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Griffin: Commercial Crew Transportation Unlikely During Five Years; Americans Must Depend On Russian Soyuz Spacecraft

By | June 2, 2008

      Even With Extra Funds, First Flight Of Orion-Ares Next-Generation Spaceship May Be Only One Year Earlier, In 2014, Rather Than In 2013, Griffin Indicates

      Continuing Shuttle Flights Could Prevent Orion-Ares Debut

      Emergent commercial space flight companies are unlikely to advance to providing crew transportation services for NASA when it has no crew transport capabilities during a 2010- 2015 gap, though commercial crew transport will be realized later, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

      He also indicated that even if NASA receives extra funds, it likely won’t be able to hasten the first manned flight of the next-generation Orion-Ares spacecraft system more than a year, to 2014, instead of by two years to 2013, as he earlier had suggested.

      Finally, Griffin warned that if NASA is forced to continue flying shuttles beyond their mandated 2010 retirement date, it would impose a "several billion dollars a year fixed- cost burden on NASA that is not in the budget," and that would prevent Orion-Ares from completing development.

      His comments to journalists Saturday evening came at a NASA news conference following the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      Commercial Crew Transport

      Some members of Congress have suggested that NASA might be able to purchase crew transport services to and from the space station from U.S. commercial firms, rather than paying billions of dollars for U.S. crew transport aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles.

      After the space shuttle fleet enters mandatory retirement in 2010, the United States won’t be able to transport a single U.S. astronaut to space, even to low Earth orbit, until Orion-Ares begins flying in 2015, as currently scheduled.

      Griffin was asked whether NASA might be able to buy at least some crew transport services from commercial firms during the half-decade disappearance of the U.S. manned space flight program.

      Not likely, Griffin indicated. And he isn’t happy about that fact, because "the world needs at least two methods of transporting crew." Asked whether it concerns him that without commercial crew transport capabilities, NASA would be dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz vehicles, Griffin said, "Of course it does."

      While NASA is attempting to provide seed money to spur development of commercial space cargo vehicles that could help supply the space station in the half-decade gap, Griffin indicated that it is unlikely those firms also would develop adequate crew transports as well.

      While Griffin would welcome development of a reliable, safe commercial crew transport vehicle that could operate during the gap, "I’m not confident a commercial crew transport will emerge" to operate during the half-decade hiatus. "I’m somewhat doubtful" that can happen.

      To fully compete with the Russian Soyuz spaceships, commercial firms would have to develop not only a crew transport vehicle that could go up to the space station and then return to Earth in about two weeks, those private firms also would have to develop a crew transport that could go up to the space station and remain parked there for six months on orbit, ready to become an emergency transport to take crew members back to Earth in event of a crisis on the station, Griffin noted.

      Even now, with the American space shuttles still flying, he noted that NASA today is dependent on Soyuz vehicles loitering on orbit for six months at a time to provide emergency rescue if there is a crisis on the space station.

      All of that means, in brief, that the United States will be reliant on the Russians for U.S. crew transport during the half-decade gap, he said.

      It wouldn’t be wise to gamble that commercial firms will develop a Soyuz-like crew transport vehicle that could operate during the gap, he said. "We need to be appropriately careful about when we count on people to be able to step into that role," he said.

      For all that, he noted, NASA still is spending money to help foster development, someday, of commercial crew transport capabilities. "I think it will occur eventually," he said. "I have very high confidence in that."

      He said he strongly favors commercial firms developing space transport capabilities.

      "There is no stronger proponent of commercial space capability than I," he said.

      For cargo transport, choices abound, because the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, of the European Space Agency and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, or HTV, provide alternatives, noted Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations.

      Companies attempting to develop space cargo transport capabilities and/or crew or space tourist vehicles include:

      • Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which is receiving incentive funds from NASA, and is designing and building the Falcon 9 human-rated rocket and Dragon spaceship to transport cargo and then astronauts to the International Space Station.
      • Orbital Sciences Corp., which also is receiving NASA seed money as a spur to raise capital and use its own funds to develop cargo space transport capabilities. In a deal with Johnson Space Center, Orbital is to develop the Taurus II new medium-class launch vehicle, the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft, and several interchangeable modules for pressurized and unpressurized cargo. Orbital replaced another firm that earlier was to have received NASA seed money, Rocketplane Kistler.
      • Virgin Galactic (billionaire Richard Branson and visionary Burt Rutan), aiming to develop a mother ship that will carry a spaceship to a high altitude and release it to carry passengers to space. They are called WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo.

      No More Shuttle Flights

      Some lawmakers have urged adding more shuttle flights to the current manifest and having those flights continue beyond the October 2010 retirement deadline, to permit carrying expensive experiments to the space station that otherwise will lie uselessly on Earth. That also would shrink the half-decade NASA no-fly gap, they say.

      But Griffin rejected the idea of continuing to fly shuttles, saying that would impose billions of dollars of fixed costs on NASA. One congressional plan, in contrast, sees $300 million as enough to pay for one added shuttle flight.

      If NASA is forced to continue flying shuttles after the cutoff deadline, Griffin said, then "we will never have a replacement for it, effectively, because we will never free up the development money necessary for a new system."

      Griffin explained that the key here is that maintaining the shuttle fleet has very high fixed costs, while the costs of flying any single mission aren’t that high.

      2014 Earliest Orion Flight

      While on earlier occasions Griffin has said that the first Orion-Ares manned flight could be moved back about two years, to 2013, he indicated to journalists that an acceleration to 2014 now is about the most that could be accomplished.

      "Sometime in 2014 would be about the best we could ever do, and it’s a fairly expensive operation to do that," he explained.

      He repeated his earlier rough estimate that it would cost perhaps $100 million for each month earlier the first manned flight occurred. Making such estimates, he said, is "inherently speculative and therefore difficult."

      This is not a question that NASA studies in detail, absent a formal request to accelerate the Orion-Ares program to the maximum possible extent, he said. And therefore, Griffin added, his estimates are a bit imprecise.

      What Griffin said he can say now with full assurance is this: "There will be a gap between shuttle retirement and Orion-Ares deployment of several years."

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