NASA

Four goals and three suggestions for NASA’s human spaceflight program

In a luncheon speech Wednesday during the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, George Sowers, vice president for business development at United Launch Alliance, discussed what he said could be considered a “logical” approach for the near-term future of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “Once we agree on the goals, it becomes a lot easier to debate how to achieve those goals,” he said.

Taking as a starting point the statement from the Augustine Committee’s final report that the goal of the human spaceflight program is to chart a path for humanity’s expansion into the solar system, Sowers outlined four lower-level goals that derive from that ultimate goal “that I think we can also all agree on and that provide a good starting point to logically build a framework for a plan.” Those goals:

  1. Close the human spaceflight gap as quickly as possible
  2. Begin human exploration beyond LEO as quickly as possible (“we need to make schedule an overt goal,” he said, referring to the long delays in such missions in existing plans and proposals)
  3. Develop technologies and infrastructure that will enable long-term sustainability
  4. Fit within NASA’s budget, which he believes will likely be flat or even cut in the coming years as part of deficit reduction efforts.

On that last goal, Sowers said, “I am tired of hearing people in our community whine about not having enough money. $19 billion a year for NASA is a lot of money. And if we focus on the mission, instead of rice bowls and constituencies, I think it is more than enough.” That line triggered an impromptu round of applause from the audience.

He then followed with a few general suggestions on how to achieve those goals in the near term:

  1. Fully fund a commercial crew development program along with Orion, providing “two horses in the race” to close the gap. The two can coexist, he said, since they serve different markets, likening commercial crew efforts to regional jets and Orion to a long-range jumbo jet. Flying Orion early, he said, can be done by flying it on an existing vehicle, the Delta 4 Heavy. “I am continually amazed about how radical some people see that common-sense idea,” he said.
  2. Delta 4 Heavy and Orion can also be used for simple beyond LEO missions through the use of in-orbit refueling, which he called “the most important near-term technology for sustainability for the exploration program.” Testing this technology on the ground and space should be a priority, he said.
  3. On-orbit refueling and propellant depots also allow for a smaller HLV, he said, reducing overall costs. “A smaller, lower-cost heavy lift vehicle in a budget-constrained environment allows earlier and more frequent missions, which keeps the program sold,” he said. How small? He said an HLV that can place 70 to 80 metric tons in LEO is in the “sweet spot” since, combined with propellant depots, it can support exploration missions beyond LEO all the way to Mars.

On the last point, Sowers was asked what he thought of shuttle-derived HLV concepts. “I don’t have a negative opinion on shuttle-derived heavy lift,” he said, although he said he had some “skepticism” about it because of its potentially high fixed costs.

105 comments to Four goals and three suggestions for NASA’s human spaceflight program

  • Martijn Meijering

    Unsurprisingly Sowers is advocating an option that would mean the most work and money for ULA: the heaviest and most expensive HLV ULA could develop from existing EELVs, and cryogenic depot R&D where ULA has a competitive advantage. And all that probably on a cost-plus basis. The sweet spot is mostly sweet for ULA.

    Orbital refueling doesn’t merely reduce the size of a “needed” HLV, it means no HLV is needed at all. Existing EELVs could support missions all the way to Mars. I’m annoyed that people who know or should know better keep implying you need an HLV to make Mars landings possible, practical or economical. None of these things is true. And orbital refueling for noncryogenic propellants is a proven technology and it would be good enough. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop cryogenic depots, or even that we shouldn’t decide to go to Mars or even Mars orbit before we have them, but it does mean we can start much sooner.

    What we need is cheap lift and that probably requires a thriving launch market with cut throat competition. Exploration with propellant transfer is the ideal way to create such a market. We could start right now. We should start right now. What we shouldn’t do is turn ULA and emerging New Space companies into a new cartel.

  • Martijn Meijering

    the heaviest and most expensive HLV ULA could develop from existing EELVs

    I forgot to add: within a reasonable development budget. Without that constraint they could go even bigger, to EELV Phase 3.

  • CharlesHouston

    This does sound good for ULA, especially in the short term; this is also the only reasonable thing to advocate. One thing to remember is that ULA is a government creation and could easily – given a higher flight rate – be split back into competing companies. Or SpaceX and Russia and China and Ariane and Boeing could provide the competition. So there will be no shortage of competition! Given a market of course.

    One note that I would add – assume the NASA budget is going to be flat (at best) and growth will come in commercial efforts. If the gov’t will absorb the initial risk, the commercial companies can take it from there.

    Yes the gov’t (in the guise of NASA and some DoD) has had titanic space budgets for decades and has frittered much of it away in X-38, other X vehicles, duplicated facilities and capabilities. What we need is a goal so that we don’t keep starting and stopping projects. We should have flown X-38 for example, as a technology development if nothing else. It would complement the Air Force (was NASA) X-37.

    A reasonable goal would be to return to the Moon – it would provide a relatively safe, nearby, test bed for technologies that could take us further. Unfortunately, right now the Moon is politically off limits.

  • Ferris Valyn

    CharlesHouston – you’ve got at least 3 things wrong, as I see it
    1. There are a lot of reasonable goals, that do not require a destination
    2. The moon is not off limits (nor has it been)
    3. you can do a lot of test bed for technologies using ISS. Why jump to the moon, until you need to?

  • Martijn Meijering

    this is also the only reasonable thing to advocate.

    I don’t consider EELV Phase 2 reasonable at this point. Probably not even EELV Phase 1, though the case for that is stronger. If the demand for it ever develops, then ULA can build it on their own dime. Depots yes, but not an HLV. If there isn’t the will or money for exploration, then not much will be lost by waiting for cryogenic depots. It’s still wrong to imply they are necessary.

    Unfortunately, right now the Moon is politically off limits.

    I’m afraid anything that could be expected to yield tangible results soon is politically off limits, other than supporting the ISS. Pork can continue to be spent at a reduced rate, as long as we don’t have any more embarrassing failures. Of course, SLS seems set to become just such a failure. But delaying an asteroid mission probably makes less dramatic headlines than cancelling a moon / Mars program. They can always claim moon and Mars remain long term goals that weren’t going to happen soon anyway.

  • amightywind

    First Sowers acknowledges the tight fiscal environment and then he advocates 2 paths to manned spacecraft development. He must have worked in the EELV program! The space program is being endlessly delayed because of dithering morons like this. Build the Orion/Direct system and end the pointless debate.

  • Vladislaw

    Martijn Meijering wrote:

    “I’m annoyed that people who know or should know better keep implying you need an HLV to make Mars landings possible, practical or economical. None of these things is true.”

    It looks like congress wants a bigger phallic symbol, and if that is what they want then saying a 70 ton launch vehicle, on the small end of a HLLV, is all he could say. For me, it appears he agrees with you:

    “3.On-orbit refueling and propellant depots also allow for a smaller HLV, he said, reducing overall costs. “A smaller, lower-cost heavy lift vehicle in a budget-constrained environment allows earlier and more frequent missions, which keeps the program sold,” he said. “

    He seems to be avocating for the smallest heavy lift there is and stay within arguing range of congress.

  • Even the ULA admits that the Atlas V two stage rocket would be safer than launching a crew on top of a Delta IV heavy. The Delta IV would also be one of the most expensive ways to launch an Orion into space. Additionally, the RS-68 engines still need to be man-rated which will only add to the Delta IV heavy’s expense.

    Boeings shuttle derived core booster without the SRBs would be an inherently simpler and safer launch vehicle than the Delta IV heavy. And it could still be used as a heavy lift vehicle by just adding 2 to 4 SRBs or two more core vehicles.

  • Robert G. Oler

    A few points

    First the metaphor of Orion/Commercial being like jumbo jets/regionals is goofy and valid only in the very narrow sense that Sowers uses and even that is not very good…

    Second, this is but the latest sign that the Delta IV super heavy is coming and not a SDV or a “DIRECT” (the comments of the beloved over at NASAspaceflight.com become even more goofy by the day).

    Third…the reality is that there is not going to be any money/support/or real effort at any human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit for quite sometime. Yeah NASA should be able to do a lot on 19 billion but it doesnt do a lot with the money that is spent on HSF and until that changes until NASA learns how to fly a lot cheaper and frankly a lot safer…the effort at human exploration of space is going to go on the very back burner.

    We have passed a very important turning point in HSF and the days of “exploration just to do it” are now really quite gone.

    Robert G. Oler

  • He seems to be advocating for the smallest heavy lift there is and stay within arguing range of congress.

    NASA is sort of fighting back at Congress for building a shuttle-derived HLV, but we’ll see how that ends up, if an HLV of any type gets built on time at all.

    I agree with Martin that we need to start now on building an infrastructure for inner-Solar System travel, be it ULA or their competitors.

  • @Martijn Meijering

    You need several hundred tonnes of mass shielding in order to transport humans to Mars, unless you don’t mind having astronauts getting their minds fried from months of having their brains zapped by heavy nuclei.

    Using chemical rockets to transport humans to Mars or to the asteroids is just a bad idea!

