40 thoughts on “The Latest NASA Corruption”

  1. The cost of the Space shuttle was over $1.5 billion per launch. The Space Shuttle was initially pitched as a reusable $5 million per launch system that would refly every week. These promises are all the things that SpaceX is on the way to actually delivering.

    Ouch.

  2. That figure is arrived by dividing the entire cost of the manned space program by the number of flights. It ignores the fact that more than half the cost of the program was maintaining the Apollo infrastructure (VAB, crawlers, etc.) that could have been done without (see the plan for VAFB Shuttle flights). It also includes payload integration costs. The actual flyaway costs for Shuttle in the 1990s was under $100mln per flight. This was proven by having a Shuttle launch to orbit, land for repair, and relaunch with the same integrated payload and crew. Look up how much it cost to build and maintain LC-39A, then forward some of that cost to SapceX and see what numbers you get.

    Which is not to say SpaceX isn’t doing it right. Just that they aren’t saddled with costs dreamed up by haters. The original STS promises were for a reusable orbiter (most likely either a straight or drawbridge wing orbit) mounted on a flyback first stage. STS as built was a typical committee product.

    The Shuttle derived LV wasn’t a bad idea, and would have been fine if built 25 years ago. But it’s time came and went.

    1. That Shuttle re-flight was the best cost data point of all the missions. However, I think it also should provide a warning about Starship’s costs and turnaround time perhaps being over-optimistic about payload integration. It might take mere hours to refuel a Starship, but it might take two weeks to get the satellites loaded in properly. But if that is a problem, SpaceX will come up with an out-of-the-box solution, such as cutting a new cargo hatch into the fuselage and using surplus Taiwanese shipping containers.

      I think NASA might be right to worry that the existing SLS design may need some serious rework and Boeing would just slow things down (by many many months) to allow them to stay within some annual budget, leaving NASA with egg on their face as Starship flies ground-breaking missions time and again.

      1. Part of the problem witj STS is, it sat on the ground waiting for its payload. I think SpaceX may have learned its own version of this lesson from Falcon (as with right now, where Falcon cores are piling up at KSC and CCAFS waiting for their riders). It looks like Strship will come in discrete variants, and I think most of those will be tankers that can only carry methane and lox. Of the rest, maybe the passenger ships will be in two variants, one a bit airliner like, with few accomodations, for work in LEO and cislunar space, the other long range “colony ships” headed out for months-long voyages (with custom versions of those outfitted for exploration). Of the dry cargo ships, I think maybe there will be the chomper (more or less an unmanned Shuttle) with the loose-cargo version just being an internal package for Chomper. Maybe the later LEO and cislunar versions will wind up being a passanger container for Chomper too?

  3. I don’t see how this is something that NASA would want. You can be sure that down the line, when the plus part kicks in, it will be the non-SLS parts of NASA that will have to come up with the added money. It’s not as if Congress has ever, past 1970, just ponied up the money.

  4. 10 years ago, a deal like this would go unnoticed. Now, those that follow the industry know it is absurd. This may be the last of the gravy train. Next time, everyone will see the absurdity.

    1. Oh, it was noticed 10 years ago. Nothing changed then, and nothing will change now. Cost-plus didn’t originate, as Bob Zimmerman implies, in the 1960s. They originated in the early 1900s, as the U.S. government was taken over by “progressives.” Ludwig von Mises wrote about it long ago. The progs didn’t comprehend the function of profit, and considered it evil – but then they found that no one would do business with them without some markup over cost. So they instituted the various cost-plus abominations, and thus sprouted the industry of selling cost to the government. The layers and layers of regulations, processes, procedures, reviews, “competitions”, cost accounting, social engineering additions to contracts, etc, etc, ad nauseum, were gradually built up over time with the enthusiastic support of government contractors who, after all, could bill their chump customer for all of that added compliance cost, plus fee.

