Space Access Update #112  09/19/05 
                 Copyright 2005 by Space Access Society 

Do not hit "reply" to email us - it'll be buried in tides of spam, and 
we won't ever see it.  Email us at 

Some things take more thought than others.  We've been watching all 
summer as the details of NASA's new exploration plan come out, trying to 
decide what to make of it all.  We're pretty much obliged to, since 
we're part of a coalition called Space Exploration Alliance that exists 
to support NASA exploration funding - we signed up with SEA last year, 
supporting the initial increases while we waited hopefully to see just 
how much actual useful NASA reform we might get. 

(Standard Disclaimer: NASA is not one monolithic outfit, but a diverse 
flock of organizations flying in loose formation.  Nor does NASA lack 
for good people trying hard to accomplish useful things for the country.  
We'll be using "NASA" as shorthand here for by far the largest single 
part of the agency, the Human Spaceflight establishment that consumes 
well over half the agency's overall budget.  Forty-five years after 
being thrown together in a great hurry for Apollo, this NASA carries a 
heavy burden of institutional prejudices, political constraints, and 
redundant structure.  It is, in short, a mature bureaucracy, powerfully 
resistant to making any real changes in its organizational structure or 
operational approach.) 

As of this writing, the new NASA plan - formally, the Exploration 
Systems Architecture Study or ESAS -  still isn't official.  But the 
basics of ESAS are pretty well known.  It has been delayed two months 
now, as White House Office of Management and Budget reportedly had 
problems with the large increases over their NASA exploration budget 
baseline that the initial version of ESAS called for.  It looks like 
part of these increases have been squeezed out, or offset by promised 
cuts elsewhere.  ESAS has been accepted by the White House and passed on 
to Congress.  Public release is today, Monday September 19th.  

To be blunt, we have big problems with this plan.  It's the same basic 
approach as Apollo, disposable (mostly) spacecraft, on big NASA-
proprietary boosters, flown a few times a year, by a standing army of 
NASA and contractor employees.  This is Apollo 2.0, with somewhat more 
delivered exploration, at moderately higher cost, on a significantly 
slower schedule. 

We have to ask, after forty years of stunning technological progress, 
shouldn't we be able to improve on Apollo's cost-to-exploration ratio a 
bit more than this?   US taxpayers will get little more Buck Rogers for 
their inflation-adjusted buck than they did in the 1960's.  And we must 
remember, that's before the overruns and delays.  This is still Old NASA 
- there's no radical organizational reform in this plan. 

However, we have a much more fundamental problem with ESAS.  This Apollo 
redux has the same fatal flaw as Apollo:  The specialized throwaway 
systems invented to get (back) to the Moon ASAP were (will be) far too 
labor-intensive at far too low a max flight rate to allow affordable 
followup.  The new ships are not only based in significant part on 
existing Shuttle components and facilities, but they are to be operated 
in significant part by the existing Shuttle organization.  IE, tens of 
thousands of people narrowly specialized in various aspects of flying a 
handful of astronauts on a handful of missions a year - at, by the time 
all this fixed overhead is added up, billions of dollars a mission.  
Like Apollo, NASA's new ESAS plan has built into it the seeds of its 
shutdown by some future Congress, once the warm glow of the first few 
daring missions has once again faded. 

If, in fact, this program gets that far.  Apollo had a powerful 
political reason for its get-there-FAST-and-screw-longterm-costs 
approach - it was a major exercise in fighting the Cold War by means 
other than war, competing with the USSR in the realm of perceived 
national technological prowess.  Settling the battle by a joust between 
champions rather than the armies fighting, as it were...  As such, 
Apollo was not going to be cancelled while we still had any chance of 
winning the race. 

This ESAS plan does not enjoy that luxury - the two chief motivators 
behind funding for it are the diffuse national sense of pride that "we 
do space best", and Congressional reluctance to accept major job losses 
at the various NASA manned spaceflight centers and contractors.  That 
national sense of pride in NASA has been taking a pounding lately; it 
may not survive many more blows.  Once it goes, all bets are off in the 
Congress.  NASA manned space, absent the national pride component, is a 
regional interest, and as such vulnerable in a time of tight budgets.  
This ESAS, with its multiple large upfront developments of big new NASA-
proprietary vehicles and its lack of serious reform of the existing 
agency, is far too dependent on NASA not shooting itself in the foot 
anymore over the next few election cycles.  Potential additional Shuttle 
problems aside, it's been a long time since NASA successfully developed 
a big new rocket on schedule and budget. 

As we wrote in Update #103 back in April '04: 
 "Moon, Mars, & Beyond..  ...depends utterly on major reform and 
restructuring of NASA for any chance of success.  Attempting to pursue 
MM&B without fundamentally changing the agency that brought us Shuttle, 
Station, and X-33 won't fly...  Old NASA would not be able to do the job 
at anywhere near a sustainable budget."  But what we've watched emerge 
this summer is not a plan to transform NASA - it's a plan to avoid NASA 
having to undergo very much genuine change at all. 

