Space Access Update #127 7/26/11
Copyright 2011 by Space Access Society
Contents This Issue:
- House NASA Appropriation Emerges From Committee Unchanged, Goes On Hold
- Commercial Crew News
- CCDev Plans To Ditch Space Act Agreements For Traditional Contracting
- ULA Signs No-Cost NASA SAA To "Human-Rate" Atlas 5
- Space Launch System Political Developments
- SLS Policy Issues
- MPCV Needs A Ride
- New US Booster Engine Consensus?
- Pratt & Whitney/Rocketdyne On The Block?
House NASA Appropriation
Emerges From Committee Unchanged
Then Goes On Hold
The House Commerce, Justice, and Science FY'12 Appropriation bill emerged from markup by the full House Appropriations Committee essentially unchanged, at least regarding funding for the Commercial Crew and Space Technology programs that we're concerned about. Both were slated for large increases this year, to get a number of essential new efforts off to a fast start - both (so far) are funded roughly level with last year.
(Our thanks to everyone who tried to help fix these in the Committee - we will have a better shot when this bill eventually goes to the next step of the process, consideration by the full House for amendments and approval. More on that in a bit.)
As for the effect of this on Commercial Crew, NASA Administrator Bolden in recent testimony before the House Science Committee stated that this level of funding ($312 million, 37% of the $850 million request) will significantly increase the much-lamented post-Shuttle "Gap" in US crew launch capabilities. We expect that this will also make it far more difficult to maintain multiple competing projects. CCDev was Plan B until Ares/Orion died - now that Commercial is Plan A, more than one competitor strikes us as essential (and inexpensive, relative to government-run efforts) insurance.
The Space Technology Program (STP) meanwhile is funded at $375 million, 37% of the requested $1,024 million. While we haven't seen any statements from NASA on what projects will suffer, our general understanding is that this amount will barely support existing efforts and there will be little or no room for new projects such as propellant depots, advanced space propulsion, reusable suborbital science, etc.
Our chances of getting increased funding for Commercial Crew and Space Technology depend in part on what sort of deal is reached on the Debt Limit. Our current reading of those tea leaves is that the end result this year will be a FY'12 Federal budget certainly no larger than FY'11, and quite likely significantly smaller. This means we'll have our work cut out for us the remainder of this summer if we want to be heard over all the other constituencies clamoring for restoration of their favorite programs.
The next step in this funding process is likely to be delayed, due to the considerable amount of Congressional bandwidth the Debt Limit controversy is consuming, and the contentious nature of Appropriations bills in general in a year the House is trying for across-the-board cutbacks. The original plan was to send the CJS (NASA) Appropriation to the full House in the next week or so, before the traditional August congressional break. At this point our best info is that this bill won't hit the House floor before September.
The Senate meanwhile hasn't done much on any Appropriations so far; they seem to be waiting for the Debt Limit issue to be settled first.
The Congress as a whole is currently scheduled to be on "August break" from the second week in August through the first week in September. Break start may be delayed a few days to wrap up whatever deal is reached on the Debt Limit, but roughly speaking, all our Representatives and Senators will be out of DC for most of next month plus the first week of September.
What we recommend, for those of you inclined to actively support our issues, is getting in touch with your Representative and Senators over the rest of the summer and letting them know your concerns. (If you can do it without being disowned, divorced, or causing damaging levels of MEGO, persuade family and friends to join in.)
There are a variety of methods possible - letters (keep them short and state clearly what you want in the first paragraph), local media op-eds and letters to the editor (national media, if you can), local "townhall" meetings (if you get to a mike, keep it short and make sure you state your objective clearly), reception lines, parades, or barbecues (keep it to one line you can deliver during a production-line handshake), making appointments for personal meetings with either the boss or a relevant staffer via the home district offices, and if you're a partisan activist, buttonholing your legislators at fundraisers. If you're going to donate anyway, you might as well get listened to!
This matter will likely come to floor votes of the full House, and while Senate procedures tend to be less transparent, individual Senators can have considerable influence. The one Representative or Senator you manage to educate in the coming weeks could end up making the difference.