      It’s almost funny to note that the bulk of the cost of any government procurement is devoted to establishing ironclad proof of what the actual cost is, so that the government can verify that it hasn’t been overcharged! I say “almost funny,” because it really isn’t at all. The money spent comes from people who actually produce something, and are taxed to provide the funds that are pissed away in government “procurements” (which procure cost, and very little else). Their lives are diminished in the service of this loathsome scam, while the lives of talented people who believe themselves to be advancing science and the national interest are simply frittered away. There’s nothing funny about it.

  5. My take is that this contract is insurance against the risk of Starship. Starship might fly to 20km next month, and if the launch and landing is visually spectacular, may well get major press coverage. That’s a threat to SLS. So, corruption indeed; a move to protect their pork.

    As for Starship replacing SLS, I think it can for most things. The only thing Starship really lacks IMHO is a high-energy expendable upper stage, for probe launch missions such as Europa or further. However, given a few billion saved per year, I suspect that money could be found to fund the R&D needed to create a high-energy stage that could be launched by SH/Starship. NASA was after all going to put Centaur inside a shuttle bay for manned flights, so surely it might be possible to put one inside a cargo Starship – though the pad support systems (such as hydrogen) would be quite a project.

    Or, would it be easier and cheaper to create a new stage, such as a single Raptor Vac and a stainless cylindrical body that would fit into Cargo Starship? The development costs might be outweighed by the simpler pad modifications (simpler due to prop commonality).

    1. Well, the upper end of Starship could be modified into a reusable second stage that adapts to a an upper stage and an Orion on top.

      Aside from building the upper stage adapter, the modification would require:
      qty 2 – 10-pack of angle-grinder cut-off wheels at $20 a pack.
      qty 2 – 2# spool of stainless MIG wire at $33 each.
      possibly a refill on a tank of shielding gas.

      So the cost is approaching $100 for splicing in the adapter, plus labor and whatever the adapter costs (whether expendable or reusable) and probably $1.2 billion and four more years for NASA to modify the crawler and launch tower.

      1. NASA would probably decide to use the crawler to transport the angle grinder cut-off wheels to the worksite – one at a time.

  6. Right now, people are imagining Starship as quite STS-like and incompatible with what expendables have gone before. But someday, SuperHeavy/Starkicker will fly, and somebody will realize what it could do in full expendable mode, something like a Saturn 12 (Nova) for the price of an Atlas V.

    1. Would it even cost that much? An expendable Starship/Superheavy would presumably have very low construction costs compared to most other launchers; the engines would likely be the most expensive parts, and I remember being surprised at how cheaply SpaceX said they could build one.

      1. My thought is, near term (2024), NASA would order up a brand new SuperHeavy/Starkicker, and the engines alone would cost north of $60mln. But down the road (2032), when you need to ship your Shake-n-Bake CHON converter to the Fore Trojan Asteroids, you’ll pay for an end of life SuperHeavy with last-use engines and a Starkicker made from slavage EOL Starship parts, total cost south of $10mln.

    2. Hrmmm. Would the SH need to be expendable? Also, could you refuel Starkicker in orbit, particularly a higher energy orbit (elliptical, like Starship for lunar return missions)? If so, you’re probably looking at less than the cost of an Atlas 5, but with a far higher capability than SLS.

      1. Musk came up with the idea of an expendable Starkicker himself, and the idea of refueling it sort of defies the cost model we’re talking about. Bear in mind Musk has no trouble selling a brand new expendable Falcon 9 to anyone who wants to pay for it. An interim version would be an reusable SuperHeavy with an expendable Starkicker on top. All expendable would be when you need a BIG payload on its way to somplace far away. (But they’d also get rid of the heavy refueling needs for the Moon, where there’s no aerobraking.)

  7. You could also put three SuperHeavy stages together in the Falcon Heavy’s configuration, which is something I’m actually expecting because at present Starship doesn’t get to LEO with a really significant load of extra fuel because it’s providing too much of the delta-V to get to orbit.

    SH/Starship has a lot of flexibility that the SLS could never match.

