Orbital Mechanics, Selenology, Economics And Logistics

Jim Hillhouse doesn’t understand any of them:

The plan germinating from deep within NASA, and that sees some tentative support within Congress, is to fly one, or both, of the Morpheus and Mighty Eagle landers on the first flight of the Space Launch System in 2017. The reason for this is to begin to answer the question of whether, and in what form, there is water on the Moon.

Ummmm…no. We are long past the point of having to “begin” to answer that question.

We already know that there is water on the moon, and that much of it is in the form of fairly pure, meltable ice. And neither Morpheus or Mighty Eagle have anything to do with looking for it — they are landing-technology testbeds, and the “plan” to fly them to the moon in 2017 is so deep within NASA that few one take it seriously.

Why is water so important? For one, if water does exist on the Moon in a form that can be refined, we don’t need to build fuel depots in space–the Moon will, with it’s shallow gravity well and the extraction of O2 and H2, become the Mother of all Fuel Depots. With a ready supply of water that does not have to be hauled out of Earth’s deep gravity well, lunar outposts, and their natural follow-on crewed missions beyond the Moon to Mars, become much more affordable and safer with the technology we’ll have beginning in 2017.

We know that Mr. Hillhouse hates the idea of orbital propellant depots, because they help undermine whatever slender rationale (if any) there is for SLS, but finding water on the moon does not eliminate the need for them. It makes no sense to descend to the moon to fuel a ship bound for the inner or outer solar system — the propellant penalty of doing so would be far too great, and it would require that a vehicle meant for deep space would have to also be capable of going into and out of a gravity well. This is simply fundamental ignorance of the rocket equation.

No, the water on the moon would instead be delivered to an orbital depot (probably at L-1 or L-2) using efficient specialized propellant tankers (basically, just a reusable lunar lander with no payload, other than residual propellant in its tanks on arrival), where deep-space vehicles would fuel and depart the earth-moon system.

But here’s the part where he appears to not understand either cost or logistics:

The commercial space era is about to begin. SpaceX has developed a capable rocket in the Falcon 9 and a good, reusable cargo spacecraft in Dragon. Between 2013 and 2015 to 2016, SpaceX will be paid $1.6 billion to haul 20 mT to ISS over 12 launches. And Orbital Sciences will be paid $1.9 billion to also launch 20 mT to ISS in 8 launches during that roughly same period. The total Commercial Resupply Contract, or CRS, will cost $3.5 billion for delivery of 40 mT to ISS. This will mark the beginning of commercial space.

Actually, commercial space has been going on for years. All it marks the beginning of is commercial resupply of ISS. But otherwise, so far so good.

So why is NASA spending $8 billion to develop the 70 mT to 130 mT capable Space Launch System? Well, consider this for a moment. In 2017 will be the first flight of the Space Launch System, or SLS. One launch of the first generation of the 70 mT version of the SLS rocket, called SLS Block 1, will cost $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money. But that one launch will pay for a craft that can boost 70 mT into low-Earth orbit. In other words, for 37% of the cost of the whole CRS contract SLS will launch 75% more cargo.

Let’s grant, just for the sake of the argument, that a Block 1 SLS actually will launch in 2017 (I doubt that its funding will survive that long). That “one launch of the SLS” will not cost “$1.5B” – it will cost that plus the ten or more billion of development cost (Congress insists, at least for now, on funding it at two billion a year) that it takes to get to that one launch. Now it’s possible that, if it ends up actually flying many times, that the development costs will be amortized over more flights, but you can’t ignore them in making such a comparison. Beyond that, I don’t know where his number comes from, but I’ll bet that the $1.5B is just the marginal cost (that is the cost of manufacturing the rocket itself, plus its propellants) and doesn’t include the annual fixed costs required to support it in infrastructure. But wait, it gets worse.

But, it’s better to measure launchers by their cost per kilogram or pound.

Well, actually, no, it’s not.

Both SpaceX and Orbital will through the CRS contract charge NASA between $12,000/kg and $18,000/kg, depending upon whether the currently hidden support cost of NASA are accounted for. The cost for SLS Block 1 (70 mT) is expected to be about $8,500/kg. With the more impressive SLS Block 2, which will have a 130 mT launch capability to LEO, that cost will climb to about $10,000/kg. That is still 20% better than any other launch offerings, including those of Orbital Sciences and SoaceX. This is why there is such strong support for the SLS program despite the dearth of publicity for the program, annual efforts by the Administration to slash SLS funding, and vigorous delaying tactics from 2010 – late 2011 by it’s two NASA leaders that led to them being subpoenaed by a Democratic controlled Senate. SLS is a Ford F-150 pickup that costs less and gets better gas mileage than a Prius.

