The Next 50 Years: A Commentary

Earlier this morning an interesting article by Michael Griffin was posted at NASASpaceFlight.com in the L2 section. Apparently it was meant for Aviation Week, as it appeared on their blog there tonight (NASAWatch provided the link), which also means it’s fair game now to discuss. The paper is a long one (15 pages in the word document that was on L2), and is worth a very thorough reading. Or two or three.

The topic of the article was the next 50 years of space flight, but the paper also discussed the past 50 years as well. As I’m sure that the article will likely be discussed on several space blogs and forums over the next few days, I’m not going to try and summarize the whole thing, but I’ll bring up a few of the highlights, some things that I think Griffin has said almost better than anyone else, and some things that I disagree with him on.

First some of the highlights. A lot of the paper discussed the past 50 years of NASA, particularly regarding its budget.

  • Griffin brought up a point I’ve brought up here before–namely that when discussing historical space projects, you need to use inflation adjusted prices or you’ll be deluding yourself.
  • Griffin brought up a rather intriguing point, shown in the Figure to the left, that if you look at the average NASA budget over 15 year time periods, it turns out that 15 year time period spanning Projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab, that NASA actually didn’t receive more than it has over say the last 15 years. There was a brief spike as several projects were completed in parallel (instead of in series), but the average NASA budget over that time window wasn’t really much more than it has been at any other time in its history.
  • He also brought up the point (shown in the table to the right) that during the Apollo Era, manned spaceflight took up roughly the same proportion of the NASA budget as it does today. Actually, the only area that has changed a lot has been the drastic drop in space technology investment, which I feel is a lamentable loss. Even 5% of NASA’s budget if put into intelligent space technology development (for technologies like orbital propellant transfer and storage, aerobraking, reentry technologies, etc) would make a massive difference. Alas.

The balance of the paper discussed where he thought NASA, international, and private space flight would be going over the next 50 years. While there is probably plenty of things that could be said, I want to just focus on two things for the rest of this blog post, commercial space and Heavy Lift.

Commercial Space
I tend to rip on a lot of NASA’s decisions, and by extension, can come off as being rather hard on Dr Griffin himself. This is kind of unfortunate, because in many ways I think that Griffin has his heart in the right place. So, before I go into a point of disagreement, I want to highlight several excellent points that Griffin made about commercial space development emphasis mine:

By “commercial space,” I mean space business enterprises which develop a marketable capability while dealing at “arms length” with the government; i.e., largely without the financial backing and close government supervision which has historically characterized the space industry. The government will, at least initially, still be the major customer for such enterprises. Whether or not an enterprise is part of the commercial space arena depends not on the identity of its customers, but on the nature of its interactions with that customer.

An interesting corollary to this point is that when big “primes” like Lockheed or Boeing pursue a project on their own, like the guys trying to develop Atlas V into a personel launcher, they are being just as commercial and entrepreneurial as the plucky alt.space firms that we all love to root for. This corollary is important for several reasons. One is that it’s important for us in the alt.space community to not brush off the “dinosaurs”, as they may yet play an important enabling role in the development of commercial space. There is a lot of potential for “plucky mammals” and “dinosaurs” to work together in this venture. Another important point is that NASA also needs to remember that these dinosaur firms can be commercial as well. A lot of the talk about if the private sector is “up to the task of spaceflight” seems to ignore the fact that there are preexisting commercial entities in the US that do have demonstrated orbital transportation capabilities. They may not be the leanest, meanest, cheapest ride in town, but the point is that commercial orbital transportation exists in the US, it’s just a question of if the newer, potentially cheaper startups will be able to improve the capabilities or not. But I digress.

Another gem:

I believe that the future for U.S. civil space exploration that I have outlined here can be attained with the resources that will be available to NASA by means of conventional government appropriations and acquisition strategies. But I also believe that this is just about as much as we can achieve with those resources, unless we can effect real changes in our methods of doing business. If we want to do more, if we want a richer future, if we are unsatisfied by the relatively modest program of inner solar system exploration I have envisioned here, there must be a change in how we go about it. Embracing the possibilities inherent in commercial space transactions is one such method.

I would go a bit further by stating that commercial space transactions are probably the single best method for expanding the scope of what NASA (and the rest of us) can accomplish in space. A lot of commenters on the internet have tried to paint those of use who’d like to see NASA do more to promote commercial space as “alt.spacers looking for handouts from Uncle Sugar.” The reality is though, that with a vibrant and innovative private space sector, NASA can accomplish far more than it possibly can with an anemic and small one. As more and more non-NASA markets for space transportation, services, and products blossom, the cost of space exploration for NASA will also go down, allowing them to do much more for the same amount of money. With how obviously powerful of an impact a vibrant commercial space industry would have on NASA’s plans, you’d think they’d be investing more of their time and money into making sure private space blossoms, instead of ambivalently watching from the sidelines to see what happens.

