Congress

Still minding the gap

Congressman Dave Weldon (R-FL) held a series of town-hall-style meetings Wednesday for workers at the Kennedy Space Center. While the meetings themselves were closed to all but space center employees, Weldon did speak with reporters between the meetings and, according to accounts by Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel, reiterated his desire to reduce the gap between the end of the shuttle program and the introduction of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Weldon played up the foreign policy implications of the gap, from relying on Russia for access to the ISS (which, of course, we already did after the Columbia accident) to the specter of having the Chinese beat the US to the Moon: “Are we going to get there and be greeted by somebody holding out for us a nice warm bowl of chop suey and chopsticks?” (At the very least, hold out for some General Tso’s Chicken.)

Weldon wants additional money for NASA to accelerate development of Orion: “hundreds of millions of dollars in 2009 and 2010, and then an extra billion dollars in both 2011 and 2012″, according to Florida Today. While Weldon put some blame on Congress for the current level of funding, he also criticized the Bush administration for not proposing adequate funding: the Vision, he said, “had the appearance to me of a plan that was hatched in the Office of Management and Budget.”

21 comments to Still minding the gap

  • Ray

    Wow … Ares/Orion need that much more money?? That’s a LOT of money! Isn’t is expensive already?

    Here’s a gap-reduction proposal. Cancel ESAS (Orion, Ares, etc). Replace it with something COTS-like, but including a phase with transport of 3 (NOT 6!) crew to ISS. Shuttle derived architectures would be eligible (Shuttle components would be privatized some unspecified way as it’s retired). They should do well. This could set up, say, 5 competitors with more $ per year than all potential COTS funding for all years. “Skin in the game” from the competitors would still be required in a big way. After Shuttle retirement, I suspect the NASA investment would be adequate to get things really rollling. If a competitor falls by the wayside, spread the remaining funds among the survivors. I imagine the gap would be reduced, and you’d have a fault-tolerant ISS supply system.

  • ColdWater

    Weldon is a xynophobic moron pandering to the fears of the feeble minded. Chop Suey and Chopsticks! Give me a break. We have more urgent national needs to worry about than whether the Chinese beat us to the moon. Weldon, Griffin and the pro-ESAS cabal need to crawl into a time machine set to 50 years ago.

  • Jeez…

    Chop suey is a San Francisco invention. It’s not even Chinese.

  • anonymous.space

    “Wow … Ares/Orion need that much more money?? That’s a LOT of money! Isn’t is expensive already?”

    The sad thing is that throwing even that many dollars at Ares I/Orion can only accelerate the start of flight operations by about a year, and even that’s questionable.

    According to NASA’s FY 2008 budget submission to Congress, the development budgets for Ares I, Orion, and their associated ground and mission ops systems for FY 2010-12 are:

    FY 2010 — $2.9 billion
    FY 2011 — $4.6 billion
    FY 2012 — $3.9 billion

    FY 2013-15 lie beyond the five-year budget outlook, but assuming the usual tail to a typical development curve, NASA can expect spending in those years to roughly resemble:

    FY 2013 — $3 billion
    FY 2014 — $2 billion
    FY 2015 — $1 billion

    So, to first order, to know how much it costs to accelerate Ares I/Orion to any particular year, we add up the spending in all the years that follow. For example, to completely close the gap to zero years and begin Ares I/Orion operations in 2010, Congress would have to spend an additional $8.5 billion (the sum of the FY 2011-15 figures) before the end of 2010. (Again, that’s just an example; it’s actually not technically feasible for development of the Ares I/Orion designs to be accelerated that far no matter how much money is thrown at them.)

    Weldon proposes spending something like $2 or so billion in FY 2009-12, so he’s apparently trying to close the gap to two years. But if my rough extrapolation of the likely spending in FY 2013-15 is in the ballpark, all that $2 billion or so will buy is an acceleration from 2015 to 2014. There’s arguably $3 billion to be spent in those two years alone. To accelerate the program all the way back to 2012, Weldon would have to propose spending something on the order of $6 billion (the sum of the FY 2013-15 spending) in FY 2012 and earlier years . But that’s obviously not the figure that Weldon is putting forward.

    To be brutally honest, I’m not even sure that an extra two billion dollars can buy back one year, from 2015 to 2014. Currently, even the 2015 date is only budgeted at a 65% chance of success, meaning that there’s a 1-in-3 chance that Ares 1/Orion will overrun and require more dollars to become operational by 2015 anyway (or, if no new dollars are forthcoming by then, more time to eat up dollars in 2016, even 2017, before becoming operational). A likely scenario is that Weldon’s proposed $2 or so billion increase will only help ensure that Ares I/Orion meets the 2015 date (boosting the chance of success from 65% to some higher number), and not actually accelerate development. On big, multi-ten billion programs like Ares I/Orion, it’s easy to swallow a billion or two dollars with little to show for it.

