Space Access Update #139 3/14/15
Copyright 2015 by Space Access Society
In this Issue:
FY'16 Political Season Underway: Early Roundup
House Passes NASA Authorization
Commercial Crew Contracts
FAA AST "Learning Period" Extension
Our Colleagues Have Been Busy
Pioneering Space Summit
Alliance For Space Development
Space Access '15 Conference April 30 - May 2, 2015 in Phoenix
FY'16 Political Season Underway: Early Roundup
While we've been putting together our upcoming Space Access Conference, another DC space political season has been getting underway. It's time we took a quick look at what's going on so far. In no particular order...
House Passes NASA Authorization
The House of Representatives has once again passed a NASA Authorization bill - IE, largely a policy document indicating what the controlling coalition in the House Space subcommittee thinks NASA should be doing. In recent years there have been enough minor differences with their Senate counterparts that the last NASA Authorization to actually make it into law was 2010's. On the other hand, that 2010 Authorization is what set Space Launch System and Orion underway regardless of actual need, eating about $3 billion a year of NASA's limited human exploration funding ever since. This year's version is worth a look for issues we care about, just in case.
One thing that's obvious is, they still really like SLS/Orion. They still push SLS/Orion as a backup for Commercial Crew despite that idea's widely-recognized absurdity. They set a landing on Mars as NASA Human Exploration's primary policy goal, not totally unreasonable given that they also allow for a variety of other destinations along the way. But they still attempt to establish by fiat that SLS/Orion is an essential part of the Mars-landing and other deep-space exploration goals - it's essential because they declare it essential, not because any impartial study of the matter has found it so.
(Impartial studies tend to find that NASA is going to have to learn to do orbital rendezvous and assembly for Mars even with SLS, so they might as well do it with smaller, many-times cheaper boosters that someone else has already paid for.) (We're also actually a bit surprised not to find specific mention of using SLS for NASA's planned Europa mission. Although that bad idea [the full SLS launch cost would double or triple overall Europa mission costs, while subjecting the mission to the considerable additional development risk of an as-yet paper SLS upper stage] could still show up in the Senate version...)
Another thing that's obvious is their continued mixed feelings about Commercial Crew, with a strong theme of down-selecting to one competitor right away to save money in the short run, while at the same time somehow leveraging competition to save money in the long run, all while also maximizing "safety" IE compliance with NASA procedural paperwork. Our take is, if they got the established-industry sole-source they obviously want, they'd get the paperwork compliance. Saving money, short or long run, not so much - see the next section for the short-term risks and some early info on long-term prices.
Also Commercial Crew related, they take a pot-shot at funded Space Act Agreements, imposing requirements that would make it considerably harder for NASA to implement significant programs with SAA's in future. (The highly successful COTS Commercial Cargo program, plus the initial phases of Commercial Crew, were contracted under SAA's rather than the significantly less flexible and more expensive FAR's, the standard Federal Acquisition Regulations.)
They also amend 51 USC 70702's requirement for an independent Presidential investigating commission for the loss of any crewed Federal space vehicle or installation to also cover suborbital vehicles carrying any federally-funded payload. And they call for a report supporting an Asteroid Retrieval Mission (which we're beginning to think may make sense as a way of establishing a useful Lunar gateway for the long term) and a report supporting a 2021 Mars Flyby - which unfortunately simply can't be done by SLS/Orion, since it would make the first crewed Orion flight a 500-day Mars mission, which is a bit overambitious.
All points worth keeping an eye on, if and when the Senate starts seriously looking at this bill.
Commercial Crew Contracts
The actual Commercial Crew final development phase (CCtCap) contracts have been released, though with most prices and many other "competition sensitive" details blacked out. What's left is info on the overall shape of the two projects, plus a single number on page 2 of each contract that we suspect may be the total for the fixed-price development & certification portion of the contracts - $1.115 billion for SpaceX, $1.976 billion for Boeing. (NASA will neither confirm nor deny.)
