Space Access Update #91 2/7/00 
               Copyright 2000 by Space Access Society 

We've once again spent some months thinking.  With the White House 
proposal for next year's federal budget due at Congress today, the 
time has come to write.  It's a Presidential election year, with 
only one thing certain: There will be a new Administration coming 
into office one year from now.  Old policies have run their course, 
and new ones will, even before any new Administration takes office, 
begin to emerge from this year's budget battles, for better or 
worse.  Here's a pocket version of our views on "better". 


 - The Next Fifty Years, or, Why Cheap Access Matters

 - The Last Five Years: NASA Gets Handed The Ball, And Drops It 

 - Eleven Months Till 2001 - Now What?  SAS Policy Recommendations 


   (SAS's eighth annual conference, "Space Access 2000", will be at 
   the Holiday Inn Old Town in Scottsdale Arizona April 27-29 - see for details) 

           The Next Fifty Years: Why Cheap Access Matters 

We don't generally go into the details of why we spend our days 
pushing for something as obscure and unsexy as radically lower space 
transportation costs - our supporters help for a whole range of 
reasons, from the romance of exploration to infatuation with the 
technology to a desire to make money.  We'll confess to a streak of 
all of these ourselves.  But we do have, forgive us, more 
universally compelling reasons for what we do. 

The next fifty years will be, uh, interesting.  Nobody can know the 
future, but we have spent some time looking at where current trends 
will likely lead over the rest of our Boomer lives.  Not to mention 
major parts of the lives of our children and grandchildren... 
   -   The Good News 

The good news is, world population growth is slowing.  Previous 
estimates of twelve billion people by 2050 have been scaled back to 
around eight to ten billion - split the difference and call it nine 
billion for now.  This is mainly due to the historic tendency for 
people to reproduce more slowly as they get more affluent; the world 
as a whole is getting richer faster than we expected a few years 
ago.  Chances are by 2050 we'll only have about 50% more people than 
now.  Malthus was wrong; absent ecocatastrophe we won't starve. 

   -   The Other Side of the Coin 

The - bad? - let's say, interesting - news is, unless the computer 
and communications revolutions go away, by 2050 a vastly higher 
proportion of that moderately higher world population will have the 
education and the desire to compete for the raw materials and the 
energy resources needed for first-world affluence.  It's not news 
that our lifestyle is energy and resource-intensive.  Eco-agonizing 
aside, the consequences of this bear some examination. 

First, some rough numbers.  Of the six billion people now on this 
planet, perhaps one billion have the education and assets to get 
themselves a first-world lifestyle.  But you won't keep the rest 
down on the farm once they get a satellite internet link in their 
village.  Of the likely nine billion people of 2050, a majority - a 
large majority - could have the knowledge to aspire to current 
Western wealth levels.  Will those aspiring multiple billions have 
the assets?  And if not, what will they do to get them? 
To let the currently rich economies keep growing and accomodate all 
the new arrivals too, we're faced with the need for on the order of 
a ten-fold increase in world energy and raw materials inputs over 
the next fifty years.  That is a whole lot of ore and oil. 

   -   Down The Current Path 

Absent fundamental changes, the alternatives are grim: 

 - We in the West can leave our children to a future of working ever 
harder for less and less as competition for slow-growing clean 
resources intensifies and prices rise.  No matter how much we put 
into our 401-K's now, if there's little to buy with it, we'll grow 
old poor.  

 - We can aquiesce in the strip-mining of the planet and stay 
nominally rich in an increasingly unliveable world.  World resources 
aren't as limited as the Club of Rome thought, but they do come at a 
price.  For just one example, China has a huge population and is 
determined to grow, but their chief domestic energy resource is 
large amounts of very dirty soft coal.  Sulfur and soot aside, we 
still don't know what that much more CO2 will do.  Multiply that 
example by the entire developing world, and we have a problem - 
ultimately, we're all downwind. 

 - We can teach our children to wage war for a disproportionate 
share of world resources, at risk of losing our souls if we win and 
of growing old poor if we lose.  If we survive the wars, that is. 

   -   What To Do? 

Despair not - there is a better alternative.  It's what we in the 
West do best: Miracles.  Also known as the technological leapfrog, a 
fundamental advance that totally changes the equation.  We have in 
the past repeatedly made the pie so much bigger that everybody ends 
up better off.  We can, and will, and indeed must, do so again. 

There are numerous possibilities for cleanly extracting many times 
more resources and stretching them farther over the next fifty 
years.  Information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology 
will all likely be of some help, and any of them might - might - 
provide the revolutionary breakthrough that will let us be a rich 
people on a clean peaceful planet two generations hence. 

