If I Like My Space Program, Can I Keep It?

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As with so much else, nobody really knows. 

In the week which came between two launches towards the one destination almost everyone agrees is the ultimate goal of human spaceflight, at least at current technology levels, three press events shed a little light on the upcoming decision point facing the American space program. 

First, the good news. After a brief glitch which saw a critical orbit raising maneuver cut short, India’s MOM spacecraft has completed four of six planned burns, raising its apogee to more than 118,000 km, and is still on track for a Trans Mars Injection on December 1st. 

Also, on this coming Monday, NASA’s own MAVEN spacecraft is scheduled to liftoff on the way to Mars at 1:28 p.m. EST out of Cape Canaveral.  Powered by an ultra-reliable Russian RD-180 main engine, and the long running Centaur upper stage, the Atlas V vehicle will send MAVEN on a quicker ascent than MOM. In the language of the season, one would hope that the much larger MAVEN will serve as sort of good luck fullback for MOM, clearing the way between Earth and Mars for a victory dance at the Red Planet next September.  

As it turns out, about the time the two spacecraft are scheduled to arrive at the place we all say we want to go, NASA will be in the uncomfortable position of deciding whom to cut from the team in its Commercial Crew program, and by extension, its take on how we should get there.  As a NASA Office of Inspector General report released yesterday details, despite all three entrants, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX making substantial progress on their respective systems, Congress has underfunded the program by an average of 38% over its history, resulting in the continued purchase of Russian launch services at least two years longer than might have otherwise been required.  Now, facing the likelihood of yet another bloodletting, assuming Congress even agrees on a budget at all, NASA will face the decision of which goal to give up;  Commercial Crew services as soon as practically possible, now meaning late 2017, which could happen if it down selects to a single winner at the beginning of the next phase,  or, continued competition coming from at least two providers, which would almost certainly entail stretching the program out even further. Though it is a decision the agency takes pains to point out is strictly related to its plans for low Earth orbit, there are other issues at stake and NASA well knows it. 

First the decision.  At a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the successful conclusion of NASA’s COTS program, during which NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences all agreed there were many lessons which could apply to future plans and deeper space, the agency’s Phil McCalister once again outlined the options facing Commercial Crew, stressing the importance of maintaining competition if possible. In that regard, there is an interesting footnote in the NASA OIG report which suggests the agency may still have its eye on the ball.  In its entirety:

“For example, cost per flight in the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program increased from $72 million in 1998 to $460 million in 2012. The Air Force originally awarded contracts to Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but in 2006, the companies created a joint venture known as the United Launch Alliance. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that a lack of competition coupled with a significant decrease in demand caused the increase in per-flight costs. In December 2012, the Air Force awarded SpaceX two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class missions and in June 2013 signed a cooperative agreement with the company to begin certifying an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 for the two missions – the first scheduled to take place in 2014 at a cost of $97 million and the second in 2015 at a cost of $165 million – less than half the cost of current United Launch Alliance missions.”

It seems clear that NASA’s OIG at least, can read the writing on the wall, and is more than a little concerned that if either the CST-100 or Dream Chaser turns out to be the sole source winner in Commercial Crew,  ULA’s much higher cost basis may take a larger bite out of NASA’s budget than anyone is considering.   

It is worth noting that the second launch cited, for $165 million, is for a Falcon Heavy, a vehicle with twice the performance of the Delta Heavy, at a 53 tons to LEO, perilously close to the range offered by the initial 70 ton version of SLS, which of course, is what has been behind the budget reduction to Commercial Crew all along.  In case anyone missed the consecutive announcements; Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK have all reported near record profits in their space divisions in recent weeks, with two of the three specifically citing work on the Space Launch System as a major factor.

While perhaps good for your 401K, it bodes rather poorly for other things, particularly Commercial Crew, and serves as a clear indication of where priorities lie.  Nevertheless in yet another back to the future moment distinctly reminiscent of the lead up to both the Space Shuttle and Project Constellation programs, representatives of each of the major contractors involved with SLS/Orion attended a press conference on November 12th to tout the advantages of the mega booster for enabling not just human exploration, but mega science projects instead. The only thing lacking of course is mega budgets, but in a back to the future scenario very reminiscent of the grandiose plans which were presented to justify the Space Shuttle program, that inconvenient fact is being studiously ignored. Private space companies cannot afford such luxuries however, and thus it is beginning to appear that a key player in the entire affair may turn out to be Bigelow Aerospace, which happed to be participating in a separate press conference on the same day.

The purpose of the NASA/Bigelow conference was to discuss the results of a NASA commissioned survey of private space capabilities in the near term, a summary of which can be found at newspacejournal.com. 

While the conference made national news on the basis of founder Robert Bigelow’s assertion that a defined system of property rights is rather necessary for private corporations to invest significant capital in lunar systems,  it was the conclusion regarding near term plans which may prove to be a deciding factor in the aftermath of the upcoming decision facing NASA. While Bigelow would very much like to build inflatable space stations on a scale suitable for SLS, as well as participate in NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission, the company’s business model is absolutely dependent on the availability of crew transfer services.  Along those lines, BA reaffirmed that its first BA-330 module is on track for launch in late 2016. The problem is that there is an obvious disconnect between when Bigelow might want to launch, and when crew service might be available.  Although the company is presumably planning on a healthy period of automated flight to verify the station’s systems on orbit,  if Commercial Crew suffers any more delay inducing budget cuts, or NASA decides to proceed with multiple vendors and triggers more delays as a result, Bigelow may face the decision of delaying its own plans, or  proceeding independently, particularly if SpaceX makes a planned non-NASA crewed test flight prior in late 2015 or soon thereafter. 

Although there are certainly issues to resolve regarding licensing authority, some of which are covered in the OIG report, one gets the sense that the U.S. space program is rapidly approaching an unavoidable fork in the road.  Will Congress, responding to the priorities of large aerospace contractors continue to throttle Commercial Crew in favor of SLS, and in doing so present NewSpace companies such as Bigelow and SpaceX with decision point of their own; or will NASA’s appeals for a budget resolution to the program finally be answered, keeping the prospects for public/private space projects and an extension of the success achieved by COTS intact?

If I like my space program can I keep it? The answer depends on your definition of an acceptable space program. However, there is one thing we can probably all agree on.  If it happens to include a U.S. capacity to launch its own astronauts, the status quo is definitely sub standard. 

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2 Comments on "If I Like My Space Program, Can I Keep It?"

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  1. Robert Clark says:

    Nicely written analysis.

    Bob Clark

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