Congress, NASA

Ares/Orion hearing next week

The space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee has announced a hearing for next Tuesday, October 23, on “Status of the NASA Crew Exploration Vehicle and Crew Launch Vehicle Programs”. The two witnesses currently scheduled to testify are:

  • Dr. Richard J. Gilbrech, Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, NASA
  • Ms. Cristina T. Chaplain, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office

It’ll be interesting (to say the least) to find out what the GAO has to say on the Ares 1 and Orion programs.

25 comments to Ares/Orion hearing next week

  • Gee I wonder what this is all about?

    Keith any ideas?

  • anonymous.space

    Based on the job title of the GAO witness and based on GAO’s one report to date on Constellation, I would not expect any revelations regarding Ares I/Orion’s technical and schedule/budget problems. GAO has only shown interest in probing and criticizing Constellation’s procurement approach, and NASA generally complied with the GAO’s recommendations in this area. Although it’s possible there might be a surprise from the GAO witness, GAO also mostly lacks the technical expertise necessary to penetrate such a program’s mass and schedule issues.

    FWIW…

  • Keith Cowing

    “Gee I wonder what this is all about? Keith any ideas?”

    Standard hearing per anonymous.space. Sorry, they’re not going to proclaim you to be NASA’s savior.

  • Bob

    I have to agree with the previous observations. GAO doesn’t have some hidden repository of expertise on these issues and would never attempt to override NASA’s judgment on selection of boosters, spacecraft design, etc. — even if they think NASA made the wrong choices. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply doesn’t know the kind of ultra-cautious and circumspect people who make up the GAO staff and administrators.

    Additionally, don’t look for Congress, at least the members of the House Science Committee, to come to that hearing to dispute the technical judgment of NASA Administrators. Member of Congress and their staff — even members and staff of the oversight committees — consist overwhelmingly of generalists. Very, very few have any serious technical or scientific background. The last thing these Members of Congress are going to do is go on record trying to force NASA to take a different approach to spacecraft or booster design or selection.

    If you want a change in the VSE architecture, you are going to have to wait for a new Presidential Administration and a new NASA Administrator.

  • MarkWhittington

    “If you want a change in the VSE architecture, you are going to have to wait for a new Presidential Administration and a new NASA Administrator.”

    By which time it will be too late, even if such a change were wise, which no one has actually proven yet.

  • Hopefully someone will ask for the current technical status of Ares I and Orion if for no other reason than to put the facts on the record. Not that this will stop the endless stream of criticsm of both projects from outsiders. Such criticsms do nothing except weaken the development of this vital infrastructure for future exploration.

  • jml

    Keith, Stephen – civil discourse only please. We’ll all respect you more if you keep the discussion on point, rather than on which of you is the smartererest.

    :-)

    Now, I’m not meaning to start a flame war, but….

    Would GAO (or OMB) care or even know about lower-cost and perhaps less risky alternatives to Ares I and V like, oh, say, Direct, or man-rated EELV’s? Or is that just something they’d leave completely up to NASA? Have staffers of the house members on this sub-committee read the DIRECT AIAA paper? Would they know about how NASA is essentially planning to use the left-over Kistler COTS money as seed money to get ULA to cover the 5-year gap between Shuttle and Ares I with EELV-launched ISS cargo resupply? Would these house members know about the jobs impact on their districts of Ares I/V vs Direct vs EELV? Or do I expect too much out of a sleepy little congressional subcomittee?

  • anonymous.space

    “‘If you want a change in the VSE architecture, you are going to have to wait for a new Presidential Administration and a new NASA Administrator.’”

    Most likely. Congress does not yet have the incentive to mandate change, and even if the Bush Administration was not into its lame duck phase, this is a pretty low priority for the White House given everything else that’s going on. And, although it will be interesting to see if Gilbrech turns the Constellation ship slightly in any new directions, there is obviously only a slim chance of major changes as long as Griffin remains Administrator.

    “By which time it will be too late”

    No, not by a long shot. It will depend on several factors.

    One is the goals set for NASA by the new White House.

    For example, if a new White House and/or NASA Administrator wants to retain the human lunar return goal and the lunar architecture remains as unreliable and unsafe as it currently is due to the performance/mass mismatch on Ares I/Orion, they will have little choice but to adopt a higher performing launch vehicle, or a less burdensome set of lunar CEV requirements, or a completely new lunar architecture altogether. Any of those changes is arguably a change to the lunar architecture.

