Contenders Unite! …Please?

By now, I’m sure everyone in the space community has seen the joint editorial by Dr. Paul D. Spudis (whose works I often quote) and Dr. Robert Zubrin (of The Mars Society), who have decided to put aside their differences (the former wants us to return to the Moon first, the latter wishes us to go straight to Mars) in order to voice their joint concerns about the new space policy.

To point out a particularly summarizing paragraph:

“By adopting the new program, we will lose – probably irretrievably – this space-faring infrastructure and, most certainly, our highly trained, motivated and experienced work force. It will be prohibitively expensive and difficult to restart our manned program after five to 10 years of agency navel-gazing, effectively signaling the end of America’s manned space program and our leadership in space.”

Their concerns are, in my opinion, well-founded: to date, no private company has delivered either crew or cargo to the space station aboard a privately-funded delivery system. Private companies such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have sent payloads to orbit and beyond before, of course, so there is certainly precedent for considering the possibility of private companies delivering goods to orbit, but to do so at the expense of what George Washington University’s Director of the Space Policy Institute Scott Pace calls a “backup plan” just seems foolhardy.

From Space Politics:

“[Dr. Pace] suggested that Ares 1 be the fallback option should commercial vehicles fall behind schedule. ‘I believe in the public option,’ he quipped. [NASA Deputy Administrator Lori] Garver countered that continuing to develop the Ares 1 was neither wise nor affordable. ‘Private sector will not have the incentive to invest and develop that capability if we have, as you call it, a backup plan,’ she said, arguing that the government should not compete with the private sector in this arena.”

The problem I think most of those who oppose commercial crew are seeing is that the capability of crew launch within the industry is unproven. At least with airplanes they’d already done it when the government stepped in with mail contracts.

So the situation is confusing:Β  to Cx or not to Cx? As always, the answer probably lies somewhere in between.

Luckily, Dennis Wingo agrees with me. In his article, he describes the history of the Constellation program–and counters a few claims made by its supporters, specifically regarding its feasibility if properly funded–and discusses a compromise between the two paths (interestingly, things might be much better regarding Constellation if NASA hadn’t altered the ESAS proposal. For example, Ares I originally had a four-segment Solid Rocket Booster for its first stage and a modified Space Shuttle Main Engine for its upper stage, which would require a much smaller amount of engineering work to implement, presumably).

Wingo says:

It is clear that the PoR [TSG’s Note: PoR = Project of Record–i.e., Constellation] has been underfunded from the beginning. The previous administrator and the Constellation program compounded the problems by implementing major changes to the ESAS Ares 1 that increased near-term costs by billions and added additional schedule risks. The news flash is that the PoR was never financeable with any budget that Congress was likely to provide. This is beyond the fact of its limitations as an architecture would never have been cost effective or timely for exploration. Any architecture that requires between 7 to 15 Ares V launches to Mars at a $1 billion per launch before humans are even sent should have been dead on arrival. This was realized by most observers when the ESAS architecture was unveiled in 2005.”

Of a compromise, he says:

Armstrong and Cernan are 100% right when they say that the new plan is unfocused in its execution and uninformed in the finding that “We have been there and done that” on the Moon. Unfortunately, Constellation was never going to get us to the Moon or anywhere else in a sustainable manner. By abandoning ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) and an outpost, the lunar mission of Constellation was nothing more than practice for a $20 billion per flight Mars program.”

Now, this is something I didn’t know. I always sort of assumed ISRU was the goal. What else makes as much sense as using the water and (possible) organic compounds that already exist on the Moon to build a lunar colony? Ship up all the water and oxygen and such from the Earth? Ridiculous. If Constellation really called for the abandonment of ISRU on the Moon, then it should be scrapped, or at least modified.

Wingo summarizes his compromise here:

If Congress is truly concerned that we are abandoning our spaceflight heritage, then they need to fund the new plan before October 1 while mandating the Moon and a strong presence there. Within 24 months we could begin sending missions to a lunar outpost location on the moon and building up a capability that humans could use when they get there. By doing this we will preserve our workforce, leverage the $100 billion dollar taxpayer investment in ISS, and provide some stability for our national program.”

