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Space Launch Initiative - [Feb 2001 - Nov 2002]

The National Aerospace plane, the Advanced Launch System, the National Launch System, are all past examples of DoD and NASA space transportation programs that, for a variety of reasons, did not succeed. More recently, NASA decided to cancel X-33 and X-34 reusable launch vehicle projects prior to their first flights.

The comprehensive approach outlined in the Integrated Space Transportation Plan provides the Agency with a single integrated investment strategy for all its diverse space transportation efforts. Investments in a sustained progression of research and technology development initiatives will enable us to realize our vision for the next generations of reusable launch vehicles. The ISTP describes the technical roadmaps and funding for the following: near-term Space Shuttle safety investments, Space Launch Initiative (also referred to as the 2nd Generation RLV) in the mid-term, far-term technology investments for the 3rd Generation RLV and beyond.

The main focus of the ISTP is the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). SLI was the highest priority new initiative within the Agency. Also known as the 2nd Generation RLV Program, SLI provides the catalyst for NASA and its partners, including the Department of Defense, to explore new space transportation architectures.

NASA's strategic goals for a next generation RLV are to reduce the risk of crew loss to approximately 1 in 10,000 missions while lowering the cost of delivering payloads to low-Earth orbit to less than $1000 per pound. The long-term vision is to have a commercially competitive vehicle operational around the beginning of the next decade.

In the interim, SLI's Alternate Access to Space Station initiative sought to enable demonstration of alternative U.S. launch systems to the orbiting laboratory.

One example of the integrated approach is the NRA 8-30 award for the Orbital DART mission-an automated rendezvous and proximity operations (ARPO) experiment. This flight experiment was chosen to demonstrate state of the art targeting sensors, automated GN&C algorithms and advanced avionics required for autonomous ISS cargo delivery and support a key element of all 2nd generation RLV architectures.

In 2000 NASA unveiled its Space Launch Initiative, which is aimed at developing the technologies critical for such advanced space transportation systems. NASA intended to spend $4.5 billion between FY 2001 and FY 2005 to develop a "2nd Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle" that would meet NASA's 21st century space launch needs. At this point, NASA decided that the Space Shuttle was the "1st Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle."

Since its introduction, the SLI program experienced a variety of contortions and constantly changing performance goals. Unfortunately, NASA's 21st century space launch needs seemed to change continually. For example, NASA presented SLI as a generic technology development program with a range of applications for non-NASA missions, such as simply placing unmanned payloads in orbit at the lowest-possible cost. NASA expected such a vehicle to be privately-owned and operated and to meet the bulk of U.S. commercial, civil, and military needs for access to space. Conversely, NASA also discussed SLI as a shuttle-replacement program intended to meet NASA's human-space flight needs. The private sector, however, had no need for such complex-and costly-launch vehicles. Thus, NASA's desire to develop a Shuttle replacement conflicts with its desires to develop a low-cost RLV and depend on the private sector for its human spaceflight needs.

In developing the Shuttle and X-33, NASA started with a particular design and then sought to develop the technologies necessary to realize that particular design. In the spring of 2001, NASA reconfigured the SLI Program by employing a new strategy that emphasizes development of launch vehicle component technologies, as opposed to starting with a launch vehicle concept. NASA's new focus is to raise the technology readiness levels (TRL) of "high-risk" technologies to determine what kind of vehicle might be built. In short, SLI's "bottoms up" approach is the opposite of the "top-down" approach taken in the X-33.

NASA re-configured the Space Launch Initiative to develop generic and pre-competitive technology, a critical first step in developing a next generation launch vehicle. The Agency resisted settling on a final vehicle concept at this early stage. This bottoms-up approach is a new way of doing business in the space launch arena and it involves several risks.

Simultaneous with its technology activities, NASA studied various ''launch architectures'' built around a specific vehicle concept. It hoped to conduct these architecture studies in parallel with its technology development activities so that the two processes will benefit one another. The agency also expected to narrow the range of possible launch architectures to two or three by 2003 so that it can begin designing specific launch vehicles.

This technology ''bottoms-up'' approach identifies ten major technology areas (TA) that, when integrated, will enable NASA to decide whether to initiate full-scale development of a new launch vehicle beginning in 2006. The ten technology categories range from system engineering and risk reduction to flight demonstrations of experimental systems. NASA believes that some technology demonstration proposals from industry have strong synergy with other technologies that support non-SLI programs such as launch vehicle /International Space Station rendezvous and docking operations.

Preparation began in March 2000 when industry proposals resulted in the award of nine contracts in an initial step to define detailed requirements and risk reduction options. These companies, which represented both emerging and established launch companies, were part of the effort to ensure that a second generation architecture responds to the needs of a broad range of potential users. In that way, NASA and its industry partners believe the needs of commercial space transportation and the needs of government both will be met.

The studies addressed a space transportation architecture that covers not only possible Earth-to-orbit launch vehicles but also in-space orbit transfer vehicles, ground and flight operations and the technology and infrastructure required to support both. The risk reduction effort is a NASA-wide effort and also involves the U.S. Department of Defense.

Companies selected were Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.; The Boeing Co. of Seal Beach, Calif.; Andrews Space & Technology of El Segundo, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. of Denver, Colo.; The Boeing Company's Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power Division of Canoga Park, Calif.; Pratt & Whitney of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Futron Corp. of Bethesda, Md.; Kelly Space & Technology of San Bernadino, Calif.; and Space Access of Palmdale, Calif.

