NASA, Pentagon

For military launch, failure is not an option

If there was a key takeaway from Friday’s Space Transportation Association luncheon speech by Gary Payton, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, it’s that there’s no room for error when launching key military spacecraft. “We’re at the point now where our programs are so critical to the warfighter that we cannot afford a launch failure,” he said. Payton noted in particular four “first of their kind” spacecraft are scheduled for launch this year: the first GPS Block 2F satellite, the first Space Based Surveillance System (SBSS) satellite, the first Advanced EHF communications satellite, and ORS-1, the first Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) operational satellite. “So I need four good launch vehicles,” he said.

That means no cutting corners on launch costs. “I am paying extra for mission assurance on all of our launch vehicles, but to me that’s great,” he said. “I would love to save $10 million on a launch, but if it costs me—if that launch vehicle fails and I splash a $2-billion satellite—then I’ve been pushing on the wrong end of the lever.” He continued: “Launch reliability is my top priority. Our constellations for any of our missions cannot tolerate a launch failure.”

However, he said he’s still concerned about launch costs and looking for ways to reduce them without affecting reliability. NASA’s plans are having a ripple effect, he said, but it’s not all due to NASA’s current plans to cancel Constellation. He said he started to see price increases for engines last summer as production of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) wound down with the impending retirement of the shuttle. “We’ve known that for many, many months and we’ve been working with independent cost estimators and ULA, United Launch Alliance, to mitigate those predicted cost increases.” One possibility would be to do a bulk buy of vehicles, something he said that would require the ability to do a multi-year procurement.

He also discussed the impact to the solid rocket motor industrial base caused by the shuttle’s retirement and plans to cancel Ares. The bigger impact of that, he said, is on the Minuteman and Trident ballistic missiles, and not the strap-on motors used by EELVs. Still, he said, “we very intelligently have to walk down the path of the potential reduction in the solid rocket motor industrial base.” He said he had met just earlier in the week with NASA administrator Charles Bolden to discuss “how the Air Force, NRO, and NASA will work together as the future unfolds” with respect to the industrial base and other issues.

27 comments to For military launch, failure is not an option

  • “Launch reliability is my top priority. Our constellations for any of our missions cannot tolerate a launch failure.”

    Which is why the notion of having to “human rate” the EELVs, other than adding FOSD, is palpable nonsense.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Rand Simberg wrote @ March 27th, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    “Launch reliability is my top priority. Our constellations for any of our missions cannot tolerate a launch failure.”

    Which is why the notion of having to “human rate” the EELVs, other than adding FOSD, is palpable nonsense…

    I concur completely. The same also of course holds true for the payloads. It makes no sense to have a “human” reliable launch vehicle and then to not launch a payload that has the same reliability in its systems as say a human satellite carrier.

    Robert G. Oler

  • GuessWho

    Oler? What no snide remarks about how Payton doesn’t have a clue about SRB’s, SRM’s and how they can’t possibly be related in terms of cost increases? Let me recall…..

    From March 13th, 2010 at 1:57 am: – “If Constellation goes away ATK will continue to make or refurbish solids for the Navy and USAF…smaller workforce but due to the nature of government contracts and the fact that the SRB’s have little or nothing in common with weapon systems…I cannot see the link

    Robert G. Oler”

    or ….

    from March 13th, 2010 at 12:46 pm: – ” that is laughable.

    you dont have a clue how government contracts are billed.

    “Remove a large percentage of that base revenue and those fixed costs are shared by a smaller pool of programs and the costs go up across the board.:”

    that assumes that the fixed cost associated with all the ATK programs are shared in a significant amount by those programs.

    Yes I agree that the company cafeteria (if they still have it) might be shared from all contracts…but there is almost nothing shared between the SRB’s and any other “solid” that the organization pours.

    In any event the cost will not double.

    thanks for the amusment this morning

    Robert G. Oler”

    Hmmm… Seems you were wrong yet again. Thanks for the amusement this morning!

  • Guess Who,
    There are other people involved in the military spacelaunch business who have testified before Congress saying that while there might be an increase in cost due to SRB shutdown, that it would probably be in the 20-30% range, not the 2x range. Were they lying?

