Sacramento CA (SPX) Mar 09, 2007
The new Democratic Congress has now officially passed its "Continuing Resolution" funding NASA for Fiscal Year 2007 at the same level as the agency's FY 2006 funding, in response to the previous GOP Congress' total, failure to pass a final budget for NASA (or for most of the rest of the American government) before closing down.
There was a good deal of speculation that Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) and Kay Hutchison (R-Texas) might succeed in attaching a sudden additional $1 billion to the funding -- as they persuaded the Senate to do last year -- but this time, they didn't even try.
The main consequence of this move is that NASA, in FY 2007, will get fully $546 million less than the White House had wanted -- and its "Exploration Systems" division (the official name for President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration") will get $576 million less. (The total budget for the rest of NASA's activities has actually been slightly hiked by the Democrats -- largely because of a big $166 million raise in the funds given to aeronautics research.)
The "Space Operations" division -- the official name for the ongoing Shuttle and International Space Station program -- will, on the other hand, be cut by only a modest $95 million below what the White House had wanted.
In my last report on this, I mistakenly inferred that the new rejection of Mikulski's and Hutchison's attempt to add a billion to NASA's budget indicated that the new Congress might also be highly skeptical of the Shuttle/ISS program, because the two Senators sold this addition on the basis of its being "compensation" to NASA for the steadily rising costs of returning the Space Shuttle to flight after the Columbia disaster.
On this point I was wrong; those additional costs had already been taken into account in the White House's budget.
That additional billion dollars would not have gone specifically to Shuttle/ISS; it was instead a general increase to NASA's budget as a whole, although it was labelled as "general compensation" to NASA for those rising costs. The NASA Administrator would have been free to spend them as he wished, except that the money would have been split roughly 50-50 between manned and unmanned programs.
Indeed, that added billion could best be described as a single gigantic Congressional earmark to NASA's funding, although -- unlike the other $100 million in earmarks tacked onto Bush's budget by last year's Senate (before the final failure of House and Senate to come up with a compromise NASA budget) -- it wasn't assigned to some specific project by the Congressional member who originally proposed it.
The new Congress has rejected all the earmarks attached to NASA's FY 07 budget by the last Congress, although it remains to be seen whether the Democrats -- now that they have control of Congress -- will be as steadfast in rejecting their own earmarks for NASA's budget starting with the Fiscal Year 2008 budget. (Mikulski has already indicated that there's a good chance she will try to tack that extra billion back onto NASA's budget for Fiscal Year 2008.)
But certainly the new Congress -- contrary to my earlier speculations -- is unwilling after all to take an axe and give the same forty whacks to the Shuttle/ISS budget that it has done to Bush's follow up manned space program, although many outside observers think on balance Bush's "VSE" is more justifiable and cost-effective than the almost useless Station is at this point.
The real political factor is simply that a very large number of Congressional Democrats as well as Republicans loyally voted funds for Shuttle and Station over the last two decades -- including President Clinton's two terms -- and, in the classic tradition of politicians everywhere, they are unwilling to publicly admit that they were mistaken in doing so. By contrast, the VSE is Bush's personal creation, is just now beginning -- and so is a natural target for politicians of the other party.
In any case, that cut of over a half billion dollars in the FY 2007 budget for Bush's manned space program is now a fait accompli, and NASA Administrator Griffin has already made it publicly clear that he is very unhappy with it. But what will its exact consequences be? The answer hinges on the fact that the VSE can be pretty clearly split into two separate parts: (1) development of a new manned Earth-orbital spacecraft; and (2) Bush's planned followup of a manned return to the Moon by 2020 and establishment of a small, permanently manned base near the Moon's south pole.
And that first part -- development of the Orion manned spacecraft and its new "Ares 1" booster -- is in turn linked to the International Space Station. Griffin has stated flatly that he intends to end the Shuttle program immediately as soon as it has finished ferrying up all the remaining pieces of the Station in 2010.
The task of actually ferrying up crewmembers and supplies to the Station for the remaining six years or more in which it is actually supposed to do all the remaining science planned for it will instead fall either to the Russians, Japan and the European Space Agency, or to new American craft -- and one of those is Orion, which is not only supposed to act as a 6-man crewed taxi to the Station, but will have an unmanned, non recoverable variant which will periodically fly cargo to the Station (as with the current Russian Soyuz and Progress ferries to the Station).