Heavy Lift
My single biggest beef with Michael’s article (actually my only big beef) is his assertions about the necessity of Heavy Lift. In fact, I think that this belief is at the core of all the bad decisions that Michael has, is, and will make.

In discussing NASA’s plans over the next several years, Griffin states that:

Most of the next 15 years will be spent re-creating capabilities we once had, and discarded. The next lunar transportation system will offer somewhat more capability than Apollo. It will carry four people to the lunar surface instead of two, and for a minimum duration of a week, rather than a maximum duration of three days. But in all fairness, the capabilities inherent in Orion, Ares I, and Ares V are not qualitatively different than those of Apollo, and certainly are not beyond the evolutionary capability of Apollo-era systems, had we taken that course. But we did not, and the path back out into the solar systems begins, inevitably, with a lengthy effort to develop systems comparable to those we once owned.

But as I have tried to make the case on this website, Heavy Lift isn’t the only way or even the best way “back out into the solar system”. As Michael himself admits, government operated Heavy Lift systems have high fixed costs, high marginal costs, and the cost to develop payloads for them is so high that they can only be launched a couple of times a year.

Griffin talks about how “We simply cannot again afford the strategic distraction, the wasted money, the squandered talent, and the lost time of building a new human spaceflight system, and then using it for only sixteen missions.” While there is some truth to that, looking back at the example Griffin gives in the end about trying to keep a minimal post-Apollo lunar program going complete with Saturn Vs, Saturn IBs, and Skylab, I think he makes a stronger case for keeping Saturn IB than for keeping Saturn V. In the world of unlikely counterfactuals, imagine if Saturn IB had been retained, but Saturn V had been retired, and some of the money used from that to test out and develop the technologies needed for orbital propellant depots and propellant transfer. Quite frankly that would’ve been a world with far more current space activity and capabilities than one where the Saturn V had been retained. Saturn V had very high fixed overhead costs, wasn’t capable of high flight rates except at enormous cost, and would’ve sucked up most of the manned spaceflight budget for decades had it not been retired. Kind of like Shuttle. Good thing we’re not repeating that mistake…

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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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16 Responses to The Next 50 Years: A Commentary

  1. Dave Salt says:

    Jon,

    Dr Griffin’s statement about re-creating the capabilities we once had (i.e. Apollo) are somewhat undermined when you consider what NASA was actually considering in the 1968, as illustrated here….
    http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/IMAGES/MEDIUM/9902017.jpg

    It was obvious even then that the Apollo architecture was only optimal with respect to one requirement (i.e. to land a man on the moon before 1970) and that, once this was met, an alternate architecture was going to be needed in order to ensure a sustainable programme.

    The “unique” nature of Apollo can also be demonstrated by looking at the leading architectures proposed before Kennedy’s speech. The one favoured by Von Braun himself was clearly modular in nature, as illustrated in the famous Colliers articles…
    http://home.flash.net/~aajiv/bd/colliers.html

    Moreover, the first serious engineering study of a lunar base (i.e. Project Horizon) also demonstrated that modest launchers in conjunction with orbital build-up operations was considered the best way of providing a sustainable architecture, as illustrated here…
    http://www.friends-partners.org/partners/mwade/project/horizon.htm

    I guess that if Dr Griffin is determined to repeat Apollo, we can expect proposals for a major change of architecture around the time of the first manned landing.

    Dave

  2. Anonymous says:

    There were other “Apollo Applications” oriented proposals that would have been more seriously considered and many would have been implemented if the production lines had remained open for a few more years. I think you underestimate the importance of the F-1 engine: it used the right sea-level propellant-oxidizer combination (kerosene-LOX), it was regeneratively cooled and highly reliable. Vehicle families such as the Jarvis (see http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/jarvis.htm) would have been quite feasible, and might have provided a step between the Saturn V and the Saturn IB.

  3. Bill White says:

    Jon –

    Does Mike Griffin offer you enough positive attributes as NASA Administrator (despite the negative ones) for you to support his continuation as NASA Administrator after Janaury 2009?

  4. Dan Schrimpsher says:

    I don’t know if he is optimal, but I am scared of what might replace him.

  5. Dave Salt says:

    anonym,

    One of the Apollo Applications missions actually flew (i.e. Skylab), thought the rest were cancelled due to the close-down of Apollo and the Saturn V production line.

    Nevertheless, Apollo Applications were always regarded as a logical bridge between the Apollo architecture and the one required for a sustainable programme. For better insight, take a look at Agnew’s Space Task Group report at …
    http://www.abo.fi/~mlindroo/STGreport/taskgrp.html
    … and the decisions behind building Shuttle (see chapters 3 and 4) at …
    http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4221/contents.htm

    Having said that, the availability of Saturn V was certainly not ignored (original station module designs were 33ft diameter and launch by the INT-21 version) though crew and logistics re-supply flights all assumed a reusable shuttle… with 18t payload performance!

