Shuttle, Ares and EELVs

There are some interesting top stories over at Space News this weekend. First, there is discussion of the results of the Shuttle extension study, which says that it would be possible to extend Shuttle all the way to 2015 without impacting Ares development, as long as additional budget was provided. One of the biggest arguments against it is the risk of losing another orbiter:

According to the study, both options increase the risk of losing a crew or vehicle: The two-year extension increases the cumulative risk from a 1-in-8 probability to 1 in 6; extending operations through 2015 increases the risk to 1 in 4. The risk of losing an orbiter or crew on any given mission is 1 in 77, the report said.

I know that in the past NASA has been too optimistic about probability of crew/vehicle loss, but I think that 1 in 77 is probably too conservative now. I suspect that, post Columbia (and resolution of the foam issue and ability to inspect and safe haven at ISS for all missions other than Hubble), the Shuttle is probably as safe, or safer to fly now than it’s ever been. That’s not necessarily an argument not to retire it, but I don’t think that the risk of vehicle or crew loss is a compelling argument against extension, either.

I would seriously dispute this comment from Mike Griffin:

In a Dec. 15 interview, Griffin called reliance on Soyuz “unfortunate in the extreme,” but said NASA needs the $3 billion it spends annually on shuttle to move ahead with the replacement system.

“Every time I have spoken about [the gap] I’ve laid it at the feet of budget,” Griffin said. He emphasized that without an increase in NASA’s overall budget, extending shuttle operations will result in a corresponding delay to Orion-Ares 1.

I’ve got a better set of feet to lay it at — Mike Griffin’s decision to develop an unneeded new launch vehicle, which was not intended within the vision or the budget “sand pile.” He knew what the budget was going to be, but rather than moving out on developing actual exploration hardware, and encouraging private industry to get people to LEO via COTS D or something similar, he decided to take that money and develop Ares.

Speaking of which, he appears to be losing the battle to save it:

Griffin said NASA also explored the possibility of developing a larger rocket based on EELV hardware and systems. “We went through it and we came up with the answer that the EELV-derived solution didn’t save you any schedule, didn’t save you any money, wasn’t that safe, and when you look at going beyond the space station mission to the heavy-lift architecture, was quite a bit more expensive. So it didn’t win on any count,” Griffin said. “At this point I’m kind of wondering what has to happen to have people say, ‘OK, I guess they got it right.'”

No need to wonder, Mike. Here’s what has to happen. Show us the actual results of the analysis, along with the assumptions. Then we’ll be able to decide whether or not “they got it right.” Until you do so, we will remain (appropriately) skeptical. It’s too big a decision, with too many implications for taxpayers’ dollars, and our future in space, to just take your (and Scott Horowitz’ and Doug Stanley’s) word for it.

Finally, there is a story that claims that the Orbital proposal for COTS, which was the highest cost, was also the lowest rated. Given Dr. Griffin’s history (and potentially future) with OSC, this will be sure to raise some eyebrows. Particularly since it looks like Planet Space is going to protest. Charles Lurio notes via email that he has a source who claims that:

…a reason for rejecting Planetspace was that Griffin didn’t want an EELV to be used, since, though the only flights would be unmanned, it would further underscore to people that EELV was a viable alternative to Ares 1.

At the time, it sounded like an extreme story even given Griffin’s mania to save Ares 1.

Now, with the comment in the Space News item that Orbital had, “the highest price and lowest score,” I’m starting to think that the story may be a lot more plausible.

Unfortunately, it may be. He’s really on the defensive.

Clark Lindsey has more.

14 thoughts on “Shuttle, Ares and EELVs”

  1. Lurio’s source does not know what he’s talking about. PlanetSpace’s bid involved using a new launcher from ATK, not EELV.

    Planetspace was rejected because it was a fraudulent entry, submitted with full knowledge that it would never deliver. This is what the guy with complex name mean when he mentioned “management structure issues” in the announcement.

  2. Thank you Pete Zaitcev! That the Planetspace bid wasn’t based on an EELV was my immediate reaction as well, but I was starting to wonder if I was completely wrong the way people are acting.

    And I think you’re right: NASA procurement is just being polite.

    I have a comment over at RLVnews/SpaceTransportNews about how this ISS CRS is not the COTS.

  3. “Lurio’s source does not know what he’s talking about. PlanetSpace’s bid involved using a new launcher from ATK, not EELV.”

    As I understand it, PS was offering an EELV (I’d assume an Atlas 5 401) for initial flights, with a segue to Athena III when it was proven. (Parenthetically, this is how our t/Space COTS 2.0 bid went down. We offered Atlas 5 for near term missions, then an air-launch replacement.)

    If so, I can easily buy Griffin not wanting them to be demonstrating a crew-able transfer vehicle that could fly three to five years before Orion/Ares 1.

