NASA, Other

Mixed messages on commercial space

Earlier this week the Houston Chronicle ran an op-ed by former congressman Nick Lampson, who sings the virtues of commercial spaceflight. In particular, he called on the Augustine committee to recognize the role commercial space can play in NASA’s future human spaceflight plans:

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, the blue ribbon panel chartered by President Obama, met this week in Houston. Their recommendations in August could well shape the course of future U.S. human space exploration and affect U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. It is critical that we support the development of commercial space flight capabilities over the next decade for reliable, affordable access to low Earth orbit for both people and cargo. The provision of additional commercial services in space will free NASA resources for exploration and ensure that we meet our science and technology goals as a nation.

(This op-ed was highlighted by Next Step in Space, a coalition of companies and other organizations established earlier this month that is pushing for support for human commercial spaceflight.)

It’s interesting to compare that with a passage in a Wall Street Journal article this week (subscription required) about Virgin Galactic’s deal to sell a stake to an Abu Dhabi fund:

However, a NASA official cautioned that venturing into space is extremely costly, dangerous and difficult.

“Everyone has the opinion ‘we can do this’ but I’ve seen so many fail,” he said, adding that running a shuttle costs at least $3 billion a year.

All this is true: spaceflight is difficult and not cheap, and many ventures who have tried it before have failed. But what does the operating cost of the shuttle have to do with a suborbital space tourism system? The article doesn’t identify the “NASA official” who provided the quote nor explain why he wasn’t identified. It’s not surprising some people have seen this as a bit of FUD.

9 comments to Mixed messages on commercial space

  • Dave Huntsman

    “Everyone has the opinion ‘we can do this’ but I’ve seen so many fail,” he said, adding that running a shuttle costs at least $3 billion a year.

    Actually, running “the” shuttle – the only one we’ve ever had – costs over $3b a year; that hardly applies to anything that can shuttle up and down, till the end of time, no matter how big, or small, or focused it is.

    I was working on the shuttle program when the design was finalized; that was in the ’70s. It was designed as one multipurpose vehicle to serve all civilian and military human launch, and all cargo launch, and all launches from orbit, and all space retrievals, and all in-space repairs, and all space returns, etc. etc. needs – which, we now know, was not a smart thing to do. Also: Even if it was the perfect design for THEN, and run by the perfect organization for THEN, this is still over 30 years later.

    The anonymous “NASA official’ has seen a lot of things fail; so have we all. And the new Virgin Galactic deal isn’t even (in sum) the largest commercial space development deal to date: Kistler holds that honor.

    So, if one were to compare these two vary different large-space financings, can we discern anything? I think so.

    A month ago those of us within NASA trying to jump-start a commercial space initiative proposal (those are my words; there exists no official proposal by that name) met, and invited people with experience – the good and the bad – from previous ventures to come and give us some lessons learned. Kistler, I think, suffered from a couple of intrinsic failures: a top management team that focused more on fund-raising (which they were very successful at), than the technical design (both need laser-like focus, from different types of folks), leading to what was probably some fundamentals flaws in the design; and a heavy reliance on top ex-NASA senior managers whose experience and skill set came from having much more money and bureaucracy supporting them than a true commercial operation could ever stomach.

    Kistler was also trying to bite off one big piece all at once: a large, fully-reusable orbital and return vehicle that would not fly that often. Even if they had the perfect team for that $1b in money they raised, that was probably too big a set of objectives to grab all at once, even if the design was basically sound (and it may not have been).

    In my opinion, the Galactic deal involves one-fourth of the money raised – but maybe only one-tenth(or less) of the challenges and goals. They already have clear, flight-tested pathfinders in WK1 and SS1; financing and technical responsibility are totally separate, with real experts heading each; and the goals, suborbital human transportation, suborbital payload transportation and return, and maybe nanosat or equivalent launching, are all things that require almost no new true technology creation. And that’s just for starters.

    I sure as hell hope the “NASA official” who made that comment is part of the team that will be cycling out of the agency in the next few months. S/he is so far off, it’s frightening to think they’ll still be in a position of authority if they aren’t.

  • Major Tom

    Good points with the VG/Kistler comparison, Mr. Huntsman. Some of these companies will make excellent B-school case studies someday.


