Space Access Update #135 5/13/14
Copyright 2014 by Space Access Society
In this Issue:
- 2014 Space Politics: Changes Coming
Russia, Soyuz, Station Access, and Station Possession
- Soyuz Cutoff Contingency
- Station Loss Contingency
Space Launch System
- Where We Stand: SAS Policy Pointers
- Space Access Conference
2014 Space Politics: Changes Coming
Looking at this year's space policy and politics scene, we're struck by a number of issues that have been steady and predictable for years now, but that recently look about as stable as a stack of overage dynamite. Changes, abrupt changes, are suddenly looking possible, and in some cases inevitable.
Our experience is that it's best to start thinking about a sensible plan before the stuff hits the fan, because it's really hard to make good plans in the middle of a stuff-storm. Some thoughts follow.
Russia, Soyuz, Station Access, and Station Possession
Space policy's priority is falling back fast for both the US and Russia in the Ukraine crisis. We keep hearing that it would make no sense for either side to drag ISS into the fray, that the level of mutual interdependence in operating Station is such that neither party could practically go it alone - but situations involving clashing emotional nationalisms all too often in the past have developed logic and momentum of their own.
We hope that the two leading parties to Station continue to see reason and cooperate, but hope is not a policy. The US needs two contingency plans: One for a cutoff of current US crew access via Soyuz to Station, and one for a subsequent Russian takeover of the US sections of Station (whether it's called annexation, or salvage, or any other fig-leaf that may be applied to the reality that possession is nine points of the law) or loss of Station due to politically-induced operational problems.
It's worth noting that the Ukraine crisis may drag on for years, as it would be difficult for the current Russian government to back off from its recent "near abroad" policies without severely damaging its domestic standing, possibly to the point of losing power.
It's also worth noting that effective preparations for the first (Soyuz cutoff) contingency visibly underway would make both the first and the second contingency far less likely to ever take place. If the US were positioned to respond to a Russian access cutoff by sending up a US crew on US transport within months, a cutoff's perceived leverage would be considerably reduced, and its potential to come across as embarrassingly ineffectual greatly increased.
US international political reality is that Station - International Space Station - could quickly become a highly visible symbol of the level of US commitment to the major US allies involved, Japan, Canada, and most of the countries of Western Europe. If the US allows a situation to develop where the international partners have to renegotiate Station access with Russia or lose it entirely, conclusions are likely to be drawn about the reliability of other US commitments to these allies.
US domestic political reality is that Station is a significant element of US public pride that also represents three billion dollars a year in NASA-funded jobs in the states and districts of a powerful Congressional coalition. NASA Station management's recent policy of encouraging commercial Station-related ventures also means this Congressional coalition is growing to include home states and districts of those commercial ventures.
This NASA/contractor/commercial workforce is vanishingly unlikely to be simply laid off even if we suddenly lack a Station for them to support. If you doubt this, consider that we still have a major part of the old Shuttle NASA/contractor workforce on the NASA payroll, ten years after Shuttle cancellation was announced and three years after Shuttle's final flight.
There was no plan beyond layoff made at the time for most of this Shuttle workforce. (In 20-20 hindsight, a grave political error.) The political result was that the Congressional Shuttle coalition has since assigned them multiple expensive make-work rocket projects.
We need to have a near-term Station contingency access plan in place and underway ASAP, to minimize chances of either a Station access cutoff or a complete Station takeover/loss. 2017 is far too late. We also need a much better plan ready for the current Station workforce than the one Congress implemented post-Shuttle, should Station push come to Russian shove.
Soyuz Cutoff Contingency
If the three US Commercial Crew contractors haven't already been asked by NASA to lay out how much each could accelerate its first crewed Station flight and what it would take to do so, they should be, immediately.
Further, given the international political priorities involved, NASA should instruct these contractors to factor some interim increased level of acceptable risk into their proposals to accomplish the mission in a timely manner.
(Note that some parts of the planned NASA safety certification process may not actually provide additional safety proportional to the time and expense involved. See Rand Simberg's new book Safe Is Not An Option for more on the tradeoffs involved.)
