Space Access Update #136 7/27/14
Copyright 2014 by Space Access Society
In this Issue:
- Bill Gaubatz
Engineering Teams And US Space Launch Development Policy
- 2014 Space Politics: Halftime Report
Appropriations Impasse, Other Legislation
Commercial Crew &
Cargo at Crossroads
Launch & Propulsion Politics
Bill Gaubatz, leader of the
McDonnell-Douglas team that built and flew the DC-X, left the scene permanently
earlier this month, and we are all the poorer for it. He was a good man, a good friend, and he
never gave up on helping this new industry forward. We'll miss him.
Experienced Engineering Teams And US
Space Launch Development Policy
The DC-X 20th Anniversary conference
Bill Gaubatz helped organize last summer reminded us of an industry
fundamental: If you need to produce a useful new advanced aerospace vehicle,
and you want to minimize your risk of abject failure, start with a talented engineering
team that already has experience working together - successfully - on similar projects.
Top aerospace engineering
teams are seldom just assembled from new hires, ready to succeed at a major
task. They generally must build
capability over time on a series of increasingly complex projects before
they're ready to produce, say, a high-performance reusable aerospace
vehicle. The DC-X team is a prime
example. In the years before winning the
DC-X contract, they handled the Delta 2 launcher's return to flight
post-Challenger, then the Delta 180, 181, and 183 space test missions for SDIO. This team's experience (plus SDIO's flexible
non-micro management) was a huge factor in DC-X flying in a fraction of the
time and for a fraction of the money the NASA establishment thought possible.
A few other examples: Von
Braun's Rocket team had decades of experience before they took on the Saturn
5. The old Lockheed Skunk Works had done
dozens of advanced aircraft before producing the SR-71. Boeing's 707 team was fresh off the B-47 then
B-52. The Atlas 5 development team had a
great deal of experience with the Titan and Atlas launchers. (We've
heard that it was a marketing decision to name the new vehicle Atlas 5 rather
than Titan 5 - Lockheed-Martin at that point owned both launchers, the design
heritage was a mix, but "Atlas" focus-grouped better.) And even SpaceX's team got the steepest part
of their learning curve out of the way on the Falcon 1 prior to the successful
debut of the Falcon 9.
There are any number of
examples from the other side of the coin, ad hoc assemblages of talent that had
never worked together before, and that when thrown in the deep end failed
expensively and spectacularly. This
includes pretty much every NASA attempt to replace Shuttle for the last 30
years, but we'll just focus on one here.
Lockheed-Martin won the X-33 competition (over the DC-X team and a Rockwell
team with Shuttle experience) in part via a nod-and-a-wink campaign hinting
that their Skunk Works had already flown something similar "black",
and that X-33 would thus be a piece of cake for them.
Assuming it was true that
Lockheed-Martin actually had such an experienced team (there were some
interesting visual sightings and reentry-boom seismic readings over southern
California and Nevada around then) they apparently had other priorities for
that team once the X-33 contract was theirs.
The disastrous problems with the X-33 composite tanks sure didn't sound
like a team with previous experience. And the LASRE experiment (transonic testing of
a subscale aerospike engine to be carried on a NASA SR-71) that was also a
Lockheed-Martin selling point never flew, because the engineers assigned to
LASRE couldn't even get the hydrogen plumbing to stop leaking dangerously. That sounds more like interns than the
engineering "A" team.
We see two lessons here:
If you don't already have an
experienced team, start by hiring the essential highly talented people, yes - but
plan on spending some years after that building team experience on smaller projects
before you can hand them a really big one with reasonable odds of success.
And once you have such a team
up to speed, it is a precious and hard-to-replace resource, not to be dispersed
or under-employed lightly.
US Launch Development
This brings us to the current
US launch vehicle scene. We see only
three such US teams with current-generation successful experience building and
flying useful space launch vehicles: SpaceX, Orbital, and ULA. (Blue Origin may be there soon, and XCOR,
Virgin, and others are also headed that way, but those first three are the
proven teams we have now.)
As such, they are precious national
resources - scarce, and expensive and time-consuming to replace.
We should treat them that
way. We don't seem to be doing so in the
case of ULA.