    “Here’s a gap-reduction proposal. Cancel ESAS (Orion, Ares, etc). Replace it with something COTS-like”

    Although time will soon start running out on a COTS-like approach to close the gap — any new LV/capsule will take at least a few years to develop –a couple billion dollars or so would still be better spent on other vehicles if the objective really is to close the gap. If we believe Space-X’s numbers, that kind of money could buy the development of several Falcon 9/Dragon-type systems. Even if Space-X’s numbers double, that kind of money could still buy two Falcon 9/Dragon-type systems. Heck, if LockMart is right, even a human-rated EELV and a CTV capsule could be developed for those kinds of bucks.

    But I suspect the intent behind Weldon’s talk has little to do with actually closing the gap and is really just rhetoric to look good to his NASA constituents back home. For example, I’d note that Weldon is talking about increases in FY 2009 and later. Of course, the budget currently before Congress is the FY 2008 budget. His numbers are purely hypothetical from an appropriations standpoint and have no bearing on the current budget debate. So Weldon’s talk avoids the current, tough debate in favor of the easy, hypothetical, future debate. Heck, assuming continuing resolutions are passed pending election results, it’s possible that Weldon might not even be in Congress when the FY 2009 budget is finally passed.

    “Weldon is a xynophobic moron pandering to the fears of the feeble minded. Chop Suey and Chopsticks! Give me a break.”

    Xenophobic pandering is right. Chinese astronauts planting a flag on the Moon and replicating something that the U.S. achieved decades ago is the least of our worries with respect to China. WMD and missile proliferation,
    trade imbalances, foreign investment in and control of U.S. Treasury bills, the fact that China’s carbon emissions are now larger than ours, Taiwan, posturing with Japan, petroleum in the South China Sea, political instability arising from the population’s growing wealth and remaining political oppression… any of these issues are things that might actually do real harm to American interests. Heck, even ASATs and the development of other asymmetric infowar weapons are way higher on the list than human lunar Chinese flag-planting.

    Even if a Chinese lunar landing was something that could do real and lasting harm to American interests, China’s human space flight program is moving at a snail’s pace and slowing. The only funded Chinese lunar effort is a single robotic orbiter — and it’s competing with six other lunar robotic missions to be launched by several other nations over the next decade or two. Even Chinese space agency plans for a space station have been downsized and stretched out while waiting for funding and technical progress with their existing human space flight system.

    It’s fine to argue for more spending on any number of NASA programs. But Weldon needs a better policy argument than the Chinese paper tiger bogeyman. It’s insulting to the institution and the constituents that he’s suppossed to be serving.

    Ugh…

  • When are people going to learn that money controls the world now? You can try to push a political agenda (like we had in the 1960s), but it just doesn’t exist anymore.

  • CynicalStudent

    “When are people going to learn that money controls the world now? You can try to push a political agenda (like we had in the 1960s), but it just doesn’t exist anymore.”

    rightly said sir! related to NASA development of Orion/Ares v COTS lunar strategies we need to be realistic. Boeing just grabbed a contract for the upper stage of Ares, Lockheed Martin and all the other big players in the aerospace industry aren’t about to let some upstart private companies run the show. yes, ideally in a capitalist system we would see the most efficient, most creative approach win out and get the contracts, but America for all it’s pro-capitalist talk isnt actually a true free market. our congressmen budget with interests other than that of our nation’s in mind, and our president for all his romantic talk concerning exploration views space as a public opinion booster and media distraction that can conveniently reward our industrial defence complex.

    the most we can hope for is a few hundred million here or there to COTS to develop all the other essential items for lunar settlement, like the lander, spacesuit, rover, oxygen extractors and high-efficiency solar arrays. i would think it obvious from the get-go that primary transport will be developed by big players getting big contracts, and people should stop hoping for anything else.

  • Donald F. Robertson

    Rand: Chop suey is a San Francisco invention. It’s not even Chinese.

    Maybe Mr. Weldon is worried about us San Franciscan’s beating NASA back to the moon — probably something worth worrying about given NASA’s pace so far. Seriously, if China wants to go to the moon, I say more power to them. It’s a constructive outlet for their aerospace ambitions, and every dollar they spend on that is a dollar they’re not spending on regional or global power projection.

