A Modest Proposal: the COTS Approach to SLS/Orion

I came up with an interesting new idea based on the recent press conferences about the successful completion of NASA’s COTS program, Bigelow’s report on the study they did on commercial lunar development, and the SLS/Orion developers discussion of “Removing Barriers to Deep-Space Exploration“. I think the COTS model might actually work reasonably well for the development of SLS and Orion going forward. Admittedly, there aren’t competing suppliers, which is one big drawback, but the idea of using a firm, fixed-priced, milestone-based contracting method for SLS/Orion, combined with requiring skin-in-the-game is actually really intriguing for several reasons:

  1. One of the biggest challenges facing SLS and Orion is that with current NASA budgets, they can’t develop either system as quickly as they’d like to, and more importantly, a lot of the hardware that needs to be developed for non-stunt deep space missions (BLEO-optimized upper stages, hab modules, L2 waypoints, depots, landers, etc) can’t be developed in parallel with SLS/Orion. So you get a situation where you spend about 8 years developing SLS and Orion, and then you have about another 4-8 years of not being able to use them very effectively because they lack the other hardware needed. If SLS and Orion were developed using a FFP milestone-based approach with a 33-50% cost-share requirement (ie similar to what was used for COTS and what is used by the DoD for Other Transactions awards), that would free up $1-1.5B/yr over the next 8 years. That would be plenty to develop a large upper stage, hab module, and maybe even landers. Especially if at least some of those also used a COTS-like approach. Which would mean that for the same NASA budget, we could have the tools to do actual space missions in the early 2020s, instead of nothing better than stunts until 2025-2030.
  2. From what they say in all of their press briefings, it’s clear that Boeing in particular sees SLS as being on-time, on-budget, low-risk, and something that has wide market-potential both for NASA, DoD, and commercial launches. If they’re going to be competing against EELVs and the COTS launchers for government and commercial payloads, they should have to put skin-in-the-game just like the EELV, Falcon 9, and Antares developers had to. The good news is that if they did, they could make a strong case for being allowed to offer SLS launches on a commercial basis, reaping all the profits from all of those 20-30m telescopes, 3000m^3 inflatable modules, 2-3 launch ISS clones, and deep-space missions! Especially since it’s supposed to be so cheap, cheap, cheap!
  3. Especially if they drop the requirement for SLS to launch people, a COTS-type model should work really well–the propulsion systems exist, the requirements are pretty steady, and everything seems to line up for the kind of contract that should be FFP instead of cost-plus.
  4. By switching to a COTS-like insight vs. oversight approach for at least SLS, you’d be able to streamline the process, cut out a significant amount of red-tape, and speed its time to market.
  5. The best way for LM and Boeing to guarantee that SLS and Orion don’t get canceled is to get them to market quickly, and with enough of the other tools around to enable doing cool and useful missions. If the best they can do before 2025 is lunar flybys that could be done with Falcon Heavy and Dragonrider, their odds of getting canceled in budget squeezes is high. But if by the early 2020s, they had all the pieces in place to say support the Inspiration Mars mission, or launch a long-duration mission to an asteroid or Phobos/Deimos, or put an L2 waystation around the moon, then their odds of maintaining strong congressional support is higher.
  6. By pulling a lot of the Exploration hardware development from the 2020s to this decade, when SLS/Orion reach operational status, you might have enough money freed up to do higher-tempo, non-stunt deep-space missions in the early 2020s, even without huge increases in NASA’s top-line, and without having to splash ISS or do other drastic measures to free up money for HEOMD.

One important aspect of making this feasible would be to insist that none of the money saved by this approach would go towards the Commercial Crew program. The political supporters of SLS and Orion for the most part are deeply suspicious of Commercial Crew, and anything that looked like raiding their pot of money for a “competing” program would be bad. So my suggestion would be to require that say 80% of the saved money has to go towards developing the remaining key exploration systems (habs, upper stages, landers, and maybe depots), with the other 20% going towards funding serious exploration tech development and precursor missions. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had the budget to double down on Lunar and Mars ISRU demos, test out innovative aerobraking technologies, demonstrate cryogenic propellant transfer and storage on-orbit, and perform flight experiments to determine how much gravity humans actually need to survive/thrive, and then flight demonstrate the ability to do artificial spin gravity. $200-300M/yr could enable doing several of those over the next 5-10 years, if done competitively.

