A Battle of Memes?

In case you’re wondering why I’m posting so much today, I’m at home tonight babysitting, and little Jon is asleep, so I have a little time on my hands.

There’s been a lot of recent discussion in the space corner of the blogosphere about the Innovative Programs group that NASA is creating to pursue “non-traditional” (aka more commercial) approaches to space exploration. There has also been a lot of discussion right now about the more “traditional” Shuttle Derived transportation architecture that Griffin and NASA are trying to push for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. I noticed that there is a potentially dangerous conflict of memes between the programs that impede the Innovative Programs from really having a chance to get anywhere.

If you look at it, the “critical path” lunar transportation system that NASA is leaning toward uses government funded, designed, built, and operated vehicles. These vehicles will require massive development budgets, and substantial fixed yearly costs. In order to justify these costs, NASA needs to get Congress (and to some extent the public) to believe a few things:

  1. Space is inherently very hard
  2. Private companies are inherently unreliable
  3. Lunar travel requires building vehicles so big that no commercial company would ever do it
  4. Doing lunar hardware is so tough, that no private company can possibly do it without a lot of NASA money and expertise

There are probably a few other ideas that I’m not thinking of right now, but you get the general idea.

Innovative Programs, and the approach they want to take, have a contradictory set of ideas that they have to try to convince Congress of:

  1. Space can be done succesfully by private companies
  2. Private companies are competent and innovative
  3. Lunar travel can be done using commercially developed vehicles that have other markets they can serve
  4. It’s possible to build enough of a commercial market that government can get a large amount of leverage off of a small amount of initial money
  5. Lunar development is within the capabilities of private companies

Basically, in order to get funding, each side has to disprove the other. If the private sector is really trustworthy enough to deserve serious funding for IP, why does NASA need to build a huge Shuttle Derived booster? If there’s no way that lunar projects can possibly be done with anything smaller than an 80 ton to LEO booster, why even try to sponsor prizes or contracts to develop technologies that really aren’t useful (in NASA’s opinion)?

Are these two memes reconcilable? I’m not really sure. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but I’m afraid that the amount of money that is at stake here is sufficient that those who benefit from the “traditional” approach are unlikely to give up without a fight.

The following two tabs change content below.
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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Battle of Memes?

  1. Kelly Starks says:

    Love your lists. I always found it very frustrating how in a way NASA has convinced folks that space is impossible. That even the US gov able to build fleets of ships, tanks, etc – can’t afford to do space alone. That the price of a couple fully equiped aircraft carriors can’t pay for a tiny space station.

    This serves NASA well of course. It discourages investors in comercial space. It excuses MASSIVE cost excesses of NASA programs.

    It doesn’t serve us at all.

  2. Mr. X says:

    The free market could always be integrated into the new shuttle-derived launch system. NASA requests proposals for a prime contractor on the SDLV system. The winner buys the shuttle facilities and inherits the shuttle army. NASA guarantees a fixed number of SDLV launches, and the contractor is free to sell as many additional launches as possible.

    The biggest obstacle is the inherent unprofitability of the heavy SDLV. The trend in commercial satellites is to launch them on-demand and make them smaller. The heavy SDLV is now a dinosaur. Perhaps “The Stick” could turn a profit, though.

  3. Jon Goff says:

    MJ,

    The free market could always be integrated into the new shuttle-derived launch system. NASA requests proposals for a prime contractor on the SDLV system. The winner buys the shuttle facilities and inherits the shuttle army. NASA guarantees a fixed number of SDLV launches, and the contractor is free to sell as many additional launches as possible.

    Other than the truly massive amounts of capital required to do this deal, I think you hit pretty well on why it would never happen, even if NASA wanted it to.

    The biggest obstacle is the inherent unprofitability of the heavy SDLV.

    Bingo. In order to do a commercialized SDLV, you’d actually need customers other than NASA to actually get the business case to close. And it would only be even competitive with other boosters if NASA paid for 100% of the development and fielding cost. I just really don’t see either of the SDLVs actually being able to compete on the open market. There’s a reason why they are lobbying so hard to get Uncle Sugar to foot the bill, and its because they can’t hack it in the real market.

    The trend in commercial satellites is to launch them on-demand and make them smaller. The heavy SDLV is now a dinosaur. Perhaps “The Stick” could turn a profit, though.

    I doubt it. The Stick is in the same general category as about a half dozen other launchers, none of which is getting a lot of orders. And since it’s prices would likely be very high (comparable to a Delta IVH or more), it really wouldn’t be likely to get much if any of the current market to go with it.

    While NASA and ATK may be all sure that their Stick is ultra reliable even though it’s still just a paper vehicle, I’m not so sure that commercial satellite companies would be willing to risk their vehicles on a launcher like that. Which should tell you something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *