Draft Paper Provides Insight Into NASA Space Policy Options

By Keith Cowing
October 24, 2004
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Draft Paper Provides Insight Into NASA Space Policy Options

A draft space policy paper circulating around Washington, D.C. provides some insight into what some space watchers – and NASA employees – think NASA should be doing in space – especially when it comes to the risks inherent in NASA’s current human space flight systems.

Given that a prominent space advisor to the Kerry campaign (John Logsdon) is a key participant in this project, this paper may also provide some insight into policies the Kerry campaign appears to be embracing – the most important of which is getting rid of the space shuttle fleet as soon as possible.

On 2 March 2004 the Space Shuttle Children’s Fund (SSCF) announced that it had awarded a two-year, $300,000 grant to a team of George Washington University “space experts” from the Space & Advanced Communications Research Institute (SACRI) in SEAS and the Space Policy Institute. According to a press release “The study will investigate the technical, policy and standards aspects of safety in human space flight and research new ways to achieve risk-minimization for the US shuttle programs, the International Space Station and other future human spaceflight programs.”

According to that press release “Unlike the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which specifically analyzed the causes of last year’s space shuttle accident, this study will be very broad in scope and will consider a more comprehensive range of issues. The study will try to identify new approaches to human space flight in order to make future missions more reliable and thus less hazardous to crew members. As part of the project, a team of investigators will interview space experts at NASA and other US government agencies, aerospace companies, research institutes and representatives of various space agencies around the world to identify ways to improve safety and reduce risks of future manned space missions.”

The press release noted that the research project would be led by Joseph Pelton, director of SACRI and George Washington University research professor of engineering. Assisting Pelton would be John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute and GW professor of political science and international affairs. Logsdon is also a formal space policy advisor to John Kerry’s presidential campaign and has been heard around Washington to suggest that the space shuttle fleet should fly far less than NASA plans to fly it.

Pelton and his colleagues are going to be hosting a yet-to-be announced workshop on this topic in Washington, D.C. on 9 December 2004. In preparation for that workshop, a large document is under preparation which will apparently be released in its final form for public review and comment. NASA Watch has obtained portions of a draft version of that document.

The document (which admittedly is a draft) rambles on about a variety of things having to do with shuttle safety, making use of various government reports and a surprising amount of news reports as primary sources as well as a fair amount of anecdotal material. Moreover, for a document that purports to deal with risk, it also dabbles in a fair amount of high level national policy issues. To be certain, there is a link between acceptable risks and what space systems you employ – but that connection is sometimes missing in this paper.

Of course, only a portion of this document was obtained by NASA Watch. As such, any comments or observations should be considered as being in response to a partial and unfinished document. That said, what is in the sections obtained by NASA Watch is enlightening with regard to the opinions and observations of its authors.

The document really doesn’t go into any consistent technical analysis and seems to focus more on worst case, what-if scenarios than reasoned, systematic discussions. Of course, both Challenger and Columbia accidents were indeed worst case scenarios which actually happened – and in both sad instances NASA was found to have not paid enough attention to what it thought to be unlikely scenarios.

Indeed, the paper suggests that problems still exist at NASA in this regard:

“On the other hand, confidential interviews undertaken by the GW study team with former NASA employees and astronauts, academics in the field and others knowledgeable about NASA programs reveal a different story concerning technical and program management. Here, there is a recurring indication that safety concerns — on the part of both NASA employees and Shuttle-related contractors — are still being glossed over and that corners are being cut because of the special circumstance of the Shuttle grounding and delays in the International Space Station program. There appears to be evidence that safety assessments and analyses presented by competent staff within NASA are still being overlooked or pigeonholed for budgetary or other reasons and that the “broken safety culture” issues reported by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) continue to be an issue. A disturbing number of qualified individuals (in and out of the government) have made statements that safety programs are not all that they should be and there remain reports in the press of ups and downs in addressing safety issues related both to the Shuttle and in general.”

The paper goes on to note:

“In short, after completing the review presented in this and the following chapter, the GW team believes that NASA safety culture issues still remain of concern and in some instances are unresolved. Specific key risk issues related to future human space flight cited herein deserve formal attention and review by the U.S. Congress, the GAO, OMB and other oversight entities. This is because the problems identified, both with regard to the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) go beyond simple technical difficulties and NASA management decisions. Solutions to these problems will likely require changes in Executive Branch policy and Congressional programmatic and budgetary decisions.”

