The Senate Launch System
In late September of last year (2010), Congress passed a four-year authorization for NASA which, among other things, stipulated that the agency must build a heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2016, though it did not authorize sufficient funding with which to do so, at least if done in the manner that Congress demanded, basing it on existing and expensive Space Shuttle components. Specifically, Sections 302-304 are particularly problematic and should be of great concern for both the taxpayer and those interested in sustainable progress in the nation’s space endeavors. We’ll start with Section 302: the Space Launch System:
SEC. 302. SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM AS FOLLOW-ON LAUNCH VEHICLE TO THE SPACE SHUTTLE.
(a) United States Policy. — It is the policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.
First, let’s note that there will be no follow-on to the Space Shuttle if by that they mean a vehicle that will perform the functions that the Shuttle did. The Shuttle carried large payloads to orbit and returned them, could act as a temporary (up to a couple weeks) space station, and a base for orbital repairs. It was also the sole means that NASA had to get humans to and from orbit, which resulted in a period over five years total in the last thirty since it started flying during which we were unable to get astronauts to or from orbit, because the system was shut down for almost three years each time it failed (Challenger and Columbia). There will never again be a Space Shuttle, because the very notion of a single vehicle for us to get to space with, and that had to serve a wide variety of conflicting requirements, was fragile and ultimately unaffordable. However, what one suspects they mean is the next vehicle that NASA will develop, own and operate as its sole means of getting to orbit, and preserving the paradigm of Apollo, in which human spaceflight remains expensive and rare. Instead, we should be seeking a variety of vehicles that can replicate and extend the individual functions of what the Shuttle does, in a cost-effective and redundant manner. As we’ll see below, however, this was not their apparent goal, and they are apparently insisting on a single vehicle type that can serve a variety of functions.
(b) Initiation of Development.–
(1) In general.–The Administrator shall, as soon as practicable after the date of the enactment of this Act, initiate development of a Space Launch System meeting the minimum capabilities requirements specified in subsection (c).
(2) Modification of current contracts. — In order to limit NASA’s termination liability costs and support critical capabilities, the Administrator shall, to the extent practicable, extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts necessary to meet the requirements in paragraph (1), including contracts for ground testing of solid rocket motors, if necessary, to ensure their availability for development of the Space Launch System.
Note the assumptions here — that the taxpayer will be best served by limiting termination liability costs (the costs of shutting down a contract prematurely before completion) and that solid motors are “critical capabilities” to building the Space Launch System. But limiting termination liability is a false economy if extending the contracts into the indefinite future increases NASA costs beyond what they might be if they started with a different contract and concept. This, like the complaints that in canceling Constellation we will have “wasted” ten billion dollars spent to date is an example of the sunk-cost fallacy. Note that, even if the argument wasn’t fallacious, the same people who make such complaints apparently had no problem with the associated plan to abandon, if not actually deorbit the International Space Station in 2016, an “investment” into which the nation has sunk over a hundred billion dollars.
The Congress is assuming, in the face of numerous studies indicating otherwise, that the lowest-cost approach for the future is to continue the high-cost approach in which we’ve been engaged for the past half century. Note also that there are many heavy-lift concepts that do not employ solid rocket motors, and that the only thing for which they are “critical” is the maintenance of a jobs base in the state of Utah.
Note now that, even though there is no defined mission for the system, the Congress knows exactly what the payload of the SLS should be. Sort of…
(c) Minimum Capability Requirements.–
(1) In general.–The Space Launch System developed pursuant to subsection (b) shall be designed to have, at a minimum, the following:
(A) The initial capability of the core elements, without an upper stage, of lifting payloads weighing between 70 tons and 100 tons into low-Earth orbit in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
(B) The capability to carry an integrated upper Earth departure stage bringing the total lift capability of the Space Launch System to 130 tons or more.
(C) The capability to lift the multipurpose crew vehicle.
