The Privatizing of Human Spaceflight
I can’t find enough time to write lately. I think this post might set a record for this blog on how long it took to finish. Plus, events have updated the progress highlighted in these thoughts as I write them, causing me to keep updating words that I thought was done and dusted.
Anyway, NASA seems to want to walk a road that will totally end the use of the traditional military procurement paradigm that built the Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs. It makes me grin, and makes a lot of sense given how much Congressional strings have cost space exploration in delays over the years. If lawmakers let NASA get away with cutting down their cherry tree it might finally kick the momentum for exploitation of space back in gear.
Military-style contracting is like what they’re doing to build the Space Launch System and Orion. In a nutshell, here is how it works…
- NASA owns the designs.
- Congressional politics rule the upgrade schedule, the funding, and the calendar for each and every item built for the duration of the life of the product.
- The contractor/s (defense industry providers with strong Congressional connections) build only as many as NASA orders, and at military procurement costs…so whatever you think the cost should be, just add another digit or two.
- Congresspersons support it more for the sake of local jobs than for human technology advancement, and so long as certain Senators and Congresspersons continue to win elections, that particular NASA project gets to continue to fly.
- The process keeps the costs high, support spotty and uncertain, and puts funding for important projects in competition with social programs, making NASA a slur for wasteful spending.
- NASA is the only buyer, but the lessons learned from the program go into a database that is owned and operated by NASA and made available to other NASA partners in various ways.
Most regular launch services have already been semi-commercialized for many years, provided largely by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between two competing military contractors, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. They made this cute little merger so that they could set the price and tell everyone to just accept it. This sweet, monopolistic arrangement displays a facade of cost savings because the government gets to pay “industry prices”…with industry prices being the same ridiculous, military procurement price tag that NASA and the Air Force pays because nobody knew any better.
Those days ended several years ago when SpaceX entered the market and started telling folks that the old price was stupid and that the key to getting our feet out of the mud and exploring deep-space is to do it for under $1K per pound…an enormous price drop. Now, because of pricing, SpaceX and Arianespace get the lion’s share of any competitively bid launch business…and the European Union has to heavily subsidize Ariane in order to keep their prices competitive in the new market. This has suddenly turned the space launch business into one of the only growth industries in this current, otherwise gloomy, global economy.
SpaceX’s current pricing is for expendable rockets, the tradition of the industry. Yes, everyone has, for more than 50 years, thought that the only thing to do with a hundred something million dollar rocket, after the payload is in orbit, is to just toss it into the ocean and let it sink. However, SpaceX’s goal has always been to vertically land, then refuel and re-fly, their hardware. I think part of the reason for this is because Mars has no oceans to splash down in, nor rocket industries to build throw-away boosters to fly back to Earth. Mars colonies are what SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk are really after.
They recently succeeded in bringing the first-stage booster for their Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth intact with a scifi-style, rocket powered descent and landing. They did this with no request or initiative from any government agency and nothing but spit-balls from most of the regular industry players. They then successfully test-fired that booster to begin gathering data on it. They intend to try and land all of their boosters as a routine so they can analyze them to determine how to improve new rockets for quick turn-around and re-launch. They intend to relaunch one of those reusable rockets later this year. Blue Origin recently relaunched their New Shepard space tourism rocket…setting a new level for the bar and leaving an unstated invitation for SpaceX to more quickly add an exclamation point to the new re-usability trend. If successful, rocket re-use will disrupt orbital industries forever. Even without that, SpaceX has already used pricing (and lawyers) to kick in the doors of the commercial, research, and U.S. military launch industries to force the players to compete on price.
Some claim that re-usability of rockets isn’t cost effective, and in a way they are correct. To them (and Congress) the main objective of spaceflight is to pay as many people as possible to build as many one hundred plus million dollar rockets as the market can bear, so no wonder so they treat them like paper plates! SpaceX’s goal is two-way flights to Mars. Do you see the difference? Spend as little as possible to go somewhere vs spend as much as possible to go nowhere. They and Blue Origin have already begun their own little cold-war of rocket re-usability innovation. Competition and free enterprise have been viewed by some as the key to cost reduction and innovation in spaceflight.
To leverage the energy of capitalism in their pursuit of space, NASA started quietly bringing multiple commercial partners into the mix about a decade ago. One of the old market players, Orbital ATK, recently flew their Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station. Cygnus was developed with a funded Space Act Agreement contract under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Service (aka. COTS)…which works a lot like a NASA spin-off program. It flew on ULA’s Atlas V rocket this year because Orbital’s own launcher, the Antares, blew up over the launch pad late in 2014. They fly one more time this year on the Atlas, and then go back to Antares with an all new engine design.
The SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule was also developed under a Space Act Agreement contract with NASA and uses SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher.
Both Orbital and SpaceX own all the rights to their products that NASA helped them develop. They can sell their products and services to anyone, not just NASA, and nothing controls the price except competition. NASA has been the exclusive customer for these services up to now, but that’s only because the International Space Station is the only orbiting, functioning, occupied habitat that they can do business with…for now. Frequent, reliable, and cost effective resupply is essential to any long-duration human presence in space. Now that that service has been made available to anyone, anyone can build and fly a space station if they can get people up into orbit to inhabit it.
