Orion removed from NASA control – MOD positioning for commercial role

by Chris Bergin

NASA managers are pushing through the shutdown of the Constellation Program (CxP) at a pace, with a series of memos showing all the Ares test flights have already been cancelled, along Orion ‘defunded’ and returned to the sole control of contractor Lockheed Martin. Meanwhile, MOD director Paul Hill has written to NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, requesting the Agency promotes MOD to the commercial sector.

Orion, Dragon and PDRing into Transition:

The surprise loss in the Constellation cull was Orion, when it was hoped the vehicle would survive the expected death of the Ares Program by transferring its role to another launch vehicle, such as an EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle).

There remains some hope that lead contractor – Lockheed Martin – may yet be able to modify the work already conducted on Orion into a vehicle of a smaller – taxi-like only – design, one which could become a viable crew transport of choice for a commercial carrier to the International Space Station (ISS).

That “optimization” design option for Orion was confirmed via managerial notes, acquired by L2, as was the departure of NASA’s role in the vehicle – via the removal of support and funding.

“Orion optimization plan review was conducted with CxP. Lockheed-Martin looking at optimized design. Pulled all Orion support out of JSC (Johnson Space Center) and put it all back in Denver (Lockheed Martin HQ),” noted the DA Notes roundup.

“Cx funding is being pulled back that was going to JSC engineering and being sent to Denver to support LM similar facilities/services.”

Although Lockheed Martin – via their partnership with Boeing as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) – should be pleased with the commercially-orientated future that has been proposed for NASA, the company has been lobbying ‘strongly’ due the loss of Orion in the FY2011 proposal, to the extent they have backed the Senate Bill “Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act of 2010”.

NASA managers had also positioned themselves firmly behind Orion in their internal Flexible Path presentation, which was created prior to President Obama’s FY2011 proposal’s publication.

“We accept Orion as the basis for American mission-crew access to LEO, and with block upgrades for orbital lifetime and increased entry energy, for return to Earth from deep-space missions,” NASA managers wrote in the 65 page presentation (available on L2).

See also NASASpaceflight.com’s Flexible Path Review:
Part 1: Battle of the Heavy Lift Launchers – Monster 200mt vehicle noted
Part 2: Manned mission to construct huge GEO and deep space telescopes proposed
Part 3: NASA Flexible Path Evaluation of 2025 human mission to visit an asteriod
Part 4: Taking Aim on Phobos – NASA outline Flexible Path precursor to Man on Mars

Ironically, NASA involvement is continuing on another vehicle, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, as engineers check the progress of the transport’s Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) testing and EVA (Spacewalk) capability.

“Engineering is at SpaceX for some CBM tests. Per SpaceX request, (engineers) went to SpaceX to assess Dragon EVA compatibility,” added the notes. “Boeing is seeking support for arc-jet facility for CC Dev (Commercial Crew Space Transportation Development).”

Although NASA managers aren’t technically allowed to stop work on Constellation, at least until the FY2011 budget is approved by lawmakers, the program ‘feels dead’ according to sources within CxP, with hardly any work being conducted, other than closeout PDR (Preliminary Design Review) work.

“Obviously, the cancellation of the Constellation Program was disappointing news to us all. I have added some additional information on some of those activities and some new direction,” noted one CxP manager, during an address to his department’s team members.

That work involves estimating “excessing property we were keeping for Cx. May delay on-site review so may have some time to do property re-assessment,” and a general slowdown of the development schedule.

“Many of you were putting in a lot of extra hours to meet the many demands on your time. Given that we are no longer racing to meet a development schedule (i.e.; metal cutting and code slinging), we can throttle that work to a more reasonable level. The Ares II-X and III-X activity is stood down by direction of the program.

“As always, Shuttle and ISS plan/train/fly work is the number one priority. Beyond that, support the PDR activities where you think you can provide the most value to close out the design and to possible future use of the design. Consult your supervisor when making that trade.”

The PDR process, which is understood to have been all-but completed from a vehicle standpoint, understandably changed its focus from evaluating an architecture that is no longer going to fly, to one where it may provide some value for the proposed forward plan.

“Although we are still formulating a long-term strategy, it is smart at this point to look at how we can best capitalize on our Cx work to meet NASA’s new goals of commercial space access, robotic precursors, heavy lift launcher development, and technology development,” added the memo.

“To that end, we want the PDRs to focus on opening up the design to support these goals. More specifically, that means changing the requirements to create a more flexible and generic capability.”

MOD – Value for Commercial Role:

Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) director Paul Hill has been enduring one of the most undesirable tasks faced by NASA managers of late, that of informing an already upset workforce about the reality of the huge job losses at departments which are heavily involved with human space flight.

Mr Hill has conducted a series of All Hands events at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – videos available on L2 – which have been based on both the reality of the proposal to end shuttle this year and cancel the follow-on program of Constellation, along with the rallying call to focus on the job at hand with the remaining shuttle missions.

