Space Access Update #137 11/24/14
Copyright 2014 by Space Access Society
In this Issue:
Maintaining An Even Strain
Commercial Crew Followup
Booster & Engine Developments
Space Access '15 Conference, April 2015
Maintaining An Even Strain
Many times over the years, we've gotten feedback to the effect that "things are going so well for this new industry, don't you think it's time to declare victory and move on?"
Oddly enough, none of those times was during this last month. The spectacular loss of two different commercial space vehicles in quick succession now has some questioning the viability of the entire commercial space industry.
To both extremes, we counsel patience. Maintain an even strain, pace yourselves for the long haul. Things are generally neither as good as they seem when we're all giddily celebrating a success, nor as bad as claimed by the naysayers after a high-visibility setback or two.
In this case, a few weeks later, both outfits that lost commercial ships now have a pretty good idea what went wrong, and both are now outlining their path forward.
According to Space News and their own press release, Orbital Sciences says that the problem that destroyed their Antares booster was a failure in one of the Soviet-surplus NK-33 engines bought out of long-term storage and refurbished for their program. They now think the remainder of that surplus batch is inherently unreliable and they don't plan to fly with them again. They plan to meet their contractual obligations to NASA for Station cargo services by flying their Cygnus robot cargo vehicle on alternate boosters for the next one or two missions. And by 2016 they plan to be flying Antares again with new first-stage engines from one of a number of possible sources. All this will involve their taking a financial hit, but nobody seems to think it's one they can't handle.
We suspect that the general nature of the NK-33/AJ-26 problem may be one we've seen before elsewhere with batches of long-stored surplus hardware. There's a strong tendency to pick out the items in best condition and use them first, with success. After a while you find yourself getting down to the ones that were stored under the leak in the roof, or where mice had been nesting in the machinery for years, and things get iffier. This would fit with last May's similar (also the turbopump) failure of one of these engines on the test stand, with the 2011 test stand failure of one of these engines due to corrosion stress cracking in a high-pressure fuel duct, and with other reports of corrosion problems in the decades-stored engines.
Virgin Galactic meanwhile we expect are feeling their flight loss more, since they lost one test pilot and saw another seriously injured. Our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Michael Alsbury, and our best wishes for a quick and complete recovery to Pete Siebold.
We will take this opportunity to mention that you can donate to a fund that will go directly to Michael Alsbury's wife and two children, at http://www.gofundme.com/mikealsbury.
It seems very likely now from the preliminary facts that NTSB has released that the problem had to do with loss of aerodynamic control leading to breakup of the SS2 vehicle due to a controls procedure issue, not (as many speculated) an issue with the new-version SS2 rocket motor being flight tested for the first time. The issues involved are complicated, and we urge everyone not to leap to any premature conclusions as to what went wrong. Consider that "pilot error" is far from the only possible (nor even necessarily the most likely) explanation. The formal controls procedure for this mission may have been incorrect, or a correct procedure may have been executed based on an incorrect (or easy-to-misread) instrument reading, or some combination of cockpit design and test-plan and training factors may have made a procedural error much harder to avoid than it needed to be. The NTSB has assembled a new Human Performance Group within the SS2 investigation to look into these factors.
Virgin Galactic meanwhile has announced that they're proceeding with construction of their 65-percent-complete second copy of SS2, and hope to begin test-flying it next summer. Our take is that it's very likely they already have a pretty good idea what went wrong, and with feedback from NTSB they ought to be able to eliminate the possibility of a repeat without major additional delay.
Virgin's ability to cover the obvious additional costs involved is however an interesting question. They've already spent considerably more than originally planned on SS2 development, due to the protracted engine development. Their investors have already been showing signs of impatience over the last year, and at least one major investor is said to be taking a wait-and-see approach to any additional funding. Virgin however at this point has a significant amount of prestige wrapped up in the project, and we would never underestimate the salesmanship of the group's founder. We would be inclined to bet that the additional funding will be found, externally or failing that perhaps internally, and the project will move forward.
Taking a few steps back from this all, we have two observations. One, both Orbital and Virgin seem to be reacting to their problems in a businesslike - we might almost say "commercial" - manner. And two, in both cases, one by plan, one by the nature of the competitive marketplace, if either commercial player is delayed or ultimately fails to recover from their setback, there are alternatives. NASA deliberately chose to support two Commercial Cargo providers to allow for exactly these circumstances, so SpaceX is available to make up the cargo-to-Station slack if Orbital can't deliver. (Advocates of reducing the Commercial Crew program to a single contractor take note.) And the marketplace has provided Virgin with near-term competition in the form of XCOR**, likely to begin test-flying their own approach to profiting from the suborbital spaceplane tourist and payload markets sometime in the coming year, and Masten Space, working hard on their unmanned solution for the fast-growing suborbital market for engineering test and science instrument payloads.
