Thursday, September 15, 2016

NASA Chief Not A Fan of Private Space Companies


In an interview quoted in ARS Technica, NASA Administrator Charlie Bowden said he doesn't think it's the place of companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to be developing heavy boosters.  At least not yet.
On Tuesday, during a Q&A session at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Space 2016 Conference, Bolden was asked for his opinion on the emerging market for small satellites and launchers. He chose to respond instead with his thoughts on NASA's own rocket, the Space Launch System, and private-sector development of larger launch vehicles.

"If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles," Bolden said. "I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in large launch vehicles just yet."
In this graphic, courtesy of Blue Origin, they show the relative sizes of the launch vehicles compared to our 60 year old standard for large launch vehicles, the Saturn V.  All of these vehicles are currently flying except the Falcon Heavy and the two Glenn versions (and, of course, the Saturn V).   

You'll note that the Falcon Heavy and the Glenn are in the class of the largest launch vehicles that exist, with both being projected to launch 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO).  It also means two private US corporations are planning rockets that will compete with the biggest things NASA has ever built, including its proposed Space Launch System.
The key difference, of course, is cost. Development of Falcon Heavy and New Glenn will cost US taxpayers nothing, or next to nothing, in direct expenditures. Per-flight costs will probably be roughly on the order of $200 million per launch.

The space agency, however, is expected to spend $13 billion on design and development of SLS and its ground systems alone through its first flight in late 2018. An estimate by Ars suggested that it will cost NASA about $60 billion for 20 launches of the SLS rocket through the 2030s.
Read that as $200 million per launch with private sector vs. $3 billion with NASA, and I'm not completely clear that doesn't include some development costs.  But don't worry, it gets worse for "Muslim outreach" Bowden.
Despite the demonstrable efforts by both SpaceX and Blue Origin, Bolden nonetheless said that "normal people" cannot, or do not want to, develop large launch vehicles. What the administrator appears to be asserting here is that NASA is more special, or better, than those in the private sector when it comes to building rockets. This exceptionalism is curious, considering that NASA hasn't actually built a rocket since the 1970s and the space shuttle and that the SLS is highly derivative of shuttle components, including its engines and side-mounted solid rocket boosters.

It's also unclear why Bolden would not be a "fan" of commercial investment in large launch vehicles. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin, at their own expense and risk, are seeking to build heavy lift rockets that will augment the launch capability of the United States. Both companies have developed brand new engines (the Merlin 1D by SpaceX and BE-4 by Blue Origin) at a time when a major new rocket engine hasn't been brought forward in the United States in decades and when US national security offices must rely on Russian engines to deliver their spy satellites into space.
You'll also note that both SpaceX and Blue Origin are planning on reusability of their first stages, and both companies have successfully recovered them.  SpaceX was scheduled to launch their first reused rocket before the end of this year - which will be the first rocket ever reused for a paying customer - when their pad explosion occurred and grounded their program.  NASA's SLS is fully expendable; nothing comes back.  Just like the Saturn V.  

Bolden's attitude, surprising as it might be to rational folks like you, me and the writers at Ars, is not unusual.  NASA's (and Bolden's!) former Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in a November 2015 talk,
“The NASA people would say, ‘Come on Lori, you’ve got to talk to Elon because we got out of low-Earth orbit. We’re giving him that, but you’ve got to get him out of long-term, deep space, because that’s ours,’” Garver recalled. “I thought, fundamentally, you just don’t understand. We’re not in a race in a swimming pool where everyone is racing against one another. We’re in a cycling race where the government is riding point and the others are drafting behind us, and if someone comes alongside us and can pass us because they’ve found a better way, we don’t get out our tire pump and stick it between their spokes.”
She said it best, perhaps, when she made this observation.
“NASA was a very symbol of capitalist ideals when we went to the Moon and beat the Russians,” she said. “Now what we’re working with is more of a socialist plan for space exploration, which is just anathema to what this country should be doing. Don’t try to compete with the private sector. Incentivize them by driving technologies that will be necessary for us as we explore further.”
You might imagine she wasn't terribly popular at NASA.   She "made more than a few enemies in Congress and at NASA. She stepped on the toes of center directors. She got crosswise with the astronaut corps. And she didn’t always play nice with NASA’s traditional aerospace partners, who expected fat contracts from the space agency but also flexible deadlines."  NASA, though, long ago became an arthritic bureaucracy incapable of much beside shuffling papers; an insider told me, back in the '90s, that the miracle of NASA was that despite all the road blocks put in the way, they still managed to accomplish things.  It's a shadow of its former glory days in the 60s and 70s.  It still has the infrastructure, which translates into NASA centers in many congressional districts, which inevitably translates into money being passed around in DC.  For dinosaurs like Charlie Bolden. 