The individual development milestones are there - Doug Messier has tabulated them at Parabolic Arc for Boeing and SpaceX - but the milestone payments have been blacked out. We're a bit unclear on the rationale for deeming these amounts competition-sensitive, mind, as the competition involved is over. It certainly does make it harder to track likely overall program costs versus time though.
Worth noting are the two very different milestone payment strategies. SpaceX bid a 50-50 mix between payments for successful program reviews and payments for successful system tests, while Boeing structured their milestone payments far more heavily toward successful program reviews/reports (78%) and away from successful system tests (22%). Given our reading of the CCtCap Source Selection Report - to vastly oversimplify, Boeing was best at NASA process and SpaceX had best price/performance - this difference in milestone approaches corresponds to real differences in the two companies' approaches.
Boeing looks to us to be pursuing a traditional NASA-process path of designing and reviewing the system to within an inch of its life, then once it's all (theoretically) perfect, building and flying it. SpaceX meanwhile seems to be sticking to the rapid-paced build-test-build cycle that's worked very well for them on Commercial Cargo and on Commercial Crew so far.
To expand on that a bit, the Source Selection Report worries (p 14) about SpaceX "that the schedule is compressed, with a lot of upfront tests and development activities in 2015 and early 2016", and thus that SpaceX's schedule may slip - but also notes that SpaceX's schedule calls for flight tests to be done and certification complete by mid-2017, so presumably they have some slack if they need it. We'd also note that by this front-loaded development approach, SpaceX will tend to discover significant system problems earlier, when there's more time to fix them, and thus is less likely to hit really serious delays.
Meanwhile, they say about Boeing (p 12) "...that there is a weakness in this subfactor for the compressed flight test and milestone schedule", IE, that Boeing has a lot of critical testing stacked up right at the end of their schedule, which calls for just making it under the wire with certification in late 2017. If all the careful planning and reviews turn out to have missed something significant in actual hardware performance, Boeing will have little or no slack to work with. (Which we note is not entirely Boeing's fault, since they gave the customer the process it wants, rather than losing points on process in the evaluations for instead giving the customer the early hardware testing it needs.)
Mission Prices? Elbow-Joggling Reserves?
The tables showing IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity) per-mission prices, one-to-four missions per year for years 2015 (?) through 2020, have all their entries blacked out. Here the competition-sensitivity is obvious, as each contractor is guaranteed two operational flights, but an additional four will be competed.
Each contract also includes an up-to-$150 million IDIQ item for whatever additional studies, tests, and analyses NASA may insist on before this is over. (This may not be nearly enough if the final certification phase is allowed to go hard-core old-NASA our-way-or-the-highway.)
Between the overall prices NASA originally announced for the development contracts plus six operational flights, the smaller prices GAO announced for the development contracts plus the minimum two operational flights, and what we have here, we think we may have backed out numbers for per-flight prices. Average per-mission price for two missions, Boeing $442 million, SpaceX $243 million. For six missions, Boeing's average is $346 million each, SpaceX's average $223 million each.
Given that NASA has decided to fly these missions with four seats plus some fraction of a Commercial Cargo (CRS) mission's cargo, we can go on to estimate actual per-seat prices. Using a third of a $133 million SpaceX CRS mission for the comparison (the better match, since both Commercial Crew vehicles will also provide both up-mass and down-mass) and at our six-mission prices, we come up with, Boeing, $76 million per seat, SpaceX, $45 million per seat.
Meanwhile, adding Boeing's and SpaceX's (presumed) fixed-price development & certification totals plus the two $150 million NASA-imposed-extras provisions gives us $3.39 billion. This is already slightly higher than the $3.225 billion you get if you add NASA Commercial Crew's current-year budget of $805 million, its FY'16 request for $1.24 billion, and the $1.18 billion it anticipates needing in FY'17.
