NAC Hears About Lunar Orbit "Shakedown Cruise," Worries About Readiness for New Administration
NASA officials told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) that early plans for testing the Orion spacecraft and astronaut crews in cis-lunar space include a "shakedown" cruise where a crew would remain in lunar orbit for a year before an attempt is made to send people all the way to Mars. NAC expressed concern that NASA is not ready to convince a new presidential administration that it is ready to send people to Mars in the 2030s as NASA currently proclaims.
During its December 1-3, 2015 meeting at NASA's Johnson Space Center, NAC members received briefings from NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Bill Gerstenmaier and International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi about preliminary plans for NASA's human spaceflight program especially in the 2020s. Those include NASA's plans for transitioning off of the ISS in low Earth orbit (LEO) and Exploration Mission (EM) flights of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft beyond LEO. The first SLS/Orion mission, EM-1, is expected in 2018, but will not carry a crew. NASA recently officially stated that the first flight with a crew, EM-2, will come in 2023, although it says it is still working to an internal deadline of 2021, the prior estimate.
Gerstenmaier and his team created a concept for a three-phase program for the future of human spaceflight: "Earth Dependent" -- the current situation with ISS, which relies on frequent resupply missions from Earth; "Proving Ground" -- where crews gain experience in cutting ties with Earth in cis-lunar space (the area between the Earth and the Moon, including lunar orbit), close enough that they can get home in a few days rather than months, but not just a few hours as they can from ISS; and "Earth Independent" -- where crews can survive for longer periods of time without continuous resupply from Earth or real-time communications, such as when they are sent to Mars.
NAC has pressed NASA officials at its quarterly meetings on NASA's exact plans for achieving the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s as directed by President Obama. Much of that debate has centered on the difference between a "plan" and a "strategy," with some NAC members insisting that a strategy with at least some deadlines and objectives is needed to build public support. Gerstenmaier has assiduously declined to get into specifics, arguing that maximum flexibility is needed so the effort can respond to changing political and financial support as the years go by. He calls it the Evolvable Mars Campaign.
Technology development is fundamental to any effort to send people to Mars and one focus of the NAC meeting was whether NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has the right program with the necessary level of funding to ensure success. Congress routinely cuts the President's budget request for STMD, forcing it to pick and choose which technologies to develop.
After reviewing a technology risk/challenges matrix for sending people to Mars developed by STMD and comparing it to likely STMD funding, Bill Ballhaus, chair of NAC's Technology, Innovation and Engineering (TI&E) committee, reported that his committee does not think NASA is ready to make any commitments about when humans will reach Mars. Ballhaus is a former NASA center director, Lockheed Martin executive, and President of the Aerospace Corporation. He said it "probably doesn't make a lot of sense" to talk about going to Mars now from a technology standpoint. Instead, he thinks NASA should focus on the Proving Ground missions to generate "urgency" for investing in the technologies needed to get people to Mars.
NAC member Tom Young, also a former NASA center director and Lockheed Martin executive, expressed concern that focusing only on cis-lunar missions in the Proving Ground, rather than the longer term goal of Mars, would be a "death knell." Ballhaus replied that his committee's conclusion was "not the outcome we wanted." It wanted a plan from NASA/STMD that would "generate urgency for investing in technology programs," but that is not what it found. "This is where we are. We might as well face up to it," Ballhaus said.
During the three-day discussion, Young also expressed concern that NASA cannot afford to support the International Space Station (ISS) and a human exploration program beyond LEO simultaneously.
Gerstenmaier emphatically disagreed, asserting he can accomplish EM-2, -3 and -4 while still operating ISS under currently planned NASA budget levels. "I can do up to EM-4 at today's budget levels," he admonished the council.
To make the transition from Proving Ground to Earth Independent, Scimemi outlined NASA's current thoughts about the cadence of EM missions in the 2020s that would lead up to a year-long "shakedown" cruise in cis-lunar space before anyone embarks on a lengthy trip to Mars and back. Using today's chemical propulsion, it takes at least 6 months to reach Mars, another 6 months to return, and a set period of time, which varies, at Mars while the Earth and Mars become properly aligned for the return trip.
The shakedown cruise nominally would take place around 2029, Scimemi said. Such long duration missions will require a habitation module in addition to the Orion spacecraft and Scimemi revealed that NASA is doing trade studies on whether it is better to launch a single "monolithic" module intact or launch several smaller pieces that would be assembled in orbit. SLS could launch a 40-50 metric ton (MT) monolithic module on a single launch, or smaller 10 MT pieces when it is being used to launch other payloads, he explained.
Scimemi's overall presentation was focused on what comes next after the ISS in LEO. President Obama just signed a law that commits the United States to operating ISS until 2024 (Russia and Canada have agreed to this new schedule; Japan and Europe have not yet), but what happens after that is an open question. Some ISS advocates argue for operating at least until 2028, the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first modules, but few expect the facility to last beyond that. Scimemi called 2028 the "engineering date" for the end of ISS, but left no room for doubt that ultimately there will be an end. "Station will have an end date. Parts will come down in the South Pacific," he acknowledged. The key is for NASA and its partners to make "intelligent decisions" about how the transition to the future takes place.
What's next, then? Gerstenmaier underscored that NASA is "moving out" of LEO and it is up to the private sector to fund, launch, and operate future LEO infrastructure. He has been saying in many venues over the past year or more that he does not expect any expensive ISS-like facility, but single purpose stations, like a Dragon or Cygnus capsule or a Bigelow expandable module, to meet needs defined by non-NASA users. He noted at the NAC meeting that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is reaching out to the Department of Commerce to figure out how to incentivize the private sector in this area: "This agency [NASA] is not about economic development. They are."
NAC member and former astronaut Ken Bowersox argued that NASA will continue to need access to LEO if for no other reason than to allow astronauts some experience before they sign on to longer duration missions. Several NAC members were skeptical about the commercial potential, too. They agreed NASA should encourage the private sector, but not rely on it to build future LEO facilities.
All in all, NAC members seemed uneasy about NASA's strategy for getting people to Mars and how it is communicating with the public and political stakeholders. The latter is particularly important, as Young pointed out, with an election less than a year away. "I think we are ill prepared for the debate the next administration will want," he warned. "We are on a path that maximizes the probability of losing. If someone asked me what's the plan to get to Mars, I'd say there isn't one." He pointed out that one of the major factors that doomed the Constellation program begun under the George W. Bush Administration was that it did not win support by the new Obama Administration in its first budget request, initiating the Augustine Committee review instead.
NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agreed that Young "hit on a critical point" and a technology investment plan, including the shakedown cruise by 2029, is needed before a new administration writes its first budget.
In the end, NAC agreed on one recommendation and one finding, subject to further editing by Squyres and NAC staff, as follows:
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