    – Donald

  • Maybe all of the talk about the Chinese going back to the Moon is a disinformation campaign designed to get China to spend money to actually do so.

  • Paranoid Amurkan

    Chinese horseys on the Moon!

  • richardb

    The Honorable Congressman is one of 435 so his voice is one of many. He’s one of 202 Minority members which means his voice has almost no influence in Congress. I think its obvious he’s simply throwing some happy talk to his voters.

    At worst America will simply be humiliated during the hiatus of US manned flights starting in late 2010 and ending sometime after late 2013 at best. We lost access for over 3 years when the Challenger blew, almost the CEV hiatus, and nothing affecting national security occurred. I don’t see how either the Russians or Chinese could do anything that would require US Astronauts to counter. However given current trends I think its likely that the US will have worse relations with China or Russia by 2013 but again nothing requiring the Astronaut corp to counter.

    Now if only I could get my Congressman to get more funding for local road work….

  • ColdWater

    At worst America will simply be humiliated during the hiatus of US manned flights starting in late 2010…

    And worst of all, this is all self-imposed. I don’t think anyone else gives a hoot. Afterall, this isn’t the Cold War where we’re trying to impress the world with our technological prowess. The geopolitical landscape is no longer bipolar. It is multifaceted with many competitive fronts.

  • Ray

    “Although time will soon start running out on a COTS-like approach to close the gap — any new LV/capsule will take at least a few years to develop –a couple billion dollars or so would still be better spent on other vehicles if the objective really is to close the gap.”

    I just had the more-modest goal of reducing the gap in my pretend proposal, not eliminating it. What I had in mind was a way to reduce the gap more than Weldon’s idea of sending more money to Ares I/Orion. (Not that I think this COTS++ plan would be implemented – I just wanted to point out how wasteful it would be to throw more money at, of all things in the space industry, Ares I/Orion).

    If the COTS++ program I’m imagining got the full Ares I/Orion budget (pre and post Shuttle), a number of different competing approaches could be tried. The multi-player competition, and the strict COTS requirements to meet measurable technical and business milestones before funding levels are awarded, should sharpen the skills of the competitors. Looking at how big those Ares I/Orion figures you posted are, and adding the existing COTS funds and the pre-2010 Ares I/Orion budget, you’d have quite a space transportation effort. Add in significant “skin in the game” from the competitors and you might hope enough money would be there. Allow multiple competitors – a Shuttle-derived concept, an EELV concept, SpaceX, and 1 or 2 others (possibly 1 with existing Russian vehicles on U.S. launches to hedge bets) and you’d be trying everything under the sun, and giving every political constituency a shot. Note that in addition to the ISS human transportation gap, there’s also the potential of an ISS cargo gap that some of these could try to solve without even attempting human ISS transportation. They’d just be eligible for less money from NASA.

    The Florida voters shouldn’t oppose this because it gives multiple systems that would likely launch from there a shot. With commercial “skin in the game” on top of the NASA money, there would be more money flowing around making space industry voters happy for years. Note that the workers’ alternative is a single highly risky NASA program with a huge gap where the operations folks will be twiddling thumbs, or if the gap grows too much, fired.

    The big and little contractors should like it because the single NASA program is risky for them, too. They’d have to put up some money, but the payoff would be a space transportation system that can not only get ISS business, but would also, one would hope, be competitive in the current global commercial space launch business (comsats and the like), as well as potential future commercial business opportunities like Bigelow-destined or similar human transportation.

    I also suspect that this “free-for-all” would result in a space industry better-positioned for getting to the Moon, if that’s what’s decided next decade, in spite of the advertised ease of going from Ares I ISS transportation to the full ESAS system.

    “It’s fine to argue for more spending on any number of NASA programs. But Weldon needs a better policy argument than the Chinese paper tiger bogeyman.”

    I agree (and actually I agree with 98% of most of your posts). Even if he’s only concerned with the gap, there are better arguments. Having NASA pay for foreign space transportation services that can compete with U.S. space transportation services is one reason to shrink the gap. Ares I/Orion themselves are also a big argument to shrink the gap. With a big gap, and countless Shuttle workers needed for Ares 1/Orion, lots of people may be sitting around getting paid for a long time waiting for Ares 1/Orion, or Shuttle may be kept even longer (either scenario taking money from Ares 1/Orion in a viscious cycle).

    Anyway, any one of these, if developed to their full potential, strike me as being more useful than Ares I/Orion:

    http://www.hobbyspace.com/nucleus/index.php?itemid=4446

  • RichardB (and others) –

    forgive me, but I really have to pick on one thing you said.

