“Commercial” STS Modest Proposal

So, according to Rob Coppinger, USA has proposed to operate the Shuttle “commercially” as part of their CCDEV proposal. For a cool, $1.5B/yr over the next six years, they’ll provide two shuttle flights per year.

Personally, I think this is mostly a terrible idea. While offering fixed-price services, and moving to FAA regs is nice, I really don’t see how this fits with the spirit of CCDEV.  After all, USA is talking about taking over an existing government asset, and flying it temporarily through 2017, not providing a long-term commercial crew capability for ISS in the post 2016 timeframe.  And the budget ($9B over the next six years), is way outside the $6B NASA was going to give to commercial crew, or the $3B that the anonymous Senate staffer last week thought would be the real number.

But shuttle huggers, don’t despair.  If something like this goes forward, they could probably do this by taking money from the SLS and MPCV budgets.  After all, this would be offsetting some of the carrying costs that NASA would have to pay for keeping the Shuttle infrastructure in place.  By doing this, there also wouldn’t be any rush to finish Orion or the 70-100 ton version of SLS, because you could just keep flying the shuttle “commercially” for another year or two if commercial crew faces delays.  In fact, this would allow NASA to go straight for their beloved 130mT SLS and deep-space rated MPCV, because there would be no need for the intermediate vehicle.  They can take as much time as they want.

The only even remotely legitimate purpose for trying to rush SLS/MPCV was the worry that possibly all of the commercial crew providers would be running late.  It’s possible I guess, especially if they try and put all their money on just one or two providers.  But, under the current Senate-designed plan, if commercial crew does work, SLS/MPCV would be a giant budget-sucking white elephant for several years while actual mission hardware (EDS stages, landers, and/or habs) was developed.

But with this plan, you can just go straight to “exploration class” HLVs and mission hardware, without having to worry about the fate of ISS.  Something like this would allow you to keep your HLV infrastructure alive until you actually need an HLV without killing commercial crew.

And anyway, SLS and MPCV have big enough budgets that this would only be cutting out maybe 1/3 of the money they’d be getting over that time frame.  If the DIRECT fanboys are right, there may even be a straightforward way for NASA to still deliver on something like that within the budgets they’ve been given, even with keeping the Shuttles flying.

And if there are budget cuts, hey you have the shuttle still flying, you can just stretch out the SLS development even further.

If NASA tries to go this route, they should do so under the SLS budget, not the Commercial Crew one.

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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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23 Responses to “Commercial” STS Modest Proposal

  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    “Amen” to all of the above. Commercial crew budgets can’t possibly pay for such a thing; so, if it true that this was a submission (remember, NASA’s not allowed to acknowledge who has submitted to CCDEV; announcements – or leaks – are therefore coming from other sources), eventually it would have to come out of the HLLV/MCPV budgets.

    However, there is a real danger here; if they truly made this submission, it’s a legitimate concern to some that NASA may feel, due to political pressure, somewhat compelled to pick USA’s (apparent) proposal to take CCDEV-2 funds – funds that clearly should go to real commercial space entities instead. That’s the first thing I’m worried about with this apparent proposal.

    If Rob is relating the details right, I’m concerned for flying only 2 shuttle vehicles per year. Even if we’re able to re-hire all the laid off ET people, twice per year is NOT enough work to maintain skill levels; something I’m concerned that any such proposal may not take into consideration. In short, whatever grade you give shuttle safety now, flying it only twice a year would result, in my opinion, in a degraded safety rating – something else I doubt is being considered.

  2. Coastal Ron says:

    Great, two Shuttle flights per year. What are they going to be doing? The ISS is already taken care of for supplies through 2015, and the cost of using Shuttle is going to be far more than using SpaceX or even likely Orbital, especially after the initial contract runs out (I think prices will be less for 2016 & beyond).