    Dave

  6. David Stever says:

    Griffin says (after acknowledging that there will be many more space faring nations in the next few years):

    “For the next generation, maybe as much as two decades, the U.S. may well be the only nation capable of reaching the Moon on its own.”

    I think by his words that it shows that he’s stuck in the same 1960’s thinking that is giving us ‘Apollo on Steroids’ rather then a sustainable program. The next few years will give us at least two companies that can and will reach orbit (I hope), and once out of the gravity well, expanding on that progress will finally begin to pay dividends for the human race. A generation? Good Lord, some of them might beat NASA back to the moon, if they continue to see as many setbacks has they have had just in the planning stage.

    I don’t know if it’s hubris or shortsightedness on his part.

  7. Charles Lurio says:

    Jon,
    What point is there to the decadal (or, sorry, decade and a half) lumping of NASA budgets? There was a factual, ‘real dollar’ peak and slump in the first decade and a half of NASA – which Griffin admits himself. This reflected real international and national political trends of the time, which caused the ongoing problem with ‘command driven’ spaceflight even for basic skills in launch and operations.

    Lumping together spending by long periods only sidesteps coming to grips with the need to eradicate the holdover policy axioms. Griffin just wants to pass the buck for more decades,what with his belief that the private sector may ‘not yet’ be ready to do the basic tasks of spaceflight .

    Instead, we need ‘NACA for space, plus’ in which government would concentrate on cutting edge research and basic testing, a vigourous unmanned exploration program, and a sustainable manned exploration program where the fundamental spaceflight skills are purchased by an evolution of COTS like methods. In parallel, private markets can be driving down the costs while improving the quality of those fundamental skills. This will allow far more real exploration for the buck of government money

  8. Anonymous says:

    A couple of points.

    (1) Unless NASA employees are willing to accept only 2% pay raises each year to account for inflation, NASA’s going to have to be cutting employees every year for the next 50 with a constant-dollar budget.

    (2) Replowing ground is done all the time in the private sector and we shouldn’t be sad that we threw Apollo away. Replowing ground is how we progress in capabilities and efficiency.

    Dan Schmelzer

  9. Ferris Valyn says:

    Dan Schrimpsher said…
    I don’t know if he is optimal, but I am scared of what might replace him.

    Im curious as to why (I have my suspicions, but I’d rather just ask and find out)

  10. murphydyne says:

    Part of the issue with heavy lift is that you have to consider the payloads that the private sector would be launching.

    They’re already launching comm sats, which I’ve seen up into the neighborhood of 8 tonnes. Launching 2 at a time on a 20-tonne class launcher is an idea that people are just getting comfortable with, in part because of the risk pool that has to be put together for insurance purposes. Piggybacking smallsats has likely helped in this regard.

    A Bigelow balloon is in the neighborhood of, IIRC, 23 tonnes.

    Mid-deck lockers and standard drawer racks aren’t anywhere near that heavy. Neither are the international standard payload racks that they fit in.

    Oxygen tanks, MREs, laundry, sundry tchotchkes, not that much mass.

    Fuel tanks for a fuel depot?
    Framework for a fuel depot?
    Orbital tug?
    Instruments for EML-1?

    There’s a lot of stuff to be shipped up there, but part of the choice is how much to ship up at a time. Or, how much of your investment capital are you willing to put at risk for each launch?

    From a commercial perspective, it makes more sense to pursue multiple launches, even if your launcher cost ends up being more. Why? Because it’s considered fiduciarilly abysmally stupid to risk all of your investment capital at one go. (Comm sats don’t really have a choice in this regard, since we don’t have on-orbit assembly)

    Sure a company could put up 2xBalloons, 1xinterface, 16xISPRs, 2xCommSat (sub-leased to defray launch cost), 6 months supplies, sundry equipment, fuel, orbital tug, the Radio City Rockettes, 1 space cat, and a Bowflex machine. All at one time.

    But where are you going to find enough insurance? The only way NASA could get away with launching that much mass at once is because they self-insure.

    It’s like trying to use a Panamax ship in the age of paquebots. Companies don’t like to concentrate risk like that. The earliest ships to the Americas were not massive behemoths. Few would dare risking their biggest and best ships on such a dangerous and risky route. It was only as the Atlantic Ocean became better understood that people were willing to risk the larger vessels for the growing trade of treasure.

    We’re at the age where the 20 tonne payload is the way to go for the time being. The only cargo that would make sense for a HLLV in the near & medium term is for stockpiling fuel. But there’s not sufficient traffic to warrant such a volume of stockpiling.

