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Hale: Dropping Ares I Would Cost Time, Money, Work

By | March 16, 2009

      United States May Be About To Repeat Past Mistakes: Stopping A Program Just As It Is About To Prove It Works

      Time Is Running Out For Providing $2 Billion To Accelerate Orion-Ares First Manned Flight, Reducing No-Fly Gap

      GREENBELT, Md. — The U.S. space program, the largest and most successful of any in this solar system, may repeat the mistake it has made repeatedly of killing a program just as it is about to prove it works, Wayne Hale, deputy associate NASA administrator of strategic partnerships, said.

      Hale, responding to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report, stressed that he was speaking for himself, not NASA. He spoke at the 47th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium at a hotel near Goddard Space Flight Center, an event presented by the American Astronautical Society.

      He was asked about speculation that President Obama will opt to abandon an ongoing Constellation Program effort to develop the Ares I rocket that is to lift the future Orion space capsule, or crew exploration vehicle, to space.

      The rumored shift would abandon Ares I in favor of using an existing military type Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, rocket. The EELV would come from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of The Boeing Co. [BA] and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT]. EELVs are Boeing Delta IVs and Lockheed Atlas Vs. In contrast, different segments of the Ares I are being developed separately by Boeing, Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK] and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTX].

      Mike Griffin, former NASA administrator, said emphatically that the EELV could perform only some of the work that must be done by Ares I, and he firmly opposed the change to EELV, in discussions with Obama transition team members.

      Hale was asked whether an Atlas or Delta rocket would work as well with no tradeoff.

      Tongue firmly in cheek, Hale replied, "I am very pleased to answer that question, because I know the answer, and the answer is ‘No.’ [with a straight face] Somebody else have a question?" [laughter]

      Then, in a serious tone, he said, "Of course there are going to be tradeoffs. It’s a human-rated vehicle. We’ve got human-rating requirements … that won’t quit."

      That comment referred to the fact that while Ares I is being designed as rated to carry humans in space, the EELV rockets aren’t human-rated, being payload-carrying lifters.

      There is enormous discussion about the possible shift, with many critics saying that the EELV wouldn’t do the assigned mission as well as Ares I would.

      Hale, on the one hand, said that Ares I isn’t the sole and only rocket design that might do the job.

      "I think there were many ways, are many ways, to get human beings to low Earth orbit," he said. And he conceded that the Ares I design isn’t perfect.

      "In some ways, I’m not personally entirely satisfied with the path that we’ve chosen," he said.

      But the critical point here is that Ares I is the lifter that was chosen, long years ago, and NASA has moved far past the time for a decision.

      Also, Ares I with certainty will do the job of lifting humans to space.

      "It is a way that will work," Hale said. The Constellation Program is confronting the problem of how to take humans to orbit, "and we are on the way to solving it."

      The bottom line, he said, is that "the course we have chosen will work."

      And the proof of that is taking shape in the form of hard metallic objects. Hale said he had just returned from "the ATK plant … out in Promontory, Utah, and I got really up close and personal with the segments that had been cast for the first … demonstration motor."

      He saw the launch-abort rocket, a small rocket that will fit atop the Orion space capsule, ready to fire and whisk the capsule and its astronaut occupants away to safety if something goes wrong with the Ares I rocket during launch.

      All that and much more already has been accomplished in developing the Ares I, work, time and money that would be wasted if Ares I is abandoned in favor of using EELVs.

      The irony is that if that shift occurs now, at this point, it will happen just as the initial test version of the rocket called Ares I-X is nearing its first flight, about to prove itself.

      While that might be frustrating for some, it certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented, Hale noted.

      "If you look at the last 20 years at NASA, we have started and stopped — I can’t tell you how many times — projects that probably would have worked had they been carried through to fruition," he recalled.

      It’s tough to consider, not because those assets were the one-and-only, the perfect solution, but rather because they were so close to reality, he indicated.

      "Were they the best?" he said. "Were they the only [ones that could possibly work]? Were there other alternatives? [Clearly] there were other alternatives. But once you’ve been on a path for three or four years, and you’re just about to get ready to see if it’s going to work, it makes about zero sense to change course."

      At that point, however, Hale caught himself, adding, "Now, that is not the [official] policy, I’m not speaking for the agency, [laughter], that’s the Wayne Hale opinion. Okay?"

      And he isn’t saying that it would be impossible to begin the extensive work of re-fashioning EELVs to boost Orion to orbit.