   -   Out of the Cradle 

But we already know a clean way to provide a manifold increase in 
energy and resources for this planet, and that's going off the 
planet for them - orbital solar power, Lunar and asteroidal 
minerals.  Both are currently uneconomical almost entirely because 
of the current astronomical cost of space transportation.  Space 
transport costs remain high in large part for organizational not 
technical reasons.  We have the engineers and the technology and the 
management methods to solve the problem, but to date we've applied 
these assets halfheartedly when we've applied them at all. 

The stakes are huge, and personal - we boomers will grow old in 
secure comfort only if the resources are there to make a large part 
of the world rich.  We would be fools if we let bureaucratic inertia 
prevent us from developing one of the surest paths to those 
resources: Radically cheaper space transportation. 

The time to start was ten years ago.  We tried, but our efforts got 

The future is coming fast and it has no pause control.  The time to 
start again is, now. 

        The Last Five Years: NASA Gets The Ball, And Drops It 

In 1988, a bunch of us met in a private home in southern California 
and came to a surprisingly unanimous conclusion: The technology was 
there to build reusable spacelift vehicles that could radically 
reduce launch costs.  

We attached a number of "ifs" to this conclusion, almost all 
regarding organization rather than technology, almost all boiling 
down to observing the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) in all 
aspects of the project - despite the strong tendency of the US space 
bureaucracies to do the complete opposite.  Keep the requirements, 
organization, design, and operations simple, and keep the design 
"savable", that is, inherently capable of intact mission abort at 
any point (and thus testable in small increments).  (For more on all 
this, see 

To make a long story short, we got the SDIO Single-Stage-To-Orbit 
project started in the early nineties, and despite the project's 
truncation by the then-Democratic Congress, DC-X flew in 1993, 
proving out much of what we'd advocated.  We began pushing hard to 
get some sort of spacegoing followon to DC-X reinstated - we hoped 
built by the same proven team under the same proven organization 
using the same promising design. 

   -   And the Handoff is to NASA... 

Alas, in 1994, the Clinton Administration ordered that henceforth, 
all reusable launch vehicle development would be done at NASA, all 
expendable in DOD.  Our grave misgivings about NASA were what led us 
to aim the SSTO project at SDIO in the first place, but at that 
point it was NASA or nothing - we decided to support NASA and hope 
for (and work for) the best. 

The renewed SSTO project, now called X-33 (and much altered from 
SDIO's KISS approach), became the centerpiece of a NASA five-year 
plan aimed at generating the data needed to support a national 
policy decision on Reusable Launch Vehicle development by the year 
2000.  X-33 was to be a project to build a half-scale prototype of a 
single-stage-to-orbit Shuttle replacement and fly it by March 1999. 

   -   Analysis of the Fumble 

A digression: It's well known that X-33 has been in trouble almost 
from the start, but there's been a lot of smoke blown on the subject 
of why.  Here's what we've seen actually happening with the program 
over the past five years. 

In 1994, when the NASA X-33 competition was first contemplated, 
Lockheed Corporation put some effort into promoting their "Aero-
Ballistic Rocket" as an alternative.  Lockheed claimed that this 
vehicle was a sure enough thing that the government should skip the 
test-vehicle stage and pay Lockheed six billion dollars to go 
straight to a production cargo-carrying version of this rocket. 

The Aero-Ballistic Rocket was the direct ancestor of the current 
Lockheed-Martin X-33 and its proposed Venturestar Shuttle-
replacement followon.  It was a wingless lifting-body reusable 
single-stage rocket vehicle powered by "linear aerospike" engines.  
It looked somewhat like a plump pumpkinseed with the back end cut 
off square and small uptilted fins on either side.  Lockheed was 
full of hints that ABR was a piece of cake, that all the critical 
technology was already in hand from "black" projects they'd done in 
recent decades.  They took this line both while they were trying to 
head the X-33 project off, then while they were bidding for X-33. 
It was, alas, untrue, as we'll see. 

   -   Technical Details 

The advantage of a lifting-body is that it doesn't (shouldn't) need 
wings to maneuver during orbital reentry then land on a runway; it 
thus saves the weight of wings - minimum vehicle weight of course 
being critical to a succesful Single Stage To Orbit vehicle.  The 
disadvantage is that the vehicle shape is such that propellant tanks 
can't be the optimum circular cross-section shape that minimizes 
tank weight for a given mass of propellant - any tank shape that 
doesn't have a round cross-section will tend to try to balloon out 
to being round anyway as soon as it's pressurized; preventing non-
round tanks from doing this requires heavy reinforcement.  What 
lifting bodies gain from omitting wings they more than lose again on 
heavier tanks, at least with traditional tank construction methods. 

