Amusing Observation: SpaceX and HEFT Report Page 38

So, a group of rocket engineers starts making claims about how they’re going to revolutionize the industry and deliver a vehicle for far less than has been the traditional norm. When asked how they are going to do this, they talk about stuff like “vertical integration”, “keeping stuff simple”, using a “clean-sheet approach”, and “borrowing the best practices from Silicon Valley”. Admittedly this team did pull several people who had lead successful rocket vehicle development projects in the past, but the team itself was untried and unproven.

What was the general response to these claims? Most in industry other than the fanboys treated their claims with healthy skepticism.

Eight years later, even after that company successfully nails a picture-perfect launch and reentry, people are still skeptical that in the end their prices are going to end up much cheaper than anyone else. Heck, even I’m still wondering if they’ll be able to keep the prices they’ve been claiming once they’re really into routine and reliable operations–and I’m about as close as you can get to a koolaid drinkin fanboy without having spittle in the corner of my mouth.

Then there’s this other rocket group. Like the first one, they haven’t actually demonstrated the ability to successfully design and build new rocket vehicles. At least not within my lifetime. They also start making claims about how by implementing some key industry suggestions (this time those found on “Page 38” of last month’s HEFT report) they can deliver a new vehicle for far less than past experience dictates. Unlike the first team though, this team does have a track record. But it is a track record of 30 years of consistently overrunning budgets and getting major projects canceled.

“But it will be different this time” they say. “If we use the suggestions on ‘Page 38’, we can dramatically improve on the affordability of developing new rocket vehicles.”

Now, it’s not that the suggestions on Page 38 are bad. They’re not. They’re actually pretty good. Just like “using the best practices from Silicon Valley” sounds good too. I’ll admit that I’m kind of curious how on a $20B project they’re going to “Model, test and fly early and often” or “Use small lean projects with highly competent empowered personnel”, or how a project that is more or less designed by Congressional committee is somehow going to “Push decision authority to the lowest level. Trust them to implement and don’t second guess (over-manage)” [Aside: if Congress really intended to allow NASA to do that last one, they wouldn’t be specifying the size of the rocket, what hardware it can use, and which contractors they have to maintain contracts for]. I’m also somewhat curious of how many of the items on that list CxP managers would claim they were already doing…

…but leaving all of those specific details aside, I just don’t get why this second group of people gets all offended when the net result from industry is once again healthy skepticism. Especially given their past track record. When you’re trying to get people to entrust you with a multi-billion dollar project that all past experience and your management claim is unlikely to fit within budget or timeline, is it really that offensive when people have a hard time swallowing that somehow one powerpoint slide is going to change everything?

I mean, it is totally possible that like SpaceX, this new team is going to surprise us, and totally knock this SLS project out of the park. Heck, maybe they’ll even come in far enough under budget that Shelby, out of the kindness of his generous soul, will decide to put the savings into commercial crew or propellant depot development. It’s totally possible.

But is it really rude to be skeptical about this outcome?

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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.
This entry was posted in NASA, Politics, Snark, Space Policy, SpaceX. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Amusing Observation: SpaceX and HEFT Report Page 38

  1. Marcus Zottl says:

    Jon, I think it is not rude at all to be skeptical about their claims. To be honest: I’m not even skeptical, I’m pretty sure that they will “screw up” once again…

    One little thing: don’t you mean “horizontal integration” in the first paragraph instead of vertical?

    Best regards from Vienna, Austria

  2. Bob Steinke says:

    “Focused, Realistic and Stable Requirements”

    From Congress? Let’s just say I’m skeptical.

  3. Gerald R. Everett says:

    What is more possible is that a penny pinching congress will cut the
    HLV/Orion altogether. Then NASA and Congress would be on the
    same page re: Commercial space and HLV. Do it the cheap way or
    no way. Better some aerospace workers in Brevard County than none.
    Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean Space X. NASA has studied reviving
    the P&W F1A engine no less than 4 times and the numbers on how
    much that would cost are reasonably firm. Should NASA request
    bids on a fixed price contract for an HLV, P&W along with Boeing
    or Lockheed might well outbid Space X.

  4. Vladislaw says:

    Actually it would be upstream or backward vertical integration.

  5. Coastal Ron says:

    Jon Goff said: “if Congress really intended to allow NASA to do that last one, they wouldn’t be specifying the size of the rocket, what hardware it can use, and which contractors they have to maintain contracts for”

    That’s really the key here. It’s not that NASA doesn’t have a bunch of talented people, but that 1. their talent is not in the rocket building field, and 2. Congress is not letting them design the best solution, just a solution that uses the required parts, regardless how much or little it makes sense.

    I have no hope that the SLS last long in operation, much less even get produced. No one can point to a need for it, which means no one knows what’s really important, and what isn’t. Congress is really mucking this up.

  6. nooneofconsequence says:

    Three items missing – choice of target, subscale project, and working to example.

    SpaceX could chose a target that they could reliably achieve with the resources that they had. Is this true for an HLV target, or do the prior examples suggest a series of overreaches, thus choice of achievable target is in doubt.

    SpaceX had a subscale project/program called Falcon 1, where they got their lumps, and faced much scorn and ridicule over, but after a handful of tries got an all up original vehicle with original engines to fly for under a around a $100 million retiring considerable risk. If we view Ares I-X as a subscale project in like kind, it consumed billions, wasn’t the least original, didn’t constitue a complete “all up” to orbit system, just a single, partial suborbital test of a non representative hardware, resulting in little if any retired risk. Thus the point was lost in even the semblance of getting to “page 38” from the start.