The new COTS contractors for 2019 forward were recently announced to continue to be SpaceX and Orbital. Also, NASA has added Sierra Nevada Corp’s new space plane, the Dream Chaser, this time around. Several rules have been adjusted based on the lessons learned in round one, including insurance and the need for providers to have greater flexibility in the services that they provide. Dragon always did provide both pressurized and un-pressurized up mass and pressurized down mass (bringing cargo intact back to the Earth’s surface). Orbital’s Cygnus provided garbage disposal (destructive reentry). Now they all need to do all of these things. NASA also wants an option for quick-return of any landed cargo to Earth-based labs. This is where Dream Chaser shines, because it can land on aircraft runways instead of having to be plucked out of the ocean like the Dragon. I’m thinking SpaceX will use Dragon V2 for quick cargo returns, which they intend to be able to vertically land. Cygnus was never designed with down-mass ability in mind, so it’ll be fun to see what they come up with. Maybe they’ll build a capsule or a spaceplane.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner currently under development and testing to carry astronauts to the ISS were both developed under Space Act Agreement contracts also. They intend to start launching people to space stations in 2017, starting with the ISS. Some in Congress have attempted, unsuccessfully, to limit that effort to a sole provider and rope those services into the status quo procurement system. Some attempts to tie in SLS/Orion as a backup ISS support provider were also made, drawing the public relations equivalent of polite laughter from NASA. Clearly, NASA’s stated goal, both expressed and implied, is to build-up Yankee free-enterprise to take over all Low Earth Orbit operations…both human and robotic…some day very soon and then leave them there while they go off and explore the solar system.
Currently, thankfully, Congress seems to have finally given up on Low Earth Orbit industries to feed their campaign coffers. Instead, they look forward to SLS/Orion and deep-space projects like Mars and asteroid research to draw NASA money into their respective states and keep their game of mutual back-scratching with NASA procurement officials and the bloated military industrial complex going.
Here’s the rub. The SpaceX Falcon 9 and other commercial launchers have been contracted to fly Google Lunar X Prize rovers to the Moon in 2017. This year SpaceX will test-fly the Falcon Heavy, a rocket that is way too big to have to stay in Earth orbit. It will have the world’s heaviest throw weight since the Saturn V Moon rocket. SpaceX will start making money with it and building a flight history on it long before NASA’s first test flight of the Space Launch System, since Falcon Heavy already has customers lined up waiting to fly on it.
If the Falcon 9 can already boost some things to the Moon, then what can the biggy sized Falcon Heavy fly to the Moon and elsewhere? Elon Musk claims that the Falcon Heavy can carry a heavily loaded Dragon Spacecraft to Mars or a lightly loaded Dragon to the moons of Jupiter. SLS will cost $500 Million per flight, IF it flies at least once a year, every year, for ten years, but Falcon Heavy will cost about $150 Million per flight right from the first launch. Once they start landing and reusing its boosters it may cost even less. The question that everyone keeps asking is whether SLS can even survive ten years, or even two, when Falcon Heavy can fly some SLS missions for less than half the SLS price tag. The other question is whether NASA’s relaxed time line can keep them at the pointy end of the stick once SpaceX can fly to SLS destinations at far lower cost.
Congress has dictated in the latest authorization bill, that has now become law, that NASA will fly a mission to the Jupiter moon Europa. The law also states that it will carry a lander to descend to and study the moon’s surface, and that it will fly on SLS. They have also required that NASA let them know by June or so how they will do their deep-space habitats and other technologies for long-duration space flight and which areas of the country will manufacture that equipment. They look like they still think that they get to pick who builds all the stuff to do the “explore the solar system” part of the future in the traditional, expensive, Congressionally controlled way.
However, late last year (Nov. 2015) NASA announced the awarding of contracts to three companies for building prototypes of high-power electric spacecraft engines for swift flights to Mars and elsewhere. I read somewhere that these were Space Act Agreement contracts, but now I can’t seem to find those references anymore. Digging deeper, I found that these awards were made as part of a fairly new commercial partnership program called NextSTEP, which goes way beyond just 100 watt ion propulsion…
Deep space propulsion, space habitats, even part of the SLS construction infrastructure, these are components of NextSTEP and look like they will be organized, funded and developed a lot more like COTS and Commercial crew and a lot less less like SLS and Orion. Their success will be driven more on how well they meet performance milestones than on who they know in Washington. Like other spin-off programs, these NASA commercial partners will own the products that NASA helps them develop so that they can later sell their products and services to anyone.
One provider listed under NextStep for space habitats is Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow modules are built on the lessons learned from the ISS. They cost a lot less to build and fly, are way larger, and carry better shielding from radiation and micro-meteors. Once they gain a foothold in space, they will render the ISS (along with any other Mir and Skylab “tin can” technology) obsolete for longer-term crew accommodations. They’ve already orbited two unoccupied test stations and will launch another as a module to the ISS aboard Dragon in March of this year for hands-on testing.
Congress owns SLS/Orion and NASA will launch it to new destinations…Congress demands it. But NASA looks like it wants all of the other necessary tech that they develop for that effort to be owned by the folks that build it, thereby saving money and making that technology available to anyone to use. Other launchers (not just Falcon Heavy) will be available for anyone to fly that tech anywhere the launcher can reach. Out of the box, this year, Falcon Heavy will be able to lift some 53K lbs to low Earth orbit. The SLS that will not fly for the first time until 2018 will lift 70K at 4 or 5 times the cost. SpaceX, China, and Russia are all working on much bigger launchers than Falcon Heavy.
I predict that Congress will no longer have to like space flight projects for space flight projects to happen. They will only need to show a passing ambivalence toward an idea, and that only long enough for NASA to empower commercial partners to just do it. After that, if anyone else wants to do something new in space, they’ll fly it with or without long-term support from Congress or NASA…and for a fraction of the cost.
And that’s the stuff dreams are made of.