A DIRECT handover – Movement leaders feel their work is complete

by Chris Bergin

The Direct movement – a group of professionals and non-professional engineers that created an architecture alternative to Constellation’s Ares vehicles – are ready to transition their movement, following the redirection of NASA’s future by lawmakers, which calls for a Space Launch System (SLS) based around a Shuttle Derived (SD) Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), which they feel justifies their four years of work.

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Often bad-mouthed and dismissed, the Direct concept grew from what was a single post on NASASpaceflight.com’s forum by member Ross Tierney. This was not unusual for any messageboard, with debates ongoing at the time over the potential problems, solutions and progression surrounding NASA’s Constellation Program (CxP).

Indeed, Tierney’s idea wasn’t anything new, basing a drafted proposal around the ATK (then Thiokol) and Marshall Space Flight Center’s shelved National Launch System (NLS). However, the response gained from this single post on a messageboard surprised him.

“I was not the first person to recognize this vehicle configuration’s benefits. Thiokol had proposed such a vehicle as early as 1978 – three years before the first Shuttle flew. So when I came up with this and mentioned it on the forum here on NASASpaceFlight, I was suddenly inundated with private messages and e-mails telling me that I was on to the right thing,” noted Tierney.

“I was simply stunned. All these bona fide rocket scientists were contacting me – a rank amateur, at that time. I was amazed at how many professionals wrote to say such things as (and I quote): ‘you are on the right path’ and ‘this is the direction NASA should be going in’, not to mention that almost every one of them also said that ‘ESAS is going to cost too much and will be cancelled’ – prophetic words indeed.”

However, most of those engineers and space professionals – especially ones working for NASA – would never be able to reveal themselves, given the risk involved with either appearing to be working on a non-official project, or seeming to disagree with the then-current architecture they were tasked – and paid – to work on (Ares).

“It was really the desperation I heard from all these folk – that NASA had been given a golden opportunity to go back to exploring strange new worlds, yet ESAS was clearly heading for financial disaster,” added Tierney. “They couldn’t speak up, because their careers and families depended on the Administrator’s good graces.

“But I didn’t suffer from that problem, my paycheck didn’t come from NASA, so I asked if I could be used as a conduit to say the things they couldn’t risk saying themselves. And that was where the snow-ball began to roll!”

**CLICK HERE to view the majority of DIRECT threads (several million views) on the NSF Forum**

Tierney began to build a team, which included his right hand man, Chuck Longton, a Senior Structural Design Specialist at General Dynamics Electric Boat Corp in Groton, Connecticut where he manages a design group responsible for creating the tools required to build the nation’s nuclear submarine fleet. He brought with him a total of 40 years in structural design, including Pratt & Whitney and the Saturn-V F-1 engine.

“My recollection was that after Ross posted those questions, he started getting a lot of reaction from posters on NSF, myself included,” noted Longton. “In private conversations with Ross I also became aware that he was being contacted offline by a large number of design engineers from MSFC who wanted to know more about his thoughts, and if he had any plans to pursue his ideas further and if so could they help.

“Ross decided to write a short paper, just a few pages long, to flesh out his thoughts and asked me if I would consider working with him on it.”

“Likewise, Matt Hays was asked if he would like to edit as well and of course Antonio Maia provided his excellent graphics and video. Ross took advantage of the expertize offered to him from MSFC personnel, who insisted that they remain anonymous to protect their jobs and the work began to come together nicely.

“It was like watching a plant grow; it just never stopped, getting bigger and bigger until DIRECT v1.0 was launched with the “DIRECT Goes Live” thread on NSF. By that time we had gotten some unwelcome notice inside NASA HQ.”

That “unwelcome” attention became public when ESAS Lead Dr. Doug Stanley offered to look through the DIRECT v1.0 paper in his own time, allowing for the opportunity to bring his knowledge and experience to the initial findings. However, Dr Stanley’s results noted numerous flaws, which had such a massive impact, it threatened to deliver a fatal blow for the DIRECT movement.

“There were some pretty dark days along this path, I recall the first Christmas after we went live, Dr. Doug Stanley (Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) Lead) tore DIRECT v1.0 up one side and down the other,” Tierney recalled. “I didn’t have a happy Christmas that year.

“(However, Longton) put a smile back on my face and helped me get back on my feet, dust myself off again and we set to work to tackle each and every point of criticism Dr. Stanley had brought up.

The result was DIRECT v2.0, which was far, far superior to our first version. While it sure stung at the time, looking back on it, I actually believe that Dr. Stanley helped us get really serious about this project.