    I think I know why Mr. Griffin is doing what he’s doing, but I’d rather keep that to myself for the time being.

  11. Karl Hallowell says:

    Dan, you wrote:

    (1) Unless NASA employees are willing to accept only 2% pay raises each year to account for inflation, NASA’s going to have to be cutting employees every year for the next 50 with a constant-dollar budget.

    But don’t forget there’s a constant cycling of employees. As expensive older workers retire they are replaced by new cheaper inexperienced employees.

    (2) Replowing ground is done all the time in the private sector and we shouldn’t be sad that we threw Apollo away. Replowing ground is how we progress in capabilities and efficiency.

    Apollo was obviously unsustainable. The Space Shuttle was overdue for replacement. They probably should have started planning its replacement in the late 80’s when it became clear that the Shuttle wouldn’t be able to attain the launch rates that would have made it viable.

    One thing about the current Ares series that I consider good, is that we have an opportunity to replace the Ares I with commercially available launch platforms. This would be a good precedent for future NASA operations.

  12. Karl Hallowell says:

    Bill, you wrote:


    Does Mike Griffin offer you enough positive attributes as NASA Administrator (despite the negative ones) for you to support his continuation as NASA Administrator after Janaury 2009?

    To me, it looks like Mr. Griffin is probably the best NASA Administrator in the past few decades. I would continue to support his continuation in office, unless either he becomes significantly incompatible with the incoming administration or if in the somewhat unlikely event that someone better can be put in there.

  13. Len says:

    Dave, let’s go back to 1962, not 1968. At that time, the idea of direct ascent was considered by most of us as very unpromising way to get to the moon relative to LEO rendezvous schemes–perhaps with Saturn I’s and a side bet on a fully reusable space transport.

    Perhaps your British background favors a Scott vs an Amundsen approach 🙂

    Anyways, some of us have never seen a need for heavy lift, even for Apollo. Perhaps 50 or hundred years from now, traffic levels measured in tonnage
    will make heavy lift economically desireable. In the nearer future, IMO, traffic level measured in numbers of flights will be the dominant economic consideration

    Best regards to you and Jon.

    Len (Cormier)

  14. Dan Schrimpsher says:

    Ferris,

    I don’t know if he is optimal, but I am scared of what might replace him.

    Im curious as to why (I have my suspicions, but I’d rather just ask and find out)

    Because he actually wants us to go to space. We could get a bean counter who could give a crap. That would be worse.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Nasa’s lack of spending on space technology such as advanced propulsion is something that will only guarantee failure.
    If you want a lunar base you need a good LEO to lunar orbit tug likely using ion propulsion which could save huge $$$ on cargo transport even if it’s too slow for manned transport esp with the ESA’s new dual gridded ion engine which would allow such a tug to make 5 to 10 trips between LEO and lunar orbit on one tank of xeon propellent and if you want to go to mars you need something better then just chemical rockets.
    Actually you will need nuclear thermo rockets or nuclear electric vasimer esp if you want to crew to return alive.
    Other issues that must be addressed better radiation sheilding and closed loop systems that actually work.

  16. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    Nasa’s lack of spending on space technology such as advanced propulsion is something that will only guarantee failure.

    I wouldn’t quite go that far. Or at least, it depends on how you define success. If you define success as not getting the program completely terminated, eventually getting a couple of boots on the surface, and stringing a few modules together and calling it a station? Yeah, there’s a chance they could pull it off even with the exact methods they’re using right now. But of course, you’re probably like me, and would consider that to be a complete failure as far as comparing it to what could’ve and should’ve been.

    If you want a lunar base you need a good LEO to lunar orbit tug likely using ion propulsion which could save huge $$$ on cargo transport even if it’s too slow for manned transport esp with the ESA’s new dual gridded ion engine which would allow such a tug to make 5 to 10 trips between LEO and lunar orbit on one tank of xeon propellent and if you want to go to mars you need something better then just chemical rockets.

    While I agree that a good cislunar transportation system is important if you want to do anything more than piddle around…NASA really only appears to want to piddle around.

    Actually you will need nuclear thermo rockets or nuclear electric vasimer esp if you want to crew to return alive.

    I think this is also a bit hyperbolic. There are ways, with chemical propulsion that you could do martian exploration. And that’s without opening the whole “do you even want to bring them back” can of worms.

    Other issues that must be addressed better radiation sheilding and closed loop systems that actually work.

    I agree that there are lots of important topics that are being neglected. But I think some of the nearer term, space operations related ones are the ones we’re hurting for the most. Like the fact that we’re still scared stiff of rendezvous and docking 40 years after we started doing it. Or that after the same amount of time we’re barely trying to transfer storable propellants, and nobody has tried cryogens. Etc.

    ~Jon

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