White House

Confidence and skepticism

It depends on what end of Pennsylvania Avenue you’re on. At the White House, space came up during for the second time this week. McClellan put the best possible face on NASA’s decision to halt future shuttle flights until the ET foam problem is resolved:

Q Is the administration going to take any steps to take a hard look at what’s going on with the shuttle program at NASA right now? Does the President believe that the NASA administration has an effective control of the program, in light of what’s happened the last 24 hours?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, a couple things. One, the safety of the crew is the top priority. The President relies on the judgment of the experts, the engineers at NASA. Engineers at NASA look at all the issues, and they assess the risk. The President appreciates NASA’s commitment to safety and acting out of an abundance of caution. He is confident in the job that Administrator Griffin and the experts at NASA are doing.

In terms of the latest announcement, NASA has not made any decision or announced anything about the timing of the next mission. The experts at NASA continue to look at all the facts and all the data. And once they have had the opportunity to do so, then they will come to some conclusions and make decisions about how to proceed.

[Scroll down not quote halfway through the transcript for this exchange.] A bit later McClellan added, “Space exploration is a high priority for the United States, and we want to continue to lead the way.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the House Science Committee, is a little more skeptical about the shuttle program’s future. In an interview with an upstate New York radio station he expressed some apparent doubts about when, or even if, the next shuttle mission would take place:

Boehlert today told Binghamton radio station W-N-B-F: “The shuttle program is not dead — if they can find an answer to the questions about the foam.”

Boehlert said without that answer — in his words — “it will not return to flight.”

The article plays up the possibility that the shuttle may not return to flight, although it’s not clear whether Boehlert really believes that is a real possibility, or if he’s simply stating that the shuttle will not fly again until (rather than if) a fix is found.

38 comments to Confidence and skepticism

  • TORO

    Say in five years a simple CEV is ready, with destructive tests and the old Apollo launch escape system (LES) or similar giving statistical confidence the shuttle never had …in other words, imagine a new, lower risk crew transport is ready. Then what happens to the Shuttle? Will the Shuttle community and lobbyists go home? Doubtful. At that point there are several options for perhaps reconfiguring the shuttle slightly…and a good chance zero, one, or two Astronauts will be hauling cargo in shuttles for a long, long, long time.

  • Dfens

    More realistically the argument will be made that it took 2.5 years to fix the problems with the shuttle and it didn’t work. Do you a) spend another 2.5 years trying something else that may or may not work, or b) put the remaining vehicles on a stick in the front lawn and fly a shuttle-c in 5 years, building it with the funds that would have gone to finance the turkey? I think a very compelling arguement can be made for b).

  • They could call it the world’s biggest paperweight. There is so much paperwork at NASA that they might need one that size.

  • They could call it the world’s biggest paperweight. There is so much paperwork at NASA that they might need one that size.

  • Dfens

    Hey, don’t be critical of all that paper. They need the paper to justify all those jobs.

  • billg

    Regardless of what happens now, the Shuttle will not fly after the CEV comes on line. Lobbies or no, politicians are going to think twice about forcing NASA to fly a risky vehicle.

    Griffin has already made it clear that he does not believe cargo flights to LEO should be crewed, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to unnecessarily risk lives to haul cargo. That implies he considers the fundamental design choices of the Shuttle to have been inappropriate. He’s right, of course. You don’t need a crew to lob packages to LEO.

    You need a vehicle that’s big enough to haul your cargo, but no bigger, and a vehcle that’s big enough and safe enough to haul your people to LEO. Griffin’s plan for VSE is in synch with that notion.

    The sooner NASA can eliminate the financial burden of Shuttle and ISS, the sooner it can get on with actually exploring space, i.e., the VSE.That was supposed to happen about 5 years from now, but if it happens next year, so much the better. In no case should we ever fly a risky spacecraft just to mollify foreign partners in a venture of dubious value.

  • billg: Exactly. The sooner that NASA can mothball the shuttle and the space station, the sooner it can do something new. Keith Cowing seemed to consider it unpatriotic to “run away”, but that’s just wrong. America should be able to steer out of a dead end — it has done it before.

    I wonder, how long can Washington sustain patience for space shuttles that don’t fly?

  • Cecil Trotter

    More than anything, space program related anyway, I wish we could walk away from the shuttle and ISS today.

    I just don’t think it is a good idea to leave our ISS partners holding the bag.

    All other reasoning on ISS aside, how does everyone feel about the effects of NASA just stopping our ISS participation right now and telling our ISS partners “Sorry you spent all those bucks for nothing, as did we, but we’re not launching anything else to ISS”? And international partners aside, how would that play with Congress?

  • Cecil,
    I think their main concern would be that if we did that those countries would never cooperate with us again. At the budget numbers these projects require I don’t think its one strike and you’re out.

