Investing in a Spacefaring Future

When I was a teenager, my dad had me read a small book called “The Richest Man in Babylon”.  It was a good and simple read about personal financial management, set in a fictional background of ancient Babylon.  I think the concepts in the book are just as timely today as when it was first written almost 80 years ago.  While there are many different ideas discussed in the book, I think one of the first ones discussed was the one that stuck with me the longest–the idea of setting aside 10% of your income to invest in the future, and then finding a way to live within the other 90%.

I’ve read a few other books in that genre over the years (The Millionaire Nextdoor, Rich Dad/Poor Dad, etc), and while they often differed on the details, most of them agreed on the importance of living below your means and saving for the future.

I was reminded in a way of this concept by a comment to Alan Stern’s recent NYT op ed that Rand Simberg linked to.  John Mankins, a former manager of Advanced Concept Studies at NASA, made the following interesting point about cost overruns in many government space projects (emphasis mine):

There is extremely good evidence from numerous past space programs that the root of the problem of cost overruns may (in many cases) be found in a failure to make adequate investments in mission/system design studies and technology research & development BEFORE finalizing a mission concept and its cost estimate.

The General Accountability Office (GAO) has highlighted this issue repeatedly in recent years, referring to the preferred best practice as “Knowledge-Based Program/Project Management”. At NASA, the preferred question has sometimes been: what is the technology readiness level (TRL) for a new project, before it is allowed to proceed past Phase A, or Phase B? The rules are in place to ask the question, however the budgets that would be necessary to achieve an adequate level of technology maturity are NOT available.

The idea is simple: it is much, much cheaper to invest in technology R&D, and mission analysis/system design studies that it is to fix inevitable problems that arise only once less-well prepared development projects get started.

There are strong statistics in support of this argument. In the 1980s, NASA’s budget office found that during the first 30 years of the civil space program, NO PROJECT enjoyed less than a 40% cost overrun UNLESS it was preceded by an investment in studies and technology of AT LEAST 5%-10% of the actual project budget that eventually occurred. The opposite can also be seen easily: in cases where studies of alternative concepts have been well funded, and new technologies have been rigorously developed and matured the risk of overruns is much, much lower. These investments must take place beginning before “Phase A” (system/mission definition) and continuing through “Phase B” (system design) completion. If this practice is followed, the statistics indicate that even if there is an overrun, the problem tends to be much lower than if a strong investment in studies and technology R&D has not been made. The GAO has found very similar results with various DOD programs.

While the concept of NASA investing in technology maturation and mission studies isn’t exactly the same as a private individual setting aside money to save and invest, it does have a lot in common. NASA, being a government agency, can’t set aside money from one budget to spend in a future one. But it can take money from a current budget and put it into technology maturation to enable future capabilities that will, as John Marburger said earlier this year, “reduce the expense and risk of future operations.”

NASA under O’Keefe actually had taken some good steps in this direction with the Human and Robotic Technology program. NASA had set aside somewhere in the neighborhood of $2B over a two year period for technology maturation projects, and then proposals for R&D in several areas of key interest for human and robotic exploration. They awarded contracts to companies ranging from alt.space companies like XCOR Aerospace, to non-space industrial giants like Caterpillar, to traditional aerospace primes like Boeing and LM. The topics ranged from advanced sensors, autonomous operations capabilities, cryogenic composites, and many other important capabilities. I may be wrong, but I think this was one of the biggest investments in space technology maturation since the Apollo Program. Even then, it was less than 10% of NASA’s yearly budget.

And it all got axed when Griffin got in to help pay for Ares-I.

One of the most frustrating things to me about NASA’s approach is that it continues to place operation of large, manned, NASA-operated launch vehicles ahead of just about everything else. Many of the technologies that have only recently started to see the light of day, such as autonomous rendezvous, docking, and propellant transfer, could have been demonstrated decades ago, had their been the interest. While Orbital Express did cover a little bit of new territory, much of what it did has been done by Soviet and Russian systems for nearly 40 years. America could have had that capability decades ago as well if it had invested the money at the time, because fundamentally it hasn’t been a lack of underlying technologies that has retarded the maturation of these technologies. The key obstacle has been getting the funding to develop these technologies. While it may be possible for these technologies to eventually all be developed by the private sector, that’s going to take a very long time. The private sector has access to more money, but the typically long timeframes involved, and uncertain/speculative markets often make it very difficult for some of these technologies to be developed by purely private efforts.

It would be nice if the agency that was given $17B a year to promote our general welfare through in the field of aerospace would use more of that money for accelerating the development of these key technologies, and act as a catalyst to help enable commercial space utilization, instead of being just another obstacle. Even a tiny fraction of that money wisely invested in future-looking space technology development could go a long way towards making a spacefaring future a reality.

I hope that with a new administration (both in the White House, and hopefully in NASA HQ as well), there will be a reemphasis of the importance of investments in technology maturation and R&D at NASA. While cutting back enough on current expenditures to shift money back into human and robotic technology maturation efforts will not be easy or painless, it’s the right thing for NASA to do. Much like an individual who decides to live below his means so he can have a brighter future, there may be some immediate pleasures that have to be forfeited, and standard ways of doing business may have to be reevaluated, but in the long run it will be more than worth it.

