August 13, 2005
Chris Shank on VSE

Chris Shank, Special Assistant to Mike Griffin, spoke this morning at the Mars Society Conference on the VSE and related topics.

Amusingly, he started off by pointing out that he didn't use PowerPoint and so had no slides to show, and added that Mike Griffin apparently doesn't like PowerPoint either, nor the bulletized mindset that goes along with it. What amused me about it was that, after he said it, I recalled some research I had done a couple of years back on prior ET-derived launch some point after the cancellation of Shuttle C, circa 1992, the materials I located were no longer official-looking spiral- or tape-bound document-format reports but collections of slides. Granted, a lot of this is probably due to the latter material being prepared for study purposes and not as an end product, but the discovery of the former was surprising at the time. But, I digress...

  • Shank announced that he was optimistic about the future of the civil space program, and used the anecdotal evidence of a 2.5x increase in three years in the undergraduate aerospace engineering enrollment at CU Boulder (the conference's host) to illustrate this. The loss of science and engineering talent represented by Chinese students returning to China to work on its space program is a concerning addition to the Apollo-retirement brain drain.

  • Concerning the controversy in Congress over funding the VSE, he observed that the debate over the Lewis and Clark expedition (and of course Apollo) resembled what we see today, with various factions in Congress contending that the money is better spent elsewhere, etc.

  • He sees a Hubble servicing mission as "worthwhile", something which the audience applauded.

  • RTF ate up a bunch of money that could have been spent on exploration. In general, money limitations mean that base development, surface nuclear power systems, etc. have to wait until after the development of CEV and its launcher are substantially complete.

  • The Discovery mission caught the attention of the White House, and raised the profile of space issues.

  • NASA and DoD have made an agreement concerning launch vehicles (the story going around was that the DoD wanted CEV to ride an EELV to enhance the economics, and was willing to fight any plan by NASA to develop SDVs). The agreement was signed a week ago, with Ron Sega (new space policy pooh-bah?) signing for the Pentagon, and follows from the January space transportation policy calling for NASA/DoD cooperation on the decision. This allows NASA to proceed with new launcher development: Shank announced that the single-stick option with new upper stage would come first, to support initial CEV operations, with a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter to follow after Orbiter retirement in 2010 (didn't say what form of SDV it would be, though). The primary factor in the single-stick decision was that internal NASA configuration studies were unable to get to a CEV with less than 23mt launch weight, putting it out of reach of the EELVs. The single-stick launcher will be designed to launch 25mt to allow for weight growth and payload. CEV is now firmly intended to service ISS as well as the Moon and Mars missions.

  • He acknowledged parts of the moon program "may look a lot like the Apollo program". But, unlike Apollo, these components will have more capability, their missions will go to sites away from the equator, and their tasks will include such things as ISRU demonstration.

  • Speaking of ISRU, it "is in the draft Senate authorization bill as a defined term." This comment also garnered a round of applause, the implication being that (if it remains in the bill) NASA is being specifically directed to work on it.

  • Internally, NASA doesn't separate STS/ISS from the VSE, seeing them instead as an "integrated whole". The ISS completion replan is scheduled to be announced in September. Griffin is working with international partners on ISS on opportunities to participate in VSE -- I don't know if he meant it that way, but it came across as "We're offering them a consolation prize for incompletely completing the station." He then asserted that the ISS provides "testbed capability" for the VSE, which made me wonder if that was what was behind the recent cuts in ISS science -- are they moving to shift from science to engineering development and demonstration in support of manned lunar and planetary missions under VSE?

  • Scott Pace is looking at surface nuclear power options "we can afford". Implication was that we need them, but that they might not be the entirety of a lunar outpost's power supply ("part of the mix" or words to that effect).

  • Others at NASA (missed the names) are revising the robotic missions planned for the next decade. MTO was cancelled because there is "no bandwidth requirement that can't be filled by the Ka band relay of the type on MGS." Which is refreshing -- a NASA mission being cancelled because it simply wasn't needed rather than because it was over budget, over schedule, or the money was needed to feed a hungrier project.

  • NASA is trying to maintain a 2009 launch date for Mars Science Laboratory. New Horizons is still planned for 2006 launch -- Friday's successful Atlas V launch (it's first launch of a planetary science payload) was pleasing to NASA, as it adds to confidence in its reliability w/r/t launching an RTG-powered spacecraft.

  • NASA's new rules on dealing with Congress on budgets: Don't surprise them, and be honest and up-front even if it means saying "we don't know".

  • NASA's number one request for Congress is to rewrite the INPA to relax the limits on manned flights to ISS. If no legislative solution is found, he warned, US may have to decrew the ISS [remove US astronauts] and let the Russians and Russian visitors occupy the station, as soon as April 2006.

  • Regarding the Mars Society's role: "You're one of our best critics." He went on to praise the MS and Zubrin in particular for pushing the "NASA needs a goal" idea.

  • On private space: "You're going to see a lot coming up on how we're going to leverage off the commercial suborbital industry for science experiments that don't need to be done on the space station." Again, this could have something to do with the reported cancellation of ISS may be that they are considering reassigning some of it to commercial carriers.

Posted by T.L. James on August 13, 2005 08:59 PM


Thanks for the Chris Shank update. Anyone seen this yet? It is alleged to be from materials to be distributed at an upcoming AIAA event.

Posted by: Bill White at August 13, 2005 10:08 PM

Superb round-up of Chris Shanks comments - much appreciated.

A side note, the document published in the link kindly noted by Bill White is from the July AIAA.

Posted by: Chris Bergin at August 17, 2005 04:09 AM