  • Bill White

    To follow on Mr. Trotter’s suggestion, last year I posted the idea that Colin Powell (now Condi Rice) should visit our ISS partners and offer a few free rides to our new lunar outpost in exchange for their gracious cancellation of our ISS obligations.

    Bring along a few ESA and Japanese astronauts to the Moon =IF= there is no grumbling about ISS cancellation.

    Kinda like an airline giving free hotel rooms for a cancelled flight.

  • Cecil, the foreign ISS units that are next on the list come from the European Space Agency. Now half of the ESA budget comes from France and Germany. So the ESA can be thought of as largely a Franco-German organization.

    France and Germany might well criticize the United States for letting them down in space. However, we have been in rough spots with these close allies before. I’m sure that the Bush administration can find a way to appease them.

  • Dfens

    I remain mystified at why we need to abandon both the shuttle and space station. It remains perfectly obvious to me that absent the shuttle, we dearly need the space station. In fact, if we would abandon shuttle now in favor of a shuttle-c type vehicle, we could probably finish station sooner than we would if we had continued with the current shuttle program.

    Billg’s statement, “Lobbies or no, politicians are going to think twice about forcing NASA to fly a risky vehicle,” is the brilliance I did not anticipate in Griffin’s current approach to getting rid of shuttle. Congress certainly would not want to take the responsibility for the risk of another shuttle disaster on themselves. Thanks for an excellent observation. Even if someone were to come up with a way to fix the falling foam problem, there’s always Kapton wiring and probably a host of other potential problems I know nothing about.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Dfens:”In fact, if we would abandon shuttle now in favor of a shuttle-c type vehicle, we could probably finish station sooner than we would if we had continued with the current shuttle program.”

    I have my doubts about finishing ISS sooner with a “shuttle c” type vehicle, but it is an option worth looking at.

    Since the decision has been made, or seemingly so, that the VSE will need a HLV and shuttle C can fill that purpose (though not to the degree of an inline design) it would seem that there would be some logic to halting manned orbiter flights now, build shuttle c or something along those lines now and use it to complete ISS as well as it being available for VSE missions sooner.

    But there remains the problem that the ISS modules etc. that are awaiting a ride to orbit were designed to be assembled from the Orbiter platform with the Canadarm etc. How that could be accomplished with “shuttle c” I’m not sure.

  • Bill White

    Dfens, last year I argued in favor of using shuttle C to finish ISS until my fingers nearly fell off. ;-)

    Using orbiter as the sole means to finish ISS is the worst of all possible scenarios.

    Either,

    Find a way to use your follow on HLLV to help complete ISS and develop that HLLV within the ISS/STS budget,

    Or,

    Walk away completely from ISS/STS and immediately reallocate the ISS/STS budget into the new vision and go do some political fence mending.

    Flying orbiter until 2010 and starting CEV more or less from scratch in 2008 never made sense to me.

    = = =

    The internet space rumor mill (as well as SpaceRef) suggests Griffin is again looking at shuttle C and also is evaluating whether there are alternate means to complete ISS. That’s why the NASA architecture report is being delayed until September, or so I read.

  • Paul Dietz

    we dearly need the space station.

    Why? It’s in the wrong orbit to serve VSE as a way station, and (as Griffin has stated) it will not be sufficiently useful for testing VSE components to justify its cost.

  • Bill W\hite

    Cecil, one idea is to sortie a shuttle C (or two) with an orbiter. Fit 2 ISS payloads onto a shuttle C and the orbiter supplies the Canada arm.

    Each orbiter need only fly ONCE to install 15 ISS payloads if two shuttle Cs can be placed on-orbit before the orbiter flies.

    Assure crew recovery (buy Soyuz on option and have them ready to fly!) and if on-orbit inspection reveals unacceptable and unrepairable tile damage, dump the orbiter into the Pacific after the on-orbit mission is accomplished.

    = = =

    That said, just walking away from ISS/STS altogether wouldn’t be a total fisaco, in my opinion, IF we did some good State Department work.

    Either way, it’s better than the current plan.

  • mrearl

    As much as it pains me to say this should be the last flight of a shuttle orbiter. It dose not seem that spending any more money or time to try to fix a fundamental design flaw in a system designated to end in 5 years is a proper use of our money or time.
    That dose not mean that we should abandon the ISS. Working with our international partners a new construction schedule can be agreed upon. I still believe that once completed the ISS will be very useful to the VSE, science and other activities.
    Here’s what each partner brings to the table:
    NASA:
    Freed of the responsibility of the orbiters, NASA should start an expedited program to implement a shuttle-c HLLV within 2 years. Each flight could carry twice the load of the shuttle.
    Fast track the CEV with capability to dock with the ISS. Look to a late ’08 or early ’09 time frame to be operational.
    Contract with at least two private companies to supply the ISS.
    ESA:
    Pick up some of the supply load with their automated transfer vehicle due to be tested the first part of next year..
    (NASA may consider purchasing a few until private re-supply is ready.)
    Japan:
    Expedite their transfer vehicle.
    Russia:
    Soyuz manned access.
    Progress re-supply.

