Hobgoblins

I made the mistake of reading about a Senate Commerce “hearing” held today regarding NASA’s human spaceflight plans. While some of the points made I actually agree with, one of the witnesses (Steve Cook of Dynetics) made an argument that I think merits some skepticism. The argument, which you’ve likely seen a lot recently, goes like this “If only NASA had a stable long-term exploration program, with established destinations and dates, the private sector would be jumping all over itself to create business plans supporting NASA’s exploration efforts.” At its core, this argument and others like it seem to imply that if only we hadn’t cancelled the Constellation Program, everything would’ve been better.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong. After all, don’t you remember all of those startups who were champing at the bit to support NASA lunar bases, which were totally devastated when Obama cancelled Constellation so he could funnel money to his corrupt, moneybags campaign contributors? I can still hear their cries of frustration at how all the billions of dollars in VC money they had lined up to march in step with NASA’s glorious Apollo rehash was now going to be wasted.

[Lest any readers who don’t know me better think that I’ve decided to take advantage of recent Colorado referendums regarding recreational herbage–that was bitter and disgusted sarcasm.]

More seriously, I’m curious where all the “Consistencyists” were when Mike Griffin came and completely changed course on how to implement President Bush’s VSE. I may have missed it, but unless my memory faults me, most of the loudest proponents of the importance of consistent long-term plans were perfectly fine with Griffin gutting the HR&T technology development programs, microgravity science funding and ignoring all the work that had been done by industry to-date on developing a lunar return project that leveraged existing launch assets and focused on actually going to the Moon instead of trying to force NASA to stay in the launch to LEO business.

If Congress really wants commercial industry to more actively engage themselves in NASA’s exploration efforts, and to invest private money in ways that are synergistic with their exploration goals, they could try establishing a realistic long-term plan for NASA that fits within realistic budgets, they could try to seriously work with industry to understand what markets industry sees as viable that are also synergistic with NASA’s exploration desires, and work with them to retire the technological risks that are impeding the commercial development of those markets. Leveraging existing, underutilized commercial launch systems and space vehicles such as EELVs, Falcon, Antares, Dragon, Cygnus, etc for placing exploration elements, propellant, and crew in orbit, instead of wasting most of NASA’s exploration budget building unnecessarily duplicative systems to launch stuff into LEO might also help. Ignore those elements of budgetary realism, actually working with industry, and stopping the cycle of blowing all your money on LEO launch systems when commercial alternatives exist, and all of the destinations and timetables in the world aren’t going to attract honest commercial interest and support.

To paraphrase one of my favorite posters from Despair.com, consistency can actually be a virtue, but only if your aim is actually on-target.

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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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12 Responses to Hobgoblins

  1. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Do I remember right that it’s the guy who was Ares I chief at NASA? When he abrubtly jumped ship, it became clear that the program was doomed. It was best kind of insider trading, and it’s perfectly legal.

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  3. Dick Eagleson says:

    I don’t pay very much attention to this stuff anymore. I think we’re probably less than a year away from turning a corner after which NewSpace and NASA switch places as to which is the dog and which is the tail being wagged. Starting this summer, SpaceX looks entrirely likely to begin a march to dominance of the LEO launch services market whose pace will be constrained mainly by the intersection of production capacity and the progress of their reusability initiatives. They will have no trouble selling everything they can make. Within three years, SpaceX, by itself, could be doing two launches a month, combined, from Vandenberg, Canaveral and Brownsville. As F9 and FH flight rates spike upward, Ariane and ULA and the Russians will have to march or die. My money’s on die. Somebody, probably SpaceX, but definitely somebody, will adapt or scratch-build a good, economical high-energy upper stage for F9/FH. At that point, the planetary science community will shake themselves, swallow hard a couple of times, then defect to private fundraising and launch for deep space probe projects that will never survive the delays, sharp-elbowed infighting and table scrap budgets that will be all NASA has to offer once the SLS vultures have their way with the rest of NASA’s budget. In maybe 30 months, crewed Dragon will come on-line and, in combination with FH, raise impossible-to-answer questions about the point of billions spent on SLS. After that, I suspect general support in the Congress for steering all this lucre into a handful of districts and states will dry up, SLS will be cancelled, NASA’s budget will be reduced to covering operations of the centers, operating ISS and revamping what deep space missions it has left onto commercial (mostly SpaceX) launchers. All of this could happen before Obama leaves office.

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  5. Dan Armstrong says:

    NASA needs to rethink its mission regarding space. It needs to think about what technologies are needed, and invest in those grand ideas that no profit minded company dares to investigate. Things like control of robotic swarms, or micro fabrication units that can take resources found in space and make new things. This will require new tech to work in zero gravity, 3D printers, Microfluidic reaction chambers to do chemistry, new propulsion systems to ferry resources mined from asteroids to where they can be refined. These technologies when spun off to companies will allow us to explore and colonize space. Until we have a robotic industrial base working to build human habitats it will always be too expensive (and uncomfortable) to send humans out there. NASA needs to be the new DARPA.