OK, so they want the “initial” capability to be at least 70 tons (the “ton” here is 2000 pounds mass, not the metric ton, which is a thousand kilograms, or over 2200 pounds mass), and up to 100 tons. That is, between 140,000 and 200,000 pounds of payload to low earth orbit (LEO). But then they say that they want the capability (though not specified as initial, so perhaps it can grow to this over time) to deliver even more — 260,000 pounds of payload to…somewhere. This second capability is quite confusing. The bill doesn’t have a definition for “total lift capability,” so it’s not clear what this means. If the vehicle is to carry an “Earth departure stage” (EDS), and they mean that the 130 tons is the amount of payload that can actually depart earth, that means that the stage itself will be huge, implying that the capability of the vehicle would have to have grown far beyond its “initial” 100-ton capability. If they mean that the stage weight is included in the 130 tons, then this is more doable, but it’s still a major growth requirement. But this is the sort of thing that happens when politicians design rockets.
Note that they want to launch the multipurpose crew vehicle (MPCV — what used to be called Orion in Constellation) with it. Since it will weigh far less than seventy tons, this will be a trivial capability, if the destination is to LEO, but presumably, they also want it to be launched on top of the “Earth departure stage,” to send it to locations beyond LEO, which will be easy or hard depending on how they’re keeping the books for the 130 tons, as described above. Finally, it should have…
(D) The capability to serve as a backup system for supplying and supporting ISS cargo requirements or crew delivery requirements not otherwise met by available commercial or partner-supplied vehicles.
In other words, they want to use a heavy-lift (minimum 70-ton) vehicle to service the ISS. For an ISS mission, the MPCV would be unlikely to weigh more than thirty tons, even with its launch escape system, so the vehicle will be vastly oversized for this mission. Note that every credible cost analysis indicates that this vehicle will cost over a billion dollars per flight, when taking into account amortization of development and fixed costs. If the MPCV can carry six persons per mission, that comes out to a cost of almost two-hundred million per person, and that doesn’t even count the cost of the MPCV (which is still unknown, and will depend a lot on whether or not it is reusable). But even ignoring this cost, which will surely be hundreds of millions (again, factoring in amortization), that is a ticket price three times that being charged by the Russians in their latest contract. And it’s ten times what Space Exploration Technologies has quoted for a Falcon/Dragon flight (twenty-million per ticket). Now, they may argue that they can reduce the crew costs by booking some of the flight cost to cargo with the additional capacity, but this goes against the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that NASA never again mix crew and cargo on a flight.
Does any of this make sense?
And in this next requirement, they remain determined to repeat the mistakes of the Shuttle:
(2) Flexibility.–The Space Launch System shall be designed from inception as a fully-integrated vehicle capable of carrying a total payload of 130 tons or more into low-Earth orbit in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The Space Launch System shall, to the extent practicable, incorporate capabilities for evolutionary growth to carry heavier payloads. Developmental work and testing of the core elements and the upper stage should proceed in parallel subject to appropriations. Priority should be placed on the core elements with the goal for operational capability for the core elements not later than December 31, 2016.
“Flexibility” was one of the things that made Shuttle so expensive, and it will be easy to make this new vehicle unaffordable in exactly the same way. But here, they seem to be sort of clarifying the 130-ton requirement — apparently, the EDS is part of the payload. Now a minimal escape trajectory from earth orbit (say, to the moon) requires a velocity change of about 3500 meters per second. If we assume a stage fraction of 90% (that is, the propellant will be ninety percent of the total stage weight) and a specific impulse (fuel economy) of 480 seconds for LOX/hydrogen propulsion, we could toss about fifty tons beyond earth orbit. Obviously, the amount would be somewhat less to actually leave the earth-moon system (e.g., to an asteroid or Mars). Whether this is enough for an effective mission, let alone a cost-effective one would be far beyond the scope of this analysis, but it at least provides some basis for the payload number. In reality, multiple launches will probably be required to get a reasonably sized mission concept, negating the supposed advantages of building such a large (and costly, both to develop and operate) launch vehicle.
