September 8, 2012
Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation published a “free-enterprise” critique of the Republican platform in regard to the American civil space program. Indeed, the text of the space plank is vague (no doubt intentionally, so as to give the candidate maximum flexibility to structure the space program to align with his vision and goals for the country). But what I found most interesting was the underlying premise and assumptions in Tumlinson’s article, a worldview that I find striking.
In brief, Tumlinson approves of the current administration’s direction for our civil space program. The U.S. has stepped back from pushing toward the Moon, Mars and beyond and redirected NASA on a quest for “game-changing” technologies (to make spaceflight easier and less costly), while simultaneously transitioning launch to low Earth orbit (LEO) operations to private “commercial space” companies selected by our government to compete for research and development funding and contracts. Many see this as gutting NASA and the U.S. national space program. To be clear, the term “commercial space” in this context does not refer to the long-established commercial aerospace industry (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) but to a collection of startup companies dubbed “New Space” (typically, companies founded by internet billionaires who have spoken much and often about lofty space plans, but have actually flown in space very little).
Tumlinson criticizes the Republican space plank because it does not explicitly declare that a new administration would continue the current policy. In his view, the very idea of a federal government space program, including a NASA-developed and operated launch and flight system, is a throwback to 1960’s Cold War thinking. Instead, he envisions space as a field for new, flexible and innovative companies, untainted by stodgy engineering traditions or bloated bureaucracy. Many space advocates on the web hold this viewpoint – “If only government would get out of the way and give New Space a chance, there will be a renaissance in space travel!” But travel to where? And why?
The idea that LEO flight operations should be transitioned to the commercial sector is not new. It was a recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission report on implementing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). NASA itself started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) in 2006, designed to nurture a nascent spaceflight industry by offering subsidies to companies to develop and fly vehicles that could provision and exchange crew aboard the International Space Station. That effort was envisioned as an adjunct to – not a replacement of – federal government spaceflight capability.
The termination of the VSE and the announcement of the “new direction” in space received high cover from the 2009 Augustine committee report, which concluded that the current “program of record” (e.g., Constellation) was unaffordable. The Augustine Committee received presentations with options to reconfigure Constellation whereby America could have returned to the Moon (to learn how to use resources found in space) under the existing budgetary cap, but they elected to start from first principles. Hence, we have something called Flexible Path, which doesn’t set a destination or a mission but calls on us “to develop technology” to go anywhere (unspecified) sometime in the future (also unspecified). With target dates of 2025 for a “possible” human mission to a near-Earth asteroid and a trip to Mars “sometime in the 2030’s,” timelines and milestones for the Flexible Path offer no clarity or purpose. Try getting a loan or finding investors using a “flexible” business plan.
Tumlinson argues that both political parties should embrace this new direction because New Space will create greater capability for lower cost sooner. He also makes much about the philosophical inclinations of the Republican Party (the “conservative” major party in American politics) – Why don’t the Republicans support free enterprise in space? Why are they putting obstacles in the way of all these new trailblazing entrepreneurs? As to those obstacles, it is unclear exactly what they are. True enough, there are regulatory and liability issues with private launch services, but not of such magnitude that they cannot be handled through the traditional means of indemnification (e.g., launch insurance).
The COTS program record of the past decade largely has not been a contract let for services, but a government grant for the technical development of launch vehicles and spacecraft. Close reading reveals the real issue: Tumlinson wants more of NASA’s shrinking budget to finance New Space companies. He is concerned that a new administration might cut off this flow of funding. However, what will cut off the flow of funding is having no market, no direction, and no architectural commitment – regardless of who occupies the White House.
The belief of many New Space advocates is that once they are established to supply and crew the ISS, abundant and robust private commercial markets will emerge for their transportation services. Although many possible services are envisioned, space tourism is the activity most often mentioned. Whether such a market emerges is problematic. Although Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a back-listed manifest of dozens of people desiring a suborbital thrill ride (at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars), those journeys are infinitely more affordable than a possible orbital trek (which will cost several tens of millions of dollars, at least initially). Nevertheless, there will no doubt be takers for a ticket. But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Despite labeling themselves “free marketers,” New Space (in its current configuration) looks no different than any other contractor furiously lobbying for government sponsorship through continuation of its subsidies. True free-market capitalists do not seek government funding to develop a product. Rather, they devise an answer to an unmet need, identify a market, seek investors and invest their own capital, provide a product or service and only remain viable by making a profit through the sale of their goods and services.