NASA should then be directed to select the proposal giving best odds of earliest emergency access capability and implement it on an expedited basis, to include a return to the streamlined "Other Transactional Authority" program management used to such good effect in Commercial Cargo and the initial stages of Commercial Crew. At least one of the other competitors should also be kept moving forward, albeit likely on a resource-reduced basis.
This interim access capability need not be actually used, absent a Soyuz cutoff. Its existence will in fact reduce the chances of any such cutoff. However, producing the interim capability will likely also shorten the path to full certified US crew capability.
Station Loss Contingency
As for what the current US Station workforce should be told to do if we lose the current Station (whether via overt takeover or due to politically-caused operational problems) the obvious answer is, build, launch, assemble and operate a new and better (and if done properly many times cheaper than ISS's $100 billion-plus cost) space station, ASAP.
The politically obvious but very bad way to do this would be to order NASA to design a whole new Station from scratch for launch on the SLS. The Congressional Shuttle/SLS coalition will likely push hard for this. Acceding to this would guarantee the new Station would, in tandem with SLS, take far too long and cost far too much. It would also raise the probability of complete project failure far too high, given that the organization currently tasked with SLS hasn't flown a successful new rocket in over thirty years.
Given the US national and international priorities involved, we recommend that the considerable risks of tying a new Station to SLS be avoided.
Politically, replacing Station would need to happen reasonably near current budgets for domestic reasons, while also happening fast enough to unmistakably demonstrate both US resolve and continuing US technological superiority for the international audience. It would be no bad thing to produce a peaceful reminder of the old lesson that if you get the US mad it just inspires us to extraordinary accomplishment.
The only practical way to meet both these goals would be for NASA to combine creative use of existing surplus Station hardware with expansion on the leveraging of US commercial capabilities already pioneered in the Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs.
Specifically, NASA should add US commercial space habitat modules to the New Station mix, while renewing and expanding on the streamlined "Other Transactional Authority" cooperative commercial program management used to such good effect in Commercial Cargo and the initial stages of Commercial Crew.
This would give the US the best possible chance of rebounding from such a crisis with a demonstration of US public/private creativity at its best. Given that the political repercussions of such a crisis could carry on for an extended period, such a demonstration could well be a significant factor in a positive long-term resolution of the crisis, as well as a positive legacy for those who set this response in motion.
ULA is in an interesting position. The better of their two EELV program launchers, Atlas 5 (all other things equal, A5 carries somewhat more and costs somewhat less than Delta 4) uses a Russian-built engine, the RD-180. A very good Russian engine - nothing in current US production can match its performance in the application.
Back in the late nineties, Atlas 5's US engine contractor got a smoking deal on a contract for a batch of 100 RD-180's at just under $10 million each. (Roughly comparable US engines cost several times that.) About half that batch has already been flown, and another two years' worth have been purchased and stored in the US as insurance against exactly the sort of political crisis currently brewing.
Originally the plan was to build RD-180's in the US at some point after getting the program underway with Russian engines. EELV was, after all, primarily a program to ensure redundant means of space access for US national security payloads. Rights to build the engines, along with detailed technical info, were included in the original deal.
But the US ended up flying a lot fewer EELV's than originally hoped. And building the RD-180 in the US turned out to be technically harder than expected. More expensive too - the US-built engines would have cost several times the initial-contract Russian ones.
So nobody wanted to pay the estimated $1 billion to set up a US RD-180 production line as long as the Russians were (mostly) behaving. Absent a crisis, the US government apparently had other things it would rather do with the money, while ULA was hardly going to spend that much of their own cash to increase their per-engine cost.
Obviously, things have changed. ULA would still (rightly) be in trouble with their stockholders if they spent a billion stockholder dollars to effectively double or triple ULA’s per-RD-180 cost. This collision between national security and international politics is a government problem, and the government needs to pay for the solution.
There are two major US Government options.
One would be to decide that SpaceX is a sure enough thing at this point that DOD can 100% count on them to provide the other half of US national security launch redundancy when the stored RD-180's run out in a couple of years and ULA falls back to only having Delta 4. We won't debate here the technical merits or politics of this policy. Suffice it to say that current indications are that the government is not yet ready to take this leap.