“From everything I have learned, Dr. Stanley has said, publicly, that until two weeks before release, ESAS was actually planning to use an SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) powered, in-line 8.4m 4-segment SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) configuration system, with and without an upper stage – a vehicle ESAS calls LV-24 and LV-25, but which fans of our approach would recognize as Jupiter-130!”

As DIRECT v2.0 took shape, the movement claims they began to attract ‘big name’ attention within NASA. However, this time the interest appeared to be more positive than before – especially after the departure of NASA administrator Mike Griffin.

“From within the first few months we had some fairly high-level interest, not Project Manager level, but close! I met (Space Shuttle Program manager) John Shannon at the first Augustine Committee hearing, where he was presenting Sidemount. He had not actually been aware of DIRECT prior to that, but he liked what he saw,” added Tierney.

“It wasn’t until after Dr. Griffin was removed that things really started to pick up, when at the start of this year Longton, Steve Metschan and I were invited to meet with Bill Gerstenmaier (Associate Administrator for Space Operations for NASA), Doug Cooke (Constellation), Phil Sumrall and Geoff Yoder at NASA Headquarters.

“We made our pitch and told them we never wanted to be the thorn in their sides that we had become over the years. We offered to consult if they wanted to proceed, but we made it very clear that this was their program and that we have no intention of stealing their thunder – in short, since 1978, through the almost identical National Launch System period of 1991-1993, this project is, and always was, NASA’s.

“Ownership has never been of any importance to DIRECT. While we could certainly be accused of taking a “tough love” approach, everything we have done in this project has always been to try to help NASA.”

Becoming one of the options presented at the Augustine Committee’s review into Human Space Flight, DIRECT was allowed its first real public platform for the architecture – although the need to keep most of the names behind it secret was met by a jibe from astronaut Leroy Chiao, who was serving on the panel.

“That support ultimately came in the person of Buzz Aldrin through his relationship with Steve Metschan. While I do not know the details, because they were handled by Buzz, this ultimately resulted in DIRECT being asked to present at the Commission hearing in Washington DC,” noted Longton, with Tierney adding the event had proved they had been noticed – despite the dismissals that the concept had been hit by over the previous years.

“The Augustine Committee was a very big event for us. No other non-profit group presented to that Presidential panel. To be invited to present, very simply meant that we had been noticed and that our concept had been deemed worthy of further examination. Not bad for a project that had mistakenly been classified as breaking the laws of physics, just the year before!

“I know others in the DIRECT Team were a little miffed at that comment by Leroy Chiao (“Who are you guys?”), but I never took it badly myself.  I always knew that would be a major concern the panel would have – they had to question our experience and our credibility, because we have always protected the identities of the members of the team.

“If it could have been me up there, I would have liked to have said: ‘We are you:  By that I mean we are a widespread group of highly experienced NASA engineers trying to help the program to succeed’.”

“The Commission hearing in Washington was a definite milestone in the DIRECT story,” added Longton. “It seemed to me at first that the Commission was prepared to listen to us more as a courtesy to Buzz Aldrin than anything else, but once they began having discussions with some of our anonymous sources that had decided to cooperate, it was evident to me that we had stepped up a notch in their eyes.

“Without that we would never have been asked to go to the Aerospace Corp in Los Angles, who in spite of the enormous margins that they added to the Jupiter, had essentially validated what we had proposed. By the time the hearings were over everyone knew we were a serious contender and not just a bunch of hobbyists with an idea.

“Within a couple of months of the hearing we started hearing from our contacts of certain steps being initiated by upper level executives at KSC, MSFC and at HQ that were unlike the things we had seen before. These were positive steps, like gathering data for a new HLV study aimed at a post-CxP in-line launch system.

“For example we learned that DIRECT’s Jupiter LV was being specifically incorporated into the new as yet unofficial study at MSFC. Mind you it was not an acceptance of DIRECT by any means. Rather it was more like an acceptance of the validity of the design approach we had taken.

“Even though Aerospace Corps final cost and performance estimates had been hugely inflated by enormous margins that they had added on top of our own huge margins, it was clear to anyone who looked at the underlying data that we did indeed have a viable and serious proposal.”

With the Jupiter-like vehicles making favourable appearances on several studies, though never named as a “Jupiter” but instead as an inline SD HLV, the appearance of inline SD HLVs in the studies which followed the Augustine review – mirroring configurations proposed for some time via the DIRECT movement – felt like a vindication to the teammembers.

“Total delight! To see NASA confirming our own findings in documentation was validation that everything we had said was true,” noted Tierney. “After the long fight we had, this was an absolute breath of fresh air and the whole team was over the moon.