Tumlinson bemoans the attitude of some politicians, ascribing venal and petty motives as to why they do not fully embrace the administration’s new direction, e.g., the oft-thrown label “space pork” to describe support for NASA’s Space Launch System. In regard to New Space companies, Tumlinson asserts that, “[We] have to both give them a chance and get out of the way.” But in fact, he does not want government to “get out of the way” – at least not while they’re still shoveling millions into New Space company coffers – nor when they need (and they will) a ruling on, or protection of, their property rights in space. Any entity that accepts government money is making a “deal with the devil,” whereby it is understood that such money comes with oversight requirements (as well it should, consisting of taxpayer dollars).
Successful commercialization of space has occurred in the past (e.g., COMSAT) and will occur in the future. But the creation of a select, subsidized, quasi-governmental industry is not by any stretch of the imagination what we commonly understand free market capitalism to mean. It is more akin to oligarchical corporatism, a common feature of the post-Soviet, Russian economy. True private sector space will be created and welcomed, but not through this mechanism, whose most worrisome accomplishment to date has been to effectively distract Americans from noticing the dismantling of their civil space program and preeminence in space.
August 26, 2012
Because of his flying career and the life that he led, Neil Armstrong’s passing has many recounting his place in the history of spaceflight and remembering a life well lived. He holds a special place in our hearts and a unique place in history – and he always will.
I met Neil Armstrong at a conference, an encounter I won’t forget. A quiet, unassuming man of medium height and build, pleasant and genial, surrounded by a horde of admirers and well-wishers, I could tell he was slightly uncomfortable with (but resigned to) the adulation he received. In his mind, the 1969 flight of Apollo 11 was simply another professional assignment he flew as a test pilot – the landing on the Moon was of more significance than his first step on it. He was an aviator, in every sense of that word. The landing was an accomplishment for humanity – a giant step for mankind.
My glimpses of Neil come not from personal encounters with him, but from others who knew him. During a discussion several years ago with Dave Scott (Apollo astronaut and Commander of the 1971 Apollo 15 mission), I inquired about an obscure incident during the 1966 flight of Gemini 8 (flown by Neil and Dave). That mission conducted the first docking of two spacecraft in space and I wanted to know some details of the emergency experienced by the crew on that flight.
The incident had occurred shortly after the docking, when the Gemini-Agena spacecraft began to roll slightly. The rate of rotation became greater with time and it was evident that something was very wrong. Neil, as commander, was responsible for “flying” the spacecraft but couldn’t get the rolling under control. Thinking that the Agena (their unmanned target vehicle) was responsible, the crew made the decision to undock from it (they were out of contact with Mission Control at the time). As soon as they did, the Gemini spacecraft started to roll and tumble at an ever increasing and alarming rate. Dave recalled with a chuckle that Neil looked over at him, pointed at the attitude control stick and said “See if you can do anything with it!” Dave’s recollection of their exchange gave me a glimpse of a very human moment in a life and death situation. This was serious – if they couldn’t regain control, they would black out from the centrifugal forces in the tumbling vehicle. Neil kept his cool, activated the re-entry thrusters and soon stabilized the bucking Gemini spacecraft. The solution saved their lives but ended the mission, sending them home prematurely but safely.
The story of the first lunar landing is well known. The automatic systems of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle were targeting the vehicle into a large crater filled with automobile-sized boulders. Landing there would be disastrous, as the LM would likely topple over on touchdown, eliminating the crew’s ability to liftoff from the Moon and return home. Taking manual control, Neil (with Mission Control advising the crew they had thirty seconds of fuel left) guided the LM over the hazardous debris field to a safe touchdown a few hundred meters beyond the original landing site. Tension during the agonizingly long pause in the air-to-ground communications was palpable. Relief could be heard in Capcom Charlie Duke’s voice as Neil calmly announced that the Eagle had landed. Yet again, a critical situation expertly handled by a test pilot just doing his job – the calm and collected decision making necessary when flying finicky machines near the edges of their performance envelopes.
