NASA’s future direction – extra shuttle flights and commerical launcher touted

by Chris Bergin

MOD Director Paul Hill has hinted that there’s a “remote” chance NASA may add one or more shuttle flights, in addition to “under evaluation” STS-135. Mr Hill’s comments came during an address to his team – relating to the upcoming White House decision on NASA’s Human Space Flight program – in which he noted his awareness of discussions relating to a commercial crew launch vehicle for ISS missions.

Mr Hill Address:

The former flight director has made several addresses over the past year, mainly relating to the job losses that will hit the space program – not least with the United Space Alliance (USA) contractor workforce within the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD).

Some workers have already lost their jobs, but the main bulk of layoffs will occur over the next one year period under the current direction of closing down the shuttle program.

“It’s been a difficult year, with another difficult one in front of us. While we keep planning, training and flying these missions in the best MOD tradition, we are nearing the end of the Shuttle Program and have already started feeling the early effects of the SSP budget ramping down,” said Mr Hill in an memo to the MOD workforce, and acquired by L2.

As I told you last summer, the tough times aren’t yet over as our budget will contract again going into October 2010. In spite of that, your technical work continues to be bullet proof and, in fact, you continue to find better ways of doing what we do. While not really surprising from MOD, it is truly impressive nonetheless.”

And MOD have been highly impressive, aiding the safe and successful completion of five flights in 2009, despite the uncertainty many of the workforce feel for the future – a future that still remains open-ended, following the Augustine Commission’s review in the Human Space Flight program.

A7“I hear rumblings that some of you are concerned that we are not telling you what we know about the future direction of human space flight, Shuttle, MOD, et al,” Mr Hill added. “While I’d agree we haven’t passed along much in the way of new plans in a few months, you can still trust that we will pass along whatever we know, when we know it.

“That means there isn’t any news to pass along regarding executive office direction on space policy and the ramifications to MOD.”

Mr Hill is highly respected in the space program, not least for his leadership skills, but also his ability to “say it how it is” – as was seen during a press conference when dealing with some repetitive questions from a BBC journalist during STS-114.

This openness was evident in the meat of his memo, where he openly admitted that NASA are looking at a commercial alternative launch vehicle and orbital vehicle for crew transport to the ISS.

“What do we know today? We have shuttle flights remaining in the manifest through next Fall. ISS will fly at least through 2015, potentially through 2020. Constellation is NASA’s exploration program of record and the basis for MOD’s exploration budget and the related operating plan.

“The agency is discussing the requirements to certify a commercial launch and orbit vehicle for NASA crews to fly in to ISS. That’s a far cry from contracting with anyone, but an obvious necessary step whenever the time comes.”

E22Mr Hill went further, by being willing to speculate on what he feels NASA may be directed by the President. Firstly, Mr Hill confirmed the evaluations into the addition of STS-135 into the flight manifest, but also eludes to the potential – if remote – opportunity to add “one or more” missions.

While it could be assumed Mr Hill is speaking of an extension scenario, he associates the additional flights with the stretching of the schedule to March 2011, which may be a suggestion NASA is evaluating the use of the extra funding – provided as a bufferzone for any slips relating to the scheduled five missions manifested to September of next year – by having missions ready to go if those five missions are all conducted with time to spare.

However, such a decision would need to be made sooner, rather than later, due to the associated hardware requirements of flights past STS-135, such as with the External Tanks and boosters.

“What else is going on, and what can we speculate on? The agency may add another Shuttle flight to the manifest (STS-135). There’s even some remote discussion about adding one or more beyond that. The timing could be through December 2010, March 2011, or who knows?” He noted.

Mr Hill also expanded on the fallout from the Augustine Commission review, again referencing the talks relating to a commercial “crew carrying” vehicle, whilst stating he hasn’t been fully briefed on where those evaluations are heading, and that the Constellation Program continues to be the Program of Record for now.

A3“There’s discussion at the Center Director level and above regarding top level mission options, essentially stimulated by the Augustine panel. This spans the gamut from the specifics in the Augustine panel report, to some clean sheet suggestions for human missions outside LEO.

“Talk continues regarding a commercial crew carrying vehicle. I wish I had a crystal ball to show you where that’s all going. The agency is (also) assessing heavy lift options.

“None of the previous bullets signals a decision to cancel any or all of the Constellation Program. They represent an effort to provide considered recommendations to the White House in the wake of the Augustine panel report. And that’s it.”

Mr Hill also promised he would inform his workforce of any new information he receives, when he receives it. For the meantime, MOD workers should remain focused on their roles.

A2“What we’re left with in the mean time is the same as this time last year. Trust the MOD leadership team to pass on whatever we know, when we know it. We are circling the wagons with the all MOD Branch Chiefs and above.

“One of our primary purposes will be to assess the various permutations these speculations could lead to in real space policy direction. More importantly, we will be discussing MOD management strategies to protect the technical expertise for which we are the national stewards, as well as to limit the impacts to our people, in any of those permutations.

“While things churn, keep being MOD and making us proud to be part of it with you. Challenge each other to be better technically and to live up to MOD’s ideals like the Foundations of Mission Operations. Don’t hesitate to challenge your management, all the way up the chain, to also be better and to keep listening for smart changes to our processes to keep MOD on the leading edge.

“Like you, I’d feel a lot better if I had something more definitive to pass along. In the mean time, it’s a great lot in life to be key players in the team that makes human spaceflight planning, training and operations happen every day. We’ll get MOD through this too.

“As long as we keep up the good fight, it is and will remain a great day to be MOD.”

L2 members: Documentation – from which the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, now over 4000 gbs in size.

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