    For crew rotation, that is already taken care of too, since Soyuz is already booked through 2016 or so. And since Shuttle can only stay in space for two weeks max, it is not able to add crew to the ISS for anything longer than short visits (tourists?), so NASA will still have to pay for Soyuz.

    What would Shuttle do that can’t be done for less, and be around long after 2017?

    I smell pork.

  3. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Remember, this is leaked news about a USA proposal, not an official NASA or Congressional plan. At $9B, it can’t fit within the legally authorized Commercial Crew budget, so it would require legislative changes to happen anyway. So it’s a longshot, but otherwise I agree that I don’t see the point of keeping Shuttle around.


  4. Sean says:

    @CCoastal Ron

    Shuttle has been doing crew rotation for years. It works in concert with Soyuz. Crew A goes up on Soyuz. Shuttle brings up Crew B and returns Crew A.

  5. Ed Minchau says:

    I am surprised that yet another shuttle has not been lost. If they keep launching shuttles, then they will lose another, with a probability approaching unity.

  6. A_M_Swallow says:

    I am very suspicious about the price estimate. To achieve it USA would have to fire 2/3 of the people.

  7. gaetano marano says:

    this is what I advocate from over 5 years, not because the Shuttle is the best choice , but because I don’t believe the new.space companies can be able to develop “a Shuttle” in the next 5 years, so, kill the Shuttles, just means have NO Shuttles

  8. @Sean, and then on the next flight the Soyuz comes down? It can only stay up there for 12 months. Also, on how many STS flights was this was actually done? You say they’ve been doing crew rotation with the shuttle for “years”, ok, what flights?

    There’s three possibilities:

    1) you get the shuttle to stay on-orbit for longer and act as a lifeboat (won’t happen)
    2) you get a much longer duration lifeboat from the Russians (could happen, but won’t be cheap) or build it yourself (aka, Orion-Lifeboat)
    3) you dump this stupid requirement of escape-to-Earth (won’t happen)

    In all but the first case, the Shuttle will be providing less of a service than the Soyuz.. so asking ~$50M/seat will be unreasonable, but even at those unreasonable prices, that’s only $350M/flight .. and that’s all USA should get. If they can’t compete, then they go home. But maybe I’m being unfair.. they could do a cargo delivery at the same time, and bigger than SpaceX or Orbital.. That ~12t cargo capacity (MPLM) should be worth $300M easy.

    Actually, I take it all back.. USA have offered a great option here.. I think they’re a little more expensive than they should be, and I don’t think the money should come out of CCDev cause they’re not doing *dev* but otherwise, yes. Dump STS/Orion and do this instead – oh, and you better find something important for astronauts to do in space because if you keep flying the Shuttle more astronauts *will* die on it, which means you have to have a good answer for “Why are we going to space at all?!!?”

  9. Oh yeah, and did I mention that USA has to do all the reprocessing etc? I think that should be inherent in the terms “hand over the orbiters” but I thought it was worth saying it.

  10. Casey says:

    Getting the most out of your car means having to fix it a lot… At a certain point you just need to go out and buy a new car.

    We are looking at old, complicated tech on the shuttle. Tooling for the ETs are gone, “approved” materials for the SRMs are gone, young talent the program needs are going and almost gone.

    There’s not a lot of point in maintaining a car when the spare parts don’t exist anymore.

  11. Paul says:

    Trent Waddington,
    [Laughs] Your in-comment reaction mirrors mine. “OUTRAGEOUS!!! What a waste of money!!! Even if we price it at… although there’s cargo… actually that could… and if it’s a fixed price…”

    Also, United might find it easier to lay off staff, fix management issues, concentrate facilities, than NASA itself. (Especially on a fixed-cost, rather than cost-plus.)

  12. Aaron Williams says:

    So ‘when’ the next shuttle falls out of the sky, it will be a failure of the commercial space industry, and the Shelbys will rage to no end about how unsafe commercial space transport is. They will finally have a thing to point to, to say this is why we cannot entrust space transport to commercial ventures, even though the failure was of design and aging. And people will listen and will think maybe we shouldn’t be putting so much faith in the commercial space industry, and commercial funding gets cut and a new better and more expensive than ever program gets started only to be canceled in a few years.