Wow, two years, really? If that’s true, this is fantastic news. Again, reading Drs. Zubrin and Spudis casts doubt on the ability of the commercial-only aspect of the plan, but maybe some compromise can be reached. Let NASA build the Ares V or another comparable Shuttle-Derived Heavy-Lift (Launch) Vehicle (SDHLV) and man-rate the Atlas V orΒ  Delta IV or something. Reliance on SpaceX and other unproven companies is problematic when we already have proven, working launchers capable of doing the job. Why can’t we do a little tweaking of the EELV rockets and put the Orion/LES stack on top? (By the way, under Sean O’Keefe [NASA Administrator before Dr. Michael Griffin], this was the original point of the Vision for Space Exploration–put some kind of CEV [Crew Exploration Vehicle] on top of an expendable launcher).

I like SpaceX’s plans a lot: a fully reusable heavy launcher is a great idea, and ought to save costs in the long run. The problem is, they have yet to launch. Plus, competition is good. Let them compete with ULA (Boeing/Lockheed working together) and Orbital and others.

So, in summation, nothing much has changed. My favorite idea involves man-rating an existing launcher for the Orion/LES stack and letting NASA continue on with the Ares V or something like it that can fulfill the heavy-lift requirement. Put people on the Moon full-time, a permanent city in space. Let the commercial sector launch crew and cargo on proven rockets and work on getting a dedicated system together through SpaceX and Orbital and such which can, perhaps, better cater to the exacting requirements of NASA’s Human Spaceflight (HSF) programs, if necessary.

If we work together instead of against one another, maybe we can get something that works, because clearly neither of the two main options is satisfactory enough.

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9 Responses to Contenders Unite! …Please?

  1. Ferris Valyn says:

    A few points

    You said “no private company has delivered either crew or cargo to the space station aboard a privately-funded delivery system. ”

    Sorry, but thats not true.

    Energia does it quite frequently.

    Secondly, you said
    “Let NASA build the Ares V or another comparable Shuttle-Derived Heavy-Lift (Launch) Vehicle (SDHLV) and man-rate the Atlas V or Delta IV or something”

    Regarding the Atlas V/Delta IV poinyt – That part of the plan for commercial crew. Now, we won’t be putting the full-up Orion on them (because its too heavy), but we can certainly man-rate them, and should, and it ALREADY IS part of the Commercial Crew plan.

    Second, regarding the Heavy Lift vehicle, why must it be an SDLV? Why can’t it be an EELV based vehicle? Because that is what is being attempted with the program – developing a heavy lift EELV. Yes, we don’t run out and start it this year, (or most of it) but we start the pieces we can afford. The HLV development program is a down payment for the full program, when we get a little bit closer to the actual launch date.

    • Well, Energia runs the Progress system, which I was thinking of as connected with the Russian space agency. If that’s how you wish to think of it, well, private companies have been doing everything in space, especially supplying the space station through such means as the Space Shuttle (United Space Alliance). In any case, I can’t find any information on the specifics, so I don’t know exactly who funds the Progress launches. You may well be correct, but until I see the data I won’t make the edit.

      As for SDLV, I just figure it’s what NASA wants. The technology is already there and fairly well understood. Of course they could go another route, but it seems that SDLV technology is the direction they want to go–especially since it would maintain a lot of the current Shuttle workforce–and I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t go with a SDLV system. It’s not a big deal one way or the other, just so long as we get Heavy Lift.

      • Ferris Valyn says:

        Energia runs both the Progress AND the Soyuz. Yes, its connected with the Russian space agency, but in the same way that Commercial Crew providers (whoever they are) would be connected with NASA.

        Its not a matter of who FUNDS the launches, but rather how the funds are being handled, and who is conducting oversight.

        Secondly – the reason NOT to go with an SDLV is that an SDLV is incredibly expensive – more expensive than NASA can afford.

  2. Well, I did say “privately-funded” delivery system.

    As for SDLV, I don’t know how much it would cost. I don’t think NASA even knows, really, which seems to be the root of all these problems. Whichever works best and costs the least at the same time is what we should do, so whatever that means–SDLV or not–is, well, whatever it means. As long as we get Heavy Lift I’m satisfied.

