Will the HLPT Reports Be Made Publicly Available?

Last year NASA put out a solicitation for companies to perform exploration architecture tradestudies incorporating Heavy Lift vehicles and potential advanced propulsion and in-space technologies. This was in support of NASA’s internal studies on the topic. I put a proposal in for that solicitation shortly after leaving Masten, but didn’t have enough credibility as a small, brand-new company to win it (though my proposal was more highly rated than some much bigger companies). But SpaceX, ULA, and several other interesting companies got awards, and I was looking forward to what they came up with. After all, one of the most interesting things that Steidel was able to get done before Griffin and his wunderkinden sent us on a 5-year dead-end was the Concept Exploration and Refinement studies they did to initially study how NASA should implement the architecture for the lunar return goal of the VSE. The studies were all firmly rejected by NASA (as has been its historical habit dating back to the Apollo Program), but at least they were out there to help cross-polinate ideas, and to at least see what NASA was giving up by going down the Constellation road.

Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing rumors that NASA may not even bother releasing the study results this time around, due to potential “ITAR” concerns. Unlike the military, NASA can’t so easily “classify” away things they don’t want people to read, but over the last half decade, the ITAR card has served as a sort of purgatory/Memory Hole where inconvenient information can be banished. I hope NASA does the right thing by making this taxpayer-funded research public. Seriously, how much truly ITAR-sensitive info is there really likely to be in these presentations? NASA has made studies like this public for decades, even since ITAR got ratched up into its current pain in the neck back during the 90s. If there really is a concern that some of the material might be ITAR sensitive, couldn’t they just redact the specific information that they deem ITAR sensitive (and then give US citizens info on where they can get access to the full, unredacted version)? Heck, I’d be willing to start a donation drive to pay for the lawyer’s time to go through and figure out what actually needs to be held back. My guess is that if they really redact anything it’ll probably be less than 5-10% of the content.

Hopefully I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but I really hope this info sees the light of day. When NASA embarks on a $20B+ multi-year project, especially one where they’re trying to use sole-source contracts and lock in providers without performing an honest re-competition, doesn’t the public deserve a right to see what the contractors came up with, and if they actually agree with NASA? Sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if this time around several of the usual suspects actually come out supporting NASA, but I think the public deserves to see dissenting opinions as well. How can US citizens make informed oversight of their federal government, if the federal government isn’t transparent even with non-national-security issues like what architecture NASA should use for exploration?

Am I being paranoid or unreasonable?

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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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9 Responses to Will the HLPT Reports Be Made Publicly Available?

  1. Bennett Dawson says:

    Jon,

    I think you’re being perfectly reasonable. Please keep the rest of us informed, especially if you decide to spearhead any sort of congressional letter writing campaign.

    Bennett

  2. Anom says:

    Jon,

    The Air Force Reusable Booster System (RBS) program recently put out an RFI request in May/June 2011 asking for domestic production of an exisiting 300,000-lb to 500,000-lb thrust LOX/RP-1 rocket engine with sea-level Isp above 300-seconds to replace the RD-180. This can only be met by American production of Aerojet’s AJ-26/NK-33 engine, and excludes the higher-thrust P&W RD-180 variant (AR-1000) and the lower-Isp SpaceX Merlin engine variants. The responses by SpaceX in the Q & A and the silence of P&W is interesting (https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=277854b461bb2a53fafa41bb44b25787&tab=core&_cview=1).

    The Obama White House and NASA plan originally intended in 2010 to build a new LOX/RP-1 engine for both the Air Force and for NASA heavy lift that would be above 1-million lb thrust and replace the RD-180. It now looks like the Air Force, NASA, and the White House are looking at funding American production of the lower-thrust Aerojet AJ-26/NK-33 in Alabama for the Atlas V, Taurus II, NASA SLS, and Boeing/Lockheed/Northrop/Air-Force RBS boosters. This is a big change in US policy, and it is unclear why the Air Force and NASA appear to be supporting lower thrust AJ-26/Nk-33 domestic production over P&W AR-1000/RD-180 domestic production and why P&W is being quiet. It is possible that a political deal with P&W to team with Aerojet for AJ-26 production is already in the works, but this is speculation. Some bloggers at NASASpaceflight.com suggest that Aerojet needs P&W for domestic production of the AJ-26.