Boeing and Lockheed-Martin
look very much like they're treating ULA as a cash cow, maximizing near-term
income from sales of its current high-cost expendable Delta 4 and Atlas 5
launchers, while allowing ULA to invest only token amounts in its long-term
future. ULA's owners apparently prefer
to run the operation into the ground for short-term income.
Consider: ULA is jointly
owned by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, the result of a 2006 government-motivated
merger between these two parent companies' EELV operations. As such, the parent companies effectively
control how much ULA can invest in staying competitive for the future: How much of ULA's operating income is shipped
off to the parents as profit, how much ULA can reinvest, and whether ULA can go
looking for additional outside investment capital.
Atlas 5 and Delta 4 met the
goals set for them twenty years ago.
They are reliable, they cost significantly less than Shuttle did, and
they do this within the requirements of the traditional (high-cost and
inflexible) USAF space-launch procurement system. But "significantly less than
Shuttle" is no longer enough, "price-and-service competitive with
SpaceX" is rapidly becoming the new standard. ULA's current service edge almost certainly won't
last. There's no way ULA can then compete
purely on price against SpaceX's next-generation manufacturing operation
without at minimum a complete overhaul of ULA's manufacturing/procurement
process. If SpaceX's reusability push
pans out, ULA may also need major vehicle redesigns to keep up. Neither of these moves comes cheap.
ULA's parents were reported
at the time of the merger to share ULA profits equally. Lockheed-Martin is reported
here to have received $300 million from ULA in 2013, and here
to be on track to increase that for 2014.
Even allowing for peculiarities of corporate accounting, ULA income to
the parent companies is clearly significant, hundreds of millions annually.
Meanwhile, the visible evidence
of ULA future investment is a few
engine study contracts here, a small-scale
upper-stage propulsion hardware demo there.
These, plus their published work on propellant depots, advanced
deep-space upper stages, etc. do indicate to us that ULA understands where they
need to go - but the level of financial commitment seems wholly
inadequate. We'd estimate the annual amounts
involved to be in the millions - at most in the (very) low tens of millions -
far short of the hundreds of millions of investment needed if ULA is to have a
long-term competitive future.
As an irreverent colleague
put it, "someone really needs to call Protective Services on ULA's
The US government has not
been shy in the past about imposing national policy on the US launch industry. In this case, we suggest that they let Boeing
and Lockheed-Martin know that if they're unwilling to invest in ULA for the
long term themselves, for the good of country and company both, they should
sell ULA to a deep-pockets outsider who will.
Otherwise, what we'll likely
see some years from now is ULA's current product line priced out of the market
entirely, obsolete and near valueless, while ULA's development team will have
burnt out, retired, or gone elsewhere.
That's no way to treat a useful - and perishable - national resource.
This reminds us of a related
issue. Once it was decided (however
foolishly) to base a new NASA Heavy-Lift Vehicle on leftover Shuttle systems,
arguably it made sense to (effectively) sole-source Ares 5 to the existing
Shuttle contractors. The same logic might
still apply for the core and solid boosters of SLS, although the gap with
Shuttle is widening. Boeing, for
instance, was just granted
a multi-billion dollar contract to produce two SLS core stages on a sole-source,
non-competed basis. We're not utterly
convinced, but nor are we really interested in arguing that point. (We prefer to focus on the overall unwisdom of basing a new HLV on 1970s hardware and bureaucracies
if there's to be any hope of it affordably flying useful missions.)
But reading farther down in that
story, it occurs to us to ask what, precisely, qualifies Boeing to also get
a $307 million sole-source contract for the 4x RL-10 powered interim SLS upper
There are two RL-10 powered hydrogen
upper stages in current use in the US.
They're both produced and operated by...
ULA. The sole engineering team in
the US with practical experience building and flying hydrogen upper stages
works for... ULA. The team that's spent considerable effort
designing a scalable
4x RL-10 upper stage, along with a variety of long-endurance deep-space
hydrogen upper stage enhancements, is at...
This is a bit of a
head-scratcher. We'd almost think there
was politics involved in SLS procurement decisions.
Even the Government Accountability Office is
questioning this. From page 26 of http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664969.pdf, "..program officials... ..also stated
that the [SLS] program does not plan to compete the upper stage development
because its initial award to Boeing in 2007 under the Constellation program was
done competitively. Since that award, however, our work indicates that the
marketplace for spacecraft development has shifted considerably as new
commercial providers have since developed and have launched, or are currently
developing, upper stages." (We at
SAS would add that the "Interim" upper stage currently contemplated for
SLS has also "shifted considerably", as in it's a totally different
stage than the one awarded to Boeing in 2007.)
