BU’s Fraser heads research committee steering NASA’s moon and Mars missions
By Brian Fitzgerald
Sending astronauts once again to the moon — and one day to Mars — will require another giant leap for NASA. But the space agency took one of its first steps toward that objective recently with the help of a report from a committee chaired by Donald Fraser, director of the BU Photonics Center.
The National Research Council (NRC) committee was commissioned by NASA to assess the relative merits of four possible systems integration approaches being proposed for Project Constellation, the program to build the crew exploration vehicle (CEV) and related exploration systems necessary to fulfill President George Bush’s ambitious vision for space travel.
The NRC is the operating arm of the National Academies of the United States: the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Fraser is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, as were six other members of this committee.
Bush’s directive last January called for returning Americans to the moon by 2020 in preparation for an eventual landing on Mars.
“Project Constellation is this country’s evolutionary program for what it wants to accomplish in space over the next several decades, with robotic exploration of the near universe, including the moon, as a precursor to a human presence,” says Fraser.
NASA intends to establish a base on the moon, and simultaneously develop the capability for more distant manned and unmanned missions. The agency’s current plans target the first unpiloted flight of the CEV to occur in 2011, with manned CEVs into space no later than 2014.
Under Fraser’s guidance, the NRC committee’s 17 members — all former senior corporate officers of major international corporations — examined plans for crew transportation systems; launch vehicles to enable movement from Earth to low Earth orbit, and then to the moon and beyond; cargo transportation systems for fuel, supplies, and infrastructure; and moon surface systems for transportation, power, and habitation. The committee also scrutinized plans for in-space systems for communications, maintenance, and supply; ground systems to support mission simulation, preflight integration, flight operations, and testing; and scientific and maintenance instrumentation.
“What has been proposed is a massive undertaking involving many interconnected and complicated systems,” says Fraser. “They need a crew vehicle, whether it’s an Apollo-style capsule, or a shuttle, or something else. They need variants of that vehicle to orbit with the international space station and conduct lunar landings, and adequate heavy lift and propulsion capabilities to get them various places. It’s also necessary to build habitats for humans to survive for extended durations, especially since a mission to Mars would take at least a year.”
The scope of the project is mind-boggling, he says, “because each one of these aspects, in its own right, is a national program.”
The report evaluates four entities, one of which will be chosen as the systems integrator for the project: the government; a major aerospace hardware prime contractor; a large company other than an aerospace corporation; or a new company created by the government. The committee developed a list of 21 criteria, using four rankings to measure the strengths and weaknesses of each potential systems integrator: “can do exceptionally well,” “can do,” “can do with improvements,” and “major deficiencies.”
“We weren’t asked to recommend any one approach for systems integration,” says Fraser. “We assessed all of them, and NASA will choose one.”
Fraser says that even after NASA picks a systems integration approach, it will still be far from smooth sailing. Project Constellation “will encounter programmatic and budgetary turbulence and instability,” according to the report. “It is very likely that changing priorities and annual budget pressures — within the U.S. government and the governments of international partners — will necessitate numerous changes in the program plan and mission models.” It urges NASA to position itself to quickly respond to proposed changes, to take advantage of new and emerging technologies to achieve its mission, and to heed lessons learned from the Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz programs.
From moon to Mars
Fraser has had a distinguished career managing the development of high-technology enterprises. He helped launched the Photonics Center in 1994 to identify, develop, and commercialize technologies based on the practical application of light. He had earlier served in the administration of President George H. W. Bush as the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition. Appointed by the president to the Senate-confirmed position, Fraser was the number-two acquisition official, responsible for managing the acquisition process — setting policy and executing programs — for the entire Department of Defense. He was accountable for an annual budget of approximately $100 billion.
Prior to his government service, Fraser spent nearly three decades at Draper Laboratory, serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer during his last 10 years there. The laboratory, an MIT spin-off, devised guidance systems for the Trident and MX missiles, as well as for NASA’s Apollo moon mission. Early in his career he led the Apollo control system design team at MIT.
Fraser recalls the excitement of contributing to the Apollo program when he was at Draper, and how space travel fired the collective imagination of the country — and the world. “In 1961, President Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” he says, “and we did it.” Aside from attaining the Cold War goal of beating the Soviet Union to the moon, the missions returned lunar samples and other data to help answer fundamental questions about the moon. The Apollo program also motivated many Americans to pursue careers in technology, science, and engineering.
Fraser predicts that reinvigorating the space program with a return trip to the moon, and then enabling a man or woman to take that first historic step on Mars, will have a similar effect in the next few decades. “Mankind has an explorer spirit, and if it didn’t, people wouldn’t have sailed from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean centuries ago,” he says, “and they never would have left the comfort of the East Coast to push on through that vast unknown territory and across the continent.”
President Bush has proposed spending $12 billion over the next five years on the effort to revisit the moon. He hasn’t announced a target date for the Mars mission, but administration sources say that the earliest date for a voyage there would be 2030.
“This program will give this country the means to be preeminent in space,” Fraser says. “The United States has always excelled in certain endeavors, and space exploration is one of them. I hope we never lose that spirit. We should keep it alive for the next generation.”