Gap Math

I’m somewhat curious about the math behind some of Griffin’s comments at the Senate Hearing today:

“we are focusing initially on cargo because, I just want to be clear with everybody, we already have a mechanism for getting crews to the station with the Soyuz system, but unless we can bring some new commercial capabilities online, we really have no cargo resupply. So, actually, of the two, the most important COTS capability to me right now is cargo, and I must be honest about that.”

No cargo resupply capabilities? Now I may not have as many academic degrees as Dr Griffin (I only have two so far–an neither of them in how to Pile it on Higher and Deeper), but at least by my count we have two existing, proven capabilities, and three more in the works. Progress is just as real for cargo delivery as Soyuz. ATV just docked with the station last week. HTV is slated for first flight next year. Plus there are the two COTS competitors, and a possible third based on the SOMD cargo flights RFP. That hardly seems like “no cargo resupply” capabilities to me. If you can count a sole-source foreign crew resupply vehicle that doesn’t meet the full needs of a fully-operational ISS, why can’t you count existing and near-term cargo resupply vehicles?

I find it ironic that when arguing for adding billions of dollars to an already bloated Ares-I/Orion budget, flying NASA astronauts on Soyuz is an unbearable problem, but when the possibility is raised of using that money to fund a program that actually has a chance of shortening that “gap”, the response is that it’s a non-issue. Ho-hum really, providing a fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth provider of cargo transport to ISS is a far more pressing matter.

I also found it amusing that Mark Whittington relies on the following statement from Griffin as an attempt to handwave away such a contradiction:

Griffin doubts that “even with their [the COTS companies’] best efforts, even if more money were provided, that COTS crew transportation capability will arrive in time to be available after the shuttle retires or even by the end of the current contract with Russia in 2012.”

The problem is that:

  1. Exercising COTS Option D does not necessarily imply giving additional money to SpaceX or Orbital for performing Option D. In fact, Orbital has more or less stated that they aren’t planning on Option D capabilities. SpaceX might be a reasonable choice (seeing as how they’re designing Dragon for manned flight from the get-go), but Option D funding could be recompeted and awarded to any of a number of companies, many of whom would likely be flying on existing vehicles.
  2. Ares-I/Orion is not going to be flying by 2012 either, no matter how many billions are thrown at the problem (well, maybe if you threw $10B+ at it over the next three or four years, but that’s political unobtanium wishalloy). That’s not an apples to apples comparison.

The question isn’t if COTS Option D could somehow, in spite of not being funded till the last second, eliminate the gap which Griffin’s poor decisions have created. The question is if putting more money into COTS is more likely to reduce that gap than putting an equal amount of money into Ares-I/Orion. The GAO seems to think that putting the extra money into Ares-I/Orion that Griffin seeks would most likely only increase the probability of a 2015 IOC for Ares-I/Orion to a more reasonable confidence level (85% or better), rather than the 65% confidence level NASA has been using to make their numbers look less bad. In other words, adding several billion dollars to Ares-I/Orion would only prevent the gap from growing even bigger than the current 4-5 years.

On the other hand, look at COTS. It’s total budget through demonstration of capabilities A-C is only $0.5B. If you had $1B from a Mikulski miracle to invest in NASA, which do you think has a higher probability of shortening the gap of time when we have to rely on Soyuz for all manned flights to the ISS? Putting that $1B into a $20-30B program that already only has at best a 65% chance of flying by 2015? Or putting at least some of that into a much smaller program that is intending to fly two cargo vehicles by late 2010?

I’ll be the first to admit that COTS isn’t a risk free venture. NASA’s intentionally avoided picking providers that use existing launch vehicles like Atlas V, in favor of ventures that have to provide both a cargo vehicle and a launcher. There’s a non-zero chance that one or both COTS providers won’t actually be able to deliver.

