Monday, July 26, 2010

Politicizing Everything

The July 12, 2010 letter from five of the members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to Senator Barbara Mikulski is a piece of political, not scientific work, and can only be seen as an attempt to offer a fig leaf to an otherwise naked policy. I do not believe these five people just spontaneously decided to write this letter without being solicited to do so. First, it is a letter from only five of the thirteen CAIB members. Second, those members are claiming to speak on behalf of the CAIB:
"We would be glad to answer any questions that you or other members of Congress may have concerning the CAIB report and its application to today’s space policy issues."

Third, one of the five authors, Shelia Widnall was a Democrat political appointee, and three others, Steven Wallace, Douglas Osheroff, and John Logsdon were all Obama campaign contributors. Without knowing the opinions of the other eight members of the CAIB, these are just the opinions of individuals, and more accurately, potentially biased individuals. Fourth, the letter misrepresents some of the conclusions of the CAIB, specifically the following:
"The design of the system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria, such as low cost and reusability, or against advanced space operation capabilities other than crew transfer."
"This conclusion implies that whatever design NASA chooses should become the primary means for taking people to and from the International Space Station, not just a complement to the Space Shuttle. And it follows from the same conclusion that there is urgency in choosing that design, after serious review of a "concept of operations" for human space flight, and bringing it into operation as soon as possible. This is likely to require a significant commitment of resources over the next several years. The nation must not shy from making that commitment."

Abandoning Ares I and Orion is being done for cost reasons, not for safety reasons. The primary means of taking people to the ISS will be the Russian Soyuz. Abandoning Ares I and Orion abandons urgency and does not bring a system into operation as soon as possible. It specifically abandons the significant commitment of resources over the next several years. It is shying away from the needed commitment.

Furthermore, the letter misrepresents the Ares I when it compares it to current EELV boosters. The first stage of the Ares I is based on the man-rated Space Shuttle SRB, of which 262 have flown successfully, a fact which escapes the "CAIB Five", because it makes the 34 EELV launches pale in comparison. The J-2X Ares I upper stage engine is based on the man-rated J-2 engine which had a 96% success rate, and despite a handful of engine failures, it had a 100% mission success record.

The Orion spacecraft is a simply scale up of the Apollo Command Module spacecraft. Scaling up an existing design is a proven cost and risk mitigation strategy, and was the same strategy used to develop the highly successful Gemini spacecraft. The Gemini capsule was based on an enlarged Mercury capsule, which allowed engineers to focus on the advanced features of Gemini rather than the capsule itself. This is no different from Orion. Much of the original aerodynamic work done on the Apollo Command Module still applies, so it means a safer, quicker, less costly solution.

Additionally the CAIB noted:
"It is the view of the Board that the previous attempts to develop a replacement vehicle for the aging Shuttle represent a failure of national leadership. The cause of the failure was continuing to expect major technological advances in that vehicle."

Ares I / Orion, by leveraging existing boosters, engines, and spacecraft designs, avoids the expectation of technological advances. Even the decision to move to a splashdown water landing was done to reduce risk and cost.
"With the amount of risk inherent in the Space Shuttle, the first step should be to reach an agreement that the overriding mission of the replacement system is to move humans safely and reliably into and out of Earth orbit. To demand more would be to fall into the same trap as all previous, unsuccessful, efforts."

While the Constellation project encompassed more than simply transporting astronauts to orbit, the Ares I / Orion system was focused only on this. The only additional demand was that a future uprated version of Orion, carrying four astronauts rather than six astronauts, be capable of flying to lunar orbit, be parked unmanned in orbit, and later return to Earth. Most of these capabilities would impact Orion's service module, not the manned capsule.
"Continued U.S. leadership in space is an important national objective. That leadership depends on a willingness to pay the costs of achieving it."

It is clear President Obama does not have the will desired by the CAIB, and Obama's decision represents another failure of national leadership. It also seems the "CAIB Five" no longer agree with the importance of U.S. leadership in space. This letter can only be seen as a dissent from Chapter 9 of the original CAIB report. The authors should be vigorously challenged not only on their statements in this letter, but also on their support of the original CAIB report's conclusions.