Dribs & Drabs II

So I’m reading through the leaked reports on the new architectures that Keith Cowing has posted over at NASAWatch.com’s subsidiary SpaceRef. In a sense reading it is almost like a slow motion train wreck – you know the doom that is coming but nothing can be done to avoid it.

I think the thing that puzzled me the most was the imbalance in cited figures between the two systems studied. While there were a lot of heming and hawing about concerns with EELVs, there seemed to be a complete turnaround with the SDHLV. Here’s how much it’ll cost, how long it will take to deliver, 100% confidence in results, &c.

The EELVs are initially cited as favorably reviewed, especially the super-sizing: “Planners found in their trade analyses that scaled up variants of both families could lift in excess of 40 metric tons, to as much as 80 metric tons. The latter figure was believed to be the smallest payload envelope a heavy lift design would need to carry in order to participate in a lunar mission.”

I’m not sure why 80 mt is the minimal lift requirement. This seems to preclude anything like on-orbit operations such as assembly or post-launch systems verifications.

The negatives?

“Human rating an EELV would result in additional costs.
Any EELV that would be enlarged for heavy lift cargoes would require entirely new launching pads and associated facilities in Florida.”

Reading through Mr. Cowing’s analysis, it becomes clear that NASA really doesn’t want to invest in human-rating (whatever that means) the EELV class of D-IV & A-V, and they don’t want to think about facilities upgrades required by their 40 mt (CEV) and 80 mt (Lunar) minimas.

Then we go to the SDHLV:
Shuttle-C (original side-mount cargo design)
development cost of original Shuttle-C – $2.8 billion (c.y.$)
~50 months to produce the first flight vehicle

Option 1:
new side-mount SDV
additional $3.1 billion
four to five more years past shuttle orbiter retirement in 2010

Option 2:
ILV family
additional $5.6 billion to the baseline Shuttle-C development costs
additional 36 to 48 months
require the most modifications to KSC facilities.

So either way we’re looking at the investment of between ~$6Bn and $8Bn, and you and I both know that rounds to ~$10Bn (and includes modifications to the launch facilities!). Some of the more obvious hidden expenses are the crawler upgrades that are going to be required and the re-configuring of the launch pads. Some of the more subtle costs are things like the over-engineering of payloads that has to be done on the ground to ensure 100% operability post-launch, since we’re not doing any kind of on-orbit assembly or inspection (that sort of thing is tough to build into a parametric model, so tends not to be considered).

The difference to me seems to be that the main architectural differences lie in the differences between the “build-a-little, test-a-little, grow-our-architecture” philosophy and the “all or nothing, shoot for the Moon” philosophy where everything works just perfectly the first time and every time because we’ve figured out every little thing that could conceivably go wrong and addressed it beforehand.

I’m not privy to the inside workings of NASA, but from what Mr. Cowing has shown us it appears to me that the decision was taken early to go with the SDHLV, and that’s where the bulk of the effort went in this study, in an engineering orgy of strap-ons and 109% thrust. I find it inconceivable that NASA’s EELV concerns of human-rating and super-sizing and launch-pads are sufficient to cost the taxpayers between $6 and $8 billion.

I’m becoming resigned to the fact that America will be saddled with this behemoth for the next 20 years. The engineers all seem to be going bananas over it (which for me is always a huge red flag).

All the while the rest of the world will work to wrest the remainder of the 20 mt payload market from American launch providers, who will become resigned to essentially break-even on the few launches that have to be done domestically because of technology export limitations.

Using ISS as a starting point, Europe and Russia could easily move to dominate cislunar trade while we’re busy leapfrogging to the Moon. Using Bigelow balloons, ATVs, and Klipers & Soyuzes they move to EML-1 and start working on larger broadcast arrays in GEO, while cleaning up the garbage for salvage and learning from the garbage how to build better assets in GEO.

We’ll construct a disposable Moon base to do some touch-n-go practice for Mars, try to pawn it off on industry, and if the funding continues we’ll be on Mars by 2025 and the “objective” of the VSE will have been achieved.

Except it won’t have been, and we’ll just have a Kennedyesque “Flags & Footprints” moment on Mars to savor over the years while we buy European anhydrous optic digital binoculars, Japanese vacugel coats, and Russian honeymoon flights to our Moon.

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5 Responses to Dribs & Drabs II

  1. Ed says:

    Cool blog. I found you through a comment at Back Off Government, and I’m adding you to my blogroll at Robot Guy.

  2. kert says:

    Jon, i think you are severely overestimating NASA’s capability to deliver on project of any significant size. You’ll have to keep their past 20 years track record in mind.
    2025 ( i’ll be what .. 47 then if i make it ) on Mars ? Hardly.

    Other than that, i just have to agree on every point.

  3. murphydyne says:

    Not Jon, Ken. Jon logs the happy posts, while as an analyst reading tea leaves I’m stuck with the doom and gloom scenarios.

    I guess I need to start signing my posts at the bottom, but both Dribs & Drabs posts are mine.

    Ken Murphy

  4. Rufus says:

    “I’m not privy to the inside workings of NASA . . …”

    I don’t think you have to be. This most recent development is right in line with the model of NASA as huge government bureaucracy looking to keep it’s ricebowl filled. They want big big projects, going on for years and if possible decades to manage.
    Setting up a quick and dirty path to space isn’t going to get that done.

  5. Anonymous says:

    to kert, rufus:

    Why does everybody always think that NASA should somehow magically be able to send us to the stars without any cost at all?

    NASA can’t meet your unrealistic expectations because – compared with other government programs – they don’t get any money, it’s that simple! If the US had taken a quarter of the money that has been burnt by the (really monstrous) military bureaucracy year after year after year, and had spent it on space exploration instead, we would have been on the Mars 10 years ago. Just compare the costs of the Shuttle with the costs of a nuclear submarine!

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