Lockheed claimed to have solved the tank-weight problem, via "multi-
lobed" tanks that combined partial circular sections with clever 
internal bracing.  Further, these tanks were to be made out of 
graphite-epoxy composite rather than aluminum.  The result was 
supposed to be complex-shaped tanks that would conform to the 
lifting-body shape while being just as light as conventional 
circular-section tanks.  We'll come back to this.

   -   A Broken Play From the Start 

Lockheed (by this point, Lockheed-Martin) won the X-33 competition 
with their by-then renamed "Venturestar" lifting body rocketship.  
One of the reasons NASA gave for selecting this bid was that it 
*required* more new advanced technologies [and thus higher risk] than 
any of the other vehicles bid.  So much for the KISS principle. 
A year later, X-33 project management was in chaos, and X-33 vehicle 
weight was growing fast.  The chaos was acknowledged to be a result 
of the project contracts having been spread over half the country to 
gain political support for the bid; X-33 was a small centralized 
"Skunk Works"-style effort in name only.  Project management was 
duly re-consolidated in southern California. 

The weight growth however was from more than just bad management.  
Lockheed-Martin apparently grossly oversold how complete their 
design work was when they bid for X-33 - after they'd won, and also 
after they'd already designed and ordered the propellant tanks, NASA  
discovered that their vehicle shape would be dangerously unstable 
during reentry and landing.  They had to change the vehicle shape 
significantly.  Part of the weight growth was additional standoff 
structure between tanks and the reshaped vehicle skin.  Part of it 
was enlarged tip fins plus added vertical stabilizers.  Part of it 
was the need to add dead-weight ballast in the nose to compensate 
for the additional weight aft.  

Weight growth, of course, means performance loss.  X-33's ability to 
make the Mach 15 spec was abandoned years ago, and the Mach 13+ 
required to make it to the primary Montana landing site has been in 
doubt for a while now.  Any further weight growth, and X-33 will be 
strictly Single-Stage-To-Utah - which means it will fall well short 
of the target reentry aerothermal stress levels, as it can't go much 
over Mach 10 without overshooting the Utah landing site. 

   -   Blowing Smoke 

One canard put forth by X-33 apologists has been that, oh well, the 
other bids no doubt would have run into similar problems; such 
problems are inevitable.  To which we say, demonstrably untrue: 
Rockwell's bid used the "winged body" shape that had been NASA's 
preferred approach for a decade or more, a shape that thus had been 
far more thoroughly tested than any three other configurations.  
McDonnell-Douglas's bid, meanwhile, had gone through its 
reentry/landing instability thrash the winter *before* the X-33 
downselect - we still have a viewgraph of some of the configurations 
they looked at before settling on some significant stability-
enhancing changes, months before the downselect. 

And of course, part of L-M X-33's weight growth was the "multi-
lobed" propellant tanks growing considerably heavier than promised.  
Neither Rockwell nor McDonnell-Douglas bid these; both used proven 
circular-section tanks.  X-33's graphite-epoxy "multi-lobed" liquid 
hydrogen tanks have ended up over twice as heavy relative to the 
weight of propellant carried as the Shuttle's 70's vintage aluminum 
circular-section tanks - yet an X-33 tank still split open in test 
last fall.  Going over to aluminum will make the problem worse; X-
33's aluminum multi-lobed liquid oxygen tank is nearly four times as 
heavy relative to the weight of propellant carried as Shuttle's 
aluminum circular-section equivalent. 

   -   Single-Stage-To-Uselessness 

The ultimate irony here is that X-33's (and the rapidly-diverging 
Venturestar design's also) stabilizer fins have grown to the point 
where they're bigger (and presumably heavier) than the wings on 
Rockwell's "winged-body" entry.  X-33 is a lifting-body space 
vehicle that not only fails miserably to solve the heavy-tanks 
problem that's stopped past lifting-body proposals, but also manages 
to negate the primary remaining lifting-body advantage by being so 
unstable it requires wing-equivalent stabilizer fins anyway.

The Aero-Ballistic Rocket/Venturestar configuration is very much 
turning out to be, doing SSTO the hard way. 

Did we mention that the new advanced engines included in this (and 
not the other two bids') X-33 are behind schedule, over budget, and 
over weight?  They do seem to be working OK in test so far, though 
we haven't seen any actual performance numbers.  Oh, and we're not 
very impressed with the incremental nature of the X-33 test program 
at this point - the vehicle has to make it from southern California 
to northern Utah on the very first flight - not much chance to fly a 
little, fix a little, fly a little more - X-33's first flight is all 
or nothing.  