As we see it, if there were an
actual competition for this SLS upper stage contract, with team experience as a
significant criterion, some SLS money might then go to developing an actual
functional scalable hydrogen deep-space-capable upper stage, which might then
be usable elsewhere, and that would be somewhat less SLS money utterly
But if SLS management is
content to ignore the only proven hydrogen upper stage engineering team in the
US in sole-sourcing their latest new upper stage, and if Congress is willing to
let them, well, we think it says a great deal about the SLS project as a whole,
and we think they will probably get exactly the upper stage they deserve.
2014 Space Politics: Halftime Report
It's midsummer in Washington
DC, and Congressional activity on US space policy has largely come to a
halt. Not that the year's space
legislative work is done. We expect a
flurry of activity before the federal fiscal year ends September 30th, and
another after the November elections are past.
Nor is Congress the only
thing happening in US space politics this summer. NASA HQ is now talking about a decision in
August or September on the winner(s) in the next round of Commercial Crew
development. And the next batch of
Russian RD-180 engines for Atlas 5 either will or won't be delivered to ULA in
The current pause seems a
good time to review the state of play.
When last we wrote, the
Senate Commerce, Justice, Science (NASA) Appropriations bill was on its way to
the Senate floor for debate and amendment as part of a "minibus"
package with the Transportation-HUD and Agriculture appropriations. Senator Shelby had stood up and defended his
Commercial Crew/Cargo cost-plus accounting poison-pill during the
preliminaries, and Senator Nelson had responded that a balance between oversight
and innovation is needed.
Then before the day was out,
election-year politics intervened, and action on all Senate Appropriations
bills came to a screeching halt. (See the
fine print** below for the details, if you care.)
That's where things still
stand. The Senate's election-year
impasse doesn't look like getting resolved until, yes, after the
elections. It looks very much like we'll
see an omnibus Continuing Resolution to maintain government funding after the
end of this federal fiscal year on September 30th until at least some weeks
into November. The effect will be to
maintain the status quo at least till sometime late in the year.
The status quo is a good thing
as far as we're concerned, since Senator Shelby is the one pushing for radical
changes here. We also see a good chance
that when it does come time to finalize things, he quite likely will not
prevail, since with your help we've succeeded in making his cost-plus
accounting mandate controversial and in stirring up Senate opposition.
Not a satisfyingly definite
conclusion to the matter, no. But it
looks for now like a win, and we'll take it.
can find no single clear description of the Senate's election-year Appropriations
impasse to point to. Our attempt to
summarize: The EPA is introducing new
CO2 emissions regulations that will significantly raise the cost of coal-fired
electricity, affecting a lot of voters.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sees an opportunity to put
together 51 votes for an amendment preventing this, with his 45 Republicans
plus a half-dozen Democrats who are facing tight races this fall. Senate rules allow for 51-vote amendments -
but only when 60 Senators agree to it as part of the ground rules for how a given
bill is considered. Reversing their
usual positions, McConnell wants a 51-vote amendments threshold to allow him to
either pass his energy amendment or put those half-dozen tight-race Democrats
on the spot, while Reid wants a 60-vote threshold to allow his at-risk
Democrats to vote for McConnell's amendment and satisfy their home state voters
while still defeating the amendment.
Meanwhile, no Appropriations bill can advance without a 60-vote majority
agreeing on the amendment and debate rules, which means while this impasse
lasts no Appropriations bill can advance, period.
The House CJS (NASA)
Appropriations bill passed back in June.
It also has a harmful Commercial Crew provision in the accompanying
Report language: A requirement to downselect immediately to one contractor,
eliminating competition. We've been
considerably less worried about this, since it is directly contradicted by
language in the House NASA Appropriation itself saying that Commercial Crew
"..will also benefit greatly from competition among multiple US commercial
spaceflight companies", making it much easier for NASA to ignore. More on the intent behind this (and Senator Shelby's
poison-pill) in the next section.