That's the other aspect of the disconnect here: ESAS follows the old 
Apollo ignore-longterm-costs roadmap, not because of urgent national 
requirement - if we're in a hurry, this plan doesn't show it, with the 
first new Moon mission slated for thirteen years on (Apollo made it in 
eight) - but as best we can tell because repeating Apollo requires the 
least organizational risk and change from NASA.  Ultimately, NASA wants 
to do Apollo again because Apollo is what NASA was designed for, and in 
the thirty years since it ended they've downsized and ossified, but 
never fundamentally changed. 

(Note that the last time NASA had a chance to reinvent itself, the 
transition from Apollo to Shuttle, their mantra was "keep the Team 
together" against the day when the funding taps would open again.  The 
result was that they repeatedly solved problems with Shuttle by throwing 
existing manpower at them, leading directly to Shuttle's impossibly high 
fixed costs.  This ESAS repeats that error.) 

Mind, we see no malice in this latest NASA plan.  We have a great deal 
of respect for the people who came up with it.  But it is the end result 
of, step by step, accommodating NASA's existing constraints and 
structures and bad habits, rather than overturning them as required.  
(True, it's not at all clear the top-level political support is 
available to do the painful things it'd take to genuinely reform NASA, 
notably massive white-collar layoffs in a number of Congressional 
districts - but it's a moot point, as this plan doesn't try.) 

We strongly urge the White House and the Congress to tell NASA to go 
back and come up with a practical plan for transforming themselves into 
a useful national space exploration agency.  ESAS isn't it.

(Of course, we're not holding our breath.  See above about the 
unpopularity of massive white-collar layoffs in multiple Congressional 
districts.  More fundamentally, most of the people making these 
decisions seem genuinely unaware that there's a problem here, that 
better is possible.  Must be our fault - we'll have to email our Updates 
to more of 'em...  But the unliklihood of our being heeded does not 
relieve us of our responsibility to speak the truth as we see it on an 
impending boondoggle of this magnitude.) 

Once what's come out unofficially so far becomes official, we will have 
no choice but to decline further support for new NASA exploration 
funding, and if as seems likely we can't persuade our fellow SEA members 
to join us, we will have to regretfully resign. 

An important point: We said "decline further support", not "actively 
oppose".  Frankly, we don't see much chance of stopping this thing this 
year - we expect we can find far more productive uses for our limited 
resources than actively trying.

Besides, there are potentially useful bits in ESAS, not least of them 
the plan's flirtation with Station resupply being put out to commercial 
bid.  Mind, with all due respect to various of our colleagues who pin 
large hopes on this, we have to say we see a strong liklihood that it, 
along with all sorts of other useful NASA non-manned-space functions  
(what does that first "A" stand for again?) will end up defunded to pay 
for ESAS's big upfront vehicle developments. 

We also see considerable danger that commercial Station resupply will 
turn into (despite the best will in the world by those at HQ conceiving 
it) a tarbaby (a glue-trap for you kids never taught the old folk tales) 
as the people actually administering Station set impossible standards 
for would-be vendors, until they go broke and go away.  (Last we heard, 
not even Shuttle and Soyuz meet the official "prox ops" Station docking 
rules; both had to be grandfathered in.)  Our hypothetical turf-jealous 
Station managers could then go to Congress saying "see, those damned 
amateurs couldn't hack it, now fund us pros to do the job!" 

If in fact Station resupply becomes a tarbaby, if too many actual useful 
projects gets trimmed as the big new space vehicle developments eat 
everyone else's lunch, then we will decide whether we actually want to 
throw ourselves into organizing everyone who'll listen to bite NASA's 
ankle.  Until then, we will probably be content to occasionally add to 
our already large collection of NASA I-told-you-so's, in between getting 
on with the real work.

                So, What *Should* NASA Do? Three Things: 

 - NASA should let go of controlling their own space transportation from 
start to finish.  They should make an exploration plan based on a 
variety of existing commercially available boosters, then put the entire 
ground-to-orbit leg of their new deep space missions out to bid.  

 - NASA should lay off and/or BRAC large parts of their Shuttle/Station 
establishment as Shuttle is shut down and Station completed, rather than 
again compulsively trying to "keep the team together".  It's been a long 
time since this team had a winning season, the payroll is crippling, and 
the game has changed.  Rebuild from the ground up. 

 - NASA should let go of numerous arbitrary and/or dated "this is best" 
prejudices the organization has accumulated over the years.  Old NASA 
(as someone once said of a notoriously inbred european royal house) 
forgets nothing, and it learns nothing. 

