Reply to Mark Whittington

Since I’m still sick at home today, I figured I’d take some time to blog a bit. I don’t want to waste too much time getting into a jousting match with Mark, but I figured there were a couple of useful points worth making. [Ed: This turned into a rather long and excessively snarky fisking, so I decided to pare it back a bit to the important points]

I think that by Jon’s definition any plan to return to the Moon, whether it was done by NASA, the Chinese, or by Elon Musk would be considered Apollo Part 2. It could be done any number of ways, but the end result is that people will be back on the Moon.

Well, this is rather missing my point. I was using movie sequels and TV sequels as an analogy for what was going on with the ESAS plan. The key point was that although a few of the technical details are slightly different, the plan is going to be executed in a very similar way, doing very similar stuff, and will for very similar reasons not be economically sustainable. NASA could do things substantially different, by choosing a technical architecture and management approach that was more amenable to real development. Just because Star Trek the Next Generation was just a 80s/90s rehash of the old socialist misadventures of the original, doesn’t mean that all sci-fi movies have to be the same. It’s quite possible for example to do a Firefly or something else entirely.

In other words, it’s quite possible to do lunar exploration in vastly different and more effective manners than NASA is choosing to do, and those methods would therefore be very justifiably not considered just an Apollo 2.0.

Now, it could be that Jon is suggesting that any return to the Moon would be “boring” and therefore to be avoided. By that criteria, would it mean that he would support going directly to Mars? It’s a differnt place, after all. One can’t be sure.

Nope. I don’t think NASA should be wasting money on doing and Apollo to Mars either. I think going back to the moon, and this time developing it and settling it, and opening it up for normal non-government employees to visit and live on is a very good goal. I wouldn’t be involved in the Moon Society if I thought the moon itself is a waste. What I was merely concerned with was that the method being proposed was not conducive towards the ends that really matter.

Now we get closer to the meat of Jon’s argument. A government financed, government operated return to the moon is “socialistic” and therefore, evil. Now, it seems to me that if we define any activity that a government might undertake to be socialistic, then there seems to be only two real forms of organizing a society: socialism and anarchy.

Well, I wouldn’t go entirely that far. I’m a Bastiat style minarchist. So long as government isn’t stealing from one person to give to another, or using force or coersion, I’m perfectly willing to put up with it. I think that government has some role in society. I just think that involuntarily taking billions from the nation to feed the dreams of a few is morally repugnant. That said, I also realize that I’m in the minority on this, and that NASA isn’t going away anytime soon. Since NASA isn’t going away, I’d at least like to see it try and operate in the least damaging way possible. “First do no harm” should be the motto of the day, or at least “first try to do as little harm as physically possible, please” would be better than what we have now.

I’d like to see NASA acting more as a customer. I’d like to see them buying off-the shelf systems for off-the shelf problems, instead of constantly trying to operate their own launchers. I’d like to see them using more firm-fixed fee contracts for services, and less cost-plus contracting. Commercial launchers have been available for years now. Better ones are coming on line all the time. There is a glut in this industry. If NASA has to exist, at least it could buy from them instead of trying to create their own redundant operational systems.

If NASA were planning on doing something more along those lines (as it could if it wanted to), instead of just trying to preserve jobs and do everything in-house, I’d be more supportive of it.

Now, I like the idea of space going tankers. I used the concept for Children of Apollo. But, it’s new technology, the development of which has certain pit falls that have a greater chance of increasing the cost and expanding the schedule of the program than NASA’s idea of going with the tried and true. I think it’s a worthy idea to develop in the view of enhancing the infrastructure once people start going to the Moon on a regular basis.

The big problem is that by not developing the technology up front, and designing it in from the start, it will be very difficult to retrofit it in later–basically require substantial redesign of the whole system.

Developing the capability to do on-orbit transfer of cryogens is no more difficult for NASA now than developing rendezvous capabilities was for NASA back in the 60s. If they’re going to be blowing a 100 Billion dollars on going back to the moon, they sure as heck ought to at least put $200-500M into trying to make sure it’s done right. If NASA insists on doing things exactly the same as Apollo did it, then why the heck do they deserve to get the same amount of money up front? Do you really think that wasting $15B on uncertain technology development projects for the two new launches is really money better spent than trying to demonstrate on-orbit refueling so you don’t need new launchers?

