I’m back in town now after our wonderful trip out to Utah last week. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the past week or so, and wanted to blog a little about some of the things I’ve been thinking about. In keeping with my so-far relatively space-centric posting habits, I’ll carp on NASA a bit first.
There’s been a lot of NASA Kremlinology going on recently, particularly about what approach the new administrator, Mike Griffin, wants to take in implementing the President’s Vision for Space Exploration. While some of the things that Griffin has been saying actually give me a reason for hope, many of the things he’s been saying are also a little alarming. To clarify a little bit, I’m still don’t have high expectations that NASA’s efforts to implement the VSE will result in the settlement and commercial development of the solar system. My hope was just that the net effect of the VSE on the commercial space community might actually be at least better than the status quo. With some of the newer rumors/revelations, I’m not so sure anymore.
First, why don’t I say something nice about Griffin to start things out. He made some decent comments at the start of a luncheon last month for the Space Transportation Association. Here’s a few quotes:
The grounding principle of US economic growth has been competition…So, for me, as NASA Administrator, the problem is how do we engage that engine of competition more productively so that it can work on behalf of the space business?
While I would quibble that it is private property, the right to free-association, and their offspring, entrepreneurism, that are the grounding principles of US economic growth, competition is also an important part of all that. Encouraging economic competition and free-markets in space development is a good and worthwhile goal.
The other good point he made was that:
[R]eal competitive businesses develop their own business plan, find their own money, they acquire a team, they produce a product, and they try to see if it will sell. That is what real businesses do. They don’t come to the government saying “set aside some money for us – and trust us – and watch us perform.” That’s not how it works…That is not [the] the sprit of American industrial and economic competition.
However, I noticed several times during his talk, he set up and knocked down some alt.space strawmen. For example:
Despite the wishes and entreaties of those who would like me to dump $400-500 million on their enterprise (hopefully) – or on some enterprise – and then just stand back and wait to see if the results come in – that’s not going to happen.
While I’m sure that most people wouldn’t mind the government just giving them a bunch of money up-front, before they’ve proven themselves, on mere trust and without oversight…are there seriously any companies he can name that have seriously been asking for just that? I’d be interested he could name any names, because of all the alt.space companies I know, I can’t really think any that are that way. Most of them that I know of have actually taken a stance not far off from what he advocates here:
[You should] look for us to conduct such a competitive procurement – and [you should] look for us to pick a “leader” with whom we will get started – and also to fund a couple of “followers” at the study level in case the leader falls off the track. Because, the leader is only going to continue to get his money if progress continues to be met. We will set up verifiable milestones, agreed upon in the deal, the way that any commercial deal would be done. When the terms and conditions are met, the money will be provided.
[You should] look for us to conduct our contracting on a fixed price basis. This is the way people buy things out in the world. I don’t go out and buy a car or an airplane or (pretty much) anything else on the basis of “why don’t you build me this car – and tell me how much it costs when you are done.” That’s not the way we are going to do things.
In exchange for that [you should] look to be required to provide a commitment to sell at a specified price if I provide a commitment to buy – at a specified number. Those are the kinds of commercial terms that people insist on. When you close a deal you usually have an option to buy a certain number of units at a certain price. There won’t be balloon payments at the end and there won’t be “get well” arrangements if you screw up. On the other hand, there will be fairly substantial rewards for people who can deliver.
Is it just me, or is this more or less what t/Space, XCOR, and most other alt.space firms have been asking for? He goes on to explain that they would be originally offering to fund development of commmercial cargo delivery to the ISS, followed by crew delivery once the supplier has proven their safety/reliability record. This is substantially better than the status quo, but there are still some problems that I can see with the plan he outlines in the rest of the presentation and in the Q&A afterwards.
For instance, he talks a lot about competition in the commercial world, but his solution doesn’t really help spur much competition. If UPS for instance were only competing against the US Post Office, and not also FedEx, DHL, and others, how good would their service really be? Commercial passenger carriers do sometimes carry military personel or government employees instead of them flying on military planes, but if Delta only had to compete against the Air Force (and if there wasn’t any market other than flying government employees and cargo to and fro), and not against SouthWest, United, Continental, etc, etc, how much of an air travel industry would there be? One commercial provider and one government run system does not an industry make.
Also, in this article, and more recent rumors around the net, Griffin has expressed his desire to fund the development of two Shuttle-Derived heavy lift vehicles. The smaller of the two, also known as “the stick”, would be a modified 5-segment version of the Shuttle SRB, with a large LOX/LH2 upper stage stacked on top, whose primary mission would be to launch the new CEV. It’s secondary mission though would be to deliver crew and cargo to the space station. Griffin wants to see whichever alt.space firm they decide to bestow their graces on “put some skin in the game”, but how easy is it really going to be to get private capital when NASA’s already developing a government subsidized competitor? Can NASA really be trusted to buy flights on a commercial alternative when they will be sinking several billion per year into maintaining the infrastructure/payroll for their own launcher? Or is private industry going to get shafted by the “stick” when inevitable cost overruns start piling up? Since they’ll already be sinking several billion a year into paying for maintenance of the infrastructure, and the payroll for their launchers, will they be able to resist the temptation to spend most of their money on flying those instead of buying commercial flights? If a commercial alternative to the “stick” was developed, that provided the same capabilities at a lower cost, would they be willing to close down the production on the stick and fire off the contractors? I doubt it.
Griffin’s heart may be in close to the right place, but if they go ahead with their plans for the “stick”, I think it will kill any chance of them being able to help spur commercial development in the manner he outlined.
A better solution might be if NASA actually acted like a customer, posting their crew and cargo delivery requirements, and buying flights from the lowest bidder, payment on delivery. Might be worth adding in a firm legal restriction that if a commercial supplier of crew or cargo delivery does appear that they will have to buy flights from them instead of flying on their own booster.
That said, it appears that Griffin fully intends to try pursuing the two Shuttle Derived Vehicles, while trying to fund the development of one commercial competitor. Even though I think this is unlikely to work the way he intends, there is still hope for commercial space development. It just doesn’t lie with NASA.
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