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Opinion: What Should NASA Do?

Let Us Explore
People ask what is NASA doing. Partly, that is because NASA doesn’t do a very good job of keeping the American people up to date about what it’s doing. So here is s synopsis of NASA, today.

To start off with, NASA is working on some amazing things that will in the next decade present us with the capability to return to the Moon and travel beyond. So the short answer to what NASA should do is that it should continue what it is doing now, building the infrastructure that will, in 5 years, see us able to again explore beyond low-Earth orbit.NASA’s aeronautics branch will in that same time help evolve commercial airline and cargo aviation through the blended wing and sonic boom mitigation technology programs begun in the mid-2000′s and now currently maturing. Meanwhile, although it won’t be glamorous, ISS and our robotic programs will crank-out important science.

The Orion spacecraft is close to crossing the finish line of being the first human-rated spacecraft to be built by us since the Shuttle. Within two years, on Experimental Test Flight 1 (EFT-1), Orion will be launched from Kennedy Space Center and sent onto a trajectory that will see it reenter Earth’s atmosphere at something like 80-90% of the velocity of a lunar mission. During this test, every spacecraft system including GNC, structural loads, and acoustics will get shaken-down. This will be Orion’s final human rating test, after which it will be certified for anything from low-Earth orbiting to lunar exploration missions, and beyond.

There are several autonomous, robotic lander programs, including Marshall’s Mighty Eagle and Johnson’s Morpheus, currently under development within NASA. None of these could however even imagine an attempted landing at the lunar poles, which incidentally the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently shown, at -400 degrees F, to be one of the coldest spots in our solar system, including Pluto, until one considers the ALHAT, or Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology, technology being developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Draper Labs, and Langley Research Center. AmericaSpace.com has a good review of this program that we just carried. With ALHAT, a lander, robotic or crewed, could land at the lunar poles where light may not have shown for billions of years.

The plan germinating from deep within NASA, and that sees some tentative support within Congress, is to fly one, or both, of the Morpheus and Mighty Eagle landers on the first flight of the Space Launch System in 2017. The reason for this is to begin to answer the question of whether, and in what form, there is water on the Moon.

Why is water so important? For one, if water does exist on the Moon in a form that can be refined, we don’t need to build fuel depots in space–the Moon will, with it’s shallow gravity well and the extraction of O2 and H2, become the Mother of all Fuel Depots. With a ready supply of water that does not have to be hauled out of Earth’s deep gravity well, lunar outposts, and their natural follow-on crewed missions beyond the Moon to Mars, become much more affordable and safer with the technology we’ll have beginning in 2017.

The commercial space era is about to begin. SpaceX has developed a capable rocket in the Falcon 9 and a good, reusable cargo spacecraft in Dragon. Between 2013 and 2015 to 2016, SpaceX will be paid $1.6 billion to haul 20 mT to ISS over 12 launches. And Orbital Sciences will be paid $1.9 billion to also launch 20 mT to ISS in 8 launches during that roughly same period. The total Commercial Resupply Contract, or CRS, will cost $3.5 billion for delivery of 40 mT to ISS. This will mark the beginning of commercial space.

So why is NASA spending $8 billion to develop the 70 mT to 130 mT capable Space Launch System? Well, consider this for a moment. In 2017 will be the first flight of the Space Launch System, or SLS. One launch of the first generation of the 70 mT version of the SLS rocket, called SLS Block 1, will cost $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money. But that one launch will pay for a craft that can boost 70 mT into low-Earth orbit. In other words, for 37% of the cost of the whole CRS contract SLS will launch 75% more cargo.

But, it’s better to measure launchers by their cost per kilogram or pound. Both SpaceX and Orbital will through the CRS contract charge NASA between $12,000/kg and $18,000/kg, depending upon whether the currently hidden support cost of NASA are accounted for. The cost for SLS Block 1 (70 mT) is expected to be about $8,500/kg. With the more impressive SLS Block 2, which will have a 130 mT launch capability to LEO, that cost will climb to about $10,000/kg. That is still 20% better than any other launch offerings, including those of Orbital Sciences and SoaceX. This is why there is such strong support for the SLS program despite the dearth of publicity for the program, annual efforts by the Administration to slash SLS funding, and vigorous delaying tactics from 2010 – late 2011 by it’s two NASA leaders that led to them being subpoenaed by a Democratic controlled Senate. SLS is a Ford F-150 pickup that costs less and gets better gas mileage than a Prius.

The biggest loss of Shuttle wasn’t that we can no longer launch American astronauts into orbit, though that’s bad enough. The real loss is that we today don’t have a human-rated, that means very safe and dependable, launch capability to put large payloads into orbit. So if one or two of ISS’s solar arrays degrades, or 3 gyros go bad, until SLS becomes operational, we have no way to send replacement parts.

The reasons Congress created the SLS program were many. One was to develop the capacity for us to fly beyond low-Earth orbit. But another reason, and if not reason then benefit, was to develop a rocket that could, in one launch, resupply ISS with cargo mass that nobody could and do so safely.

I don’t want to overlook the robotic exploration program. Mars Science Laboratory is on its way to an August landing on the Red Planet. The science MSL will deliver will expand our knowledge greatly. The James Webb space telescope is proceeding along well now. When it’s launched, it will, much as Hubble has done, rewrite most of our astronomy textbooks. The current missions underway from LRO to Dawn may not get much press but are contributing great science.

Nor do I want I let pass without mentioning the Commercial Crew Program, or CCP. Congress has again funded at $500 million this effort to develop a commercial crew capability. With so many participants vying for this money, none will likely be ready to demonstrate their ability to ferry crews to and from ISS until 2019. If NASA follows Congress’ recommendation to down-select to just 2 or 3 participants, that date would move up to 2017. And if any of the CCP participants put in their own funds, that date will only move forward more. Boeing recently said that it will use its own funding to get its CST-100 spacecraft flying by 2015.

NASA today is, at the direction of Congress, building the infrastructure that will allow the U.S. to once again explore. It’s going to take awhile to build what is needed for us to do that again. For 30 years, we sat still, complacent to do as we’d done since John Glenn’s February 1962 mission, orbiting the Earth. But that is going to end soon enough. Beginning in 2014 people will begin to see tangible signs that a new exploration capable spacecraft is coming. And a year-and-a-half later, in late 2016, people will see a new rocket standing, ready for its first test, and one able to loft the hardware needed for beyond low-Earth orbit space access.

All of this is being funded now, today. If we stay on the course, if we don’t change horses midstream, we will within 5 years have the ability to once again reach-out and continue the push begun in the 1960′s towards the exploration and settlement of our solar system.

81 comments to Opinion: What Should NASA Do?

  • Somehow I do not share your optimism about NASA’s commitment to the future. NASA is manipulated by the current administration. The premature shutdown of the shuttle program is an example of knee jerk politics and a lack of clear strategic planning. I witnessed how the FAA research programs were continually reprioritized as the political winds shifted–a very frustrating work environment. Of course like NASA, the FAA employees, are afraid to voice their opinions openly for fear of losing their jobs and their pensions. Government employees are important stakeholders in strategic planning and their voice should be heard!

    • Ferris Valyln

      I am curious – who do you think is currently getting the most voice about NASA?

    • Coastal Ron

      Robert, maybe you missed it, but George W. Bush cancelled the Shuttle back in 2004, and the production lines were just about shut down by the time Obama was sworn in. How in any way could Obama have done a “premature shutdown of the shuttle program”?

      Even if the Shuttle would have continued, there was nothing it was needed to do in LEO. Bush made the right call, and everyone has had plenty of time to come to terms with it. Time to move on.

      • No, Coastal Ron, Bush initiated the shutdown of the Shuttle program. But according to Jeff Bingham, Senate CSJ Senior Staffer, it was the Obama Administration who canceled the program. ISS was designed from day one with the condition that Shuttle would be around to service it. Otherwise, the station engineers would have certainly redesigned key parts to be launched in pieces aboard launchers with less throw-weight than the Shuttle.

        Here’s a fuller quote by Bingham:

        This is from the 2008 NASA Authorization Act. It specifically preserved the option for continuing shuttle beyond 2010 for the incoming Administration–which was of course unknown when the legislation was drafted and even when enacted on October 15, 2008. Subsequent to the election, this provision was very clearly pointed out to the Obama Transition Team for NASA (headed by Lori Garver) and they clearly understood they had the option to continue–and that the Congress would likely support that move, given its history, since 2005, of concern about “The Gap,” especially with respect to the ability to support and sustain ISS. They “punted” that decision to the overall HSF Review Committee (Augustine), who, in the end provided a series of options among which was continuation of Shuttle to 2015, by which time it was expected that Ares 1 would be flying. The FY 2011 Budget Request the following year demonstrated THIS Administration’s DECISION:

        Section 611

        (d) TERMINATION OR SUSPENSION OF ACTIVITIES THAT WOULD PRECLUDE CONTINUED FLIGHT OF SPACE SHUTTLE PRIOR TO REVIEW BY THE INCOMING 2009 PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION.—
        (1) IN GENERAL.—The Administrator shall terminate or suspend any activity of the Agency that, if continued between the date of enactment of this Act and April 30, 2009, would preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the Space Shuttle after fiscal year 2010 if the President inaugurated on January 20, 2009, were to make a determination to delay the Space Shuttle’s scheduled retirement.
        (2) REPORT ON IMPACT OF COMPLIANCE.—Within 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator
        shall provide a report to the Congress describing the expected budgetary and programmatic impacts from compliance with paragraph (1). The report shall include—
        (A) a summary of the actions taken to ensure the option to continue space shuttle flights beyond the end
        of fiscal year 2010 is not precluded before April 30, 2009;
        (B) an estimate of additional costs incurred by each specific action identified in the summary provided under
        subparagraph (A);
        (C) a description of the proposed plan for allocating those costs among anticipated fiscal year 2009 appropriations
        or existing budget authority;
        (D) a description of any programmatic impacts within the Space Operations Mission Directorate that would result
        from reallocations of funds to meet the requirements of paragraph (1);
        (E) a description of any additional authority needed to enable compliance with the requirements of paragraph
        (1); and
        (F) a description of any potential disruption to the timely progress of development milestones in the preparation
        of infrastructure or work-force requirements for shuttle follow-on launch systems.