On the whole, X-33 could serve as a textbook case on how not to 
develop a useful aerospace vehicle. 

   -   Bench NASA? 

Five years ago, NASA ignored both our advice and the lessons of 
history in setting up the X-33 program and selecting the prime 

Now it's five years and a billion dollars later, and judging from 
the results so far, handing NASA sole responsibility for RLV was a 
major mistake  - a waste of most of that time and money.  As we come 
up on a year after it was originally supposed to fly, X-33 looks 
like taking at least two years and hundreds of millions more, even 
as its much-touted package of new technologies is becoming obviously 
irrelevant to any practical space vehicle.  

X-33 apologists have been saying this proves Single-Stage-To-Orbit 
is impractical with currently available technologies.  We say, 
nonsense.  What this proves is that if you deliberately pick the 
most difficult available vehicle configuration, bid by a contractor 
that turns out to be having problems delivering *anything* on time, 
budget, and spec lately, and managed by an agency apparently 
determined to ignore every lesson ever learned in America's rich 
history of successful X-vehicle projects, you'll likely waste a good 
chunk of money and time. 

With X-33, NASA seems to have demonstrated conclusively that, as we 
feared from the start, the agency is so beset with internal agendas 
and bureaucratic bad habits that it is no longer institutionally 
capable of applying the KISS principle to any high-profile project. 

   -   NASA's New Plan 

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 
told NASA in 1999 to come up with the promised year 2000 space 
launch policy recommendations.  The resulting Integrated Space 
Transportation Plan (ISTP, not available on the Web, at least not 
anywhere obvious), unveiled in late October, largely ignores the 
industry input solicited under STAS (Space Transportation 
Architecture Studies, contractor and NASA reports still available at over the 
previous year.  

ISTP ignores just about everything but internal NASA agendas.  The 
package reads like a turf-division deal between Johnson Space Center 
and Marshall Space Flight Center - under this plan, JSC would get 
major Shuttle upgrades plus another five years before NASA again 
even considers replacing Shuttle, while MSFC would get all the 
space-launch technology projects it wants ("Spaceliner 100"), as 
long as they're so advanced there's no danger they'll produce any 
alternative to Shuttle for at least twenty years. 

What would US taxpayers get?  When asked "who is the customer?" at 
the ISTP unveiling, the answer from NASA was "...we must meet NASA's 

   -   Bench NASA 

After five years of sole responsibility for developing reusable 
launch technology, NASA apparently has no clue either how to 
practically advance the state of the art, or even that there is any 
customer for the technology outside of NASA.  NASA is funded by US 
taxpayers to support US defense, commercial, and scientific space 
technology needs, for the ultimate benefit of the US public, but the 
agency doesn't seem to remember who's paying the bills, or why we 
pay them - NASA acts as if they exist purely for their own 
bureacratic sake. 

The policy of assigning sole responsibility for reusable launch to 
NASA has become an obvious failure.  The waning months of this 
Administration are an appropriate time to start working out, 
What Next? 


    Eleven Months Till 2001, And We're Still Stuck On This Rock - 
            Now What?  SAS FY 2001 Policy Recommendations 

 - On NASA X-33: If Lockheed-Martin truly believes X-33 is still 
relevant to anything other than saving corporate face, let them 
prove it by paying for all additional costs from this point forward.  

NASA should support them in this if Lockheed-Martin chooses to 
continue, but without spending any further taxpayer dollars on the 
project.  If indeed Lockheed-Martin is serious about Venturestar as 
a genuine commercial project, and if indeed they believe X-33 still 
has any relevance to the much-changed Venturestar design, let them 
put their own money where their mouth is.  

Otherwise, it's time to shut X-33 down as being an expensive lesson 
in what not to do in pursuing cheaper space launch. 

 - On Federal loan guarantees for space launch projects: We oppose 
any measure that would have the effect of picking and subsidizing a 
"winner" or winners from among the variety of companies planning 
low-cost launch projects.  All such measures we have seen to date 
have, for all practical purposes, been aimed at some specific 
company.  We do not oppose Federal support for commercial low-cost 
launch ventures in general, but we have yet to see legislation 
introduced that would provide such support on a level playing field. 

 - On Federal support for development of low-cost reusable launch 
technology: Available funds should be increased modestly, should be 
focussed on a variety of relatively small projects aimed at flight-
demonstrating a variety of different near-term payoff approaches, 
should not be confined to projects proposed by the existing major 
firms, should not be allocated by just one government agency, and 
should be allocated by organizations and to organizations willing to 
pay attention to past lessons on successfully advancing the 
aerospace state-of-the-art via X-vehicle projects. 