So, that was an interesting week, yes, in the Chinese curse sense. But it wasn't the end of the world, or the end of the industry - nowhere near that. We look forward with considerable interest to this roller-coaster ride continuing.
** disclaimer - the writer of this piece holds a modest amount of XCOR stock from his three years as Chief of Staff there. He tries not to let it go to his head.
Commercial Crew Followup
We haven't been in the breaking news business (with rare exceptions) for a long time, as many fine news sources have sprung up in recent years to cover this new industry. The last time we wrote on this subject, Senator Shelby's poison-pill (mandating massively onerous "cost-plus" accounting for future Commercial Crew contracts despite their being fixed-price, which typically requires much simpler accounting) was still in play, and the CCtCap downselect hadn't yet happened.
Just in case anyone spent the last few months on a desert island, Boeing and SpaceX were selected and Sierra Nevada was not. More on that in a bit.
The poison-pill's fate is somewhat less obvious. Short version, that specific report language is now dead, for multiple reasons. First, as expected, that Commerce, Justice, Science (NASA) Appropriations bill got replaced along with many others by an omnibus Continuing Resolution, technically leaving the accompanying Appropriations Report behind. Second, the CCtCap contracts have now been awarded, so any new attempt to impose cost-plus accounting would be ex post facto and thus arguably unconstitutional.
But most important, other influential Appropriations Committee Senators spoke out against it - that we know of, Senator Nelson on the Senate Floor, and later Senator Feinstein in a response letter she sent constituents who'd written her about it. Money quote: "I share your concerns about the report language, and I agree that cost-plus accounting is unnecessary for commercial companies and could slow the commercial crew process as well as reduce competition and innovation. Please know that I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to seek to ensure that commercial space companies are not forced to use this type of accounting for the Commercial Crew Program."
This sort of thing generally slips through because other Senators don't notice or don't care. We think it's now safe to say that this particular attack on Commercial Crew is not likely to be repeated. (We also think that some good has come of all this, in that a lot more people are now aware of the inherently much higher costs of Cost-Plus contracting.) Our thanks to all of you who took action on this over the summer. It worked!
Which is not to say it's all smooth sailing for Commercial Crew from now on.
For one thing, Sierra Nevada has filed a protest over not being selected. The top-line numbers for the three bids (for a package deal covering development, one demonstration flight, and up to six operational flights) are Boeing, $4.2 billion, Sierra Nevada $3.3 billion, and SpaceX $2.6 billion. Sierra Nevada has asserted that the official CCtCap selection criteria were 50% cost-based (with the other 50% made up of mission suitability plus past performance), that their cost was $900 million better than Boeing's, and that overall scores were close enough that they should have been selected instead.
It does seem clear that NASA considered Sierra Nevada program risks to be somewhat higher than Boeing's, and that this was a factor in Boeing's selection despite the significantly higher price. Beyond that, the available facts are fragmentary and occasionally contradictory, and anything we said about the merits of Sierra Nevada's case would be a guess. We do know that there was immense political and lobbying pressure swirling around the downselect. GAO is supposed to decide the protest by January 5th, and your guess is as good as ours how it will turn out.
Regardless of how the protest turns out, the big problem we see for CCtCap now is development funding. NASA has been extremely careful not to give even a hint as to how those top-line numbers break down between development and the (up-to) six operational flights. We think there's a reason for this.
Given a first test flight goal of late 2017, the bulk of the development funding is needed over the next three years - federal Fiscal Years 2015 (underway since October 1st), 2016, and 2017. When last we looked, Congress was aiming to provide NASA with FY'15 CCtCap funding just short of $800 million. Our ballpark guess is, NASA is now going to have to go back to Congress and ask for an increase to well north of a billion a year for the next couple of years.
To arrive at these ballpark numbers, we assume half of those top-line numbers ($4.2 billion to Boeing, $2.6 billion to SpaceX) is for development, half for the six operational flights. This gives us a pricetag of $350 million per Boeing operational flight, $217 million per SpaceX operational flight. (These per-flight prices seem a bit high, so possibly our development totals will be a bit low.)