That last sentence is hilarious. The only “strong” support in Congress is from the congresspeople who have constituents or campaign donors in their states and districts for it. It’s a workforce preservation program, not a space program.

But ignoring that, where does he get the $8500/kg number? Even if you accept the nonsensical notion that the launch will only cost $1.5B, that still gives over $21,000/kg. At least that’s what I get when I divide that number by 70,000 kilograms (and why will the Block 2 cost more per kilogram than the Block 1? That makes no sense). That is, even at his optimistic launch cost assumptions, it’s still more per kilogram than CRS.

But as I said, at least for this mission, it’s pretty brainless to even use that as a metric.

Why? Because the mission is to deliver logistic resupplies. These have to occur on a schedule, and the required delivery amounts are just a few thousand pounds at a time. An SLS would be completely useless for this mission, because a) it would deliver everything at once and b) it has no intrinsic capability to deliver anything — all it can do is toss mass into orbit. Even if it had the capability to rendezvous and dock with the ISS, there isn’t room up there to store years worth of supplies, and because they’re perishable they’d — eventually — well, perish. Even if there were a per-kilogram premium for using CRS over SLS, it’s worth it, because it can actually satisfy the mission requirements. What’s important here is not the cost per kilogram, but the price per resupply mission.

It gets more ridiculous:

The biggest loss of Shuttle wasn’t that we can no longer launch American astronauts into orbit, though that’s bad enough. The real loss is that we today don’t have a human-rated, that means very safe and dependable, launch capability to put large payloads into orbit. So if one or two of ISS’s solar arrays degrades, or 3 gyros go bad, until SLS becomes operational, we have no way to send replacement parts.

The reasons Congress created the SLS program were many. One was to develop the capacity for us to fly beyond low-Earth orbit. But another reason, and if not reason then benefit, was to develop a rocket that could, in one launch, resupply ISS with cargo mass that nobody could and do so safely.

There was one reason, and one reason only, that Congress created the SLS program — to keep the jobs going in Florida, Alabama, Utah and other places. If they think that it would be an ISS resupply vehicle, they are completely out to lunch.

Let’s leave aside that the Shuttle was neither safe, or dependable, or even human-rated (the myth that will never die). An ISS solar array doesn’t weigh that much — one of them shared a Shuttle ride to the ISS with a truss segment, which means that they are much less than 40,000 lbs. Neither do gyros. Either could go up on an Atlas or Delta, or probably even a Falcon 9, if there were a tug at ISS to come out and get them after delivery. So what we need is not a 70- (let alone 130)-ton rocket, but something that can be used to deliver things to space station from a parking orbit. Does Mr. Hillhouse seriously propose that such an oversized vehicle, costing more than a billion per launch (even at marginal cost) would be used for ISS logistics or repair? Really?

It’s sad that people will read innumerate nonsense like this, at a web site called “America Space,” and believe that it has any correspondence to reality.

[Update a while later]

Well, one mystery is solved. Now we know where he came up with the $8500/kg number. He misread this piece by Amy Shira Teitel:

Like the Saturn V, the cost associated with SLS launches could prove prohibitive. Early estimates suggest that each launch could cost between $8,500 and $10,000 to deliver just one pound with SLS. For the Block 1 and 1A to launch the maximum 70 ton payload, that’s $1.3 billion per launch; the Block 2 will cost about $2.45 billion per 130 ton payload. As a reference point, each shuttle launch cost roughly $1.5 billion, and each Saturn V around $1.17 billion (adjusted to 2012 dollars). If these SLS launch estimates prove true, it’s hard to see how the space agency will sustain the rocket. Critics are slamming SLS for its high cost. In addition to launch costs, SLS is expected to cost $10 billion in development leading up to the first launch.

Emphasis mine. In other words, assuming you believe the numbers (not to imply that Ms. Teitel would be misstating — just that no NASA numbers on future launch costs are credible, particularly when you don’t get to see the basis for them), that means that what Mr. Hillhouse said was $8500/kg is actually $18,700/kg. We also now see why he claimed that the bigger rocket would cost more per pound. Funny, I thought that Mike Griffin told us that bigger rockets are more cost effective?

22 thoughts on “Orbital Mechanics, Selenology, Economics And Logistics”

  1. That “one launch of the SLS” will not cost “$1.5B” – it will cost that plus the ten or more billion of development cost

    It’s even more than that if you consider the cost of money.

