Access Update #147 9/2/15
copyright 2015 by Space Access Society
Contents This Issue:
SLS, Station, and Commercial Crew: Political Incentives
We now have the dates and site firmly set for our next Space Access Conference, SA'16. It will run Thursday April 7th through Saturday April 9th, 2016, at the Radisson Hotel Phoenix North (the same place as SA'15.) Room reservations are now open at $97 single-double, $8 per additional person, breakfast buffet included. Set those dates aside, and stay tuned for details as they develop.
Congress comes back from its August break after Labor Day next week, with much to do before the end of this Federal Fiscal Year, September 30th.
Yet another Continuing Resolution (CR) temporary government-wide funding bill is inevitable at this point, as Senate Democrats have stood by their refusal to allow any individual Appropriations bills to move until Republicans negotiate with them over relief from Sequester caps for non-Defense accounts also, something the (short-of-filibuster-proof-majority) Republicans thus far show no inclination to do.
Given the likelihood of that impasse continuing, we see it as very urgent to persuade Congress to put full funding for Commercial Crew in the CR. NASA Administrator Bolden recently stated the case clearly and forcefully. (We do have a few points to add; see the next section.)
Given that urgency, have you contacted your Representative and Senators yet and asked them to support full funding for Commercial Crew? If not, why not?
It can be as simple as entering your home zip code here, going to the contact pages, and using them to send a brief note to each. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, check for any local public appearances over the holiday weekend, and make an opportunity to walk up, shake hands, and deliver the message in person. (Get the message in your first sentence with the handshake! Lots of other people will want to do the same; you most likely won't get time for a followup.)
SLS, Station, and Commercial Crew: Political Incentives
We've noticed a lot of people seem puzzled as to why the pro-SLS regional faction in Congress has also been slow-rolling Commercial Crew funding since the program's start: Shorting every year's funding request to the point where first Commercial Crew flight has already been delayed two years from the original 2015. Not to mention their periodic attempts to bureaucratically strangle the Crew project, last year's accounting-rules "Poison Pill" a case in point.
Granted that overall NASA funding is scarce, the SLS deep-space mega-rocket and Commercial Crew's smaller low-orbit vehicles don't seem to be in any other obvious direct sort of competition. Why then the remarkably stubborn opposition?
The fact is, though, if you look more closely at how NASA is internally structured, the programs do compete. The grounds of the competition tend to stay largely unstated, however, because it could very easily end up looking like individual NASA centers placing their regional interests ahead of the nation's future in space. It would look extremely bad to ever say these things out loud, so nobody at NASA does.
We, however, are under no such constraints.
Overall, the competition is between the part of NASA that traditionally organizes and operates complex human space missions, a broad regional coalition centered on Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, and the part of NASA that traditionally builds the boosters for these missions, a broad regional coalition centered on Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville. (These coalitions in fact overlap considerably, with often-blurred boundaries. It's a gross oversimplification to call them just "JSC" and "MSFC", but that's often done anyway for convenience's sake.)
JSC currently is allocated about half of NASA's overall $8-$9 billion annual Human Spaceflight budget, to operate Station. MSFC currently gets much of the rest to develop the Space Launch System (SLS) Shuttle-derived megabooster and its Orion capsule. (Yes, Orion is actually managed out of JSC. It's nevertheless politically very much part of the "MSFC" coalition. Perhaps we'd better call that the "SLS/Orion" coalition. We told you the boundaries are blurred.)
MSFC last made a major attempt on JSC turf in the early days of Station, bidding for control of the overall program. They were soundly defeated - if MSFC is the 500-lb gorilla in NASA's cage, JSC is the 800-pounder. (YAO, Yet Another Oversimplification: Texas has more Congressional clout than Alabama.)
Failure To Launch
Things since then remained more or less stable, right up until Shuttle retirement made MSFC's ongoing inability to deliver any usable new post-Shuttle launcher a danger to JSC's Station.
We could write a book about that inability, but not here. The short version is, since Shuttle entered service MSFC has made a half-dozen major attempts to follow it up, and the net result is, zip. Tens of billions spent, but not one usable new space transport.
MSFC's typical attempt spent years and billions studying the latest bright idea, which was then canceled when it became obvious that actual spaceflight wouldn't take place until tens of billions more were spent - but maybe not even then. (The extremely condensed version of why is, they squeezed Von Braun out forty-five years ago and have been growing more inflexibly and expensively bureaucratic ever since.)
Late last decade, this got bad enough and obvious enough (with MSFC's new Ares 1 crew launcher on track to shake crews to death if the solid booster worked or cook them if it didn't) that JSC apparently decided enough was enough.
