[Note: I just wanted to share a quick semi-baked opinion, and it was long enough that if I broke it up into a series of tweets, Ben Brockert and Will Pomerantz would probably remind me of this blog thing I supposedly run...It's probably not that new, profound, or even correct, but as I said, think of this as a blog equivalent of a series of tweets...]
One of the things that really strikes you about all the conversations between NASA and Congress about NASA’s attempt to help you know, follow its charter and “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space” by funding commercial development of crew transport vehicles is the emphasis on safety. Shuttle ended up killing two crews out of 135 flights, which is actually about what you’d expect to get from flying crews on EELV-class vehicles without a launch escape system of any sort, yet in almost every Congressional hearing, you hear a ton of hand-wringing about whether these vehicles will be safe enough for NASA’s astronauts. And you can tell that NASA has taken these inputs very seriously, with all the requirements (and referenced requirements, and requirements referenced in referenced requirements, and requirements referenced in requirements referenced in referenced requirements), paperwork, overhead, and with their attempt to force things into a FAR-based mold closer to how NASA does major programs. It’s pretty clear that NASA and Congress both see safety as the top priority for commercial crew. I know this may be heretical, but I’m wondering if this is a misplaced priority.
Maybe I’m wrong, but here’s my concern:
- NASA really wants at least two independent, self-sustaining, affordable ways of getting people to and from the ISS. Having this capability means that if anything happens to one system, you don’t get the standdowns like what you had with the Shuttle program.
- Having at least two affordable and healthy competitors also means more price competition, and more incentive to innovation.
- There’s no chance that Orion on SLS is going to be anything within spitting distance of “affordable” for routine crew rotations.
- As NASA has been openly admitting for almost as long as this blog has been around, they know that they can’t afford to go beyond LEO if they can’t offload all of the ISS crew and cargo needs to commercial providers using firm, fixed-price contracts.
- But NASA only wants to buy about 8 seats per year (two rotations of four crew each) from commercial providers, in order to meet their ISS obligations.
- You’re only likely to get two affordable and healthy commercial crew providers if they have enough demand to spread their fixed costs out over (and if they can keep those fixed-costs within reason).
- I can only see a few ways of doing that (though there may be others):
- Have the commercial crew vehicles be affordable enough that they can enable significant non-NASA crew, cargo, and recoverable freeflyer (like DragonLab) services.
- Having the commercial crew vehicle be similar enough to a commercial cargo vehicle that each provider can actually get a decent number of flights per year out of a mix of crew and cargo.
- Only the first of those two options avoids the challenge of a NASA/commercial crew monopsony scenario, where the ISS is the only thing keeping the commercial crew providers afloat.
- While there is a small, but non-zero, chance that you could get sufficient demand from what Bigelow calls “sovereign clients” to get non-NASA crew/cargo demand even at the old $20M/seat Soyuz price, the best analysis I have seen with the existing data (pgs 43-53 of this presentation) suggests that the price point commercial crew needs to get in order to reach a tipping point is $5M/seat max, and possibly as low as $1-2.5M/seat.
- While it may be barely possible for NASA to eke out a minor victory by getting two independent and semi-healthy commercial ISS crew providers who also do ISS cargo deliveries on unmanned versions of their rockets/delivery vehicles, even this minor victory is only possible if the fixed cost of the crew capability isn’t too excessive.
- With only two flights per year worth of crew demand, there might not even be enough demand for one commercial provider unless they can find synergies with ISS cargo deliveries, or more preferably non-NASA customers.
I guess my big concern is that it doesn’t appear as though NASA or Congress are being realistic about how to properly prioritize safety. Ultimately you can always spend extra money on safety (one more test, one more certification, one more sign-off, one more review, etc)–the only way to have 0% chance of losing a crew on an ISS mission is to not do the mission. If you are actually going to fly, there’s a point where you have to accept some risk, and you have to say at some point that you’re only willing to spend a certain amount of money to potentially buy down tiny fractions of a decimal point safety-wise. If you have to make that decision anyway, then it makes sense to do it in the framework of the big picture of the mission risks and overarching goals.
This is something for instance that the Constellation program utterly failed to do–the core justification for Ares-I was that it’s launch ascent safety was supposedly going to be so darned good (a 1 in 2106.4823910293 chance of losing a crew on ascent, at a 50% confidence interval…), but in the light of a program that expected a 2% or greater chance of losing a crew on a given lunar mission, it’s pretty clear that spending money to go from a 1 in 1000 probability on existing LVs versus spending a decade and $10-20B on a new launcher to buy that risk down a bit was money very foolishly spent. The problem is I worry we’re going down the same path with commercial crew.
While I don’t personally have any really sage advice on how best to ensure safe operations while still keeping the overhead low enough to keep commercial crew provider costs low enough to give a realistic shot at enabling a new market to emerge, I am worried that the current balance is a well-intentioned disaster waiting to happen (see also Wayne Hale’s previous warning on this topic). If NASA and Congress continue down the path they’re going with safety, there’s a very real chance that they’re going to make commercial crew commercially unviable. And that would be the ultimate Pyrrhic Victory–having one or two “commercial” crew providers that in the end that are flying, but are so expensive that only NASA can afford them.