Neil’s scientific work on the Moon during his EVA warrants special mention. Being the first humans to land on another world, it is understandable that the crew had many ceremonial duties to perform. Although they had been carefully instructed to stay close to the LM, without informing Mission Control, Neil walked back a hundred meters or so to Little West crater (overflown earlier) to examine and photograph its interior. Those photos showed the basaltic bedrock of Tranquillity Base – documenting that the Eagle had landed amidst ejecta from that crater thereby establishing the provenance of samples collected during the crew’s limited time on the surface. According to Gene Shoemaker and Gordon Swann, both of the U.S. Geological Survey, Neil was one of the best students of geology among the Apollo astronauts. Through his work on the Moon, he showed an ability beyond mere mastery of the facts of geology – he intuitively grasped its objectives, as well as the philosophy of the science. Like every other facet of the mission, Neil understood and took this role seriously. No matter what topic was addressed or which role was taken, he could always be counted on to turn in his best performance.
Armstrong understood the historic role of being the first man on the Moon but he never succumbed to the siren call of fame. He could have cashed in on his status but choose a different path. He was the quintessence of quiet dignity, possessing the “Aw shucks, t’weren’t nothin’” Gary Cooper-ish manner of understated heroism. After retirement, he lived happily in his home state of Ohio, taught aeronautics (his first love) at the University of Cincinnati, and advised on various engineering topics and problems for both government and industry. Throughout NASA’s post-Apollo efforts – without fanfare – he often and freely lent his efforts to the space program. He served his country with honor and dignity.
As a test pilot, Neil routinely showed his ability to make quick, life saving decisions in dangerous situations. As a senior spokesman for space, he clearly voiced his concern over the dismantling and destruction of our national space program. Neil understood that our civil space program is a critical national asset, both as a technology innovator and a source of inspiration for the public. Who would recognize this more clearly than Neil Armstrong? From long experience, he knew what kinds of government programs worked and what kind didn’t. He knew his fellow man. In appearances before Congress in recent years, he outlined specific objections to our current direction in space. A true patriot, Neil did not hesitate to voice his opinions, whether they aligned with current policy or not.
It’s become cliché to say that Neil Armstrong holds a unique place in history. On this occasion, we should pause to consider just how singular his place is. No one – not the first human to Mars nor the first crew to venture beyond the Solar System – will ever achieve the same level of significance as the first human to step onto the surface of another world. The flight of Apollo 11 was truly a once in a lifetime event – and by that, I mean in the lifetime of humanity. That first step was indeed one to “divide history,” as the NASA Public Affairs Office put it at the time.
Goodbye, Neil Armstrong – and thank you. We’ve lost one of our most authoritative and articulate spokesmen for human spaceflight. I mourn him and share his valid concerns for our dysfunctional national space program.
August 8, 2012
Sir Bernard Lovell, the former Director of Britain’s Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory, died recently at the age of 98. Lovell took the lead in establishing Jodrell Bank near Manchester – one of the world’s premier radio telescopes, a facility that played a lead part in the history of the early space age. One of its most memorable episodes was its role in releasing the world’s first images taken from the surface of the Moon.
In late January 1966, the USSR launched the probe Luna 9 to the Moon. The Soviets had tried to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon several times previously. Each attempt ended in failure. The United States had the Surveyor project under development, but it had yet to see its first launch. As was their custom, Jodrell Bank tracked the Luna 9 during its coast to the Moon, listening in on its telemetry signals and documenting the position and velocity of the probe throughout its flight. On February 3, 1966, with an encounter speed of 6 meters/second (about 13 mph), the probe “crash-landed” on the lunar surface. Signal transmission from the probe stopped abruptly. The team at Jodrell Bank assumed that the mission was over, surmising that Luna 9 probably hit the Moon too hard or was designed as a crash lander. Then to their astonishment, the probe began transmitting radio signals and the observatory recorded them, uncertain as to their meaning.
Lovell thought – suppose these signals were simply an ordinary telefax communication? If these transmissions were pictures of the lunar surface, perhaps the signals the observatory recorded could be read by a commercial facsimile machine. But Jodrell Bank Observatory had no such machine; the observatory was a scientific laboratory, which in those days displayed its received radio signals in the form of line graphs made by paper strip recorders.
Enter the power of the press! The local office of the London Daily Express rushed a fax machine to the observatory where Lovell and his staff printed out the first picture of another planetary surface ever returned to Earth. Because the staff of the observatory didn’t know anything about Luna 9’s encoding system design, they had to guess at the ratio of the horizontal to vertical dimensions of the image. They guessed wrong. The resulting image showed a jagged, rough peak-like surface, although apparently fine-grained. To both the chagrin and annoyance of the Soviet builders of Luna 9, surface images were released to the world press by the British observatory, leading to an amusing sequence of scientific “instant interpretation” that appeared in the press over the days that followed.