The main problem remains, however, that no one actually knows what the forward plan specifically involves, at least from a milestone standpoint, which in turn has increased the uncertainty and anxiety throughout the workforce.

While much has been said about the additional funds proposed in the FY2011 budget, the focus on reducing costs has been central to managerial thinking at departments such as MOD – even before the proposed culling of funding for human space flight operations by NASA, handing it instead to commercial companies who are also under no obligation to hire the services of MOD staff.

The work in carrying out the ‘reduction in operating cost’ was used by Mr Hill in a letter to General Bolden this week, prefaced as a reaction to indirect comments from the NASA administrator.

“With the things that filter down to the center, and based on some things I’ve either heard you say or that have been attributed to you, I felt compelled to send this to you to ensure you have a good idea of where MOD is today. Consider this the elevator speech I’ll not likely have an opportunity to give you,” Mr Hill wrote in the letter, which was sent to numerous high level managers and acquired by L2.

“The days of hundreds, not thousands, of people in the MCC (Mission Control Center) staffing a flight control team are long gone.

“Today, we operate ISS almost exclusively with a front room team of ~13, and that goes down to ~5 while the crew sleeps and on weekends. During some active phases (rendezvous, EVA, etc) and with folks getting some on-the-job training, we may bump the ISS team up to ~30. By 2013, the full time ISS team will be down to 5-10 regardless of the time frame.

“Shuttle flight control teams run ~30 during more quiescent orbit operations including the back rooms, and around 70-80 during more active phases (ascent, entry, rendezvous, EVA, etc). Early Cx operations for mission-ISS were expected to be staffed by teams in the 30-70 range until docking, with an expectation to make similar reductions after some vehicle flight experience.

“While docked to ISS, we did not plan to have a full time operator dedicated to Orion monitoring. Overall, we have been targeting delivering Cx operations for half the equivalent SSP (Space Shuttle Program) operations.

“In both long duration and short duration flight control, recall that we support 24/7, not just until orbit insertion like many expendable launch teams. When comparing Shuttle operations teams to expendables, like SeaLaunch/Zenit, it is really only comparable if you include the upper stage and spacecraft teams, and extend that to the lengthy on-orbit checkout before a spacecraft is handed over to the normal operations team.”

The letter continued in the same manner, illuminating examples of how streamlined MOD had already become, even prior to the change of direction proposed in the FY2011 budget.

“MOD’s Shuttle efforts (is) at under six percent of today’s total SSP budget. In fact, the MOD portfolio is dominated not by the size of the flight control team, but by mission planning, training and facility support,” Mr Hill continued, citing from an associated presentation sent with the letter.

“As an example, MOD typically has five Shuttle crews and 12 ISS expeditions (14 US, 14 Russian, five other IPs) in flight specific training, and another 14 Ascans in generic training leading up to flight specific training.

“As the last page of the attached file shows, MOD today is already 30 percent smaller supporting both programs than we were in 1991 supporting only Shuttle. In September of this year, we will be down another ~600 (26 percent), meaning this year MOD will be half of our size in 1991, and that presumes we stayed on track for Cx.”

These comments mirrored notes Mr Hill provided during his All Hands meetings, as did the main point of his letter, as he stressed the need for NASA to advertise the value of MOD “outside of the agency” – specifically to the commercial companies set to take over NASA’s role in human space flight.

“As you may recall, there is a definite operations culture associated with MOD that is different than sustaining engineering or other program support functions. Ascent, entry and short-duration operations are even more focused cultures, and that is seen in all aspects of planning, training and flying those phases of flight when compared to the equivalent communities supporting ISS (long duration) operations,” Mr Hill continued.

“In addition to the enormous shifts MOD has already made to how we do this job, our goal is to ensure the agency understands the significant and unique capability represented by that operations culture and the mission assurance value it brings to ascent, entry and short-duration human spaceflight.

“With that, particularly if these operations will now reside exclusively outside of the NASA domain, a strong case could be made that the agency is well served by investing MOD support to the commercial providers as both a way provide real mission assurance and to send that serious message outside the agency.

“That discussion must start with an understanding of today’s MOD, in terms of resources, the operations and continuous improvement cultures and the unique skill base MOD stewards for human spaceflight.”

Unfortunately, General Bolden has already noted that the commercial carriers are under no contractual obligation to hire NASA or MOD contractors – and that he can only “ask” them to look into taking the cream of the current stable of engineers and controllers.

Although it is likely a commercial company would aim to tap into the experience base at MOD, the amount of hirings – especially within a cost-conscious company that prides itself on carrying out operations with only a handful of controllers – is an unknown factor that is unlikely to be clarified until after many of the workforce have already been let go.

L2 members : Documentation – from which the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, now over 4500 gbs in size

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