Getting Out of the Gravity Well on One Thin Dime

By frank_sietzen
July 26, 2010
Filed under
Getting Out of the Gravity Well on One Thin Dime

Seemingly lost among the noise following last week’s actions of the House Commerce and Science Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee on marking up a NASA budget is the issue of the agency’s proposed new technology programs. Both the House and Senate sharply cut the Obama Administration’s original request.

As of this writing no dissent has been heard from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, so the cuts might stick. It might be useful to review what the Obama Administration originally asked for – and why.

From the Administration’s original FY2011 budget submission:

“The transformational technologies highlighted in this budget for development and demonstration address critical capabilities for sending crews to a variety of exciting destinations beyond low Earth orbit. By allowing for flight demonstrations, some at a flagship caliber, this ESMD budget resolves the achievement gap between lab demonstration and flight testing that might otherwise prevent NASA from implementing exciting new technologies. Prior to base lining them for crewed missions, these demonstrations will validate new technologies that are not yet fully developed, but are essential for mission success, such as automated and autonomous rendezvous and docking, in situ resource utilization, aero capture, large mass entry descent and landing, highly efficient in-space propulsion, precision landing and hazard avoidance, cryogenics storage and transfer, lightweight/inflatable modules, and others. And before sending humans on extended missions beyond low Earth orbit, accelerated biomedical research will help us to ensure crew health and safety.”

The whole thing was to be run by ESMD – again, from the budget detail release:

“Activities within ESMD’s Technology Demonstration Program will be aimed at advancing technologies needed to expand our human exploration opportunities, reduce mission costs, and contribute NASA innovation to broader national challenges and applications. This will be accomplished through investment in demonstration of flagship technology projects, as well as enabling technology development and demonstration. NASA will provide an assessment of the highest leverage technologies and demonstrations.

Flagship Technology Demonstrations: Projects selected as in-space, flagship demonstrations will be significant in scale, and offer high potential to demonstrate new capability and reduce the cost of future exploration missions. These missions will demonstrate such critical technologies as in-orbit propellant transfer and storage, inflatable modules, automated/autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, and other next generation capabilities key to sustainably exploring deep space.

In FY 2011, NASA will initiate several Flagship Technology Demonstrators, each with an expected lifecycle cost in the $400 million to $1 billion range, over a lifetime of five years or less, with the first flying no later than 2014. In pursuit of these goals, international, commercial, and other government agency partners will be actively pursued as integrated team members where appropriate. NASA will not give responsibility for all demonstrations to any single NASA center but rather looks forward to engaging with the expertise of various centers to accomplish these objectives. Specific architecture and approach for missions to demonstrate key capabilities will be developed for initiation in FY2011. Technologies targeted for demonstration will likely include:

In-Orbit Propellant Transfer and Storage: The capability to transfer and store propellant–particularly cryogenic propellants–in orbit can significantly increase the Nation’s ability to conduct complex and extended exploration missions beyond Earth’s orbit. It could also potentially be used to extend the lifetime of future government and commercial spacecraft in Earth orbit. This technology demonstration, building on previous ESMD technology investments and prior demonstrations such as Orbital Express, could test technologies and processes such as long-term storage of cryogenic propellant, automated physical connections between fuel lines in orbit, and verification of fuel acquisition, fuel withdrawal, and fuel transfer.

Lightweight/Inflatable Modules: Inflatable modules can be larger, lighter, and potentially less expensive for future use than the rigid modules currently used by the International Space Station (ISS). Working closely with industry and international partners who have already demonstrated a number of capabilities and interest in this arena, and building on previous ESMD investments, NASA will pursue a demonstration of lightweight/inflatable modules for eventual in-space habitation, transportation, or even surface habitation needs. The demonstration could involve tests of a variety of systems, including closed-loop life support, radiation shielding, thermal control, communications, and interfaces between the module and external systems. Use of the ISS as the testbed for this technology is an option being considered to potentially benefit both programs.

Automated/Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking: The ability of two spacecraft to rendezvous, operating independently from human controllers and without other back-up, requires advances in sensors, software, and real-time on-orbit positioning and flight control, among other challenges. This technology is critical to the ultimate success of capabilities such as in-orbit propellant storage and refueling, complex operations in assembling mission components for challenging destinations, in-space construction, and exploration operations far from Earth where the communications delay does not allow for effective human involvement.

NASA will also begin work in 2011 on an additional Flagship Technology Demonstrator mission to be selected within the Agency, and map out a sequence of Flagship missions to be initiated in 2012 and later. Potential candidates include but are not limited to:

Closed-loop life support system demonstration at the ISS: This would validate the feasibility of human survival beyond Earth based on recycled materials with minimal logistics supply. A follow-on demonstration could involve an integrated inflatable module/closed-loop life support system demonstration.

Aerocapture, and/or entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology: This could involve the development and demonstration of systems technologies for: precision landing of payloads on “high-g” and “low-g” planetary bodies; returning humans or collected samples to Earth; and enabling orbital insertion in various atmospheric conditions. Demonstrations could be ground-based or flight experiments.”

Then there were propulsion-related demos:

“A major thrust of this research and development activity will be related to space launch propulsion technologies. This effort will include first stage engine development, in-space engine demonstrations, and foundational propulsion research in areas such as new or largely untested propellants that can result in more capable and less expensive future rockets, including heavy-lift rockets. In addition, NASA will provide $25 million annually to fund commercial, university, and other non-governmental research organizations to conduct foundational propulsion research.”

Both the House and Senate budget bills have deeply cut the technology programs, although the program itself still stands. They have also mandated NASA to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle by 2016. Given the short horizon and budget this almost certainly means some form of SD HLV. While humans to Mars remains the national goal, here’s my question to posters here on NASA Watch:

  1. 1. How would you reprioritize the technology program to support manned deep space missions; and
  2. 2. How would you spend funds for advanced propulsion work given the smaller budgets?

You can comment here at NASA Watch.

As far as launch systems are concerned, could history repeat itself?

In the late 1950s the Army, the Air Force and DARPA had large launch vehicles and new liquid rocket engines under design or test – many without a specific mission or payload in mind.

The Army actually had serious discussions underway about building a lunar surface facility or space troop transport, all for which their Huntsville team led by Von Braun thought of using the Saturns – the Saturn 1 that is. The Air Force was developing the F-1, M-1 and J-2 engines for some at the time unknown missions.

When the new President, John Kennedy, came along in 1961 and suddenly faced an ascendant Soviet space program, he had these technologies from which to choose to support a new expansive space goal. We all know how that movie ended.

Today, American Presidents routinely propose new space goals -think George W. Bush and Barack Obama-without strong defense of their rationales or budget needs (at least in the case of Obama, thus far). A manned mission to an asteroid has been proposed, but the budget to develop the launch vehicle to send the ship there, according to press reports of senior NASA officials is inadequate to actually field the launch vehicle itself for another decade.

If these technology cuts stand, what will stand between us and an asteroid investigation is a SD HLV (Shuttle-derived Heavy Launch Vehicle) and a capsule alone – since no deep space module is mandated or funded in the same time frame. While Mars is supposed to be the destination, will these technology programs be sufficient to advance the propulsion systems (VASIMR?) or life support systems (radiation hardened) to produce progress in getting there?

The problem with all this, folks, is we don’t know what we don’t know-and what new space discoveries, such as life on Mars or an errant asteroid, that might be cause for jump starting the space program. In the words of writer Frank Rich, none of us, then or now, can see around the corner and know what history will bring.