    ~Jon

  • “During a Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing, Rear Adm. Stephen Johnson, said he expects solid rocket motor prices to rise 10 to 20 percent. He assured Vitter that 100 percent price growth is not likely. Johnson heads Navy strategic systems programs.”

  • Robert G. Oler

    GuessWho wrote @ March 27th, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I stand by my statement. As other posters have noted in this thread and others (Major Tom did a nice dissection some threads back of the “double” statement) there is really no way that a doubling occurs.

    Gary is doing what you do when you are told to walk something back, get on the team, and are given some leeway as to how to do it.

    Seems all you have is an axe to grind, not a point to make.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Allen Thomson

    The one that Mr Payton didn’t mention but I suspect is causing a lot of fingers to be crossed at the Pentagon and Chantilly is NROL-49, currently scheduled to go up 1 December 2010 on a Delta-IV Heavy.

    The current stable of three (maybe four) optical/IR spysats is getting a bit long in the tooth. NROL-49 seems to be the first of two KH-11-spawn gapfillers contracted in the aftermath of the FIA catastrophe, and it isn’t all that clear that a truly post-FIA plan has yet been put into place.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Allen…would you care to comment on what you think X-37′s mission is or what it is a technology demonstration of (ie what space capability it is trying to crank up)? I have my own theories but I am curious with other views.

    Robert G. Oler

  • brobof

    “Launch reliability is my top priority.” {My emphasis.]???
    Ariane is a pretty reliable LV… for that matter so is Soyuz.
    :)

  • NASA Fan

    Does anyone on this blog have actual data for LV’s under the existing NLS contract and any sense for what the prices are projected to be in 5 to 10 years?

  • Allen Thomson

    Re X-37:

    That one has me puzzled. I’d guess it’s mostly a technology demonstrator with eventual missions TBD. A reusable reconnaissance payload for ORS might be such a mission, but I really don’t know.

  • Major Tom

    “During a Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing, Rear Adm. Stephen Johnson, said he expects solid rocket motor prices to rise 10 to 20 percent. He assured Vitter that 100 percent price growth is not likely. Johnson heads Navy strategic systems programs.”

    Repeating myself from an earlier thread…

    20 percent of the cost of refurbishing every U.S. nuclear missile motor is a small fraction (1-20%) of the costs of extending Shuttle one year or finishing Ares I/Orion development.

    A typical ICBM or SLBM motor refurbishment contract is measured in the low hundreds of millions of dollars for dozens of missile motors.

    Here’s one that refurbishes all three stages on 75 Minuteman IIIs for $225 million:

    defenseindustrydaily.com/2252m-to-remanufacture-minuteman-iii-rocket-motors-02760/

    There are 450 Minuteman IIIs in the U.S. ICBM arsenal, and it’s our only ICBM. So all the solid rocket motors for the entire U.S. ICBM arsenal could be refurbished for something in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion.

    Similarly, there are 14 Ohio-class submarines carrying 24 Trident IIs each, or 336 Trident IIs total, and it’s our only SLBM. Assuming Minuteman III and Trident II motor refurbishment costs are comparable (like the Minuteman III, the Trident II has three solid motor stages), all the solid rocket motors for the entire U.S. SLBM arsenal could be refurbished for something in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

    Combining the two figures gives a total of $2.4 billion (call it $3 billion) to refurbish all the solid rocket motors for the entire U.S. nuclear missile arsenal. 20% of that would be $600 million.

    The program manager for Space Shuttle has quoted a cost of $170-240 million per month to keep the Space Shuttle team together. That’s $2-3 billion per year. Spending $2-3 billion (with a “B”) per year for multiple years of Shuttle extension to avoid a $600 million (with an “M”) cost to the U.S. taxpayer for increased nuclear missile motor costs would be boneheaded. That’s an order of magnitude difference in costs over savings.

    The costs to finish Ares I/Orion range from over $30 billion (various NASA managers) to nearly $50 billion (GAO estimates). Spending $30-50 billion (with a “B”) to avoid a $600 million (with an “M”) cost to the U.S. taxpayer for increased nuclear missile motor costs would be boneheaded in the extreme. That’s two orders of magnitude difference in costs over savings.