But the same can be said of Ares-I/Orion. It too is going with an all-new launch vehicle (which derives little more than the paint scheme from previous Shuttle hardware) that may or may not work right the first time. It too is using a team without a real track record–when was the last time MSFC designed and flew a manned launch vehicle? How many of its engineers were even around for the last time they completed such a program? The Ares-I/Orion program has also been running behind schedule (notice how the schedule seems to slip by at least one calender year per year of development?).

So, if you were a congressman or senator with a limited amount of money available, and you have two risky ventures to pick from to try and reduce the gap, what would you do? Would you place all your money on the one option where your money is going to be a relative drop in the bucket, and that even then has little or no chance of actually reducing the gap? Or would you invest at least part of your money in a much smaller program where it has a much higher probability of actually hastening the day when the US once again has manned spaceflight capabilities–and better yet, commercial manned spaceflight capabilities?

You do the math.

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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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10 Responses to Gap Math

  1. redneck says:

    This would be a good opportunity for a company with investors that will accept risk. If that company could fly an orbital RLV with a week turnaround and capacity of delivering two people by 2012, I think they should be able to lock in the crew transport market. Just do it, then sell it for whatever the market will bear. If there are no alternatives available in that time frame, the market should bear quite a bit. Especially if slips continue and the govt crew delivery option is still 6-8 years out.

  2. redneck says:

    I responded here before reading your replies on other blogs. I should have said, “any crew delivery option”, instead of small RLV. Either way, name their own price.

  3. Will says:

    The choices that NASA makes are really incomprehensible sometimes. Cargo delivery is obviously NOT the first priority. The shuttles could keep flying for an extra year or two, the ATV is working great so far, Progress ships are available, and if they REALLY wanted to have cargo capability as quickly as they could, I’m sure some kind of module could be made that would work on either Delta OR Atlas Rockets. Also, I think the rejection of the ‘Shuttle-C’ concept was dumb. That could have been ready far quicker than the Aries V which will be ready by… 2016? 2018? 2020?
    The Aries 1 is a terrible design. (imho) They should have just re-built the Saturn 1B and Apollo, AND THEN focused on building Orion.
    It sometimes seems to me that they are doing everything they can to slow things down and screw things up.
    Ahh, our wonderful government at work, building another committee designed space camel.

  4. Iain McClatchie says:

    Not all cargo is the same.

    The Soyuz, Progress, and ATV all dock through the small Russian port, and any cargo in them has to go through that port.

    The Space Shuttle uses the larger American port, so larger pressurized cargo can go through that. Also, the Space Shuttle carries really big unpressurized things, of course.

    If I understand correctly, you can’t just boost a space station module up on an Atlas V, because you need to manuever the module to within grappling distance and delta-V of the Canadarm, you need to provide structure around the module during launch, and you need to dissassociate from the module, without bonking the ISS.

    I know that Dragon has an unpressurized option. How big an object can they get up there?

  5. Jon Goff says:

    Not all cargo is the same.

    The Soyuz, Progress, and ATV all dock through the small Russian port, and any cargo in them has to go through that port.

    True, but HTV and both of the US COTS approaches use the CBM, which should allow for the maximum size internal cargo.

    Also, the Space Shuttle carries really big unpressurized things, of course.

    Yeah, it was the unpressurized cargo that I was wondering about. I don’t know if Progress, ATV, or HTV have the capability to fly the remaining needed unpressurized cargo or not. Or if those would have to fly on COTS.

    If I understand correctly, you can’t just boost a space station module up on an Atlas V, because you need to manuever the module to within grappling distance and delta-V of the Canadarm, you need to provide structure around the module during launch, and you need to dissassociate from the module, without bonking the ISS.

    But none of the COTS vehicles are designed to deliver space station modules either. I’m not sure what your point is there.

    I know that Dragon has an unpressurized option. How big an object can they get up there?

    Not a space station module, I can tell you that. However I don’t have the exact numbers. What I was trying to find out was if any of the existing or nearterm cargo haulers could deliver unpressurized cargo big enough to handle the largest remaining pieces. Ie are Dragon and Cygnus really delivering entirely new and critical capability? Or is NASA focusing its funding on a largely redundant cargo role instead of the more critical manned transport in order to avoid attracting extra funding that could be thrown down the Ares-I/Orion hole?