If the US having an affordable practical future in space matters to you, go for it! You'll likely have to be persistent, maybe even exercise a bit of ingenuity, to get your point delivered effectively, as it seems likely that you'll be competing with more-than-average public desire for Congressional attention this year. We have faith in you - what our movement may lack in numbers we more than make up for in smarts.
Commercial Crew News
CCDev Plans To Ditch Space Act Agreements For Traditional Contracting
We are deeply troubled (but not surprised) by the announcement NASA's Commercial Crew Program made last week. (It's officially CCP now, but we may keep calling it CCDev occasionally for familiarity's sake.) Briefly, CCP said they plan to abandon the (successful) CCDev program practice of using highly flexible Space Act Agreements (SAA's) to work with the commercial partners. They plan to switch over to contracts under the standard Federal Acquisition Regulations ("The FARs") for the remainder of the program. The reason they gave was that SAA's don't give them sufficient control over the details of the commercial crew launch projects, nor sufficient authority to order changes in mid-project.
Our short response: Excessive NASA bureaucratic control over project details, plus NASA's bureaucratic tendency to mandate mid-project changes with no consideration for cost and schedule effects, are major parts of why big NASA projects so consistently run years (if not decades) late and cost ten or more times the commercial equivalents.
(This cost difference is consistent enough that it has become embedded in government project costing models. See reports from earlier this summer of a NASA study on the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 booster development. This study used a standard government costing model to predict Falcon 9 project costs to date of $4 billion if done under standard government contracting practices. The actual government-verified cost of the commercial Falcon 9 development to date, including its smaller Falcon 1 precursor, was $390 million.)
Our short response, continued: We feel sufficiently strongly about this that if the Commercial Crew Program does not end up modifying this position, we will seriously consider switching from supporting additional Commercial Crew funding to actively opposing any CCP funding at all, since at that point we believe the program will have become more damaging to the emergence of a US commercial space transport industry than no program at all.
Some of our colleagues have been urging us to support them in asking Congress to mandate continued use of minimal-interference SAA's by the Commercial Crew Program. We advised caution in interfering with the program details in this manner, but this announcement has gone a long way toward changing our minds on the point.
We mentioned not being surprised. In fact, we've been expecting this development for years. There is a long NASA tradition of programs starting far enough under the radar to avoid the usual bureaucratic bloat, succeeding wildly on a relative shoestring, then being adopted by the permanent bureaucracy and "helped" to death by the imposition of all the usual bureaucratic practices, prejudices, and agendas.
(In this case, imposed by the NASA Human Spaceflight bureaucracy, HSF for short, AKA the Shuttle-Industrial Complex, the mummified remains of the army that did Apollo, with enough red tape to wrap a supertanker, and enough old prejudices and hidden agendas to then sink it. Not to mention several billion dollars a year in fixed overhead to support their thousands of civil servants and tens of thousands of contractors. The key thing to understand about major NASA HSF projects is that they cost billions a year just to keep the lights on - results, if any, will come from whatever loose change is left, as filtered through the truly byzantine structure that has accreted over the last forty years.)
CCDev's forerunner, the COTS program (Commercial Orbital Transport to Station, AKA Commercial Cargo) was started with a low profile, and ran under hands-off SAA's. The COTS commercial partners had extensive access to NASA expertise, but were allowed to use their own best judgment as to how to solve problems. NASA specified the goals, but could not and did not control internal project details.
The result was that COTS succeeded, for less than NASA HSF usually spends on preliminary studies and viewgraphs, to the point that there are now two US commercial Station cargo providers on the verge of entering service, both due to fly their first test missions to Station by this winter.
However, COTS had been noticed enough by 2006 that "COTS Part D", the optional followon to carry crew as well, was decisively sidetracked. (We expect COTS-D's likely success would not have shown the then-still-alive Constellation program in a good light.)