  • If they really need another vehicle to supply the space station, the closest existing rocket is the modified Ariane 5. So why not use that instead of designing a new one from scratch? Can they not stand to buy French, even though a main remaining purpose of the space station is to appease France and Germany? And why are their feelings on the space station so important to the United States anyway?

  • “I remain mystified at why we need to abandon both the shuttle and space station. It remains perfectly obvious to me that absent the shuttle, we dearly need the space station.”

    As I’ve argued before, I agree. While building the Station may or may not require the Shuttle, maintaining it certainly does not.

    Let’s look again at expendable launches of modules. If an expendable-launched module is left in an orbit close to the station, why couldn’t an attached Progress maneuver the station itself close enough so that the station’s arm could grab the module and dock it with the appropriate port?

    I don’t have time to look it up right now, but maybe somebody knows off the top of their heads if the mass of an empty European or Japanese module is within the payload capacity of a Delta-V Heavy or the upgraded Ariane-V.

    If not, given the latest news, I’m ready to agree with Cecil: develop the Shuttle-C (and accelerate the CEV) with the money we would have spent continuing to fly the Shuttles. Use that to launch the modules with the above scenario.

    – Donald

  • Dfens

    We need a heavy lift vehicle because it is impractical to go anywhere beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) with a vehicle that can only put 5,000 lbs into an escape trajectory. Even to go to the Moon, it would be impractical to assemble a vehicle on-orbit out of 10 launches worth of supplies. With a shuttle-c type vehicle you could assemble a mission to scout for a settlement site with two or three launches. A mission like that would not just be a repeat of Apollo, but would have astronauts on the Moon for a week or two, flying and driving from one place to another. A real exploration instead of a picture postcard and a few rocks.

    The station, imperfect as it is, would give the astronauts a place to stay while the mission was being assembled. You’ve no doubt noticed that launches do not always go as scheduled, and coordinating multiple launches in a really tight time period is probably a recipe for disaster. The station allows a degree of flexibility that substantially reduces risk.

    Also, station makes it possible to do Earth observations and all those other not-highly-significant-but-not-totally-insignificant things astronauts do in the orbiter today. They could do the science without the risk of reentering in a huge vehicle with lots of surface area that significantly increases the risk of disaster.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Donald: “why couldn’t an attached Progress maneuver the station itself close enough so that the station’s arm could grab the module and dock it with the appropriate port?”

    Rather than move the 100 plus ton station closer to a 15-ton module it would seem more logical to move the module to the ISS. But maybe, just maybe, the Progress vehicle could do that. Or perhaps one could go out and retrieve a module left close by using a manned Soyuz. But neither could move a module very far; it just doesn’t have the delta v capacity. And I imagine the Progress/Soyuz RCS system would be hard pressed to maneuver a 15-ton module into a proper attachment alignment.

  • “And I imagine the Progress/Soyuz RCS system would be hard pressed to maneuver a 15-ton module into a proper attachment alignment.”

    Maybe for some fraction of the n hundred million dollars the next Shuttle flight will cost, we could implement an upgrade. Also, let’s not forget the European ATV. I’ll bet it has (or could have) enought torque to manage the job. . . .

    – Donald

  • Cecil Trotter

    Dfens: “The station, imperfect as it is, would give the astronauts a place to stay while the mission was being assembled.”

    The ISS being in the orbital inclination that it is has a very limited usefulness as an assembly point for anything intended to depart to the Moon. It can be done but the departure opportunities are much fewer than would be from a lower inclination, or even from KSC.

    I would prefer to see a moon bound vehicle or stack of vehicles etc. to require no more than two launches. In the vein of the current discussion we’ll say two shuttle c type vehicle launches. The two “halves” should have the capacity to dock together on orbit without astronauts on the scene. And then the crew would be launched last; my preference would be to launch them using the t/Space air launch concept.

  • Are there any options for changing the Station’s inclination? I know that’s very difficult, and deriving the answer is far beyond my limited knowledge of physics, but I wonder if it could be done with excess Progress / ATV / commercial logistics vehicle fuel over a number of years.

    – Donald

  • Or, how about an electric propulsion module?

    – Donald

  • Cecil Trotter

    The Russians wouldn’t like that at all, they’re the reason it’s at it’s present inclination.

  • Aren’t the Russians and Europeans busy building Soyuz facilities on the equator in Central America?

    – Donald

  • Bill White

    Cecil Trotter writes:

    The two “halves” should have the capacity to dock together on orbit without astronauts on the scene. And then the crew would be launched last; my preference would be to launch them using the t/Space air launch concept.

    Exactly!

    In addition, this vessel should not land on Earth.

    Go to the Moon (or Mars as a 2 Shuttle C CEV would be bigger than Zubrin’s MarsDirect vehicle) and upon return to Earth stay in LEO for possible re-use.

    t/Space capsules ferry crew up and down.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Mmmmm, you have a point. But if I were betting I would bet they would never go for the idea of having to launch all of their ISS destined flights from Kourou.

  • Cecil Trotter

    White: “In addition, this vessel should not land on Earth.”

    If NASA were to adopt the t/Space concept to launch crews to LEO the CEV itself could become a true pure spacecraft intended only for spaceflight and never used for atmosphere entry. Except at Mars ;-)

  • Dfens

    I was not up to speed on that orbital inclination issue. Wow, so many bad decisions… I know it is very expensive in terms of energy required to change the inclination of an orbit. Hopefully not too expensive to make station, what’s there now, worth keeping. A lot of good engineering went into it. You don’t realize how incredibly bright the engineers and scientists are at both NASA and their contractors. They have to be good to make things work under the insane constraints they deal with. Working for a contractor, I am very privileged to work with such extraordinary people, and just as frustrated to see them so often go ignored.

    Cecil, I like the mission you propose, but even at that, when the astronauts hop in and do the preflight, it would be nice to have a space station up there in case something major failed on orbit. I think it would be great if station had a machining and electronics repair capability. Certainly any vehicle going on a long interplanetary mission should have such a capability. That’s the great thing about having people on board. We are adaptable and creative, with an amazing capability to overcome obstacles.

  • Dfens, when the Clinton Administration broght the Russians into the project, they had to raise the inclination so that Russian launch vehicles could reach it. Presumably, since they are launched from the far north, they could not reach the intended low-inclination orbit with useful payloads. This involved a re-design of the Space Shuttle so that it _could_ reach the new high-inclination orbit. That’s how we ended up with the Aluminum-Lithium External Tank and some other modifications to reduce Shuttle launch weight.

    – Donald

  • Cecil Trotter

    Dfens: “it would be nice to have a space station up there in case something major failed on orbit.”

    The crew could always abort back to Earth from LEO in the t/Space capsule that got them up there.

  • I think their main concern would be that if we did that those countries would never cooperate with us again.

    Michael, you say that like it’s a bad thing.

    I would actually consider an end to these international government boondoggles in space a feature of abandoning ISS, not a bug.

    And I did in fact propose changing ISS orbit to something more useful, a year and a half ago. It could be done with a number of Soyuz M flights, or with a low-thrust system, much sooner than it could be completed. It might even make sense to subsidize the additional funds necessary to allow Soyuz operations out of Kourou (probably much less than a billion dollars).

    But I don’t think it would be the end of the world if we don’t use it at all.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Simberg: “Michael, you say that like it’s a bad thing.”

    LOL. Point taken.

    But I would like to keep Japan in our corner, and a few others, as not all international space endeavour is bad. Purely from a US point of view however I don’t care to see us ever involved in any partnership that we are less than 51% in control of. And I don’t care to see us so closely partnered with Russia anytime soon.

  • Edward Wright

    > Say in five years a simple CEV is ready, with destructive tests and the old
    > Apollo launch escape system (LES) or similar giving statistical confidence
    > the shuttle never had …in other words, imagine a new, lower risk crew
    > transport is ready.

    What statistical confidence? All the evidence from past capsules shows about the same fatality rate as the Shuttle. Ejection seats and escape capsules are not magic bullets.

  • Edward Wright

    > We need a heavy lift vehicle because it is impractical to go anywhere
    > beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) with a vehicle that can only put 5,000 lbs
    > into an escape trajectory.

    Look up Lunar Gemini.

    http://www.astronautix.com/articles/bygemoon.htm

    > Even to go to the Moon, it would be impractical to assemble a vehicle
    > on-orbit out of 10 launches worth of supplies.

    What’s impractical about 10 launches? Federal Express launches hundreds of flights per day. In the event of a nuclear war, the US Navy planned to launch 24 missiles from a single submarine — and they had to do that from underwater.

    > With a shuttle-c type vehicle you could assemble a mission
    > to scout for a settlement site with two or three launches.

    And for the next six months, the 14,000 people sit around with nothing to do, while you save up the money to buy another Shuttle-C. But they’re still drawing paychecks.

    > A mission like that would not just be a repeat of Apollo, but would have
    > astronauts on the Moon for a week or two, flying and driving from one
    > place to another. A real exploration instead of a picture postcard and a few rocks.

    Okay, so you get a few more rocks and a few more postcards. A couple of man-weeks is not a whole lot of exploration.

    To really explore the Moon will take many thousands of man-years, and to do that, we need to get over the fear of having more than one or two rocket launches.

  • TORO

    There is no fear in cargo launching.