Obama Explains Future Space Plans

Photo Credit: NASA/BILL INGALLS

Kennedy Space Center President Barack Obama has taken ownership of the turnabout space-exploration policy embodied in his Fiscal 2011 NASA budget request, opening up a potentially game-changing debate on the U.S. role in space that is likely to encompass much more than the civilian space agency before it is over. Aerospace industry executives already are struggling to find their way across the shifting space policy grounds, and the Air Force is stepping up its search for a reusable replacement for the Atlas V and Delta IV (see p. 30). Against that backdrop, Obama visited Kennedy Space Center to sketch plans for a reinvigorated space exploration program that could put astronauts on an asteroid in the 2020s and in orbit around Mars a decade later. Speaking before an invitation-only audience at the Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building, Obama declared, “I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future.” Previous strategies, including the Constellation mission to the Moon proposed under former President George W. Bush, failed to fulfill its promise, Obama charged. “Despite this, some have had harsh words for the decisions we’ve made, including individuals for whom I have enormous respect and admiration,” Obama said. “But what I hope is that these folks will take another look, consider the details we’ve laid out, and see the merits as I’ve described them today.” Obama proposes to invest billions in research and technology development, culminating in a 2025 mission to an asteroid, which would be humanity’s first flight beyond the Moon. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth—and a landing on Mars will follow,” Obama said. The president dismissed Bush’s exploration vision to return astronauts to the Moon, a program that already has cost taxpayers more than $9 billion. “The simple fact is, we have been there before,” he said. “There is a lot more space to explore.” Obama made no mention of extending the space shuttle, as many Florida space workers had hoped, or of restarting manufacturing lines to provide components for the future heavy-lift rocket. Heavy-lift decisions will come in 2015, he indicates. Instead, Brevard County, Fla., which expects to lose 6,000 jobs with the retirement of the shuttle fleet later this year, would get $40 million to retrain workers for new careers, if Obama’s newly revamped space exploration blueprint is approved by Congress. Initial reaction there was strictly wait and see. “I know there are many strong ideas about how this investment and innovation should be applied,” says Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “I will study each plan carefully. I am committed to working with my colleagues in the Senate and with the administration to get these answers right.” The overhauled space strategy also revives the canceled Constellation Program’s Orion capsule as a space station lifeboat, and allots $3 billion in the next five years to begin work on the heavy-lift launcher. The revisions appear to have placated two key critics of the administration’s original proposal, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), both of whom accompanied Obama on Air Force One for the flight to Florida. Before arriving at the O&C building, which had been cleared of Constellation banners, the president’s motorcade made a brief stop at the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launch complex on Cape Canaveral AFS, where the company’s Falcon 9 rocket is being prepared for a debut flight next month. SpaceX founder Elon Musk accompanied Obama on his tour of the facility. The president’s budget proposal for NASA for Fiscal 2011 beginning Oct. 1 includes $6 billion over five years to seed commercial space transportation services to ferry crewmembers to and from the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. already hold NASA contracts worth $3.5 billion to deliver cargo to the ISS. SpaceX has lobbied for Congress to exercise a $300-million option on its NASA development contract to upgrade the Falcon 9’s Dragon cargo capsule with a launch escape system for human rating. Obama’s Florida audience drew several members from the 26th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where reaction to the leaked outline of Obama’s presentation suggest he did not change many minds among the U.S. space-industry executives who will have to make the space policy work. Some saw the Orion-lite idea as “ridiculous,” in the words of one engineer who played a key role in developing the original crew exploration vehicle. In this view, there is no point in continuing work on the capsule, only to launch it unmanned. While some of the money already spent on Orion will not go completely to waste, the U.S. still will have to pay Russia for transport to the ISS, and buy Atlas V or Delta IV launches at $300 million each to change out the Orion rescue vehicle when its service life ends. Of more practical value to NASA may be avoiding termination costs by modifying the Orion prime contract with Lockheed Martin to cover the new version. The Fiscal 2011 budget includes $2.5 billion to terminate the Constellation program, but NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson has said those funds are probably oversubscribed, and will not cover all of the expenses expected to grow from shutting down