  • Coastal Ron

    Vladislaw wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 10:57 am

    He seems to be avocating for the smallest heavy lift there is and stay within arguing range of congress.

    Yep, it’s good that ULA is out advocating now, but one does have to keep in mind that they are a For Profit company, and that they are also jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing (and LM does Orion).

    I do agree with Sowers statement that the $19B NASA budget is enough to do quite a bit in space, and just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we’ve always been able to “go home” to space, since we have plenty of capable launchers and tech to do it. We don’t need HLV’s.

    Regarding Sowers general comment #1 about Orion, I think there is a good chance that Orion will be kept as a relatively short-term occupation capsule system, and that NASA will instead jump to a true space-only exploration vehicle concept. No one is going to live in Orion during a mission, but you do need a CRV that can get you back from the area of the Moon/Lagrange points.

  • Martijn Meijering

    Using chemical rockets to transport humans to Mars or to the asteroids is just a bad idea!

    Perhaps, depending on what the long term biological effects of GCR and microgravity turn out to be. But before we start sending ISS-sized exploration ships beyond Earth orbit we had better develop cheap lift and ISRU first.

  • Additionally, the RS-68 engines still need to be man-rated

    What does that mean? What would you do to “man rate” them? Do have any concept of the meaning of that phrase?

  • Robert G. Oler

    Rand…nice live blogging atISPCS; for those who have not read it, journey to Simberg’s site; it is a good read…

    Robert G. Oler

  • Mark R. Whittington

    This sounds actually reasonable, with a couple of caveats:

    Fuel depots should be seen as an enhancement for HLVs and not a substitute. That way they are not in the critical path for exploration to start.

    The first goal needs to be the Moon, despite the very clear political dictate against it by Obama last April (sorry, Ferris, but those are the facts.)

  • Martijn Meijering

    Fuel depots should be seen as an enhancement for HLVs and not a substitute. That way they are not in the critical path for exploration to start.

    It is the other way round. HLV could at best be seen as something that will maybe, just maybe, one day far in the future, be a nice addition to cheap lift and propellant transfer. And HLV should not be on the critical path to exploration and it should not be an obstacle to cheap lift, which means no HLV until we have cheap lift. Propellant transfer on the other hand is a mature technology, which has seen operational use ever since 1978. Yes, we still want LOX/LH2 depots and yes, those still need R&D. But we can get started without them, so they can safely stay off the critical path.

  • Fuel depots should be seen as an enhancement for HLVs and not a substitute. That way they are not in the critical path for exploration to start.

    Fuel depots can be ready faster than HLVs, and much cheaper. It’s HLVs that need to be taken off the critical path.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mark R. Whittington wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    The first goal needs to be the Moon,

    the next two decades are going to be very hard for you Mark…there is not going to be any “lunar” (or anything else) goal.

    Robert G. oler

  • Bennett

    Fuel depots should be seen as an enhancement for HLVs and not a substitute. That way they are not in the critical path for exploration to start.

    Sure, that makes sense until you consider that your idea puts the HLV “in the critical path” before exploration can start…

  • Coastal Ron

    Marcel F. Williams wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Even the ULA admits that the Atlas V two stage rocket would be safer than launching a crew on top of a Delta IV heavy.

    Where do they “admit” this?

    But really this gets back to “how safe is safe”? If launchers were 100% safe, then you wouldn’t need an LAS. But since nothing is perfect, a LAS is prudent, and it also means that you don’t have to have perfect launchers to achieve crew safety.

    However the success of Delta IV speaks for itself, and it sure looks safe to me. Plus I think commercial crew on medium launchers to LEO transfer points will be the preferred transportation method.

    The Delta IV would also be one of the most expensive ways to launch an Orion into space. Additionally, the RS-68 engines still need to be man-rated which will only add to the Delta IV heavy’s expense.

    You either have a bad memory, or you keep “conveniently” forgetting this. ULA testified at the Augustine Commission last year that it would take $1.3B to “man-rate” Delta IV Heavy, after which the per flight cost would be $300M. They already know what needs to be done, so there is no mystery here, and the price is pretty reasonable considering the $9B we dumped into Ares I.

    Taking into account the development costs of any potential HLV, it’s impossible for any of them to beat the value of Delta IV Heavy. You give me $10B, and I’ll get you 1,450,000 lbs to LEO, or 29 Orion to orbit. If you get $10B, you’ll get some HLV hardware, but nothing in orbit. That’s the trade-off.

    We don’t need to wait for HLV’s to do stuff in space…

  • Coastal Ron

    Mark R. Whittington wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    The first goal needs to be the Moon, despite the very clear political dictate against it by Obama last April (sorry, Ferris, but those are the facts.)

    No, the fact is that Congress agreed with removing the Moon as goal, and there were no howling protests or filibusters to indicate any deep seated love for the Moon.

    The Nation has spoken, and the Moon is not worthy of taxpayer money right now.

  • No surprise that a guy who’s gets his paycheck from ULA wants to make sure that NASAs direction is to provide the maximum possible business for ULA.

    The fuel depot scam is just a jury-rig excuse for tryting to perform space exploration with an inadquately tiny little rockets.

    What has it taken forever to assemble the ISS? Because the LEO payload capacity is of the shuttle is so small … about the same as the Delta IV.

    Get real!

  • Martijn Meijering

    Wow, how many wrong statements can you cram into a few lines of text?

    The fuel depot scam is just a jury-rig excuse for tryting to perform space exploration with an inadquately tiny little rockets.

    - The scam is called SDLV. It is a scam because 1) an HLV isn’t needed, 2) SDLV would not be a cost effective way to build one even if we needed it.

    - 20-25mT is not tiny, most terrestrial payloads are smaller than this. Bridges and skyscrapers are built out of building blocks this size and smaller.

    - the rockets are not inadequate with depots and high flight rates are desirable if you want to reduce launch prices.

    Also, orbital refueling is crucial if you want to reuse your spacecraft. Throwing away a $1B spacecraft after one use is an order of magnitude worse than throwing away a $100M launch vehicle after one use. As long as we keep doing that we’ll never achieve meaningful results with manned spaceflight.

    What has it taken forever to assemble the ISS? Because the LEO payload capacity is of the shuttle is so small … about the same as the Delta IV.

    No, the reason it has taken so long is 1) international bureaucracy, 2) a launch vehicle (Shuttle) that is 2a) unreliable and 2b) cannot support a high flight rate and perhaps 3) lack of use of inflatables.

  • Martijn Meijering

    Sure, that makes sense until you consider that your idea puts the HLV “in the critical path” before exploration can start…

    Actually, the only thing that is holding us back right now is a lack of money, or rather a lack of money that can be spent wisely, since most of the rather large amount of money that is available is tied up in pork barrel make work projects. All the technology we need already exists, and the additional technologies we want can be developed in parallel, safely off the critical path.

  • Mike Snyder

    Robert G. Oler wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I have asked this before and never got an answer but please provide some tangible data and proof that SDLV is not going to happen and all is just a smoke-screen for the supposed Delta IV super heavy.

    Until then, and while you continue to insult everyone else, it is you that is coming off as “goofy”.

  • I’d like to hear Lori Garver’s response to Mr. Sowers remarks.

  • byeman

    More disinformation from Williams.
    “The Delta IV would also be one of the most expensive ways to launch an Orion into space”

    You could not be more wrong.
    1. Ares I is or was more expensive
    2. Direct would be more expensive since the development costs are part of the unit costs. Delta IV exists and was paid for by someone else.
    3. Same goes for the Boeing design.
    The Boeing SDLV is not that much safer for the money. It is not worth billions to increase the predicted design reliability by a few .00X when Delta IV is safe enough with an LAS

    “dithering morons”
    somebody is looking in a mirror.

    Delta IV will be used to launch Orion

  • Major Tom

    “provide some tangible data and proof that SDLV is not going to happen and all is just a smoke-screen for the supposed Delta IV super heavy.”

    There’s no slam-dunk case either way. HLVs are very expensive to develop and operate and there’s no guarantee that any HLV, regardless of heritage, would be affordable within the budget constraints of NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act or the ~20% discretionary budget reductions proposed by the Republicans who may control the House or Congress after the election.

    But the NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act states that the SLS should utilize Shuttle heritage/workforce/contracts _only to the extent practicable_ and sets lift requirements for the SLS that can be met by at least several different vehicle concepts and families. This leaves the path open for EELV-derived (such as Delta IV Heavy) and commercially derived (such as Falcon XX) HLVs, not just Shuttle-derived HLVs.

    Given the flexibility given to NASA in the legislation above and given that Shuttle-derived HLVs, from Shuttle C to ALS/NLS to Ares V, have proven to date to be too expensive to even initiate development, nevertheless build or operate, I’d bet that if NASA does successfully develop an HLV, it won’t be Shuttle-derived. I think that will be even more true going forward given the austere budget environment and the fact that NASA must bear all the costs of the a Shuttle-derived infrastructure and workforce, unlike the competing vehicle families. But I’ll also admit that I might lose that bet due to political considerations.

