?
If we take what we have, a space station and some form of human spaceflight, and figure out how to integrate both of these systems, which according to all of the options we will have, into the plan it is possible that we could come up with an architecture that is affordable and would allow the human development of the Moon and beyond. Therefore the technology development wedge is probably the most important part of the new plan, and is common across all of them. Lets just hope that they get someone good to run that shop at NASA.
There is great hope today for a good outcome for space. Realizing that the path that we have tried to develop for thirty years is no longer viable, that is unless the president is willing to put forth a substantial increase in the NASA budget and many are advocating that. However, if we don't get that money, which history shows is the likely outcome, then we must have a way to do exploration within the budget that we have. I am strongly confident that this can be done and that the best is yet to come in space exploration and development. This is especially true with the strong hat tip in the Augustine commission toward commercial LEO human spaceflight.
Kudos to the Augustine commission for straight talk and crossing my fingers that NASA and commercial enterprise will be exploring together and that we do it with 21st century solutions, not a cast back to a bygone era.