Commercial Access to Space -- the finished (polite) version

See the rude original version also.

A draft version of this appeared earlier. This is the final and official release.



Space Access Update #84 6/17/99

Copyright 1999 by Space Access Society

Editorial: Right Intentions, Wrong Direction -

NASA's Destructive Approach To Cheap Access

Let us be clear from the start: NASA's leadership may well share our vision of the importance of cheap access to our future - but their organization has screwed up the cheap access initiatives entrusted to it to date, from the mismanagement of DC-XA into a crash (we still haven't seen full public release of the predictable blame-the-contractor report on that mess) to the muddled morphing of X-33 into a half-assed Shuttle II. As far as we are concerned, the current push to do "X-Ops" reusable rocket low-cost operability demos in Future-X is NASA's last chance - if they mess this up too, come 2001 we'll be pushing hard for removal of RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle) technology development responsibility from NASA entirely.

We reluctantly came to this conclusion last fall, and started working quietly behind the scenes to advance Future-X X-Ops work. Why are we going public now? Because over the last two months the evidence has become overwhelming that the NASA old guard is reverting to malign old habits - they are once again pushing their internal agendas with reckless disregard for the interests of US industry and of the country as a whole, to the point of actively attacking the credibility and investment-worthiness of the reusable-launch startups. They have done so repeatedly, and (under the most charitable interpretation) factually incorrectly.

This must stop, NOW. If NACA in 1930 had been allowed to tell potential investors that Douglas and Boeing couldn't possibly build robust all-metal monoplane airliners without ten additional years of massive NACA research funding, we'd all still be taking trains. Assuming, of course that we survived WW II at all.

If NASA can neither usefully support entrepreneurial low-cost launch ventures, nor at minimum shut up and stay out of their way, then it's time to start looking carefully at the parts of NASA involved, constraining the ones still needed, and defunding the rest.



Our evaluation is that NASA is doing this to advance two major agendas. One is to maintain the massive NASA Shuttle/Station bureaucracy into the indefinite future, by preempting all possible alternatives to some sort of huge full-employment Shuttle Upgrade or Shuttle Followon project.

The other is to fund a wish-list of blue sky launch technology projects (including hypersonic airbreathing launch vehicles - NASP II, anyone?) at most of the other NASA centers under the name "Spaceliner 100", by attacking current (rocket) technologies as simply not good enough.

That's only our estimate of their motives, mind. It's always possible NASA is attacking the commercial RLV outfits out of sheer random institutional bloodymindedness. But attacking they are - and in general, the main content of their attacks is, uh, incorrect.


In evidence, point #1

- From the April 8th speech by Administrator Goldin to the US Space Foundation in the context of supporting Spaceliner 100 (by the way, we totally agree with the grand vision expressed in this speech, of the importance to coming generations of investing in cheap space access now. It's the proposed implementation that we vehemently disagree with. We suspect Dan Goldin has been getting very bad technology advice lately): "At NASA, the technology barrier is the rocket." He goes on to state, more or less correctly, that Shuttle launch costs are about $10,000 per pound, and then says "Expendable vehicles are not significantly cheaper" (with the unspoken corollary that reusable rockets can't possibly be much better.)

It depends on your definition of "significantly", we guess - aside from the Titan 4, which involves almost as much bureaucracy as Shuttle, current medium-to-heavy commercial expendables cost from about half (Delta 2, Atlas 2) to about one fifth (ILS Proton) of $10K per pound to LEO. NASA's recent line that even reusable rockets can't make more than a factor of ten reduction over Shuttle launch costs looks pretty foolish when decades-old expendable designs already undercut Shuttle by factors of two to five. And at least two credible current expendable ventures are shooting for that factor of ten reduction.

It is indeed possible that rockets, *as conceived by NASA*, can never get much cheaper than Shuttle. There's considerable evidence to support this in NASA's recent RLV efforts. But, if we can keep NASA from strangling the innovative RLV startups in their cradles, there is no fundamental law of physics preventing clever engineers without NASA's forty years of bureaucratic baggage from undercutting Shuttle costs by factors of ten right from the start, getting down to factors of as much as a hundred once experience refines systems and flight rates rise.


In evidence, point #2:

May 8th "New Scientist" magazine: From an article on Richard (Virgin Atlantic Airways) Branson's investment negotiations with Rotary Rocket Company, a quote from a top-level NASA official dismissing Roton and other such reusable rocket concepts as "...system gimmicks to overcome the unbelieveable lack of technology they [the startup reusable rocket companies] have."

Hmm. NASA, by implication, has far better technology. Oh, really. Who has full-scale graphite-epoxy LOX tanks? Who has access to the best (Russian) rocket engines in the world? Who can build composite fuel tanks, liquid hydrogen or plain old kerosene, that *don't* leak like sieves? Who knows how to tow-launch high wing-loading vehicles? Who has the biggest concentration of expertise in the world on vertical-landing rockets? On aerial cryo-propellant transfer? On rapid prototyping of high-strength ultra-light composites? On high-performance non-toxic storable propellants?

If you answered "NASA" to any of the above, you are wrong. The answer in every case is private industry, and in most cases the startups. NASA still has pockets of excellence, but they float in a sea of mediocrity. NASA slamming the startups' technology in order to get more funding for their own endless noodling is, frankly, nauseating.