Full-throttle political support for full-funding Commercial Crew at the requested $1.24 billion is a top (if not the top) political priority for this year. Down-selecting to one vendor to save money over the next two years would add multiple unacceptable program risks and lead to long-term monopoly pricing. Successful flight before the end of 2017 already apparently involves optimistic assumptions about not needing the full $300 million in NASA-required-extras contingency funding. NASA says that any shortfall from the $1.24 billion level this year risks further program delays, and our look at the numbers seems to bear that out.
FAA AST "Learning Period" Extension
The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004 established an eight-year "learning period" during which FAA AST's authority to impose regulations (beyond ensuring third parties aren't harmed) on the commercial spaceflight industry was limited. See this story and this for background. Briefly, the intent was to give commercial vendors flexibility to experiment while building up the FAA experience base with commercial spaceflight, before attempting to craft detailed regulations.
Alas, things have taken longer than hoped. The US commercial spaceflight industry still hasn't carried its first paying "spaceflight participant", though the day is getting closer. The learning period has been extended once already from its original 2012 expiration, but it's now due to expire this coming October.
There's a push underway to reset the learning period to run eight years from the date of the first US flight of a paying "spaceflight participant". An original sponsor of the CSLAA, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, says in hindsight it was an error not to set it up this way from the start.
FAA AST's position, meanwhile, is that the learning period should be allowed to expire so they can begin crafting commercial industry regulations based on the 50-year history of government spaceflight. We respectfully disagree.
Supporting extension of the learning period is our second political priority for this year, close after full funding for Commercial Crew.
Our Colleagues Have Been Busy
Space political activism saw two interesting developments this February: A two-day invitation-only "Pioneering Space Summit" in Washington DC, and a new alliance between Space Frontier Foundation and National Space Society (with others) called the Alliance for Space Development.
The PSS was a sponsored get-together of a hundred or so people from the DC space policy world. The attendance list was confidential, but apparently it included influential people from the congressional space committees and from NASA. The Summit's output was a two-sentence consensus statement:
“The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy. This will be best achieved through public – private partnerships and international collaboration.”
Now, this would be unremarkable if the meeting had been solely activists. (Although we might question "international collaboration" - this typically involves adding together national space bureaucracies, which typically multiplies project costs.) For mainstream space policymakers, it's a bit more of a radical departure. If this sentiment does not quickly fade post-meeting (as alas we've seen after similar past consensus-building exercises) then we might look to see signs of movement toward implementing the summit consensus as US policy. Here's hoping.
Alliance for Space Development, meanwhile, was formed by National Space Society and Space Frontier Foundation, has a Board with two members from NSS and two from SFF, and is run day to day by Executive Coordinator Charles Miller. It also has at last count nine additional member organizations, some of which (SEDS, Mars Society) are also long-established and well-known, but none of which seem to have a share in the decision-making apparatus.
ASD's goals and objectives look fine to us - we see nothing to argue with there, and we expect we will cooperate with ASD or with individual ASD member organizations to support those among their 2015 objectives (they list seven) we think both most urgent and also practically achievable within available resources. (To be clear, one of the classic problems with grand alliances is setting priorities. The tendency is to prioritize everybody's wish-lists, but unfortunately, if everything's nominally top priority, nothing actually is. Hard choices are sometimes needed.)
Meanwhile, Charles Miller is also reviving the March Storm citizen space lobbying event, in DC this Sunday through Thursday. Again we think this is a fine thing, we agree with all five points of their agenda, and we encourage you all to sign up and show up and tell DC policymakers what you support.
Our sole caveat is once again a matter of priorities: We think that their items #3 (extending the FAA AST learning period) and #5 (full funding for NASA Commercial Crew) are both extremely urgent this year, and both doable within this community's resources.
Their items #1 (establish settlement as NASA's official mission), #2 (an as-yet loosely defined government Cheap Access incentive prize), and #4 (a seamless long-term transition from ISS to commercial stations) we see as excellent priorities for the longer term, but none seems to us vitally necessary this year, while two of the three don't seem to us achievable this year at any plausible level of effort. (Unless there's also funding in place for a major behind-the-scenes lobbying push on all points? Even then, we wouldn't bet on getting all of these.) We'd recommend giving these secondary priority in individual lobbying meetings - mentioning them, beginning the long-term education process, but saving the major push for full-funding Commercial Crew followed closely by extending the CSLAA learning period.