“What can we say?” Longton added. “We were excited to the max! We had been bursting at the seams to let people know what was going on “behind the curtain” but had been prevented from doing that by loyalty to our inside sources.

“When those things began appearing in public with official blessing it was like a prisoner being unshackled and told he was free. It was exhilarating!”

However, despite the studies pointing favorably towards the inline SD HLV – allowing for a level of optimism the findings would translate into NASA’s forward path – the FY2011 budget proposal would prove to be a hammer blow, effectively ending any and all hope for a SD HLV of any configuration.

“We met with Bill Gerstenmaier a matter of days before the President rolled-out his FY2011 plans in February and de-railed everything,” Tierney recalled. “We’re very strongly in favour of the new commercial space industry being given powerful support, and a budget does need to be allocated to new R&D work within the agency – both of those are highly supportable objectives.

“However, to do so at the cost of pulling all your resources out of the programs that make the foundation of the political support for NASA as a whole was not a smart plan.

“If FY2011 had gone forward unchanged it would have been devastating, because Congress would have had no reason to keep NASA’s budget in place any longer – and without political backing, there would be no money for any programs at all, commercial and R&D inclusive. That plan was, to me, nothing short of a recipe for political suicide for the agency.”

Longton was equally shocked upon reviewing the information in the FY2011 rollout, showing that all the meetings and positive direction the studies were portraying had not been adopted by the creators of the budget proposal.

“We were dumbfounded! Especially because we had been told from the highest inside sources that NASA was going our way. While the DIRECT-O-Meter was hovering around a 9.5 in the public arena, internally we had it pegged at the 10.0 level, waiting only for the President’s budget proposal to bless it.

“When that didn’t happen, and given that ALL our sources, some of whom are at the very highest levels at HQ, Marshall, Johnson and KSC, had been completely fooled by the Administration, it was like Doug Stanley (his negative findings for Direct v1.0) all over again. Only this time it didn’t have the same effect. We immediately began to retool to fight this wrong-headed direction.”

However, holding out hope for an inline SD HLV proved to be a correct decision, as the FY2011 budget proposal was itself retooled to provide NASA direction to build such a vehicle.

And once again, continuing studies – such as the HEFT (Human Exploration Framework Team) assessments – show a favorable attitude to the inline SD HLV, one which mirrors the configuration of a Jupiter 246.

“To be specific, the Senate has voted unanimously in both Authorizations and Appropriations,” Tierney outlined, supporting the passed Senate Bill forward path for NASA. “The House just voted to support this new approach in Authorizations, but we’re still waiting for House Appropriations to follow-suit later in the year – three down, one to go!

“The President has also indicated approval for this compromise, because it buys everyone a very healthy portion of what they wanted.  Commercial and R&D both get healthy funding. Congress gets to save jobs in a bad economy and produce a new capability to help NASA reach beyond Low Earth Orbit for the first time in nearly 40 years. This is a win-win situation.

“This is definitely a ‘win’, but not just for us: NASA wins by keeping it’s strong political support and sustaining its budgets while all other agencies are suffering cuts. The contractors win by keeping many of the existing contracts. The workforce wins by saving more than 60 percent of the jobs that were otherwise to be lost. Commercial New. Space wins by getting more than $3 billion allocated over the next 6 years. R&D wins by getting its larger budgets.

“In short; everyone wins with this compromise – especially the United States as a nation, who get new industry, save jobs and create a new, affordable, exploration program.”

The result of the Bill’s passing left the DIRECT movement with a decision to make; whether to continue pushing forward their own architecture and proposals, or to claim NASA is now on the correct trajectory, and to leave them to their own devices – without what could be deemed as outside interference.

“Once DIRECT actually reached it’s pinnacle of acceptance and became self-perpetuating as you say, there is little more for us to do except to occasionally offer encouragement, advice and assistance, in the same way parents of a college student or young adult would,” noted Longton.

“Over the last 4 years we had always said that once NASA picked up the ball and began to run with it that we intended to let them have it. That has always been our desire. We want NASA to take ownership of this and make it their own, not ours.

“We’ll now they have it and we are on the sidelines, cheering them on like a favorite football team. There is little else we can contribute. NASA will make of it whatever they will. While their current proposals look just like the Jupiter, we don’t expect it to end up like that. It will be something else, something that resembles the Jupiter, but with their own stamp on it.

“We hope they don’t stray too far, because we occupied the sweet spot for a SDHLV, but they will stray, and make SLS their very own. We wish them the most sincere best wishes as they carry this over the goal line.”

(Images: Artistic Impressions by Philip Metschan)

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