In August 2000, NASA awarded four small businesses 90-day contracts totaling $902,000 to study how to provide contingency cargo launch services for the International Space Station and what technology development or business planning is needed.

Capable of launching within a week if necessary, the contingency cargo service will enhance the Station's operational flexibility if its primary re-supply vehicles -including the Shuttle and international launchers - are unavailable. The service will help encourage a viable commercial U.S. space transportation industry. The contracts were set aside for small business under the Alternate Access Project of the Space Launch Initiative. Selected for contracts were Andrews Space and Technology and Microcosm Inc., both of El Segundo, Calif.; HMX Ltd. of Reno, Nev.; and Kistler Aerospace Corp. of Kirkland, Wash. With the preliminary work under way, NASA again approached industry, seeking proposals in October 2000.

In May 2001, 22 contracts were awarded. These Initiative partners included The Boeing Co. of Seal Beach, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. of Denver, Colo.; Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.; Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.; Futron Corp. of Bethesda, Md.; Oceaneering Thermal Systems of Houston, Texas; Materials Research & Design of Rosemont, Pa.; MOOG of East Aurora, N.Y.; Southern Research Institute of Birmingham, Ala.; PHPK Technologies of Westerville, Ohio; Sierra Lobo of Fremont, Ohio; Honeywell International Corp. of Glendale, Calif.; General Kinetics of Lake Forrest, Calif.; The Boeing Company's Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power Division of Canoga Park, Calif.; Universal Space Lines of Newport Beach, Calif.; TRW Inc. of Redondo Beach, Calif.; Pratt & Whitney of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Aerojet General Corp. of Sacramento, Calif.; Andrews Space & Technology of El Segundo, Calif.; and Kistler Aerospace Corp. of Kirkland, Wash. Two universities also received contracts: Ohio University in Athens and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

The work of these organizations and dozens more subcontractors from across the nation provided the research and technologies development for the Space Launch Initiative's first milestone review in March 2002. The Architecture and Technology Review narrowed the number of potential next generation reusable space transportation systems to a little over a dozen architectures. Architecture-specific contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin and a team of Northrop Grumman and Orbital Sciences retained a handful of potential architectures following this review.

NASA also reworked its set of launch vehicle technology design requirements in accordance with the new strategy. These requirements were intended to guide the systems analysis and engineering phases of SLI and were divided into primary and secondary categories. The primary set of requirements captures existing NASA-unique mission needs concerning International Space Station re-supply, crew safety, and cost reduction in launch services. Secondary requirements includes theoretical NASA-unique missions-such as rendezvousing with a Mars orbiting vehicle-and ''evolutionary growth paths'' for enabling future commercial development of space and supporting future military launch needs. NASA intended to study the tradeoffs between primary and secondary requirements with an eye towards establishing an optimal mix of primary requirements. However, the criteria by which these tradeoffs will be assessed remained unclear.

The SLI budget request for FY 2002 totaled $475.0 million, which was divided into five major investment areas:

  1. Systems Engineering and Requirements Definition establishes the program direction and determines plans and budgets for new launch vehicle systems.
  2. RLV Competition and Risk Reduction was designed to raise the technology readiness levels of RLV technologies under review.
  3. NASA Unique Systems concentrates on developing and demonstrating the designs, technologies and systems level integration issues associated with government unique space transportation needs.
  4. Alternative Access to Space (which was not included in the initial SLI procurement awards) seeks to take advantage of all U.S. launch systems and utilize then for ISS re-supply.
  5. The Future X/Pathfinder program objective was to flight demonstrate advanced space transportation technologies by flight-testing.

NASA has often been criticized for focusing on developing new technologies for optimal vehicle performance. By designing for maximum vehicle performance, NASA may lose sight of more mundane issues such as reliability and operability. Operability and reliability, however, may play a greater role in determining the final cost of an RLV than performance. Engineers sometimes describe the high-performance space shuttle as a formula 1 racer. They worry that by focusing on building a better formula 1 racer, NASA's past RLV efforts have ignored the need for more reliable, albeit less high-tech, transportation to space. SLI's "bottoms-up" approach to technology and its decision to avoid prematurely selecting a final design may allow NASA to pursue operability and reliability objectives in a 2nd Generation RLV. NASA's space programs traditionally do not adopt this model of generic technology development, but its successful aeronautics programs historically have.

NASA must also reconcile the contradictory goals of meeting its human space flight needs, reducing the cost of getting payloads to orbit, and depending on the private sector to develop, finance, and operate its spacecraft. If NASA is the only customer for privately-owned and operated spacecraft carrying people into space, there may be no advantages in a privately-owned and operated spacecraft. Conversely, if NASA excessively focuses on meeting its human spaceflight needs without regard to commercial realities, any RLV that results from the SLI may not be commercially viable. In that event, SLI's benefit to the country would be limited to any impact the program had on NASA.

Additionally, there were no guarantees the SLI procurement awards will produce hardware that ever flies in space. NASA must not permit the study phases captured within the 2nd Generation RLV Program to overshadow the need for delivering tested, demonstrated, and validated hardware. Too often, generic technology development programs never leave the laboratory and are never practically applied in space. The consequences of failure in this case will only extend U.S. dependence on the costly Space Shuttle for human spaceflight and less-than-ideal ELVs for non-crewed payloads. Constant oversight of major program phases will be the key in ensuring program success.




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