  6. e.p. says:

    The companies who have their own private development not tied to government funding may have some pains up front (specifically, funding) but in the end will be more ‘antifragile’ and likely to succeed on their own merits.

  7. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    e.p.,
    Sure, but do you think that the correlation between people who have enough money to self-fund a space project, and those who have the best ideas for how to “change the world” in space is really that high? While there are definitely some areas where its possible to raise sufficient private capital without gov’t as a customer, are those really the only interesting and useful areas of development? For all the challenges of working within their constraints without hopelessly contorting your business, government funding at least at the early stage I think enables a lot of interesting and useful things that would’ve been impossible otherwise.

    ~Jon

  8. Dan Armstrong says:

    Whats changing now is that private industry is finally stepping up and investing seriously into things like asteroid mining. While Planetary Resources may have been initially funded by a few Billionaire enthusiasts, the fact that they now have partnerships with companies like Bechtel makes a big difference in the plausibility factor. Bechtel will expect a return on their investment. And I for one believe they will get it. This will prove to the ‘conservative’ types who hold the real money of this world that investment in space can give real and substantial returns. A decade from now, if not sooner, all that money that is sitting idle right now will be funding a mass explosion of interest in space development. Right now, government should realize that and be working on the tech that will can be spun off into the new private firms that will then be funded by all that private money. If the U.S. does not create these firms, I am sure China or India will.

  9. ken anthony says:

    NASA has spent so much time turf building they can’t see past their noses. Dick Eagleson nailed it.

  10. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    SpaceX isn’t going to own everything. They are pretty awesome, to be honest, but there’s still a huge lack of any sign of increased overall demand in the launch marketplace. National space launch projects (Ariane, Russia, China, India, Japan) will all survive SpaceX because they function as ensuring a domestic aerospace capability for national security purposes.

    Let’s not congratulate SpaceX on dominating the field before they actually achieve a high launch rate. And by “high” I mean 5 or 6 launches a year, still about half of ULA. I am a huge, huge fan of SpaceX, but let’s be a little realistic here!

    NASA’s direction has been, frankly, hampered by Black Socialist Muslim in office who wants to get NASA out of the launch business by giving it over to private domestic launch providers, even the human spaceflight transport to LEO part. There have been some screw-ups, sure, but by and large what Obama proposed when he canceled Constellation was ideal. I say that intentionally reactionary characterization to highlight a point: what BHO wanted to do was right, but there is too much cultural and political opposition to make it possibly go smoothly (and BHO is not the one to blame here). The people inside NASA and the Congressional staffers and lobbyists all sort of dislike this idea. BHO and his plan was much too against the grain of the culture in NASA and Congress. The path away from the Moon also alienated a lot of folks, even though the Moon is in reach of private efforts and thus probably not a super-worthy target of NASA, anyway. If you took ALL that away, all the back and forth of “leaderless” and “lack of destination” is unlikely to have ever happened. I interpret it as a cultural gag reflex: too much change, too “foreign.” Congress in general has been remarkably incompetent, and the ensuring of ultra-safe Congressional seats has made things worse (though it has long been that way).

    That said, I think there’s room for hope. As much as I disagree with him on a RANGE of topics (let me count the ways!!!), Rand Paul probably would swing NASA towards using the private sector (though cut its budget by upwards of $4 billion, basically wiping out the money that would be saved if you canceled JWST, Orion, SLS, and consolidated some of the HSF parts of NASA…), a needed voice inside the Republican party towards at least some sort of private sector competition (although will perfect “free-market” be the enemy of the good? i.e. will nationalized launch capability beat out private sector, just because the private competitors have the gov’t as their biggest initial customer?).

    Realistically, Rand Paul won’t win office, but his passionate voice could provide some needed change in tone for some parts of NASA’s Congressional support. Also, lots of pro-old-way-NASA folk are on the road to retiring, in their mid to late 70s. Shelby, Wolf, and others. This will cause an infusion of relatively new blood into the relevant committees. And the libertarian or at least pro-free-market theme in politics is especially powerful among young people in my demographic (young, male, educated, and… well… white). This means the future of politics will become yet more influenced by libertarian ideas.

    The successes of SpaceX, Orbital, and the private spaceflight sector in general (probably most visibly, Virgin Galactic and then XCOR) will do more than anything else to change the tone.