Constellation collapsed anyway, of course, and due to the liquidation of COTS-D we're now still years away from a US commercial crew capability. We thoroughly expect that if CCP is allowed to be run as anything like a traditional NASA HSF massive-elbow-joggling project, we'll return to the NASA HSF Constellation standard: The "Gap" will expand at one year per year. We also expect that any commercial vendors foolish enough to take part will find themselves requirements-changed into bankruptcy, or if they have deep enough pockets to survive, they'll be rendered commercially irrelevant by the huge operating expenses NASA HSF's supervision-intensive approach will impose.
See http://commercialcrew.nasa.gov/page.cfm?ID=32 for the presentation slides and video of the event. The audience responses starting around 42 minutes into the video are very much worth hearing - representatives of a number of the interested commercial parties were there, and were extremely unhappy with this proposed change. Public responses to all this, by the way, are due by August 3rd - next Wednesday.
ULA Signs No-Cost NASA SAA To "Human-Rate" Atlas 5
In a related matter, there's more than meets the eye to ULA's recently announced no-cost Space Act Agreement with NASA to look at what might be required to "Human-Rate" ULA's Atlas 5 booster. Given that three different Commercial Crew participants are talking about using Atlas 5 to launch their crew vehicles, progress on getting this booster officially accepted by NASA as suitable for carrying NASA astronauts is important to Commercial Crew, and to ULA's future sales. (Carriage of non-NASA commercial passengers is a separate matter; FAA AST oversees that.)
The background is, there has been a tension between ULA and the NASA Human Spaceflight Establishment (HSF, AKA the Shuttle-Industrial Complex) over "Human-Rating" ULA's boosters for years.
ULA's position is that their boosters are already built to launch national-priority payloads as reliably as possible; launching people basically requires a review of booster systems for any crew-specific issues plus addition of an Emergency Detection System or EDS, a computer that would monitor key booster systems and warn a crew capsule of major booster problems in time for the capsule to fire its escape rockets and get away safely.
The NASA HSF position has been that "Human-Rating" requires extensive NASA HSF involvement in every detail of the booster design, with systems redesigned to meet HSF standards as demanded. This would be, we expect, an extremely expensive and time-consuming process, resulting in an extensively redesigned booster that would almost certainly cost more to produce, and that might or might not actually be any more reliable.
(It must be understood that NASA "Human-Rating" is not any sort of fixed clear unambiguous standard. It is a disorganized and wildly miscellaneous collection of methods, practices, guesses, and prejudices on improving expendable booster reliability that goes back fifty years, to the days when NASA was first trying to re-engineer 85% reliable military missiles into 99% reliability before using them to fly astronaut-heroes on national TV.)
(Essentially, "Human-Rating" for decades has been whatever NASA's Human Spaceflight establishment said it was. Specific requirements were regularly waived when they conflicted with short-term expedience. Notably so for minimum SRB operating temperature and for External Tank foam-shedding in the Shuttle program... NASA HSF claims about the safety benefits of their applying "Human-Rating" to commercial vehicles must be considered in light of NASA Human-Rating's actual post-Apollo track record: Twice in 135 missions, everybody died.)
ULA, already struggling to cut costs and sell enough boosters to make money, wasn't thrilled with this prospect. They would either have to pay to run two separate production lines for very different versions, or consolidate production on the new "improved" more expensive NASA versions. Nor was ULA's main existing customer, the Defense Department, happy with the likely cost and operations impacts of having NASA redesign DOD's main boosters. ULA dug in their heels.
This Space Act Agreement represents the latest move in the chess match. ULA gets a chance to develop their EDS on their own dime while selectively drawing on NASA expertise to examine Atlas 5 for "Human-Rating" suitability in great detail. This will force NASA HSF to justify why any given existing Atlas 5 feature might not qualify as "Human-Ratable", at a time when there's still no obligation on ULA's part to actually change anything. This should go a long way toward forcing NASA HSF to pin down actual concrete halfway-reasonable Human-Rating standards.