[D]oes Jon suggest that using five or nine or whatever number of EELVs is going to be cheaper than using two larger launch vehicles?

Heck. Yes. Does Mark Whittington suggest that with the $15B development costs, and $3B+ per year fixed cost that somehow NASA’s launchers will be cheaper? Seriously, for the amount they want to design and field the Stick and the Longfellow, they could buy 60 Delta IVH flights, 150 Atlas V flights, or nearly 540 (!) Falcon IX flights (if those become available). How on earth is NASA going to be cheaper, unless you ignore the $15B development cost and the $3B/year fixed costs?

Not to mention the cost of man rating the launchers, which I’m told is very expensive and very time consumning.

Ah, the man rating red herring. All you need for man-rating above and beyond what is already needed for a commercial launch on a Delta or Atlas is a reliable abort system and a way for detecting when it needs to be initiated. The Stick already requires the former anyway, and the latter really isn’t that expensive or difficult. Most of the required sensors are probably already there. Sure, it might require a half dozen engineers a few months to work out the rest of the details, but we’re not talking about anything on the same scale as a $15B vehicle development program.

For comparison, DC-X and DC-XA had all the require sensors that would be needed for “man-rating” a EELV (in fact what they had was probably overkill) and DAQ for much much less than $100M in non-recurring engineering costs, and probably less than $5M in per unit recurring costs.

Heck, even Mike Griffin himself knew this argument was a load of crap as is evident from his quote on the Space Review that I quoted here previously:

In other testimony, Griffin has made it clear that he is not opposed to using EELV vehicles effectively unmodified from their current versions to launch crewed vehicles. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “This involved a number of factors such as pogo suppression, structural stiffening, and other details not particularly germane to today’s expendable vehicles. The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 EELVs, he noted, have a specified design reliability of 98 percent, in line with experience with the premier expendable vehicles to date. If such a vehicle was used to launch a crewed spacecraft equipped with an escape system of just 90 percent reliability, he noted, the combined system would have a 1-in-500 chance of a fatal accident, “substantially better than for the Shuttle.”

In other words, this whole “we’d have to man-rate them and that would be so expensive” bit is just a rash of bull, especially compared to the expense of developing two new launch vehicles. It’s the same sort of jiggering of the requirements to force the results you want that I pointed out in one of my recent posts. If they were willing to use off-the shelf commercial launchers (which are far safer and more reliable than the converted ICBMs that NASA used for Mercury and Gemini), they could get them man-rated for a rather marginal extra cost, probably round-off error compared to the current cost per flight, let alone compared to a $15B new vehicle development.

But since there are no launch vehicles in existence or likely to be in existence in the near future that will meet NASA’s requirements, then–sadly–returning to the Moon, at least initally, has to be done the old fashioned way.

No it doesn’t have to be done the NASA way. There is a better way, but NASA doesn’t want to do it that way because if would force NASA to actually change, to actually show some backbone. NASA doesn’t have to give in to all the whining porkbarrel politics. If they came up with a clear vision that was cost effective and promoted commerce, they could get enough supporters in Congress to get it passed. They didn’t even try. That’s sad.

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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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13 Responses to Reply to Mark Whittington

  1. Mark says:

    I’m not going to do a point by point refutation this time. However I can see that Jon’s position can be boiled down to the following: “NASA is doing it wrong. My way is better. Why? Because I say it is.” There a lot of statements padding all of that, but they are such that have very little proof attached to them. I’d love to see an indepth analysis by a disinterested party of the cost/benefit between doing the return to the Moon that NASA way (i.e., two boosters, fairly simply, straightforward technology) vrs some of the various ways I’ve seen coming out of some of the alt.spacers (whoc seem, by the way, to be disunited over what the “correct way” to go back to the Moon (except to say it should be “commercial”, whatever that means.) I cannot take credence with people who just want to yell, “NASAS suks” and not provide evidence.