    My personal preference, as expressed by Mr. Meijering and others, would be to defer full-scale HLV development in favor of investigating more radical approaches to reducing launch costs. Lift for exploration missions is dominated by propellant payloads, and even with HLVs, we’re going to have to master long-duration, in-space, cryogenic propellant management to mount an exploration mission. If we have to do that, then we should drive down the launch costs as much as possible on whatever lift size is the cheapest, and there are credible ~$500M proposals out there to develop very cheap ELVs and gun launchers that could do the job. Even if those proposals or the use of existing LVs didn’t pan out, I’d still want to drive down my HLV costs as much as possible by scaling up promising new engine designs like thrust-augmented nozzles and high-thrust expander cycles that could greatly simplify HLV and engine designs.

    My 2 cents… FWIW…

  • Coastal Ron

    Nelson Bridwell wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    What has it taken forever to assemble the ISS? Because the LEO payload capacity is of the shuttle is so small … about the same as the Delta IV.

    There are two ways to interpret your question. One is that you honestly don’t know the history of the ISS, and that you are unaware of the issues that defined the ISS and contributed to it’s long construction schedule. The other is that you don’t care about any of that, but you think an HLV would have solved those problems (which it wouldn’t).

    In manufacturing (my background), the first unit of anything you build is the most expensive. The ISS is no different, and so we learned a lot of lessons from designing, building and assembling it.

    If we wanted to build a second ISS, we could do it for far less cost, a much shorter schedule, and we could do it using existing med-heavy launchers like Proton, Ariane 5, H-IIB and Delta IV Heavy. The only new technology needed would be tug modules to deliver the payloads to the ISS, since we wouldn’t be using the Shuttle (a big cost savings).

    HLV’s are not necessary for launching current generations of 5m wide payloads, which is what the industry is currently set up to produce. Anything bigger cannot be moved by rail, road or aircraft, so new manufacturing facilities would have to be built either next to the launch facilities, or near waterways for transportation to launch facilities. That’s a big expense, especially when larger diameter living spaces are not needed at this time.

    Until there is a demonstrated need for wider or more massive payloads, HLV’s are not needed. They are a perceived need, not a real one.

  • Martijn Meijering

    HLV’s are not necessary for launching current generations of 5m wide payloads, which is what the industry is currently set up to produce.

    True. And even bigger fairings (7.5m) are possible on existing EELVs.

  • Justin Kugler

    Larger volumes are more likely to be accommodated by inflatables, anyways.

  • common sense

    @Coastal Ron wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    “If we wanted to build a second ISS, we could do it for far less cost, a much shorter schedule,”

    Let me add that it would probably make a lot more sense to actually build another ISS or maybe multiple ones or a bigger one. Doing so we would possibly learn how to live in space as a small “colony” at “low” cost. Another ISS and/or Bigelow modules would be a terrific thing to do. We might even think of sending “regular” people up there, etc.

    HLV will be the end of HSF. We shall see soon.

  • Martijn Meijering

    there’s no guarantee that any HLV, regardless of heritage, would be affordable within the budget constraints of NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act

    I think that if somehow SDLV were no longer an option, the special interests in Congress would immediately lose their enthusiasm for any form of HLV. We’d probably hear lots of talk of how we urgently needed NTR, or hypersonic airbreathing propulsion or whatever the Congresscritter’s particular NASA center has an expertise in.

  • Vladislaw

    Major Tom wrote:

    I rarely disagree with your writings but this one I would take a bit of a different slant:

    “My personal preference, as expressed by Mr. Meijering and others, would be to defer full-scale HLV development in favor of investigating more radical approaches to reducing launch costs.”

    I honestly do not believe we have to put much taxpayer money into cheaper launch. We have bottle rockets that will do the job i.e. they should be able to make a buck for the launch companies servicing current EXPECTED demand. (as it relates to current and planned human space activities)

    It will not really have to come into effect until there are several companies competing to resupply space stations and fuel stations. There launch costs will be the driver and the first company that spends the R&D on the next generation of supply launchers that can cut their production costs could potentially capture 25-40 launches a year. (ISS and 1 or 2 bigelow stations and or fuel station) Just having that high of flight rate can reduce costs by increasing unit production numbers. I believe once we have commercial space access and a commercial destination competition is really going to start moving to the forfront and companies will be forced by that new paradigm to actually start working the R&D to bring down production costs because they do not have to operate in a very competitive market now they dont have to bother.

  • I suspect that if somehow SDLV were no longer an option, the special interests in Congress would immediately lose their enthusiasm for most forms of human spaceflight.

    That said, it is very possible that no government funded beyond LEO human missions will survive upcoming austerity budgets, whether using HLV or fuel depot based architectures, which causes “HLV versus EELV & depots” to be a moot discussion.

    As always, I believe having as many LEO destinations as possible (other than ISS) will best facilitate low cost access to LEO.

    But given the expected austerity budgets, tourism, entertainment and marketing strike me as the most promising sources of revenue for these non-ISS LEO destinations.

  • Ferris Valyn

    Mark – you really wanna review the history again? Although I don’t know what the point would be, since you frequently ignore inconvenient facts.

  • Martijn Meijering

    @Vladislaw:

    Exactly! Simply by buying the propellant it needs for exploration in orbit, NASA can indirectly finance development of cheap lift. Where to spend R&D money would then be a business decision, one that could be safely left to the market. This would leave NASA to focus on deep space spacecraft, exploration and ISRU while leaving launch vehicles, crew capsules and development of RLVs, SEP tugs, cryogenic depots and medium sized HLVs such as EELV Phases 1 and 2 to the market.

  • Martijn Meijering

    That said, it is very possible that no government funded beyond LEO human missions will survive upcoming austerity budgets, whether using HLV or fuel depot based architectures, which causes “HLV versus EELV & depots” to be a moot discussion.

    Propellant transfer can be used for unmanned missions too.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    “No, the fact is that Congress agreed with removing the Moon as goal, and there were no howling protests or filibusters to indicate any deep seated love for the Moon.”

    Wrong. Congress put the Moon back in. Read the bill’s language.

  • Major Tom

    “I honestly do not believe we have to put much taxpayer money into cheaper launch.”

    I think it depends on your definition of “cheaper”. If we want to go from today’s ~$5-10K/lb. to LEO costs down to $1-5K/lb. to LEO, you’re probably right. If some combination of the ISS market being opened up to commercial providers, other markets (e.g., Bigelow) emerging, and/or lower cost providers entering (e.g., SpaceX) occur, then costs will probably migrate in that direction without much additional government spending beyond what’s already occuring/proposed in COTS/CCDev.

    But what I was referring to, however inexactly, were ways to drive costs down into the $100-1K/lb. to LEO range (at least for propellant payloads) without having to spend a lot on up-front development. Things like Loral’s Aquarius super-cheap ELV concept (~$500/lb.) or the Quicklaunch gas gun (~$250/lb.), both of which advertise up-front development costs of $500 million. Although technically credible, I think both of these concepts involve enough unknowns (i.e., it’s not SpaceX streamlining existing ELV technology) that private investors are not going to front those kinds of dollars, and government help will be necessary to bring them to market. Neither concept is needed to replace HLVs — I agree that existing ELVs and in-space propellant management can do the job. But what intrigues me about these concepts is that they have the potential to drive launch costs down by multiple orders of magnitude (at least for propellant) with up-front investments that scale with a COTS or CCDev effort, i.e., we maybe don’t have to put multiple billions of dollars into RLVs or air-breathing concepts to hit these kinds of costs. That could maybe do more than just enable a handful of human exploration missions — it might really begin to open up space development and human space activities beyond LEO.

    And if we are going to pursue an HLV in lieu of creating competition in existing vehicles and/or pursuing advanced concepts to drive down costs, I’d rather defer the decision for a few years to scale up some long overdue engine technologies like thrust augmented nozzles and high-thrust expander cycles that at least have some promise of creating engines and HLVs with affordable costs.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • Major Tom

    “Wrong. Congress put the Moon back in.”

    The Moon was never taken out. It was only moved out of the front of the human exploration mission queue.

    Don’t make things up.

  • MichaelC

    Even Sowers is talking about a SD-HLV. You people are living in a fantasy world. Don’t need HLV’s to go to mars? That is an ignorant statement based on wishful thinking. Propellent depots? Won’t work with H2. Keeping the stuff liquid has a higher weight penalty than storables.

    Marcel is right; can’t go anywhere without nuclear propulsion and since nuclear reactors in space is verboten- we are trapped for the forseeable future.

  • Byeman

    ” can’t go anywhere without nuclear propulsion and since nuclear reactors in space is verboten- we are trapped for the forseeable future.”

    Hence an HLV is not required at this time

  • Martijn Meijering

    Don’t need HLV’s to go to mars? That is an ignorant statement based on wishful thinking.