The other option then is for DOD to pay for expedited setting up of US production of RD-180 or a new-design functional equivalent.
We recommend against going for a new-design replacement - given only two years of RD-180's in stock, time is of the essence. Debugging new high-performance rocket engines historically takes a lot of time. US-built RD-180's will also need some debugging, but at least there's already a known stable working configuration to aim for. There is also a sad recent history of US new-engine programs that have spent years and hundreds of millions to come up with nothing flyable. Walk before you run.
We recommend US RD-180 clone production be contracted for via an expedited competitive process that allows use of Other Transactional Authority to bypass the expensive, time-consuming standard government procurement system, analogous to our Station access and Station replacement recommendations.
And finally, given that the government would be paying for setting this up, US production RD-180's should be available to any US launch company, not just ULA.
Space Launch System
The conflict in our other recently-heating potential crisis is purely domestic, but not all that much less intense. Unfortunately, some of the issues involved have come to be seen in light of the deep partisan divide prevailing elsewhere. Unfortunate, in that from our determinedly non-partisan point of view, this perception of NASA-policy partisanship is largely in error. Both good policies and bad in this matter have come from both sides of the aisle.
A brief dip into history may clear up some of the confusion.
The White House NASA exploration policy changes of 2004 and 2010 attempted to resolve a long-term problem: NASA's overall budget has been essentially flat for most of the decades since the post-Apollo cutbacks. Shuttle ended up costing well north of a billion dollars each for the handful of missions it could fly per year, in large part due to post-Apollo structural problems at NASA. NASA nevertheless eventually managed to build Station using Shuttle, taking decades and costing over a hundred billion dollars because of a mix of these continuing structural problems and Shuttle's limitations.
At that point, NASA was stuck. Once Station was established, operating it and Shuttle ate up pretty much the entire NASA "human exploration" budget. There was no money for any further exploration, nor was there likely to be. Since Apollo, the majority of the American voting public thinks space is cool and doesn't sweat the details, but does think that what we're currently spending is about right. All attempts to nudge NASA funding back up toward (historically unique) much higher Apollo levels have gone nowhere. One thing Congress knows is the voting public, and the public just isn't sufficiently invested.
The White House policy solution in 2004 was to schedule Shuttle's retirement and begin preparing to switch to supporting Station with existing US expendable boosters - at the time, mainly the somewhat-cheaper-than-Shuttle EELV's. This would have freed up some funding for new exploration, also to be based on existing expendables.
Shuttle's retirement was set, but as we've seen the plan didn't have enough in it for the Congressional Shuttle coalition. Next thing you know, Admiral Steidle's EELV-based "spiral development" exploration plan was out, and Mike Griffin's NASA-designed big boosters "Constellation" was in, with the new Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets to be built by essentially the NASA/contractor Shuttle team. (Ares boosters were to be used not just for exploration but also for routine Station support missions.)
Constellation inevitably collapsed because with the Shuttle team mostly still on the payroll there was still no money for developing actual exploration missions. Worse, those post-Apollo NASA structural problems had not gotten better over time. Ares 1 and Ares 5 development costs were rising to the point where it was unlikely they'd even fly within expected funding, never mind that we couldn't afford to develop exploration payloads for them.
Meanwhile a plan to shut down Station to free up funding for Constellation didn't go far at all. Station has a Congressional coalition behind it too, one arguably stronger than that of Shuttle/Ares/SLS. (Station funding probably still wouldn't have covered the fast-growing Constellation tab in any case.)
So, a second White House tried again in 2010 to lay off much of the Shuttle team by canceling Constellation, keeping some long-term Heavy-Lift booster propulsion technology work going, while redirecting the rest of the funding toward developing exploration technology and missions to be flown on commercial boosters.
The Heavy-Lift technology project was in hindsight too small a consolation prize. The Congressional Shuttle coalition almost immediately stepped in to revive Ares 5 under a new name, "Space Launch System", once again effectively no-bidding it to the old NASA/contractor Shuttle team. (Ares 1 was quietly allowed to die, since it had become clear that it had vibration problems so bad that the only thing it could ever deliver to space would be puree of astronaut.)