But while Orion was supposed to start its flights to the Station in 2014 -- making two manned and four unmanned cargo flights to the ISS by the end of 2015 -- this leaves a gap of fully four years between the end of Shuttle and the start of Orion's flights to the Station, during which the US will have to rely entirely on the Russians to fly crew members to and from the Station -- and will also have to rely on them and on Europe's and Japan's near-future cargo-carrier spacecraft for cargo transport, unless the US develops another cargo carrier vehicle as well.
This is in fact the purpose of the new "COTS" (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, which is a partnership with two private space-transportation companies (Space-X and Rocketplane Kistler) to develop such unmanned vehicles, with each company supposedly launching three test flights in 2008-09 before NASA picks one or both of them as a permanent contractor to start transporting cargo to the Station in 2010.
The question is how much that new, sudden half-billion cut in VSE spending will have on this part of NASA's manned space program, as opposed to the later manned lunar program (whose first unmanned test flights aren't supposed to start until 2018). The COTS program, starting in Fiscal year 2007, has been officially moved by Bush from "Space Operations" (Shuttle-Station) to "Exploration Systems" (the VSE).
At his press conference announcing the White House's new planned Fiscal Year 2008 budget for NASA, Griffin expressed worries that this new cut is big enough that it will affect the development schedules for even the Earth-orbital version of Orion, delaying it past 2014 -- since, of the $3.978 billion Bush wanted for Exploration Systems in FY 2007, over $2 billion would have gone to development of Orion, Ares 1 and the Orion program's ground facilities.
And since the COTS program is now also part of the VSE, Bush and Griffin -- in order to avoid any danger of choking off America's ability to fly manned and cargo mission to the Station -- must now make very large cuts in the second part of Bush's vision, namely the manned lunar program, for at least so long as the Democratic Congress is determined to use the VSE (rather than Shuttle/Station or space sciences) to make its large cuts in NASA spending. Which is precisely what the new Congress intended.
At the press conference, Griffin said that NASA will try to find ways to cut the total estimated cost of the COTS Program over the next five fiscal years from $2.1 billion down to only $1.2 billion -- but it's very much open to question whether this can be done by engineering changes, no matter how clever. Something big will certainly have to be cut out of the manned lunar program in the short run. But the main new parts of that program -- the Saturn 5-sized "Ares 5" booster, the hydrogen-fueled "Earth Departure Stage" which would both boost the lunar Orion craft to escape velocity and then brake it into lunar orbit, and the "Lunar Surface Access Module" (the new, economy-sized 4-man version of the Apollo Lunar Module) -- have not even begun serious development yet.
And so Griffin said that there is only one really logical place to look for big short-term cuts in the manned lunar program: the program of new unmanned lunar spacecraft intended as short-term preparation for the later manned expeditions: "That would be the only bill payer that I can find." That program has not only had its name changed now from "Robotic Lunar Exploration Program" to "Lunar Precursor Robotic Program"; it's been drastically modified and shrunken, at least over the next five years or so.
It's maddeningly difficult to keep accurate track of just how much the White House's planned spending on various individual parts of NASA has actually changed from last year, because the White House chose just this year to switch to a new "full-cost simplification" system of accounting that has shuffled funds around in a very complex way between different sections of NASA.
For instance, under the old NASA accounting system which the White House used last year, it asked for $273 million in the FY 2007 budget for the robotic lunar program -- but under the new system being used this year, that FY 07 request was actually for $285 million. Even so, it's clear that Griffin has decided to take a big whack out of the lunar robotic program -- in last year's request it was stated that NASA would want $367 million for the program in FY 2008, but in the actual new FY 08 budget that has been cut all the way down to only $278 million.
And that is despite the fact that planned FY 2008 spending for the first unmanned lunar mission -- the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, planned for October 2008 -- has actually gone up by $45 million. This program is already so far under way that it's impractical to cut its FY 2008 spending by delaying it. Instead, a technical problem forced radical redesign of the mission last year, raising its cost (although also allowing a hike in its science output).
The problem was the fact that the small Delta 2 booster originally intended to launch LRO has a solid third stage that's non guided and spins like a bullet to stabilize itself. Usually this produces no problem; but LRO has unusually big liquid fuel tanks in order to keep making the small course corrections needed to keep it in a low 50-km circular lunar orbit, given the lumpiness of the Moon's gravitational field that tends to drag spacecraft down into crash landings within a few weeks.
And tests indicated that the spin might make the fuel slosh around dangerously inside these tanks and throw the spacecraft and the third stage into a disastrous wobble during the burn. Attempts to design slosh baffles to eliminate the problem in the tanks didn't work out well, and so NASA switched LRO's booster to Atlas 5, which has a fully self-stabilized final stage that avoids the problem.
