Earlier this morning an interesting article by Michael Griffin was posted at NASASpaceFlight.com in the L2 section. Apparently it was meant for Aviation Week, as it appeared on their blog there tonight (NASAWatch provided the link), which also means it’s fair game now to discuss. The paper is a long one (15 pages in the word document that was on L2), and is worth a very thorough reading. Or two or three.
The topic of the article was the next 50 years of space flight, but the paper also discussed the past 50 years as well. As I’m sure that the article will likely be discussed on several space blogs and forums over the next few days, I’m not going to try and summarize the whole thing, but I’ll bring up a few of the highlights, some things that I think Griffin has said almost better than anyone else, and some things that I disagree with him on.
First some of the highlights. A lot of the paper discussed the past 50 years of NASA, particularly regarding its budget.
- Griffin brought up a point I’ve brought up here before–namely that when discussing historical space projects, you need to use inflation adjusted prices or you’ll be deluding yourself.
- Griffin brought up a rather intriguing point, shown in the Figure to the left, that if you look at the average NASA budget over 15 year time periods, it turns out that 15 year time period spanning Projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab, that NASA actually didn’t receive more than it has over say the last 15 years. There was a brief spike as several projects were completed in parallel (instead of in series), but the average NASA budget over that time window wasn’t really much more than it has been at any other time in its history.
- He also brought up the point (shown in the table to the right) that during the Apollo Era, manned spaceflight took up roughly the same proportion of the NASA budget as it does today. Actually, the only area that has changed a lot has been the drastic drop in space technology investment, which I feel is a lamentable loss. Even 5% of NASA’s budget if put into intelligent space technology development (for technologies like orbital propellant transfer and storage, aerobraking, reentry technologies, etc) would make a massive difference. Alas.
The balance of the paper discussed where he thought NASA, international, and private space flight would be going over the next 50 years. While there is probably plenty of things that could be said, I want to just focus on two things for the rest of this blog post, commercial space and Heavy Lift.
I tend to rip on a lot of NASA’s decisions, and by extension, can come off as being rather hard on Dr Griffin himself. This is kind of unfortunate, because in many ways I think that Griffin has his heart in the right place. So, before I go into a point of disagreement, I want to highlight several excellent points that Griffin made about commercial space development emphasis mine:
By “commercial space,” I mean space business enterprises which develop a marketable capability while dealing at “arms length” with the government; i.e., largely without the financial backing and close government supervision which has historically characterized the space industry. The government will, at least initially, still be the major customer for such enterprises. Whether or not an enterprise is part of the commercial space arena depends not on the identity of its customers, but on the nature of its interactions with that customer.
An interesting corollary to this point is that when big “primes” like Lockheed or Boeing pursue a project on their own, like the guys trying to develop Atlas V into a personel launcher, they are being just as commercial and entrepreneurial as the plucky alt.space firms that we all love to root for. This corollary is important for several reasons. One is that it’s important for us in the alt.space community to not brush off the “dinosaurs”, as they may yet play an important enabling role in the development of commercial space. There is a lot of potential for “plucky mammals” and “dinosaurs” to work together in this venture. Another important point is that NASA also needs to remember that these dinosaur firms can be commercial as well. A lot of the talk about if the private sector is “up to the task of spaceflight” seems to ignore the fact that there are preexisting commercial entities in the US that do have demonstrated orbital transportation capabilities. They may not be the leanest, meanest, cheapest ride in town, but the point is that commercial orbital transportation exists in the US, it’s just a question of if the newer, potentially cheaper startups will be able to improve the capabilities or not. But I digress.
I believe that the future for U.S. civil space exploration that I have outlined here can be attained with the resources that will be available to NASA by means of conventional government appropriations and acquisition strategies. But I also believe that this is just about as much as we can achieve with those resources, unless we can effect real changes in our methods of doing business. If we want to do more, if we want a richer future, if we are unsatisfied by the relatively modest program of inner solar system exploration I have envisioned here, there must be a change in how we go about it. Embracing the possibilities inherent in commercial space transactions is one such method.
I would go a bit further by stating that commercial space transactions are probably the single best method for expanding the scope of what NASA (and the rest of us) can accomplish in space. A lot of commenters on the internet have tried to paint those of use who’d like to see NASA do more to promote commercial space as “alt.spacers looking for handouts from Uncle Sugar.” The reality is though, that with a vibrant and innovative private space sector, NASA can accomplish far more than it possibly can with an anemic and small one. As more and more non-NASA markets for space transportation, services, and products blossom, the cost of space exploration for NASA will also go down, allowing them to do much more for the same amount of money. With how obviously powerful of an impact a vibrant commercial space industry would have on NASA’s plans, you’d think they’d be investing more of their time and money into making sure private space blossoms, instead of ambivalently watching from the sidelines to see what happens.
My single biggest beef with Michael’s article (actually my only big beef) is his assertions about the necessity of Heavy Lift. In fact, I think that this belief is at the core of all the bad decisions that Michael has, is, and will make.
In discussing NASA’s plans over the next several years, Griffin states that:
Most of the next 15 years will be spent re-creating capabilities we once had, and discarded. The next lunar transportation system will offer somewhat more capability than Apollo. It will carry four people to the lunar surface instead of two, and for a minimum duration of a week, rather than a maximum duration of three days. But in all fairness, the capabilities inherent in Orion, Ares I, and Ares V are not qualitatively different than those of Apollo, and certainly are not beyond the evolutionary capability of Apollo-era systems, had we taken that course. But we did not, and the path back out into the solar systems begins, inevitably, with a lengthy effort to develop systems comparable to those we once owned.
But as I have tried to make the case on this website, Heavy Lift isn’t the only way or even the best way “back out into the solar system”. As Michael himself admits, government operated Heavy Lift systems have high fixed costs, high marginal costs, and the cost to develop payloads for them is so high that they can only be launched a couple of times a year.
Griffin talks about how “We simply cannot again afford the strategic distraction, the wasted money, the squandered talent, and the lost time of building a new human spaceflight system, and then using it for only sixteen missions.” While there is some truth to that, looking back at the example Griffin gives in the end about trying to keep a minimal post-Apollo lunar program going complete with Saturn Vs, Saturn IBs, and Skylab, I think he makes a stronger case for keeping Saturn IB than for keeping Saturn V. In the world of unlikely counterfactuals, imagine if Saturn IB had been retained, but Saturn V had been retired, and some of the money used from that to test out and develop the technologies needed for orbital propellant depots and propellant transfer. Quite frankly that would’ve been a world with far more current space activity and capabilities than one where the Saturn V had been retained. Saturn V had very high fixed overhead costs, wasn’t capable of high flight rates except at enormous cost, and would’ve sucked up most of the manned spaceflight budget for decades had it not been retired. Kind of like Shuttle. Good thing we’re not repeating that mistake…