Bait and Switch

Man, in the last hour from when I read this story over at Nasawatch.com, Clark Lindsey and Rand Simberg have already commented. So, it looks like the modifications to the SRB are going to take $3B instead of the $1B ATK originally quoted…I’m with Rand on this one–I too am shocked. Shocked, and disturbed. Among my many reactions to this news, I have been shocked, disturbed, and deeply surprised…

As Rand points out, the potential for this blowing up into a scandal seems readily apparent. Here Griffin and some other guys from NSS do a study claiming that a SRB-based vehicle will be cheaper to develop, safer, and better for launching people than an EELV based system. Then Griffin gets into office and pretty much ignores all the CE&R work done by Boeing, Lockheed, and all the other groups. Then he hires Horowitz over from ATK to manage the exact same program on the NASA side that he had been pitching from the ATK side. Now it turns out that they were off by 200% on their initial cost estimate….Oops.

Now, this could be a legitimate error. ATK and a lot of the big boys regularly low-ball stuff like this and screw up on the price, especially once the detailed work comes out and the supposed simplicity of a politically convenient design decision evaporates. Everyone involved may be completely innocent of wrongdoing in this case, and until we have evidence to conclude otherwise, we should probably give them the benefit of the doubt (at least regarding their integrity).

That said, while in all fairness it is too early to cast doubts on their integrity, it’s way past time to start doubting the intelligence of trying to shoehorn the SRB into being a first stage. It was a bad idea to start with, and we now have an additional two billion (and counting) reasons to think that it was silly.

I’m still in favor of having NASA force ATK (if they really want to develop the Stick) to do what the EELV guys did, and raise most of the money themselves. If their costs just went up by 200% after the deal, they should be eating the cost increase, not the American taxpayer. Especially if ATK wants to market this vehicle commercially in competition with other commercially derived vehicles like some ATK employees have suggested in the past.

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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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8 Responses to Bait and Switch

  1. Lee Valentine says:

    Well, Jon that’s a very kind take on the matter.

  2. Ed says:

    I agree Lee. Particularly when they also have the Dawn mission going 50% over budget.

    Add to that a worker plugging in a power converter backwards (what bright light designed that?) and costing NASA a half million dollars and contributing to pushing back the next shuttle mission to September.

    Is there anyone competent still working at NASA? Or have SpaceX and Masten and XCOR hired away all the good ones?

  3. Mike Puckett says:

    All this speculation over a couple of nebulous paragraphs and no discussion of the finding of cause of the Falcon launch failure?

    Are you gonna blog on that Jon?

  4. Jon Goff says:

    Mike,
    Actually I was planning on blogging on that. I’ve just been so swamped at work these days trying to tie up our first flight engine design that I haven’t had much time to blog about much. That and most of the time Clark and Rand and everyone else have already beat me to the punch, so I’ve been trying to conserve my blogging resources for times when I actually have a unique and useful perspective to add.

    ~Jon

  5. qwerty182764 says:

    If they’re so desperate to have a solid first stage, why don’t they do more research on hybrid rockets? Granted, there’s the regression rate problem, and lower thrust than SRMs, but if they could design around those issues, they’d get slightly higher Isp, manufacturing and handling insensitivity (a big issue AFAIK with the shuttle SRMs), and throttleability and the ability to shut down (this should be a massive bonus for a manned vehicle.)

    I just got out of a class on hybrid motors.

  6. Tom Cuddihy says:

    It really disturbs me that so many otherwise reasonable people in the space blogosphere are willing to jump on the ‘conspiracy’ bandwagon when there is so little meat to it beyond the ‘appearance of impropriety’, and there’s scarcely even that in this case. See my post on the subject

    http://cuddihy.blogspot.com/2006/04/attacking-atk-updated-4806.html

  7. Dru says:

    I don’t think there needs to be any conspiracy for this issue to come to light. NASA has never held any of the prime contractors responsible for thier cost estimates for new projects. Now, SBIRs and small contractors, that is another matter, but in general they’ve never been able to provide accurate cost estimate for any major project, especially ones done “in-house” with the assitance of the big players. There is no incentive for the primary contractors to do so, there are hardly ever any negative “contracting relationship” costs for underestimating once the project has been pitched and bought. Until NASA pitches contractors out on their ears for failing to provide goods and services at fixed costs, this kind of institutional lowballing will occur. No incentive to change a behavior, no change in behavior.

    –Dru

    ps. 30 plus attempts to post

  8. bill says:

    Yeah, 3X is a pretty nice markup. Remember when the X-33 was overbudget at just a bit over $1 billion? Now, that seems like quite a deal.

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