        122 STAT. 4798 PUBLIC LAW 110–422—OCT. 15, 2008

        Added Note: Since the above provision expired at the end of April 2009, NASA, knowing of the HSF Review, elected to take only non-irreversible termination activities pending the outcome of that review, and pending the Administration’s formal response to that review as part of the FY 2011 Budget Request. Thus, the Bush-initiated termination “decision” could have been reversed as late as the Spring (and actually into the summer) of 2010. As added “insurance” for that option, the 2010 Act included language “protecting” ET–94 to enable the shuttle flow to ramp back up. Senator Hutchison also introduced a bill (S. 3068), the ‘‘Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act of 2010“, which provided for a recertification process for Shuttle, authorized funding for two flights per year for FY 2010, 2011 and 2012, and required a joint determination by the President and the Congress regarding a decision to terminate the shuttle. Rather than pursuing passage of that bill, it became the starting point on the Republican side of negotiations regarding the content of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, and the removal of those shuttle provisions became part of the ”Compromise" that produced the 2010 Act.

        • Coastal Ron

          Jim Hillhouse said:

          “Bush initiated the shutdown of the Shuttle program. But according to Jeff Bingham, Senate CSJ Senior Staffer, it was the Obama Administration who canceled the program.”

          Bush directed NASA to shut down the Shuttle program after completing the construction of the ISS, and Congress agreed. You can’t spin facts Jim.

          Then Jim Hillhouse said:

          “ISS was designed from day one with the condition that Shuttle would be around to service it.”

          Another falsehood. All the Shuttle was needed for was during the construction of the ISS.

          - The Shuttle was not needed for cargo resupply, as Progress, ATV and HTV were already planned to do that, along with the U.S. CRS providers.

          - The Shuttle could not keep crew at the ISS, since it could only stay in space for two weeks at a time. Only the Soyuz spacecraft has allowed us to keep crew in space for longer than two weeks, since safety rules mandate a “lifeboat” be available at all times at the ISS. Our Commercial Crew program will finally allow us to match that ability.

          - While the ISS was being constructed the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) was valuable for installing equipment, but the ISS has the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) that it can use to build and reconfigure without the Shuttle.

          - If we need to loft more heavy modules to the ISS, we can use the Russian Proton, ESA’s Ariane V and ULA’s Delta IV Heavy. All can match the Shuttles carrying capability for external cargo.

          We did lose downmass capability with the end of the Shuttle program, but we gain back some of that with Dragon, as well as the future Commercial Crew vehicles.

          To summarize – there is nothing Shuttle-specific on the ISS that we can’t replicate using discrete space assets. If you feel otherwise, please provide specific details.

          • Did you read the quote from Jeff Bingham? I ask because your response indicates that you did not. Go ahead, read it. Unlike the two of us who’ve never even been a CSJ staffer, as the senior space staffer on the Senate CSJ Committee, Bingham was there in the middle of it all.

            Bingham’s bottom line is that the Obama Administration ran-out the clock on the 2008 NASA Authorization Act provisions that would have allowed it to preserve the Shuttle. Are you saying that the senior space staffer on the CSJ Committee doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

            • Coastal Ron

              “the Obama Administration ran-out the clock on the 2008 NASA Authorization Act provisions that would have allowed it to preserve the Shuttle”

              The Obama Administration agreeing with the Bush cancellation of the Shuttle program does not equate to the Obama Administration being fully responsible for the cancellation of the Shuttle program.

              In any case, there was no reason to extend the Shuttle program.

              The ISS was construction complete, and the Shuttle was so fragile that everyone agreed that it was too dangerous to keep flying without substantial review and upgrades (i.e. lots more $$). Did you want to risk more lives in the pursuit of a pointless endeavor?

              Oh, and at it’s most efficient rate (which wasn’t being proposed as part of the various extension plans), it cost $200M/month to run the program. Where was the money supposed to come from? Planetary Science? The SLS and MPCV? Killing off the Commercial Crew program would have only saved $500M/year, and even killing off the CRS program would not have saved enough (while degrading our future supply chain infrastructure).

              Without increasing NASA’s budget, where would the money for a Shuttle extension have come from? You can’t be like a kid in a candy store – we’re talking real money here.

          • So, if I understand your premise, you seem to believe that ISS is a static construct that once built will not be modified. Well, now that the Shuttle is gone, and until SLS is active, you’re right.

            I’ve had too many engineers who worked on ISS, never mind Hans Mark, tell me that ISS designed with the Shuttle to support it. But thanks to your question, I went and looked for supporting documentation. It wasn’t hard to find.

            Let’s start from the 2007 GAO report, “Challenges in Completing and Sustaining the International Space Station” (GAO-07-1121T), which states, “The shuttle was to be the primary means for ISS re-supply and crew rotation. NASA’s international partners were planning to augment the shuttle’s capabilities with their cargo and crew spacecraft“[1]. As to the Shuttle’s critical role in ISS maintenance,

            Finally, NASA officials explained that since only the shuttle is large enough to deliver certain large Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) to the ISS, they must be launched prior to retirement of the shuttle. These ORUs are replacement segments for those segments operating on the ISS that fail or reach the end of their life. The officials noted that NASA originally planned to use the shuttle to launch and retrieve certain large ORUs that are critical for ISS operations. After being brought back to Earth, the plan was to repair and refurbish the ORUs and return them to service on the ISS. However, with the shuttle no longer available to transport those ORUs after 2010, NASA changed its strategy for providing them to ISS from a refurbishment approach to a “launch and burn” approach. They suggested that under the new strategy, NASA would build enough ORUs to cover the ISS planned mission life and use them up over time. Large ORUs that originally were to be launched and returned on the shuttle would have to be pre-positioned on the ISS before the shuttle retires.“[3]

            But if those don’t make the point Coastal Ron, how about the following quote from the GAO Report, “INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION – Approaches for Ensuring Utilization through 2020 Are Reasonable but Should Be Revisited as NASA Gains More Knowledge of On- Orbit Performance” (GAO-12-162),

            NASA had originally planned for the space shuttle to serve as the means of transporting hardware and supplies to the ISS through the end
            of the ISS’s life.
            “[6]

            Actually, most of this report goes on to fully rebut the notion that ISS wasn’t designed around Shuttle, but that Soyuz can resupply ISS for ORU’s. As the report notes,

            Lacking a means upon retirement of the space shuttle to return failed ORUs to earth, repair them, and take them back to the ISS, NASA moved to a strategy of replacing failed ORUs with new ones. NASA pre- positioned spares on-board the ISS to ensure that the station could operate in the intervening period between shuttle retirement and expected development of new launch vehicles.[8] … Although NASA expects domestic commercial launch vehicles to deliver the bulk of cargo required by the ISS through 2020, NASA strategic planning manifests indicate that NASA may not have sufficient capability to carry all the cargo that could be needed on the ISS.“[27]

            • Coastal Ron

              No Jim, I don’t believe that the ISS is unchangeable, and I even stated that. I guess you missed it.

              And let’s tackle this belief that “only the Shuttle” can do this or that. What a load of bunk. You apparently have no faith in American ingenuity.

              The one capability that the Shuttle provided that we can’t do today is to bring external payloads back to Earth. That’s it. So yes, new ORU’s will have to be sent up instead of refurbished ones. That doesn’t make or break the ISS.

              And we can send up new ORU’s on just about any rocket we want. In fact it will force us to create a tug module for delivering dumb payloads to destinations in LEO and beyond, which we’ll need for expanding beyond the ISS in any case.

              Is that bad? No. Can we do it? Sure. ESA’s ATV is essentially a dumb payload mated to a smart tug, as is OSC’s Cygnus. The technology exists, and it’s about time we step up to the new & better ways of doing things.

              As to phrase:

              “NASA had originally planned for the space shuttle to serve as the means of transporting hardware and supplies to the ISS through the end of the ISS’s life.“

              Of course they had originally planned that. When the ISS was conceived, the Shuttle was still thought to be safe and affordable. The Columbia accident forced a reassessment of that position, and we’ve known since 2004 that the Shuttle was going away.

              Regarding the GAO statement “NASA may not have sufficient capability to carry all the cargo that could be needed on the ISS”, you should have looked at the next sentence, where it said “These shortfalls amount to a total of 2.3 metric tons—approximately the cargo that one SpaceX commercial vehicle can transport to the ISS.”