Space Access '15 Conference April 30 - May 2, 2015
SA'15, Space Access Society's next annual conference on the business, technology, and politics of radically cheaper access to space, will be at the Radisson Hotel Phoenix North, 10220 N Metro Parkway E in Phoenix Arizona, with Space Access conference room rates of $99 a night plus tax, rate includes a 25% discount on the hotel full-breakfast buffet. Click on this link to reserve your room at our rate, or call the Radisson at 602 997-5900 and ask for the "Space Access Conference" rate (good for up to three days before and after our dates.)
(Attendees at SA'13 may recognize the address - yes, this is the same location, extensively renovated under a new owner, with a wide variety of restaurants and shopping a short walk away.)
Conference Agenda, Schedule
Our upcoming conference will feature a cross-section of the growing cheap access community, talking about what's going on now and what we should be doing next, in a fast-paced intensive informal atmosphere. For the latest on the confirmed presentations list, see SA'15 Info. We'll be starting programming at 2 pm Thursday April 30th, running (with breaks) till ~10 pm, Friday May 1st 9 am till ~10 pm, then Saturday May 2nd 9 am till ~6 pm, with hanging out, talking and partying to follow till late. Our overall schedule will include roughly twenty-one hours of programming on the latest and most interesting developments in this fast-moving field.
One agenda item in particular we'd like to mention here: We'll be running a New Models For Off-Planet Settlement discussion session. We already believe settlement is essential; we want to talk about the most practical way to make it happen as soon as possible. The purely public model has failed, between extremely high public-agency costs and at-best flat long-term public space budgets. One purely private model, bootstrapping a space media project by the multiple orders of magnitude needed to finance a settlement, may once again be falling short. What sort of public/private or alternative pure-private model might actually produce sustainable off-planet settlement? "COTS 2", building on the original COTS (Commercial Cargo) low-cost commercial system development model to affordably produce the needed transportation, habitation, and other systems, has been suggested and sounds to us viable - but is there a better model out there? If not, what will be involved in implementing "COTS 2"? Come join us and help us start sorting all this out.
SA'15 registration is $120 in advance, $140 at the door, student rate $40 in advance and $50 at the door. (The single-day rate will be $60, $20 student, available at the door only.) You can register in advance by mailing a check, along with your name, email, and desired organization name (if any) for your badge to Space Access '15, PO Box 16034, Phoenix AZ 85011, or register online via credit card or Paypal.
Supporting The Conference
As for SA'15 conference fundraising, as of March 14th we've reached $7250 of the ten thousand we need to make this conference sustainable. Yes, we're doing the conference now regardless of whether we reach our goal. (Commitments we've made to speakers and attendees entirely aside, hotel contract cancellation penalties are downright fierce.) One place raising the last part of our goal makes a difference is in the degree of conference followup we can do afterward. EG, finally after all these years getting set up to start processing and posting conference videos online.
If you believe that Space Access conferences are useful to this community, and that keeping conference prices as low as possible for all of us who are still students, hungry amateurs, or tight-budget startup pros is still the way to go, help, please. Donate online, or send a donation of whatever size - ten, a hundred, a thousand, it all helps - via check to: Space Access Society, PO Box 16034, Phoenix AZ 85011.
(Note that this is NOT tax-deductible, as we are not a 501c-anything. It is however entirely confidential, as we have never and will never share or disclose in any way our supporters' names. Our ongoing gratitude goes out to all who've supported us over the years and who continue to help.)
Keep an eye on SA'15 Info for additional details on the conference agenda as more invited speakers are confirmed.
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. You may reproduce selected portions of this Update if you credit this Space Access Update as the source and include a pointer to our website.
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"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System"
- Robert A. Heinlein