But Atlas 5 is also a bigger and more costly booster. And on top of that, it has excess capability -- it could launch fully twice as much mass to the Moon as LRO -- and NASA decided to take advantage of this by hastily adding a second, piggyback spacecraft weighing as much as LRO, but costing much less, to the mission. That spacecraft -- "LCROSS" (Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite) -- will remain attached to the front end of the Atlas' final stage, and actually stabilize and propel the stage into a trajectory crashing it into the permanently shadowed floor of the 19-km wide Shackleton Crater near the Moon's south pole.
The rim of Shackleton has been pretty firmly selected as the location for the planned permanent manned lunar base which is to be constructed by the first ten manned lunar landings of the VSE, before humans begin venturing out from it to explore other parts of the Moon, Apollo-style
The little Lunar Prospector satellite launched in 1998 detected small but significant concentrations of hydrogen (about 0.0015%) in the surface material near both the Moon's poles, which would seem to confirm the theory that the Moon might actually still have water ice frozen into the soil in the perpetually cold permanently shadowed crater floors near those poles -- presumably deposited over the eons by comets crashing into the Moon so that a large part of their vaporized water then drifted over the poles and refroze there. If so, it would be an extremely valuable resource making establishment of a manned lunar base far easier than if all water, oxygen and hydrogen had to be shipped from Earth.
Also, some parts of the high rims of some of these craters --including Shackleton -- are apparently permanently sunlit, with no 2-week lunar night -- making it far easier for a manned base there to power itself with solar cells. (The permanently shadowed craters at the Moon's south pole seem, by chance, to be bigger than those at its north pole -- and Shackleton, with its apparently permanently sunlit rim, is the best site of all for such a manned base utilizing both solar power and local ice.)
But it's not yet certain that the polar hydrogen is in the form of water; it may just be ordinary hydrogen (without oxygen) that's reached the Moon from the solar wind and been soaked up by the cold local lunar soil over the eons. In that case it will be far less useful as an in-situ resource for a manned base and the design of the latter will have to be radically changed accordingly (although even such hydrogen by itself might still be a useful resource for the base).
LRO's purpose -- in addition to making far more complete photographic and altitude maps of the Moon's whole surface than we now have -- is to intensely study those shadowed crater floors using radar, infrared, ultraviolet and neutron instruments to try and settle once and for all whether there really is water ice mixed into the soil there. And LCROSS would provide further data on that by steering the Atlas' final stage into a powerful crash there -- with the LCROSS spacecraft separating from the stage shortly before impact, trailing it by several minutes, and using visible and infrared cameras and spectrometers to look (along with Earth-based telescopes) for any big cloud of water vapor thrown up by the impact, thus determining whether any surface permafrost that LRO detects is merely a very thin surface layer or a much thicker deposit.
But while the redesigned LRO mission will thus provide more science than before, it will also cost more -- $45 million more. (The "Science Now" Internet news column of the journal "Science" reported that a second piggyback craft had been added to the mission -- "LEEAH", a small lunar satellite proposed as an alternative to LCROSS, which would study the possible problems from radiation and electrostatic ally suspended dust near the lunar surface. But, I have now been told by LEEAH's would-be co-investigator, Robert Lin of UC-Berkeley, that this report was wrong and LEEAH is still not part of the mission.)
So the big cuts that must be made to the lunar robotics program in response to the Democratic Congress' general VSE axe must be focused still further -- on the following unmanned lunar missions in the LPRP program. This is exactly what's now happened.
NASA's original plan was to make the next RLEP after LRO a lander at Shackleton. It would touch down on the permanently illuminated part of the rim -- in the process testing automatic surface-feature mapping systems to allow precision landings and avoid dangerous obstacles -- and would then make several months' observations to confirm that this area really is permanently illuminated and thus excellent for solar panels.
It would also study the very fine rock dust making up part of the Moon's soil, which was revealed by the Apollo missions to be a first-class nuisance for lunar exploration -- it's both abrasive and sticky, and tends to both gum up moving parts and to coat and interfere with thermal radiators. (It even appears to be suspended by electrostatic forces to form a faint mist stretching dozens of kilometers above the lunar surface -- enough to produce a sunset horizon glow clearly seen by the Surveyor spacecraft that landed in the 1960s, and maybe to seriously interfere with possible use of the Moon as a base for future telescopic observatories.) Possible means of cleaning it off using electrical charges could be tested. The lander would also contain a small package to test the effects of radiation and the Moon's one-sixth G on tissue samples over long periods.