              The carrying capacity of the Dragon is 6mt, yet NASA’s CRS contract only calls out for a total of 20mt to be delivered in 12 flights (avg of 1.67mt). They have plenty of extra capacity available if NASA needs it, and the CRS contract has provisions to add more cargo for both SpaceX and OSC. The solution is known.

              So far Jim all you have shown is that pre-Columbia NASA planned to fly the Shuttle for a long time – that Shuttle was their do-everything vehicle. But Columbia changed that, and NASA had to rearrange their assumptions.

              Beyond repairing things like ORU’s, you haven’t shown why we can’t keep the ISS going in space. And I would even posit that the retirement of the Shuttle is going to push us to develop the next generation of spacecraft we need (like autonomous tugs) to expand our presence in LEO and beyond.

              In hindsight it will be seen as a good thing that we stopped using the Shuttle when we did. Especially considering the cost to the taxpayer, and the cost in human life that we risked on every flight.

              • Now Ron, you’re being a bit revisionist here, aren’t you? You wrote yesterday afternoon,

                “ISS was designed from day one with the condition that Shuttle would be around to service it.”

                Another falsehood. All the Shuttle was needed for was during the construction of the ISS.

                - The Shuttle was not needed for cargo resupply, as Progress, ATV and HTV were already planned to do that, along with the U.S. CRS providers.

                And I pretty well rebutted that point using two GAO reports, one from 2007 and one from early this year. ISS was designed with Shuttle in mind. Items, such as the truss segments, arrays, thermal control were designed to not only be delivered by Shuttle, but retrieved and returned to Earth by Shuttle, and once refurbished, redelivered by Shuttle.

                Yes, of course after Columbia that changed. Nobody, not I, not anyone, disputes that.

                But there was a cost to ending Shuttle before ISS ends. We don’t currently have a means of delivering certain payload items due to size and mass constraints.

                As the report also notes, even with the addition of SpaceX and OSC on CRS, there is a deficit in ISS payload resupply.

                Read the 2012 GAO report about how NASA deals with that new reality.

                • Coastal Ron

                  From the way this conversation started, and has been going, it’s clear that you see that we are limited in what we can do in space because we no longer have the Shuttle.

                  I disagree. The Shuttle consumed enormous amounts of NASA resources – $200M/month according to John Shannon, the last Shuttle program manager. With the ISS construction complete, there were no more big missions that required the Shuttle.

                  For instance, now you are saying “We don’t currently have a means of delivering certain payload items due to size and mass constraints.” That is wrong. We have plenty of up-mass capability, both here in the U.S. and with our ISS partners. Delta IV Heavy can lift any ISS segment that the Shuttle did, so we don’t lack for up-mass capability.

                  Keep in mind also that there are no requirements for any large payloads to be delivered to the ISS, which just reinforces the point I’ve been making – we don’t need the Shuttle anymore.

                  And to your point about refurbishment and reuse, that’s a “nice to have” feature, not a “must have” one. What would it have cost us to keep the Shuttle around in order to have that feature? $200M/month, regardless if the Shuttle flew. How much do those replacement parts cost? A lot less.

                  So I would advocate that it probably saves us money to not use the Shuttle for “nice to have” logistics issues like that.

                  As to the supposed deficit in ISS payload resupply, as I already pointed out, both OSC and SpaceX have plenty of extra room on their vehicles – they could double the amount of cargo they haul without adding anymore flights.

                  So yes, the GAO was right to point out that NASA may need more supplies than they currently have planned, but NASA has already added contract clauses to add more supply deliveries under the current CRS contract. Imaginary crisis averted.

                  Are there challenges ahead? Sure. But you like to gloss over the alternative that would have happened if we would have committed to continue running the Shuttles, and another accident happened. We would more worse off than we are with our redundant commercial cargo and crew plan.

                  But in case you haven’t noticed, this is all academic now. The Shuttles are off to their final resting places, and we are committed to commercial cargo and crew. Time to support the new team players.

  • Ferris Valyln

    Jim – I am sorry, but that charter had SEVERE problems with it. It was beyond biased.

    Andrew Gasser, of Tea Party in Space, did a nice breakdown of the problems with that charter. http://www.teapartyinspace.org/?q=content/fraudulent-charter

    Further, we can do flight beyond LEO, cheaper and quicker, by going to Depot based architecture. Building big rockets does not actually make exploration.

    • Ferris,

      Thanks for the link to Gasser’s critique of the May 2011 House Space Subcommittee’s charter. Having read it, I can’t find anything approaching something that would bring into doubt the charter’s analysis of launch costs. He’s all over the place with accusations but comes up short on analysis.

      I think before people are willing to disregard the House findings of last year, a more methodical rebuttal, a contra analysis if you will, is needed. Perhaps SpaceX, OSC, one of the organizations that represents their interests, or perhaps you will provide that someday.

      Jim

      • Ferris Valyln

        Somehow Jim, I am not surprised that that is your response.

        But TPIS’ article does demolish that charter, and if you have real issues, I suggest you link to the actual hearing. These same points were commented on by the witnesses at the hearing.

        Whether it was intended to be sloppy or was intended to mislead – it is not accurate. And claiming it as a credible source hurts your integrity.

  • Karol

    Jim – I agree with you wholeheartedly and have SEVERE problems with wannabes, NASA-bashers, and Tea Baggers (who many people would love to see launched into space)and paid bloggers who will gladly distort information or create “facts” in their effort to “privatize” NASA, turning it into little more than a trough into which any snake-oil salesman with a good lobbying firm can stick his snout and front paws. Capitalism means that an “entrepreneur” gets a profit-making idea good enough to convince profit-hungry investors to invest their private money in the idea. The Tea Baggers From Space should demand that CommSpace be true disciples of Ayn Rand and return all taxpayer money and pay market value for all taxpayer provided NASA services. As to the absolute gibberish that there is profit to be made in planetary science missions, human missions to Mars, etc., in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, that is “delusional”.

    • Karl Hallowell

      The Tea Baggers From Space should demand that CommSpace be true disciples of Ayn Rand and return all taxpayer money and pay market value for all taxpayer provided NASA services.

      That would only be fair, if everyone else had to do the same. But for some reason, you demand huge sacrifices only from the “tea baggers”.

      • Well, it’s the case that a lot of New Space has Tea Party influence. And that surprises me. How do those wanting small government and survival of the market fittest reconfigure their thinking to support gov’t subsidized “commercial” space?

        It’s been my observation that Space is the only place where the first reaction among Conservatives or Libertarians is to get a gov’t handout for some commercial space venture. And this for companies no better at managing their rocket programs than NASA.

        Why must these companies turn to Uncle Sam for money? According to 60 Minutes, Elon is supposed to be worth $2B. So why can’t he foot the entire bill for SpaceX? Don’t his fellow SiValley moguls have the dough to invest in SpaceX so it can pay its bills? Wouldn’t that be the “Conservative Small Gov’t” or “Tea Party Anti-Gov’t” way of doing things?

        • Karl Hallowell

          Well, it’s the case that a lot of New Space has Tea Party influence. And that surprises me. How do those wanting small government and survival of the market fittest reconfigure their thinking to support gov’t subsidized “commercial” space?

          I guess really good propaganda in the 60s and 70s when those people were young. It is remarkable.

          However, it is worth noting that “subsidies” to New Space tend to be of the “pay for achieving goals” sort, which often makes them not subsidies, but payment for service.

          According to 60 Minutes, Elon is supposed to be worth $2B. So why can’t he foot the entire bill for SpaceX?

          Because a) SpaceX needs to turn a profit (which allegedly, it does), and b) because spending $2 billion, even for SpaceX just doesn’t go that far, and c) Elon does other things with that money than just build rockets. A profitable business is both self-funding and expandable.

  • Borecrawler

    I found this article excellent, optomistic and refreshing. I particularly enjoyed reading the thrust to weight costs of SLS. I think the unfortunate reason that SLS supporters remain quiet is that we get our heads bitten off by over-zealous newspace supporters every time we post. I believe SLS is a cheaper alternative to other heavy launch systems, but it will be attacked repeatedly simply because it is a government program (where many believe cost overruns are the norm-granted, they do have some past experience to back them up here). I would like to see these cost numbers be presented in more public forums. If SLS does experience cost overruns, it will be a result of political and legal wrangling by it’s opponents. We, as supporters of space need to get over the prevailing either/or mentality. There is room for both commercial and government space and both have incredible futures if given the chance to survive.

    • Karl Hallowell

      I believe SLS is a cheaper alternative to other heavy launch systems

      The other potential US heavy lift systems would be extensions of existing commercial rockets. I imagine the sort of money spent on SLS would go further for any of the current commercial space launch providers (United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences) than it would for NASA.

      We, as supporters of space need to get over the prevailing either/or mentality. There is room for both commercial and government space and both have incredible futures if given the chance to survive.

      I apologize, but this won’t happen. There is no such room for both sorts. They mutually annihilate one another and one choice, commercial space flight is already vastly superior to the other in value and performance. The only reason than money is spent on SLS at all is because it has the US taxpayer to provide a captive revenue stream.

      Let me tell a story. Back in the early 70s, the Shuttle was designed as that generation’s “cheap access to space”. It turned out such claims only made sense for a launch rate of somewhere around 40 launches per year. The biggest problem with that was that NASA didn’t have 40 payloads per year to launch.