This leaves us with a ballpark overall CCtCap development total of $3.4 billion. Split evenly over three years, that's $1.13 billion a year. More realistically assuming this year's total will remain near $800 million due to Congressional distraction and inertia, that's $1.3 billion a year for FY'16 and FY'17. Possibly more, if in fact those six operational flights are less than half of the respective top-line totals.
We expect this to be a problem. Congress will need a great deal of persuading to give the program an additional billion (or more) over the next three years. In particular, we guarantee the Congressional NASA-pork-business-as-usual coalition will push for reduction to one contractor, Boeing, "to save money". (It's a sucker bet - this has already started.)
We note that substituting Sierra Nevada's top-line number for Boeing's would reduce the (ballpark) total three-year increase needed from $1 billion to $550 million, an average increase of $183 million a year rather than $333 million. We note that the modest increase in technical/schedule risk Sierra Nevada may present over Boeing is exactly the sort of risk that keeping two competitors in the program is supposed to mitigate. Above all though, we note that in light of the recent loss of a Commercial Cargo launch with no major impact on the overall goal of getting vital cargo to Station, downselecting to a single contractor "to save money" on Commercial Crew would be a massive false economy, leaving NASA at the mercy of single-vendor failures in a vital NASA capability for years (if not decades) to come.
Booster & Engine Developments
On a much more cheerful subject, we never cease to be amazed at this industry's ability to pleasantly surprise us. As of our last Update, we saw ULA as having a major problem with corporate parental non-support of lower-cost launch (SAU#136, US Launch Development Policy). We also saw no immediate policy alternative to substantial government funding of a guaranteed-expensive Aerojet RD-180 booster engine replacement (SAU #136, Defense Launch & Propulsion Politics). We did advocate some provision for support of Blue Origin or SpaceX also, but didn't see either as being a high-probability near-term RD-180 replacement solution.
But Blue Origin notoriously plays their cards close to their vest, and apparently so does ULA. The announcement that Blue Origin has in fact been developing their BE-4 550,000 pound thrust booster engine for the past several years, and that ULA has cut a deal with them to support development and production of the BE-4 and to use a pair in a new-design ULA lower-cost booster to replace their two current high-cost boosters, changes everything.
The DOD requirement for two independent means of launching national security payloads will now very likely be met by SpaceX Falcon and by the new lower-cost ULA booster, allowing graceful retirement of ULA's two current high-cost legacy launch systems. The recently recognized need to move away from (now politically risky) Russian engines will be satisfied. And none of this will depend on shoveling money into Aerojet, which as the last contractor standing after consolidation of the traditional US rocket engine industry has an unenviable reputation for producing results only slowly and at great expense.
Some observations on all this, in no particular order:
- The push to allocate two hundred million a year of DOD funds for new booster engine development, practically speaking earmarked for Aerojet, is now deader than a Monty Python parrot. We were amused to see a trial balloon floated in the press recently for the money to go to a development competition, as we'd advocated before Blue Origin showed their hand. Sorry, guys, too little too late. Given the extreme pressure on Defense budgets and given that DOD dual-redundant launch requirements are likely now going to be met by purely commercial investments, we think Aerojet's lobbyists will do well to get a few tens of millions.
- ULA's new booster may well be called Atlas 6 for marketing reasons, but its heritage will likely be more Delta 4.
Facts: The new Blue Origin booster engine runs on liquid natural gas fuel rather than Atlas 5's rocket-grade kerosene or Delta 4's liquid hydrogen. LNG's density is about half that of kerosene, but about six times higher than liquid hydrogen. Delta 4's very low fuel density means it has larger diameter 5.1 meter tanks versus Atlas 5's 3.8 meter tanks. And a pair of BE-4 engines at 1.1 million lbs takeoff thrust implies a somewhat heavier booster than either A5 with its 850,000 lb thrust RD-180 or D4 with its 705,000 lb thrust RS-68a.
Our guess then is the new ULA booster stage will end up being built on Delta 4's 5.1 meter-diameter tank tooling, that it may actually be somewhat shorter than the D4 core but its liftoff mass will be significantly higher, and that (assuming similar second stages) it will lift a significantly larger payload with no (expensive) solid strapons than either D4 or A5.
- ULA's new booster cost-reduction effort will certainly focus on getting away from the current legacy USAF-qualified rocket component vendors. The combination of high fixed overhead for the inflexible legacy-vendor testing and documentation requirements, plus the ever-shrinking market for their products - in some cases ULA is the only customer left - means costs from these vendors have been rising rapidly. This is a major part of ULA's ongoing problems with rising D4 and A5 costs.
