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Today's New York Times article about the luxury boom on China's Hainan island omits one very important aspect of the island's future -- its role as a space launch site for China's newest launch vehicle.
The newspaper focuses on Hainan as "a potent symbol of China's economic vitality" that is "viewed with a mix of awe, envy and disgust" by the Chinese, but nary a word is said about the launch site under construction for China's Long March 5 launch vehicle or its potential role in China's purported plans to send people to the Moon. Construction of the Hainan Space Launch Center recently began and is expected to be completed in 2013, with the first Long March 5 launch the following year. Hainan will be the southernmost of China's four launch sites, 19 degrees from the equator.
The Long March 5 is being designed to launch 25 tons into low Earth orbit, roughly equivalent to a Delta 4 heavy. Chinese media stories talk about its use for launching geostationary satellites, space stations, large satellites, and deep space probes. If China wanted to send people to the Moon as many in the West speculate, it is the most likely launch vehicle to support such a goal.
Hainan is a big island -- about the size of Belgium according to the New York Times. As Mr. Yin Liming of China Great Wall Industry Corp. said at the CSIS Global Space Development Summit last November, the Long March 5 is touted as being "non-toxic and pollution free," so the golfers and yachters should have nothing to worry about.
Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post has an interesting article this morning about the view of the new Obama plan for human space flight from the Kennedy Space Center perspective.
A SpacePolicyOnline.com summary of the March 24, 2010 hearing on NASA's exploration plans by the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee is now available. Find it under "Our Hearing Summaries" on the left menu or just click here.
With Congress in recess for two weeks, the schedule for space policy aficionados is definitely light. For the coming week, we have only two events, both on Tuesday and both in Washington, D.C. For more information, see our calendar on the left menu, or click the links below.
Tuesday, March 30
The Space Shuttle Discovery will launch on April 5 as planned according to NASA. The launch date was uncertain while NASA was troubleshooting a problem with a helium isolation valve in the Right Reaction Control System. Launch of the STS-131 mission is scheduled for 6:21 am EDT. The seven-person crew includes Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki. For more details, see NASA's space shuttle website.
What might seem a simple question may not have a simple answer. How much would Ares I cost per year and per flight?
That is one of the key questions arising from congressional hearings on President Obama's new plan for NASA. The President wants to cancel the entire Constellation program, of which Ares I is part. He proposes replacing Ares I as a launch vehicle for taking astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) with commercial alternatives in part because of anticipated cost savings. Thus, the cost of Ares I on an annual basis and per launch is a critical issue.
What little information is available in the public domain seems contradictory, although some of the confusion may be caused by exactly what is being counted in the total.
In testimony to the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on Tuesday, NASA Administrator Bolden said that the Ares I would cost $4-4.5 billion a year, and $1.6 billion per flight.
The Augustine Committee report states that "When it begins operations, the Ares I and Orion would be a very expensive system for crew transport to low Earth orbit. Program estimates are that it would have a recurring cost of nearly $1 billion per flight, even with the fixed infrastructure costs being carried by Ares V. The issue is that the Orion is a very capable vehicle for exploration, but it has far more capability than needed for a taxi to low Earth orbit." (page 90) So that estimate was not only for Ares I, but for the Orion crew capsule as well and seems more directed at Orion than Ares I. The report also said that Ares I would "cost $5-6 billion to develop assuming that all common costs are carried by the Ares V." (emphasis in original, page 90).
At yesterday's House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing, Doug Cooke, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, confirmed that an estimate Representative Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) said NASA provided last year - a marginal cost of $176 million per launch - was still a reasonable estimate.
Last November, NASA answered written questions from Congress about Ares I and Orion costs, a copy of which was obtained by SpacePolicyOnline.com. It explained that if there was only one Ares I/Orion flight in a given year, its cost would be $919 million. That figure represents both fixed costs ($781 million) and marginal costs ($138 million) for Ares I and Orion. That would be very close to the $1 billion cited by the Augustine Committee. However, for a second flight in the same year, the marginal cost would be $138 million, close to Representative Kosmas' number. A third flight in that year would be another $138 million, and so on. Thus, whether a particular flight costs $1 billion or $138 million depends on how many launches there are per year.