    But if the new White House wants to defer a human lunar return in favor of other federal budget or NASA priorities (as the Clinton campaign has suggested), then Ares I/Orion is arguably technically satisfactory, if enormously expensive, for closing the ISS architecture. Even then, a new White House or NASA Administrator may decide to shift away from Ares I towards launch vehicle options that cost considerably less to develop and operate for ISS sustainment, especially in the absence of any cost-sharing with Ares V and lunar missions.

    Another factor is the type of competing architecture(s).

    Nearly all of the Ares I and Orion work is scheduled to be under contract by the end of this year. (Whether Gilbrech can or does stick to that schedule is another thing, but it’s the last known contracting schedule.) And the existence of those contracts makes EELV- and other non-STS-derived architectures harder to pursue, because they would involve contract terminations and the accompanying additional budgetary and political costs.

    But the existence of those contracts doesn’t much affect a new STS-derived architecture (as DIRECT proposes), because the content of those Ares contracts could be redirected to new goals. So certain architectures, especially STS-derived, could be adopted fairly late in the game with little budgetary or political pain. And no architecture in particular is off the table, especially if the political leadership is willing to expend the necessary capital and if the budgetary savings more than offset the costs of the contract terminations.

    Finally, there’s just the question of NASA budget and program execution between now and January 2009.

    If, for example, Presidential vetos cause the FY 2008 budget to devolve into another long series of flat-funded continuing resolutions, then we may be looking at additional budget-driven schedule delays imposing a six- or seven-year gap in the post-STS U.S. civil human space flight gap. That may be unacceptable to a new White House or NASA Administrator and they may seek lower cost solutions that can become operational more quickly.

    Or, for example, if Ares I/Orion continue to suffer design-driven schedule delays (as is currently happening) or experience technical setbacks (e.g., the 4-segment boilerplate test goes poorly) then a new White House or NASA Administrator may also be seeking alternatives.

    The bottom line is that there are still a lot of variables at play, too many to make any safe predictions on what architecture a new White House and NASA Administrator will adopt.

    Personally, the only bet that I would put at more than 50/50 at this point is that the next White House will either defer or cancel the human lunar return goal, based on the priorities and budget picture within both NASA and the federal government at large, based on NASA’s performance on Constellation to date, and based on the one Presidential campaign (Clinton) to go into any detail on its plans for NASA. I hope that doesn’t come to pass, but all the indicators have been pointing in that direction for a while and are blinking even more brightly now.

    “Hopefully someone will ask for the current technical status of Ares I and Orion if for no other reason than to put the facts on the record.”

    Not that he caused the problem, but it would be very interesting for Gilbrech to explain (or be asked) why Orion is undergoing a zero base review almost three years into the program? Or why NASA is having to consider options for Orion (zero and single string redundancy, water-only landings, no radiation protection) that have rather dramatic impacts on lunar LOM and LOC numbers?

    To put it bluntly, is NASA still serious about returning astronauts to the Moon with a reasonable chance of mission success and crew safety? Or is NASA willing to sacrifice that goal in order to build Ares I/Orion?

    “Would GAO (or OMB) care or even know about lower-cost and perhaps less risky alternatives to Ares I and V like, oh, say, Direct, or man-rated EELV’s?”

    OMB (and other White House) staff should and probably do care, but there’s arguably not much that they can do besides raise the issue and direct NASA to undertake studies, at least not until their White House political masters engage enough to do battle with the NASA Administrator. And again, that probably won’t happen until after the election, when they have new political masters. But it would behoove OMB and other White House professional staff to set aside the outyear Constellation budget pending future decisions and have NASA undertake an independent (e.g., Aerospace Corp.) study on Ares I/Orion viability and alternatives. They’re going to need this just to be adequately prepared for questions from the new White House.

    GAO has been more interested in procurement than costs and alternatives. Although I personally appreciate that GAO prevented NASA from making a stupid procurement oversight that would have forced the agency to overcommit on the Orion contract, GAO has an institutional fetish for procedure over substance. While important, the implications of different procurement approaches are dwarfed by the implications of the performance/mass issues on Ares I/Orion.

    “Would these house members know about the jobs impact on their districts of Ares I/V vs Direct vs EELV? Or do I expect too much out of a sleepy little congressional subcomittee?”