The most important function of the RLEP-2 lander, however, would be to dispatch a roving vehicle into the perpetually shadowed main floor of the crater. This might be simply a wheeled rover, or a little rocket-propelled "hopper" vehicle to jump directly from one part of the surface to another place kilometers away -- the latter seems to be quite a practical means of surface exploration for a world as low-gravity as the Moon. In either case the vehicle would navigate using several different techniques, use scanning lidar (laser radar) to map the local surface and flash-illuminated cameras to actual photos.
Its purpose would be to study the surface with ground-penetrating radar and drill as much as 2 meters deep to analyze the resultant samples and conclusively settle just how much water frost really is mixed into the surface there, how deep it seems to run, how lumpy its local distribution is, and how much power may be required to dig up the local surface soil and mine it for ice (or for solar-wind hydrogen). Either as a rover of a hopper, it would study 10-20 spots scattered across the width of the crater. The vehicle would be powered either by a plutonium-fueled RTG, or by a fuel cell (since, in that perpetually frigid spot at minus 210 deg C., liquid hydrogen and oxygen could be easily stored in tanks without any need for insulation).
This sounds like quite a reasonable mission -- but when it was first being planned in late 2005, there was an unexpected twist. NASA headquarters -- reportedly at the urging of advisor Stuart Nozette -- unexpectedly demanded that the lander should in fact be the first test flight of a very big unmanned cargo-carrier lander design which could then be used (fully a decade later) to carry as much as 3.5 metric tons of supplies and equipment per landing to that manned lunar base. Moreover, NASA demanded that this lander should actually test-fly a very big throttle able hydrogen-fueled RL-10 engine -- four of which are supposed to be used on the manned LSAM lander -- and also test the actual autopilot systems, which the manned lander would use.
The result was a hulking 10 metric-ton behemoth standing 9 meters high -- requiring four long, stilt-like legs just to keep its huge engine bell from hitting the surface on landing -- with a multi-ton excess cargo capability which NASA hoped would be filled by unspecified "commercial interests", and which was so heavy that it might have to be launched by the same Ares 1 booster being developed for the Earth-orbiting manned Orion craft. And this craft was nevertheless to be launched as early as 2011, although it might never make another lunar flight for a decade!
Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama was given main responsibility for designing this King Kong of unmanned lunar landers -- and predictably its price almost immediately shot up from the initial estimate of $750 million to almost twice that. The RLEP program's deputy manager complained that "I certainly don't have" that much money.
The RLEP program's director suddenly quit at the end of March 2006; and Scott Horowitz, the administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Directorate (the overall manager for the VSE), ordered complete redesign of the mission -- with a lander not using the RL-10 engine, having at absolute most 850 kg excess capacity for "commercial payloads" (and probably none), and costing a maximum of only $300 million -- that is, a return to the original concept of a relatively small, cheap lunar lander designed specifically for exploration.
However, in yet another demonstration of the primacy of pork in Washington politics, Alabama's influential Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) immediately put massive pressure on NASA causing it to switch overall management of the RLEP program from the Ames Research Center in California to the Marshall Center as compensation -- and, in summer 2006, to reject an alternative plan proposed by the Ames center for a series of very small, cheap "microlanders" to carry out missions of this sort. And there things stood uncertainly for the remainder of the year, while NASA's budget troubles continued to mount.
But in November, the voters handed control of the Senate over to the Democrats, draining off a lot of Shelby's clout and thus removing the last obstacle against NASA Administrator Griffin's plan to radically scale down and delay the unmanned lunar exploration program after LRO in order to try to make NASA's ends meet.
Thus his new Fiscal Year 2008 NASA budget proposal -- at the same time that it provides $45 million in additional funding for the LRO/LCROSS mission -- brutally chops down the planned 2008 funding for follow-up lunar spacecraft from $286 million to only $119 million, at the same time that it raises planned 2008 funding for development of unmanned cargo carrier ferries to the International Space Station from $132.5 million to $236 million. NASA had originally planned to spend $1.9 billion on the unmanned lunar program over the next five years -- making it, as Griffin said, the most logical piggy bank for any additional emergency near-future funding needed to keep the Station's COTS program going.
And this FY 2008 budget was planned before the Democratic Congress chopped an additional $577 million out of NASA's desired 2007 $3.978 billion budget for the VSE, with the likely prospect that they will do so again with its $3.924 billion 2008 VSE request. If this happens, NASA may virtually eliminate funding for any unmanned VSE lunar spacecraft after the LRO for the time being, restarting the project -- along, perhaps, with most of the rest of the lunar portion of Bush's VSE -- only when later circumstances may allow it.