Personally, I think Bolden is afraid that one day in eight or ten years, he'll be watching SpaceX astronauts landing on Mars on TV, while the SLS and NASA are still bound to LEO.  


  1. "Personally, I think Bolden is afraid that one day in eight or ten years, he'll be watching SpaceX astronauts landing on Mars on TV, while the SLS and NASA are still bound to LEO."

    I believe you are correct, with one modification: the SLS will have an internal attitude adjustment routine that ensures that the astronauts always have the correct direction toward Mecca.

  2. Is it even possible to land humans on Mars (alive) and get them back? It would literally cost trillions that we don't have and return virtually nothing for our investment. Do we even need NASA anymore? Their heyday was in the 60's and 70's and it has been downhill ever since.

  3. I don't believe it's practical, at this point, to bring people back from Mars. It just might be possible to drop colonists, tools, and supplies off. There is no need to explore Mars. We know what it looks like. The next steps should be colonization and terraforming. Use the moon first for practice.

    NASA has no drive, no spine, and apparently little brain. It's a jellyfish of an organization.

  4. This is a turn I never expected: first that it might be impossible to send humans to Mars at all, and then that it might be possible for a one way, but not a return flight.

    I've never seen the first bit of speculation that it would be impossible to go to Mars. There's certainly speculation that it's impractical, but that varies tremendously with how the mission profile is put together - and the person making the claims. As you might expect, the profile changes the cost. That $1 Trillion price is likely to be the actual development cost of the F-35 and no one seems to be saying we're going to halt development of that.

    Personally, I think that the way to go is using nuclear powered acceleration both ways. It can shorten the trips from 8 months to 6 weeks, each way. It turns the mission from three years to under one (see this backgrounder). Neither NASA or SpaceX seems to be talking about that. In all fairness the technologies talked about in that linked 2013 piece are nowhere near as available as those NASA and SpaceX talk about.

    1. The Deplorable MalatropeSeptember 17, 2016 at 5:27 PM

      Indeed. Watch heads explode when Musk or Bezos requests a license to use a nuclear engine on a new vessel.

  5. Understand that because we live in a dangerous world we need fighter jets and will buy fighter jets whether we go to Mars or not. It is a constitutional mandate that we maintain a strong defense and protect the country not to mention we all (most all) want to live. But no one needs to go to Mars. $1 trillion, $2 trillion it doesn't matter it is a waste of money and as I read the constitution not a mandate for the federal government. What would the actual benefit be? I'm not sure there is any benefit from the far less expensive unmanned trip to Mars. We have some serious problems today and in the future and a lot of the problems we have are directly related to high taxes and high federal spending. Do we need more?? Couldn't we satisfy the ego/greed of NASA by maybe just spending a few billion to go to the moon again and bring back some moon rocks or something? Do we really have to go out out for a Mars boondoggle?

    1. I didn't mean to imply that I thought NASA should have anything to do with going to Mars. Actually, I thought it was clear from the original piece that I thought NASA was not the way to go.

      My reference to the trillion dollar price is simply to the price, not saying it's something the government should pay. Just the idea that a trillion dollars over a decade or two isn't that unusual anymore.