    Heck, even if Rear Adm. Johnson is wrong and the price of refurbishing every U.S. nuclear missile solid rocket motor doubled, that’s only another $3 billion. Spending $2-3 billion per year on multiple years of Shuttle extension or $30-50 billion to finish Ares I/Orion to avoid a $3 billion cost to the U.S. taxpayer for increased nuclear missile motor costs is still insane.

    Dumb, dumb, dumb…

  • I don’t get the comment about the SSMEs.. what’s he saying there?

  • GuessWho

    Goff – I haven’t said anyone who has testified is lying. I haven’t even said that Oler is lying. You reference Adm. Johnson and his testimony. He may be right, for the particular systems he is referring to (which are specifically?), but unless he has already performed the cost assessment that Payton has alluded are underway, like Payton, he is expressing an opinion as to the outcome of those studies. I don’t question is credibility, I don’t question his judgement. Oler did both on the previous discussion about Payton. Thus I do question his on both accounts.

  • GuessWho

    Oler – “As other posters have noted in this thread and others (Major Tom did a nice dissection some threads back of the “double” statement) there is really no way that a doubling occurs.”

    Well, there you have it. I suggest you call Gary Payton and inform him that he can cancel is cost study because “Major Tom” has completed it for him and knows the true cost impacts. No further discussion needed.

    Seriously though, you know your argument is weak when you base the strength of your argument on the fact that other posters, who are just as clueless on the subject matter as you are, agree with you and thus that makes it true. Oler, you are suffering from echo chamber syndrome.

  • Robert G. Oler

    GuessWho wrote @ March 28th, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Well, there you have it. I suggest you call Gary Payton and inform him that he can cancel is cost study because “Major Tom” has completed it for him and knows the true cost impacts. No further discussion needed…

    I think that we should have a cost study. My point and it remains is that Gary was well out of line to make the statement he made WITHOUT A STUDY…

    and his statement of a “range” which was a “Guess” was ridiculous given some back of the envelope calculations that say Major Tom did. The Navy (which is going to become more and more a driver of the large solids as arms reduction drives the bulk of the throw onto the “boats” ) was far more careful.

    There are a lot of claims being tossed around which are solely designed to bolster the rhetoric around one position. Gary should have known better. Mr. Gates certainly does.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Major Tom

    “Well, there you have it. I suggest you call Gary Payton and inform him that he can cancel is cost study because “Major Tom” has completed it for him and knows the true cost impacts. No further discussion needed.”

    It doesn’t take a genius to do these kinds of back-of-the-envelope calculations and figure out that the costs are an order of magnitude or two more than the “savings”. There’s no need to waste money on a detailed cost study when the “savings” are so far outside the ballpark.

    (And, FWIW, I know and have worked with Payton before.)

    “Seriously though, you know your argument is weak when you base the strength of your argument on the fact that other posters, who are just as clueless on the subject matter as you are”

    I quoted a Minuteman solid rocket motor refurbishment costs from an article about that contract. And anyone can look up the number of Minuteman and Trident missiles in the U.S. inventory.

    It doesn’t matter how clueless anyone is or is not. The data is readily available.

    FWIW…

  • Major Tom

    “My point and it remains is that Gary was well out of line to make the statement he made WITHOUT A STUDY… and his statement of a “range” which was a “Guess” was ridiculous given some back of the envelope calculations that say Major Tom did.”

    It was a little unfortunate that Payton said “potentially double” in an earlier hearing, only to have another DOD official state that the SRM cost increase will be more like 20%. Payton probably should have just taken the question for the record rather than answer off the top of his head. But it wasn’t a big deal. Now that he’s differentiating between launch vehicle SRMs (Payton’s responsibility) and ICBM/SLBM SRMs (not Payton’s responsibility), Payton has better gotten his arms around the issue.

    That said, my calculations don’t show whether the cost increase will be 20%, 100%, or something else. What my calculations show is that at 20% or 100% (or even something much higher than that), it’s far more cost-effective from a national perspective to take that hit on SRM costs rather than spend orders of magnitude more money extending Shuttle operations and/or completing Ares I/Orion. It makes no sense to spend billions or tens of billions of dollars at NASA to save hundreds of millions or even a few billion at DOD.