But it’s the next requirement that’s the real one, as far as Congress is concerned:
(3) Transition needs.–The Administrator shall ensure critical skills and capabilities are retained, modified, and developed, as appropriate, in areas related to solid and liquid engines, large diameter fuel tanks, rocket propulsion, and other ground test capabilities for an effective transition to the follow-on Space Launch System.
(4) The capacity for efficient and timely evolution, including the incorporation of new technologies, competition of sub-elements, and commercial operations.
All of this is code for “preserve the Shuttle infrastructure and all the jobs associated with it.” And the notion that this would ever be amenable to commercial operations, particularly in light of the fierce competition it will have from true cost-effective commercial operators, domestic and foreign, is ludicrous.
The next section, while not dealing with the SLS itself, is also problematic:
SEC. 303. MULTI-PURPOSE CREW VEHICLE.
(a) Initiation of Development .–
(1) In general.– The Administrator shall continue the development of a multi-purpose crew vehicle to be available as soon as practicable, and no later than for use with the Space Launch System. The vehicle shall continue to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and systems in the Orion project.
(2) Goal for operational capability. — It shall be the goal to achieve full operational capability for the transportation vehicle developed pursuant to this subsection by not later than December 31, 2016. For purposes of meeting such goal, the Administrator may undertake a test of the transportation vehicle at the ISS before that date.
(b) Minimum Capability Requirements.–The multi-purpose crew vehicle developed pursuant to subsection (a) shall be designed to have, at a minimum, the following:
(1) The capability to serve as the primary crew vehicle for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
(2) The capability to conduct regular in-space operations, such as rendezvous, docking, and extra-vehicular activities, in conjunction with payloads delivered by the Space Launch System developed pursuant to section 302, or other vehicles, in preparation for missions beyond low-Earth orbit or servicing of assets described in section 804, or other assets in cis-lunar space.
(3) The capability to provide an alternative means of delivery of crew and cargo to the ISS, in the event other vehicles, whether commercial vehicles or partner-supplied vehicles, are unable to perform that function.
(4) The capacity for efficient and timely evolution, including the incorporation of new technologies, competition of sub-elements, and commercial operations.
Basically, the Congress is demanding that NASA continue the Orion crew module, originally designed as a lunar excursion vehicle, under a different name, and once again, they complicate the design by imposing additional requirements on it, all while providing less money than Orion was going to cost. They demand that it be capable of competing with commercial vehicles that can perform the ISS support missions, in violation of NASA’s charter, the Space Act, which states that “The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” One does not “encourage” even to a minimum extent the fullest commercial use of space by funding and subsidizing competition to commercial vehicles with the taxpayers’ money, even for government uses. It is an even more blatant violation of the 1998 Commercial Space Act, whose specific purpose was the promotion of commercial space activities, particularly with regard to the International Space Station. The act is quite explicit in this regard:
The Congress declares that a priority goal of constructing the International Space Station is the economic development of Earth orbital space. The Congress further declares that free and competitive markets create the most efficient conditions for promoting economic development, and should therefore govern the economic development of Earth orbital space. The Congress further declares that the use of free market principles in operating, servicing, allocating the use of, and adding capabilities to the Space Station, and the resulting fullest possible engagement of commercial providers and participation of commercial users, will reduce Space Station operational costs for all partners and the Federal Government’s share of the United States burden to fund operations.
Emphasis added. There is nothing that I’m aware of in last year’s authorization declaring this law null and void so, as it stands, the two laws are in conflict. The Competitive Space Task Force believes that Congress and the Clinton White House got it exactly right in 1998, and tragically wrong in 2010. At the time of cancellation, Orion was projected to cost many billions more to develop, for a mission with a more limited scope (for instance, it had no extravehicular capabilities) — to get crew to and from the moon. If it is redirected to doing additional LEO missions (as its new name — multi-purpose crew vehicle) would imply, its costs can only increase. If, in an attempt to rein in the program costs, its lunar capabilities are removed, then it is nothing except unfair competition for the commercial vehicles under development by Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies, and others, at a huge cost to the taxpayer. This is not only not in keeping with the promotion of commercial enterprise — it is the very antithesis of it.