They then observe and recommend that:

“Shortsighted cost savings may lead to another Shuttle disaster that would likely severely cripple, if not have devastating impact on, the U.S. space research and exploration program for decades to come. A Congressional review should start with a truly independent assessment by a competent research organization that is equipped to explore not only the basic management issues but technical program competencies as well.”

The paper leaves a clear impression that the authors think that the shuttle system is very risky – perhaps too risky to continue flying. The paper goes on to make a broad observation that the shuttle should be flown much less often than NASA plans to fly it:

“Some individuals, although a small number of those interviewed by the GW team on a confidential basis, have gone so far as to assert that the Shuttle program should be permanently halted, the Orbiters permanently grounded, and the ISS limited in scope with certain elements not completed because of the risks presented by the ambitious launch schedule required to complete the ISS. These individuals with major safety concerns have also said that “to the extent that the ISS construction is continued or operated further” the program should be serviced by expendable vehicles rather than by Space Shuttle launches to the maximum extent possible and that new, higher reliability human-rated launch vehicles as well as robotically controlled heavy lift expendable vehicles should be developed as a matter of priority to support all future space exploration programs.”

Of course not everyone agreed with this:

“There are many more individuals who were consulted who did not agree with this assessment. These persons acknowledged that there were concerns, but they strongly felt that the refurbished Shuttle orbiters and the external tank system were highly reliable and could be safely used to complete the ISS.”

At the end of this section the authors recommend:

“This independent assessment would also address and analyze the feasibility (in technical and cost terms) of using more robotic missions and expendable launch vehicles in lieu of Space Shuttle launches and to address the extent to which total Shuttle launches could be reduced from the currently planned 25 launches to a lesser number even if this meant certain elements of the ISS were not fully completed and more experiments were assigned to free flyers such as the Spartan or other vehicles.”

Of course, if the shuttle flies less often, the payloads it was to carry still need to be lofted by other means. The paper observes:

“If the U.S. space capability to delivery astronauts to the International Space Station is to be dependent on Russian human-rated launch capability for at least 4 to 5 years into the future (i.e. from 2010 through 2014) the obvious question, which has already been raised in Congress, is why not concentrate on developing that new capability on a high priority basis now and perhaps use expendable launchers to span the gap?”

Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees NASA, stated to the press in early May that “he was not convinced NASA had conducted a thorough enough assessment of whether it might be cheaper in the long run to retire shuttle now and make the switch to commercial vehicles.” He went on to say: “I’m asking the question a lot of members are asking right now. Do we need to continue this or can we finish the ISS without the shuttle.” (Brian Berger, “NASA: Finishing Station With ELVs Would Cost More, Take Longer”, Space News, May 10, 2004, p.8) Although most individuals interviewed in the GW Team’s study process agreed with NASA plans to return the Shuttle to flight and to complete the ISS, several strongly disagreed with the decision to implement the CAIB recommendations and fly the Shuttle at least another 25 times.”

One way to reduce the shuttle rate is to reduce the number of payloads it would be needed to launch in the first place:

“There are certainly major implications for astronaut safety as well as cost and schedule implications by continuing the ISS program construction using the Shuttle versus expendable launch vehicles. These questions include: what if a mixed fleet of U.S. and Russian ELVs were to be used? (Or a mixture of perhaps five Shuttle launches for essential cargoes plus ELVs?) There must also be consideration of what would happen to the program in the event of yet another Shuttle failure, given the fact that only three orbiters remain? The largest question of all is what elements of the ISS need to be completed to achieve U.S. space objectives as they apparently have now been redefined? And could international obligations with regard to the ISS be changed or renegotiated to achieve expanded experimental goals but with cost savings for Japan, Europe, Canada and Russia?”

To be certain, most people agree that the shuttle’s days are numbered. No one argues that new systems need to be developed either. Some people feel that the shuttle has a critical role to play for some time to come before it is inevitably retired – and that it can do so more safely than in the past. Others want to see that retirement happen much, much sooner. On this point the author’s biases come to the surface with regard to the shuttle:

“New human-rated launch systems are clearly needed that have much lower risk factors than the refurbished but aging Space Shuttle could ever achieve. NASA needs new space technologies that can be applied to future human space mission capabilities and not to spend billions on an obsolete space vehicle. NASA needs to determine with some urgency what its new space capabilities will be (such as a heavy lift expendable rocket) and in particular what will be developed to launch the new Crew Exploration Vehicle.”