In the early days of lunar science, an intense debate raged over the geologic nature of the Moon. Was it a cold, ancient body that had never undergone melting? Chemist Harold Urey and Astronomer Thomas Gold thought so. They postulated that the Moon was a giant, primitive chondrite meteorite, an unmodified piece of the early solar nebula that would tell us about the cold accretion of the planets. Additionally, Gold was famous for his idea that the dark maria of the Moon were large “dustbowls” in which a heavy spacecraft would slowly sink like a body caught in quicksand on the Earth.
In contrast, many geologists and some astronomers thought otherwise – in their view, the Moon was a body shaped by internal melting, magmatic activity and volcanic eruptions. These “hot moon” people saw evidence for volcanism in many lunar surface features, from the maria to craters. Some, such as the founder of the field of planetary geology, Eugene Shoemaker, had a more nuanced viewpoint, ascribing both impact and volcanic origins to specific features, as appropriate. Although the hard landing American Ranger spacecraft had transmitted high resolution video pictures before hitting the Moon, it did not survive the lunar impact and no one had seen a picture of the surface from a vehicle that landed softly enough to survive and long enough to send back a picture, until now.
A cascade of instant science followed the release of the Jodrell Bank images. Tommy Gold claimed that the pictures validated his dust bowl idea, even though it showed a fine-grained surface strewn with rocks (which Gold thought were clods of fine dust). Gold also said that the Luna 9 capsule was slowly sinking into the surface (in accordance with his model, of course) and would soon sink out of sight. Gerard Kuiper of the University of Arizona thought that the surface of the Moon was composed of bare, dust-free bedrock and so interpreted the new Luna 9 images thusly. U.S. Geological Survey geologist Hal Masursky said that the image looked like the rough, clinkery surface of a jagged lava flow (a surface for which geologists give the Hawaiian name “aa”) and was clearly of volcanic origin. An eager reporter pressed him: this surface is volcanic – isn’t that where gold is sometimes found on Earth? Hal distractedly nodded agreement, leading to the ludicrous headline that Luna 9 had found veins of gold on the Moon.
Alas, there was gold — scientific gold. The distortion of the image caused by a wrong guess of the aspect ratio by the staff of Jodrell Bank soon was corrected when the Soviets released their own version of the image. The lunar surface consists of fine-grained dust, smooth and undulating (because of the presence of a myriad of small surface craters), with the occasional rock lying about — no dust bowls, no bare bedrock, no “quicksand,” no aa lava flows, and no veins of gold. The disappointment of the press was palpable.
The tendency of scientists to see confirmation of their own predispositions in the new data is striking. We all are human, possessing the natural inclination to interpret new data in a way most favorable to our own long-held beliefs. In this instance, a simple and excusable error in the reconstruction of the surface image led to abundant egg on the faces of most of the world’s experts on lunar science. Instant science is often wrong at worst or incomplete at best.
July 31, 2012
During a recent talk to a gathering of students, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke of his longstanding interest in space by mentioning the dust-up over comments he made about a Moon colony during the GOP primary. He expanded this episode into a teaching moment about the nature of innovation and progress in space. Gingrich is vigorous in his enthusiasm for space exploration but is not a devotee of the current agency and its programs. In his considered opinion, we need to re-think our approach to space exploration and use more innovative, non-bureaucratic approaches to develop space systems and capabilities.
A historian by training, Gingrich often uses historical analogies to illustrate his point. On this occasion, he spoke of the experiences of the Wright Brothers and Samuel P. Langley in the development of the first airplane. As Gingrich relates it, after several failed attempts the Wright brothers finally achieved flight on December 17, 1903, spending in total about $500. In contrast, Langley (the recipient of a $50,000 government grant) failed in his attempt to fly when his “aerodrome” crashed into the waters of the Potomac River (the actual amounts spent were “less than $1000” and $70,000 respectively, according to James Tobin’s excellent book on the subject). That powered aircraft might have military use was not a new idea and the then-recent war with Spain led to a re-examination of our defense posture, with the military eager to fund Langley’s aeronautical experiments.
Gingrich contrasts the “faster, cheaper, better” (and successful) approach of the Wrights to the supposedly bureaucratic, measured failure of Langley and suggests that this incident parallels the current differences between the approach of “New Space” (an umbrella term referring to the variety of current efforts by the private sector to develop spaceflight capability) and our federal civil space program. In other words, it’s not the lack of resources or technology that’s holding us back – it’s our business model. He suggests that many of the central tenants of “New Space” (including the offering of prizes as technical incentives and “lean” management models) will accomplish more in space than we’ve received through government programs and for much less expenditure.