    I will, however, take note that Jon thinks that NASA should ignore politics and “do the right thing.” Well, even supposing that there is an alternate “right thing”, which Jon has not convinced me of, ignoring politics is a quick qway to get your funding zeroed out. Sorry, but among the customers NASA has to satisfy is the Congress. It may be a great notion that NASA should get it’s funding request, no questions asked, no interfeerence from silly people who happen to be Senators, but it’s not going to happen in the physical universe we occupy. We might wish it were different, but that’s the way it is.

    Finally, I think Jon (and others) doesn’t really give NASA credit for what it is doing commercially. Sure, the initial infrastructure is the tried and true, but a lot (say, LUNOX) isn’t. And there’s the space station resupply contract. I’ll bet you if the alt.space crowd can step up and provide good service for that, then they’ll likely get something like supplying a future lunar base. Instead of whining, certain people should be taking advantage of the opportunities that are there.

  2. Nathan Koren says:

    Excellent fisking, Jon, although I suppose it is more to everyone else’s benefit than for Mark, who alas seems rather impervious.

    By way of amplification, may I suggest another analogy? Let’s compare the Apollo program to the Lewis & Clark expedition. L&C began their journey with 40 men at Fort Dubois, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi river. This marked the edge of of civilization at the time; everything from there to the Pacific would be bushwhacking. Likewise, the Apollo program had to begin from the edge of civilization — aka “the ground” — and invent everything it needed from that point onwards.

    Now, 40 years later, we’re getting ready for another expedition. There are two well-established wagon trails (the “Boeing” trail and “Lockheed Martin” trail) that go out as far as the Rockies, and a fellow named Musk has been laying a railroad along the same route (although he hasn’t run a locomotive out on it yet, his prospects look good). The edge of civilization is now at Denver. But absurdly, this new expedition appears completely ignorant of these developments, and is once again preparing to bushwhack all the way from Fort Dubois. “But this expedition will be different!” they proclaim. “This time we will be sending *80* men as far as the western ocean!”

    A better way would be, obviously, to make use of the private infrastructure that now exists as far as Denver (aka “Low Earth Orbit”), and launch your expedition from *there* — a point so obvious that it is almost embarrassing to have to argue it. Of course a *truely* better lunar initiative would not be construed in terms of mere “expeditions”, but would be as different from Apollo as the Homestead Act was from the Corps of Discovery.

  3. Mark says:

    Nathan I think lives in a different universe than most people. There is no private infrastructure in low Earth orbit. Elon Musk has not launched so much as an ant into low Earth orbit. Some time the first will surely happen and I’m confident that the latter will too.

    In the meantime, the Lewis and Clark analogy is exact when making it for VSE.

    Also, the transcontinental railroad of space is going to be the space elevator, not a new and improved rocket. Start building space elevators, then private space will really take off (as it were.)

  4. Kelly Starks says:

    mark said
    “NASA is doing it wrong. My way is better. Why? Because I say it is.”

    Hey, the Apollo design wasn’t even considered the best way in the ’60s — it was considered the fastest.

    Now “best” depends on what its for, and its pretty clear by Griffens emphasis, that maintaining the shuttle labor rolls was much higher then coming up with a efficent, cheep, or capable launcher.

  5. Nathan Koren says:

    Tsk tsk, Mark! I was talking about private infrastructure for getting to Low Earth Orbit, and you know it. Now will you please stop playing with your straw men and matches, and pay attention to the subject at hand?

    So on your planet, I gather, The Stick and the Longfellow do exist, while the the Atlas, the Delta, and the Falcon do not? If this is the case, then our realities are indeed so divergent that a civil discussion is probably not possible.

    Honestly, Mark, I think you’re completely off-base in lumping Jon (and probably now myself) in to the “government is eeeevil and soooocialist” camp, which does, admittedly, poison a few segments of the space activist community. If we wanted to be libertarian extremists about this, we could demand that ALL operations from here to the lunar surface (and beyond) be conducted privately, backed by government prizes and tax credits, et cetera. That would be the extremist’s position.

    We’re not saying that; all we’re saying is that it would make more sense to use existing private infrastructure, either where it already exists or soon will exist. If something like the Stick makes so damned much sense, then Thiokol would be welcome to develop the booster themselves and bid for NASA’s launch contracts, just like everyone else.

