Is A Human Space Flight Compromise Emerging?

Keith's note: Only a week and a half remain before the much-anticipated Space Summit at NASA KSC on 15 April. While no public mention has been made as to venue, agenda, participants, audience etc., there does seem to be a general consensus forming behind the scenes as to what sort of rethinking might be acceptable to all parties with regard to where NASA human spaceflight is going.

This is the consensus that seems to forming in and among NASA, OSTP, and NSC: Ares 1 and 5 remain cancelled. Orion is continued - but in a "Lite" variant designed to ferry people to and from ISS. This "Orion Lite" would fly on human-rated EELVs and would be, in essence, a government competitor to what NASA is also encouraging the so-called "Merchant 7" (SpaceX, Orbital et al) to develop. The commercial activities would remain unchanged from what was announced in February. Meanwhile, NASA will continue to fly the Space Shuttle albeit at a stretched out rate (2 or so flights/year) while ET production is restarted.

In addition to closing the "gap" for American human spaceflight, stretched out Space Shuttle operations will allow a rapid implementation of a Shuttle-C ("Sidemount") HLV to be developed. This Shuttle-C HLV will carry cargo, but no crew. The Shuttle-C will be a direct upgrade to the existing Space Shuttle Orbiter system with only the Orbiter replaced with engines and a cargo carrier. Everything else remains the way it is now.

DIRECT and other "inline" shuttle-derived concepts are no longer being given serious consideration. With specific regard to DIRECT, despite their voluminous and detailed claims, the costs that they depend upon to make their case are simply incorrect and not credible - and NASA knows this (they checked with the companies involved). This is all about cost right now. Accurate costs.

While keeping Orion alive, NASA will also seek to develop a human-rated exploration spacecraft that only operates in space. The initial version will likely use unused ISS modules (enhanced MPLMs, Node X, Hab Module, ISS ECLSS) and Constellation systems. Its component parts would be launched by the Shuttle/Shuttle-C. The exploration vehicle will be assembled on-orbit at the ISS. This exploration spacecraft will be a pathfinder for more complex systems that will be able to traverse cis-lunar space on a regular basis.

These ideas will be voiced by various participants at the Space Summit. It is anticipated that NASA will be called upon to do a routine 30-60 study following the summit and that formal White House approval would come some time during the Summer.

If adopted by the White House, and accepted by Congress, this "compromise" (no doubt the White House will want to use some euphemism instead) will bring layoff numbers back down from the looming abyss that overt Constellation cancellation and Shuttle retirement would have caused; keeps the Administration's interest in commercial space alive; retains in-house NASA experience in human spaceflight systems (development and operations), brings the ISS to its full potential -and then some; and looks to field human-rated spacecraft capable of leaving LEO much sooner than Constellation is ever likely to have done.

Of course, as with just about anything associated with this Space Summit, its stealth modus operandi, and interagency squabbles, this may all change, your mileage may vary, etc. As always, stay tuned.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on April 5, 2010 9:00 PM.

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