Ares/Orion Debacle?

The Ares I/Orion, the "Space Shuttle replacement," is an albatross of awesome proportions. Cost overruns for the Ares 1 manned rocket were recently announced in the neighborhood of $7 Billion. People have taken to calling it "Griffin's Folly" after the current NASA administrator, as if he lost control of the project and it became something unflyable and unmanageable. But there's a possibility that this was an intentionally constructed albatross.

Consider the atmosphere at NASA after Columbia. It was clear to the point of a mandate that the Shuttle needed to go. NASA had no political pull because it had just blown up a vehicle. Congressmen were drooling over the remains. So Griffin gave them what they wanted. The program is way too obviously a throwaway, consider:

- The idea of lofting humans on a solid booster is preposterous. Solid rockets can't be throttled, shut off, or controlled in almost any way. The combustion zone is millions of times the volume of a liquid rocket, making the harmonic range much higher. Among rocketeers, solid rockets are "big, dumb rockets" - they give you a big push, but it is best to get rid of them once you've lifted the rest of the vehicle off the pad.
- Heavy lift was kowtowed to, even though the high flight rate has been shown to be the single biggest driving force in lowering launch cost. The reason Apollo used Saturn V was that NASA lacked experience in on-orbit assembly, so they wanted to lob everything in one shot. Clearly, with the experience and way station provided by the International Space Station, this is not a driving factor anymore. Why else did we spend $100B on the thing?
- For good measure, the crew size was made large, multiplying first-unit cost dramatically. Again, we have a space station to stash 3 people at for a short term if necessary. And the whole point of the project is to create a base on the moon, which would operate much more smoothly with change-outs of 3 crew members than 7 crew members.
- The whole thing was parsed out to as many NASA centers and aerospace contractors as possible. Not much choice here; it's the way NASA and the military have worked for 50 years. Cost-plus contracts turn overruns and admin costs into pure profit and votes.

This all sounds like it could be just another string of stupid government agency decisions, but two facts stand out:

1) There were already plans for much cheaper shuttle-derived lifters that would have preserved congressmen's booty. It's hard to believe that a compromise to the Shuttle-C heavy lift vehicle, or a reduction of the crew to 3, or even an evolution of the existing Boe-Mart launchers for the human portion would have been politically unacceptable if packaged the right way. This would have created something like everything the agency has done in the last 40 years: compromised, commercially unviable, politically tenuous but passable, unsafe, but flying and giving people jobs in congressional districts across the land. But this project is so bad, it's like 30 congressmen came into NASA offices one day, and they all started shouting their demands, and Griffin just kept smiling and saying "yes", "sure", "you've got it," and the congressmen all went awkwardly quiet, and filed out with a funny feeling they'd been had that vanished by the time their drivers' white-gloved hands helped them out of the limo.
2) COTS. Why would Griffin choose to contrast the flagship program with a high-profile competitor? If he had any hope or will that Ares would fly, there's no way COTS would have happened. Ares is the rich, loose girl at the dance who's really loud and slutty but you know she'll put out for a while before she falls apart at age 20 and you can dump her. COTS is her shy sister that no one notices who is way better looking, smarter, and an all-around better person.

My optimistic (or at least pragmatic) theory is, Griffin and NASA came to the conclusion that there was no tenable solution that would both replace the shuttle and ensure the agency's funding. So they went the other way, and completely scrapped the whole flying hardware part of the idea and decided to just make congress happy.

COTS is the checkmate move... it's like a knight that doesn't get noticed until it's about to corner the king. It's small enough to fly under the radar... that's why Griffin keeps holding back on the D option for human flight. He doesn't want to alarm the biggies until SpaceX is so close that they'll have something flying by the time the check is written. Everyone who pays taxes should be heartily cheering on the Ares debacle, because it could signal the beginning of the end for the cost-plus primes model of space procurement and management. If either COTS contractor (SpaceX and Orbital Sciences) gets to orbit, it will be for the neighborhood of $1B. By then, Ares/Orion will have spent 10 times that much on a system that has probably never flown, and if it did there were grave problems found that require an expenditure in kind. By then, it will be long dead, along with future projects of the same ilk. Or at least, we can dream.