Well, after the nice long chat with Randall (that went on till 3am), I ended up sleeping in, and getting to the conference late. I was fortunate that the conference was this week instead of last. As it is, driving through Baker, California it was only 103ish with no AC. Fortunately, Michael had offered me the extra bed in his room, so after washing up, I was able to join them just in time for the Luncheon.
The Luncheon was sponsored I think by Boeing. Interesting food. Couldn’t identify what the white stuff was in the apettizer. Some sort of cheese I think. The Keynote speaker was Paul Eckert of Boeing’s Exploration Systems group. His talk was about risk reduction, but many of his best points were only slightly related to that topic.
One of his good points was the importance of communication between alt.space, traditional space, and government space groups. He said that dialogue leads to research, which leads to demonstrators, and eventually to entrepreneurial ventures.
I think he was basically suggesting not just the usual industry/government kind of arrangments in this area, but also alt.space/traditional space projects. For instance, I’ve heard that some of the biggest supporters of continuing funding for XCOR’s cryogenic LOX tank research are actually what most of us would consider traditional aerospace. He mentioned this general idea as a way of reducing technical risk for large projects. Might this lead to a private sector and non-bureaucratic equivalence of SBIR type research? Not sure. Not really sure if it does make sense, but part of me thinks it might.
Moving along, I must say that I came away from the conference with a bit more respect for Boeing than I used to have. Paul made a good showing for them. It appears that one of the silver linings on the cloud that is known as Shuttle Derived Launchers is that it is pushing more traditional launch companies to start thinking about more innovative approaches. I missed out on all of the morning sessions, but apparently Boeing and several other groups had been pushing the concept of dry-launch instead of going with Heavy Lift vehicles. Dry launch is the idea I’ve hit on a lot over the past year in various fora about launching the lunar transfer vehicle with its tanks empty, and then refueling it in orbit. I’ll go into that more in a later post, but it is basically a really, really good idea. I’m glad the meme is starting to catch on. I just wish I had actually posted about this concept a year ago when I first started down that road, instead of letting Rand get all the credit. C’est la vie. I’d rather have a good idea be embraced than to get credit for thinking of it a few months before someone else independently came up with it. Anyhow, back to Paul’s comments.
He mentioned a few interesting risk reduction demonstrators such as lunar robotic landers and propellant depot precursor missions. While he highlighted both using examples from government programs, when asked later, I remember him responding that those were merely general examples of related technology demonstrators, not that he thought that those programs were the right way of doing things. I can’t honestly remember the exact words (unlike Jeff Foust, I hadn’t yet thought of taking a voice recorder of some sort to these events), but he seemed to be implying that a more cost effective, privately funded and run demonstrator program might be more in-line with his thinking. I may be reading something into what he was saying, but that was the general gist I got.
Another interesting comment he made was that risk reduction requires multiple customers, not just multiple providers. He said that real commerce has government only as one customer among many. This is one of the key take-aways from the Apollo program. Had the transportation architecture chosen been more affordable and reasonable, they probably could have found commercial customers for them, then even if NASA decided to stop ordering flights for a while, the capability would have still been available. When a transportation system is commercial, lack of government business hurts, but doesn’t eliminate that system. If we want to avoid an Apollo redux, learning this lesson is important.
The other big impressive thing that Paul focused on was the concept of keeping the lunar mission architecture “open” in order to minimize risk. Basically, setting it up so that companies are able to enter and exit easily as technology advances. This is a really good point, and one that t/Space had initially been focusing on with their cislunar transportation architecture. Basically, NASA would mostly be involved with trying to design the interfaces between systems, allowing modular solutions that may evolve over time. This makes a lot more sense than a closed architecture like what Griffin is pushing. It requires a bit more up-front work by NASA, but greatly reduces the risk of failures in any one part of the program killing the whole thing.
I’ll go into that concept more in a later entry, but combining an open architecture with a dry-launch technique is really one of the few ways that NASA could potentially benefit from advances in low-cost orbital transportation while still not putting any one or two private companies in their critical path. Of course it makes too much sense, so NASA won’t do it. But I almost started getting the faint glimmer of hope that we may just see Boeing try to do something crazy and entrepreneurial. It’ll be interesting to see if anything comes of that.