    Like OMB and White House staff, Congressional staff, especially committee staff, should also care about more than jobs in their boss’s states and districts. Getting them to pay attention to issues outside their political masters’ parochial boxes can be difficult. But it’s not impossible, especially with the right staffers and especially if very wasteful or scandalous spending is involved. Again, at a minimum, among the dozens of Congressional staff that oversee NASA, someone should be directing NASA to undertake an independent (e.g., Aerospace Corp.) review of Ares I/Orion viability and alternatives in parallel with ongoing Constellation work.

    “Would they know about how NASA is essentially planning to use the left-over Kistler COTS money as seed money to get ULA to cover the 5-year gap between Shuttle and Ares I with EELV-launched ISS cargo resupply?”

    In NASA’s defense, Griffin has committed to an open COTS recompetition. So we don’t know what proposals, EELV or otherwise, are going to come out on top. Logically, though, given the limited timeframe left, the competition will emphasize schedule and proposals that leverage existing boosters (like EELV) and hardware will do better under such criteria.

    My 2 cents is that an EELV winner in COTS is not necessarily a bad thing. One, NASA pursuing an EELV option for ISS resupply makes the argument for expensively duplicating EELV capabilities in Ares I that much harder. Two, one of the two original COTS picks arguably should have been a lower-cost, lower-risk, low-development (all of which point to EELV), maybe cargo-only option to help ensure that NASA got something useful out of a very limited investment and to help ensure that the procurement/business model got proven. (Of course, if NASA/Griffin had been serious and realistic about COTS, they would have put 3-4 times as much money into the program to begin with based on USAF EELV development experience, but that’s another thread.)

    FWIW…

  • jml

    Not wanting to risk a flame war either there is more going on behind the scenes internal to NASA and by our elected representatives than some may know or be unwilling to make public. At this point you could place me more in the unwilling than the unknowing category. I’ll let everyone else speak for themselves where in that spectrum they fall.

    I also agree that our representatives are and should be focused on politics and budget. What our representatives want from NASA is a technical solution that works while meeting their political/budgetary objectives. In fact if given the choice they would place their political/budgetary objectives ahead of any technical feasibility concerns they may have as long as NASA officially said they can do it. NASA correctly has the key responsibility of making sure that the approaches they put forward officially to the politicians are actually technically feasible within the budget they are given over the time frame they have committed to.

    If NASA said using synchronized fleas glued to the side of Winnebago would work from a technical perspective, while still fulfilling all the political/budgetary objectives, that plan would be approved our elected representatives. To the extent that our elected representatives bring in technical experts outside of NASA to review the technical feasibility of the NASA plans would be a good fiduciary thing to do but I really don’t think that has happened or we wouldn’t be in the technical mess we are in. The technical problems identified by AIAA Space 2007 paper in the current VSE plan are obvious to any engineer removed from any non-technical influences.

    At this point in time, a significant number of individuals that can influence this watershed decision are aware of our most recent AIAA paper. Even more individuals are in process as well. What our elected representatives collectively choose to do with this knowledge is ultimately up to them and will vary from person to person based on a complex interaction of apathy/interest, bias/openness, engineering knowledge, and political astuteness. Those with a high level of interest, openness to alternate ideas, good engineering knowledge, and political experience are definitely in the DIRECT camp at this point. My only hope is that those without engineering knowledge but good measure of the other three skills will seek out an independent engineering authority they will trust to help fill in the gap.

    Also CBO took a pass on the whole EELV vs. STS derived approach in their report last year. From this historical perspective mixed with the highly politically charged NASA workforce issues our debate should be focused on what is the ‘best’ STS derived approach all things considered. But that is thinking rationally and there is certainly a strong irrational component involved if the current NASA management were to ultimately adopt in any significant way any idea put forward by the DIRECT team.

    At this point the corner that NASA is in is defined by either staying the course even if it is not technically feasible, switching to something like DIRECT, or taking a second run at our representatives with a plan that will shut down NASA as we know it in order to free up the contractor budget needed for the all EELV plan.

