NASA, VSE, and The Need for Commercial Space

The first talk on Friday after Jeff’s brief introduction was by Chris Shank of NASA. Chris works very closely with Mike Griffin there at NASA HQ. In fact, his office is just down the hall a few doors from Mike’s. So, he was here more or less to give us the straight dope on what NASA is up to. I think the original intent was that he was going to discuss the results of that 60-day study group that Griffin put together, but as that was delayed, he gave a more general overview of things as they’re currently known.

He started out with a rather cool quote that Meriwether Lewis had written on his 31st birthday, on August 18, 1805:

I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

The Lewises are ancestors of mine, and this quote really resonated with me. It should be noted that this statement was written about a year into their expedition to explore the territories aquired through the Louisiana Purchase. Those who know me, know that I can often be too self-critical, and this quote gave me a little bit of hope and comfort. I’m very grateful to Chris for starting his presentation this way.

Chris’s emphasis with this talk was trying to put to rest the thought that the VSE was just an Apollo redux. While there are some positive differences, I think that the main thrust of his presentation actually did a good job of making the opposite case. While there are some differences, like the fact that they are redirecting Project Prometheus to develop nuclear power generation systems for surface operations, the overall overview he gave didn’t give me too many warm fuzzies. Just saying that “we can’t do business as usual” or “this is not your father’s Apollo program” aren’t enough. Real actions must be taken to avoid the mistakes of the past if you don’t want to repeat their consequences in the future.

That said, just when I was getting truly disgusted, Chris did say a few things that gave me some hope again. One of them has been making the rounds a lot in the community, while the other one seems to have gone relatively unnoticed.

The first one was his statement, that while they were going over the budget numbers for carrying out the VSE, the found that:

“[I]f we didn’t take a firm fixed-price approach towards our acquisition practices on how we’re going to provide ISS crew and cargo, we could not afford to move on to the Moon.”

Basically NASA has more or less admitted that they can’t afford to do things the way they want to without commercial ISS resupply becoming a reality. It is good to see a high-level person at NASA endorsing the view that not only can the private sector deliver on such a project, but that it can do so in a much more cost-effective manner than what NASA usually does. While this should be obvious to any real observer of the industry, it’s glad to hear it coming from them. I was disappointed though that they didn’t take this logic further. Here NASA is more or less admitting that commercial ISS resupply is fiscally critical to them being able to carry out the VSE, yet they still stick to their mantra that they can’t afford to put commercial space in the “critical path” for the actual main program. Makes you want to scratch your head a bit, doesn’t it?

The other interesting point was brought up in Chris’s display of the current projected timeline for the lunar portion of the VSE. It looks like it’s almost certain now that NASA is going to develop The Stick, and that they are going to do a normal, cost-plus, contractor developed CEV. Developing those two vehicles, finishing up the ISS, and flying the last few Shuttle missions are going to suck up most of their time and money for the next several years. The interesting point that he mentioned, that almost nobody else has brought up, is that they won’t be actually starting serious development of the In-Line HLV, the “Earth Departure Stage”, or the Lunar Lander until after 2010. When you add the inevitable delays and cost overruns in the Shuttle program (such as the recent standdown after Discovery’s launch this week), the development of the CEV and The Stick, it may be well into the next decade before they start putting serious money into developing their cis-lunar transportation system.

This is a potentially critical piece of information. What this means is that its not too late to stop the In-Line booster from being developed! Over the next five years, a lot will be happening in commercial space. For example, if SpaceX doesn’t botch things, they’ll be flying their Falcon I and Falcon V vehicles regularly by that point, and may be well on their way to fielding the Atlas/Delta/Proton scale vehicle they’ve been quietly mentioning over the past year or so. Somebody might pull off winning Bigelow’s “Americas Space Prize”, or a commercial group like t/Space may have their CXV delivering crew and cargo to the ISS by then. Basically, if commercial space can execute well enough over the next few years, it may be possible to get the architecture changed to something more open, more affordable, and more commercial. There are still some major political obstacles to overcome, after all there’s a lot of pork to be spread around with the current NASA plans, but if commercial space does well enough, there may be a chance to change things before its too late. Brant Sponberg’s announcement Friday night might also have an effect, though I’ll talk about that more later.

So, while I remain unconvinced that NASA’s current plans for VSE are significantly different from an Apollo repeat, what actually ends up happening with the VSE may be much better. Particularly if private space companies can do a good job on execution over the next several years. So, in spite of most of his presentation, Chris still gave me some reasons to hope that things might turn out well.

And if they don’t, we’ll be more than glad to fly the CNN crew out to the moon to film the 7th NASA landing on the moon.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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2 Responses to NASA, VSE, and The Need for Commercial Space

  1. Kelly Starks says:

    I think the problem is that if NASA doesn’t build the craft to take their people back to the moon, NASA doesn’t serve a purpose. The whole real point of the vision for space exploration, is to refurbish NASA into a functional organization. IF NASA shows it can cut it again, then they might get to go to Mars; but if they can’t do it and have to contract it out to a commercial firm, NASA no longer serves a purpose.

    Space exploration was never a primary goal for NASA, mearly a means to a end. Using commercials is a excelent way to advance Space exploration and moving humanity into space, but it doesn’t serve any NASA interests.

  2. Pingback: Selenian Boondocks » Blog Archive » Random Thought: Should Safety be the Top Priority?

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