    FWIW…

  • Coastal Ron

    I wonder if anyone has publicly asked the Air Force if they would have wanted to launch their most valuable satellites on the Ares I? I think the answer would have been no, mainly because they are already working with launchers that meet their needs (cost + reliability), but also because the SRB-based Ares I is an unknown regarding reliability & cost.
    -
    For Ares I to get any sort of high flight rate, they would have had to add cargo missions, and the military is the only customer with enough demand to go after. Then the debate would have been to discard a working system (Atlas V & Delta IV) in favor of a new and unproven one (Ares I). Even with the political posturing that is going on today, I can’t see Ares I winning that one, which means it would have been doomed to be a niche launcher with low demonstrated reliability, and high inherent costs (infrastructure, materials, processing, etc.).
    -
    One way to reduce the cost of Air Force cargo launches is to increase the flight rate of the launchers in general, which supports using Atlas or Delta for human crew. It doesn’t help the SRM costs, but I agree with Major Tom in that the overall cost for refurbishment doesn’t merit a separate launcher program (Shuttle extension or even Ares I/V).

  • Robert G. Oler

    Major Tom wrote @ March 28th, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    nothing there to disagree with…nicely put (both post BTW)

    Robert G. Oler

  • I think the answer would have been no, mainly because they are already working with launchers that meet their needs (cost + reliability), but also because the SRB-based Ares I is an unknown regarding reliability & cost.

    Not to mention that they probably don’t want their fragile birds to get shaken apart…

  • red

    Jonathan Goff: “During a Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing, Rear Adm. Stephen Johnson, said he expects solid rocket motor prices to rise 10 to 20 percent. He assured Vitter that 100 percent price growth is not likely.”

    I wonder how the Athena Ic and IIc fit into this discussion. These will use the Castor 120 and Castor 30 solids. Will these soften that 10 to 20 percent increase? Will they suffer from that increase?

    “Lockheed Martin and ATK Announce 2nd Generation Athena Launch Vehicles”

    http://www.lockheedmartin.com/news/press_releases/2010/0325_ss_athena.html

    With NASA’s plans for a line of small “Scout” missions within the new robotic precursor budget, a line of small “Venture-class” Earth observation missions that can include smallsats, a line of “Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Missions” in the new Space Technology budget, a “Small Satellite Subsystem Technologies” line in the new Space Technology budget that may help drive smallsat business, and various other technology demonstrations that may come in all sizes, could there be a healthy need for Athena IIc services within NASA?

    What if Orbital’s COTS entry Taurus II (second stage, Castor 30) gets more ISS cargo business because of the increased use and longer life of the ISS? What if it gets commercial crew business? Delta II replacement business?

    Or … will the new $312M in the Commercial Cargo line allow Orbital to replace the Castor 30? Here’s the relevant line in the 2011 budget:

    “Accelerating enhanced capabilities may include adding milestones for
    early development of items such as the high energy engine for Orbital’s Taurus II upper stage…”

  • red

    Jeff: “He also discussed the impact to the solid rocket motor industrial base caused by the shuttle’s retirement and plans to cancel Ares. The bigger impact of that, he said, is on the Minuteman and Trident ballistic missiles, and not the strap-on motors used by EELVs.”

    The impact to the solid rocket motor industrial base is one part of the equation, but we should look at the broader impact the new NASA plans will have on the military, NOR, NOAA, and other government agencies that work in space or that use space products.