    The first option is very tempting for many at NASA because minus an independent technical review initiated by our representatives, NASA can just continue on their present course right over the cliff. As long as they keep telling our representatives year after year that everything is just fine I don’t see much in the way organizationally or procedurally to force a change in coarse. By the time the serious problems actually materialize at the launch pad it will be too late and the people central to setting this plan in motion in the first place will be long gone. The only thing preventing this future is that there are still more than a few people at NASA that really do want to go to the Moon, Mars and Beyond and will also be among those replacing the ones that will retire and ultimately inherent this mess. The second option, i.e. adopt something along the lines of DIRECT, is problematic from the an ego perspective based on statements already made about us far and wide to people like Keith. The third option (all EELV) will send the current crew in charge into an early retirement.

    As always Dr. Mike Griffin is very good at framing the problems and solutions in a concise and logical way which is why he was so extensively quoted in the AIAA paper.

    -Dr. Michael D. Griffin, NASA Administrator July 16, 2007 (Heinlein Centennial)
    “Almost anybody, through public media or private correspondence or attendance at conferences or writing research papers or engineering papers, almost everyone who knows enough to be entitled to hold an opinion has an opportunity to make their case in a public forum. Good ideas, in the long run, sell themselves. So, I don’t agree that the paradigm at NASA is “not invented here ….”

    I hope Dr Griffin is right and that the good ideas can ultimately sell themselves thru whatever the NIH factor exists with enough time and budget remaining to implement it.

    http://www.directlauncher.com/

  • anonymous.space as always right on the money.

    I would suggest that the Jupiter-120 (Ares-II) at least plays to the strength of the Pro-NASA Center members that make up these committees.

    It will be vary hard to defend a launch system (Ares-I) that is less capable and significantly more expensive than EELV to representatives outside of the NASA districts.

    The Jupiter-120 (Ares-II) provides 2x the lift capability and 5x the volume of the best ELV anywhere while forming the direct foundation for the Jupiter-232 (Ares-III) needed for a comparatively simple 2xHLV lunar architecture. We could also finish the ISS and launch all kinds new unmanned missions with the Jupiter-120 (Ares-II) until we get the go ahead and money need for the 2nd stage and manned lunar phase of the VSE.

  • Keith Cowing

    Stephen Metschan says “Not wanting to risk a flame war either there is more going on behind the scenes internal to NASA and by our elected representatives than some may know or be unwilling to make public.”

    Hate to break it to you but there is no underground movement here in Washington – especially on the Hill – or anywhere else that matters (inside NASA) – for your DIRECT concept to somehow be put in place of the current Ares I/V concept.

  • Americano

    Sorry to break it to you, Keith, but in the real world, where dollars per kilo count, there are three launch vehicle architectures which handily beat the Ares I for ISS service, two liquid powered EELVs, and a ground started SSME.

    You may now return to your unreal Marshall Washington world, where you will be not be returning to the moon, and you will be setting launch vehicle technology back yet another 25 years.

  • Keith Cowing

    Gee “Americano”. Do a little research before you dump on me for something I not only did not say – but indeed something I agree with you on – and have been saying for several years.

  • Kent Ethell

    “Member of Congress and their staff — even members and staff of the oversight committees — consist overwhelmingly of generalists.”

    This is not true. You can look up the backgrounds of congressional staffers on these committees. On the science and technology committee a number of them have Ph.D.s in science disciplines, or engineering backgrounds, plus they have a lot of experience. Are they going to be current in their fields? Obviously not, but they’re not inexperience or ignorant, as you imply.

  • Keith wrote: “Hate to break it to you but there is no underground movement here in Washington – especially on the Hill – or anywhere else that matters (inside NASA) – for your DIRECT concept to somehow be put in place of the current Ares I/V concept.”

    Keith on this issue you are just plain dead wrong. I think you need to cast the net higher for your sources. When is the last time you talked to anyone near Mike?

    Kent, from my experience I would agree with your assessment. Many congressional staffers are among the smartest, quick minded and politically astute people I know. In fact a lot of what I know and how I think is due in no small part to their influence.

  • Anonymous: My 2 cents is that an EELV winner in COTS is not necessarily a bad thing. One, NASA pursuing an EELV option for ISS resupply makes the argument for expensively duplicating EELV capabilities in Ares I that much harder. Two, one of the two original COTS picks arguably should have been a lower-cost, lower-risk, low-development (all of which point to EELV), maybe cargo-only option to help ensure that NASA got something useful out of a very limited investment and to help ensure that the procurement/business model got proven.