    Nope, a statement based on published architectures and a simple consideration of delta-v and capabilities of existing launchers and upper stages. All information that is publicly available. You don’t need an HLV for Mars landings. You probably do need surface nuclear power. You certainly need some kind of MTV, a lander, surface habs, ISRU systems and a return capsule. You’re probably insane if you want to do this before we have a moon base doing ISRU. In any event you’d need lots and lots of money and even with that money you probably also need cheap lift.

  • MichaelC

    Not mars buddy. “a statement based on published architectures and a simple consideration of delta-v and capabilities of existing launchers and upper stages.”

    Advertising powerpoints and simple considerations do not cut it. The mission studies I have read talk about extremely large earth departure stages. What power point have you been admiring? Or was it a James Cameron film?

  • Martijn Meijering

    @Major Tom:

    Aren’t you and Vladislaw and I talking about the same goal? Reduction in launch prices by an order of magnitude or more. The nice thing about exploration based around propellant transfer is that the large amount of money spent on launching propellant could do double duty as funding for development of cheap lift. After all normal companies spend a part of their revenue on R&D. With NASA buying >=100mt a year in orbit, you could get private funding for small RLVs. And with NASA buying that propellant both in LEO and at L1/L2 you could finance development of a SEP tug.

  • Coastal Ron

    MichaelC wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Even Sowers is talking about a SD-HLV.

    Sure, as in “he said he had some “skepticism” about it because of its potentially high fixed costs.” Not the ringing endorsement you’re looking for.

    Don’t need HLV’s to go to mars?

    Maybe, maybe not, but that’s not really the issue right now. The issue is whether we need an HLV right now, since there are no funded programs that require larger sized payloads than existing launchers can handle. Some day I think we will need larger capacities to space, but not today, and not for the next 5-10 years.

    Propellent depots? Won’t work with H2. Keeping the stuff liquid has a higher weight penalty than storables.

    You need to do more research before you post. Fuel depots that are BEO have low boil-off rates, and ULA has stated that the boil-off can be used for station keeping. Fuel depots in Earth orbit have to contend with increased heat radiation from Earth’s reflection, but this can be mitigated by either deployable heat shields, or transferring the fuel to it’s end users shortly after reaching orbit. In any case, you just increase the amount of Hydrogen to anticipate the boil-off.

    can’t go anywhere without nuclear propulsion and since nuclear reactors in space is verboten- we are trapped for the forseeable future.

    I don’t know of any engineer that believes in the word “can’t”, and if history is any guide, we can pretty much accomplish whatever we want, given time and money/effort. I also don’t see nuclear power in space as a dead-end, and most likely this could be an area that Russia can come to dominate.

    However our biggest problem is affording to do stuff in space, so that is why we need to lower the cost to access space. By doing that, and opening up LEO to possible commerce (Bigelow for instance), that will allow NASA and others to afford to push out further into space. This is going to be very incremental, so who knows how fast it will happen, but do I see us eventually getting to Mars.

  • Martijn Meijering

    The mission studies I have read talk about extremely large earth departure stages.

    Then you must have been reading propaganda coming out of MSFC.

    What power point have you been admiring?

    There’s a long list of studies, going back probably all the way to the pioneers of spaceflight, such as von Braun. But more recent publications include the work of the DPT, OASIS, Huntress’ IAS study and ULA’s architecture. And it’s actually kind of obvious you don’t need an HLV once you take a look at a delta-v chart. You can get from L1/L2 to Mars orbit in 2-3km/s hops.

  • MichaelC

    “You need to do more research before you post. ”

    That is getting pretty old.
    “just increase the amount of hydrogen”? Great.
    Deployable heat shields?

    You are talking about more and more weight pile up on top of every medium vehicle launch to assemble your “gas station.” It all sounds good. except it won’t work. Not for many years and if other “simple systems” like this are any measure- many failures.

  • Coastal Ron

    MichaelC wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    The mission studies I have read talk about extremely large earth departure stages.

    And that’s because they are not based on constrained budgets – they are fantasy solutions for imaginary programs, so why do YOU take them seriously?

    Sure, if I had unlimited funds, I’d build a huge rocket to fly my imaginary spaceship up in one piece. Ah, but reality keeps getting in the way. Reality, you should really try it… ;-)

  • MichaelC

    “you don’t need an HLV once you take a look at a delta-v chart. You can get from L1/L2 to Mars orbit in 2-3km/s hops.”

    In what, a dragon capsule with your face stuffed up someones butt for a couple YEARS? give me a break.

    Ever heard of the 39 day mission? There is a reason it keeps being discussed; because everything you children are yapping about is impossible. The crew would have a low probability of survival.

  • MichaelC

    “Reality, you should really try it… ”

    None of you are talking about a single thing based on reality. You are all ignoring the physiological problems and the propulsion details. You are playing a game- I am not.

  • craig morford

    Hmm just read on space.com that they have found silver in cabeus crater. That might get the public interested if there is silver there must be gold. Although getting a spacesuit on a donkey to carry all the picks and shovels would probably not be a good idea. However better than some ideas. (smile)

  • Coastal Ron

    MichaelC wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    You are talking about more and more weight pile up on top of every medium vehicle launch to assemble your “gas station.” It all sounds good. except it won’t work.

    Go read the ULA study called “Affordable Exploration Architecture 2009″, in which they laid out a plan to set up a colony on the Moon using existing launchers. Within that you’ll see their assumptions about fuel depots, which they have some relevant experience with, and which you don’t.

    Honestly, are people going to listen to you, just because you keep saying HLV’s are the solution to everything, or to a real aerospace company that builds and launches real working hardware. Weird.

  • Martijn Meijering

    In what, a dragon capsule with your face stuffed up someones butt for a couple YEARS? give me a break.

    No, in a reusable MTV such as the one described in the IAS study. Or a bigger one, like Bigelow’s planned space stations. All of that can be built from pieces that can be lifted to LEO on EELVs and transported from there to L1/L2 on a Centaur or DCSS sized upper stage. You don’t even need propellant transfer for the latter, though it would certainly help.

  • Coastal Ron

    MichaelC wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    None of you are talking about a single thing based on reality. You are all ignoring the physiological problems and the propulsion details. You are playing a game- I am not.

    Well maybe that’s because all we hear is rhetoric, and no firm details. If you want to be taken seriously, then back up what you say with facts and figures.

    Keep in mind that all of us are advocates for doing something in space, but some of us (myself included) see that unrealistic programs like Constellation & HLV’s slow down our ability to explore space, not speed them up.

    One root cause of that is a lack of money from Congress, which you can argue for or against, but it’s a reality that cannot be avoided, and it may even get worse with the next Congress. We have to be able to explore space on a budget, and that’s why many of use advocate for the things that we do.

    You can tilt at windmills all you want, but we are looking for ways to make do with what we have.

  • MichaelC

    “We are looking for ways to make do with what we have.”

    Actually, that was an excellent reply. Thank you.

  • MichaelC

    “Or a bigger one, like Bigelow’s planned space stations.”

    True, but like I said before, you are ignoring the heavy shielding that will be required. You cannot just keep blowing this off with canned phrases that intimate the rads will not be a problem.

  • MichaelC

    “their assumptions about fuel depots, which they have some relevant experience with, and which you don’t.”

    Uh huh. that was not an excellent reply. Pretty poor actually.

  • Robert G. Oler

    MichaelC wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Even Sowers is talking about a SD-HLV. You people are living in a fantasy world. Don’t need HLV’s to go to mars? ..

    with all due respect (and being nice) any one who baselines a requirement based on “going to Mars” is living in a fantasy world. There is zero political support and no money for such an effort.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Coastal Ron

    MichaelC wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Well one of two ain’t bad. ;-)

  • Robert G. Oler

    Nelson Bridwell wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    “What has it taken forever to assemble the ISS? Because the LEO payload capacity is of the shuttle is so small … about the same as the Delta IV.”

    not really.

    first off it has not taken “forever” to assemble ISS…

    ISS started assembly in 1998 an early launch of the FGB in large measure to simply “place hold” the project politically. It was first crewed in October 2000 and the last US module will go up shortly so thats roughly 10 years of construction (OK 12 if you want to start with the FGB).

    In large measure it was the flight rate of the shuttle and the build rate of the modules that dictated the assembly pace.

    10 (or 12) years is a long time for a build (and of course the entire project has more or less gone on since 1984 but there were several dead end runs at building the thing)…

    Although I was a supporter of Option C and Geode the reality is that a “full up” large space station would have had a similar build time given the state of NASA and the finances available. Not to mention the years it would have taken to build a heavy lift vehicle to launch it.

    An HLV that is unaffordable both to develop and fly doesnt buy one a lot

    literally

    Robert G. Oler

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mike Snyder wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    “I have asked this before and never got an answer but please provide some tangible data and proof that SDLV is not going to happen ”

    all the layoff notices.

    in the end what will kill a SDV is that by this time next year all the shuttle infrastructure and people in the contractor workforce will be “off payroll” and no one in the Congress will want to fund the dollars to bring them back on.

    SDV is dead.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Even Sowers is talking about a SD-HLV.