As for what is included in calculating the fixed cost of $781 million, NASA's answer stated that it "does not include costs associated with Ground Operations, Mission Operations, EVA and Program Integration elements, which are budgeted under their respective projects." Hence, Administrator Bolden's estimate of $1.6 billion per flight also could be correct if all costs are counted, but that cannot be determined from information currently available in the public domain.
The origin of the $4-4.5 billion annual cost for the Ares I program cited by Administrator Bolden remains unclear. The space shuttle program costs less than that - about $3 billion annually in recent years, although that again could be an issue of an apples to oranges comparison.
Considering how crucial these questions are, it can only be hoped that the Obama Administration will uphold its promise of transparency and make all of this information public, on an apples-to-apples basis, to enable a thoughtful debate over Ares I/Orion compared with commercial alternatives.
Just as everyone is wondering how much Ares I would cost, the same questions are being asked about commercial crew. The House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics released a letter from the Aerospace Corporation at yesterday's hearing expounding on Aerospace's role in assisting the Augustine Committee with its estimates of the cost for commercial crew capabilities.
The letter responds to questions posed by subcommittee chair Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). In the letter, Aerospace stresses that the Augustine Committee hired it to "provide technical analyses as directed" and "We acknowledge that the Committee received information not known to Aerospace." The 12-page response does not answer the question of how much commercial crew would cost, but illuminates the level of uncertainty.
The Augustine Committee report is often quoted as concluding that the cost to NASA of commercial crew would be about $5 billion. That figure is based on a $3 billion estimate by the committee of what it thought NASA would have to provide as an incentive to the private sector, but does not reflect the additional private capital that it expected to be provided by the companies themselves. Aerospace adjusted the committee's estimate upward to $5 billion by adding $400 million for a demonstrator flight and minor modifications to an existing launch vehicle and then applying "historical cost growth" as it did for other estimates for NASA developments, according to the letter. However, Aerospace was not asked to validate the committee's $3 billion figure, on which the higher estimate is based: "In fact, no verification could be performed given the Committee's statement that this dollar amount was simply NASA's portion of the total cost." Aerospace said that to its knowledge the $3 billion "did not include all ground support/infrastructure costs."
The upshot of the Aerospace letter is that although it has a reputation for providing solid, independent cost estimates, that was not its role in this case. The Augustine Committee was focused on macro-level questions, the letter says, and instructed Aerospace as to what analysis it wanted performed, which Aerospace completed on a compressed timeline. Aerospace representatives stressed that point repeatedly during public meetings of the Augustine committee: "...[O]ur only caveat was that these analyses were directed and developed to be used as guideposts for comparison among options. We do not claim them to be traditional independent analyses of all the elements of each program."
Cost is at the heart of the issue over the Ares I launch vehicle and its Orion spacecraft versus commercial crew. If anyone wants to have an informed debate about the profound questions being posed about the future of the human space flight program, then publicly available, credible estimates for both Ares I and commercial crew are a sine qua non.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday will be held tomorrow morning, Friday, March 26, at 9:00 am, instead. Witnesses include Gen. Kevin Chilton, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Robert Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Gen. Walter Sharp, Commander of United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command/U.S. Forces Korea. Room 216 Hart Senate Office Building.
At a House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee hearing today, A. Thomas Young, Lockheed Martin (retired), described the proposal to turn over crew transportation to low Earth orbit (LEO) a "colossal mistake" and said that "a commercial crew option should not be approved."
The hearing was called to discuss President Obama's proposed changes to NASA's exploration program, particularly the cancellation of the Constellation Program, which includes development of a new crew transportation system to replace the Space Shuttle for taking crews to LEO. That system would be comprised of the Ares I launch vehicle and the Orion spacecraft.
Mr. Young, an industry legend who often chairs blue ribbon studies on civil and national security space programs and the problems that bedevil them, said he believed that neither continuing to fly the Shuttle nor relying on the Russian Soyuz system for the duration of the "Shuttle-gap" provided a long-term solution. A U.S. indigenous human space flight capability is needed, and the Ares I/Orion is the program of choice in his view. Commercial crew, he stressed, is "not ready" and would mean decades without a U.S. capability to launch people into space.
Most members of the subcommittee were clearly in favor of continuing the Constellation program, but Representative Rohrabacher (R-CA) is strongly in favor of President Obama's decision to rely on commercial crew. Rep. Rohrabacher said he believed it would be better to "go with commercial" rather than continue to rely on a government agency. He made the analogy with the early railroad and airplane industries and said that turning LEO flights over to the commercial space sector at this juncture would put the country on "the verge of a huge step forward into space."