The historical story is interesting but did Gingrich draw the correct conclusion? Should the success of the Wright brothers be attributed to how they approached the problem or to how much it cost? In contrast to Gingrich’s suggestion, Samuel Langley did not represent an enormous, bloated and hidebound bureaucracy. At the turn of the century, the Smithsonian Institution was not the behemoth it is today. Langley had been hired as an assistant secretary for international affairs at the Smithsonian. Secretary Spencer Baird died eight months after Langley reported for work, leaving open that position, which Langley accepted. He wanted to continue his aeronautical experiments and used the facilities of the Smithsonian (including its shops and technicians) to build and test his flying machines.
Langley built a high-powered internal combustion engine for his aircraft, producing greater horsepower per unit weight than any other effort of the time, including the one used by the Wright brothers. The failure of Langley’s aerodrome largely resulted from its design; the dihedral cross-section of its wings led to instability in any type of wind. Wilbur Wright described this problem in a June 1903 talk – an understanding that came from the brothers’ experiments with wing shapes on kites at Kitty Hawk. The Wright flyer used wing-warping to create control surfaces, which made it possible for a pilot to steer the airplane in variable wind conditions. The Langley aerodrome was naturally unstable; with its wing shape, any gust or cross-wind rendered the aircraft uncontrollable. In other words, the success of the Wright brothers was due to a superior technical approach, not to their management model.
For anyone who has dealt with bureaucracy, freedom from the ponderous administrative overhead of a government agency is always an enticing vision. But in many ways, it is orthogonal to the real issue – what are you trying to accomplish and by what means or mechanism? The Wrights and Langley both knew what they were trying to do, but only one of them had the correct technical approach. Their technical choices determined the outcome of their efforts, not the total amount of money spent nor the managerial structure of their respective projects. If so, can we draw any conclusions from this and apply it to the current model of our national civil space program? The idea that government cannot do anything right is understandably attractive and in vogue, but not completely borne out by the evidence.
As a counter-example to Gingrich’s history of early aviation, consider a technical development project closer to us in time and memory. A nuclear ship that has to refuel only every few years has an enormous advantage over one that needs near-constant refueling. The United States possesses a nuclear navy (both aircraft carriers and submarines) largely because of the vision and persistence of one man, Admiral Hyman Rickover. A true visionary, Rickover believed that nuclear reactors could be made small enough to fit into a ship and safe enough to entrust the lives of thousands of men to such vessels. For years he fought the navy and the Defense Department to sell the advantages of nuclear sea power to the Congress and President. Today we have such a fleet largely because of his vision and determined efforts. And nobody ever took a poll to see if a nuclear navy would “excite and engage” the public.
Newt Gingrich is a true believer of humanity’s future in space. I admire his dedication and courage in speaking the truth as he sees it. However, in this case, I believe he has drawn the wrong lesson from history. Compelling national interests sometimes require the marshalling of our combined will and resources. We need a dedicated federal space program with a clear strategic direction and the know-how to pull off difficult technical tasks. No cult of management or prize money will have us walking again on the Moon or using its resources.
For our country to remain vibrant and strong, it is vital that Americans be called upon to engage in the mental and physical challenges of a national space program, coupled to the realities and challenges inherent in an expanding cislunar territory and new markets. Our pioneering space legacy needs to be embraced and celebrated through a renewed commitment from our government. If Americans forfeit this direction and opportunity because their government cannot see the danger in the current path, we will have grievously failed in our promise as a nation and our obligation and duty to future generations.
July 22, 2012
Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in 2002. Its stated business objective was the development of launch services for a fraction of the cost of the then-available commercial launch providers – to the greatest extent practicable, they would create reusable pieces of its launch system, thereby greatly lowering the cost of space access. Toward that end, SpaceX sponsored the development of its own launch vehicle and engines, using a vertically integrated business model in which SpaceX would design, fabricate, prepare and operate a launch system.
Alan Boyle’s recent review of commercial efforts to supply the International Space Station naturally included coverage of the successful flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon’s delivery demonstration. The article focused on the way commercial space is financed, specifically how NASA is sponsoring the development of some of these capabilities. This financial arrangement is the basis for a point repeatedly voiced by critics of the heralded vision of “New Space” replacing “government” space – a company like SpaceX is not actually commercial in the traditional free market sense, but simply another government-funded contractor using a different procurement model.