    No, he’s not. He’s talking about a Delta derivative. Or are you saying he was lying to me when I talked to him after his luncheon speech?

  • Martijn Meijering

    True, but like I said before, you are ignoring the heavy shielding that will be required. You cannot just keep blowing this off with canned phrases that intimate the rads will not be a problem.

    I’m not saying prolonged exposure to GCR (and microgravity) will not be a problem. Maybe it will take artificial gravity and NEP to go to Mars. But it won’t take an HLV. Sure, an HLV could help with some things, but you should still want propellant transfer. And once you use that, the HLV doesn’t add much.

    And it does cost a lot, in time, in money and in opportunity cost. Channeling the demand for propellant launch services through the market so that it may lead to cheap lift would be much more valuable than channeling it through MSFC and USA so it may lead to an SDLV.

    Once we have cheap lift, we will have the whole solar system. Until we have cheap lift, we will have Apollo on steroids at best and yet another cancellation at worst.

  • Vladislaw

    Martijn Meijering wrote:

    “Aren’t you and Vladislaw and I talking about the same goal?”

    Yes and no. I am talking about in the beginning of the market creation it will be an evolutionary process like from the advent of the first internal combustion engine to where we are now with engine development. MT is talking about making a major jump, like going from the steam engine to the internal combustion engine. He would like to see investment in ideas that make a major jump in magnitude for cost reductions while mine are more marginal over time.

    My reasoning is that the money just won’t be there except for the basics and congress is just not foresighted enough to invest in tomorrow, as it relates to space. Leave the development to the companies and the market and just hope NASA follows through and helps create that new market in space.

  • Martijn Meijering

    You’re right Vladislaw, but I think that MT can agree with the channeling through the market argument, even though that is not what he appeared to be thinking of initially. What do you say MT?

  • Robert G. Oler

    While all the talk is about going to Mars, meanwhile back in reality this is what is going on at Bigelow

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqsHK2vxyzo&feature=player_embedded#!

    Robert G. Oler

  • Beancounter from Downunder

    And I’ll jump in before Mr Mark and remind people that SpaceX is still planning on a launch early November 2010 of its first fully functional Dragon Cargo Vehicle.

  • Beancounter from Downunder

    Oh incidentally, the Bigelow Sundancer Module is scheduled to launch on the SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle sometime in 2014 at this point.
    http://www.spacex.com/launch_manifest.php

  • Beancounter from Downunder

    I got to say, the stuff that Bigelow is doing is quite facinating. They are really moving ahead with their modules which I read just yesterday, is now about to undergo ECLSS human-loop testing.
    When you put them together with Boeing’s action on the CST-100 and SpaceX, not to mention some of the smaller commercial companies that come to mind like Armadillo and Masten, there’s actually quite a lot happening.
    And NASA is supporting that effort. Pity some of the politicians can’t see it.

  • Coastal Ron

    Beancounter from Downunder wrote @ October 21st, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    When you put them together with Boeing’s action on the CST-100 and SpaceX, not to mention some of the smaller commercial companies that come to mind like Armadillo and Masten, there’s actually quite a lot happening.

    I’m a huge supporter of all of this, but I have to add my caveat, which is the big “IF” in all of this. IF Boeing builds their CST-100, AND it is qualified to launch crew to LEO, THEN Bigelow will have the last piece of the puzzle in place to start his business.

    Boeing has not committed to building the CST-100 yet, and how that gets financed is going to affect Bigelow’s costs.

    Why am I concerned? Because there is only $1.6B to spread around, and that could get eaten up fast depending on what they spend it on. For instance, Delta IV Heavy needs $1.3B to be man-rated, so that would not leave room for Dragon + CST-100. I don’t think they would fund the Delta IV Heavy upgrade, but you never know, and we also don’t know how much Boeing needs for their CST-100 in order for it to make economic sense.

    Not to rain on the parade, but just to make sure everyone keeps their eye on the ball – NASA needs to be smart about allocating the limited commercial crew funds.

  • Beancounter from Downunder

    Agreed. I think that should Boeing not get government money to fund close it’s business case, then Bigelow will come to some arrangement. Robert Bigelow’s on record as wanting at least 2 crew providers. The likely ones are SpaceX and Boeing. I don’t know whether he’d be prepared to continue with just one provider (SpaceX) or what he’d do in order to get two.
    SpaceX have said that government money will help speed things up but in the end they’re committed to doing human Dragon. Can that be the long-term aim to get to Mars!! More likely to win Bigelow business as that seems to be where the long-term commercial space stations are going to reside.
    If NASA continues in it’s traditional manner, it won’t have the funds to undertake any HSF other than ISS particularly if it tries to do a HLV of some sort.

  • DCSCA

    Private enterprise will NEVER lead the way back to the moon.

    Only government funded and managed space projects on a massive scale will be capable of absorbing the costs and sustaining the scope and magnitude needed for humans to return to the moon on a permanent basis. Chris Kraft is correct.

    China will circle the moon on a manned mission by the end of the decade.

  • Dennis Berube

    Didnt I see a pic somewhere, of a Soyuz, linked up to Bigelows space hotel? I think all options will be on the table, and quite probably the customers will have the final say as to which vehicle they want to fly in. Soyuz does have a tremendous flight record. Again it will probably be who can launch customers for the lowest cost. Unless the soviets change something Soyuz flights are high.

  • Ferris Valyn

    Mr. Berube – last I checked, the Soviets had no say in Soyuz flights.

    Its a Russian operation.

    (And yes, you are remembering correctly, although I think at this point, its most likely going to be CST-100/Dragon/Dreamchaser as your transport vehicle)

  • Coastal Ron

    Dennis Berube wrote @ October 22nd, 2010 at 6:18 am

    Soyuz does have a tremendous flight record.

    It does. However it only carries two passengers (with one crew), and it is fairly limited with “carry-on luggage”.

    It’s like a Volkswagen Beetle, whereas the Dragon and CST-100 are like minivans. It will hard for Soyuz to compete when Dragon & CST-100 become operational.

  • Major Tom

    “@Major Tom:

    Aren’t you and Vladislaw and I talking about the same goal? Reduction in launch prices by an order of magnitude or more.”

    Probably yes. I would just caution that there are limits to markets, and market pull and competition may not be enough to hit the price points we’re seeking. There may need to be some technology push by the government, especially in areas of technology where the technical risks, size of investment, and/or time to market are too high/big/long for private investors. I personally think the government can help accelerate new technologies and markets the fastest by working both ends of the problem — both upfront investment in technologies/systems (COTS/CCDev, NACA) and initial markets (ISS transport, airmail).

    “The nice thing about exploration based around propellant transfer is that the large amount of money spent on launching propellant could do double duty as funding for development of cheap lift.”

    I agree. It’s just a question of how far that market will advance technologies/techniques and drive costs down on private investment alone. The development of markets and technologies usually resembles S-curves, and breaking through to the next S-curve may require the government to put in some funding up front, in addition to opening up an initial market on the back-end.

    “With NASA buying >=100mt a year in orbit, you could get private funding for small RLVs.”

    I’m not skeptical of RLVs generally, but if we’re only talking about propellant resupply, I am a little skeptical that an RLV will be competitive versus concepts like the ones I mentioned above (Loral’s Aquarius super-cheap ELV or QuickLaunch’s gas gun launcher). I think they’re both going to be cheaper to develop than an RLV (especially the Aquarius concept) and cheaper to operate than an RLV (especially the QuickLaunch concept).

    That said, if someone can develop a small orbital RLV for well under $500 million (the quoted development costs of Aquarius and QuickLaunch) while still maintaining sufficient operability, flight rate, and low turnaround costs, then there’s no reason they wouldn’t win this market. An RLV can also address other markets (and would probably be developed for those first), which is an advantage over Aquarius and QuickLaunch. But there is also a danger in trying to make an RLV (or any transportation system) be all things to all customers (see Shuttle history).

    Regardless, all three concepts (a very cheap ELV, a highly operable RLV, and an orbital gas-gun launcher) require hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, at least several years of development, and some moderate technical unknowns. My 2 cents is that the combination of upfront cost, time to market, and technical risk on any of these three concepts is probably too much for the private investors to bear alone, even with an initial government propellant resupply market.

    “And with NASA buying that propellant both in LEO and at L1/L2 you could finance development of a SEP tug.”

    I’m even a little more skeptical here. There are some significant technical risks when talking about solar arrays and electric propulsion systems of that scale (on top of at least hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and a half-decade to market). I don’t think private investors will be willing to bear those risks alone even with a government guaranteed market on the other end. I think some up-front government cost-sharing or technical risk buy-down (which the exploration technology demonstration missions in the FY11 budget would have done) is necessary.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • Dennis Berube

    Mr Valyn, Again with the Soviet vrs. Russian thing. Okay the Russians may also be called upon to take passengers to Bigelows hotel in spac.e They themselves want to launch a smaller version. Time will tell.

  • Dennis Berube

    Say I was wondering has anyone seen the control panels for the Dragon and or CST-100? Are they touch screen, or the old type toggles?