    SpaceX had a Dragon COTS project that required it to over many years work to example, where many setbacks occurred drawing out the schedule and vehicle and vehicle processing longer and longer. But unlike with HLV examples, it began to converge because a clear “work to example” was maintained the entire time. This was massively ignored by MSFC IMHO as being meaningless, even when their bacon was on the line, which tells me they are cynical of “page 38” as its for others not them.

    You judge others by their actions and dedication to what they believe in, and can do so with a measurable framework. This is where your informed skepticism comes into action. And I wouldn’t commit to a big project like SLS if I couldn’t see success in a smaller scale project that was well respective of risks needing to be retired, no matter the schedule pressure due to Shuttle concluding – because of the history here. The same pressure caused X-33 to overreach, and X-38’s lack of overreach did nothing to forstall its cancellation – they were an perfect example of page 38 decades ahead and it mattered not to those at NASA and in political power.

    We’ve already done the page 38 – it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now.

    What only matters are those who talk the talk and walk the walk.

  7. Coastal said “It’s not that NASA doesn’t have a bunch of talented people”

    Name one. Go ahead.. what’s their name and what have they done which is worthy of being called talented?

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Come on, that’d ridiculous. Here’s one after two seconds of thought: Dan Rasky at NASA Ames. He was the guy who was “loaned” to SpaceX to develop their in-house version of the PICA ablator (I think they call it PICA-X).

    Here’s a few more: Pete Worden, current director of NASA Ames. He was heavily involved with DC-X, and was a co-investigator on Clementine, and has been one of the key advocates for small sats and NEO missions.

    Brant Sponberg, Doug Comstock, and Ken Davidian for helping get Centennial Challenges and several other innovative NASA projects off the ground.

    I could probably go on and on. There are talented people at NASA, and I’ve met a lot of them.


  9. Ken’s no longer at NASA, hasn’t been for some time, but you know that.

    Can you name one from MSFC? 🙂

  10. G. R.R. says:

    you can take that a step further.
    What is going to happen is that several years will be wasted on the recent NASA Jobs bill. Once CONgress accepts that building cost plus contracts are nightmares, then they will likely accept the idea of COTS-SHLV.
    Now, I realize that this will not go over well, but, the fact is, that we need to develop 2 or more different SHLV of roughly the same size. The reason is that if we are going to depend on a launch vehicle to get us to a location, then we need two or more to have competition and so that if a system has an accident (and it will), then the overall plans are not stymied, just slowed down.
    Sadly, between Congress, presidents, and accidents, NASA has had large stumbling blocks put in their way.
    COTS-SHLV can be done for less than 10 billion and in less than 10 years. And if we can get 2-3 different 150 tonne launch vehicles all at the same time that we are heading for mars and basing on the moon, then great.

  11. Trent,
    Someone talented at Marshall? How about Jeff Ding. He’s the guy who introduced Friction Stir Welding at Marshall about 15 years ago, and helped pioneer its use for fabricating rocket propellant tanks. Because of his and others efforts FSW is now the fabrication process of choice for large rocket tanks including those on Falcon 9, Delta IV, and the Shuttle ET.

    Seriously, it’s totally possible for an organization to have a large number of very talented specialists and areas of technical competence, while having other areas that they absolutely suck at and should never be given work in. Life is typically nuanced dude.


  12. Jon, the point I was *trying* to make is that people regularly declare that NASA is full of talent, and then can’t name any. Of course, you ruined that point by providing the answers.. I imagine the next time I call someone on their blanket statement that NASA is a repository of talent, I’ll get quite a few people parroting your answers.

  13. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I was just pointing out that you were being way too extreme. NASA really does have many very talented people. It also has people who are just there to punch their time cards, and also others who’s purpose in life is to build the bureaucracy, not to achieve the bureacracy’s tentative goals. NASA doesn’t necessarily have a lock on all the best and brightest, and I don’t think NASA on average would necessarily compare well to SpaceX (for instance) on average. But trying to ignore the people at NASA who are both talented and dedicated is a disservice. Why NASA struggles is a much more complicated problem, and simplistic explanations don’t really yield any insight into what can be done to improve things.


  14. Casey says:

    Trent & Jon,

    Having an former-insider perspective at a former NASA contractor I firmly believe that NASA has a lot of great (and not so great) people working for them.

    I think the real issue NASA, and their contractors, face is a glut of management. This is in part due to the length of time of the Shuttle program lots of good/bad people who were great engineers stuck around long enough that they were forced into management. This left the engineers over managed and constantly second guessed by managers who didn’t really understand their role anymore in the program. This lead to slow downs in the system, which prompted more managers, and the problem just continued to snowball.

    I haven’t heard it yet: The old boys club is very much alive and well in the government space industry and until we are willing to very thoroughly clean house from the top down any government backed plan with NASA and the current shuttle contractors is doomed from the outset.

  15. Ed Minchau says:

    Further to Casey’s point: growth in the number of layers of management is a feature of a bureaucracy. How many layers of management are there from Charlie Borden down to the guy (for instance) doing maintenance on the launch tower? I don’t know the number but I’d be surprised if it was less than 5.

    To contrast: in college I worked nights in a UPS hub loading packages in trailers, right at the bottom of the totem pole. At the time, UPS had 250 000 employees worldwide. The number of layers of management between me and the company president? Two.

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