      At some point, NASA realized this and forced all US payloads, public and private to launch on the Shuttle. If it weren’t for the Challenger disaster and subsequent passage of law which destroyed this monopoly, we might well not have a commercial space launch industry at all. What happened is that we created with the Shuttle a massive conflict of interest between NASA and all other US efforts in space. And this conflict harmed US efforts for decades.

      We’re creating yet another conflict of interest of this sort with the SLS. In the event that the SLS becomes a viable vehicle, we’ll see huge incentives for NASA to block any US commercial heavy launch vehicle and to harm the industry just as it did in the 80s.

      Meanwhile, what happens to NASA’s SLS when SpaceX or the ULA develop a comparable heavy lift vehicle for a small fraction of the cost? Will Congress continue to fruitlessly fund a white elephant that can’t compete with off the shelf launch vehicles in terms of cost or reliability? I don’t see it. Something will have to give, either the SLS will be discontinued or the commercial version will be killed off via regulation.

      Finally, it’s worth noting that the SLS’s development costs will take money from the rest of NASA. I know people don’t like the rather phony zero sum conflict, but Congress hasn’t radically expanded NASA spending since the 60s. It hasn’t happened in almost 50 years, it’s not going to happen now.

      So there’s this fundamental conflict which can’t be resolved merely by throwing money at both. It can only be resolved fairly by eliminating the inferior option, the SLS.

      I know you didn’t want your head bitten off by zealous newspace supporters, but SLS is a weak design which creates a dangerous conflict of interest with commercial space flight which could cripple US efforts in space permanently. You need to know the problems.

  • skeptic

    SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy at a fixed price of $125 Million will launch 53,000 kg into LEO. Price is $2,358 per kg.
    The SLS will cost $2.4 Billion per year, after it has been develped. The SLS is scheduled to fly an average of once every 18 months. That comes out to about $68,000 per kg. That is not counting at least $1.8 Billion per year for 10 more years of development.

    • Wow, that would be bad.

      Fortunately, as noted in our article, “Does SLS Have A Future?”, neither variant of SLS will cost $3.6 billion to launch. As Amy Teitel, who wrote the article reports, “For the Block 1 and 1A to launch the maximum 70 ton payload, that’s $1.3 billion per launch; the Block 2 will cost about $2.45 billion per 130 ton payload. As a reference point, each shuttle launch cost roughly $1.5 billion, and each Saturn V around $1.17 billion (adjusted to 2012 dollars).

      If you just want to calculate payload cost as a function of total launch cost/payload:

      SLS – $18,571/kg ($1.5B/70mT) to $18,846/kg ($2.45B/130mT)
      Falcon 9 (CRS) – $80,000/kg ($1.6B/20mT)
      OSC (CRS) – $95,000/kg ($1.9B/20mT)

      And I’ve kept the DDT&E costs of SLS, which really has its heritage in the Saturn MLV-V-4(S) out since those amortized costs are absent in CRS figures for Falcon 9 and OSC Minotaur.

      In reality, this simplistic approach is wholly without merit. Costing a launch in order to derive per kg costs involves amortized costs, direct and indirect variable expenses, and fixed costs that would occur without a launch, and time-value of money effects. For example, during Apollo, operational costs of KSC were not expensed against the Saturn V launch where they were for Shuttle. So most cost estimates of Saturn V to Shuttle are comparing cherries to grapefruits.

      The SLS launch schedule is much like that of the Falcon 9, TBD. By the time SLS is operational, a new President will have been elected and who knows what his or her space plans will be.

      The SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy is, much like the Delta IV Super Heavy, a paper rocket for now. So any figures of its launch cost are the stuff of dreams. But you do raise a good point; bigger is better.

      SpaceX claims, without elaboration, that a Falcon 9 launch costs around $5,600/kg. And you’re saying that the Heavy gives a 50% reduction in launch cost. Wouldn’t that then bolster the point that, just as SpaceX launch costs declined 50% with added rocket payload capacity, equal or bigger savings are in store for the SLS?

      As a side note, any ever look at SpaceX’s Falcon 9 info page? In the section on the Merlin engine, it says, “With a vacuum specific impulse of 304s, Merlin is the highest performance gas generator cycle kerosene engine ever built, exceeding the Boeing Delta II main engine, the Lockheed Atlas II main engine and the Saturn V F-1.” Interesting…but not true. The Saturn V F-1 had a sea-level/vacuum Isp of 265s/304s. Oops!

      • Ferris Valyln

        “But you do raise a good point; bigger is better”

        No, not really

      • libs0n

        You’ve made a fundamental error here.

        ***

        SLS – $18,571/kg ($1.5B/70mT) to $18,846/kg ($2.45B/130mT)
        Falcon 9 (CRS) – $80,000/kg ($1.6B/20mT)
        OSC (CRS) – $95,000/kg ($1.9B/20mT)

        ***

        The CRS mission contracts are for pressurized cargo, not for the launcher’s payload capacity, while you are using the SLS’s payload capacity as a comparison. To put this in perspective, the Space Shuttle could put 24 metric tonnes into LEO, but if it was on a supply mission to ISS and delivering pressurized cargo in the MPLM, then it would only bring up 9 metric tonnes. Pressurized cargo is also hard to compare because it usually volume limited, ie the amount the space shuttle would deliver might be less than 9 metric tonnes because only 7 metric tonnes could fit.

        So while the Falcon 9 can put ~10 metric tonnes in orbit, on a CRS mission it is only delivering less than a few metric tonnes.

        You want to compare SLS and Falcon 9, you have to use the Falcon 9′s payload capacity. Their websites says you can buy a 10,450 kg F9 for 54 million, but I think that went up to 59 million recently. And so you get:

        SLS – $18,571/kg ($1.5B/70mT) to $18,846/kg ($2.45B/130mT)
        F9 – $5645/kg (59mil/10,450kg)

        You were comparing apples to oranges, and you have to compare apples to apples.

        Also, NASA only paid under a billion for the development costs of the COTS program for both vehicles and spacecraft. For SLS, they have to pay another 10 billion between now and 2017, and billions per year when SLS does not launch, like between 2017 and 2021. One of those costs is much more exorbitant than the other.

        • No, actually I don’t. Read my comment from Sunday on comparing SLS vs CRS cargo numbers.

          One reason I and others use CRS numbers is because SpaceX and OSC won’t disclose their LEO payload $/kg numbers. So we’re left with the imperfect, though likely close, CRS numbers.

          And SpaceX has been extremely public in its claims that it’s cost to LEO is sooo much cheaper than anyone else. But ask for numbers and as SpaceX President Shotwell has said more than once, they don’t disclose numbers. Not even when yours and my tax-dollars have paid for their rocket. Nuts!

          So if the only numbers I have are only approximate CRS numbers, then that’s what I’m using. Kirsten Grantham can always publicly release the SpaceX data. Whose stopping her?

          • Coastal Ron

            Jim Hillhouse said:

            “One reason I and others use CRS numbers is because SpaceX and OSC won’t disclose their LEO payload $/kg numbers.”

            Then you’re not looking very hard. On the SpaceX Falcon 9 webpage they state:

            Price: $54M
            Payload: 10,450 kg (out of CCAFS)

            Simple Math For Jim Hillhouse: $54M/10,450 kg = $5,167/kg

            That is for unpressurized payload, which is comparable to what you were comparing with the SLS (which you said was $18,571/kg).

            Let’s look at Falcon Heavy – we’ll use their highest quoted price for their highest quoted payload to LEO:

            Price: $128M
            Payload: 53,000 kg (out of CCAFS)

            Simple Math For Jim Hillhouse: $128M/53,000 kg = $2,415/kg

            So according to you, Falcon Heavy will be almost 8X less expensive than the SLS, while the SLS only carries 2.5X more payload to LEO in it’s 130mt version.

            Keep in mind that the Falcon Heavy prices are fully amortized for it’s customers, whereas the $30B or so that it takes to bring the SLS online still need to be amortized into the launch price of the SLS. For instance, if the SLS only flies 30 times, then you would have to add $1B to every flight to reflect it’s true cost. Just because it’s a government asset doesn’t mean you get to suspend accounting standards when figuring out the true cost of alternatives.

            And, of course, there are no customers lining up to use the SLS. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. NASA’s Planetary Science Directorate has said they don’t plan to use it, and Congress would have to raise NASA’s budget to allow any manned programs to be built to use the SLS.

            So who is going to use the SLS every year for the 30 years or so it will take to be deemed “a worthy investment of taxpayer scarce taxpayer money”?

            No one knows. What a wonderful reason to spend $30B.

            • $5k/kg is all? Well…that’s really cheap. So why is SpaceX charging $1.6B/20mT=$80K/kg for CRS services? I mean, we’re talking about a 16-times increase. That’s a lot. How do you explain such a price difference?Does Dragon support add that much extra cost?

              Maybe you should ask SpaceX to explain charging customers $5k/kg when it’s charging us tax-payers $80k/kg. If you ever get a response from SpaceX, let us know.

          • libs0n

            “No, actually I don’t. Read my comment from Sunday on comparing SLS vs CRS cargo numbers.