Now, there are some potential objections I can think of:

  1. There aren’t any competitors to SLS or Orion so you lose the competitive element of COTS: I think this one is the easiest to deal with. The reality is that right now there’s no competitors, and the contracts are cost-plus. So going to a COTS-based approach should be no worse than the status quo as far as “incentive to keep costs down due to competition” is concerned. In fact, since the contracts would be FFP, milestone-based, the contractors would have strong incentives to minimize costs, limit scope creep, and make sure these systems actually make it into commercial operations.
  2. Didn’t NASA want FAR-based contracts to provide the level of oversight needed for human rating? This is probably a more serious issue, but there may be a simple way of solving the problem. If SLS/Orion get rebaselined to not launch with a crew on-board, most of the man-rating requirements for SLS disappear entirely, and a lot of the hardest-to-meet man-rating requirements for Orion also go away. This may be enough to enable going to a COTS-like “insight” vs. traditional oversight approach.
  3. What about the loss of momentum due to a contract switch? If done correctly, you could let them continue on their existing contracts while the COTS-like program details are negotiated and finalized, and do a transition to the new contracting method down the road. The lowered bureaucracy going-forward should at least partially counteract the losses due to program transition.
  4. Would Congress go for something like this that decreases the federal dollars going to SLS/Orion contractors? From a jobs perspective around NASA centers, this should be neutral or even slightly positive. The jobs lost to doing things more efficiently are made up for by having more programs going on and leveraging commercial as well as NASA money. If anything this should be a net win for MSFC, KSC, JSC, and GRC.
  5. Won’t requiring LM and Boeing to put skin in the game just result in NASA paying more money in the operations phase? I know some knowledgeable people who’ve pointed out that if a company has to put its own skin in the game, that money comes with a cost, and they’ll factor that into operations, so the life-cycle costs actually go up. This may actually be the case in this situation, but when you compare those life-cycle cost increases to the waste of having SLS and Orion twiddling their thumbs for 5-10 years before the pieces needed to really use them come online, my guess is it’s a wash. Also, because LM and Boeing would be allowed to seek other non-HEOMD customers for their hardware going forward, it may lower the life-cycle costs to HEOMD (so long as they require Boeing and LM to charge customers a fair-share of the infrastructure).
  6. You hate SLS, why are you trying to save it? What’s your ulterior motive? I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never been in love with NASA-run HLV projects. The main reason has been that it sucks the air out of the room for all the technology and other hardware you need to actually do interesting things. The other reason is that HLVs are mostly propellant launchers, which I think would be a better market for small RLVs and propellant depots. This solution doesn’t solve the latter problem, but may solve the first problem by freeing up money for trying out some of those other technologies and developing those other pieces of hardware sooner. Anything that aligns the incentives of Congress closer to funding development of the technology and hardware we really need is potentially a net win.

Anyhow, that’s my modest proposal. If LM and Boeing are serious about how low-risk, on-budget, and on-schedule their systems are, and how many awesome missions they’ll fly in the future, I expect them to want to jump in and support this approach wholeheartedly. Sure it’ll require an investment of their resources, but they think this is such a good investment for the government, I’m sure they’d agree that what’s a good investment for NASA should be a good investment for them too!

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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 Commercial Crew, COTS, Launch Vehicles, NASA, Politics, Space Exploration, Space Policy, Space Transportation, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to A Modest Proposal: the COTS Approach to SLS/Orion

  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    One problem I see is that it would require a total attitude transplant for either Boeing or Lockheed to put significant skin-in-the-game for a space transportation system. While the corporate contributions for commercial crew, for example, are confidential, it would appear from reports that Boeing, which got by far the largest share of commercial crew awards to date, may have put in the least in terms of resources – possibly even zero dollars, for CCiCap. As Gerst noted at the time, he gave Boeing the award in spite of their not having significant skin in the game; something I felt was a bad precedent, since they were being given the largest award, for the simplest system. And Lockheed, which had an agreement with NASA to continue with X-33 development if NASA’s own contribution didn’t cover all the costs, instead of living up to their commitment simply took their ball and went home.

    In short, if there ever is a heavy-lifter built on something like the COTS model, I don’t think it will be by these two guys. It will have to be by someone else. Boeing and Lockheed will not step up to the plate. I wish they would.

  2. Jon,

    over at NASAWATCH I have posted a number of times a COTS competition for the proposed CBC,s for SLS
    I proposed LH2?Methane Gelled Delta and SpaceX raptor variants as the SLS CBC, but I had the COTS skin in the game requirement met with a NASA funded “fly off” of each Bid coupled with an NASA/Air Force comitant ment to field improvements into existing EELV and SpaceX contracts.
    I had proposed that a COTS SLS CBC program would allow freedom to allow any good ideas to flow back into the EELV/ULA SpaceX/Rapter programs, within a few weeks I saw these ideas appear in yet another forum……… :):):)

    Jon, this “fly off” would absorb a lot of your excellent ideas about money saved going to SLS payloads.
    How to do both?

  3. Ben Brockert says:

    Are there “non-stunt deep space missions” seriously proposed by Nasa? I don’t remember hearing about any.

  4. ken anthony says:

    Only my opinion, but SLS and Orion are both an incredible waste of money. It’s just not a good idea to try to rehabilitate them. Better for them to be overtaken by reality.

    They are going to waste the money regardless. The sooner they are gone the better.

  5. I think I’m the only person on this thread so far who sees Jon’s brilliance here. When someone suggests a “Modest Proposal”, it isn’t! Jon is suggesting the porkers eat their babies!

