Aeronautics conference evaluates new budget and fiscal realities

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) held its annual conference Sept. 10-12 in San Diego, Calif., and assessed space exploration and technologies amidst a shifting fiscal landscape.

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 The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA, Reston, Virginia) dealt with redirected missions, budget cuts and other threats to a healthy space program at its annual conference and exposition, held Sept. 10-12 at the San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, Calif., USA.

First on the agenda, Jeffrey Puschell, AIAA Recognition Chair for Space 2013, presented the Von Braun award for excellence in space program management to Lt. Gen. Eugene L. Tattini, deputy director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory since July 2001. In accepting the award, Tattini announced that he is stepping down after 12 years in this position and 49 years in the space industry, and stated that his main goal had been “to create an environment for people to do great work.”

Hearing the speakers mourn budget cuts from 4.5 percent of the federal budget in 1966 to less than 0.5 percent and rumors of further reductions in 2013, the 904 attendees couldn’t be blamed if they seriously wondered if NASA would be able to reinvent itself. But then, consideration of ingenuity, collaboration and diversity in 2012 brought a long list, including the successful launch and landing of Curiosity’s Mars Science Laboratory; JPL’s ingenious sky crane concept for landing Curiosity on Mars; NASA's black-hole-hunter spacecraft, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR; discovery of ice on Saturn’s moon; watching polar ice sheets melting in Greenland; sighting a Martian dust storm; discovery and exploration of the giant asteroids Ceres and 4 Vesta; a video of the far side of the moon; and the spacecraft Voyager I, which became the first Earth-made “tourist” to enter interstellar space, having left home in 1977. And more.

The things humans do in space—communicate, observe and explore—have seen the birth of such diverse commercial ventures as John Deere (Moline, Illinois) tractors with GPS coverage and satellite diagnostics—so tractors can now sense characteristics of the soil ahead of them—and private companies in commercial space exploration, including Virgin Galactic and others breaking into space tourism.

“Can we collaborate across competitors?” asked Gabe Watson, VP Northrop Grumman—and answered, “We call it ‘competimates’ with constraints and legal protection for all parties.” He named the area of collaboration that is most needed is a “drive to common standards.”

Another area of collaboration is the NASA asteroid redirect mission, which was begun in response to the focus on asteroids initiated by President Barack Obama in 2010. The purpose of this collaboration between three NASA directorates and potential commercial companies is in part to investigate techniques for alleviating threats to Earthlings from asteroid impact on our planet. This threat was enforced by the explosion of a meteor over Russia in February of this year. In general, the idea is for NASA astronauts to use Orion—its multi-purpose crew vehicle for deep space, or beyond-Earth-orbit (BEO) exploration goals—to capture and then redirect a 7m/23 ft asteroid into a stable orbit around the moon for detailed inspection and sample return. Later, the captured asteroid in lunar orbit would be available for commercial companies to visit and explore 'mining' techniques. NASA sees this as an opportunity for multiple benefits, notably testing of solar electric power, gaining experience with Orion in BEO, and gaining human experience in BEO, as well as investigation and research of the resources available on an asteroid.

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., advises that Orion has considerable composites in its secondary structure. Further, he notes that NASA is investigating replacing the solid rocket motors with liquid boosters utilizing composite tanks, one of several options being considered to increase the performance of the heavy lift launch vehicle."

Ed Mango, Commercial Crew Program manager at NASA Kennedy Space Center, chaired a panel representing the five commercial crew and cargo competitors. NASA is a financial investor and technical consultant to its commercial partners in CCP, which is designed to ultimately get humans launching from U.S. soil to low-Earth orbit again, and provide the U.S. with its own transportation to the International Space Station. The program is wrapping up its second development phase (CCDev2) and is mid-way through its third, tagged Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). Industry partners including Blue Origin (Kent, Wash.), which has an unfunded agreement for a space vehicle and crew capsule using composite materials; The Boeing Co. (Houston, Texas) with its primarily spun aluminum CST-100 crew spacecraft; Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems’ (SNC, Louisville, Colo.) all-composites DreamChaser (see HPC May 2013 Focus on Design); and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.), which will use composites on its Dragon crew spacecraft but considers the details proprietary. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. (Dulles, Virginia), are already now contracted to transport cargo to the ISS.

According to Mango, the total cost for the final crewed spacecraft award, including both NASA and commercial investment to date, will be $2 billion to $4 billion for one of the industry partners. Mango said he would like more than one company in the next phase of certification efforts so the total would amount to $4 billion to $8 billion for two successful crewed spacecraft capable of carrying crew and cargo into LEO and to the ISS. “The mood in the executive and congressional sides in Washington D.C. is getting stronger” for this program, Mango says. “They understand the importance of U.S. capability for ISS access.” Final bids are expected by the end of year, and the final contract hopefully will be signed in July 2014. (Mango adds that the last contract with Russia for a Soyuz mission to the ISS was $71 million per seat.)

Though AIAA pushed ahead with well-presented sessions on a large variety of space projects, the mood of the event was somewhat somber and apprehensive of what would next come out of Washington, D.C. The question of the day was, “what is likely to happen in the future?” A funding shift is taking place from military and NASA to civil and commercial. To survive, the business of space needs to find new business structures, new capital and pursue continuing innovation—and increasing collaboration. This conference is proof of launch in that direction. 

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