Extra NASA funds: An initial step towards gap reduction options/extension

by Chris Bergin

US lawmakers have agreed on a stimulus package that includes just over $1 billion in additional funds for NASA, to be utilized during 2009 and 2010. While the $400m allocated towards “Exploration” is not specifically earmarked for extension of the shuttle program, it could allow NASA to take the first steps in reducing “The Gap” between Shuttle and its eventual replacement.

NASA managers have been looking into the possibility of reducing the gap between the last shuttle flight, currently STS-133 in mid 2010 – with STS-134 not yet officially baselined – and the first manned flight of Ares I, carrying Orion 2 on the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) NET (No Earlier Than) March, 2015.

Acceleration studies have been taking place, but due to shortfall/overspend of funds available to Constellation – restricted yet further by expenditure on problem solving, such as Thrust Oscillation – any get-wells on the timeline have been related to the culling of a number of tests on hardware elements such as the Upper Stage.

Currently, Orion’s first crew rotation role with the International Space Station (ISS), know as Full Operational Capability (FOC), remains manifested as Orion 4, in 2016.

Funding shortages are also likely to delay Ares I-X’s test flight from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from July to as late as October of this year. It would likely take an injection of a few billion dollars to advance the whole Constellation program by around a year.

From the shuttle side, extending the program past 2010, by three flights, two years (five flights minimum) or even five years, would also cost billions. However, with the shuttle deemed as a “working system”, this option is understood to have wider support, notably at the political level.

Pre-empting the possibility of extending the shuttle program, the US Senate passed a new NASA Authorization Bill that outlined the ambitions of the space program, from taking “all necessary steps” to add STS-134’s mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the ISS, to working options for shuttle extensions.

The Bill also directed NASA to terminate or suspend (until April 30, 2009) any activities that would preclude flying the Shuttle after FY 2010. Extension studies have been more or less completed, with a White Paper outlining several options and costs by shuttle contractors already sent to NASA HQ.

Work behind the scenes, by way of discussions, are taking place on the roadmap for reducing the gap, mainly via talks with the NASA Advisory Council.

“At the NASA Advisory Council was held at KSC, with topics similar to those presented at the FRR (Flight Readiness Review) were discussed, along with updates on Soyuz issues,” noted one memo on L2 this month. “Other topics presented concerned commercial resupply services, the possibility of shuttle extension, and the Constellation Program acceleration.”

Discussions with Advisory Council range from extending the shuttle, to accelerating the Constellation manifest, although no firm decisions are expected anytime soon.

“(Shuttle Manager) Mr. (John) Shannon talked to the NASA Advisory Council last week after the FRR. That was a very good discussion. They are waiting, just like us, for a new administrator,” added another L2 acquired note on February 9. “They had a lot of really good comments about how NASA does its budget.

“They collected some data for us on the Cx Acceleration plans. We talked a little bit about Shuttle Extension regarding our assets and what could be done. They will fold all of that into some recommendations. Don’t expect anything near term on that.”

A final report on extension options was due 120 days after enactment of the law (NASA Authorization Bill), or on February 15. However, lawmakers have asked NASA to hold off on delivery of the report until the new Obama Administration can evaluate and make inputs – since it currently reflects the conclusions of the previous leadership. Bush/Griffin NASA leadership, which of course was rigidly “stay-the-course.” We’re looking at a mid-March delivery date at this stage.

A delivery date of mid-March is now expected, with the goal of working out a roadmap for the physical purchasing of assets that would allow for the extension to begin in June. However, getting to the point of approving extension is still some time away.

“The specific issue of shuttle extension as part of a solution to the gap is still TBD (To Be Decided), as a policy matter,” noted Jeff M. Bingham, Senior Adviser on Space and Aeronautics, Republican Staff Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate, to NASASpaceflight.com.

“As a practical matter, there are things that will need to be done – starting no later than June – to prepare for extended shuttle operations, such as purchasing long lead-time items for ETs, etc., so that extension could be as seamless as possible, and not have a ‘gap within a gap’ in terms of being able to field shuttles for flights.

“We are expecting a formal report from NASA, required under our 2008 bill, which will tell us what steps – and what costs – are involved in meeting the requirement to keep the shuttle extension option viable through the end of April.”