            One reason I and others use CRS numbers is because SpaceX and OSC won’t disclose their LEO payload $/kg numbers. So we’re left with the imperfect, though likely close, CRS numbers. ”

            Your disingenuousness doesn’t save you from being completely wrong still.

            1. The ceiling for launch procurement is the EELV cost numbers, not your deriving of the CRS numbers. NASA already buys commercial launch in EELV flights. For example, NASA paid 375 million for a Delta 4 Heavy for Orion EFT-1, a launch vehicle that can lift 27 metric tonnes to orbit. Atlas is assumed to be cheaper than Delta 4, as evident in its being chosen by the 3 of the 4 commercial crew companies, but I don’t have any numbers off hand other than the D4H figure. That works out to $13,888 per kg. NASA can’t pay more than this. If SpaceX costs more than this they don’t get a launch contract. So if you need a worse case scenario to label onto SpaceX, the absolute worst you can do is the ticket price of a Delta 4 Heavy.

            SpaceX only gets the job if they can beat the EELVs on cost. If they can’t we get EELV costs, if they can we get better than EELV costs. Comprende?

            2. You still do not understand the difference in pressurized cargo versus payload capacity. SpaceX’s contract in CRS is 1.6 billion for 12 flights. The Falcon 9 is a 10mt rocket. That represents 120 mt of payload capacity procured, not 20mt. The difference is in the packaging the pressurized cargo requires, in the form of an expensive and heavy spacecraft wrapped around it.

            That’s $133 million per F9 flight, including the cost of a Dragon spacecraft. Let’s forget about removing the cost of the Dragon for a moment. With the Dragon’s costs included, that comes to around $12,727 per kg. So, even with a spacecraft included, the Falcon 9 is cheaper per kg than the Delta 4 Heavy.

            Surely, though, you can comprehend that the cost of a Falcon 9 flight without a Dragon, will cost much less than one with, and so the actual Falcon 9 costs will be better still.

            3. As the other fellow said, SpaceX has numbers for the ticket price of their rocket on their website. You can even baselessly double them and they still come out cheaper than the above.

            ***

            Mr. Hillhouse, do you know how many Delta 4 Heavy flights you can buy for what will be spent in the next decade on SLS? 48. For the 18 billion that will be spent on the SLS for two flights in the next ten years representing about 200mt of lift, you can buy 48 Delta 4 Heavies and get 1296 metric tonnes of lift, and get even more than that if SpaceX can offer a cheaper product.

            That would cover more exploration than the Apollo program. That is what you would waste on the SLS. Entire Apollo programs worth of launch, thrown away.

            • The CRS contracts with SpaceX and OSC were signed last year and kick-in once the COTS milestones, certainly 1-22, but possibly 23-40, are completed. The CRS contracts were guaranteed once a contractor got through COTS.

              I have never been told, nor read in the CRS documents, that CRS contracts were awarded because either SpaceX or OSC beat ULA launch costs. Please provide a link (NASA, OMB, GAO, etc.) or something.

      • Karl Hallowell

        As Amy Teitel, who wrote the article reports, “For the Block 1 and 1A to launch the maximum 70 ton payload, that’s $1.3 billion per launch; the Block 2 will cost about $2.45 billion per 130 ton payload. As a reference point, each shuttle launch cost roughly $1.5 billion, and each Saturn V around $1.17 billion (adjusted to 2012 dollars).”

        And what happens when Amy Teitel turns out wrong due to ballooning costs of development? This game has been played before with Constellation (and numerous other NASA contracts), comparing existing launch vehicles (there, the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets) to paper rockets with amazing performance characteristics that didn’t pan out, consuming considerable public funds in the process.

        Here’s the thing. SpaceX has already a cheaper rocket by $ per kg (as much as a factor of three better) than SLS will ever be, even if it does fly, and it flies now rather than some nebulous future date. Also, SpaceX has a natural upgrade path to an SLS-class rocket and a demonstrated ability to deliver such development at much lower costs than NASA can muster.

        So why develop SLS when NASA can use Falcon 9′s now and SpaceX’s bigger rocket designs later?

        • Well, for one, Amy is a really good journalist. So unless someone comes up with a smoking document, we stand behind her work 100%.

          And I don’t know where you get that there’s an order of magnitude advantage in Falcon 9 costs over SLS.

          Let’s put it this way; even if a single 70 mT SLS launch costs $3B, that’s still a better deal than 40mT at $3.5B under CRS. I mention CRS costs because it’s one of the only times when launch costs have been publicized for either SpaceX or OSC.

          You may very well be right saying that SLS will go over budget. But I remember critics like Rand Simberg predicting that the J-2X development was going to be a lot of trouble. Were they ever wrong. It’s been a stellar success and that programmatic success is what is fueling Rocketdyne’s confidence that it can bring the F-1A program to the SLS. So let’s wait and see.

          Bottom line is we don’t yet know if SLS will be over budget and delayed. I mean, neither the NASA Administrator nor his Deputy knew in 2010 that neither SpaceX nor OSC would today be nearly 3 years behind schedule and over $100 million each over budget in meeting their COTS launch milestones. As for the extra money, I’m referring to the milestones 23-40 that NASA inserted for “programmatic risk reduction”. See GAO-11-692T.

          But none of this matters. Know why? Because Congress knows that for BEO exploration, a go cart, and compared to the SLS that’s what either of the CRS launchers is, ain’t getting us there. Not at 10-12 mT LEO apiece. And before mentioning Falcon 9 Heavy, Congress will respond with SLS.

          JWST is multiples over budget and alive and kicking. So even if SLS goes over, that likely would not cause the program anything more than a case of the sniffles, just like JWST is now getting over.

          I like the idea of fuel depots. Tell me what can build a fuel depot faster, a launcher with 10-12 mT LEO capacity or one that ranges between 70-130 mT? Tell me what gives me more options?

          Yes, SLS cost more to develop, but it’ll be human rated day-one and its payload capacity will open cislunar space to us.

          • Karl Hallowell

            Well, for one, Amy is a really good journalist. So unless someone comes up with a smoking document, we stand behind her work 100%.

            So what? Your stance is meaningless. Amy has no control over the cost figures she reports. Meanwhile, NASA has a long history of ballooning cost estimates. You will lose this argument.

            Let’s put it this way; even if a single 70 mT SLS launch costs $3B, that’s still a better deal than 40mT at $3.5B under CRS.

            Currently, a single launch of SLS is somewhere north of $20 billion. You have to include R&D costs, which are only amortized over multiple launches, if there are multiple launches. Personally, I think there will be zero launches of the SLS, but I’m using Constellation generously as a baseline for how an SLS program will go.

            I mention CRS costs because it’s one of the only times when launch costs have been publicized for either SpaceX or OSC.

            Price != cost. $3.5 billion is how much NASA pays, not how much it costs. Signs point to these services being rather profitable for SpaceX and OSC.

            But none of this matters. Know why? Because Congress knows that for BEO exploration, a go cart, and compared to the SLS that’s what either of the CRS launchers is, ain’t getting us there. Not at 10-12 mT LEO apiece. And before mentioning Falcon 9 Heavy, Congress will respond with SLS.

            The US needs a go cart now and it gets it. It doesn’t need an overpriced and underperforming system later and there’s a good chance it won’t get it. And where’s the money for BEO coming from when you’re spending so much on SLS?

            I like the idea of fuel depots. Tell me what can build a fuel depot faster, a launcher with 10-12 mT LEO capacity or one that ranges between 70-130 mT? Tell me what gives me more options?

            The smaller rocket, obviously, because it launches now.

            JWST is multiples over budget and alive and kicking. So even if SLS goes over, that likely would not cause the program anything more than a case of the sniffles, just like JWST is now getting over.

            The problem isn’t greasing SLS’s wheels, but opportunity cost. What other space activities get hindered or dropped because someone has to dump more money into SLS? SLS is being built for BEO work. But where’s the money going to come from for BEO work, when SLS consumes the budget?

            Yes, SLS cost more to develop, but it’ll be human rated day-one and its payload capacity will open cislunar space to us.

            What decade, if ever, will “day-one” happen in? Commercial space launch works now and just isn’t that hard to man-rate. We don’t need to wait.

      • Karl Hallowell

        SpaceX claims, without elaboration, that a Falcon 9 launch costs around $5,600/kg. And you’re saying that the Heavy gives a 50% reduction in launch cost. Wouldn’t that then bolster the point that, just as SpaceX launch costs declined 50% with added rocket payload capacity, equal or bigger savings are in store for the SLS?

        Not in the least. SLS doesn’t have such incentives to reduce cost. Also, SLS would have a much lower launch rate than the Falcon 9 Heavy, a factor which is more important than payload size in reducing cost per launch.

  • skeptic

    Actually, the 130 mt SLS costing $3,600 Million per flight will cost $27,692 per kg. Check it out.

  • skeptic

    Jim, $ per kg to LEO is not a good figure of merit. The real cost, after development (SLS probably between #18 and $36 Billion) is a) fixed cost, just to keep all the people and facilities at work, and b) marginal cost, meaning the cost of one more flight. Now, how mamy flights do we expect at 130 mt each? What will we do with all that? Also, what will all the ancilliary needed systems cost – hab modules, EVA and manipulator systems, landers, etc.?

    It seems like we are putting the most expensive parts of the old Constellation program (HLV and Orion) first, without a plan for what we will do, and the cost and schedule for doing it.

