Barbree’s Take On CCDev Awards


Aerospace veterans underrepresented in NASA’s post-shuttle strategy

NBC’s Jay Barbree, who has been reporting on space since…well, since human space flight began, has a commentary, NASA’s future depends on spaceflight neophytes. Barbree is old school, which is to say he doesn’t mince words. And his view of the selectees of NASA’s recent commercial crew development (CCDev) awards is not charitable. But then, we are talking about human space flight. As Barbree put it, “During the five decades that followed the first launch of an American into space…[t]hose responsible for the agency’s successes followed a simple axiom: Good is the enemy of great. NASA either flew with the best and most experienced, or not at all. This week brought the first hint that NASA’s standards could be dropping.

    It’s not as if hiring the inexperienced was NASA’s only choice. For the same money spent on these commercial contracts, the space agency could have had a commercial U.S.-European rocket. It would have been provided by ATK Space Launch Systems, the builders of the space shuttles’ solid booster rockets; and by Astrium, the company that builds the liquid-fueled core stage of the European Ariane 5.
    For the past 25 years, the space shuttle’s booster rockets have flown 214 times successfully.  That’s 107 shuttle missions in a row, with two rockets for each.   Meanwhile, France’s Ariane rocket has flown 41 times without a failure, and the hardware was originally designed to be human-rated — that is, cleared for flying astronauts. The Liberty rocket would have used NASA’s existing facilities at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, trimming back the costs of operation as well as the time needed for Americans to be riding their own spacecraft again.

That ATK’s Liberty Launcher was not selected for further CCDev work came as no surprise. Not because of short-comings of the Liberty Launcher design–far from it. Rather, for NASA to have selected the Liberty Launcher would have been to admit that the determination of some at NASA, made far in advance of the Augustine Committee, that the Ares I must be canceled was in fact a mistake. The decision on the Liberty Launcher was, if the past two years are any guide, very likely a political, not an engineering call.

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  1. Ummm… let me toss up some numbers. Suppose it’s the mid 1990s. You’re in charge of things at AT&T and you want to launch a new comsat. Price of R&D and manufacturing for the bird is (roughly) $2 billion. Boeing gives you a quote of say $200 million for integration and launch costs for a Delta IV; Arianespace is about the same. Past experience indicates both operators have a 90% reliability rate, so insurance runs to $220 million — likely more if you go to Lloyds or some other outside vender, with a total cost of $2.42 billion.

    Lockheed offers a variant of Atlas V at say $150 million; this is an untested configuration which Lloyds figures has 80% reliability, so insurance would run to $430 million. This gives a total cost of $2.580 billion, so you rule it out.

    Ten years later, satellite and launch costs haven’t changed much but Boeing can now point to 95% reliability, giving total costs of $2.31 billion per satellite. Lockheed has moved up to 90% reliability on its launcher, for a cost of $2.365 per bird — essentially neck and neck figures.

    Which is where we are now. Launch costs are high, which we all agree is bad. But reliability is also high, which is good. The flip side of the reliability, however, is that there’s not much scope for improvement — if we get to 100% reliabile launch vehicles,so insurance is unnecessary, we’ll still be looking at $2.15 to $2.2 billion for each comsat. Fortunately, this is a profitable business, so AT&T is willing to bear the costs.

    Enter Elon Musk (or Jeff Bezos or Dave Masten or John Carmack orf even you or I), with a proposal for yet another launcher. Call it Tweety Bird. Launch costs are estimated at $10 million, which is close enough to zip to catch your eyes, but alas, no Tweety Bird has ever flown. In fact, TB is at least five years away from being flown, and your insurance carrier’s not goin to bet that it will have more than 50% reliability for its first three or four years of operation. So you’re looking at total costs of better than $3 billion per launch — which effectively rules out Tweety Bird as your launcher for ten years to come. Too bad, but even if TB were free and 100% reliable, you’d only be lowering your costs from $2.2 billion to $2 billion, which is barely noticeable from AT&T’s viewpoint.

    In other words, sticking with what you know to be effective (Barbee’s “great”) rules out development of something potentially better, which is only “Good.” Which makes perfect sense, of course, but it doesn’t lead to fast improvements. Barbee’s got things all wrong, as I see it. The problem is that as things are set up, the deck is stacked against Tweety Bird — Delta and Atlas and other existing launchers are good enough and launch costs are just low enough that it can’t demonstrate its effectiveness. And the only cure is that some deep-pocketed customer has to foot the bill for some big part of TB’s R&D and first launch trials — which brings us to Government.

    I understand this is unpalatable in a lot of ways. But I don’t see much of an alternative in the world we live in.

    • Mike,

      You raise great points. I agree that we need to keep pushing new launchers to lower the cost of flight.

      I think one thing that really irked Barbree was that ATK’s Liberty Launcher received no funding. I had a chance to briefly talk to Romminger, ATK’s person on Liberty, and the numbers looked good. Launch by 2012, two tested stages, and so on. According to testimony by Doug Cooke, the marginal cost of an Ares I launch was $175M and Liberty would have been materially the same. I’ve heard that the total cost of an Ares I launch, depending on how costing was done, was between $450M-700M. No matter how you look at it, far cheaper than any EELV. And tested.

      I hope ATK continues with its launcher. But there was no way it was ever going to get funding from NASA.

  2. A couple points: the first is that NASA doesn’t seem to have a lot of autonomy these days. If ATK’s prospects are dead — which wouldn’t surprise me — it’s likely that decision was made by someone at OMB or in the President’s Science Advisor’s office, rather than by some person or some committee at NASA.

    The second: my hunch is ATK got its copybook smeared with Mike Griffin’s failure. When the Constellation program got started, there was a fair amount of rhetoric about reusing space shuttle components, which to most people sounded like using standard shuttle SRBs as a first stage launcher. Or at least, a cheap and easily modified SRB. But alas, a 4-stage shuttle solid didn’t seem to cut it, so we got a redesign with not-so-cheap 5-stage SRBs. And then there was an oscillation problem of uncertain seriousiness, needing expensive testing. And … who knows? But SRBs began to look like something not to rely upon, but something to avoid.

    Which might be unfair, but sets up point 3: A lot of people, not all of them non-space buffs, see current space technology as inhumanly huge and inefficent and ludicrously expensive. They want to see big changes in the future — via space elevators, or flying saucers, or Star Trek transporters — and they aren’t going to be satisfied with $500 million per launch one-shot solid rocket systems. Once it seeps into their heads that what we’ve got to offer is always the latter and never the former, their appraisals of manned spaceflight get very negative.

    Oh well. If this were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

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