  • Vladislaw

    Major Tom wrote:

    “My 2 cents is that the combination of upfront cost, time to market, and technical risk on any of these three concepts is probably too much for the private investors to bear alone, even with an initial government propellant resupply market.”

    I agree, the only way I see space opening up to that kind of investment would be if it gained it’s own “dot.com” moment. A company has to make extremely high ‘extra normal profits’ before the speculation phase kicks in and the investment dollars literally rain over any company with space in it’s name. I just don’t see the launch business as that catalyst. It will be something else that generates the profit margins needed to kick off the speculation phase. My money would be on something discovered in the medical field were all the major players in the drug industry would suddenly want a manned zero g manufacturing center yesterday.

  • Coastal Ron

    Vladislaw wrote @ October 22nd, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I agree, the only way I see space opening up to that kind of investment would be if it gained it’s own “dot.com” moment.

    That would certainly speed things up, and I think all of us are anxious for “something” to provide a gold rush to space. As it is with many new markets, we won’t know what that is until it becomes popular, and I’m sure many investment dollars will go for naught in search of that elusive market. But that’s the way it is for speculative investment in general, so it will be no different in space.

    The commodity transportation systems that Major Tom mentioned could certainly be viable once enough demand is present, since there will be plenty of need for cargo that is not hi-G sensitive (water, mechanical assemblies, food, bulk materials, etc.). That will certainly signal an important phase in the space economy, which is the establishment of volume building or manufacturing in space. No turning back after that.

    Now we just need to get to there, from here. One step at a time…

  • Rhyolite

    “He said an HLV that can place 70 to 80 metric tons in LEO is in the “sweet spot” since, combined with propellant depots, it can support exploration missions beyond LEO all the way to Mars.”

    I am curious as to how he came to the conclusion that 70 to 80 tones is a “sweet spot”. This implies there was some kind of trade study. I would very much like to see the results of such a study. For example, just how much of a penalty would the be for a 50 ton HLV or a 35 ton HLV? Why is the marginal cost of a larger vehicle worthwhile?

  • Major Tom

    “I am curious as to how he came to the conclusion that 70 to 80 tones is a ‘sweet spot’.”

    It’s the knee in the development cost curve for EELV-derived HLV designs. Once you go beyond 70 tons and Atlas V Phase 2, you’re talking about new first-stage engines, launch pads, and other expensive up-front investments. See slide 10 (labeled 9) in ULA’s Augustine presentation:

    nasa.gov/pdf/361835main_08%20-%20ULA%20%201.0_Augustine_Public_6_17_09_final_R1.pdf

    Jupiter 130 (DIRECT’s phase 1 HLV design) and last year’s Shuttle Side-Mount design also clock in at 70 tons or a little over. It seems to be a boundary condition beyond which HLV costs begin to rise more rapidly than the tons of payload capability being added to the design — at least when deriving them from existing vehicles. (Falcon X or XX may not adhere to this boundary.)

    FWIW..

  • Martijn Meijering

    @Major Tom:

    Interesting perspective and I agree in general. Aquarius could well be cheaper than an RLV for propellant. I like the concept, but if it doesn’t contribute to cheap seats to orbit, then it will probably still not lead to a breakthrough. That would be disappointing. Maybe that argues in favour of your technology push idea. But how much new technology would you need for a first generation true RLV? It would be fine if it could only launch 0.5mT of propellant. Once the concept and its economics have been proven, it should be much easier to build a people-sized version. Do we need any new technology for that?

  • Coastal Ron

    Martijn Meijering wrote @ October 23rd, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Interesting perspective and I agree in general. Aquarius could well be cheaper than an RLV for propellant. I like the concept, but if it doesn’t contribute to cheap seats to orbit, then it will probably still not lead to a breakthrough.

    Another way to look at less expensive commodity transportation is that even though it doesn’t address getting humans to orbit (always the most expensive cargo), it does dramatically lower the overall costs. Lowering overall costs is really the main goal anyways, not necessarily one specific portion of costs.

    One of the barriers to manufacturing in space will be in getting factories and supplies to them, not so much people. People in space factories will likely be support personnel, not touch labor. In that case, low cost launchers could really affect the business case, since they address the largest portion of the total cost.

    My $0.02

  • Martijn Meijering

    LEO space tourism seems like the most probable commercial market for manned spaceflight to me. But who knows, maybe orbital manufacturing is possible too. Do you think it is likely that will turn out to be profitable?

  • Martijn Meijering

    Concerning Aquarius: the combination of a reusable suborbital first stage and a cheap mass produced upper stage has been proposed as a precursor to TSTO RLVs. And in the role of an upper stage such a vehicle would not have to be unreliable like Aquarius. The two concepts could coexist and possibly have synergy.

  • Rhyolite

    Major Tom wrote @ October 23rd, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Thanks for the response. There may well be a knee in the HLV launch vehicle cost curve – a point after which launch vehicle costs rise steeply – but it does not necessarily follow that the overal system (launch vehicle plus payload) optimizes at this size.

    When HLV proponets are force to admit that you can do BEO missions with 25 mt launch vehicles, they often fall back on the assertion that using smaller vehicles wouldn’t be cost effective. The implicit assumption is that the payload lifecycle cost goes down with increasing launch vehicle size faster than the launch vehicle life cycle cost goes up with launch vehivle size, thus total cost optimizes in the HLV range.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any analytical support fo this proposition. If it was easy to show the existance of a strong optimum, someone would have done it by now. It should be possible to point to a study and say that using a 50 mt vehilce will reduce total costs by $XX Billion over a 25 mt vehicle and using a 70 mt vehicle reduces total cost by $XX Billion over a 50 mt vehicle. Otherwise, the justification for an HLV is no more than handwaving excercise on which we are going to base Billions of dollars of spending and the direction of NASA for a couple of decades.

  • Rhyolite

    Please excuse the typos…support for this proposition…no more than a handwaving excercise…etc.

  • Beancounter from Downunder

    ‘ Martijn Meijering wrote @ October 23rd, 2010 at 8:24 pm
    LEO space tourism seems like the most probable commercial market for manned spaceflight to me. But who knows, maybe orbital manufacturing is possible too. Do you think it is likely that will turn out to be profitable?’

    Well Bigelow isn’t using tourism for making his business case. He’s using government, university and corporates as the drivers for his space stations all dependant upon getting commercial crew up and running. He’s specifically addressed the tourism aspect and discounted it. Latest news is that he’s signed MOIs with 6 governments.
    Bigelow’s betting on generating enough non-tourism business to invest something in the order of a half billion dollars of his own money. That’s a big investment. He’s about half way through that and he’s still going so guess there’s nothing to indicate any show stoppers so far. It’s just seems to be the timing of commercial crew which will dictate his schedule.

  • Martijn Meijering

    I think Bigelow has correctly judged that LEO tourism on a significantly bigger scale than what we’ve seen to date is not feasible at current launch prices. Foreign governments are a different matter and if enough of them sign up to drive up EELV/Falcon flight rates, then prices may come down by enough to enable industrial clients. But I’m skeptical it will do more than that. Still, just that would be exciting enough.

    Also, I’m skeptical there are sufficiently useful things to do up there that could generate a profit. That’s why I thought tourism would be the most promising application, because it doesn’t have to be useful, it merely has to be very exciting, which it certainly is. That does require lower prices of course. Which explains my enthusiasm for exploration with propellant transfer to generate a market for RLVs or other forms of cheap lift.

  • Major Tom

    “There may well be a knee in the HLV launch vehicle cost curve – a point after which launch vehicle costs rise steeply – but it does not necessarily follow that the overal system (launch vehicle plus payload) optimizes at this size.”

    I agree. I was only referring to HLV development costs. A complete analysis would look at different combinations of LV sizes and their implications for the in-space hardware. For example, current 20-ton launchers, 70-ton HLVs, and 120-ton-plus super-HLVs in combination with different sizes of propellant depots or EDSs with the necessary in-space propellant management capabilities.

    My 2 cent bottomline is that even with the largest HLVs, we’re still going to have to develop in-space propellant management capabilities for exploration stacks to either store propellant in the EDS the until the crew arrives or top it off after they arrive. Even Ares V/Constellation had to do this. Given this, I would push that technology as far as possible and try to avoid/minimize HLV costs as much as possible. Do what you have to do, leverage it as much as possible, and defer the rest.

    But if we can’t defer HLVs because of some political consideration or because in-space propellant management technology falls short, then it makes sense to pay attention to the knees-in-the-curve of HLV development (and operations) costs.

    FWIW…

  • Major Tom

    “Aquarius could well be cheaper than an RLV for propellant. I like the concept, but if it doesn’t contribute to cheap seats to orbit, then it will probably still not lead to a breakthrough.”

    There are no plans that I know of to make an Aquarius derivative to launch human, or even high value, payloads. Part of the reason Aquarius can promise such a cheap cost is that it’s reliability isn’t as high as other launchers. When you’re talking about commodity payloads like propellant, it’s cheaper to lose a few payloads than to put money into making the launcher more reliable. That wouldn’t be true of even a modest-sized satellite or human payload.

