Fisked. “Ray” over at Restore the Vision has been going through Mike Griffin’s recent email, point by point (just keep scrolling). A suggestion — “Next” and “Previous” links in each post to allow readers to find them all after finding one. Clark Lindsey (who tipped me off to this) has individual links to points one through five. Here’s the one for point six, which is the most extensive.
[Tuesday morning update]
The fisking is now complete. He’s got eleven posts, and the eleventh one contains links to the previous ones (though it would still be nice to be able to navigate from one to the next and back). The tenth one, on the merits of propellant depots versus heavy lift, seems the most devastating to me:
In fact, heavy lift appears to be a solution in search of a problem. Who needs heavy lift? Apparently not NASA science, the communications satellite industry, DOD, intelligence agencies, NOAA, etc. It seems that the main reason NASA would develop heavy lift is to avoid addressing the real goals of the VSE (science, security, and economic benefits in the context of commercial and international participation).
It is difficult to understand how such an approach can offer an economically favorable alternative. The Ares-5 offers the lowest cost-per-pound for payload to orbit of any presently known heavy-lift launch vehicle design. The mass-specific cost of payload to orbit nearly always improves with increasing launch vehicle scale.
Griffin is saying Ares-5 is the cheapest because it’s the biggest. That’s an absurd law – why not build a rocket 1,000 times bigger at 10,000 times the cost then? The per-kg cost will be miniscule! I think Griffin’s law of scale is easily violated when you consider the possibility of smaller, mass-produced rockets. Exploration, with its serious payload mass requirements, could provide the market for such mass-produced rockets.
Griffin’s scale rule of thumb also ignores development costs. After all, it will be a long time before those tens of billions of dollars of Ares-5 (and related Ares-1) development efforts are amortized, at a maximum flight rate of 2 per year. We already have the EELVs and are already building Falcon 9 and Taurus 2 anyway, so their development cost for a job like fuel launch for exploration is $0. When you consider Ares-5 costs, you also have to consider the possibility that the development effort will fail, and all development costs will be wasted … or the development effort will succeed, but the operations will be so expensive that they are canceled as happened with Apollo, and again the development costs will be wasted.
Is Mike Griffin really as fundamentally ignorant of economics and accounting as his arguments would indicate? This seems to be a prevailing fallacy of heavy-lift proponents — that the only economies of scale come from vehicle size, completely ignoring flight rate, which has a much more profound effect on launch costs, particularly when amortizing a high development cost. As Ray points out, the tens of billions of development cost will never be amortized at the trivial flight rate that a heavy lifter will fly. It makes sense to look at marginal costs for a vehicle whose development costs are sunk, but we are making decisions about how to spend future dollars. And of course, even if the marginal costs are low (as they are with the Shuttle) the average costs remain high, with an expensive fixed infrastructure and low flight rate. Constellation isn’t an improvement over the Shuttle in any significant way other than (possibly) crew safety, and in many ways it’s a step backwards, since it has much less capability.
Mike has it exactly backwards. Depots are not a solution in search of a problem, clever though the phrase might sound. Ray points out the many problems that they solve. It is the costly romance of heavy lift, that some cannot relinquish despite the fact that it has trapped us in LEO for decades, that needs justification.