Mr. Young reiterated that he was "strongly against commercial crew," but that his issues were not with industry, but with the assumption that industry can succeed on its own: "industry is not constituted to carry out these things by itself." A more responsible path forward would be a government-industry partnership featuring the "integration of capabilities" that NASA and industry each possess, he added. He reviewed the problems experienced by the national security space sector in the 1990s when a management approach called Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR) was instituted where the government told its program managers to "back off" and let industry manage the programs. The result, he said, was a series of programs for which, on average, "we are getting half the program content for twice the cost, 6 years late." To be successful, one needs the "expertise of NASA and the implementation capability of industry," he stressed.
Doug Cooke, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, answered a bevy of questions about whether NASA is observing the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act that prohibits NASA from cancelling the Constellation program until Congress approves such action in a future appropriations act. He assured the subcommittee that NASA is not cancelling any contracts, although it is withdrawing requests for proposals for future work on the program. Subcommittee chair Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) stressed that Mr. Cooke was there to answer questions about NASA's new plan, but that he was not the architect of it.
A critical question that emerged from yesterday's hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and today's is what are the expected costs of the Ares I program. At yesterday's hearing, NASA Administrator Bolden said that he was told the annual cost of the program was $4-4.5 billion and a single launch was $1.6 billion. Today, Mr. Cooke said that the most recent estimate he had of the "marginal cost" of an Ares I flight was $176 million. To some extent the difference between $176 million and $1.6 billion per flight may be between the marginal cost (how much it would cost to add one more launch) versus the full cost of a mission (the annual cost of the program divided by the number of flights), but there is little information available in the public record as to the origin of those figures or the estimated $4-4.5 billion annual cost of the Ares I program cited by Gen. Bolden.
A SpacePolicyOnline.com summary of the hearing will be available soon. A webcast is available on the committee's website.
Responding to a letter from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), ranking member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, Norm Augustine clarified that canceling the Constellation program was not specifically one of the options his committee put forward last year. Mr. Augustine chaired a blue-ribbon committee established by NASA at the request of the White House to provide options for the human space flight program. The exchange of letters was made public by Rep. Wolf's office today.
Mr. Augustine stressed that his committee was asked to develop options, not recommendations, and that the President's proposal to cancel Constellation came closest the committee's option 5B.
"As to the second matter you posed, the program contained in the FY11 et seq. federal budget was not one of the specific options contained in our panel's report. It perhaps most closely approximates Option 5B; however, the difference in available funding, even though increased relative to the prior budget plan, obviously has to be considered. It could be argued that were one to decide to terminate the Ares I development (as is the case in Option 5B), and with the not unimportant exception of its impact on the Orion effort, that action is tantamount to canceling the entire Constellation program in its present form since work has barely begun on the Ares V and the Altair."
At the time the President's proposal to cancel Constellation was announced, the White House posted a letter from Mr. Augustine on the OSTP website that was similarly careful in its language, but was viewed by many as supporting the decision.
Events of Interest
- First Contact: Improbable Dream or Worst Nightmare? panel discussion at AwesomeCon, April 19, 2014, Washington Convention Center, 10:15-11:15 am ET
- Dystopian Science Fiction in Popular Culture panel discussion at AwesomeCon, April 19, 2014, Washington Convention Center, 11:15-12:15 pm ET
- What is "Science Fiction" panel discussion at AwesomeCon, April 19, 2014, Washington Convention Center, 1:30-2:30 pm ET
- Science Fiction As Inspiration for Space Careers panel discussion at AwesomeCon, April 19, 2014, Washington Convention Center, 2:45-4:00 pm ET
- SpaceX CRS-3 arrival at ISS, April 20, 2014, grapple 7:14 am ET (time is approximate)
- NASA Earth Day 2014 events, April 21-27, 2014, various locations nationwide and online
- Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit, April 22-24, 2014, George Washington University, Washington, DC
- B-612 Press Conference, April 22, 2014, Seattle Museum of Flight, Seatttle, WA, 11:30 am Pacific Time (2:30 pm ET) Will be livestreamed.
- Spacewalk to Replace Failed ISS Computer, April 23, 2014, Earth orbit, 8:55 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins at 8:00 am ET)
- NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, April 23, 2014, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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