That said, precisely what is wrong with "system gimmicks" if they work? Are they somehow impure, unclean, unworthy of the true scientific guardians of higher-tech-at-all-costs? A case in point: Modern military aircraft require a base with a ten thousand-foot concrete runway to operate effectively, right? No possible way to cut that to one-tenth the size and, better yet make it mobile, short of some ultra-advanced technology like anti-gravity? Right?

Uh... What is an aircraft carrier but a collection of "system gimmicks" - massive victorian-tech steam catapults for takeoffs, arrestor wires and tailhooks and mirror-and-light flightpath indicators for landings, angled flight decks to allow both at once, plus the accumulated operational expertise to make it all work, a mobile airbase a tenth the size of fixed landbased versions. If the "system gimmick" RLV startups can make a major dent in launch costs, and it looks as if, given a chance, they can, we do not give two figs how "gimmicky" their technology is. To quote some anonymous Cold War weapons designer, "'better' is the enemy of 'good enough'".


In evidence, point #3:

This week's "Space News" - "Reusable Launch Vehicles A Decade Away, NASA Says."
We mentioned in Update #83 that the results of an industry study on what to do about Shuttle (STAS, the Space Transportation Architecture Study) were out, and that while many of the proposals were (predictably) for massively expensive one-size-fits-all Shuttle replacements, at least some of the conclusions were sensible, i.e. gradually replace Shuttle with an EELV/CTV system that would meet NASA manned-space's basic needs with a relatively small investment while having (a major point to us) negligible impact on the commercial launch market.

(EELV are the heavy-lift versions of the Enhanced Expendable Launch Vehicle, aka Delta 4 and Atlas 5. CTV is a proposed Crew Transfer Vehicle version of the X-38 Station "Crew Rescue Vehicle" lifeboat.)

Now it seems the NASA/Aerospace Corp response to the various STAS reports has been leaked to Space News, and the gist of it is: NASA slams the various RLV proposals as unrealistic regarding schedule and budget (not surprising if they're geared to actually getting a contract to replace Shuttle; spending too much money over too long a time in all the right districts is an unspoken requirement for any would-be Shuttle replacement - it seems unfair to slam the proposals for soft-pedalling these unspoken specs) and proposes that NASA essentially micromanage a drawn-out process to eventually replace Shuttle sometime in the 2010's.

Previous intentions to encourage commercial RLV developments have evaporated; NASA Shuttle II will be the only game in town, at least by this tell-the-customer-what-they-want-to-hear custom blueprint.

Mind, we haven't seen this study ourselves yet; we're going on Space News's reading - but this agrees with the other recent evidence. By essentially dismissing the chances any of the current crop of RLV startups could succeed and thus position themselves to meet a significant part of NASA's space launch needs, NASA significantly reduces the startups' chances of getting the investment they need to succeed, in a fine example of pernicious self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, by ignoring the meet-JSC's-needs-and-no-more EELV/CTV approach in favor of some flavor of massive-overcapacity Shuttle II, this study continues NASA's implicit threat of a subsidized grab of the core of the existing commercial launch demand, adversely affecting the investment climate for commercial space launch in general.

This is rapidly approaching the point where we'll be able to make a convincing case that this nation's future in space would be better served by a radically reduced NASA. We'd rather not find that road the only one left to us.


Fixing the problem

For starters, we'd like to see whoever's peddling this line at NASA HQ fired, or at least transferred to counting seabirds at some remote tracking station. Not that the person in question is more than a representative of widespread NASA tendencies, but it will at least serve as an example to the rest.

We'd like to hear an unambiguous repudiation of the totally unacceptable anti-RLV startup investment advice voiced in the May 8th New Scientist article.

We'd like to see a firm NASA committment to "X-Ops", supporting interested startups in proving out and refining their low-cost launch approaches via low-cost subscale flight demonstrations on NASA's dime, in order to get them to the point where they are unmistakeably ready to raise commercial funds to develop full-scale commercial vehicles on an acceptable commercial timescale.

Under those circumstances, we would find it appropriate to support a minimum-investment approach to guaranteeing Shuttle's NASA-unique missions, and to support a moderate level of investment in getting the various "Spaceliner 100" technologies closer to ready for prime time - we note that the proposed RBCC (Rocket-Based Combined Cycle, a hybrid rocket-airbreather) engine in particular has huge remaining unknowns in terms of weight, cost, and speed range, and much work needs to be done before any Trailblazer-class (~$500m) flight vehicle program is appropriate. In other words, "show us the engine!" - given X-33's develop-a-partially-new-engine problems, this should go without saying, but it apparently doesn't.

We can understand why there might be dissatisfaction with reusable rockets at top levels in NASA, given the reluctance of the post-consolidation aerospace majors to compete with themselves by committing significant resources, and given the organizational cluelessness in efforts to date. But stomping the startups in an effort to fund NASP II and/or Shuttle II is not the answer.

Give the startups a real chance now - tight funding, tight schedule, tight accounting, but minimal engineering elbow-joggling - and in three to four years, we'll know what's really possible.

Stick with business as usual, and sooner or later the country will realize what damage NASA is doing, and will act appropriately.

Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions in the cost of reaching space. You may redistribute this Update in any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety.

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