    • Ferris Valyn says:

      Its as much privately funded as Commercial Crew would be. So what is your point?

      • Well, I suppose that I tend to think of “privately-funded” as being more separate from government. I don’t know about the Energia case, so I can’t comment, but speaking of a company like, say, SpaceX, the Falcon rocket system was funded heavily (if not entirely; I’m not sure where COTS comes in) by private dollars, especially from CEO Elon Musk. In contrast, the Space Shuttle was more or less commissioned by NASA, so while I’m sure non-government funds were utilized in its construction and design–indirectly if in no other fashion–it likely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for NASA wanting to make it. That’s the distinction I’m trying to get at. If Energia is more like the SpaceX case, well, that’s fine, but I don’t know. I can’t reasonably change it without numbers.

  3. Ferris Valyn says:

    TSG – the problem is that I think you are looking at where the vehicles originally came from, per se, than how they are operated, which is the more relevant point. Was Soyuz & Progress originally a pure government vehicle, like Shuttle? Yes. But since then, its been privatized, and is operated by a private company (or at least it has been in the past – with Putin doing some nationalization, I don’t know where Energia has landed with regards to that), what does it matter how it started out? Its been quite successful as a private entity, so why can’t we repeat something similar in America? In this case, we are talking about doing it using EELVs, rather than Soyuz.

    Also, its not like NASA has the cornerstone on technically competent people – remember, shuttle was developed as much (if not more so) by Rockwell.

    • Oh, certainly. An EELV crew and/or cargo system is a great idea, and we should do it ASAP. Ares I never seemed necessary to me, and using EELV for crew and cargo seems like the best of both worlds. I suppose it would just make me–and a lot of people, I think–feel better to know that NASA’s years of experience are being applied to the next generation of launch vehicles. They could see things that the commercial companies simply wouldn’t know to look for. I think SpaceX makes a lot of people nervous because they don’t have much experience at all, regardless of how accurately that reflects on their actual abilities.

      As for operation, I don’t see why the company itself–ULA for Delta and Atlas or SpaceX for Falcon or however it works out–can’t oversee operation of its own vehicle. That’s how USA and ULA do it, of course, and NASA doesn’t necessarily know how a rocket works better than its creators just because it’s NASA.

      So I guess the best option is work out some way to put Orion–or Orion Lite, although it looks like both the Delta and Atlas can carry Orion (judging by the numbers on Wikipedia), although the weight of the LES isn’t taken into account–on top of an EELV rocket, get some kind of heavy lifter from NASA’s research, and start lobbing things into space. It would create a lot of interplay between NASA and the private industry, which I think is good. (We might prefer the Delta, since we’re talking a lot about American independent launch capability and the Atlas uses the Russian RD-180 engine.)

      As for heavy lift, if we can do something like Energia (the rocket, the one they strapped the Buran to), which is entirely liquid-fueled, we can perhaps devise a powerful rocket using LH2 and LOX, which many people wish to convert to, given that you just get water out of it. Something reusable like the Energia II might be even better, given that with ~100 tonnes to play with we have a lot of extra capacity to add reusability, which might cut down on costs.

      Just a few thoughts.

      • Ferris Valyn says:

        In those first 2-3 paragraphs, you have literally described Commercial Crew. Yes, I understand people’s reluctance about SpaceX, and all that. And, as hopeful as I am for SpaceX, history is a harsh judge, and having a backup mechanism utilizing traditional prime contractors is probably prudent.

        But the current plan for commercial crew does take this into account. Of the various mixtures of spacecrafts and rockets (ULA’s Atlas V or Delta IV, OSC’s Cygnus & Taurus 2, Blue Origin’s capsule, Boeing’s Orion-lite capsule, SpaceX’s Dragon & Falcon 9, SNC’s Dreamchaser), a majority of them use Atlas V or Delta IV rockets, and we have at least 1 case that is entirely done by prime contractors. So, as I say, it addresses the major points, and is what you talked about.

        With regard to HLV – I say we look at the Atlas V Phase 2 (or even Phase 1) before we start looking at SDLV.

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