Innovate Or Die
Now, JSC at the time was not a model of forward thinking or organizational efficiency either. They too had been growing more inflexibly, expensively bureaucratic ever since Apollo.
But JSC had Station to support, and counting on MSFC for the new rockets to back up (and eventually replace) Russian crew and cargo capsules just didn't look like a good thing to bet the center's future on. JSC had to innovate or die. The Commercial Cargo program, COTS, was born. And succeeded. COTS produce a pair of new booster-capsule combinations for $400 million of NASA's money each, where MSFC had been failing for tens of billions.
Commercial Crew now threatens to produce two new crew-carrying capsule systems for around $2.6 billion each to first flight, where SLS/Orion is on track to spend forty billion or so. Yes, SLS/Orion is several times larger than either Commercial Crew system - but that size is supposed to bring economies of scale. Rocket costs typically scale far more strongly with parts count than with size. Twice, even three times the Commercial Crew cost might be reasonable. At fifteen or so times the cost, something's very wrong.
Competition On Three Levels
So, in the short term, Commercial Crew competes with SLS/Orion because Commercial Crew's success will make SLS/Orion program management look even worse than Commercial Cargo's (COTS) success did.
COTS badly dented MSFC's standard defense of their appalling record, that "human spaceflight is really hard and nobody else could possibly do it better and faster and cheaper than us." Commercial Crew's impending success will utterly demolish that defense. The MSFC/SLS coalition would presumably prefer to avoid this.
In the long term, Commercial Crew competes with SLS/Orion because it and Commercial Cargo are a new model of how NASA might actually buy the systems for useful human space exploration within politically realistic budgets and timelines. The open-tap budgets of Apollo were an historical anomaly; the realistic way to plan is within the budget NASA Human Exploration currently gets.
Both JSC and MSFC a decade ago were equally reluctant to give up their bad Old-NASA bureaucratic ways - but JSC has now tasted the new approach, and they have to like the results: Station has a future. We see real hope that this can be built on for affordable future outward expansion.
Which brings us to one last implication of all this - a particularly unspeakable one, for the SLS coalition at least. Consider:
- The only vaguely plausible justification for SLS's huge development and operating costs is a major deep-space exploration mission - Mars.
- According to the JPL Mars study this spring, NASA might just barely, if all goes perfectly, accomplish such an SLS-based mission in twenty years or so. If, that is, Station is first shut down, so the entire current NASA Human Exploration budget (roughly $8-$9 billion a year, roughly half of which currently goes to Station) can be funneled to this project. (Never mind for now how small the odds are of all going perfectly with such an Old-NASA megaproject.)
- Station is in fact doing well, increasing its science capacity, attracting a growing commercial constituency, and currently almost certain to be extended through 2024, with prospects for longer. The Station program (or its deep-space transport/science/commerce-hub successors) at this pace may carry on indefinitely.
- But, Station does suffer from a major single-point vulnerability, post-Shuttle: If the Russian Soyuz crew capsule goes down for any extended period, Station, designed for ongoing live on-board maintenance, will be at high risk of permanent loss.
So, every year of delay for US Commercial Crew capability is another year of Station vulnerability. (Increasing vulnerability, as the Russians seem to have a growing quality-control problem with their space launches.)
Are we saying the SLS regional coalition in Congress actively wants Station to fail? Wrong question. Knowing that would require mind-reading (absent some massive speaking-the-unspeakable indiscretion on their part.)
What we're saying is, the SLS regional coalition potentially benefits from premature Station shutdown, should Soyuz fail before Commercial Crew is ready. (So sad! But it's all the Russians' fault of course, our hands are clean. What, Commercial Crew would have already been flying if not for our delaying it? Uh... Look! Over there! A squirrel!)
Always ask, cui bono? (Who benefits?) And when the answer is, the same people who've been slow-rolling Commercial Crew from the start, well, it gets much harder to write it off as mere coincidence.
money from Commercial Crew to SLS has always been a win-win for the
SLS Congressional coalition – their home districts get more
money right away, and if it happens to end up eventually destroying
Station, it's plausible that the Russians would get the blame and
home districts would end up getting even more money. What’s not
Aside, of course, from decades more of Old NASA space futility, spending hundreds of US taxpayer billions to, more than likely, eventually fail and go nowhere once again.
Don't let a regional Congressional pork coalition endanger the nation's future in space. In the coming weeks make sure the rest of Congress understands that full funding for Commercial Crew is important.
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"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System"
- Robert A. Heinlein