After some bitter brawling, a truce was declared in the 2011 budget. NASA HQ would go along with developing SLS, and Congress would fund some modest NASA exploration technology work and partially fund Commercial Crew. (Commercial Crew's first mission has slipped from 2015 to 2017 due to this partial funding plus ongoing Congressional SLS coalition pressure to do Commercial Crew more traditional-NASA inefficiently.)
That brings us up to the present, where this truce is starting to look shaky.
Is the White House trying to kill SLS again? No, the 2011 truce is holding from that side. The White House as usual requested a modest reduction for SLS ($1.732 billion, down 10% from last year's $1.918 billion) in the full knowledge Congress would top it back up. The White House also requested $848 million for Commercial Crew, in the full knowledge Congress would again whittle it back down (though now perhaps not so much after all, given the need to deal with the sudden political unreliability of Soyuz.)
What has been happening is that the SLS coalition has begun to get a lot less subtle about sniping at other NASA programs they'd like to plunder for funding, that they see as a threat, or both. Station is foremost among these, to the point where the Administrator of NASA had to make clear this spring at a Congressional hearing that without Station, he could not use SLS, as without Station there'd be no practical way to develop and test long-duration deep space systems to fly on SLS.
In terms of practical politics, SLS trying to kill Station would (oversimplified) involve the Alabama Congressional delegation colliding head-on with their colleagues from Texas. Alabama didn't win back when the Huntsville NASA center tried to grab overall management of not-yet-then-built Station from Houston. Texas has not grown smaller or less influential since. More recently, the Constellation coalition had no luck killing Station either, so this spring's push is puzzling.
The SLS Congressional coalition also last year began a serious push to cancellation-proof SLS, to essentially make it illegal for NASA to terminate the program. This push was fig-leafed by also including Station on the protected list, but Station didn't need the protection and the bill's original sponsor is from Huntsville; nobody was fooled.
(The SLS anti-cancellation provisions are currently watered down to requiring 120 days notice, which we can live with, but we're keeping an eye on the issue. Any actual cancellation-proofing is terribly bad policy, if for no other reason than if it's passed, everyone else in Congress will want to protect their favorite programs that way also.)
There are other signs in the current House NASA Authorization that the SLS Coalition may be worried about SLS's future. The bill contains a quite reasonable instruction that NASA come up with an overall Exploration roadmap with Mars at the far end, with few restrictions on how to get there. Save one: NASA is instructed that SLS (and the Orion capsule being developed to fly on it) shall be deemed essential to the roadmap.
This is not something that would need mandating in law if SLS actually was essential. In fact, any serious program to reach Mars must involve building up missions from multiple launches, since SLS at its eventual largest still won't come close to putting up a practical Mars mission in one go. At which point, it makes sense (to us at least) to use commercial boosters that may have to fly more often with smaller mission pieces, but that will definitely do so at far lower overall cost.
(Regarding SLS costs, there was a 2011 NASA study that compared a new commercial booster's development cost with a standard NASA cost-model estimate for the same booster done as a traditional NASA in-house project. The in-house project cost estimate came in ten times higher than the actual commercial development cost. Moreover, a GAO study from about the same time said that NASA's final costs for a dozen recent major in-house projects averaged 55% higher than its initial estimates. IE, by NASA's and GAO's numbers, doing SLS in-house will likely cost NASA ten to fifteen times more than buying a commercial equivalent. Any modest program economies of scale that might arguably accompany SLS being larger than currently-planned commercial boosters are in our view far outweighed by this massive SLS in-house NASA diseconomy.)
And, one final SLS oddity, the current House NASA Authorization still mandates that SLS/Orion be built capable of doing Station crew rotation missions, including doing Station lifeboat duty. This is the approximate equivalent of using an 18-wheeler to drop the kids off at school - moreover, an 18-wheeler custom-built to Formula 1 race car specs. This and "cost-effective" aren't in the same universe.