the shuttle-follow-on effort. Speaking on condition of anonymity, because they do not want to alienate NASA leadership, some aerospace executives also worry that the open-ended technology-development plan in Obama’s plan can quickly become a bill-payer for other spending on Capitol Hill, absent a clearly defined architecture and set of goals in space. And they cite the difficulty of keeping workers engaged in Constellation projects under the current 2010 budget when the future is so uncertain. The new space policy has thrown business and workforce plans into disarray, leaving managers worried about retaining their existing shuttle and Constellation workforces and uncertain of the best posture for pursuing future business. Also generating skepticism among some executives at the Space Symposium and on Capitol Hill—where a continuing resolution to maintain the status quo into the new fiscal year looks more likely—are the assumptions that went into the analysis performed by Aerospace Corp. for the Augustine panel last summer. Headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, the panel suggested that while the Constellation Program is unsustainable from a federal budget standpoint, the commercial option would cost the government about $5 billion. But, responding to questions posed by the House Science Committee and later circulated by opponents of the Obama plan, Aerospace Corp. Vice President Gary P. Pulliam says that figure was based on adding a historical cost-growth factor for other NASA programs to a $3-billion initial estimate provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edward Crawley, a member of the Augustine panel working group that oversaw the Aerospace analysis. “Aerospace did not independently develop the basis for the $3-billion initial estimate,” Pulliam writes, and was not asked to do so by the Augustine panel. Nor did Aerospace have access to all of the background material on the cost of commercially provided services that was distributed in closed, fact-finding committee sessions, he states. Not surprisingly, companies that are well-positioned to benefit from the Obama plan favor it. They include SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., both building cargo vehicles with Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed money and signed up for commercial cargo delivery contracts to service the space station. David W. Thompson, Orbital chairman and CEO, says his company strongly supports the switch to commercial transport, but is confining its work to satisfying its cargo-delivery contract, which is worth more than $1.9 billion if it flies all eight operational flights covered in the deal. The Fiscal 2011 budget request includes $312 million in extra funding for commercial cargo, and if Congress approves the request, Orbital will use it to reduce risk on its Taurus 2/Cygnus cargo delivery system, perhaps including an instrumented test flight of the new stack before loading it with supplies for the space station. Thompson and Frank Culbertson, a former ISS commander who is Orbital’s head of human spaceflight, say the company would seriously consider a test flight, and would certainly use the money for more ground-testing of the AJ26 engine that will power the Taurus 2’s Ukrainian-built first stage. It could also be applied to other testing to add confidence the vehicle will be able to meet NASA’s logistics requirements to the ISS after the shuttle fleet is retired. Both say Orbital did not request the extra funding. Aerojet, too, is in good position to benefit under the Obama plan. In addition to the AJ26, a modification of the Russian NK-33 engine, the propulsion house bought the General Dynamics space propulsion business in Redmond, Wash., in 2002. That business has built about 70% of the electric propulsion systems on orbit for satellite station-keeping and positioning. And Aerojet holds a $110-million Air Force Research Laboratory contract for the Hydrocarbon Boost program, which is working toward a hydrocarbon-fueled, oxygen-rich staged combustion rocket for reusable launch vehicles. That work could play into the tentative Obama administration plans to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a hydrocarbon-fueled first-stage engine as least as capable as the Russian RD-180 that powers the Atlas V. “We’ve been working for quite a while putting ideas out there about what can be done in the new architecture,” says Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet vice president of space programs. “And they range in the areas of boost, in-space [propulsion], nontoxic propellants, a number of different ideas that we think are relevant, and we think people are listening.” For his part, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden projects a vision of where the new approach can lead for the U.S. aerospace industry. “An anticipated offshoot of our enterprise will be enhanced U.S. economic competitiveness, and development of new commercial markets, capitalizing on the American ideals of competition and innovation,” Bolden says. “We’ll benefit from our aerospace industry’s decades of experience, while engaging a generation of new space entrepreneurs. NASA will be the catalyst for a global space exploration movement, as nations across the globe join together to explore beyond our home planet.”

By Irene Klotz/KSC

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