Reactivation of the Space Shuttle only delays these essential steps forward. The Paine Commission in 1986 explained in considerable detail why the Shuttle needed to be replaced with newer and safer launch capability by no later than 2001. It is almost mystifying to understand why a suitable replacement space vehicle has not yet been developed some 18 years after the Challenger accident and the Paine Commission report. Eighteen years is a very long time for a safer, more reliable and more cost effective vehicle than the Space Shuttle not to have been developed — almost twice the time allowed for the entire Apollo project. This lack of ability to develop new space vehicles remains a central and unanswered question in U.S. space policy. This unanswered question is vital to the past, present and future of astronaut safety; it transcends concerns of safety and goes to the very heart of what have been NASA’s priorities over the last 20 years? Along with this question goes the subsidiary question of why six programs totaling tens of billions of dollars — namely the HL-20, the X38, the X-33, the X-34, the X-38, and the X-43 programs — have been started and then terminated with little or no success?”

Right now the sole remaining function of the space shuttle fleet is to assemble and maintain the ISS until such time as a US-developed replacement vehicle or perhaps some other solution such as Russian Soyuz/Progress vehicles are adopted for the remainder of ISS operations. NASA has spoken of using the ISS as a test bed for a variety of human-related and technology driven research needed to implement President Bush’s new space policy. The authors of this paper aren’t as certain that the ISS is needed for such research:

“It might well seem that creating a permanent human colony on the Moon could have advantages in terms of a self-sustaining, large-scale space station. This is because with 21st century technologies lunar material processing might be possible to generate construction materials and the sub-lunar surface could be used for astronaut radiation protection. Instead of using the ISS to study the impact of weightlessness on the health of astronauts for an extended mission to Mars, one might also ask whether a new type of space vehicle with artificial gravity might not be designed for such a mission. For instance, nano-tube technology might be able to provide a lengthy but lightweight tether that could allow two capsules to rotate at sufficient force to sustain sufficient g-forces needed for an extended space probe.

In short, while the following sections examine and analyze the safety of the ISS, the last sections of this chapter ask why we need to sustain a large-scale space station at all? And how could we design better systems for the future that are safer, more cost effective and with better defined missions?”

Again, while the portions of this paper that NASA Watch has obtained are indeed in draft form, I am struck by the rather superficial nature of the analysis being done. The paper either skims over important details or simply regurgitates technical descriptions gleaned from news reports and NASA documents. No obvious attempt is made to systematically compare and contrast various technical risks and then prioritize them in a fashion that offers a chance for larger conclusions to be derived. This document is just a laundry list. The only clear recommendations made by the authors have to do with their views on national space policy – something which would seem to be beyond the scope of what they were tasked to do in the first place.

There is also the issue as to the level of expertise in place at GWU to fully understand the technical operations of the shuttle and ISS. Looking at the project staff listed on GWU’s website no one seems to have any experience working with human spaceflight operations or systems or risk and safety analysis associated with human spaceflight. Of course, I have not seen the proposal they submitted – one which might list additional personnel with that expertise who are assisting in this project. None the less, this apparent lack of expertise in the area of human spaceflight and risk analysis is evident in many places in this paper. This is particularly notable in this passage from another part of the paper dealing with the ISS:

“As far as physical attack on the ISS is concerned there are, in fact, several possibilities. It might be possible for an explosive or more likely a poisonous gas canister to somehow be smuggled onto a re-supply mission coming either from the U.S. or Russia with a timer or remote triggering of such a device. Although this seems unlikely, screening of all materials launched on any mission to the ISS is necessary and a tracking system with UPC codes or other active tracking capability would appear warranted for launches from the U.S. or Russia.”

To be certain, in a post 9-11 world, many things we once though improbable or impossible have happened. Yet given the inordinate procedures that go into testing and certifying payloads in both the U.S. and Russian (and other programs) human space flight programs, anyone who would even suggest such a scenario has clearly never spent any time in the very process they suggest might have flaws. They also evidence a certain level of professional ignorance by suggesting the addition of tracking systems that have already long been in place.

The Columbia accident and the presidential space policy that emerged in its aftermath have spurred an ongoing debate – not only as to where we should be going in space – but also how to get there. Part of that discussion should include a look at what is currently in place and whether such capabilities are sufficient. Options should not preclude outright replacement – even if that choice is painful. I just hope that this paper – and others like it – which purport to reflect a certain amount of expertise in both space policy and technology are assembled with more care and attention to detail than this one seems to be.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.