But all of this language to date is really an excuse for what it really desired, which is stated explicitly in the next section, 304. Absent this section, Congressional interest in the SLS and MPCV would pretty much evaporate, because the real goal is simply to maintain the Shuttle Industrial Complex, the iron triangle of Congress, NASA and industry that has kept the taxpayers’ money flowing in certain directions for decades, regardless of results:
SEC. 304. UTILIZATION OF EXISTING WORKFORCE AND ASSETS IN DEVELOPMENT OF SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM AND MULTI-PURPOSE CREW VEHICLE.
(a) In General.–In developing the Space Launch System pursuant to section 302 and the multi-purpose crew vehicle pursuant to section 303, the Administrator shall, to the extent practicable utilize–
(1) existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the Space Shuttle and Orion and Ares 1 projects, including–
(A) space-suit development activities for application to, and coordinated development of, a multi-purpose crew vehicle suit and associated life-support requirements with potential development of standard NASA-certified suit and life support systems for use in alternative commercially-developed crew transportation systems; and
(B) Space Shuttle-derived components and Ares 1 components that use existing United States propulsion systems, including liquid fuel engines, external tank or tank-related capability, and solid rocket motor engines; and
(2) associated testing facilities, either in being or under construction as of the date of enactment of this Act.
(b) Discharge of Requirements.–In meeting the requirements of subsection (a), the Administrator–
(1) shall, to the extent practicable, utilize ground-based manufacturing capability, ground testing activities, launch and operations infrastructure, and workforce expertise;
(2) shall, to the extent practicable, minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes;
(3) shall complete construction and activation of the A-3 test stand with a completion goal of
September 30, 2013;
(4) may procure, develop, and flight test applicable components; and
(5) shall take appropriate actions to ensure timely and cost-effective development of the Space Launch System and the multi-purpose crew vehicle, including the use of a procurement approach that incorporates adequate and effective oversight, the facilitation of contractor efficiencies, and the stream-lining of contract and procurement requirements.
I would note that (1) through (4) strongly conflict with (5). It is simply not possible to engage in a “timely and cost-effective development” of SLS and MPCV using legacy infrastructure and contracts. Constellation was overrunning by billions, and slipping more than a year per year in schedule, and insistence on simply extending existing (and in many cases sole-source, without competition) contracts will fail just as surely. It was pointed out by the General Accountability Office, the Aerospace Corporation, and the Augustine Panel, and these issues won’t go away just because Congress passes a law dictating that they must, anymore than Congress can mandate a different value of gravity.
All of these requirements, from specifying vehicle size and MPCV functions, to how they should do it, and with what infrastructure and contractors, are far below the pay grade or competence of congresspeople and their staff. They may have many skills and talents, but they are not rocket scientists. Such requirements should be the result of engineering trade studies performed by NASA with the aid and input of the commercial contractor community. But, because our actual progress in space is not nationally important, what should be technical decisions have become raw political ones.
To summarize, the Competitive Space Task Force opposes some aspects of the NASA authorization bill passed in late September of 2010. In particular, it opposes attempted congressional mandates to impose a design solution on the agency for either a heavy-lift vehicle or a traditionally-procured crew vehicle, particularly given that the requirements for such systems are poorly defined and justified, and no payloads are planned or funded for them. Such attempts appear to be a means of preserving an infrastructure in certain congressional districts and states, with high legacy costs, and associated legacy jobs. Numerous analyses, by the Aerospace Corporation, the General Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office, have indicated that the type of system demanded by last year’s Congress is unaffordable and unsustainable in today’s austere budget environment. If there is a need for these systems, NASA should be allowed to do the trade studies that it has initiated, and determine the best means to go forward in a competitive manner to get the best deal for the taxpayer, without presumed design mandates driven by politics rather than mission or cost effectiveness.