Stopped Clock Alert and A Modest Proposal

You know the saying about a stopped clock being right twice a day? Well, no sooner did I lay into Jeff Bell for his most recent uninformed rant, then he actually produced an article of substantially better quality. There were several minor issues I disagree with him on, but I agree rather strongly with his sentiment that the benefits of “reusing” Shuttle Derived hardware is vastly oversold. As he puts it:

The main justifications for preserving so much 1970s Shuttle technology in Apollo 2.0 are:

1) it will speed up development and therefore reduce the length of the inevitable gap in US manned spaceflights.

2) it will reduce development costs so that the early stages of the program can be carried out in parallel with a continued Shuttle/ISS program.

The problem with these claims is that virtually every Shuttle element has go through a major redesign before it can be used in the new boosters.

Jeff then goes on to show how little of the hardware really gets reused without serious modifications. Now, I would quibble a bit with a few of his points, for instance I do think that ATK might be able to use the SRB for its Shaft without too heavy of modifications, however he does a pretty good job of outlining a lot of the flaws in the “Shuttle Derived = Cheaper” mentality.

But I don’t really feel like reviewing his whole article. If you want to hear more about what he said, you’ll have to read it yourself this time. Pundrity is fun and all, but I had a few of my own thoughts that I’ve been mulling over for a while that this article reminded me of.

So, here’s what’s got me thinking. This Shaft is supposed to be substantially cheaper and better than trying to “man-rate” the Atlas V or Delta IV, is supposed to be a much surer thing than chancing a wait on SpaceX to deliver its Falcon IX, and is supposed to be a lot quicker to develop than a clean-sheet vehicle because it is using mostly off-the-shelf Shuttle Derived hardware.

So why on earth do they need $5B and 5 years to field the darned thing? Let’s compare it with the Saturn IB, a vehicle of fairly similar capabilities that was also manrated. The Saturn IB used a first stage that was already mostly developed (it needed to have its engines uprated a bit, similar to the switch from the current Shuttle 4-segment SRB to a 5-segment version. The upper stage was brand new design with a brand new engine (though its development budget was lumped in with the Saturn V, since the Saturn V used it in its upper stages). They went from concept to first orbital flight in 4 years, for an inflation adjusted cost of about $5.6B.

So, with decades of experience, major advances in design and analysis technologies, it still costs about the same to field a simliar launcher, but takes 25% longer? What gives?

Also look at the example of the EELV program. For all of its screwedupedness, they still managed to go from initial studies to flight hardware for two completely new launch vehicle families for about between $1-1.5B of government money, and within about 4 years of when they got funding to actually start the design and production. They had started initial studies something like 2-3 years earlier, but ATK started doing initial studies of the stick more than a year ago too.

Going further, one of ATKs more loud-mouthed employees was boasting that the Stick was going to be so affordable that it would displace the Atlas V and Delta IV as the premier commercial and military launch vehicle in the US. Once again, this makes me wonder. If ATK is going to be allowed to reap the commercial profits from reselling their Stick to commercial satellite companies and to the military, why should the government subsidize their entire development cost? Isn’t this patently unfair to companies like SpaceX that actually–gasp–have to compete like real men in the open market? If the Air Force, which is far more important to the nation than NASA ever will be, felt it was safe and reasonable to require both Lockheed and Boeing to put up most of the initial development money in exchange for the right to sell their hardware on the commercial market, why should ATK be any different?

So, here’s my modest proposal:

  • Cut the CLV budget from a $5B Cost-Plus-Fixed-Fee contract to a $1B Fixed-Rate contract. Have ATK go out and raise the remaing money for their vehicle on their own. If it really is so “Safe, Simple, Soon” as ATK propagandists would lead us to believe, and if their vehicle will be as cost effective and reliable as some of their employees indicate, raising the rest of the money should be quite doable. Boeing and Lockheed did it after all, as will SpaceX be doing so.
  • Use $1B of the money freed-up by doing that to have Boeing, Lockheed, and possibly one or two companies such as SpaceX develop and demonstrate “man-rated” versions of their vehicles.
  • Use $750M to fund a traditional aerospace company to develop an on-orbit cryogenic propellant transfer demonstrator. Use another $150M to fund at least two companies to do the same thing. Use another $100 to fund two $50M prizes, one for on-orbit cryogenic propellant transfer, and one for on-orbit cryogenic propellant storage.
  • Mandate that a bare-bones CEV with a fuel load only sufficient for rendezvous and docking with ISS and a deorbit burn weigh no more than 20,000lb. That way it could be launched on either the Stick, the no-solids version of the Atlas V or Delta IV, or the Falcon IX.
  • Since this way NASA would be spending $2B less than orginally planned, use that $2B to whipe out a lot of the extra funding they were going to have to request from Congress to expedite the CEV.
  • Promise that as of 6 months after the first succesful flight of a man-rated EELV, Stick, or Falcon IX, that NASA will start bidding out contracts on a yearly basis open to all companies with at least one demonstrated launch of a man-rated vehicle of at least 20,000lb LEO capacity. Each year the next year’s launches will be competitively awarded on a basis of cost and reliability. This way it is a fair competition between all four providers, and any new entrants can also be allowed to play if they demonstrate that they can fly a succesful launch.