    I fully agree . . . and even when I don’t, your analysis is worth a lot more than two cents!

    An EELV-derived cargo solution would keep competitive pressure on SpaceX while also providing a commercial solution. If your goal is to jump start a commercial space cargo industry — rather than develop new technology — (which is my goal) than such a development is ideal. Once EELV and SpaceX (if they get that far) are competing for Space Station delivery, probably also with foreign solutions, there will be an incentive to reduce costs and develop new technology — and in that case the $500 million may prove to be enough.

    – Donald

  • Keith Cowing

    “Keith on this issue you are just plain dead wrong. I think you need to cast the net higher for your sources. When is the last time you talked to anyone near Mike?”

    Tee hee hee – the answer would get some people fired …

  • Keith, that makes perfect sense from my experience. Maybe that’s why they are giving you the party line right now. It’s hard to get fired by basically giving you the same information that is on the PAO reports with a dash of the DIRECT concept is DOA to increase the party loyalty level.

    I would suggest that maybe some information is so sensitive and tightly held that its very publication at NASA Watch would reveal its source, hence the problem you mentioned and the disconnect between us on our respective view of what is actually going on.

  • Keith Cowing

    Stephen you really have no idea what you are talking about. Indeed every time you go off on one of these conspiracy mongering rants you reduce the credibility of your “team” and your “concept” even further. But far be it for me to interrupt the entertainment.

    This is how Washington works: If people tell you that they are in a position to influence NASA and/or Griffin do, then they most certainly are not in such a position.

    The people who actually do have such capabilities never say such things.

    They don’t need to.

  • Keith, everytime you say that we have no influence and are technically not credible makes what is coming up that much sweeter. So I guess we have a win win.

    History will at least be able to use all these great quotes as an example of how far off everyone elses thinking was. At least their public positions anyway.

    And no I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, they take way to much competency and coordination to pull off. Ironically we wouldn’t have these problems if they had the necessary skills needed to pull off a “conspiracy” in the first place. What is going on is based largely on ego being projected thru bully tactics.

    Anyway there is not much more point in engaging you further, the reality of all of this will be evident soon enough.

    Peace, keep up the good work.

  • Keith Cowing

    “Keith, everytime you say that we have no influence and are technically not credible makes what is coming up that much sweeter. So I guess we have a win win.”

    Enjoy your delusions, Stephen.

  • [...] scheduled hearing about the status of the Ares 1 and Orion programs has been postponed, according to an updated scheduled circulated late Friday by the House Science [...]

  • D. Messier

    I can’t imagine that anyone wants to deal with the program’s deeper problems at this point. There only 15 months left in an adminstration that is legendary for denying problems and staying the course regardless of how much evidence piles up. Difficult to imagine either side wanting to get into that sort of fight with so many other important to handle.

    No, I imagine they’ll muddle along for the next 15 months and then the next president will have to sort out the mess. Probably in Spring 2009.

  • T. Parker

    I’m no technical expert on space technology but I can say that I’ve known Rick Gilbrech for almost 20 years, and he’s the real deal. What you see is what you get with him. When he was on the engineering safety program, he had to make some tough decisions. He made the decision to tell his honest opinion on NASA safety issues and what went wrong when Columbia was lost, possibly at the cost of contractors’ ire. He’s not a politician. He’s a scientist with a longtime love for the space program. I can assure you that he will do his best in this new position to make the Orion program sound, safe, and fiscally responsible no matter what pressure the political machine in Washington has to offer.

  • anonymous.space

    “He made the decision to tell his honest opinion on NASA safety issues and what went wrong when Columbia was lost, possibly at the cost of contractors’ ire.”

    I don’t know Gilbrech from Adam, but this doesn’t seem like much of a recommendation to me. Pointing out safety problems after losing a mission or crew is much easier than pointing them out before such a tragedy occurs. I also don’t understand why a NASA employee at any level would be worried about “contractors’ ire”.

    Not a knock against Gilbrech, but I’d argue that this “character testimony” (if you wil), at least as decribed, is not a point in Gilbrech’s favor, either.

    Personally, even not knowing the man, I have very high expectations for Gilbrech to fix of a lot of the mess his predecessor left behind. But even if he’s so inclined, I’m also very doubtful that Gilbrech will be allowed to take the necessary steps, given who his boss is.

    My 2 cents… FWIW…

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