    You gotta read this:

    The good news is that if they did, they could make a strong case for being allowed to offer SLS launches on a commercial basis, reaping all the profits from all of those 20-30m telescopes, 3000m^3 inflatable modules, 2-3 launch ISS clones, and deep-space missions! Especially since it’s supposed to be so cheap, cheap, cheap!

    and this:

    If LM and Boeing are serious about how low-risk, on-budget, and on-schedule their systems are, and how many awesome missions they’ll fly in the future, I expect them to want to jump in and support this approach wholeheartedly.

    with the appropriate level of snark!

  6. DougSpace says:

    First let me say that I think that what Jon’s proposing would be considerably better than the status quo.

    But, is there a market for the SLS? I understand that there’s excess launch capacity at the EELV level. Can the market afford those huge telescopes you mentioned?

    Rather, I think that we should seek to find a way by which EELV-class is sufficient for all out needs. I include Falcon Heavy because it is asked upon the Falcon 9. It seems to me that the way to do this is with in-space propellant from any source. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be fuel depots. It could be simply topping off. In this way all of the mass and volume of the EELV-class launcher could be used for payload and not propellant.

  7. ken anthony says:

    So Trent, are you saying my sarcasm/satire meter is broken?

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:


    Yeah, I was being somewhat snarky (though I decided not to include the “snark” tag category). Though theoretically, if everyone really did believe what they were saying, there’s no reason something like this couldn’t work and couldn’t be a big improvement over the status quo. I just don’t think that the Boeing/LM/ATK/NASA guys making claims about the bright future of SLS/Orion really believe what they’re saying enough to put their own money where their mouth is–even if it would double the odds of them making it to flight operations.


  9. Egad says:

    > “the requirements are pretty steady”

    Seldom does one see wit so mordant!

  10. ken anthony says:

    These types never risk their own actual money. That’s what puts some well known folks in an entirely different catagory.

  11. Pingback: Space-for-All at HobbySpace » Space policy roundup – Nov.15.13

  12. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Actually both Boeing and LM put up some of the money for Delta-IV and Atlas-V. The DoD only put up some of the development money for the EELV program. Admittedly, I think Boeing and LM lost money on that deal, but this is obviously different. We’re talking about transformational launch capabilities that will be flying for decades. Should be a financial no-brainer for them to support…


  13. Bob Steinke says:

    One more possible objection. Someone who believes that commercial crew will fail could say that it is a bad idea to remove the human carrying requirement from SLS.

  14. ken anthony says:

    You are quite right Jon. I must work to improve my snark. I follow the master, Rand, but even his snark has become a lot more mellow in recent years.

  15. ech says:

    I don’t know about Boeing/SLS, but LM has made some significant investments of corporate money for Orion.

    Right now, the Orion schedule is pretty much driven by two outside factors:
    – the SLS schedule
    – the ESA schedule for the SM that will be used for 1 or 2 missions

    One thing that everyone in Orion and SLS knows is that Orion could ride to orbit on Atlas, Delta, or Falcon.

  16. Ech,

    Good point on LM investments into Orion. I remember getting a tour of their Space Operations Simulation Chamber that they apparently built on their own dime to help win the Orion contract. Not sure if they’ve put in something on-par with what would be necessary to get a OT agreement if this were DARPA they were dealing with instead of NASA, but they have put in some of their own resources.


  17. Paul451 says:

    Bob Steinke,
    “Someone who believes that commercial crew will fail could say that it is a bad idea to remove the human carrying requirement from SLS.”

    However, since there are no real SLS missions being funded for at least a decade, there’s no harm in switching the development order of the current SLS. Ie, develop HL cargo first and early, then a follow up commercial-crew-heavy program if and only if commercial-crew-light fails.

  18. Paul451 says:

    Of course, it would be more efficient still to name your goal, and let the COTS contractors work out how to get there. HLV, depot, orbital assembly…

    Of course, that would mean realising a very ugly truth about SLS and NASA in general.

  19. Paul,
    I’ve long since given up on Congress or NASA going along with doing what actually provides the most economical transportation architecture. That’s just not what you should expect from organizations facing their incentives. I’m just hoping we can find ways to align their incentives in slightly less destructive ways.


  20. Neil Shipley says:

    Well considering the type of contract LM are working to on Orion, it’s not like they’ll lose any money they ‘invest’.

  21. Jeff Wright says:

    On point 6
    “You hate SLS, why are you trying to save it?. The main reason has been that it sucks the air out of the room for all the technology and other hardware you need to actually do interesting things”

    That is rather like saying that Saturn sucked all the air out of the room, when it could be used to support smaller missions. Curiosity could have paid for a lot of smaller Spirit sized rovers–but to call money spent on engineering wasteful is foolish.

    The Senate is NOT designing this vehicle, engineers are, and I think it is best if shuttle-derived HLV advocates were actually respected in the4 blogosphere instead of constantly being trashed.

  22. Jeff,
    The Senate wrote the law very narrowly to specify a specific solution with specific contractors. Sure, it was “designed by engineers”. Engineers at the companies contributing to the key congresspeoples’ campaigns, who then had the Senate write the requirements such that only their hardware could meet the reqs. That’s disgustingly dishonest IMO, and deserves no respect “in the blogosphere”.

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