Augustine Panel Review Comes at a Critical Time

NASA's Ares I rocket lifts off in this artist's conception. (Credit: NASA)
NASA's Ares I rocket lifts off in this artist's conception. (Credit: NASA)

Speaking at a Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership round table on Saturday, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin expressed concern about the Obama Administration’s decision to review the space agency’s Constellation lunar program:

Griffin said that NASA does not need the type of review that the Obama administration is proposing, but if it is to occur, he hopes that it convinces the administration to support the manned space program.

“A review that once again asks the question, ‘Are the goal posts in the right place? Should we go to the Moon? Should we go to Mars? Should we visit the near-Earth asteroids?’ – scrambling that mix again, I think, will not be productive,” Griffin said. “The goals have to remain in place for longer than a presidential administration or a session of Congress if you are to get anything out of the space program.”

A reasonable enough concern. One hopes the Augustine panel keeps our nation focused on getting humans out of LEO. However, Griffin ducks the actual issue that the Obama Administration and Norm Augustine’s blue ribbon panel is grappling with: the state of NASA’s new Ares I rocket.

In implementing George W. Bush’s call to return humans to the moon, NASA  needs to build two rockets. One is for orbital operations (to replace the space shuttle), the other is a heavy-lift launcher to send humans and cargo to the moon. The space agency had three main options:

  • Build two new rockets from scratch
  • Adapt an existing expendable booster (Atlas V or Delta IV) for orbital operations and build a separate lunar rocket
  • Adapt existing shuttle hardware to the task.

Griffin and his deputy, Scott Horowitz, chose the third option, arguing that it would be faster and cheaper to adapt the existing hardware than to start from scratch. They also argued that the Atlas V and Delta IV would be difficult and expensive to “human rate” for astronaut use.

It sounded easy enough, but they soon ran into problems. The SRB was not designed for independent flight; modifying it was costly. It was also underpowered, so engineers had to do two things: add a fifth segment to the SRB core, and build an enormous second stage to make up for the underpowered first one.

These changes drove up costs sharply ($44 billion and rising), negated the main reason for using the SRBs (commonality with shuttle hardware), caused a raft of technical problems (such as severe vibrations that threaten to shake the astronauts apart), and forced NASA to reduce crew size of the Orion capsule from 6 to 4. The U.S. is looking at a 5-7 year gap in flights between the retirement of the space shuttle next year and the first human Orion mission.

There had always been a lot of grumbling behind the scenes about Griffin’s decision. A sizable contingent felt that the NASA administrator had overestimated the problems of converting either the Atlas V or Delta IV for human use. Their arguments are:

  • The development of these vehicle has already been paid for by the Air Force
  • Modifying them would be challenging but doable
  • The early astronauts flew on human-rated versions of ballistic missiles (Atlas and Titan), so there is a precedent for it
  • NASA could focus on the real pacing item, the larger moon rocket.

Some people believe that politics and jobs (in Alabama, Utah and elsewhere) played a major role in going with a shuttle-derived architecture.  There was an inability to stand up to political pressure to keep as many people employed as possible.

For the first few years of the program, these arguments were made mostly in private. However, as problems with Ares multiplied and costs soared, the criticism has become increasingly public. With the departure of both Bush and Griffin, there is now a willingness to do a full review of the program.

The Aerospace Corporation recently completed a review looking at Ares and the expendable rocket fleet. The conclusions have not been made public yet, but the study raised serious enough questions about NASA’s current direction to require a more detailed investigation by Augustine’s panel.

Griffin continues to vigorously defend his Constellation architecture. The blue ribbon panel may uphold his decision. Or it could conclude that NASA has been on the wrong path all along. Whether this would mean continuing onto the moon with a different mission architecture, or not going to the moon at all, remains to be seen.

Whatever happens, it will likely be some time before we know whether Griffin will be vindicated for the choices that he and his team made. One thing is for certain: the future of America in space hangs in the balance. The next few months will be decisive ones.