    That said, my two-cent suspicion is that something like Aquarius or QuickLaunch could be a disruptive innovation in Clayton Christensen terms, attacking the low-end of the launch market from below and migrating upwards as the reliability and features of the basic system are improved to address higher-value payloads upstream. But that’s just an educated guess — I can’t point to anything published from Loral, QuickLaunch, etc. to support it.

    “But how much new technology would you need for a first generation true RLV?”

    The minimum RLV is probably defined by something like the K-1, if Kistler had been able to carry it through to fruition, or the Falcon 9, assuming SpaceX is able to recover the stages.

    If by “true” RLV you mean some measure of airline-like, pad-to-pad or runway-to-runway operations, then I’d look to orbital versions of the DC-X/Armadillo vehicles/Masten vehicles or the old McDonnell-Douglas X-33 VTVL proposal.

    If by “true” you mean some wings or substantial lift characteristics, then I’d look to Rockwell’s X-33 bimese TSTO proposal, Blackhorse, or whatever the orbital version of XCOR’s Lynx might be.

    “It would be fine if it could only launch 0.5mT of propellant. Once the concept and its economics have been proven, it should be much easier to build a people-sized version.”

    The problem with introducing a small RLV based on the propellant market alone is that the RLV will need a high flight rate to properly address that market, partly because the depot or EDS will need lots of flights to get fueled up and partly because each flight won’t pay much due to the low cost of the payload. All other things being equal, an RLV that has to fly, say, 100 times a year to fuel up a depot or EDS will be more difficult and expensive to develop than an RLV that has to fly, say, 25 times a year to launch some satellites or deliver tourists to a Bigelow station.

    This is one of the disadvantages of RLVs. Even when launching a lot of cheap payloads, they have to be highly reliable because you can’t afford to lose the vehicle. Being expendable, the Aquarius or QuickLaunch concepts, sidestep this issue. Again, I don’t pretend to have a perfect crystal ball and claim to know for sure than something like Aquarius or QuickLaunch would beat a small RLV in the propellant resupply market based on cost or time to market. But because of this issue, I suspect they would.

    “Do we need any new technology for that?”

    Getting to an RLV with a high flight rate is all about reliability and operability. Reliability requires margins, rigorous testing of those margins, and flying operationally well within those margins. Operability requires a lot of foresight into launch, flight, landing, recovery, turnaround, and integration processes to make them as simple as possible. There’s too many technologies (and even just vehicle configurations) that can contribute to one or both of these figures of merit than could be given justice in a blog post. But you can obviously look at some technologies involved in the vehicles above, or look at the technology lists from AFRL’s RLV technology prioritization meetings, to get a good idea.

    FWIW…

  • Major Tom

    “Concerning Aquarius: the combination of a reusable suborbital first stage and a cheap mass produced upper stage has been proposed as a precursor to TSTO RLVs. And in the role of an upper stage such a vehicle would not have to be unreliable like Aquarius. The two concepts could coexist and possibly have synergy.”

    I don’t disagree with your logic in general, but I would point out that Aquarius is a SSTO expendable. So the Aquarius system specifically might not have much synergy as the expendable upper-stage for an RLV booster.

    “LEO space tourism seems like the most probable commercial market for manned spaceflight to me. But who knows, maybe orbital manufacturing is possible too. Do you think it is likely that will turn out to be profitable?”

    Depends on the timeframe — anything is possible if the calendar runs long enough.

    And it also depends on what you mean by “manufacturing”. There are very different infrastructures and workforces involved in, say, identifying drug targets using suitcase-sized biochemical arrays in microgravity versus, say, making tons and tons of some useful nano-material in microgravity.

    The former kinds of applications — small/low-power/limited Earth-return — will probably emerge as the first commercially successful space-manufactured products than the latter kinds of applications, which have large/high-power/big Earth-return requirements. This is simply because the kind of transportation and in-space infrastructure needed for the former is much easier and less expensive to achieve than the latter. We’ll probably see nanosatellites with very small automated reentry vehicles running drug target arrays for Amgen or Pfizer, for example, before we’ll see tons of super-material manufactured at a large space station and brought back down by RLVs for 3M or Dupont.

    I’m similarly skeptical of most ISRU in the near-term for the same reasons. Achieving the scale of product necessary to have an impact using the scarce and apparently widely scattered resources we see at the Moon (and probably NEOs) will require the expensive development, erection, and operation of a large and unique infrastructure, on top of the cost of transporting that infrastrcture from Earth to the destination. It’s hard to see that competing eocnomically with just buying and launching existing terrestrial sources/products from Earth, even with the Earth’s inferior gravity well, for a long time to come. Even really efficient ISRU thinkers like Zubrin or the old t/Space team require things that are currently prohibitively expensive, like nuclear power sources on the surface of the Mars or Moon, to gather and process enough of the relevant resource. Doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue (or even step up) prospecting robotically. But we havn’t identified the resources or technologies for the U in ISRU to make economic sense (or, at least, I havn’t seen such).

    Of course, I’m trying to play realist/skeptic/devil’s advocate on all the above. I personally like to see it all happen sooner than later.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • Martijn Meijering

    @Major Tom:

    Thanks for the detailed replies. This is the kind of discussion I wish we had more often on forums like this.

    I agree Aquarius isn’t suitable for humans, which is why I’m somewhat wary of it: it could end up outcompeting RLVs for propellant, which would still leave us without a cheap way to launch humans to orbit even if NASA did establish a propellant market. Aquarius could well be wrongly sized for use as an upper stage on a suborbital RLV, but even so cheap mass production technologies could still apply to a more appropriately sized stage. Given the lower delta-v you could buy back margin and reliability if you wanted to, or not if all you wanted to do was to launch propellant.

    I see the high flight rates needed for tiny RLVs as a plus: RLVs need high flight rates to be economical. It’s hard to see how you could make a profit on development of an EELV-sized RLV in the foreseeable future, and I think that is precisely the reason why we don’t have one.

  • Martijn Meijering

    I agree with most of your points, and I’d like to rephrase my question in the light of your remarks:

    Do you think any new technology is needed for a minimal, fully reusable TSTO VTVL RLV, capable of reliably carrying at least 0.5mT payloads, capable of 50-100 flights a year and able to match EELV/Falcon launch prices?

  • Vladislaw

    Martijn Meijering wrote:

    ” think Bigelow has correctly judged that LEO tourism on a significantly bigger scale than what we’ve seen to date is not feasible at current launch prices. “

    Bigelow has addressed tourism several times in interviews I have watched. He doesn’t want to be in the hotel business but rather a wholesale provider. He specifically said if a business wants to lease a section of station and turn it into a space hotel for space tourism he would lease them the space. He doesnt want to be involved in creating individual space businesses rather just wants to be the wholesaler of space so all the other businesses can do the specialty types of businesses.

  • Coastal Ron

    Vladislaw wrote @ October 25th, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    He specifically said if a business wants to lease a section of station and turn it into a space hotel for space tourism he would lease them the space.

    This approach is similar to affiliate marketing, which Bigelow would be used to from his hotel days. Essentially Bigelow will leverage off the marketing skills of many companies in order to fill his station(s) – It cuts down on his marketing costs too.

  • Brad

    Rhyolite said,

    “I am curious as to how he came to the conclusion that 70 to 80 tones is a “sweet spot”. This implies there was some kind of trade study. I would very much like to see the results of such a study. For example, just how much of a penalty would the be for a 50 ton HLV or a 35 ton HLV? Why is the marginal cost of a larger vehicle worthwhile?”

    and also said,

    “There may well be a knee in the HLV launch vehicle cost curve – a point after which launch vehicle costs rise steeply – but it does not necessarily follow that the overal system (launch vehicle plus payload) optimizes at this size.”

    80,000 kg payload to LEO does divide up nicely for some Mars mission architectures, such as the Design Reference Mission 3.0

    http://www.astronautix.com/craft/dession3.htm

  • Major Tom

    “I agree Aquarius isn’t suitable for humans, which is why I’m somewhat wary of it: it could end up outcompeting RLVs for propellant, which would still leave us without a cheap way to launch humans to orbit even if NASA did establish a propellant market.”

    It depends on what your goal is.

    If you’re trying to enable some Bell Labs, Hilton Hotels, and Pan Ams in Earth orbit, then transporting scores or hundreds of people to and from orbit each year as cost-effectively as possible is the driver, and some flavor of passenger-carrying RLV is probably key.

    If you’re trying to open up BEO to sustained human space exploration, then cost-effectively staging massive amounts of propellant in orbit or at Lagrange points to fuel departure stages is the cost driver, and something like Aquarius or Quicklaunch is probably key. The crews will be small and bringing them up on an existing asset, like a few Dragon capsule flights, will be more cost-effective than building an RLV for that purpose.

    If you’re trying to settle some BEO location — requiring the transport of enormous amounts of propellants and scores to hundreds of passengers — then both are probably key.