Falcon 1 was the first rocket developed by SpaceX. It is a two-stage launch vehicle capable of putting a metric ton (1000 kg) into low Earth orbit. Falcon 1 uses a single Merlin, a SpaceX-developed, LOX-kerosene rocket engine producing ~570,000 newtons of thrust (for comparison, a single Shuttle main engine burns LOX-hydrogen fuel and produces about 2,300,000 newtons of thrust). The Falcon 1 was designed to put relatively small satellites into low earth orbit. With such payload capacity, it is also capable of sending 100-200 kg microsats beyond LEO, into cislunar space.
Much of the private start-up capital for SpaceX was used to develop the Falcon 1. They also received some government funding from other than NASA. The Department of Defense (DoD) had need for reliable, quick, and cheap space access for small payloads. To that end, SpaceX received funding from several DoD entities, including several million dollars from the U.S. Air Force under a program to develop launch capability for DARPA (a defense research agency). Space X was given access to and the use of DoD launch facilities at the Reagan Test Site (formerly Kwajalein Missile Range) in the Marshall Islands.
The early days of Falcon 1 development were not pretty. The first launch failed after 25 seconds of flight. The second flight successfully launched and staged, but did not reach orbit. After the third attempt at flight failed during staging, a review board looked in detail at SpaceX’s launch processing stream and made recommendations for some significant changes. The next launch was successful in putting a dummy payload into orbit. In July 2009, six years after Falcon 1 development had begun, SpaceX achieved its first (and so far, only) commercial space success with the launch and orbit of the Malaysian RazakSAT imaging satellite on a Falcon 1 launch.
Typically when a space company finally achieves a long-sought success, it moves rapidly to exploit the new vehicle’s operational status and begins to aggressively market and sell its new launch service. However, no Falcon 1 launch has occurred since the success of RazakSAT. A visit to the SpaceX web site describes the Falcon 1 vehicle, but at the bottom of the page it states that a Falcon 1 launch is no longer available for purchase. Instead, small, one-ton class payloads will be accommodated in the future through “piggyback” rides on the new, Falcon 9 medium-class launch vehicle.
For a company to spend six years and start up money developing a needed launch system, only to abandon it just as success and profit is at hand, is difficult to sort through. One could be forgiven for imagining that the development of the Falcon 1 as a commercial launch system was never intended but rather a pretext to flight qualify the pieces (specifically the Merlin 1 engine) used in the nine-engine cluster that powers the Falcon 9 launcher. Interestingly, others have noted that the now-cancelled NASA Constellation Ares I launch vehicle (“The Stick”), purportedly designed to launch the new Orion spacecraft to LEO, likewise appeared to be more of a development effort than a flight project, in that its various pieces (e.g., cryogenic upper stage, five-segment SRB) were all needed to build the large Ares V heavy lift rocket.
Meanwhile, customers in need of low-cost options for launching small payloads are out of luck. Falcon 9 has yet to launch an ounce of commercial payload and Falcon 1 is not for sale. Of course, one can launch small satellites using Orbital’s Taurus launch vehicle, but its ~$50-70 M cost and recent record of unreliability (e.g., the Glory satellite launch failure) engender neither comfort nor confidence. More significantly, after investing in the R&D effort of a new, unproven company that was offering a low cost, small launch vehicle, SpaceX’s original DoD customers, banking on the creation of a quick, inexpensive capability to launch small satellites, saw their support of Falcon 1 go by the board. It appears that SpaceX dropped their initial operational vehicle for the promotion and promise of far more ambitious and distant goals.
That template seems to work for them – NASA has “invested” more than $500 million in the Falcon 9 over the last five years. Now, SpaceX holds court to advance their founder’s Mars fantasies and plans for a Falcon “heavy” launch vehicle – designed and marketed as sending very large payloads into space, at unbelievably low prices. (As an aside, I thought that a New Space article of faith is that heavy lift is a boondoggle and that fuel depots are the way to go beyond LEO.)
When New Space advocates characterize old NASA contractors, legacy launch companies and politicians with NASA centers in their districts as “pigs at the trough of government funding,” they’d be wise to watch out for a “pig” donning falcon feathers. Debate, like competition is good and helpful but only useful when advocates honestly pitch their abilities, services, products and intentions. Money is an important consideration, however our nation’s ability to compete in the arena of space must be the overriding concern. In light of the current situation, that ability is slipping further and further away. We need to honestly assess what we’re buying before nothing remains of our decades long investment and leadership role in space.
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