  • G Clark

    I would very much appreciate it if someone could point me in the direction of a critical analysis of why the Kistler vehicle would not have worked. It always seemed fairly straightforward to me.

    No flaming/sarcasm, just curious…

  • Major Tom

    “point me in the direction of a critical analysis of why the Kistler vehicle would not have worked”

    Maybe someone will have a different view, but I don’t think there were any technical showstoppers to getting the K-1 flying. As Mr. Huntsman explained, there was simply a mismatch between the resources available and the challenges involved in the design. They underestimated those challenges and simply ran out of money. Although Kistler got much farther with K-1 than NASA did with Ares I, the same basic phenomenon has played out on Ares I, just on a much larger scale and much earlier in the development cycle.

    “It always seemed fairly straightforward to me.”

    The recovery — whether Kistler could really resuse the K-1 after a parachute/inflatable bag landing — was always a question in my mind. (I have the same question about Space-X reusability.) And that might have killed their business case. But it would not have stopped them from flying the vehicle, at least once.


  • common sense

    The re-entry vehicle would most likely have been unstable or marginally stable, flying at a non-zero angle of attack (no matter the flare in the back – not enough). If so, the heatshield would have had to be redesigned to be asymmetric (add now all the design changes, too long to list). For it to be stable and to use the configuration shown below the CG would have had to be near the nose, resulting in a near zero angle of attack, if not offset. Having the engine in the back on re-entry essentially assures the CG will not be near the nose. You can ballast the vehicle like Apollo, Shutlle and others and I don’t know if it was their plan. In any case, as it is shown, the re-entry part was likely to fail. Note that a zero angle attack re-entry usually implies significant Gs on the vehicle. No big deal for cargo but ask the crew of the latest Soyuz emergency re-entries what it felt like when they came in ballistic…

    Hope this helps.

  • Dave Huntsman

    G Clark, I did not mean to imply that it couldn’t have ‘flown’ in some way, at all; but a kerosene-fueled second stage, dragging all that weight – including full-up recovery system and a sturdy enough system to be reusable – would simply not have been able to realistically meet any economics, even if their configuration would have technically worked at some level.
    I don’t have any data here at home; but when I get back to work I may be able to find some papers that pretty much show that while a lox-kerosene first stage, high-energy (hydrogen) second stage might conceivably work with appreciable payload for a reusable system, kerosene/kerosene doesn’t. If I can find the papers at work later, I’ll send them to you or post them if I can.

    I also agree with Major Tom: not only Kistler, but SpaceEx reusability, is guilty (of not making it) until they prove it innocent. I bet a Diet Pepsi that, unfortunately, Elon won’t be able to make either Falcon 1 or 9 stages reusable, either. And nothing they’ve been doing that has been made public would seem to indicate otherwise.

    Elon will have succeeded if he can, reliably, get his launchers flying at a significantly higher flight rate – say 20/year – than any other booster (none in the world is currently flying more than 8/year; a pretty sad tale in 2009, after world powers have spent so many tens of billions of dollars, and more, on space these past decades). I repeat: Elon will have pulled of The Next Great Step Forward in space development if he can get a high flight rate and near-absolute reliability. Reusability comes AFTER reliability and and AFTER higher flight rates, in terms of what Earth’s space development needs.


  • G Clark

    Thanks for the pointers.

  • Dave: The Next Great Step Forward in space development if he can get a high flight rate and near-absolute reliability. Reusability comes AFTER reliability and and AFTER higher flight rates, in terms of what Earth’s space development needs.

    Exactly. The problem with reusable designs is that either 1). the government (or somebody) must be willing to invest a lot of money in R&D for a commercially optimized vehicle with no guarantee of return, and do it many years before there is any chance of a payoff, or 2). the market for many launches must exist first to justify the investment. Neither of those conditions exists or is likely to anytime soon, although I hope that proliferating government markets like the ISS and a lunar base, or tourism, may eventually bootstrap us there over a long period of time.

    Elon has the right approach, as did the original VSE. Use upgrades of current technology to expand the market to the point that private investment _can_ be justified for new-technology launch vehicles.

    — Donald

  • common sense

    If still intersted you can look up AIAA 2080-0385 for example.

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