    In the ideal world, NASA would be doing frontier work and work (like NACA and NOAA) that provides information and low-level applied research development that the private sector isn’t likely to take on itself but would definitely pay dividends to society and the private sector as a public good. NASA would leverage the private sector as much as possible in achieving these aims, using prizes and targeted grants for cutting edge work that would encourage entrepreneurial activity to grow the economy. NASA would also keep large capabilities that are unique and useful but too much of a liability for any private sector ownership (like that enormous thermal vacuum chamber or hypersonic wind tunnel). But NASA would no longer be just another collection of military-industrial complexes of weaponized Keynesianism with a fancy name. NASA would explore, but do it with private sector launch vehicles, probably private sector capsules and modules, and hopefully private sector-leveraged consumables. Those are things the private sector could do well. Does NSF build snowmobiles for their South Pole base? No, but they do design experiments and do actual research. So should NASA. NASA should do more things like NTRS, doing basic research that is then widely disseminated to the public as a public good.

  11. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    BTW, I see the libertarian turn as sort of inevitable for the next couple decades. There’s not much else on the horizon, to be honest. But the good thing for NASA is that one of the chief intellectual prophets of libertarianism, Ayn Rand, highly praised the Moon landing (in spite of partially being against here philosophy), and Rand Paul also expresses this admiration of NASA:

    “Paul’s favorite occasion to bring up Ayn Rand is when he is talking about the one government spending program he apparently loves: NASA. On at least five different times he’s submitted the same Ayn Rand quote commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing. Here’s the quote that Paul cited again and again (all words below are his from the records):

    July 12, 2006: What philosopher Ayn Rand wrote of the moon landing in 1969 applies to the STS-121 and all of NASA’s missions: “Think of what was required to achieve that mission: think of the unpitying effort; the merciless discipline; the courage; the responsibility of relying on one’s judgment; the days, nights and years of unswerving dedication to a goal; the tension of the unbroken maintenance of a full, clear mental focus; and the honesty. It took the highest, sustained acts of virtue to create in reality what had only been dreamt of for millennia.” I encourage all of my colleagues and all Americans to join me in commending NASA for completing STS-121 mission, and all of NASA’s work.

    July 19, 2006: But nevertheless, it just happened that NASA was her favorite government agency, and therefore after the Moon landing in 1979 she wrote very favorably about NASA, which in some ways contradicted her philosophy, but it also spoke to the tremendous brilliance and success of the Moon exploration program.That author that I want to quote is the author of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, who wrote this shortly after the Moon landing in 1969. And although this is written in praise of the Moon landing, it applies to all those individuals who participated in STS-121. The quote goes this way: “Think of what was required to achieve that mission: think of the unpitying effort; the merciless discipline; the courage; the responsibility of relying on one’s judgment; the days, nights and years of unswerving dedication to a goal; the tension of the unbroken maintenance of a full, clear mental focus; and the honesty. It took the highest, sustained acts of virtue to create in reality what had only been dreamt of for millennia.””

  12. Dick Eagleson says:

    India and Japan have insignificant launch rates. China is a bit busier but isn’t really in the commercial market in any important way anymore. If they launch everything they have announced, they will have done five orbital or BEO launches by year’s end 2013 including another manned mission this summer.

    If SpaceX launches everything currently manifested for this year they will have done six orbital launches by Veteran’s Day. The question seems to be can they do this? It will require them to do as many launches in the next six months as they have done, total, over the last three years. If they can pull this off, then I think it will be fair to say they have arrived as a major launch services provider.

    Arianespace has seven more missions scheduled this year, two on Ariane 5’s and the rest on Soyuzes. One Ariane launch is an ATV resupply mission to the ISS. The other scheduled launches are about evenly split between science satellites and comsats/navsats. It will be interesting to see if any of the ESA Soyuzes suffer upper stage problems comparable to those that have bedeviled the Russians on their home ground.

    The Russians are also busy with several launches each of Soyuz and Proton rockets scheduled. The Proton missions are mostly commercial comsats. One of them is of a comsat type for which SpaceX also has a launch mission scheduled this year, so the Proton has to be rated as vulnerable to further mission poaching by Falcon 9 and, when it comes on-line, Falcon Heavy. The Russian Soyuz missions are mostly ISS-related crew and resupply missions. SpaceX is already in the latter business and aims to be in the former ASAP.

    ULA has nine more missions to launch this year. One is a Mars probe and the rest are U.S. military or intelligence payloads.

    Assuming SpaceX keeps up its record of successful missions, at least half of Arianespace’s 2013 missions, 3/4 of Russia’s and nearly all of ULA’s are of types that SpaceX should steadily be able to make better deals for over the upcoming few years. With Vandenberg coming on-line, Brownsville (most likely) abuilding by year’s end, and manufacturing capacity ramping up toward 20 F9 cores per year, SpaceX’s 2014 manifest may take them past Arianespace into third place behind the Russians and ULA as launch originators.

    In six months SpaceX will either have suffered a serious reverse or be poised to become the largest manufacturer and launcher of space hardware in the world over the ensuing three or four years.

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