Doing the ground-to-orbit leg commercially is key to any hope of getting 
costs down low enough for sustainable ongoing exploration.  This ESAS 
prevents NASA actually saving significant money shutting Shuttle down, 
saddles NASA with huge upfront development costs for new boosters ($10-
$15 billion is their current estimate) and then locks NASA into these 
high-staff high-cost low-flightrate NASA-proprietary boosters forever. 
(Or until Congress gets tired of paying and shuts the whole thing down.) 

Planning exploration missions for a variety of commercial boosters does 
several good things.  It gives greater program reliability - if one 
booster has a problem, traffic can be switched to another without 
putting the program on hold for two years.  It gives lower costs, 
directly as commercial providers compete, indirectly as NASA takes 
advantage of the cheaper lift to allow engineering more margin into 
spacecraft designs (thus reducing both development and operating costs), 
and it reduces future costs even further since newer cheaper launchers 
can be phased in as commercial competition makes them available. 

                 A longish digression into consequences
        Or why NASA prefers not to do this, and why they're wrong 

A variety of current commercially available boosters can lift 10-20 tons 
at a time into low orbit.  Building NASA's Exploration plans around 
these would entail accepting orbital assembly of deep-space missions 
right from the start.  NASA strongly dislikes orbital assembly: 

 -  It requires more overall tonnage to be launched.  NASA habitually 
regards minimum tonnage launched per mission as a key figure-of-merit, 
missing that launching 60 tons on multiple commercial launchers would 
likely end up significantly cheaper than launching 40 tons on a CLV, 
even before factoring in the $5 billion CLV development cost, let alone 
the lower exploration spacecraft development and operating costs greater 
weight margins and redundancy would allow. 

 - It can also require storing rocket propellant for long times, and 
NASA prefers liquid hydrogen propellant (again because of their 
assumption that minimum tonnage launched is a key figure of merit) which 
is high performance but hard to handle and hard to store for long.  
Orbital assembly would require NASA to finally take a serious look at 
whether commercially launching greater masses of somewhat lower-
performance but far easier to handle and store propellants might not 
make for lower overall costs. 

 - It makes it much harder to have NASA's traditional small army of 
inspectors with clipboards hover over every step of the process right up 
till final mission launch into deep space.  Orbital assembly would force 
NASA towards simpler more modular systems with higher engineering 
margins, again going against their habit of making everything as 
lightweight high-performance tightly-integrated-to-the-point-of-
unrepairability as possible to well beyond the steep part of the 
development and operating cost curves.  (Note too that simpler more 
rugged modular systems are exactly what's needed if orbitally assembled 
exploration spacecraft are to be reusable and maintainable, rather than 
the one-shot throwaways planned under ESAS.) 

 - It means launch windows for the fastest routes to the Moon come only 
every week-and-a-half or so from a given orbital assembly point.  This 
is a big problem if you're using NASA's preferred hard-to-store liquid 
hydrogen propellant and you miss a launch window; much less so with 
easier to store alternatives, or with slightly larger spare propellant 
margins allowing wider launch windows, or with somewhat slower multi-
burn orbits that allow far more frequent launch windows. 

 - It requires a greater number of launches, thus more chance for one to 
go wrong, shutting the program down for years and making NASA look bad. 
To this we say, most of the launches will be unmanned, carrying some 
spacecraft modules (build spares) but mostly bulk rocket propellant.  If 
one goes bad, launch a backup on a different booster and carry on, while 
the failed booster provider fixes the problem.  THEIR problem, since 
they're a commercial provider.   

 - It requires routine on-orbit ops, whether Mir-style module-docking or 
more extensive spacesuited hand-assembly.  NASA is going to have to go 
to orbital assembly sooner or later anyway - even they admit that 
anything beyond basic Moon landing missions will quickly outgrow their 
proposed new heavy lifter.  Might as well start now and save the heavy 
lifter development billions. 

 - It requires major changes in the way NASA habitually does just about 
everything it's done for the last thirty years.  The organization is 
likely more than a bit brittle, and might even break rather than bend 
that far.  If so, well, then we needed a new national space exploration 
agency anyway. 

Bottom line is, there are major benefits to NASA's biting the on-orbit 
assembly bullet from the start, rather than putting it off till later on 
when the missions (inevitably) outgrow somewhat larger single launches.  
One huge benefit being that the more economical and flexible operations 
that result will mean there's a far better chance there will BE a later 
for NASA manned deep space exploration... 

We expect NASA will argue otherwise.  They will come up with all sorts 
of plausible sounding reasons why their preferred approach is best.  
Keep in mind as the plausibility piles up, though, that at root this 
ESAS proposes to redo Apollo with modest improvements, for more money, 
over more time.  We've already done as well as this plan.  Forty years 
of progress later, we can and should and must do better than this ESAS 
for the sizable slice of national resources NASA is asking for. 

Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions 
in the cost of reaching space.  You may redistribute this Update in 
any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety.
You may reproduce sections of this Update beyond obvious "fair use" 
quotes if you credit the source and include a pointer to our website.

 Space Access Society 

 "Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System" 
                                        - Robert A. Heinlein