    We can only guess why the four senators forced the White House to include uaffordable SLS/Orion in the budget.

  • Borecrawler

    I think the most cost effective path for SLS would involve keeping the same configuration they currently have planned for the first two launches beyond these initial tests (solids and all!). The problem I see going forward will be developing an entirely new booster for the 70 ton vehicle. I’m not sure people recognize how high the price tag will be for this development. We will, of course, have to spend money to create the 130 ton launch vehicle. I still think it makes more sense, even here, to leverage existing infrastructure. The technological improvements from SLS should be about what we find and discover about space and not just focused on how we get there.

  • ModerateChuck

    The SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon have one flight behind them and (hopefully) soon will have two. The Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus will have one flight behind them probably early next calendar year.
    Compare that to the SLS/Orion which will be repeatedly delayed, will over run its claimed cost, and will deliver less than advertised. Its costs and performance are yet to be determined – certainly are worse than what is claimed now. When it is MUCH closer to flight we can talk about it.
    Until then, the only real launchers are Soyuz, Ariane, Falcon, Antares (??), and EELV (summarizing here a bit).
    What should NASA do? Make the most out of the vehicles it has and should scale back SLS to be a backup research project. Concentrate on Dragon, CST-100 for crew. Divert money from Orion to vehicles that are less susceptible to changes in the political winds.

    • I’m curious why you believe Orion and SLS will be delayed.

      Orion has hewed pretty close to schedule, absent the hiccups caused by the Administration’s attempts to terminate the program in violation of the Shelby language in the 2010 Approps law. It will have its first experimental test flight in 2014, after which it will be certified as meeting NASA’s human rating standards.

      There just isn’t enough data yet on SLS to say one way or another that it will face a delay. The J-2X program has gone better than even it’s supporters ever imagined. The 5-segment SRM program will have its 4th, and I think final, test this September. Boeing was quietly building manufacturing samples of SLS core pieces (bulkheads, etc.) while the Administration was trying to delay SLS. I can personally attest that the work to build engines on the aft-section of the modified ET, SLS center core first stage, has been studied since the early 80′s and doesn’t break new ground. So why the pessimism?

      • Karl Hallowell

        I’m curious why you believe Orion and SLS will be delayed.

        I don’t believe SLS will be delayed. Instead, I don’t believe the SLS will ever fly. NASA has a remarkably poor record for developing launch vehicles. It’s last success, the Space Shuttle was 40 years ago and it has subsequently failed many times to come up with a successor to the Shuttle. The SLS has the same marks of failure as these previous attempts, such as, huge cost, distant launch date, dependency on what is left of the Shuttle supply chain, and a lack of purpose for the vehicle.

        • We should have a bet, say a bottle of wine or Scotch, that has to be shared when either the SLS launches or is canceled. That way, whoever proves wrong still gets a good feeling.

    • ModerateChuck

      Jim Hillhouse – Why would SLS/Orion be delayed? Because EVERY government (and almost all commercial) programs are delayed, run over budget, and cannot deliver as advertised. Government programs are far more susceptible to delays (as I hinted) since they are used as jobs programs, political footballs, etc etc.
      You consider the (ill advised) termination of the Constellation program a hiccup???? It caused about 2 years of attempted cancellation, restoral as a possible rescue vehicle, and now restart. We no longer have an Orion – it is now the MPCV. Large parts of the workforce were laid off.
      Your statement that there isn’t enough data stands in contrast to decades of history of every government program. Just ask Jeff Hanley, he can tell you that your hiccup was a bit more than a minor distraction.

      • Chuck,

        Please read my reply more closely and, commiserate with that, read the Shelby language that was included in the 2010 Omnibus funding bill.

        Every gov’t program is delayed? Hmmm…every single one? I think that’s a bit hyperbolic.

        But you know, a lot of non-gov’t programs are delayed too. Like the COTS program. Both SpaceX and OSC are nearly 3 years behind schedule. And that isn’t because they didn’t get the money on time that the gov’t promised. Quite the opposite; both OSC and SpaceX were prepaid the total of their promised COTS funds. In fact, there’s no more COTS money to give-out, even though neither have completed the terms of the COTS agreement. Personally, I agree that the gov’t should have only paid them per the terms of the COTS agreement. Unfortunately, both Falcon 9 and Minotaur would be toes-up right now had the gov’t done that.

        And Chuck, this site stood-up when few others did as a voice against the terrible damage that those in the Administration were doing to the American human space flight program. When other sites were telling space workers to just deal with it, this one was telling space workers to fight back because as tax-payers, this was their space program too. If you read the article to which you are commenting, you’d probably note from the last paragraph that I believe canceling Constellation was a mistake. We’ve lost years in progress, never mind likely decades of critical experiential knowledge, in HSF thanks to this bunch.

        • Ferris Valyln

          How about the fact that there isn’t enough money in the budget to get it to where it needs to be? (And BTW, this is the Congressionally passed budget)

        • Coastal Ron

          Jim Hillhouse said:

          “Quite the opposite; both OSC and SpaceX were prepaid the total of their promised COTS funds.”

          FALSE!

          SpaceX and Orbital Sciences were NOT prepaid COTS funds. NASA only pays for COTS milestones that are completed, and not before, which means that any delays that SpaceX and Orbital experience are on their nickel, not NASA’s. Don’t you know anything about the COTS program?

          Need validation? Look at the GAO report about the COTS program:

          http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-692T

          • Coastal Ron,

            I get this info not from a GAO report that was released in late May 2011 but from those who work on the COTS program. And, before you ask, no, I will not reveal those sources.

            Yes, NASA is supposed to pay only according to COTS milestones met. But these companies are so far behind that the economics have changed. In the case of SpaceX, it is supporting over 1,600 employees and is now 18 months from its last launch. How do you supposed SpaceX has gotten by and met payroll since then?

            Well, here’s how. First, NASA gave SpaceX a pass when it let the company combine milestones 19 and 22 into one mission. That means milestones 18 and 21 could be combined for $10 million. Also NASA decided, and was supported by Hutchison and other appropriators, that SpaceX needed an additional $118 to ensure enhanced programmatic safety. If you go down the list of milestones 23 – 40 for that supplemental, this sure looks like things SpaceX should have done under the original terms of its COTS agreement. I mean, after all, look at milestones 25, 26, 27, or 35. Or did neither SpaceX or NASA know that the company would need to test its lidar system for ISS proxops? Not that I’m complaining too much. When SpaceX did its milestone 36 EMI test, it went very badly, which would not have been a good thing to learn in orbit near the ISS. Since that report, at which time only $40 million of the supplemental had been paid, the remaining $78 million has been paid for all milestones, 23 – 40.

            So let’s add all of that up. Over 18 months the following was supposed to have been paid $10 million + $118 million = $128 million. Now divide that by 1,600 employees and you get $80,000. Now divide by 18 months and that means SpaceX has paid on average $4,444 per month…in California? That’s below the poverty line when I lived there. Add-in the remaining $10 million to get $138 million and you’re still talking about only $4,792/employee/mo, not great, but at that level $350/mo can make a big difference.

            And I don’t want to highlight SpaceX as the only problem child. OSC’s antics in building its launch pad at Wallops will be a case study in mismanagement for systems engineers for decades to come.

            Email Kirsten Brost Grantham, she’s on Linkedin, and ask her yourself.

            • Ferris Valyln

              Forgive me Jim, but trusting your sources, as unverifiable, when you’ve screwed up other facts…

              Well, I’d need a lot more than what you’ve provided

  • Karol

    JIM – Thank you for providing such an excellent, well-reasoned, mathematically sound analysis of this issue. NASA-bashers and Commspace cheerleaders so often obscure the accounting reality in a cloud of “anything American government is bad” “privatize/defund” NASA rhetoric that it is rare to find anyone who is not afraid to tell the truth for fear of rabid attack. Fortunately, the House and Senate will reduce the Administrations request of 830 million for CommSpace to 500-525 million. Taxpayer dollars should be spent on the American SLS, not the Musk SLS. Let the private sector use THEIR money, if there really is profit to be made, there should be plenty of profit-hungry investors.

    • Ferris Valyln

      1. You can be for NASA, and NewSpace. Just because we don’t believe NASA should be in the launch business, or should do business differently, doesn’t mean we don’t like NASA

      2. You are telling me that Boeing & ATK aren’t making a profit with SLS? Because thats really impressive.

      3. America has 2 great operational rockets, and 2 more coming online – the Atlas V and the Delta IV, and the Falcon 9 and the Antares. And if ATK is serious, we might have a 5th one, in the form of Liberty.

      The point being – these are American rockets.

  • Ed Tessmacher

    If Griffin hadn’t been such an egotistical megalomaniac, he would have realized that Direct’s Jupiter 120 and 240 were superior vehicles to Ares in every way, and would have shifted NASA over to them post haste. That would mean that we would be, by this time, preparing for the first manned missions, or finalizing the man-rating tests of the vehicles. Direct’s Jupiter would have been fully operational in late 2012-early 2013, if it had been given the go-ahead in 2007-2008.

    You all can thank Mike Griffin for killing the US Manned Space capability. He wanted a BIGGER ROCKET than von Braun had, and we couldn’t go anywhere with it, because it could barely get itself off the pad. Do the math.

