So, a group of rocket engineers starts making claims about how they’re going to revolutionize the industry and deliver a vehicle for far less than has been the traditional norm. When asked how they are going to do this, they talk about stuff like “vertical integration”, “keeping stuff simple”, using a “clean-sheet approach”, and “borrowing the best practices from Silicon Valley”. Admittedly this team did pull several people who had lead successful rocket vehicle development projects in the past, but the team itself was untried and unproven.
What was the general response to these claims? Most in industry other than the fanboys treated their claims with healthy skepticism.
Eight years later, even after that company successfully nails a picture-perfect launch and reentry, people are still skeptical that in the end their prices are going to end up much cheaper than anyone else. Heck, even I’m still wondering if they’ll be able to keep the prices they’ve been claiming once they’re really into routine and reliable operations–and I’m about as close as you can get to a koolaid drinkin fanboy without having spittle in the corner of my mouth.
Then there’s this other rocket group. Like the first one, they haven’t actually demonstrated the ability to successfully design and build new rocket vehicles. At least not within my lifetime. They also start making claims about how by implementing some key industry suggestions (this time those found on “Page 38” of last month’s HEFT report) they can deliver a new vehicle for far less than past experience dictates. Unlike the first team though, this team does have a track record. But it is a track record of 30 years of consistently overrunning budgets and getting major projects canceled.
“But it will be different this time” they say. “If we use the suggestions on ‘Page 38’, we can dramatically improve on the affordability of developing new rocket vehicles.”
Now, it’s not that the suggestions on Page 38 are bad. They’re not. They’re actually pretty good. Just like “using the best practices from Silicon Valley” sounds good too. I’ll admit that I’m kind of curious how on a $20B project they’re going to “Model, test and fly early and often” or “Use small lean projects with highly competent empowered personnel”, or how a project that is more or less designed by Congressional committee is somehow going to “Push decision authority to the lowest level. Trust them to implement and don’t second guess (over-manage)” [Aside: if Congress really intended to allow NASA to do that last one, they wouldn’t be specifying the size of the rocket, what hardware it can use, and which contractors they have to maintain contracts for]. I’m also somewhat curious of how many of the items on that list CxP managers would claim they were already doing…
…but leaving all of those specific details aside, I just don’t get why this second group of people gets all offended when the net result from industry is once again healthy skepticism. Especially given their past track record. When you’re trying to get people to entrust you with a multi-billion dollar project that all past experience and your management claim is unlikely to fit within budget or timeline, is it really that offensive when people have a hard time swallowing that somehow one powerpoint slide is going to change everything?
I mean, it is totally possible that like SpaceX, this new team is going to surprise us, and totally knock this SLS project out of the park. Heck, maybe they’ll even come in far enough under budget that Shelby, out of the kindness of his generous soul, will decide to put the savings into commercial crew or propellant depot development. It’s totally possible.
But is it really rude to be skeptical about this outcome?