Griffin has announced that NASA will begin revealing its response to the new Congress' additional cuts when NASA's FY 2007 "Operating Plan" is announced on March 15, describing precisely how it intends to distribute the new huge cut in VSE funding -- which will almost certainly also involve big cuts in near-future development funding for the big Ares 5 "Heavy Lift" lunar booster and the LSAM manned lunar-landing craft.
What kind of follow-up unmanned lunar-lander will NASA finally fly in the renamed "Lunar Precursor Robotic Program" whenever it finally does fly it? Well -- although the Marshall Center still remains in general charge of the program -- not only will the Shackleton lander be drastically shrunken back down to its original modest size; it will be split into two still smaller separate missions.
The first would be the "Polar Light" mission, a small lander -- the first of a standardized series of such landers -- which would touch down on the illuminated rim of Shackleton to test precision-landing and hazard-avoidance systems (one of the most important goals of the LPRP program), make those lengthy observations of the true lighting conditions there, make the dust and biological studies, and scoop up soil from next to the lander to determine just how much hydrogen is in that sunlit soil, thus both calibrating the accuracy of the orbital hydrogen measurements and further checking whether the buildup of hydrogen detected from lunar orbit is actually due to solar-wind hydrogen generally concentrated at the Moon's poles, rather than being concentrated specifically in the permanently shadowed "crater cold traps" as water ice or hydrogen. This lander would be stationary -- it wouldn't carry any rover at all, unless extra funding was provided for a tiny local one.
Only later would the "Polar Dark" mission be separately flown to land on the dark-shrouded floor of Shackleton and look specifically for local water-ice permafrost. This might consist of a similar lander touching down on that dark surface and lasting just long enough to dispatch a long-lived rover, as with the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers. Or it might involve such a lander carrying extra fuel so that the lander itself could fly about from one place on Shackleton's floor to another.
There is still a scientific debate going on as to whether the possible ice on Shackleton's floor may be so patchily distributed that a full-scale rover trek of 25 km or so across the crater will be necessary to properly survey it (using ground-penetrating radar to locate small local concentrated permafrost patches), or whether such a "hopper" might be able to provide an adequate survey with only a dozen stationary landing spots -- or maybe even as few as four. The far more detailed mapping of possible polar ice patches provided by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's multiple ice-mapping instruments will likely be necessary to settle this debate.
And there may be radical revisions even of this plan. A study group in spring 2006 pointed out that mapping Shackleton's floor for water ice, and determining the physical form and depth in which it exists, is actually a higher-priority item than doing those checks on the permanent solar illumination of the crater's rim: "Illumination conditions at least can be modeled from orbital data. Water concentration and distribution cannot." On the other hand, the Polar Light lander might find that the Moon's polar hydrogen exists in both sunlit and dark areas, in which case there would be no need to fly the more complex Polar Dark mission at all.
(A separate "Pyroclastic Lander" might also then be launched to examine the small fields of volcanic ash sprinkled across the Moon -- such at Aristarchus Crater or Sulpicius Gallus -- to look for higher concentrations of hydrogen in the minerals there. There is no doubt that, if we're really willing to work at it, we could extract oxygen from the Moon's surface minerals -- especially titanium dioxide -- virtually anywhere, although this would be much harder and require much more energy than simply mining any water-ice permafrost deposits.)
Moreover, any lander anywhere at Shackleton will need a small polar-orbiting lunar comsat to reliably relay back their data from the south pole, since they will probably be out of line-of-sight communications with Earth. Should this be launched along with the first Shackleton lander, or separately in advance -- maybe with more science instruments of its own? (Before the Goddard center and Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory were assigned to be junior partners in the Marshall center's ill-fated gargantuan lunar-lander project, they had proposed a lightweight mission in which the main craft would initially orbit the Moon, serve as the comsat for a hopper that would land and survey Shackleton's floor for water ice, and then later itself land on the crater's permanently-lit rim to make the mission's other studies.)
At any rate, it now seems that the fate of President Bush's overall manned lunar program is now very much in doubt -- this program as a whole now seems to be the logical "piggy bank" for the Democrat-controlled Congress to raid both for total federal budget cuts, and for emergency funding of other NASA programs that find themselves in fiscal trouble. And even if it survives in delayed form, the design of Bush's program beyond the 2008 LRO mission is now entirely up in the air.
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