The House NASA Authorization
(Authorizations tend to be more concerned with policy direction) also passed a
while back, with some provisions of interest to us. The earlier SLS/Orion cancellation-proofing
"termination liability" provisions have been watered down to 120 days
notice required, which we can live with.
And safety is still defined as the highest priority for Commercial
Crew. It strikes us that a balance
between safety, affordability, and the earliest possible operational capability
would be both more appropriate, and more realistic in terms of what the country
actually expects from the program.
Again, we expect NASA will be able to handle this point sensibly.
Crew & Cargo At Crossroads
The CCiCap phase of the
program is winding up. The top three
contenders (Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX) have all submitted bids for the
final development phase, CCtCap, where actual transportation capability will be
demonstrated, with first flight to Station taking place by the end of 2017. Funding for CCtCap looks likely to be
adequate, with both houses of Congress currently supporting near $800 million
for next year.
The politics of the CCtCap selection
are, uh, interesting. There seem to be
two main schools of thought on how Commercial Crew should go forward.
One, which we (and we hope
still Commercial Crew management) favor, is to pick for CCtCap contracts the
two of the current three bidders most likely to produce a useful timely
affordable crew transport capability, with a continuation of the current
non-traditional NASA management style. IE,
fixed-price milestone contracts with significantly less-than-traditional NASA
micromanagement. (It's worth noting that
the only way the program can afford to keep two competing contractors is to
continue this lower-cost approach.) Given
ongoing political difficulties with Russia, the contractor with best potential
for an accelerated operational capability (IE, significantly before the nominal
target of December 2017) (IE, SpaceX) would likely get a larger share of
funding to pursue that option.
The other approach, pushed by
a coalition between old-school NASA and their Congressional supporters, would
downselect to one old-school contractor (Boeing), give them all the funding, drop
the current Commercial Crew management and bring things back under old-school
NASA management, ignore the goals for contractor co-investment, for commercial
potential beyond NASA, and (practically speaking) for any early capability, and
revert to the traditional cost-plus NASA-micromanaged development approach. (Boeing and its supporters have been hinting
broadly at various aspects of this approach for years.)
This traditional approach to
producing new NASA crew transportation has failed every time it's been tried
for over thirty years now, but it has the attraction of predictability - of
keeping program and funding control in the same old hands and jobs in the same old
districts. The result in this case would
very likely be another protracted expensive failure. This result is apparently acceptable on the
grounds that it wouldn't be obvious for years and by then the voters will have
forgotten. Not, we say, if we have anything
to do with the matter.
(Oh, and a note of possible
sympathy for Senator Shelby. If you
assume the old-school sole-source approach as given, then more stringent
accounting rules to keep the sole-source contractor from playing fast and loose
might actually be a really good idea.
Mind, we tend to think that no program at all would be better at that
point, but let's hope it doesn't come to that.)
The most recent word we've
seen from NASA HQ on when the CCtCap announcements will be made is, sometime in
August or September. We await the
results with great interest, and in the meantime we sympathize with those
undoubtedly being subjected to immense and conflicting political
pressures. Do the right thing, guys - it
won't get you a VP slot at Boeing, but you'll sleep better at night.
Launch & Propulsion Politics
Reports of the demise of
Atlas 5's Russian-supplied RD-180 engine have been somewhat exaggerated, at
least so far. One angry tweet from a
Russian official who'd just been personally sanctioned does not (necessarily) a
Russian policy make. Certainly the
possibility exists and should be planned for (as we advised back in
May), but as of a
month ago ULA has agreed with the actual Russian manufacturers to move two
RD-180 deliveries (out of a batch of five originally due in November) up to
August, and to increase the overall order to eight engines a year from the
Our take: Russia is already
seeing enough economic problems from Western sanctions (and from general loss
of investor confidence) arising out of their Ukraine policies. An actual cutoff of RD-180 shipments would
temporarily inconvenience the US and cost it some billions, while also pushing
the US toward domestic engine production that would reduce both export revenue
and influence for Russia over the long term.
We will await August with interest (not nearly as much so as ULA, of
course) but we think the way to bet is that those two engines will show up.