Given that Atlas 5 has flown safely 26 times in a row, well beyond the demonstrated-success standard NASA used to certify Soyuz as astronaut-safe (after the Russians told NASA HSF to bugger off when they wanted to crawl all over Soyuz design details) it will be interesting to see what Atlas 5 issues HSF can come up with. We won't rule out the possibility that they might even come up with a useful improvement or two - there really is a lot of genuine expertise embedded in the NASA HSF morass. But we expect the net result will be that ULA will end up in a far better position to resist future NASA HSF pressure to let them insert themselves deeply into ULA's internal processes before NASA astronauts launch on an Atlas 5.
Space Launch System Political Developments
SLS Policy Issues
We've been of mixed mind how actively we should oppose SLS for a while now. On the one hand, it is indisputably a huge piece of earmarked pork. Further, there's a strong likelihood that SLS will never fly at all for the proposed funding under the implicit political requirement of being managed by as much of the current NASA HSF booster establishment as can possibly be kept on the payroll. Finally, SLS's Congressional sponsors remain prone to trimming back actual useful NASA projects like Commercial Crew (fingers crossed CCP gets over their HSF-inspired micromanagement compulsion) and Space Technology Program to pay for minor plus-ups of the SLS porkfest.
Plus, attacking SLS all-out would be really, really satisfying. We'd certainly enjoy it, and we have reason to believe we'd mobilize considerable additional grass-roots support, because face it, a lot of you would enjoy it as well.
There are two boringly unsatisfying reasons why we've mostly limited ourselves to pointing out SLS's absurdities without actively trying to defund it.
One is that any effort spent defunding the beast would probably be wasted effort as far as our overall goals go. Money taken from SLS most likely would just vanish from the NASA budget altogether, rather than being transferred to things we think useful. Better to apply what firepower we have to direct support of what we do like (even if that's not nearly as much righteous fun.)
The other reason is somewhat debatable. Some of our colleagues are convinced that if we do attack SLS effectively, SLS supporters will retaliate against our preferred NASA projects. We're not entirely sure they aren't already doing all the harm they can, but it's a moot point as long as we're still holding off for the first reason, so we don't worry too much about who's right on this one.
In recent weeks however, we've found a new reason to tell the truth about SLS but otherwise leave it alone: SLS is likely to soon take hits below the waterline that have nothing to do with us. The torpedoes have already been launched, and we might as well hold our fire till they hit and we see how effective they are.
What are we talking about here? In his Congressional testimony the other week, NASA Administrator Bolden was pressed hard about when he might officially announce the least-bad SLS configuration he is widely reported to have settled on, so NASA can start moving ahead on the project. His answer was that he has no choice but to wait until the results from two outside studies of likely SLS cost come back: One by the respected consulting firm Booz Allen, and the other by Office of Management and Budget, OMB, who just happen to work directly for Bolden's boss in the White House.
You may recall that late last winter, NASA HQ tried to tell Congress that there is no way SLS can fly as mandated by Congress. Given the configuration and management Congress insists on and the budget they set, SLS will certainly not fly anywhere near the 2016 deadline they call for (and may not fly ever.) Nor, if it does eventually fly, will it be affordable to use.
Congress rejected this NASA report and told Bolden to make it all fit regardless. The still-unreleased SLS plan is presumably his best effort, but we would be surprised if even an ex-astronaut US Marine General can fit twenty gallons of Congressional mandate into what's still only a ten-gallon bucket.
We would be even more surprised if either Booz Allen or OMB come back with significantly different conclusions than last winter's NASA SLS report. The large mismatch between the problem as defined by Congress and the capabilities and track record of the agency that's supposed to solve it is pretty clear at this point.
The question then becomes, will the pro-SLS faction in Congress try to ignore these two new reality checks also? That's the way to bet. But when the new cost reports come back sometime later this year, it may be the best chance we'll get to see SLS scaled back to what it should be - a new general-purpose booster main engine development effort, plus an ongoing heavy-lift technology and configuration study. At some point a few years from now when we actually know what we need for heavy lift, those will put us in a far better position to produce it affordably and quickly.
MPCV Needs A Ride
In related news, the NASA program to continue development of Constellation's "Orion" deep-space capsule (now called MPCV, for Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) has a dilemma. The first MPCV could be ready for an unmanned test flight as early as 2013, but the latest word from Administrator Bolden is that the earliest SLS would be able to launch such a test is 2017 (with first manned SLS flight two or more years later.) The obvious question is, what do the MPCV people do for the four years between 2013 and 2017? Maintain their Facebook pages? (And who pays for them to do that?)