“Those are costs which conceivably could be covered by new funds, even though they are carried under the “Exploration” account, not the “Space Operations” account. NASA needs permissive authority to transfer funds between accounts, but that can be handled.”

Those new funds refer to the $1 billion lawmakers have allocated within what is now a $789 billion economic stimulus package that was passed by the US Senate on Tuesday, and successfully negotiated with Congress on Wednesday..

Out of the $1 billion, $400m is currently tagged under the “Exploration” account, which NASA could use for whatever purposes they require under each account allocation for 2009 and 2010.

While this increase in funds is not part of the billions required to extend the shuttle past 2010, any additional money is good news, and will at least allow for some “initial steps” to be taken on reducing the gap.

“The money is a budget increase, in that it is “new money” added to the designated accounts within NASA’s existing budget structure, and is available to be used for the purposes intended. The bill simply requires that NASA notify the Appropriations Committee of its intended use for the funds,” added Mr Bingham.

“NASA needs at least $2 billion a year above its previously-planned top line to be able to effectively operate its various programs and to have any chance of reducing the gap in human spaceflight. Thus, it needs to find “new money” whenever and wherever it can.

“The inclusion of any NASA money in this particular bill represents a positive recognition that NASA programs offer economic benefit to the country, as opposed to simply being a fancy and adventurous “luxury.” That is a very important point, irrespective of the amount of money involved or even the “targeted use” for which it is appropriated.”

NASA is also waiting on new leadership, with the eventual replacement for Mike Griffin still expected to be some time away. Reducing the gap, via shuttle extension, Constellation acceleration, or a mix of both, won’t be fully planned out until the new administrator takes office.

“Right now, there is no cohesive plan by which the US government is looking to address “the Gap.” That is not possible until the new Administration completes its internal organizational and personnel decisions on civil space and then sets its sights on that issue and begins to address it,” Mr Bingham continued.

“The point is, absent such a plan, no one is ready to even guess at specifically “how much” it’s going to cost. But folks in Congress have already been gearing up to be ready to join with the Administration to seek a solution to the gap issue.

“Over the next two or three months, we will hopefully see the Administration get organized on the NASA front with a new Administrator, possibly a new policy structure within the White House, and the initial priorities they will set in a budget request for FY 2010, which is expected in early April.

“During that period, in addition to the development of the 2010 budget request, which is where one should hope and look for the beginnings of a ‘Plan’ for going forward and dealing with the Gap, there will be an additional appropriations bill, in the form of an Omnibus Appropriations, which will provide the amounts needed to fund NASA and other agencies for the remainder of FY 2009, that we are now in.

“The Stimulus package simply represented an ‘opportunity’ to get some additional funding early in ‘the game’ justified by the obvious fact that closing the gap helps secure jobs and avoid too severe a dislocation in an important sector of the economy, aerospace.”

From the standpoint of Constellation, all options are being considered as “fair game” at the political level, when it comes to their respective ability to close the gap.

While acceleration studies have been taking place for Constellation’s Ares and Orion vehicles, the alternative options of utilizing EELV vehicles – such as the Delta IV Heavy or the Atlas V Heavy – have been touted, along with the “Direct” proposal of using their Shuttle Derived Jupiter launch vehicles – which has gained increased interest and publicity over the last couple of years – to, as they claim, save money, shorten the gap, and avoid the shedding of Orion’s capabilities, as is currently required by Ares I’s performance shortcomings.

Even SpaceX’s Dragon capsule – potentially via a manned version of the COTS program – is considered as part of the ‘fair game’ in finding the best solution to reducing the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the first manned flight of Orion.

However, it is too early in the process to know if the potential increase in funds would be used to advance studies into Constellation alternatives, but the very possibility such funds would now be available to NASA is also classed as good news.

“As for specific options to close the gap, I would simply say that virtually anything and everything is ‘fair game’ for consideration, and that includes everything from Ares/Orion acceleration, shuttle extension, Direct as a separate alternative, Direct in combination with human-rated EELV, Orion and/or Dragon on an EELV, accelerated COTS-D, etc., etc…it is far too early to know which option or combination of options is going to be likely.

“What is known is that any option is going to require some early money to be viable, and if some of that necessary money can be made available through the Stimulus package, that’s great, and that is the “good news” about this development.”

L2 members: Documentation Рfrom which part of the above article has quoted snippets Рis available in full in the related L2 sections, now over 4000 gbs in size.

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