Regarding reducing US defense
launch political vulnerability to Russia via US production of either the RD-180
or a close substitute, back in May we advised that if a US substitute is in
fact required, an RD-180 clone might be preferable to a new design, as being
less likely to turn into an extended development boondoggle. We've since been told by multiple sources
that a major issue with the RD-180 is that its design is extremely
labor-intensive to manufacture, so at US skilled aerospace labor rates cloning
RD-180 isn't as obviously superior to developing a new substitute as we'd
That said, there does seem to
be a consensus emerging in Congress and at the White House that we should come
up with a replacement for Russian RD-180, though not yet on what that should be
or how to go about it. (This
and this cover the
matter in considerable depth, along with coverage of the SpaceX-ULA/DOD legal brawl).
Our summary: The House
Defense Appropriators want to throw a lot of new money ($220m next year) at the
problem, implicitly for a traditional government cost-plus procurement at
Aerojet (the last traditional US engine vendor standing). The Senate Defense Appropriators so far are
being more cautious, with $25 million new money (plus $43m previously for a
generic liquid rocket technology program.) A traditional government engine procurement
has been cited as costing $1 billion over five years, but high DOD officials
recently warned (realistically, we think) it may end up more like $2 billion
over eight years. The White House
meanwhile said that $220m next year would be premature while they are still
"evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private
partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the
industrial base, and reduce costs through competition."
The problem we see is that
the only established large-rocket-engine vendor left in the US is Aerojet
(they've acquired both Pratt &Whitney and Rocketdyne.) Aerojet has a reputation for being more than
happy to soak up open-ended money and time in traditional government cost-plus
procurements. Going back to our
observation on skilled engineering teams, both of the other US candidate teams
with current experience anywhere close to that engine size, at SpaceX and Blue
Origin, were formed to meet their own
companies' engine needs and aren't obviously interested in outside customers.
The White House seems to be
on the right long-term track with " public-private partnerships with
multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and
reduce costs through competition."
But in the short term, somehow affordably getting a useful engine out of
Aerojet may be the primary option.
To that end, we have some
First, insist Aerojet keep it
simple, going for the souped-up NK-33 derivative they've talked about in recent
years rather than a wholly-new-design technology-fest. The Russian NK-33 engine Aerojet has design
rights to (they currently refurbish these for Orbital's Antares booster) is
reportedly much more easily manufacturable than RD-180. If Aerojet's claims for the upgraded version
they were trying to sell NASA a couple years back are true, the result should
be usable (in pairs) as a reasonable RD-180 replacement.
Second, by keeping the
technology risk low, the possibility opens up of a fixed-price, milestone-based
contract rather than the usual open-ended cost-plus procurement. Doing so, with the will to hold the contractors'
feet to the fire on schedule and cost, could be good both for Aerojet's culture
and for US taxpayers.
Third, by keeping costs low
this way, the possibility opens up of maintaining post-selection competition by
splitting overall funding, with a minor share going to the best innovative
newcomer vendor bid received. Think establishment
consortium Galileo Industries versus Surrey Satellite on the ESA GIOVE Galileo navsat
testbed project. The GIOVE that flew
first (by years) and most effectively and by far the cheapest was upstart
One final, more radical
suggestion, to put all this in perspective: Offer a billion dollars in prize
money for the first US company to build and test a suitable engine. (Perhaps split the billion 60-40 for the first
two, to reduced the perceived risk of coming in second and getting
nothing.) Then stand back and watch the
American commercial ingenuity fly.
Should Aerojet fail to come up with a serious effort to win such a
prize, they might well find their top talent being hired away by more agile
outfits, to the overall benefit of the country.
Supporting Space Access
It takes a fair number of
hours just to keep up with all that's going on these days. Putting out these Updates takes more time on
top of that, consulting and debating and writing. The work of SAS gets carried on in the time
we can spare from paying the bills, and in recent years that time has been
getting less. (To the point where we had
to cancel this spring's conference, something we do not want to have to do ever
SAS gave up paid memberships
and active fundraising a number of years back for reasons that made sense at
the time. Times have changed. If we're going to continue doing this work, we
In the near future we'll be
resuming taking paid memberships (with some interesting member benefits) and
announcing how we're going to support producing next spring's Space Access
Conference. We still have details to
work out on these, though.
In the meantime, if you think
what we've been doing to promote sensible policies (and occasionally chew on a
deserving political ankle or two) is worthwhile, and you'd like to buy us more
time to do it better, help, please. Send
a donation of whatever size - ten, a hundred, a thousand, it all helps - via
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