It is has not been a particularly good week for United Launch Alliance, and especially for now former VP of Engineering Brett Tobey, who resigned after making a number of controversial comments during a speech at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The story has unfolded in a flurry of articles in Space News, which on Wednesday published an audio recording of the wide ranging speech in which Tobey characterized SpaceX’s approach to reusability as “dumb” and asserted the old trope that Elon Musk’s company is losing money on every launch.
It was not speaking ill of a competitor which likely got him fired however, rather it was being painfully honest about his employer as well as the two parent companies which own ULA; Boeing and Lockheed Martin. And for good measure he gave an honest opinion about Aerojet Rocketdyne’s efforts to win ULA over to the AR-1 engine instead of the Blue Origin BE-4 engine which the man who presumably fired him, Tory Bruno, has said is the company’s leading choice.
The comments, and a rare bit of analysis from the normally staid Space News are in this article, but here is why they should be important to everyone who is concerned about America’s future in space and making the most of a historic opportunity.
Since its creation, ULA has argued, with amazing success, that access to space is necessarily expensive and that heavy subsidization and dependence on Russian engines are simply the price the American taxpayer must pay to launch national security payloads. And commercial missions? Forget about it. The U.S. simply cannot compete against Europe and Russia. All that lasted until SpaceX broke through with the Falcon 9 and conclusively demonstrated what some had known all along; the emperor had no clothes.
In a literal sense, the cost of launching a basic EELV sized payload as represented by the Atlas V 401 was not some $250 million which is what ULA pricing came down to once the launch subsidy was figured in, but instead the much lower commercial figure of $63 million offered by SpaceX, a total which grows to around $90 million when launch assurance costs are required for governmental missions.
It is probably safe to assume that the SpaceX pricing figure is about the floor of what can be accomplished fully expendable rockets in the Falcon 9/Atlas V size class using existing technology. The point here is not what SpaceX is doing today, but the direction ULA could have been headed all along if not for the culture Tobey probably wishes he hadn’t discussed.
There are at least three critical reasons why that difference is more important than debate fodder between Old and New Space advocates arguing with each other. The first, and most straight forward is the opportunity cost which comes when anyone on a fixed budget buys something which costs far more than it should. It means you can’t buy something else instead. Funding for NASA and the Department of Defense comes out of the steadily shrinking discretionary component of the U.S. budget. For DOD, feel free to fill in the blanks as to what we might have bought instead, put perhaps not with Lockheed Martin F-35’s; it would’t buy that many and might provoke another round of opportunity cost arguments.
But what about for NASA? Here is where the costs really start to add up. Each million dollar increment paying for launches that are more expensive than necessary has been a million subtracted from the opportunity to conduct additional missions, or to pay for continuation of existing missions, or STEM funding, or propping up NASA’s technology development efforts, which have suffered mightily in recent years.
Perhaps though, any saved funds might have just been added to the pot of SLS and Orion, right?. Maybe so, but here is where the second issue with accepting unnecessarily high costs for medium and EELV class boosters for a decade have had a deleterious effect. They have made it easier to accept the truly astronomical, mind blowing costs of a heavy lift booster without asking the questions that should have been shouted from the rooftops all the way back to the formative days of Project Constellation. It is only through the lens of a $500 million Delta Heavy (ELC costs again) that $1.5 billion SLS flying once per year can appear remotely sane. And that brings us to the final point.
Whatever you think of SLS/Orion, NASA’s “Flexible Path” and its “Journey to Mars,” there is no arguing the fact that it has come at the cost of an astonishing pause in America’s efforts to reach beyond LEO from the last Shuttle flight in 2011 to what will be the second flight of SLS, the EM-2 mission in 2023. On the current trajectory, it will be even longer, much longer in fact, before NASA surpasses what it achieved in 1969.
As for what might have been accomplished in terms of both crewed and robotic space exploration under the same budget constraints and in the same time frame it is impossible to say for sure. But is surely something, and whatever that may be, the loss represents a form of”space settling” which has very little to do with the aspirations of most space enthusiasts. Brett Tobey’s greatest sin has simply to be honest about it.
Note: For an example of just what could possibly be accomplished with a different mindset, please see the related article: A 6-10 Person SpaceX / Bigelow Lunar Station for $2 Billion per Year.