  6. Mark says:

    Nathan, that’s the thing. The only thing you people can agree upon is that the NASA plan is evil because it’s socialism. You can’t agree upon an alternative. Why then should I or anyone else take you seriously?

  7. Nathan Koren says:

    Mark, please carefully re-read what I wrote. I am very explicitely not saying that NASA’s plan is evil because it is “socialist”. Neither is Jon. I, like you, believe that the whole “socialist” label that right-wing space activists like to use to slander anything governmental is, well, a load of ignorant hooey. Please do not lump me into that camp.

    I am not calling NASA’s VSE plan “socialist”. What I am calling it is “stupid”. Because the getting-to-LEO wheel has already been invented, and does not need to be re-invented, at such a tremendous cost, when cheaper solutions are available off-the-shelf.

    I’m certain there are other activists who oppose NASA’s plan on account of its supposed “socialism,” and if they want to come to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons, then that’s fine with me. But everybody who I’m reading, whatever their underlying reasoning, agrees upon the same alternative: purchase launches from competitively-bid commercial providers. So to me the situation seems to be precisely the opposite of what you suggest.

    If you could make a direct argument for why launches should not be purchased from competitively-bid commercial providers, then I would sincerely be interested in reading it. But so far all I have seen you do is make straw-man and ad-hominem attacks against the people who disagree with you.

  8. PhysBrain says:

    I hate to interject myself into your fine little flame war here, but I was wondering if there was another option that all of you may have overlooked. In the few articles that I have read where Griffen talks about commercial and entrepenural approaches, he’s said something along the lines of “if and when a commercial alternative is available, we’ll go with that” (as opposed to developing their own proprietary systems). To the best of my knowledge, a commercial alternative does not yet exist. So their current plan is to continue with business as usual until such an alternative does exist.

    Now, in an ideal world, ATK, Northrup-Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin would all separately develop and market their CEV’s and boosters in response to NASA’s promise to pay a minimum amount for such services for a prescribed length of time. Unfortunately, the NASA planners (or the congress-critters providing the votes for NASA’s funding) seem to have no faith that such services would be developed without the additional incentives of cost-plus contracting. Again, this is just an unfortunate reality; however it is one that Griffen seems to be willing to sidestep if another alternative were to materialize very soon.

  9. Jon Goff says:

    PhysBrain,

    Thank you for commenting!

    I hate to interject myself into your fine little flame war here, but I was wondering if there was another option that all of you may have overlooked. In the few articles that I have read where Griffen talks about commercial and entrepenural approaches, he’s said something along the lines of “if and when a commercial alternative is available, we’ll go with that” (as opposed to developing their own proprietary systems). To the best of my knowledge, a commercial alternative does not yet exist. So their current plan is to continue with business as usual until such an alternative does exist.

    That appears to be the rub. Some of us (most of us who have issues with the VSE plan) feel that there are commercial alternatives to NASA building proprietary launchers. They currently exist in the form of Atlas and Delta, but might eventually include SpaceX and several other groups. One of the problems with them going with a proprietary booster, and sizing all their hardware for that booster is that it greatly diminishes the odds of someone in the commercial world being able to supply the lift.

    Heavy Lift (ie 100klb+ to LEO) isn’t needed for returning to the moon or going to Mars, the most that is absolutely needed for an individual launch is probably in the 20-30klb range. Once you’ve gone down that road though with your design, you’re probably stuck needing Heavy Lift. And while Elon Musk slightly disagrees with me on this, I can’t see any commercial use for Heavy Lift vehicles. They just don’t make any sense at this point.

    Now, in an ideal world, ATK, Northrup-Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin would all separately develop and market their CEV’s and boosters in response to NASA’s promise to pay a minimum amount for such services for a prescribed length of time. Unfortunately, the NASA planners (or the congress-critters providing the votes for NASA’s funding) seem to have no faith that such services would be developed without the additional incentives of cost-plus contracting. Again, this is just an unfortunate reality; however it is one that Griffen seems to be willing to sidestep if another alternative were to materialize very soon.