    >>>At worst America will simply be humiliated during the hiatus of US manned flights starting in late 2010….

    There will be a hiatus of U.S. *government* crewed space vehicles between the last flight of the Shuttle and the first flight of Orion on Ares1.

    That is NOT the same thing as a hiatus in U.S. crewed flights. Either Dragon could fly, or SpaceDev’s HL-20-derivative, or t/Space’s CXV, or somebody’s capsule on an Atlas 5. There are a LOT of ways that Americans could fly to space on U.S. launch vehicles before 2015.

    And Ray lays out a good concept for how to make more of these happen sooner.

    – Jim

  • MarkWhittington

    Sorry the burst the bubbles of all the laughing boys, but power politics are the same in whatever era they’re played. One should not view the prospect of a Chinese dominated space frontier with any amount of levity. And just relying on the plucky, private sector alone will not suffice.

  • Christine

    With commercial “skin in the game” on top of the NASA money, there would be more money flowing around making space industry voters happy for years.

    Lockheed and others are still waiting for signs of that NASA money. Last I heard NASA was giving that money to the Russians.

  • ColdWater

    One should not view the prospect of a Chinese dominated space frontier with any amount of levity.

    As long as we maintain military superiority, I say more power to them! If they want to be fools and waste their money on flags and footprints, that means less money spent on other more threatening things.

  • Ray

    ” And just relying on the plucky, private sector alone will not suffice.”

    There are strengths and weaknesses in all of the parties (government, big contractors, little NewSpace companies), if your goal is reducing the ISS cargo and human transport gaps, or for that matter cheap reliable space access in general. I wouldn’t suggest just sitting back and waiting for the private sector if you have an ISS problem you need solved. It might, though, be better than Weldon’s plan to give the private sector a huge incentive to solve the problem(s), in the form of major COTS development funding as milestones (measurable matching funding and technical progress) are met. The prospect of lots of ISS business is of course another incentive. If a competitor (and it doesn’t matter if they’re Shuttle-derived, Falcon/Dragon, EELV, or some other technical solution, nor does it matter if they’re a big contractor, NewSpace, or a team with a mix of both) can solve these NASA problems while setting themselves up for other business in the process (whether it’s launching comsats or running rocket theme parks – it doesn’t matter), all the better.

    With good business incentives, I’d expect the private sector to be able to solve the problem if it can be solved at all. They’re already doing a lot of the space transportation work (much of it through traditional aerospace government contracts).

    The tricky part is convincing those that benefit from the current system, and do hard work within it, that they also have more to gain (and contribute) with a change.

  • Jim – I like your ideas on LV investment. Very interesting and logical.

    And as far as the Chinese, I still firmly believe that a cooperative arrangement should be pursued in terms of our civil space efforts. And as for China sending people to the Moon, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. Socialist chest-pounding is nothing new. One would think the experience of the Cold War would have taught us at least that much. In any case, I am much more concerned about the paltry product safety inspections taking place for Chinese-manufactured goods.

  • And as far as the Chinese, I still firmly believe that a cooperative arrangement should be pursued in terms of our civil space efforts.

    That’s the surest way to hobble their program! Get them involved in ISS and then just watch the paralysis slowly take hold… :-)

    Socialist chest-pounding is nothing new.

    Be careful about the name calling – the Chinese of the 21st century are much more savvy capitalists than we appear to be in the US – and much smarter about managing their transition from Communism of old to Free market economy. They watched the Soviet implosion and decided that managed transition was a better way than unmanaged chaos. Of course, now that Russia seems to have finished their implosion, the new Russia 2.0 is a much more dangerous, and aggressive beast, than Russia under Yeltsin (good article in last week’s Economist on that which I highly suggest you all read).

    I am much more concerned about the paltry product safety inspections taking place for Chinese-manufactured goods.

    I’m more concerned about our own lack of basic regulatory oversight on our meat plants, vegetable processing, and drug regulation than a few toys with lead based paints coming out of china….

  • Monte Davis

    One should not view the prospect of a Chinese dominated space frontier with any amount of levity.

    Unless you can give specific examples of what such “dominance” might consist of — and technically, politically plausible scenarios for how they might be achieved — I’ll keep chuckling.

    The “high ground” hysteria of late 1957 was — or should have been — effectively shot down by the Killian Committee’s pamphlet five months later:“Introduction to Outer Space

    It remains for the most part earthbound, no matter how much anyone chants “Red Menace Yellow Peril go zoom.”

  • andar909

    hi, andar here, i just read your post. i like very much. agree to you, sir.

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