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credit NASA / caption: so near yet so far, acceleration as an option is receding for NASA’s Ares boosters

You can read Aviation Week and Space Technology space editor Frank Morring’s article about NASA’s Constellation programme acceleration report here and read the report itself here

While Morring concludes that the acceleration study has been overtaken by events it is interesting that the report has come to light after the publication of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel’s (ASAP) 2008 annual report. It states that increased funding for the Constellation progamme in the short term will not bring forward the Orion-Ares operational in-service date

Beginning in April last year and concluding on 18 December the acceleration study’s report was released on 20 April and whether you think it has been overtaken by events or not it makes for some interesting reading especially in light of the ASAP report

Interestingly the report says on the first page of the executive summary:

These suggested simplifications [removing lunar capabilities from lunar vehicles] can be implemented independent of acceleration to realize a cost savings of up to $500M.

The report refers just to “lunar vehicles” suggesting that the $500 million saving could come from deferring Ares I crew launch vehicle’s extended nozzle (and other lunar mission modifications?) as well as Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV) Moon mission features

Whether NASA’s fiscal year 2010 budget supports acceleration or not a $500 million saving might just be what NASA has to contend with simply because of the budgetary situation it is in now and for the foreseeable future

The report also talks about re-inserting the lunar capabilities ditched for cost savings later as a “block upgrade”. Whether there is a block one Orion for International Space Station missions and block two CEV for going to the Moon has always depended on who you were asking and when

Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin always denied any block difference yet Lockheed back in 2006 were happy to talk about two blocks and software and star trackers being the main difference and since then NASA’s own Orion documentation has referred to the two blocks on numerous occasions

But what is most curious about the acceleration report is the way it sets out three options for bringing Constellation forward. Reading them today after reading the 2008 ASAP report I find it hard to believe that that panel did not see this report first, because the options are knocked down like skittles quite frankly

And if that was not enough the acceleration report itself says

Because of the need to initiate long lead item procurements, any delay in an acceleration decision beyond mid-2009 would preclude any significant acceleration.

It is easy to see conspiracies everywhere in journalism and I thought that this is one occasion to indulge in that human tendency simply because the acceleration report and the ASAP report simply dove tail far too nicely

With these reports the picture that NASA’s management is painting for us, it would seem, if you like conspiracies, is that more money won’t help, Shuttle should not continue and the current path is the right one

It is an argument that suits the new status quo very nicely. With the imminent placing of design support contracts for the Ares V cargo launch vehicle and Altair lunar lander, no doubt with the family of Space Shuttle contractors, by June all of the Constellation vehicles will have multi-year, multi-million dollar design and development processes in place

Minimal change, accept the schedule slips, do not consider other options, fund the plan, which is, end Shuttle next year, develop Ares I and Orion to 2015 and subsequently focus on Ares V and Altair, and by the way the space programme’s industrial partners all have substantial vested interests in this course

So to be conspiratorial, these reports are major salvos for this argument in the run up to what will be an increasingly turbulent year with a new administrator, a new unknown budget that might not be a continuing resolution for once, and a blue ribbon panel review of the “core mission”

But of course I have no evidence for this whatsoever