  4. Gary, thanks for saving my reputation .

    Seriously, Rand should have noted that the SN item itself said that an existing launcher would be used for the first few flights by Planetspace. Indeed, the transition from this ‘mystery’ launcher to Athena was one of the complications that Gerstenmaier cited as a reason for rejecting Planetspace.

    And indeed, as more than one source told me, that ‘mystery’ launcher was an EELV Atlas 5 401. The Planetspace group knew that they wouldn’t have Athena 3 ready in time.

    I was even told (back to the original source only, here) that Planetspace’s partners sweated bullets when Kathuria insisted upon mentioning at some meeting or other that the Atlas was the fill-in…not that Griffin et al at NASA wouldn’t have known that from the proposal, I’m sure.

  5. Thanks for the corrections.

    However this makes the Planetspace bid look even worse in my opinion: far too many chefs in the kitchen and some of them weren’t comfortable admitting to the recipe?

  6. I owe some kind of an explanation to Mr. Hermit, I suppose (Mr. Lurio obviously should be above what random Internet identities say about his sources, but still, this too).

    As far as I remember, PlanetSpace originated, or at least came to light, during the X-prize. Their design added a capsule on top of V-2. Geoff Sheerin led the company. That effort created the capsule cabin that they dropped into the lake, and also tested the engine. It was for all intents a reasonable NewSpace start-up, although they never pretended to be in the class of SpaceX and OSC.

    After X-prize, Dr. Kathuria coincidentially put his political adventures on the back burner, bought the outfit and they tried to market the Silver Dart. It was quite obviously an abortive effort. BTW, there were rumours that every engineer either quit or was fired, although I’m not sure about the veracity of it. Does anyone know if Sheerin is sitll with them?

    That was two or three years back. Now, we see PlanetSpace offering to yoke Boeing, LM, and ATK to pull the cart that they jockey. Is this even remotely feasible, how do you think? It’s not like how a mature comany like OSC asks Yuzhnoye to make a fuel tank. PlanetSpace apparently wasn’t going to do any work, only pass money from NASA to ATK et. al. and collect the commission. Which is probably doable for someone like Northrop, but the history of PlanetSpace does not suggest they would be able to run the cart, IMHO.

    I’m fully open to corrections here. Perhaps my short history of PlanetSpace is wrong, and they have actually accomplished something since the Canadian Arrow days.

  7. The COTS selection was not an easy one, and there are no perfect choices here. The most low-risk solution would be a cargo-carrier on top of an Atlas or Delta, with the effort managed by an experienced big-aerospace firm. The next-best thing is the SpaceX proposal, in which I grow increasingly more confident due to their flight success with Falcon I.

    NASA had every reason to be skeptical of PlanetSpace’s ability to manage the COTS program. While OSC brings superior management skills to the table, their technical proposal brings a lot more risk. The engines and tankage have heritage with flight-proven systems, but have never been tested together during flight. The second stage is all-new, and I have my suspicions that the avionics aren’t off the shelf (somebody correct me on this if I’m wrong.)

    Granted, OSC’s proposal probably isn’t much riskier than SpaceX’s from a technical standpoint, and their management is much more experienced in this field. With that being said, the OSC proposal is more expensive and offers less performance than that of SpaceX.

  8. No ^_^

    You don’t owe me any explanations Pete Zaitcev (I’ve been around since a good while before the X-Prize became the Ansari X-Prize and I was just happy to see someone with somewhat the same reaction as me). Nor does Charles Lurio need any defending (and I mean that in a good way), and whenever Gary C. Hudson and I says something diverging about space or technical issues I would say I’m most likely wrong (not that it stops me) much as I would say if I disagree on something in the same way with Rand Simberg or Jonathan Goff ^_^

    We were just both unaware of or had forgotten that Planetscape wanted to use an EELV as a stop-gap measure until their solid rocket launcher was ready that’s all (and one of the things I do disagree with Gary Hudson about is the competitiveness of EELVs when it comes to this ISS CRS).

    I honestly don’t think the mistakes and corrections changes anything for the better on Planetscape’s behalf and don’t think they have a case. SpaceX might however but I think they’re smarter than that.

  9. I personally think the choice to award a contract to Orbital (aka OSC) is quite reasonable. They have quite a lot of experience designing, integrating, and launching rockets. Far more than SpaceX. Their bid is much more likely to be realistic.

    The biggest risk with Orbital’s bid is that they have little experience with large liquid-fueled stages, though they do have some small liquid-fueled upper stages (HAPS and Super HAPS). Orbital builds quite good avionics in house and is very creative in reusing old systems in new vehicles. I wouldn’t worry about their avionics.

    I wish both SpaceX and Orbital well in their efforts, but, given my personal experience with Orbital, I have a lot more confidence in their capabilities.

  10. If NASA was really interested in assured access with low risk to launch failure they would have gone with a Delta II or an EELV. I guess they don’t care if their payloads end up in the water. They better make them so they float.

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