    “Aquarius could well be wrongly sized for use as an upper stage on a suborbital RLV, but even so cheap mass production technologies could still apply to a more appropriately sized stage.”

    Something like Aquarius, where you’re mass-producing launch vehicles, could have some very interesting economic implications for the launch market in general. Because they’re so low-cost, components from a launcher like Aquarius might rapidly find their way into other launchers, supplanting existing suppliers and/or enabling new, more competitive launchers in other segments of the market.

    “I see the high flight rates needed for tiny RLVs as a plus: RLVs need high flight rates to be economical.”

    Specifically, RLVs have historically needed high flight rates to amortize their high development costs. That’s part of why NASP, X-33/VentureStar, etc. didn’t go anywhere. Even if they had worked technically, to amortize their multi-billion dollar development costs, they had to assume ridiculous launch market capture and launch market growth.

    But develop an RLV at a lower cost, and the flight rate can be lower because there’s less to amortize. The low-cost approach to suborbital RLVs that has been demonstrated by the likes of Armadillo, SpaceShipOne, etc. — if it can be successfully transferred to orbital RLVs — may change that equation.

    “It’s hard to see how you could make a profit on development of an EELV-sized RLV in the foreseeable future, and I think that is precisely the reason why we don’t have one.”

    If the development cost is low enough — less than what was spent on one of the EELVs so the new RLV can amortize and compete effectively — it would make sense but that’s a hypothetical. Falcon 9 may pull it off if its stages can ever be recovered. K-1 also falls into that category assuming it had been able to carry through.

    The alternatives are to accept a cost per flight higher than what existing ELVs charge (but it’s unclear why anyone would pay such a premium) or to assume government cost-sharing and/or funded development. Although it’s in a very early stage of design/development, the latter is what the USAF/AFRL are doing through their rocket-back reusable booster system (RBS), which could evolve into a bimese HTHL TSTO similar to Rockwell’s X-33 proposal:

    http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?id=news/awst/2010/04/19/AW_04_19_2010_p30-219818.xml&headline=USAF%20Plans%20For%20Reusable%20Booster%20Development&channel=defense

    “Do you think any new technology is needed for a minimal, fully reusable TSTO VTVL RLV, capable of reliably carrying at least 0.5mT payloads, capable of 50-100 flights a year”

    To evolve from today’s Armadillo/Blue Origin/Masten vehicles (which have yet to go suborbital) to an orbital TSTO VTVL RLV, I think three things need to happen, in order of importance/difficulty/cost:

    1) Higher Engine/Fuel Efficiency — The LOX/alcohol and peroxide/kerosene engines currently used by Amadillo/Blue Origin/Masten likely lack the Isp necessary to support orbital flight without massive staging (much more than TSTO). Armadillo has talked about an Otrag-type concept that might get around this, but if you’re limited to TSTO, then different fuels and more efficient (and obviously bigger) engines will be needed. It’s possible some existing engine design might fit the bill with some inexpensive adjustments to enable the necessary throttling (like the RL-10s used on DC-X). But achieving the necessary reusability in a sizeable engine may require a clean-sheet design since all existing engines are designed for ELVs or only a few upper-stage firings.

    2) Reentry — Armadillo/Masten are currently testing shrouds for suborbital flight, but the thermal environment involved in orbital reentry is much more challenging. Per DC-X, there are basic questions about whether a base-first or nose-first reentry are best, on top of designing the specific EDL profile and reentry surface. But hopefully the TPS materials are already in hand.

    3) Lightweight Structure/Tanks — The everyday steel and aluminum structure and tanks used on the current Armadillo/Masten vehicles are probably too heavy to support orbital flight, even with TSTO. Depending on how efficient the engines are, a move to higher-grade aluminum and maybe some composite structures/tanks may be necessary. Blue Origin is building a composite crew cabin under their CCDev contract so this hurdle may be in hand sooner than the other two challenges.

    “and able to match EELV/Falcon launch prices?”

    With only a 0.5 ton of payload, it would be easy to match EELV/Falcon price per launch. I assume you mean price per pound or kilogram.

    FWIW…

  • Martijn Meijering

    It depends on what your goal is.

    Absolutely. Something like Aquarius would certainly be enough for cost-effective government funded exploration, even without cryogenic depots or RLVs. Maybe even for limited private exploration, say by something like the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Society. And that by itself would likely be a disruptive change.

    As my goal I was thinking of something that would enable purely commercial manned spaceflight, with private organisations or wealthy individuals as clients and without the need for cross-subsidies from government funded exploration. Space tourism seems like the most likely initial goal, but it could be something else too. I don’t think space farmaceuticals would be helped all that much by dramatically lower launch costs for bulk materials. I suspect that depends more on cheap EELV-sized launches. Space tourism could work with something in the 5-10mT range and dramatically cheaper than what we have today.

    Specifically, RLVs have historically needed high flight rates to amortize their high development costs.

    And high recurring fixed costs too. You may need a broader set of skills to operate an RLV, which translates to a larger staff and higher fixed costs. That would still apply to newly developed RLV.

    To evolve from today’s Armadillo/Blue Origin/Masten vehicles (which have yet to go suborbital) to an orbital TSTO VTVL RLV, I think three things need to happen, in order of importance/difficulty/cost:

    I agree with most of these, but they are not really new technologies. They are existing technologies that these companies would still have to master. I don’t necessarily see these companies as the most promising road to cheap lift, at least not in theory, if NASA were to establish a propellant market, which seems very unlikely, unfortunately. And that’s what I’m really trying to find out. Do you really think there are new technologies that companies like ATK, Aerojet, PWR, LM, Boeing and ULA would have to develop before they could build a minimal RLV of the type I described above? I agree in principle that some degree of technology push might be needed (or merely useful), but I see no hard evidence that it actually is necessary. I’m curious about your thoughts, because depending on whether there are such technologies I might support a different set of policies. Not that the world cares about my opinions, but at least I do. ;-)

    The LOX/alcohol and peroxide/kerosene engines currently used by Amadillo/Blue Origin/Masten likely lack the Isp necessary to support orbital flight without massive staging (much more than TSTO).

    I’m not so sure about the need for different propellants, although pump-fed engines are nearly certainly necessary. Kerolox and kerosene/peroxide are both excellent first stage propellants. Peroxide makes up for its lower Isp by its very high density and very high O/F ratio. I think it is doubtful a first stage of a TSTO RLV would benefit from LOX/LH2.

  • common sense

    @ Major Tom wrote @ October 27th, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    “2) Reentry — Armadillo/Masten are currently testing shrouds for suborbital flight, but the thermal environment involved in orbital reentry is much more challenging.”

    I do not know what suborbital velocities they are looking at but it is indeed a lot more challenging. For LEO return you only have to account for convective heat rates. These heat rates go like velocity cube. So if we assume a similar profile and we take VG suborbital velocity at about Mach 3 and we compare that to a LEO reentry of about Mach 25 that gives you, everything else being equal a heat rate about 600 times higher. And the heat rates goes like temperature to the fourth. Of course you have to account for the heat shield radius – below – and materials.

    “Per DC-X, there are basic questions about whether a base-first or nose-first reentry are best, on top of designing the specific EDL profile and reentry surface. But hopefully the TPS materials are already in hand.”

    This question is related to that above. The heat rates go like 1 over sqrt(radius of heat shield), convective that is. So the larger the heat shield radius the better. Unfortunately for say lunar return velocity the heat rates are augmented with radiative heat rates that go like the radius of the heat shield. During initial reentry at these velocities the radiative heat rates are very large. In summary for convective heating a large radius heat shield is better but for radiative heating a small radius is better. So in the end it all hangs into the material. This is one major reason why you use ablative materials for lunar return, trying to get best of both worlds. The ablative process somehow keep the temperature on the heat shield to go beyond the temperature at which it ablates. For a capsule it is manageable, for a vehicle with say wings it becomes more of a pain since the controllability becomes affected by the surface recession of the heat shield.

    Anyway. Reentry is a very complex and painful process. I should note that the shape of your heat shield will make your vehicle more or less controllable and with more or less down/cross-range.

    Difficult to give all the issues associated with reentry in a blog entry but you get the picture.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reentry

    [2] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.75.1042&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    [3] http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=NKOIAY_Cj2kC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=radiative+heat+rates+bertin&ots=s1ms_d_QHT&sig=BdkBFZM8JBqOUyzzXtfssUXKrOE#v=onepage&q=radiative&f=false

  • The bottom line is that we need a heavy lift rocket by 2014 and not 2017 or a ridiculous 2021 for the following reasons:
    1. we are losing capability to perform human flights ourselves, which is irresponsible.
    2. The heavy lift is a national security necessity for many reasons.
    3. We need to heavy lift for meaningful flagship new missions.
    4. The Jupiter Inner Moon program, cancelled a few years ago, was probably one of the most inspiring program ever to boost NASA’ image. We should revive it: for that we definitely the heavy lift very soon, and not when we are all dead!

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