While this idea still isn’t perfect, it would at least cost $2B less, and worst-case we’d have at least one or two vehicles capable of launching the CEV come 2010. At best, not only would there be multiple, completely independent launch systems capable of launching the CEV or other high-value payloads, but there would also be the technology on the shelf to do orbital propellant depots, and enough launcher capacity to support them. That would allow NASA to skip developing the HLV, and focus on lunar exploration systems, possibly shaving 3-5 years off of the current return to the moon plan, and allowing for a much more cost-effective, sustainable, and commercially useful transportation architecture.

But most of all, it’s fair. Why should Boeing, Lockheed, and SpaceX have to have skin in the game, while ATK gets risk-free billions? If their system is really as wonderful as they claim, why shouldn’t they have to put some of their own skin in the game? Why is it only companies that are expected to take any financial risks in order to reap profits?

Addendum 1: If Boeing and Lockheed man-rate their vehicles, it should change their pricing structure just enough that they can no longer use the Boeing espionage incident as an excuse to avoid having to compete on price (which just so happens to allow them to avoid having to compete against upstarts like SpaceX for EELV launches). The added $10-20M per launch for man-rated hardware might be more then offset by the price reductions they could get by forcing Boeing and Lockheed to compete on price again, especially if this allows SpaceX to compete fairly against them.

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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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7 Responses to Stopped Clock Alert and A Modest Proposal

  1. Juan Suros says:

    Some good points here and in the article you linked to. I am most impressed by the cold numbers of how many rocket engines would have to be manufactured per year to meet the stated goals of 2 annual expeditions to the moon and the Mars program.

    As to your suggestions, all we need now are compromising photos of three dozen Senators and we might have something!

  2. Fred K says:


    This is a really sound counter proposal to 5 year plan from CCCP… NASA.

    You’ve got my vote.

  3. David Weinshenker says:

    If the Vision for Space Exploration calls for Big Expendable
    Boosters, maybe we should look at using the Soviet-developed
    RD-170 engine – the full “quad” has about 8000 kN of thrust
    (about the same as four of the more-expensive SSME’s).

    Besides the cost difference, the turbopump design is much saner
    (if you’re going to pump the full flow of one of the propellants
    to the preburner input pressure for a series-cycle system, it’s
    much easier to do it to that nice dense LOX), and the higher
    specific impulse of the hydrogen-fueled SSME is offset (especially
    for a booster stage) by the much greater bulk of the fuel.

    -dave w

  4. Kelly Starks says:

    Frankly eiather way you still have a system based completly on expendables. Apollo ended because it became unsupportable with a fully expendable system, and the risks of loseing a crew. ESAS is easily as bad.

    Jeff’s article was pretty good though. Not that I’m optimistic that he’s right that this is so stupid, its Griffens way to force them to let him do something good. I gather Griffen developed these stupid ideas before he was given the keys to NASA.

    Sadly it seems like a concept this NASA would come up with. Insanely bad, but nostalgic enough to apeal to many powerfull folks there.

    NASA’s dead, move on folks.

  5. Juan Suros says:

    > NASA’s dead, move on folks.

    I’d love to, but it won’t get out of the way.

  6. Michael Mealling says:

    If something is in your way and it won’t move then you go around it. Standing in front of a brick wall trying to convince it to move doesn’t make sense. Go around it or over it…

  7. Kelly Starks says:

    > If something is in your way and it won’t move
    >then you go around it. Standing in front of a
    >brick wall trying to convince it to move doesn’t
    >make sense. Go around it or over it…

    At least the brick wall is finally, and finally obviously to investors, crumbling.

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