The summer I turned seven years old, my family made the classic American vacation road trip down Route 66 to California. Our end goal was Disneyland in Anaheim, but we made every tourist stop on the way. The only enduring memento that I have from that trip – aside from pictures in an album somewhere—is a glass paperweight from the Painted Desert National Park in Arizona. Some clever artisan took different colored sand and made a picture in the tightly capped glass with layers of sand in various hues.
At NASA, budget charts frequently project and program costs into the future with the various elements making up the total in a graphical form with time on the x-axis. Since the various cost elements are always shown in different colors, the pattern is not much different from that vacation paperweight. At NASA, such budget projections are frequently referred to as “sand charts”. Maybe they are at other agencies as well.
After the Columbia loss, there was a furious space policy debate in Washington. The “Shawcross Option” was to never fly the shuttle again, deorbit the incomplete ISS, and turn NASA into a pure R&D organization with half its existing budget. That option was nearly chosen. But the nation’s senior leadership determined that there were too many international commitments which would be undermined by unilaterally abandoning the ISS and the shuttle was required to complete the ISS construction. Going further, a national policy of space exploration beyond low earth orbit was defined. Policies without funding are ineffective, so NASA was tasked to quickly propose a multiyear budget to fund shuttle, ISS, and the nascent exploration initiative. The Chief Financial Officer of the agency, Steve Isakowitz, put together the estimates in record time using materials he had on hand. Translated into a chart, this became the famous Vision Sand Chart.
Our first reaction on seeing the Vision Sand Chart was that we were appalled. There was no way we could do our job with that little amount of money, and to develop a new deep space system for that pittance was beyond belief. But we were good soldiers and went to work anyway.
An early lesson for all of those involved in government budgeteering is to read the fine print, especially the assumptions. One of the assumptions was that the shuttle would return to flight under the existing budget in late 2004, another was that the shuttle would complete assembly of the ISS in 2009 and be retired immediately freeing up money for the exploration initiative.
Meanwhile back at the rocket ranch, things were not going so well for those of us trying to get the shuttle flying again. There was a lot of work to be done, real engineering work and hardware production. We had to build a new inspection boom and sensors to look underneath the shuttle; we had to develop tile repair materials and the EVA tools to dispense them properly. We had to make significant changes to the External Tank to reduce the possibility of foam loss. And engineers kept coming up with other deficiencies that the cash strapped shuttle program had ignored for years; issues which also had to be fixed. So we made a list of all the “must do” work ahead of us, always under intense pressure to get the shuttle flying as soon as possible, and then estimated the costs. We came up with a bill that was $781 million more than the shuttle budget had in it for the same fiscal year Steve Isakowitz had estimated NASA would spend no additional money for the shuttle.
We presented the case to the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe. It was not a pleasant meeting. It was the politest tongue lashing I have ever gotten. But we stuck to our guns; we needed more money, a request for supplemental funding from Congress must be made.
Shortly thereafter the decision was made at some high level to take the money out of the existing NASA budget; there would be no new request to Congress. So aeronautics and science were hit hard. And the nascent exploration program was strangled for money. So much for the ‘sand chart’. That was perhaps the first strike against Constellation, before it was really born.
Later on we found that we could not return the shuttle to flight in late 2004. Our first attempt did not come until late July 2005; and then even that was not successful. Returning the shuttle to reasonably safe and regular flight did not happen until July 2006. Completion of the ISS was stretching past 2009 into 2010 – and now into 2011. The shuttle was taking more and more of the ‘sand’ leaving less and less for the exploration initiatives in the critical design and development years.
There are probably any number of factors which have wounded the Constellation program, perhaps mortally. But taking longer to return the shuttle to flight, costing more to return the shuttle to flight, and delaying the completion of the ISS and the retirement of the shuttle; those were major causes too. Coupled with the top-level decisions not to ask the Congress for more money, the squeeze was well-nigh intolerable. From my standpoint the consequences were unintentional. But unintentional or more precisely with the best of intentions, the result was severe.
So yes, I had a role in the killing of Constellation; a long time before February 1, 2010.