So the MPCV project has been pushing for authority to buy a copy of the existing Delta 4 Heavy to fly their first test capsule. So far, no luck at all. The SLS factions in Congress and in NASA really don't want to see that happen, because once MPCV flies on a Delta 4H, the obvious question becomes, why do we need SLS at all? For the price of SLS, we could buy a ridiculous number of Delta 4H's (or once it's available, the even larger and cheaper Falcon Heavy) to lift deep space upper-stages plus propellant for D4H-launched MPCV's to dock with then fly their missions.
Can't have that idea catching on. So MPCV for now has a totally political 4-year "Gap" all their own.
- New US Booster Engine Consensus?
Someone pointed out to us that the USAF Reusable Booster System (RBS) program recently put out an RFI (Request For Information, the first step toward an eventual buy) for a high-efficiency LOX-kerosene booster engine with thrust in the range 300,000 to 500,000 lbs. The engine has to be based on an existing engine; it can't be a new development.
This pretty much narrows it down to an upgraded, US-produced version of the Aerojet AJ-26, their designation for refurbished Russian NK-33's. The NK-33 was originally developed for the Russian Moon program, and is currently supported by Aerojet for use in Orbital Science's Taurus II COTS booster.
This ties in interestingly with the recent talk from NASA about eventually competing a LOX-kerosene booster engine for SLS, and from Aerojet about possibly building such an engine in Alabama. A government booster engine consensus may finally be coming together.
The US has not had its own world-class liquid-fuel booster engine for a long time - the choice of solids for Shuttle short-circuited NASA development of such, and while the USAF has pursued a high-performance million-pound booster engine for decades, nothing has ever come of it.
Pratt & Whitney's RD-180 is a high-performance 860,000 lb thrust LOX-kerosene engine, but it's also a Russian import. P&W owns the rights to build the RD-180 in the US, but never has - our understanding is that setting up production here would multiply RD-180 costs several times over. (For what it's worth, persistent rumor has it that certain aspects of the RD-180 technology that the Russians never turned over to us are difficult enough that we're not sure we could duplicate them at any reasonable price.)
For the longest time, the accepted theory in the US was that the ideal number of booster engines is one - less to go wrong. Hence the quest for a new high-efficiency million-pound engine - that's roughly the installed thrust of a number of existing medium-lift booster core stages.
We see an interesting sidelight to the new interest in an engine with one-third to one-half that thrust level: The consensus on minimizing the number of booster engines may be shifting. Speculation follows... Small multiples of first-stage engines may be seen as less of a risk due to modern fault-detection making it easier to simply not launch if one engine has a problem.
Another, more interesting speculative possibility is that for higher-thrust applications, such as a liquid SRB replacement, or an eventual USAF RBS heavy flyback first stage, or (heaven forbid) a *practical* new government heavy lift booster, having enough smaller engines to tolerate an engine-out at liftoff may be coming back as a concept. Might the (9-engine) Falcon 9's success to date have affected thinking on this? Hard to say for sure at this point.
Pratt & Whitney/Rocketdyne On The Block?
And in possibly related news, the Wall Street Journal reports that parent company United Technologies is thinking about selling their Pratt & Whitney/Rocketdyne rocket propulsion organization, now that business is ramping down post-Shuttle. Their apparent acing-out by Aerojet for big kerosene booster engines aside, this could be a sign that they're not ready to bet a lot on the SLS ever being a major market for them. (SLS in its latest incarnation would use a new version of P&W's Shuttle Main Engine plus a large P&W J-2X upper stage engine.)
That, plus ULA's growing resistance to P&W RL-10 upper stage engine price increases, may have convinced United Technologies there's no future for them in rockets. We'll see.
And that should be enough to think about for one Update. Remember, if you think we know what we're talking about, go sell your local Congressional delegation on that outlook also. Meanwhile, have a great summer!
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