“On the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions, who, at the Dawn of Victory, sat down to wait, and waiting–died.” -George W. Cecil
On November 23rd, Blue Origin joined SpaceX as the second American company to demonstrate vertical landing capability for a human scaled launch vehicle. Flying out of its West Texas test facility, Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster lifted off on a suborbital flight at 11:21 AM CST. The final stats, though obviously well short of escape velocity were impressive nonetheless; 100.5 km maximum altitude, Mach 3.72, performance and a flawless landing conducted at a very manageable 4.4 mph. Nearly lost in the attention was the fact that Blue’s automated crew capsule apparently performed equally well, coming in for a safe parachute landing and paving the way for its commercial debut as a reusable research vehicle as early as the middle of 2016.
While Monday’s launch has inevitably to a number of comparisons with similar efforts by SpaceX, not to mention a very one sided twitter campaign waged by Elon Musk, the more interesting contrast should perhaps be made with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an institution whose path seems increasingly diverted from the current trajectory of launch vehicle development.
First, a disclaimer. It is not so much a question of whether or not NASA should be directly involved in choosing winners for reusable launch vehicle design. It most certainly should not. After all, the last time it did so, the agency chose rather badly.
In 1993, NASA had a successful reusable test vehicle in its hands in the form of the DC-X, inherited from the now defunct Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. Instead of building on the progress achieved by McDonnell Douglas and SDIO in the vertical takeoff/vertical landing DC-X, NASA elected to cancel the program and instead double down on winged flight with Lockheed Martin and the X-33/VentureStar project. It lost, throwing in the towel in 2001 after spending nearly $1 billion without accomplishing anything of substance.
Nearly two decades later, the space agency is not exactly ignoring RLV development efforts, but then again, it is hardly rolling out the red carpet either. Instead, NASA is spending its development efforts on the Space Launch System, a vehicle which despite its enormous size, seems increasingly diminished by each new accomplishment coming from the NewSpace industry. The question raised by the impressive success of both Blue Origin and SpaceX, is whether the nation should take a more active role in supporting RLV development, or whether or not the mostly hands off policy is the better. A second, and perhaps more problematical question is whether it is time for NASA, Congress and the defense establishment to recognize that the day of reusable launch vehicles is dawning, and consequently it is time to quit throwing limited discretionary spending dollars on yesterday’s (or 1970’s) technology.
Both the Space Launch System as well as the push to develop a U.S. version of the Russian RD-180 engine come to mind. In the case of the latter, last week’s accomplishment by Blue Origin, powered by a new cryogenic engine in the BE-3, should ease the concern that the U.S. industrial base is faltering when it comes to rocket engine development.
Jeff Bezos is understandably proud in pointing out that sitting on the grounds of his Van Horn, Texas ranch is the “rarest of beasts, a used rocket.” Indeed. It also appears to be a flight proven forerunner of his orbital launch vehicle’s second stage. Given the partnership with United Launch Alliance in jointly developing a reusable first stage engine for that vehicle, one which would also power ULA’s own Vulcan rocket, concerns that SpaceX is being granted a monopoly on the future by continuing the ban on importing RD-180’s for military use are wildly misplaced.
And then there is the Space Launch System.
There are a number of credible arguments which can be made for a super heavy lift booster; a massive payload shroud, the fuel budget to fling probes to the outer planets at a comparatively higher velocity, an overall reduction in the number of flights required to piece together large missions. The issue being underscored by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and on a good day even United Launch Alliance and its proposed Vulcan booster, is whether the time for publicly funded development of any fully expendable launch vehicle has long passed, much less one that will only fly once or twice per year when it hits a peak rate some 15 or 20 years from now.
Well before that time comes, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin are all likely to be vying to keep three separate booster families in business. Two of three are dedicated to first stage reusability and there is an option for the third (Vulcan). Furthermore, at least one, SpaceX, will include a heavy lift booster which can perform much of the work of SLS at a fraction of the cost. It too will be partially reusable. The United States would be far better served if NASA, the DOD and Congress recognized both the stunning potential in that rapidly emerging future and the need make sure it is realized.
We have in NASA’s COTS and CRS programs a model for just how to achieve that goal in an equitable manner which awards achievement for multiple parties while protecting the taxpayer from undue risk. The only unproven element in adapting that model to the present scenario is perhaps the least risky yet most necessary of all; developing in-space cryogenic fuel transfer and storage capabilities. Doing so is an unavoidable requirement for any sustained presence in deep space, including NASA’s much touted “Journey to Mars.” Developing cryogenic fuel storage and transfer capability in the form of refillable fuel depots also happens to offer a nearly ideal scenario for supporting emerging RLV launch providers through high levels of individually low value launches.
While the major contractors for SLS, the so called “four amigos” consisting of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK would all appear to have a strong vested interest in seeing no such thing happen, the reality is that at least three of the four could find a wealth of possibilities from a fly early, fly often shift in access to space. The first two rather obviously own ULA, and Orbital ATK seems eager to build a supply line to the rest of the solar systen in deep space versions of its Cygnus cargo ship.
Quite simply, the role of political influence is not going to evaporate like so much liquid hydrogen boiling off into space. What can change however, is what we get out of the situation. With SLS it is not much, and it is not anytime soon. Rather than building time and watching decades roll by with little to show for it, the nation’s aerospace companies could be building in-space systems, habitats, planetary landing and ascent vehicles and a whole tool-box of hardware needed to support an expanding exploration program enabled by low cost access to orbit in the first place.
What are we waiting for?