    Yeah, there is still some hope in some regards. However their love of their current approach may very well blind them to commercial alternatives. They’re already looking at blowing $15B to develop new boosters that aren’t needed, do you really think that a succesful Falcon IX would change that? Or a SpaceX or Venturer capsule that could take 5-6 people to the station and back? Or even a translunar tug?

    Heck no. They’ll just keep stating that they have specific needs, and if the market doesn’t make exactly down to the last spec what they wanted anyhow, then they need to keep employing all those engineers at MSFC and KSC and JSC.

    ~Jon

  10. Kelly Starks says:

    Now, in an ideal world, ATK, Northrup-Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin would all separately develop and market their CEV’s and boosters in response to NASA’s promise to pay a minimum amount for such services for a prescribed length of time. Unfortunately, the NASA planners (or the congress-critters providing the votes for NASA’s funding) seem to have no faith that such services would be developed without the additional incentives of cost-plus contracting.

    I don’t really think thats true, or even a consideration. Even if multiple commercials were avalible now, it still would not serve NASAs needs. A major factor, repeatedly mentioned and emphasized by Griffen, was maximizing the retension of the shuttle servicing staffs. None of the commercials would need a fraction of those staffs.

    Plus, NASA really wants to build it themself, to develop their expertice – regardless of the desirability to the program of doing it that way.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Good debate, but perhaps we need to split the discussion into parts.

    First, does it make sense to spend a small fortune designing, building, and operating the Stick, or should we amortize that money saved against launches purchased from Boeing, LH, SpaceX or whomever steps up over the next 10 years? At first sight, it’s hard to see the value in the Stick unless it is only as an expensive means to keep skilled staff employed until they are needed to build “Big Daddy”, or as an insurance policy against the failure of all current or planned commercial alternatives.

    The arguments in favour of a VERY heavy launch vehicle are stronger, and have support in the alt.space community. While I would love to see something like T/Space’s modular architecture for Earth-Moon commercial operations, it’s hard to believe it would be practical to use this to assemble a viable Mars mission within the next 20 years (to meet the Bush vision). In this alternative model, we commercialise Earth-Moon space, and then with a sizeable space infrastructure, we move on to Mars. Sounds sensible, but this has also been Nasa’s vision for the past 20 years, and where has that gotten us?

    So, given an objective to have the capability to go to Mars before 2030, we probably need a 100t class vehicle, and it is unlikely we will have a commercial operator with such a capability in that timeframe. Assuming Longfellow is a reasonable option for such a vehicle, then much of the Stick components, manufacturing and support costs, would eventually be shared.

    So, where does this leave us? If we want a high probability of going to Mars before 2030, then we probably need Longfellow, and if we’re going to keep SRB’s and SSME’s, then we can probably justify it’s little brother. I only hope that Griffen and Congress allow Commercial operators space to continue to grow in the way proposed. With luck, the Stick itself may never be more than yet another expensive Nasa paper “plane”, with a SpaceX, T/Space, or similar vehicle demonstrating similar capabilities before the Shuttle dies in 2010. If not, Nasa will still be in the exploration business. Either way, Griffen’s plan, taken as a whole, seems a good balance from the perspective of 2005.

  12. Kelly Starks says:

    does it make sense to spend a small fortune designing, building, and operating the Stick

    Hey, thats the worst maned launcher concept I ever heard of! Given the high vibration of the SRBs, tied to the very light “stick” upper stage, would make it a very nasty ride! I’m not sure if it might be a health threat?

    ..The arguments in favour of a VERY heavy launch vehicle are stronger,..

    Agreed. I could suggest other RLV solutions, but a 100 ton lift one would be a streach, adn NASA has a reasonable argument for need for heavey lift for Moon or Mars. On the other hand a ELV heavy lifter pretty much prices you out of frequent or long term flights/programs.

    Given its shuttle parts, your talking at least couple hundred million a launch. Even for a 100 ton lift, thats thousands of dollars a pound. If you get near shuttles over a billion dollar a lift….

  13. PhysBrain says:

    I just wanted to add my apologies for not checking my spelling more carefully before posting. I’m usually more careful than that and I was surprised that my misspelling of Dr. Griffin’s name would trickle down through the posts of others. In my opinion, repeated misspelling of someone’s name is rather inconsiderate and so I again offer my apologies.

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