Specifically, we would like to see more funding for NASA "Future-X" 
flight demonstrator projects, and also for similar projects in 
appropriate (IE not hidebound-bureaucratized) agencies under DOD.  
Competition is good - the recent policy of one specialty, one 
center, eliminating intra-government competition, has greatly 
reduced incentives to succeed, by reducing the danger of losing 
funding to another agency in the event of failure.  Instead, 
agencies have taken to defending failure by claiming the job was 
impossible anyway.  Absent competition, who can prove otherwise? 

Ideally, we would like to see, between NASA and DOD over the next 
decade, one new start per year of a one-to-two hundred million 
dollar-class reusable launch flight demonstrator project, with the 
goal of giving all credible players (and not just the existing 
majors) a chance to show what they can do.  

There are a wide variety of credible approaches to cheap space 
transportation.  But commercial investors so far will not pay to see 
which might fly and which won't; the payoff is too uncertain and too 
long-term.  The Federal government can, for no more per-year than 
NASA spent on X-33, separate the wheat from the chaff, to the point 
where a few years from now commercial investors (and government 
procurement officials) will be able to make sensible low-risk 
decisions on low-cost reusable space vehicles. 

 - Shuttle: The NASA Space Shuttle should be maintained and operated 
on missions of national importance until its variety of functions 
can be replaced by various more specialized lower-cost vehicles.  
Routine NASA space transportation services should end up 
commercially contracted for, just as NASA currently procures routine 
air transportation services.  NASA isn't allowed to operate its own 
airline - over the long term, the agency should also be moved away 
from operating its own spaceline. 

In the short term, a flexibly-launched (on EELV, Shuttle, or future 
reusables) Crew/Cargo Transfer Vehicle (CCTV) should be rapidly 
developed as a supplement to and potential emergency replacement for 
Shuttle, in order to, at acceptable cost, assure NASA's ability to 
meet its manned-space commitments. 

Shuttle upgrades should be limited to addressing immediate safety 
concerns and to providing operating cost and/or capability 
improvements that will pay for themselves in the short term.  

The current prohibition on Shuttle competing with commercial launch 
providers should be continued indefinitely, to avoid disrupting an 
emerging industry that is currently fragile and in the long run is 
vital to the nation's economic security and national defense. 

 - NASA's massive "manned space" Shuttle-Station establishment in 
general needs to be brought to heel.  They currently consume half of 
NASA's overall budget while providing at-best dubious results.  
Meanwhile they far too often act as the hypertrophied tail wagging 
the NASA dog.  For one example, the nominally separate branch of 
NASA that deals with advancing space transportation technology seems 
totally unable to make plans that don't give priority to the manned 
space empire's requirements over those of US industry and US defense 
agencies.  X-33 and now ISTP both suffered badly from this.  

 - NASA's space technology centers need to pay far more attention to 
the practical needs of US industry.  On March 3, 1915, the Advisory 
Committee for Aeronautics (later the National Advisory Committee for 
Aeronautics or NACA) was established by a rider to the Naval 
Appropriations Act, " supervise and direct the scientific study 
of the problems of flight, with a view of their practical solution." 
*Practical* solution.  Workable solutions *now*, not ultra-advanced 
whizbangs in twenty years.  

A working rocket engineer recently told us he has file cabinets full 
of old NACA reports that he uses every day - they're models of 
concise, accurate, useful information.  He says that reports from 
the first few years after NACA became NASA are still useful, but 
after the early sixties things went downhill, badly.  

NACA was vital to the success of the US aviation industry.  To the 
struggling US low-cost launch industry, today's NASA is no such 

One example of the sort of work NASA ought to be doing but isn't: 
Most current rocket engines were intended to be thrown away after 
one flight, and thus reuse of them has not been explored and 
documented.  Reports on the practical reusability of various engines 
- relight procedures, throttling potential, number of cycles, 
minutes of burn-time, wear and recommended maintenance intervals for 
various parts - would be immensely useful to reusable launch 
designers, however tedious and unglamorous they'd be to generate. 

NASA's spaceflight technology centers have lost sight of this "NACA" 
practical industry support function, and need to be led back toward 
it.  If they prefer sexy ultra-advanced decades-off technology work 
so much they still refuse to do the NACA job, the task (and the 
funding) should be given to someone else. 

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.

 Space Access Society 

 "Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System" 
                                        - Robert A. Heinlein