  • Dave

    That price comparison seems like apples to oranges. The 1.6/1.9 billion for CRS is paying to get payload in a shirtsleeve environment to a safe rendezvous with the ISS. That’s a way more expensive problem than lobbing dumb mass into a general orbit.

    The only way SLS has to get anything to an ISS rendezvous, pressurized or not, is with the Orion, which is not going to carry 70 mT.

    I think apples to apples would either be $18,000/kg vs. something ridiculous for Orion payload, or $8500/kg vs. the $5500/kg Falcon 9 costs for dumb mass to orbit.

    • Dave,

      I would agree with you, well mostly, about apples to oranges in comparing SLS and Falcon 9 launch costs. But there’s a problem with even your analogy in comparing Dragon to Orion.

      Dragon is now a very basic, pressurized cargo craft with a GNC, which enables proxops near ISS, and basic environmental control and life-support system (ECLSS), which provides a shirt-sleeve environment. Orion, as a crew-rated beyond-LEO exploration spacecraft is a much different beast. So we’re back again to apples to oranges comparison.

      Want a closer comparison? Let’s say that NASA opens up beyond 2015 cargo servicing ISS to competitive bid. Suppose a company proposed launching pressurized containers targeted for launch on SLS? What would they propose?

      First, let’s look at the current stable of CRS offerings. Dragon, even in its current stripped-down form, is slated to deliver on average 1.6 mT to ISS ( 20 mT / 12 launches ) at an average cost of $10,000 – 12,000 per kg. Antares is slightly higher with an average of 2.5 mT ( 20 mT / 8 launches ). SpaceX claims the Falcon 9 was designed around human-rating standards. OSC has never made the claim that its Minotaur launcher was designed around man-rating standards. Since both companies protect the confidentiality of their launcher designs, we are left to have time and launches tell us how dependable these two launchers are.

      The key to any CRS product is to leap-frog the current offerings for ISS resupply and do so not only on a per launch cost advantage but with a launch failure probability advantage as well.

      The Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) was designed to provide a shirt-sleeve capable supply module for ISS via the Space Shuttle. In its current form an MPLM can hold around 13 mT, considerably more than either a Dragon or Antares cargo craft. And the MPLM is a proven technology with 12 ISS missions. Certainly, the current MPLM design, mated with a basic GNC system and reaction controls to enable proxops to ISS, could provide a leap in cargo delivery to ISS.

      The SLS is being built from the ground-up as a human-rated launcher. Based on the SLS’s subsystems, the RS-25 and J-2X engines, and the SRB motors, SLS comes to the table with much of it a known history. With a LEO mass lift capability of the SLS Block 1 of 70 mT, there would be plenty of room for growth in either number of MPLM’s launched (but that presents ISS proxops orbital issues) or the size of the MPLM.

      That last point is important. A modified MPLM designed to deliver 40 – 50 mT of cargo per launch aboard a SLS Block 1 would upend the ISS supply market for beyond 2020 ISS ops if, and this is key, if that can be done at less cost than the current CRS providers.

      That cost advantage just might well exist. What I’ve heard on the grapevine that there are former NASA HQ and MSFC people who are in fact working on this issue. I would guess, and this is only a guess, that some within NASA executive ranks at HQ are not getting a warm-and-fuzzy feeling about SLS being a better deal than SpaceX and OSC for CRS of ISS.

      Why might bigger be better? One thing to consider is that launch support costs, which includes costs from the pad to ISS mission control, are not a trivial launch cost center.

      • Coastal Ron

        The topic at hand is getting cargo to the ISS – stop confusing things by imagining that “crew rating” has any bearing on this topic – it doesn’t. Both Cygnus and Dragon will be crew-rated for docking with the ISS, which is all the requirements that need to be met. That the MPCV can also carry crew, or that the Commercial Crew vehicles can also carry crew, is immaterial for the discussion about resupplying the ISS with cargo.

        In your article you originally compared the prices of delivering cargo via the CRS program to the price of getting dumb mass to orbit on the SLS. That is a false comparison.

        Now in your comments above you are suggesting a MLPM-type vehicle with guidance, navigation and control (GNC). Essentially what you are suggesting is the ESA ATV, which already exists, and doesn’t need to be launched on the SLS.

        There are already three cargo vehicles that are certified to support the ISS, and the U.S. is getting ready to add two more. We don’t need another cargo vehicle, especially one based on a rocket that costs $1.5B/launch.

        The ISS needs low cost, frequent deliveries of cargo. And with the Dragon spacecraft, we will also have down-mass capability. Your SLS-based solution for supplying the ISS does none of that.

        • Coastal Ron,

          OK, let’s put it this way, Bush may have built the coffin, laid ISS in it, and then lowered it into the ground. But it was the Obama Administration that nailed it shut and buried it. Good enough?

          I also said a stretched MPLM, instead of 21 feet long, make it 40 or more feet long, massing at about 30 – 40 mT.

          Yes, there’s several cargo vessels to provide shirt-sleeve cargo resupply to ISS. Instead, I’m thinking of a capacity to expand ISS or provide resupply for very large and heavy parts in such an environment for new science bays or in a non-shirt-sleeve environment for say truss segments, Destiny sized modules, etc.

          But why frequent ISS resupply missions? What’s the justification for that? Why not infrequent?

          The problem with what we have is that it’s a small program that cannot allow us to grow, to move outward in a meaningful way beyond low-Earth orbit. The current 6 mT Dragon payload capacity is paltry. The 10.45 mT payload capacity of Falcon 9 is tiny standing next to a Delta IV H, which is itself tiny standing next to a 70 mT, never mind a 130 mT, SLS.

          We are not going to settle the Moon and explore Mars at 10 – 20 mT LEO payloads. This is why both houses of Congress have supported SLS over other options that have been very vigorously promoted by Elon & Co.

          • Coastal Ron

            Jim said “We are not going to settle the Moon and explore Mars at 10 – 20 mT LEO payloads.”

            Jim, we don’t have a funded program to settle the Moon or explore Mars with humans.

            Building capabilities too far in advance of need is wasteful. In the case of the SLS, there are no customers demanding a 70-130mt rocket. Sure there are unfunded powerpoint dreams, but no one has money to build a yearly amount of SLS-only payloads to justify the SLS.

            I ask this question a lot, but no one can answer it – who is going to use the SLS, and where is their payload/mission money coming from? Hmm?

            An SLS-sized payload or mission will likely cost at least $10B and take 5-10 years to get ready, and if you map that out into a budget it far exceeds NASA’s entire budget. No one can afford the SLS.

            In the real world transportation systems are evolved as demand outpaces current capabilities. For supplying the ISS, the three current and two upcoming cargo vehicles can supply everything the ISS needs. If demand changes, we just fly more of them. It’s a very redundant and flexible approach to resupply.

            Jim also said “But why frequent ISS resupply missions? What’s the justification for that? Why not infrequent?”

            That’s a fair question, and the answer is the same reason your local market gets multiple deliveries every day, instead of one giant delivery once a week. There is a need at the ISS for fresh supplies, as well as a constant need for things that either weren’t forecasted or are opportunities. Plus where do you store all that stuff?

            In my profession (manufacturing operations) inventory is a waste of resources. You should only keep enough inventory to cover for when your next delivery is due. The ISS being an outpost means they need a good amount of what we call “safety stock”, but the principle is the same. Less inventory means less space needed to store the inventory, and frequent deliveries means you get fresh supplies and don’t need to wait as long for last minute needs (like repair parts, etc.).

            But really this boils down to money. I want infrastructure that scales with our needs. You want to spend gobs of money on something without a defined and sustained demand.

            Or another way to look at it:

            - Give me $10B and I can put a small space station at L1 with three crew rotations.

            - Give you $10B and you get an unfinished giant rocket.

            See the difference?

  • skeptic

    If there is not enough money to sustain SLS, and it gets cancelled in 2 or 3 years, NASA’s Exploration program is set back by that much, and more. I would have liked to have had Constellation, and I would like to have SLS/Orion also. Without good prospects for budget increases, we really should live within our means.

    Falcon 9H, if successful, has capability to launch a CST-100 or Dragon plus a version of the proven Centaur into LEO. There, the combination can travel to L2 and back. The Falcon 9H could also send a module the size of an ISS module to L2, to build a gateway base there, over time.

    Let’s do the best with what we have and the budget we expect. Let’s be patient with SpaceX and hope they are successful – even if it takes a modest amount of NASA money along the way – all within an expected budget.

    • Since we’re making predictions, here’s mine.

      In 2014, House and Senate Authorizers once again set national space policy centered, as before in 2010, on Orion/SLS, cislunar space, and, recognizing that commercial CRS launchers haven’t exactly made a stellar case for themselves by performing any better than NASA, only modest support for CCP. Appropriators follow suit, as they have since 2010, and continue to annually appropriate billions for Orion/SLS and only $500 million for CCP in recognition that this nation can only lead in BEO exploration with a true heavy-lift launcher. And no, Falcon 9 H’s 55 mT LEO is not a lunar and beyond capable heavy-lifter.

      The 2014 Orion ETF-1 is a stunning success, bolstering the case for Congress that it, not the President, got this one right. After the success of Orion’s ETF-1, a supplemental appropriation is made to fund development of a human-rated Delta IV Heavy as a “Plan B” for domestic crewed access to ISS. The target date is an aggressive 2016-2017.

