NASA in Obama’s Hands

Obama at Kennedy Space Center

Assuming office, Obama faced a huge pile of problems inherited from the Bush administration in all departments. For NASA, what he inherited was a department that had been working on a grand program, called Constellation, which had the goal of reaching the moon. The problem was, the first parts of the program were originally scheduled to enter into service in 2009, but there were no signs of that happening. Critical systems were years late, victims of continuing redesigns and performance shortfalls. Money was spent on tests for pieces which had already been canceled years earlier. In addition, the tooling to keep the Space Shuttle flying had been dismantled in anticipation of Constellation.

So, facing this mess, Obama ordered a grand accounting and a commission to find out exactly what had happened. Headed by former Lockheed executive Norm Augustine, this commission studied the problems of Constellation. A year later, he gave his report.

What the commission discovered was that the whole of Constellation had never finalized on a single design for its various components, and as a result, the continuing re-designs had caused the budget and timetable to both inflate. The original schedule had the first components of the program, the Orion crew capsule and Ares I rocket, both entering service by 2009. Augustine had found instead that while Orion was only slightly delayed, the Ares I rocket was years late, and would not enter service before 2017. Its companion rocket, the Ares V, was even further behind, and rather than entering service by 2016 as originally scheduled it would not be ready before 2025. The Altair lunar lander had been all but canceled already, with only a few systems even tested and shelved. This was unacceptable.

Faced with this problem, $10 billion sunk into a program which had not even reached the Preliminary Design Review stage required before construction could begin, Obama’s appointment to the NASA Administrator position, former Astronaut and Marine General Charlie Bolden, took the hard step of forcing the issue with Congress, canceling all of Constellation, but not the original Vision for Space Exploration. Instead of a huge NASA dominated program, Bolden put forth a partnership proposal, using commercial operators for crew access to the International Space Station and an eventual Heavy Lift Vehicle. Orion was kept on, but without a certain future as it was too heavy for commercial launch vehicles to operate. And without Congressional approval, NASA could not spend money developing the heavy launch vehicle needed. In addition Bolden imposed new budgeting rules, that any NASA budgets would be targeted to what he termed 70, that it had a 70% probability of being on or under budget. Previously, NASA had worked on a 50% rule, that budgets had to have a 50% chance of coming in under budget, with the issue that if any program was delayed, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the administrative costs would cause huge cost overruns even when budgeted correctly.

Commercial Crew Development

Commercial Crew being developed: SpaceX’s DragonRider, Blue Origin, Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser

Congress reacted almost immediately. Constellation had been funneling huge funds into key states, and the senators from those states were upset at the outright cancellation. Their response was to put down a new list of requirements, which they called the Space Launch System. They required the immediate development of a heavy launch vehicle, larger than the Saturn V which had taken astronauts to the moon. More importantly, they allocated funding to the Space Launch System, alongside demands that NASA develop it on a set budget, within a set timetable. This gave Bolden what he needed to avoid the mistakes made by Constellation. He had organization committees put together, the Requirements Analysis Cycle. Instead of a top-down approach where NASA designed the rocket, NASA had various contractors submit proposals into each of the three RAC committees. Then each of the proposals was studied, weighed against each other, before the final selection process was done. At the end, the final launch vehicle was further developed than the previous heavy launch design, the Ares V, due to this selection process. In addition, at the same time an Independent Cost Assessment worked in parallel, to make sure that any solution would stay on budget. Once the RAC studies were concluded and the final design chosen, it was discovered that this new launch vehicle would be able to enter service by 2017, a full 8 years sooner than Ares V was going to enter service according to the Augustine Commission. Less than two years later, the first pieces of this launch vehicle are being built and preparations for the test cycle are underway.

RAC Studied Designs

Designs studied by NASA

With the plan in place, so began the bid submissions for Crew operations. An initial group of a dozen entries have been narrowed down to four, including two which had their roots in old NASA programs cancelled years prior. In addition, two more auxiliary entries were listed, without funding, as backup should none of the others fulfill their contracts. By being milestone funded, NASA only had to pay for results, rather than the cost overruns and schedule delays from older programs.

Then they turned to the other developed components from Constellation to see if they can be reused. The Lunar Electric Rover became the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle. The Orion capsule, now having a heavy lift vehicle capable of making use of it, was fast- tracked for development, and will be having its first unmanned test flight next year. Here is a simulation of the mission:

The lunar lander Altar was little more than an engine, with none of the required systems to make use of it. To solve this, a program, titled Project M, was started. It was an ambitious program to develop a lunar lander capable of delivering a remote-controlled robot, called Robonaut to the lunar surface within 1000 days. Robonaut development had begun under the Clinton administration, so what was needed was a lander. So began Morpheus, a technology demonstrator for a lunar lander. It was designed so that its control systems and software would work with the already developed engine and pieces, but also to be a standalone lander. Within a year, the first subscale test unit was flown, and within two years, the final iteration, a full-sized space capable unit had performed its first tethered flight.


The Morpheus Lander

But even then, NASA is still seeking ways to better utilize the components they have. Now they are studying the option of sending the Orion capsule with MMSEV to a near earth Asteroid, as such a mission would not require a lander. Right now, they are performing a simulation of this mission off the coast of Florida using an underwater environment for the test as part of the NEEMO mission. They are also studying the potential to use the International Space Station as an orbital assembly facility, a kind of orbiting shipyard, to build the kind of craft to explore our solar system with missions to Venus or Mars.

Within three years, Obama’s selected Administrator had taken a department suffering from budget issues, from schedule failure, and without any hope of managing to deliver its required mission, and turned it into a department now running ahead of schedule, within its budget and with a solid chance to reach the ambitious goals set forth. By turning over crew access development to commercial operations, while retaining the crew systems for beyond earth orbit, NASA could focus its development energies without compromise which has plagued the previous program.

But all of this comes to another point, they will not be delivered before the end of Obama’s second administration should he be re-elected. One of the common claims is that Obama has no clearly defined mission. By not having a mission, but developing the components for a mission, Obama does not risk the common result for Presidential missions, the cancellation upon administration change. Checking through history, the majority of missions end upon an administration’s termination. The new administrator wants to put their stamp onto the programs, so the old programs go into the dust bin. By having components for a program, but not a clearly defined program, Obama is leaving the stamping up to future Presidents, to their NASA administrators. And this is the brilliance of the Obama non-plan, it ensures that mankind will continue to explore further into space, and that those which do explore shall be wearing patches sporting the flag of the United States of America.