  6. Anonymous says:

    Hmm, well, much as I wish SpaceX and Orbital well, I don’t think the argument of schedule slips applies only to NASA. SpaceX has yet to achieve orbit and, though Orbital has a well tested set of orbital hardware, their COTS vehicle will be build from parts of other systems, not much different than Ares.

    I think you could make a much more persuasive argument for more COTS funding if one of the contenders had actually built and flown something.

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Sorry, I didn’t notice that my statement about Ares-I/Orion schedule slips was as ambiguous as it appears to be. I was actually trying to make a point much like yours. Everyone likes to harp on SpaceX for missing deadlines, I was just pointing that almost every argument that could be used against SpaceX could also be used against Ares-I/Orion. The only difference is that SpaceX, if it fails, has only cost our nation ~$270M or so. Ares-I/Orion, if it fails will have cost our nation over $20B and a decade worth of lost opportunities.

    But again, I think that even if you think that COTS is much more likely to fail than Ares-I/Orion, I think the math still points to putting more funding into COTS. COTS is a high risk, low-cost, high reward option (where a little extra money can go a long way). Ares-I/Orion is a moderate risk, high cost, low reward option (where even a ton of money only goes a short way).


  8. Stever says:

    Let’s not forget that LM signed an agreement with someone late last year to fly the Atlas V as a crew launch vehicle (was it to Bigelow’s station?). I think they’re the wild card in this race and could end up flying before everyone else, if there are any delays in the Dragon capsule. I think Bob Stevens is a closet space freak (or he’s enabling the guys at the Missiles and Space Division who are)

  9. Will McLean says:

    1) NASA’s initial pledge isn’t the full cost of developing a COTS spacecraft. The builders are expected and expect to fund part of the development cost themselves. Naturally, they’ll expect to get that back, with interest appropriate to their financial risk, bundled into what they charge NASA for each operational flight.

    2) The Dagon capsule looks a lot like it could be developed into a manned spacecraft. But the version that will demonstrate initial cargo capacity will probably be a much less capable vehicle than existing manned spacecraft. For meeting NASA’s demonstration COTS cargo goals a launcher with 70% reliability going up and a reentry capsule with 80% going down, no life support in transit, and no launch abort system is perfectly adequate.

    3) However, by the standards of existing manned spacecraft, this is grossly inadequate. The Russians are happy to sell seats on their venerable Soyuz. This has a historical reliability of about 97% going up, 98% going down, and a launch abort system that could allow the crew to survive a launch failure more often than not. Actual reentry reliability is probably better than that: the only fatalities were very early in the program, although there have been close calls since.

    4) Reliable and safe life support isn’t a trivial problem. Just ask the crews of Apollo 1 and 13 and Soyuz 11.

    5) Dragon could evolve into a cost effective manned spacecraft. Unfortunately, the most economical way to do this is to spend a decade or two as a profitable unmanned cargo vehicle finding and eliminating failure modes in the capsule and launcher. This is not a good quick solution to the gap in US manned spaceflight capability after the Shuttle retires.

    6) If I was running NASA and Congress gave me an extra billion dollars earmarked for shortening the gap between Shuttle retirement and a useful operational US manned orbital spacecraft, I would not spend it on a manned Dragon capsule on an as yet unflown Falcon 9 built by a team that has yet to get Falcon 1 to orbit. Instead I would concentrate on an interim Orion spacecraft with only enough propellant and tankage to reliably get to ISS, flying on a Delta IV-H. “Man-rating” for the interim launcher would concentrate on detecting faults where a manned capsule would want to abort immediately but an unmanned payload would stay with the launcher and hope for the best.

    7) I don’t think Congress will give NASA anything like a billion dollars to achieve that goal. Congress would rather have US astronauts flying in US spacecraft rather than Russian ones a few years sooner, but they probably won’t pay a billion dollars for the pleasure.

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