    I know its a dire prediction, but I don’t think a company can stop the shuttles from crashing any better than NASA, and if it does the industry as a whole will get blamed. Can’t we just let the shuttle die?

  13. Bennett Dawson says:

    Aaron wrote “I know its a dire prediction…”

    Dire? Yes. Believable? Also yes. I think you nailed one of the biggest downsides to this proposal. Good thinking.

  14. Michael Kent says:

    Dave Huntsman wrote:

    However, there is a real danger here; if they truly made this submission, it’s a legitimate concern to some that NASA may feel, due to political pressure, somewhat compelled to pick USA’s (apparent) proposal to take CCDEV-2 funds – funds that clearly should go to real commercial space entities instead. That’s the first thing I’m worried about with this apparent proposal.

    Can’t happen. The entire CCDEV-2 budget is $200 million. Even with their reduced staffing, USA would burn through the entire budget in just over a month and a half.

    What I would like to know is, how does USA intend to pay for the 2-3 year stand-down that would be required to get the Shuttle supplier base up and running again?


  15. Jason says:

    “What I would like to know is, how does USA intend to pay for the 2-3 year stand-down that would be required to get the Shuttle supplier base up and running again?”

    Easy, they expect to get money from CCDev3, 4, and 5 too.

  16. Jason says:

    Jon, in regards to your comments that it isn’t responsive in regards to the cost.. remember the $1.5b is for operating it, we are working off lots of assumptions being that this is only an article we are commenting on. I’m sure they aren’t asking for $1.5b for the CCDev2 proposal. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they are asking for the entire 200 million. Coincidentally, 51D in a comment over at NSF, says:

    “In the meantime, that same synergistic efficiency might well enable a solid funding level for CCDev, and they, too, could potentially be able to come on-line by early 2017, and both enable the CSTS ramp-down AND avoid the need for activating the SLS/MPCV back-up capability.”

    Why 2017 now for commercial, wasn’t it supposed to be 2016 before? Probably because CSTS will delay actual commercial for a year, at the very least.

  17. montejo says:

    So ‘when’ the next shuttle falls out of the sky

    Apart from the effect on other commercial spaceflight, what would be the response to another lost orbiter? Would there be another investigation and series of upgrades before the next flight? After Challenger, the shuttles were grounded for 975 days; after Columbia, 907 days. It seems pretty unacceptable to me to go through another 2.5 year grounded phase.

  18. Paul, and compared to ATK’s proposal the USA proposal sounds sensible. 🙂

  19. Old Guy in Whittier says:

    (Not representing my employer here)

    Gee, the only thing that would be a worse idea would be if ATK and EADS were to combine forces and propose an super-corndog with an Ariane 5 used as a second stage, with so many risks to retire (first flight of a 5-segment SRB, air-start of a Vulcain, vibration and stress on an Ariane 5 as a second stage unanticipated in its design, need I go on?) that it would be obvious on inspection that it was not serious.

    Wait, what?

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  21. Steven Rappolee says:

    lets see, they should put in a bid with a commercial side mount?
    ATK, gets the SRB
    EADS and Boeing gets the carrier, SSME x 3, Vulcan X 1 or HM7B x 2
    lockmart, ET
    USA, operations
    both pay for a part of the developement costs under a NASA act agreement.
    what would be the performence to orbit of a Ariane stage with a Vulcan or HM7B in the side mount carrier shroud?

  22. Roga says:

    That’s not even the best part. The best part is when USA kills seven more astronauts in a couple years, and it is spun by everyone from Shelby to CNBC as evidence that this whole “commercial crew” thing can never work. No doubt that $250M less/flight is the line item that is thrown under the bus.

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