    DoD costing rules require that program cost estimates include that. The assumption is that development costs are “borrowed” from the Treasury at the prime rate.

    I never see that in space-policy discussions involving NASA, though. People simply add up the costs for each year of the program.

    If you consider the cost of money, better faster cheaper approaches become even more advantageous and “stretching out” programs to save money starts to look ridiculous.

  2. From comments, Hillhouse makes a prediction:

    After the success of Orion’s ETF-1, a supplemental appropriation is made to fund development of a human-rated Delta IV Heavy as a “Plan B” for domestic crewed access to ISS. The target date is an aggressive 2016-2017.

    CCP proceeds with Boeing making the most progress towards a crewed vehicle meeting NASA’s own human rating standard. Naturally, Boeing hedges it’s bets by ensuring that it’s CST-100 is fully Delta IV H HR capable.

    Meanwhile, SpaceX and OSC find that life under a fixed-price contract like CRS isn’t what they thought it would be and have trouble operating under it’s terms. Eventually, the Obama Administration has to bail-out both OSC and SpaceX to ensure their continued performance under CRS. Any funding hopes by SpaceX that the gov’t would again fund development of one of its rocket, this time for the Falcon 9 Heavy, vanish. As part of its deal with Congress to provide funding for the rescue, the Administration agrees that all future proposed NASA budgets will adhere to the 2014 NASA Authorization Act. SpaceX and OSC are merged into a new USA (United Space Alliance) for ISS cargo services.

    2015 rolls-around with SLS making strong progress and staying on budget and schedule.

    The guy is really a mess.

      1. He’s also a mess. Or a “garage sale”. The result of a thorough loss of control while skiing.

  3. I’ve got an idea! Add some landing engines to the SLS and land it on the moon, where it can’t come back until they refuel it. Problem solved!

  4. If NASA were really dumb enough to try launching Morpheus and/or Mighty Eagle on SLS first launch in 2017, I predict that they will lose the lander/s. If they are carefull enough, as they insist SpaceX should be, they won’t launch in 2017 and certainly not on the first flight of SLS.

  5. Whew. Wow, there are so many things wrong with his post that I had to post a number of corrections. I think I put more research into my posts than he did for his whole article… 😉

    I hope he doesn’t have a wide readership.

  6. Wow, there are so many things wrong with his post that I had to post a number of corrections.


    I hope he doesn’t have a wide readership.

    Well, it will probably be wider now. Not that that’s a good thing for him.

    1. Sorry, I missed your question. I posted my responses on his article, and we’ve been having a running debate about the details.

      Suffice it to say I think I’m getting my points across and he isn’t. 😉

  7. Well, we must be moving up here at AmericaSpace if Rand’s coverage is about our posts.

    Thanks for the shout-out Rand.

    That’s the sum total of your response?

    No corrections? No retractions?


  8. Perhaps relatedly, I trust we’ve noted Eric Berger’s piece in the San Antonio and Houston papers yesterday and today that indicate that Governor Perry’s office is not being helpful with the SpaceX interest in a Texas launch site. Call me suspicious, but I think that Senator Hutichson and maybe Representative Hall may have had a chat with the Governor.

      1. If she thinks supporting SpaceX would damage the chances that SLS will provide a generous flow of tax dollars into the pockets of Houston-area voters and businesses, Perry would probably get the point. Too bad about Cameron County, but a politician has to keep his priorities straight.

        1. Doubtful. There’s not love loss between Perry and Hutchison. Everyone south of the Red River knows that.

    1. Egad,

      You really expect the Governor that killed the Texas Aerospace Commission and allowed three proposals for spaceports to die of neglect to support a fourth proposal? Why?

  9. Actually, commercial space has been going on for years.

    Only for certain values of commercial. Most commercial payloads (well, we call them satellites) on orbit up to now have gotten there with rockets that governments have sponsored to design and build. Orbital likes to claim that Pegasus began the era of commercial spaceflight, but they built it out of parts sponsored by other government rocket programs…

    And SpaceX has launched one ( one ! ) teeny tiny paying commercial payload so far. Which failed to function, but thats not their fault ..

  10. “The total Commercial Resupply Contract, or CRS, will cost $3.5 billion for delivery of 40 mT to ISS. This will mark the beginning of commercial space.”

    That’s for the minimum amount. If you add of the maximum amount of pressurized and unpressurized cargo that Dragon can carry in 12 flights it is a lot more that minimum amount of 20 mts.

    Also, there is no value assigned to the amount of down cargo that Dragon can bring back, if you give it just an equal value to the up cargo costs you will find that 12,000/kg is WAY off the mark.

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