In a luncheon speech Wednesday during the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, George Sowers, vice president for business development at United Launch Alliance, discussed what he said could be considered a “logical” approach for the near-term future of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “Once we agree on the goals, it becomes a lot easier to debate how to achieve those goals,” he said.
Taking as a starting point the statement from the Augustine Committee’s final report that the goal of the human spaceflight program is to chart a path for humanity’s expansion into the solar system, Sowers outlined four lower-level goals that derive from that ultimate goal “that I think we can also all agree on and that provide a good starting point to logically build a framework for a plan.” Those goals:
- Close the human spaceflight gap as quickly as possible
- Begin human exploration beyond LEO as quickly as possible (“we need to make schedule an overt goal,” he said, referring to the long delays in such missions in existing plans and proposals)
- Develop technologies and infrastructure that will enable long-term sustainability
- Fit within NASA’s budget, which he believes will likely be flat or even cut in the coming years as part of deficit reduction efforts.
On that last goal, Sowers said, “I am tired of hearing people in our community whine about not having enough money. $19 billion a year for NASA is a lot of money. And if we focus on the mission, instead of rice bowls and constituencies, I think it is more than enough.” That line triggered an impromptu round of applause from the audience.
He then followed with a few general suggestions on how to achieve those goals in the near term:
- Fully fund a commercial crew development program along with Orion, providing “two horses in the race” to close the gap. The two can coexist, he said, since they serve different markets, likening commercial crew efforts to regional jets and Orion to a long-range jumbo jet. Flying Orion early, he said, can be done by flying it on an existing vehicle, the Delta 4 Heavy. “I am continually amazed about how radical some people see that common-sense idea,” he said.
- Delta 4 Heavy and Orion can also be used for simple beyond LEO missions through the use of in-orbit refueling, which he called “the most important near-term technology for sustainability for the exploration program.” Testing this technology on the ground and space should be a priority, he said.
- On-orbit refueling and propellant depots also allow for a smaller HLV, he said, reducing overall costs. “A smaller, lower-cost heavy lift vehicle in a budget-constrained environment allows earlier and more frequent missions, which keeps the program sold,” he said. How small? He said an HLV that can place 70 to 80 metric tons in LEO is in the “sweet spot” since, combined with propellant depots, it can support exploration missions beyond LEO all the way to Mars.
On the last point, Sowers was asked what he thought of shuttle-derived HLV concepts. “I don’t have a negative opinion on shuttle-derived heavy lift,” he said, although he said he had some “skepticism” about it because of its potentially high fixed costs.