Other missions proposed to justify SLS don't make a whole lot more sense:
- NASA HQ's proposed Asteroid Rendezvous Mission, ARM, would bring a 20-foot space rock back via robotic capture to within the very limited two-week range of a single-launch SLS/Orion mission. ARM at least has the virtue of (probably) being within SLS/Orion's capabilities, but nobody seems impressed enough with this mission so far to pay for it. (The people who actually study asteroids for a living would far rather spend a fraction of the money on multiple smaller asteroid probes that would give them far more data.)
- The current Congressional mission favorite is a Mars 2021 crewed flyby mission, which would have a very high coolness factor. The problem is it's far beyond the capabilities of the Orion spacecraft, and quite probably also beyond what SLS would be able to do by then. It would take what is currently planned as the very first crewed Orion test flight and send it on a 500-day no-bailout round trip to Mars. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, the latest GAO report on SLS costs says they can't begin to estimate SLS life-cycle cost because SLS management is refusing to give GAO data on how much the program's various planned options and enhancements might cost.
Our conclusion from all this is, the SLS coalition is very worried. Given the stonewalling of GAO, plus the fatal cost-growth history of Constellation, we wouldn't be at all surprised if they already know something about SLS costs that we only strongly suspect. Namely, that it's very likely SLS is fast headed the way of Constellation: Not enough money to build and fly the incredibly expensive NASA-developed rockets, let alone to develop useful missions to fly on them.
Worried enough to push even harder to loot parts of NASA that are actually doing useful missions, to push even harder to come up with any plausible mission at all for SLS, and to push even harder to hobble other parts of NASA that threaten to make it unmistakably obvious that it's been a long time since SLS's management has been in the same county as the best we have at developing new rockets.
Especially with the Russian crisis ongoing, the SLS coalition may have an opportunity to slip more really bad policy into law. They should be watched closely.
Meanwhile, it's time to start thinking about - and perhaps quietly negotiating - what deal the SLS Congressional coalition would accept for a final SLS shutdown. We would be open to a significant part of the NASA funding currently flowing to Coalition districts continuing, as a matter of political realism. The last offer was for perhaps a third of current SLS funding levels for Heavy Lift propulsion technology work. We could live with sweetening this a bit with some new work for the old districts.
We would NOT be in favor of any new work sent their way happening under unreconstructed SLS organizational structures. As a matter of principle there should be some reasonable chance of the American public getting worthwhile space exploration results for their NASA money.
Where We Stand: SAS Policy Pointers
We're overdue to write up a new policy summary. We are for Radically Cheaper Space Transportation as being good for the country (not to mention necessary for the future of the species), yes - but how do we propose to get there from here? The current SAS Policy Summary dates was last revised in early 2006. It still gives the basic outline of our policies and goals but is a bit dated on programmatic details. (Though we are very pleased that some of our advice there has since been at least partially implemented.)
Space Access Update #124 gives a relatively recent summary of where we stand on Commercial Crew - we're for it, as long as it's not captured by the bureaucrats and rendered useless - and Space Launch System (SLS) - we're against it, as a white-collar welfare waste of extremely limited space funding, an awkwardly large and vastly overpriced rocket in desperate search of some practical mission.
For more of the reasoning behind these positions, see SAU #128.
And for our still-current position on how to let NASA do useful exploration despite flat budgets as far as the eye can see, there's SAU #132 "Fixing The Problem".
Space Access Conference
A Word From The Executive Director
In a normal year, I'd be recovering from putting together and managing our annual Space Access conference. Not, unfortunately, this year. I'll have more to say soon about the reasons for that (short version: time and money issues, plus deep personal reluctance to ask for help) and about how in future we hope to be able to resume doing the conference.
For now, I'd like to thank everyone who's written with expressions of support, offers of help, and ideas, and ask for your continued patience on responses. I discovered very quickly after making the announcement that I wasn't able to be as calm and objective in discussing this as I might have hoped, so I shelved the matter temporarily and concentrated on dealing with other stacked-up issues. Some of the suggestions are quite good, and at this point I'm far more optimistic about being able to both carry on and make improvements than I was at the end of last year. More on all that soon.
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"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System"
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