    In the case of the military, we should look at

    - the impact to the solid rocket motor industrial base and related prices
    - the impact to the (currently over-capacity) military space access industrial base and related prices from changes like

    * additional capabilities enabled by new funding for commercial cargo to ISS
    *commercial crew and the related prospects for new launchers or greater use of existing launchers
    *greater use of launchers because of more capabilities on ISS, more use of ISS, and longer support for ISS
    *greater use of launchers because of the new lines of robotic HSF precursors
    * greater use of launchers because of the new Earth observation missions
    * new NASA use of commercial suborbital RLVs
    * modernization of KSC and the Florida launch range
    * greater use of launchers for exploration technology demonstrations
    * greater use of launchers for general space technology demonstrations
    * new heavy lift and propulsion technology work, including the U.S. RD-180 class engine possibly built with at DOD-NASA partnership and foundational propulsion research

    - the impact to the military satellite industrial base and related prices from changes like

    * potential changes to space access costs, reliability, responsiveness, and other characteristics from the items listed above that would affect the satellite business
    * new Earth observation missions, including traditional ones and the new Venture-class line
    * new HSF robotic precursor missions, including larger missions and smaller “Scouts”
    * new NASA general space technology work, much of which is likely to apply to DOD satellites and their subsystems (for example, sensors, in-space propulsion, high bandwidth communications, energy storage systems, etc) … (some of this work will be done in partnership with DARPA, AFRL/Operationally Responsive Space, etc)
    * new NASA exploration technology demonstrations, some of which may have implications for the DOD (eg: propellant depots, high performance materials, etc)

    - the impact to the military aircraft industrial base and related prices from changes like

    * new fuel efficient aircraft work
    * integrating UAVs in the airspace

    There are more examples like this. I’d argue that a lot of these changes are going to lower DOD costs or increase DOD capabilities. I’d argue the same for other government agencies like NRO and NOAA. However, that’s just a rough assessment by me. A serious analysis of the implications of the full scope of the NASA changes, not just the things that are being removed, across multiple agencies would be better than focusing on solid rockets.

  • “Gary Payton, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, it’s that there’s no room for error when launching key military spacecraft. “We’re at the point now where our programs are so critical to the warfighter that we cannot afford a launch failure,” he said.”

    LOL!!

    Let me get this right; you have a USAF deputy under secretary crowing about error in launch vehicles to put up recon, comm SATS for drone ops. in the field. And this high cost system is suppose to be better than the existing system the military blames as faulty when tageting enemy operations in some cases resulting in killing civilians in the theater.

    Oh… and spare me the bad intel argument-please!

    OMG!! He has to pay extra ’cause Obama/Bolden cut constellation?

    Well Duh, you cut civil HSF down to nothing so the only people doing space ops is a politically correct NASA and Dot Space with the military industrial complex.

    Is this crazy war logic for anyone-hello ?

  • Let me get this right; you have a USAF deputy under secretary crowing about error in launch vehicles to put up recon, comm SATS for drone ops. in the field. And this high cost system is suppose to be better than the existing system the military blames as faulty when tageting enemy operations in some cases resulting in killing civilians in the theater.

    Was there supposed to be some intended relationship between this incoherent blather and what Payton said?

  • “He said he started to see price increases for engines last summer as production of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) wound down with the impending retirement of the shuttle. “We’ve known that for many, many months and we’ve been working with independent cost estimators and ULA, United Launch Alliance, to mitigate those predicted cost increases.” One possibility would be to do a bulk buy of vehicles, something he said that would require the ability to do a multi-year procurement.”

    Smell an entitlement program for this mil SAT delivery system over others ?

    “Still, he said, “we very intelligently have to walk down the path of the potential reduction in the solid rocket motor industrial base.” He said he had met just earlier in the week with NASA administrator Charles Bolden to discuss “how the Air Force, NRO, and NASA will work together as the future unfolds” with respect to the industrial base and other issues.”

    Reductions in the solid rocket motor industry are also due to arms limitation agreements which is Ok. understand the logic here.
    But why suddenly drop reliable civil HSF liquid & solid rocket motor hardware base to favor unproven launch system to deliver SAT controlled model airplanes (easily shot down by human pilot) by smaller cadre of companies?

    I guess looking for ‘waldo’ in deserts has it’s benefactors over peaceful human space exploration-huh.

  • But why suddenly drop reliable civil HSF liquid & solid rocket motor hardware base to favor unproven launch system to deliver SAT controlled model airplanes (easily shot down by human pilot) by smaller cadre of companies?

    OK, now please provide the several missing steps in logic that allows you to ask this question based on anything that Payton has said.

    You seem to be able to miraculously knit an entire wardrobe of fantasy conjecture out of a slender thread of fact.

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