As for how ULA will go about this, SpaceX famously addressed the high-cost legacy components problem by bringing most of its rocket component production in-house. ULA looks likely to take a different approach, working with non-traditional outside vendors to obtain suitable lower-cost components. We say this because that's what ULA already has been doing. From various public sources, they're known to be working with XCOR, with the Detroit high-performance specialty automotive company Roush, and now with Blue Origin. We would not be at all surprised to see this pattern continued and expanded as the new ULA booster development advances.
- An intriguing question is, will ULA pursue reusability for their new booster core? It would increase development costs, and it is not obvious whether ULA's corporate parents might be ready to support the additional investment. Arguments can be made either way as to whether reusability will be required to remain competitive with SpaceX, given the early stage of SpaceX's reusability testing, and given the likelihood US government customers with critical payloads may insist on new-built stages anyway for their missions for some time to come. (We'd be inclined to advise keeping reusability as an option in the design process at least long enough to see how it's working out for SpaceX.)
- The BE-4 meanwhile also has some interesting implications for Blue Origin. Their previously-known booster engine, the BE-3 110,000 lb thrust liquid-hydrogen engine, if used for a ground-launch booster stage implies an at-most medium-sized overall vehicle, even with multiple engines. With some number of BE-4 engines for a lower stage, and the BE-3 powering a reusable upper stage, the implication is a considerably larger vehicle. If Blue Origin goes for enough engines on each stage to allow for engine-out capability - and their goal of reusability somewhat implies this - the resulting vehicle could be very large indeed.
Space Access '15 Conference, April 2015
We'd like to thank everyone who responded to our appeal for funds last issue. Between that and some attention to mundane business again after our summer spent biting Senatorial ankles, we're now caught up on bills, we're shopping for a replacement for our (slow, increasingly flaky) 2004-vintage office computer, and we have two thousand put away toward the ten thousand it'll take to do the next Space Access conference without starving.
So, we've been talking to multiple hotels since summer about hosting a Space Access conference in Phoenix next April. We've recently narrowed it down to a handful of good candidates - and two possible dates.
We had decided last summer to aim for Thursday-Saturday April 23-25 for Space Access '15, but then one of the hotels we were talking to made us an interesting offer: Go with Wednesday-Friday April 1-3, and get a fancier place, at a slightly better price, three weeks earlier in the spring when Arizona's more reliably just pleasantly warm and when the rest of the country's more likely still unpleasantly cold.
One downside of those alternate dates, of course, is that Easter Sunday is April 5th next year - hence the Wednesday-Friday schedule, so people can still get home to their families in time (and so this hotel can clear the decks for their annual 800-person Easter Sunday brunch.) Another possible downside is that our first day would overlap with the end of Major League Baseball "Cactus League" Spring Training in Phoenix. We've been wary about that ever since SA'95, when NASA HQ didn't believe they needed to confirm rooms with a credit card and the hotel gave Dan Goldin's reservation away to Chicago Cubs fans. (Then again, for any combined space and baseball fans among us, that could be an upside - we would as usual have our hotel rate available up to three days before and after the conference.)
So, we'd like your input over the next week: April 23-25, or April 1-3? Any info you have on relevant schedule conflicts is also very welcome. (Also, a sub-question: Thursday-Saturday, or Wednesday-Friday? Twenty years ago we were almost entirely amateur enthusiasts and weekends were best. As our pro percentage has increased, we've moved partly into weekdays - our current guess is that Thursday-Saturday is still the best compromise, but what do you think?)
In the meantime, if you believe Space Access conferences are useful to this community, and that keeping conference prices as low as possible for all of us who are still students, hungry amateurs, or tight-budget startup pros is still the way to go, help, please. Send a donation of whatever size - ten, a hundred, a thousand, it all helps - via check still for now (credit cards online are nearing the top of the to-do list, but aren't quite there yet) to: Space Access Society, PO Box 16034, Phoenix AZ 85011.
Note that this is NOT tax-deductible, as we are not a 501c-anything. It is however entirely confidential, as we have never and will never share or disclose in any way our supporters' names. (Unless you really want to be listed as a conference sponsor - we'll be glad to give credit where desired. Keep in mind though that having your name listed publicly as a donor could lead to lots of other people pestering you for donations to their favorite causes too.)
Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions in the cost of reaching space. You may redistribute this Update in any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety. You may reproduce selected portions of this Update if you credit this Space Access Update as the source and include a pointer to our website.
Space Access Society
"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System"
- Robert A. Heinlein