      CCP proceeds with Boeing making the most progress towards a crewed vehicle meeting NASA’s own human rating standard. Naturally, Boeing hedges it’s bets by ensuring that it’s CST-100 is fully Delta IV H HR capable.

      Meanwhile, SpaceX and OSC find that life under a fixed-price contract like CRS isn’t what they thought it would be and have trouble operating under it’s terms. Eventually, the Obama Administration has to bail-out both OSC and SpaceX to ensure their continued performance under CRS. Any funding hopes by SpaceX that the gov’t would again fund development of one of its rocket, this time for the Falcon 9 Heavy, vanish. As part of its deal with Congress to provide funding for the rescue, the Administration agrees that all future proposed NASA budgets will adhere to the 2014 NASA Authorization Act. SpaceX and OSC are merged into a new USA (United Space Alliance) for ISS cargo services.

      2015 rolls-around with SLS making strong progress and staying on budget and schedule.

      2016 marks the first year test flights of the Delta IV H HR. The first Orion-Delta IV H HR crewed mission is scheduled for end of the year. Finally, a domestic crewed capability is within sight. CCP participants are still 2-3 years from first crewed flight.

      On January 20, 2017 NASA sends President Obama off with a gift, the roll-out of SLS in preparation for its first flight.

      2019 welcomes the first launch of a private crew-capable spacecraft aboard the Delta IV H HR.

      • Coastal Ron

        Your predications don’t make a lot of sense. For instance:

        - “recognizing that commercial CRS launchers haven’t exactly made a stellar case for themselves by performing any better than NASA” – NASA doesn’t have a cargo delivery capability, so how can NASA do better than anybody on CRS?

        - “Appropriators follow suit, as they have since 2010, and continue to annually appropriate billions for Orion/SLS and only $500 million for CCP in recognition that this nation can only lead in BEO exploration with a true heavy-lift launcher. ” – Commercial Crew only support crew transportation to LEO, so why are you confusing it with BEO exploration?

        - “Boeing hedges it’s bets by ensuring that it’s CST-100 is fully Delta IV H HR capable.” – That’s a funny one, in that Boeing won’t spend any of it’s own money for unfunded requirements, especially for a rocket that isn’t getting the $1.3B worth of upgrades ULA says would be needed to upgrade Delta IV Heavy for crew (per ULA’s CEO in 2009).

        - “Any funding hopes by SpaceX that the gov’t would again fund development of one of its rocket, this time for the Falcon 9 Heavy…” – Do you even know what a Falcon Heavy is? It’s a complete Falcon 9 with two Falcon 9 1st stage cores, and it’s already in production (1st unit delivery to VAFB by the end of 2012). Falcon Heavy in funded entirely in-house, so lack of government funding is not an issue.

        - “2016 marks the first year test flights of the Delta IV H HR. The first Orion-Delta IV H HR crewed mission is scheduled for end of the year.” – Why would Congress undercut the need for the SLS by paying for crew upgrades for Delta IV Heavy? The answer is they are not, and they won’t. This was the wackiest of them all.

        - “2019 welcomes the first launch of a private crew-capable spacecraft aboard the Delta IV H HR.” – Why use a Delta IV Heavy to send crew to LEO when an Atlas V 402 will do?

  • skeptic

    Jim, Not bad. More hopeful than probable. Remember, one success or one failure does not prove much, either Delta/Orion or Falcon 9, or any new system. Or Ares 1 for that matter.

    • Jim Hillhouse

      Skeptic,

      I will certainly agree with you that one failure does not a disaster make. It’s just a data point. And to this former engineer, a failure sometimes tells me more than a success.

      Have a good night.

      jim

  • Karol

    Jim – When you decide to run for political office (America should be so lucky) please let me know. I have a place on my front lawn reserved for your campaign sign. Keep speaking truth to power, you speak for many more people than you may realize. GO NASA!!

    • Thank you Karol for your warm words. If I ever do run for office, at least I have your vote, but it’s a vote I’m proud to have.

      Thanks again.

  • [...] Hillhouse doesn’t understand any of them: The plan germinating from deep within NASA, and that sees some tentative support within Congress, [...]

    • Okey-dokey, here’s a couple of orbital mechanics questions for Rand Simberg, the Poincarre of our times…

      At what ratio of final to initial radius can a bi-elliptic transfer be optimal in most cases for circular orbits? Hint: Wikipedia is wrong; it refers only to the lower-bound of the critical limits, a case when the bi-elliptic might be, but isn’t necessarily, optimal over the Hohmann transfer from circular orbit.

      And what law is the plane change equation based upon?

  • Here are the answers:

    1. 15.58. The Critical Limits: 11.94 to 15.58
    2. Law of Cosines

  • Vladislaw

    As far as the SLS 70 ton version as a cargo carrier to the ISS, where would you store 70 tons of cargo on the ISS?

    • As I mentioned in another reply on Sunday, a modified MPLM, e.g. a stretched MPLM could hold nearly 30 – 40 mT of cargo.

      What about fuel depots? I concede that I have not done the mass balance on a lunar mission, so I don’t off the top of my head know if a 70 mT LEO translates into 25 – 30 mT to the interior/exterior E-M Legrange points.

      But let’s say that a 70 mT LEO capable Block I SLS is capable of delivering a couple of fuel-depot test articles sized at 5-10 mT to the interior and exterior collinear Earth – Moon Legrange points. We have a lot of research on station-keeping issues, etc., but we need to get up there to find-out.

      There are issues also with rendezvous and docking in that area since we’ve never done it in anything other than simulators. So let’s size the above test do that we could launch one, or both, of the landers, Morpheus or Mighty Eagle, to investigate ProxOps and refueling issues as well. Heck, do an actual refueling. And once refueled, a landing on the Moon.

      This is why SLS is so enticing to so many people in Congress and elsewhere. Even at just 70 mT, SLS’s payload capabilities get us back on track to what we should have been doing since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon–making BEO missions more than just flags and footprints.

      • Vladislaw

        So the MPLM would dock to the ISS and just stay there as the storage compartment and refilled with garbage and then do a deorbit burn?

  • Vladislaw

    Dragon will beable to bring back cargo from the ISS. What is the value per pound for that service?

    • I don’t know. What is the down-lift payload capacity of Dragon? I doubt it’s 10 mT because of limits of the parachutes.

      I do know that it won’t be able to deliver large items, which had to be pre-positioned in the last Shuttle missions, that are critical to ISS long-term operations beyond 2020. Maybe SLS with a modified cargo vessel, say a MPLM, could.

      • Vladislaw

        From the SpaceX site:

        “6,000 kg (13,228 lbs) payload up-mass to LEO; 3,000 kg (6,614 lbs) payload down-mass”

        They are required to move 20 metric tons or about 44,000 pounds of cargo. With 12 flights SpaceX has the potential to move 158736 pounds of cargo, or over 70 metric tons of cargo to the ISS. Granted volumn is usually a bigger problem not always allowing you to move the maximum amount.

        They will also have the potential of moving almost 80,000 pounds of down cargo.

        I believe the numbers used in some of the above posts are a little misleading when you start looking at the numbers.

  • There’s the problem. The CRS contract stipulates that SpaceX is supposed to deliver 20 mT to ISS over 12 launches for $1.6 billion.

    That makes sense if we recall that the Falcon 9 only has a LEO 28° circular payload capacity of 10.45 mT. Given that the Dragon spacecraft has a dry mass of 4.2 mT, a wet mass of roughly 4.45 mT, that leaves a payload capacity of roughly 6 mT, which is in fact the payload mass of the Dragon.

    • Coastal Ron

      Jim, how is making frequent deliveries a “problem”?

      As to the rest of your post, are you just talking to yourself, or was there a point in confirming Dragon’s payload capacity?

  • Tell you what Rand, I’ll go back through my copies of post exchanges during 2008 and see if I’m wrong. If I am wrong, I’ll man-up to that.

  • For a 16-times increase over SpaceX’s “regular” launch costs, that’s a lot service!

    So SpaceX’s “regular” level of service is pretty much…what? Bolting down the payload to the Falcon 9 launcher interface, closing the cargo fairing, and hitting the Big Red “Launch” button?

    Rand, since you seem to know about this sort of stuff, could you provide more detail for all of us just what these extraordinary services that SpaceX is providing encompass, which increase the per kg launch cost by 16-times above and beyond their $5k/kg launch cost?

  • They a) provide pressurized cargo volume for payloads that require that, b) they deliver the payloads not just to orbit, but all the way to the ISS (this requires a sophisticated GN&C system), and c) they return thousands of pounds of payload (e.g., experiment results or space manufacturing products). It remains mindless to just compare per-kilogram launch costs to LEO.

  • They a) provide pressurized cargo volume for payloads that require that, b) they deliver the payloads not just to orbit, but all the way to the ISS (this requires a sophisticated GN&C system)

    So SpaceX, by using Dragon, increases its LEO payload costs by a multiple of 16?

    I worked with GNC. I know some of the people who developed and managed JSC’s GNC for Shuttle-ISS rendezvous and docking (know what Hill’s equations are?). Yes, it’s not trivial. But neither does the inclusion of that capability, nor of Dragon, increase payload cost by anything like 16 times.