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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 Investing in a Spacefaring Future

  1. john hare says:

    As long as there are people involved in the decision making process that can write apparently seriously that the current plan is the lowest risk way to the moon, the problem will remain. On another forum this statement was made, along with propellant transfer being very high risk and multiple launches being a major increased risk. In the same discussion, private efforts and using EELVs were dismissed.

    As long as they are more worried about what congress will say about last weeks activities than what actually happens in the next five years, the problem will remain. We need to spend some serious effort understanding how these people reach their conclusions in order to do something about them. Then the root of the problem must be addressed. The things we see now are symptoms of a vastly larger problem.

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  3. Kevin Brown says:

    NASA has had technology development programs for various areas. These include exploration technologies (such as things required to keep humans alive on the lunar surface) and science mission technologies (things like ion propulsion, solar sails, aerocapture, etc.). Over the past several years they have taken money out of these programs to pay for flight programs. This predated Griffin, although it certainly got worse than him. Griffin’s argument was that with a limited budget, they had to pay for things now by borrowing from future developments.

    This is not new, and most program managers will tell you that whenever a flight program goes over budget, the first thing the agency does is grab money from the technology development budget. It is a natural impulse.

  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Kevin,
    Oh, I agree that NASA has and still does fund some technology development. It’s just that I think it should be a more sizeable chunk of the overall NASA budget. I agree also that it’s human nature to raid savings/future-investments to pay for current pleasure. That’s a large part of why the economy is now in the tank. But just because it’s human nature, doesn’t mean it should be encouraged or even tolerated.

    ~Jon

  5. Brock says:

    It seems to me that if you can’t afford project planning, you’ve got no business starting the project in the first place. Not just in the NASA context either.

  6. Bill White says:

    Elsewhere I read that if a vessel is already in a LEO parking orbit (docked to a propellant depot for example) then launch windows that permit an outbound lunar trajectory only occur once every two weeks. Approximately.

    On the other hand, when launching from the Earth’s surface the Earth’s rotation will place the launch pad on the correct plane for a lunar destination trajectory at least once per day.

    Can anyone confirm or refute this as a matter of orbital mechanics?

    If true, wouldn’t that add significant operational restrictions on to any lunar architecture that incorporated a LEO fuel depot as part of the critical path?

  7. Bill White says:

    Here is an AIAA paper from 1964:

    http://pdf.aiaa.org/jaPreview/AIAAJ/1964/PVJAPRE2339.pdf

    It would seem that a vessel docked at a LEO propellant depot shall face significant launch window restrictions for travel to the Moon.

    This is certainly not any sort of show stopper however PD based architecture proposals will need to address this issue.

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Bill,
    It’s true that you get fewer launch windows. Once we get to the point where biweekly launches aren’t doing it for us, we can always build more than one depot. Sure, if depots are tens of billions of dollars each, it could be a show stopper. But if they’re commercially operated and less expensive (which I think will be the case), if the demand ramps up, you just build two or three of them, and put them far enough out of phase so that you’re getting a launch opportunity from at least one of them every few days (you’re also more effectively using launch capacity, since you’ll get more launch opportunities per launch site per day).

    ~Jon

  9. Tim says:

    Saving money for the future only works if you can get to that money later on. The same is true for the things you learn from R&D. For tech development to work, you need some way of recording, documenting, and storing the data -and more importantly, knowledge- you get from it. I suspect that archiving its past work is something NASA hasn’t been very good at. As I recall when VSE was announced there was trouble accessing old Saturn V documentation, and the folks working on the CEV haven’t been able to replicate the ablative TPS (?) used on Apollo.

  10. Tim,
    I agree that making sure that the gathered knowledge is preserved is very important. One of the best ways to preserve knowledge is by making sure it gets used. Putting effort into commercializing space technologies is one part of the challenge. Also, making sure that government programs implement the new technologies is also important. Sure, if there’s some technology we’re not going to be able to use for 30 years, that’s probably a bit early to spend a lot of money on. But a lot of the technologies that I’m talking about (prox ops, tugs, better orbital construction techniques, propellant depots and handling, high reliability aerobraking, etc) are things that should be useful on the nearer term. Especially if NASA can find ways to encourage their commercial adoption.

    ~Jon

  11. Tim brings up an excellent point about what can be termed “Institutional Memory.”

    “IM” if you will, is one of several Achilles Heels in NASA R&D efforts, especially when there are such huge time lags between new major programs. back in the 80’s I heard a lot of complaints from old-time rocket people about poor documentation, and encountered the problem with a vengeance when I was the Documentation Services Supervisor at the first iteration of what is now the ISS. With huge time lags combined with a lack of continuity, valuable personnel retire — and even die — before similar efforts are gain revived.

    This lack of IM even, if inadvertantly, affects private efforts. It would appear, for instance, that in its first three (and abortive) launches of Falcon 1, SpaceX repeated mistakes and oversights that had been made by American rocket pioneers decades ago.

    On a related note, a conflated view of space age history tends to imply that most early programs suffered high degrees of failure. Not necessarily. The image was distorted from early on by the misguided and misidirected Vanguard effort of the late 50’s. A number of venerable American launch vehicles were developed in an astonishingly short time and within budget back in the 50’s and 60’s, AND had succesful first launches.

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  13. Tim says:

    Whoops, turns out that TPs thing I mentioned is actually because something used to make the ablative material is unavailable due to environmental restrictions, not because info on it has been lost. The source I originally heard that from made it seem like an information problem. Sorry about that.

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