    The politics behind this appear to have become public starting in May/June, and it is probably a very sensitive issue to ATK, P&W, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, ULA, Aerojet and all the other HLPT study contract winners who provided input to this analysis and are directly effected by AJ-26 production/competition for NASA SLS and Air Force rockets.

    It looks like multiple political or technical trade study analysis are leading to the US Government transitioning away from ATK solids and P&W RD-180s to Aerojet AJ-26-500 engines. The HLPT studies helped with this analysis.

    If you look at the timing of the Air Force RBS booster engine RFI in May/June and all of the May/June political announcements concerning NASA SLS liquid booster competition, there is probably good reason why NASA and the White House are delaying release of the HLPT and other SLS reports. It is probably taking time to get the White House, Congress, NASA, Air Force, the Russians (to license and assist with US production), and US industry behind this major shift in US policy to domestic production of AJ-26 engines for US Government rocket booster stages. This plan should work, but all of the stakeholders will have to re-position themselves in upcoming battles.

    It is also interesting that Boeing suggested recently in AV Week that they could build an SSTO version of their X-37B for the Air Force RBS program (probably using this AJ-26 engine on a 233,000-lb glide back booster demo).

  3. Mike Loucks says:

    ITAR concerns? What a crock. They are doing a trade study, not inventing anything here. I can’t imagine what ITAR material could be inside of a powerpoint presentation about space architectures. I’m really tired of this idea of just slapping ITAR on everything as a CYA measure. It lessens the value of the whole thing when you do this, and in the end nobody takes it seriously.

    And, as you say, if it really is ITAR sensitive, I expect to be able to get access to it. I don’t mean just having access at a NASA center, I want my own copy.

    When I wanted a copy of POST (or several other pieces of ITAR software I have on my computer), I filled out some forms stating I was a citizen and they (NASA) mailed a CD to me. I expect to have the same thing done here. The ITAR designation doesn’t mean we can’t see it, it just means they can’t post it on the web, and can’t email it to me. They (NASA) can send me a CD with ITAR restricted material on it. I’ve had this done several times.

  4. I fear the ITAR concern here is “There are lots of easier ways of doing this, and we don’t want to encourage the competition or our critics any more than we already have done.”

    NASA science missions do good work, but the manned end of things is a heath robbinson machine designed to transport federal money to various states. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it actually did something worth $10B per year (IMHO it doesn’t – but it could) and if that whole setup wasn’t designed from the outset to make it horribly difficult to in any way alter NASA’s funding, and thus change the technology and contractors it is currently wed to.

    If NASA were to publically endorse a beter way, then quite frankly China and SpaceX and maybe Arianespace could beat them to it, while special interests in congress and the senate were still howling and whining over lost revenue to their states. This would lead to a loss in American spaceflight leadership, which technically would be bad for short term US strategic interests, etc etc etc.

    That’s one possible reasoning behind this. NASA might also be remembering the embaressing Shuttle Direct campaign when it’s own engineers (anomymously) started calling BS on the Griffen’s monstrosity and proposed the Jupiter-120/230 (later 130/240) as an alternative. Anything which undermines support for NASA might endanger american leadership in … ad infinitum ad nausium.

  5. Ah, let’s not worry about what NASA’s going to do and worry more about what we’re going to do. Because NASA’s already irrelevant and getting worse by the day. If we’re going to visit or explore space, it will be on our own nickel, by our own initiative, pursuing the goals that we (and those who might finance us) will subscribe to.

  6. Kirk,
    If I were independently Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos-level wealthy, I think I’d be in a better position to just ignore NASA. But the reality is that NASA is likely to form at least part of the early customer base for most space businesses, so just ignoring them and letting partisan forces turn them into Huntsville political slush funds isn’t really an option.

    That said, yes my primary focus is on making my company successful, not on trying to nudge NASA in the right direction. That’s why blogging has been so light recently. I still think the occasional windmill-tilting excercise is worthwhile, but not on the pace I used to do.

    ~Jon

  7. Rhyolite says:

    Could this material be subject to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request?

  8. Will McLean says:

    Jon, On that HEFT DRM 1 sand chart you posted back in January, I couldn’t find anything on the chart for CTV AKA Orion. What were they going to use in that role?

  9. Will,
    I don’t really know to be sure. Have been too busy with other things to keep up as much as I used to.

    ~Jon

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