I started out to write a very long article for this blog on US human spaceflight with the goal of getting it online near the time of the last shuttle flight. That didn’t happen and it was probably a bad idea as there’s just too much ground to cover. Since then, NASA has announced a new heavy lift rocket. I think this is a horribly bad idea and am willing to bet, right here, that it will be cancelled in four years, tops. OK, so lots of nay-saying. Does this mean I think US human spaceflight is or should be dead? Most definitely not. Indeed, this period after the shuttle could be used to radically change human spaceflight and dramatically increase the volume and ambition of spaceflight without increasing the budget. Even trimming the budget. Will it happen? Probably not.
What’s the issue? Most people agree that if human spaceflight is worthwhile, it should be expanding our economy into space and also reaching beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) (There’s an awesome lecture on YouTube you should check out on this.) While NASA has done the latter before, it did it in such an unsustainable way that it did not assist with the former. What we got from Apollo was an Old Kingdom Pyramid not an Eisenhower Interstate. What can we do differently?
Cost is the driver. Human spaceflight has been very expensive. I’ll maybe go into more depth on why in a later post, but the fundamental answer is that cost has never been an optimized factor in the cost/performance/safety trifecta. As a prestige project, Apollo maximized performance and kept a good watch on safety, but damn the cost. The shuttle was sold on cost, but this was really just a veneer – the true incentive structure to optimize on cost, keep a good eye on safety, and damn the performance was just not there. LEO access needs to be optimized for cost. If you can get to LEO, you’re half way to anywhere in the solar system from an energy perspective and much closer from a vehicle design perspective (no atmosphere to get through).
Technical boffins like to argue the theoretical costs of some technology over another for LEO access. While great, the chosen technology is not the issue – it’s bigger than that – it’s the incentive structure. NASA is currently the only game in town for human spaceflight and it does all of its procurement by buying hardware and operating it itself. The profit incentive for the manufacturers is in making the hardware high performance and high cost. And if you can keep a high recurring maintenance cost in there, too, all the better. For LEO access, NASA should be buying rides into space, not hardware. Just like it buys seats on Soyuz to get to the space station right now. And to a lesser degree, just like it buys rockets to launch unmanned probes. Safety here is same issue as with an aeroplane – there are FAA rules on various aspects of design, but the FAA doesn’t insist on operating all the aircraft and managing every aspect of design and manufacture. With a price-per-seat and price-per-tonne for cargo to LEO, companies could build and operate their own vehicles (or an operator could work with a builder, just like Virgin Galactic will operate vehicles built by Scaled Composites).
Thankfully, the US planted the seeds for such a revolution in human spaceflight back in the mid-2000′s. Through seeded Space Act Agreement funding, several companies have been designing cargo and crew vehicles to carry humans to the International Space Station. These efforts have been called “commercial spaceflight companies”. Now some small minded have whinged “if they were commercial, why do they need government money?” This is utterly to miss a point that is so obvious it is shocking it needs repeating: The main goal here is to get costs down for NASA. The purpose of the “commercial spaceflight” is to change the incentive structure. With several operating companies in control of service delivery for NASA, the whole system is turned upside down. There is now a huge incentive to minimize costs (profit = price – costs). With competition between companies (if you believe in free enterprise), the price will also come down. I’m not going to go into why free commerce tends to improve technological products and lower prices for most goods and services (you can think of a very limited number of potential counter examples, maybe like aspects of a completely unregulated financial system and healthcare delivery – but not many). For all its glory, Apollo was not really a triumph of the western economic model – it was a central government, command economy project. The irony is the US effectively bet the Soviets to the Moon using a wartime / Soviet-style organization structure.
That only partially gets at the silliness over why a commercial operator needs seed government funding. The main issue is activation energy. While the Russians proved there was a market for a seat or so to orbit each year at roughly $25m/tourist ride, it seems plausible (based on several market survey studies over the last decade) that the market increases dramatically as the cost trends down to $1m/seat. And positively explodes (bad image, I apologize) as the price falls below $1m/ride. But getting to the point of starting to whittle costs down to those levels is very expensive. The activation energy is very high, and if we want it to happen, it’s going to need seed funding and initial market guarantees. That’s the ISS ride contracts. I should be clear, the whole project may fail. But if it turns out that under no circumstances can the best of US entrepreneurial talent get costs low enough to jump start a tourist trade, then we probably ought to give up manned spaceflight as a failed endeavour. So why do we care about subsidizing billionaire vacations to space? Oh, yeah, so that getting 7 astronauts up there starts to cost us $175m (or $100m or $50m) instead of the $500m-$1bn the shuttle cost. We want the billionaires to subsidize NASA, not the other way round.
Next post, I’ll go over what we can do in LEO, how we can use this to get out to the planets, and why we absolutely DO NOT WANT NASA’s big Space Launch System rocket.
As a “note added in proof” re: the real-world cost impact of proper incentives, here’s an extended extract from a NASA report on “Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems” – bottom line is SpaceX developed it’s Falcon 9 rocket for about 10% of what it would have cost NASA (or rather, what NASA would have expected to cost – typically NASA overruns rather than under-runs its expectations – my guess is SpaceX did it for about 5% of what it would have cost NASA).
Appendix B – Discussion of Cost Effectiveness of Commercial Cargo Effort
NASA recently conducted a predicted cost estimate of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle using the NASA-Air Force Cost Model (NAFCOM). NAFCOM is the primary cost estimating tool NASA uses to predict the costs for launch vehicles, crewed vehicles, planetary landers, rovers, and other flight hardware elements prior to the development of these systems.
NAFCOM is a parametric cost estimating tool with a historical database of over 130 NASA and Air Force space flight hardware projects. It has been developed and refined over the past 13 years with 10 releases providing increased accuracy, data content, and functionality. NAFCOM uses a number of technical inputs in the estimating process. These include mass of components, manufacturing methods, engineering management, test approach, integration complexity, and pre-development studies.
Another variable is the relationship between the Government and the contractor during development. At one end, NAFCOM can model an approach that incorporates a heavy involvement on the part of the Government, which is a more traditional approach for unique development efforts with advanced technology. At the other end, more commercial-like practices can be assumed for the cost estimate where the contractor has more responsibility during the development effort.
For the Falcon 9 analysis, NASA used NAFCOM to predict the development cost for the Falcon 9 launch vehicle using two methodologies:
1) Cost to develop Falcon 9 using traditional NASA approach, and 2) Cost using a more commercial development approach.
Under methodology #1, the cost model predicted that the Falcon 9 would cost $4.0 billion based on a traditional approach. Under methodology #2, NAFCOM predicted $1.7 billion when the inputs were adjusted to a more commercial development approach. Thus, the predicted the cost to develop the Falcon 9 if done by NASA would have been between $1.7 billion and $4.0 billion.
SpaceX has publicly indicated that the development cost for Falcon 9 launch vehicle was approximately $300 million. Additionally, approximately $90 million was spent developing the Falcon 1 launch vehicle which did contribute to some extent to the Falcon 9, for a total of $390 million. NASA has verified these costs.
It is difficult to determine exactly why the actual cost was so dramatically lower than the NAFCOM predictions. It could be any number of factors associated with the non-traditional public-private partnership under which the Falcon 9 was developed (e.g., fewer NASA processes, reduced oversight, and less overhead), or other factors not directly tied to the development approach. NASA is continuing to refine this analysis to better understand the differences.
Regardless of the specific factors, this analysis does indicate the potential for reducing space hardware development costs, given the appropriate conditions. It is these conditions that NASA hopes to replicate, to the extent appropriate and feasible, in the development of commercial crew transportation systems.