      So it's irrelevant whether you or I or any individual thinks it's worth going to Mars. What matters is that if SpaceX or Blue Origin or some other private company thinks it worth it and does it. Again, on their money not tax money.

  6. It is a bureaucracy still the same and wants to be fed. Do not feed the beast. And when it bows to the east, kick it in the ass.

  7. Just what is the success rate of Space-X these days? How many successful launches, against how many catastrophic failures? I'm willing to let you strictly count the Falcon 9 if you want, and ignore their failures before they got to the Cape.

    How willing would YOU be to ride that vehicle?

    How much $$$ has the US Government shoveled to Mr. Musk for his launches?

    I believe if you look closely, you'll find that none of the "private launch companies" are anywhere NEAR as good as you have been led to believe.

    1. 1. I'd hazard a guess that SpaceX's failure rate is around where the Delta or Atlas programs were at this point in their vehicle lifetimes. How long have they been flying compared to those two vehicles?

      I went and looked it up. If you go back to last June to get their last in-flight vehicle loss, and include this pad accident, they've lost two out of nine: 22% failure rate. I don't see when the last failure was before that, but it seems to be that they're having a bad year.

      2) Completely irrelevant. I've never had the test pilot mentality. I think it was Heinlein who said the test pilot life motto was, "give 'em rubber soles and they'll take odds on surviving a jump off the roof".

      3) No idea. I know they've gotten some assistance. I know they've paid for some help and not others. Tell me.

      Failure is an integral part of space flight and everybody knows that's the case. The Shuttle program lost two vehicles and 14 people out of 135 missions, a 1.5% failure rate, so you can't hold them out as model of perfection. Manned missions are supposed to be a much higher standard than unmanned. I've seen Atlases, Deltas and one particularly dramatic Titan III blow. I think they're doing pretty darned well. (And BTW, I would ride the Shuttle even with a 1.5% chance of biting the big one).

    2. A lot less money than if they were depending on NASA for launch vehicles...

    3. A lot less money than if they were depending on NASA for launch vehicles...

  8. You might want to watch this Mr. Graybeard, he is farther ahead than I thought, until I saw this a few weeks ago and heard about the Raptor engine test.

  9. The problem is Elon Musk is a grifter. A very successful grifter but a grifter. Anything he touches turns to huge sums of tax payers money being spent to accomplish diddly squat. You want a $100,000 electric car that will save the world LOL? Mr Musk has one for you but the taxpayer has to pay 80% of it and it doesn't save squat. Want to go to Mars? Never mind there is nothing there and if there were we couldn't afford to bring it back. Never mind that it will end up costing 1000% more than any estimate of it's cost. And never mind that somehow, some way the taxpayer will pay for it. Well, Mr Musk has a spaceship he wants to sell you.

  10. The whole thing about SpaceX "developing their engines for no tax dollars" is a smoke-screen. They used massive amounts of data and design studies to build their engines, ALL of it funded by government agencies.

    It gave them a huge head start on a clean engine design, but to say they did it "all at their own expense" is wrong.....

    1. Do you have more specific information? Being a public agency, there's literally tons of NASA data in the public domain. Did they look up design data that has been published, or what? The way you say that makes it sound like they asked NASA to do studies for them and got the results for free. Does it really work that way?

      Or is it like saying if I go read the MIT Lincoln Labs radar research from WWII and come up with an idea, that it's really government research that paid for it?

      The uncomfortable fact is that NASA hasn't designed a new liquid fuel engine since the Space Shuttle Main Engines in the mid 70s. If indeed they really designed those engines, and it wasn't their contractors (Boeing? Rocketdyne?) Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have produced new engines, at a time when Orbital Sciences was importing Russian engines designed in the 60s (and blowing up their vehicle on the pad at Wallops Island). NASA's SLS will reuse the SSMEs, so still no new NASA liquid fuel engines.

    2. I'll see if I can find out more.