      "Could we have put capsules on top of EELVs?" he asked. "Sure."

      But it also is a fact that "it would take time and effort and money. It’s not simple and easy."

      And years of progress would reverse, going back to square one.

      The fact is, the time for that decision is long in the past.

      "We made a decision about three years ago, and now we’re well down this path. And if we stop, and go down another path at this stage, it will cost us time and money," he concluded.

      Then, thinking back on all that he had just said in answering the question, he added, "That one was enough to get me fired," drawing laughter from the audience.

      He also observed that time isn’t a friend of the U.S. space program.

      Continuing to fly the space shuttles poses safety risks, he noted. Hale used to be the space shuttle program manager, and knows the machines well. He also knows they can have serious safety problems.

      "I’m not a big fan of continuing to fly the shuttle, probably because I know it too well," Hale said. "I keep my fingers crossed and hold my breath every time we launch."

      In the quarter-century history of the space shuttles, Challenger had faulty O-rings lead to an explosion that destroyed the orbiter vehicle, and Columbia was hit by foam insulation from its external tank that damaged a wing, later destroying the orbiter vehicle as it attempted the fiery reentry into the atmosphere. In each tragedy, seven people died.

      Just recently, NASA experts have wrestled with safety concerns, examining valves in the fuel system on Space Shuttle Discovery, worries that repeatedly delayed the launch of the STS-119 Mission to the International Space Station. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      But some members of Congress would like to see space shuttles continue to fly after October next year, the retirement date that former President Bush mandated and President Obama has endorsed, save for the possible addition of one flight.

      That retirement date guarantees that NASA, the only space agency to place men on the moon, for half a decade won’t be able to get a single astronaut to space, even to low Earth orbit, in a NASA spaceship until Orion has its first manned flight in 2015.

      If that half-decade gap isn’t shrunk by keeping shuttles flying after the retirement deadline, then the other way to shrink the gap would be to accelerate the first manned flight of Orion to a date sooner than March 2015.

      Last year, Obama during his campaign for president promised people in Central Florida that he would provide another $2 billion for the program, money that could help to accelerate the Constellation Program. Floridians worry about the looming loss of thousands of jobs when shuttles cease flying from Kennedy Space Center. But the money thus far hasn’t been appropriated.

      Hale declined to comment on that issue, saying that is a policy matter for the White House to address.

      As far as his personal preference, "I think all of us in the space flight program would like to see the gap closed."

      But the longer that funding isn’t provided to accelerate the Orion-Ares program, the less chance there is to achieve an earlier manned liftoff to reduce the half-decade gap when NASA can’t transport its astronauts to space, having to rely instead on the Russians and their Soyuz space vehicle.

      "Every day that passes means that the gap is what it is," Hale noted. "So, having more money, we could do more things.

      "So what we really need to do is accelerate the [Orion-Ares] replacement. Frankly, we should have had a replacement 10-15 years ago. So, if [it is the policy of the country] to close the gap, then, yes, it will take more money. And the sooner we can make that decision and have that appropriation made, the sooner we’ll be able to narrow the gap."

      While Hale regards the space shuttles he has managed with wariness, he has no ambivalence about their destination on missions, the International Space Station.

      The station, an artificial moon of the Earth that serves as a giant laboratory for zero-gravity medical and other experiments, is a $100 billion jewel in the sky that only now is about to show what scientific advancements it may contribute.

      Because it takes the work of more than two people just to run the station, and its crew size has been limited to three people maximum, relatively little laboratory work has been accomplished at any given time. But with the installation of new crew quarters and a system that converts human urine and the vapor in exhaled astronauts’ breath into drinking water, the station crew will be able to double to six people, meaning vastly more scientific research being performed in the near-zero-gravity environment, Hale noted.

      Even without that advancement, Hale said, the station has provided a huge payoff, showing how people can live in the confines of a small craft in the hostile environment of space for half a year at a time.

      That has provided invaluable insights into how astronauts will be able to endure missions to Mars, where the flight time might be half a year in each direction, for a total 2.5 years from liftoff on Earth to landing on Earth.

      Even problems become opportunities, such as when a system malfunctions on the station and crew members must learn, on the fly, how to fix it themselves. "When you are on Mars, the Maytag repairman doesn’t come," Hale observed.

      Although the station isn’t authorized for continued operation after 2015, "I think we will" keep it running beyond that time, Hale predicted.

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