    1. Sorry, George, but that (a 3 core SH) could never work. The reason is nomenclature. You have Falcon 9, and a 3 core version called Falcon Heavy. So, you’d have to call the 3 core Superheavy Heavy.

      It’d be quite a beast though. 30 million pounds of thrust. Like 4 Saturn 5s launching at once.

        1. Trimaran may be one of the big mistakes OldSpace made, since it only worked well with solid rocket motor strap-ons. Musk has found that out with the Falcon Heavy dead end. If you need more payload, Build a Bigger Rocket! And don’t bother developing bigger engines until you reach some point of diminishing returns. Once your rocket has reached a certain columnar mass, it can only get fatter with more engines, not taller. The limit of an engine is in there somewhere.

          1. Musk has said that an 18 meter diameter version of SH/Starship is a possible future upgrade. The current diameter is 9 meters, so we’re talking a volume of x4 SH, assuming no increase in height. Double the height and it’s 8X.

            Given their construction technique, this may actually be easier to do (for the vehicle) than developing a 3 core. The launch pad, though, is another matter. I don’t think that pad 39B, even though it was designed with Nova (10 to 20 million pounds of thrust) in mind, could handle a 30 million pound thrust 3 core, and surely not an 80 million pound thrust 18 meter SH.

          2. I think the payload size range might determine whether a fully developed 3-booster or 5-booster option might be cheaper than a giant single-booster first stage. If the smaller ones can also be launched solely or in combinations, and most of the manifest is for smaller payload missions, those boosters keep doing useful work in between the occasional mega-launches.

            But if they are overly optimized for the side-booster role then there’s no real gain, other than perhaps more efficient staging.

            There are other considerations of course, such as ground handling for multiple smaller stages versus one larger one, mating difficulties, and perhaps having the core stage ending up very far out to sea, type up the landing barge that goes out and back at a very slow pace.

          3. Why are we talking about such big boosters? Isn’t that the mistake made by SLS? I thought The Plan was to mass produce/make fully or partially reusable a smaller booster and to use on-orbit propellant depots to work our way outward into the Solar System?

          4. Well, I did some math based on early SH/Starship numbers (which are of course not what’s being built), and a three-booster configuration would need just three total launches to get a Starship fully fueled in LEO, whereas single SH/Starship tanker launches would need far more than nine SH stages to get the Starship fueled up.

            Basically, too much of Starship’s mass is spent getting it into orbit because SH doesn’t impart sufficient delta V. You get less total fuel expenditure with a more powerful first stage, so that more second stage fuel gets to orbit.

            At the other extreme, you could launch a gigantic SSTO into orbit, but since it can’t deliver much useful payload you might have to use hundreds or thousands of launches to fill it back up.

  8. My original dream for Mars Colonial Transport was a three-stage rocket that could put 450 metric tons in LEO, amounting to a fully fueled Starship in current nomenclature. It depended upon the originally specified 1.5mln lbf engines, and I did imagine a rocket 700 feet tall. I imaged a rocket that could lift off from Texas, fly to Mars and return.

  9. My take is somewhat different. Russia has been gouging NASA to take astronauts to and from ISS. Now Spacex is going to do that job and more, for a lot less. So this frees up tons of money to keep Boeing afloat, while Spacex does the actual flying.

  10. Paying cloe attention to what SpaceX is actually doing answers many of the questions. For example, Musk has no intention of actually launching SuperHeavy from the old Saturn/Shuttle pad at LC-39A. That’s needed for Falcon 9 and Heavy for the next several years anyway. Instead, SpaceX is building a second launch mount within the LC-39A perimeter, equipped with a liquid cooled flame diverter. The old idea that a rocket needed to launch of a pad suspended above a pit lined like blast furnace has been abandoned.

    That said, I think that maximum height of the 18m booster is not much taller than the 9m booster due to the thrust of the current Raptor. So it can only get fatter, so the 4x thrust level is probably right. The largest “Nova” envisioned in the early 1960s had 36 F-1 engines (so 6x Saturn V). Renderings show a very fat rocket!

      1. I think it’s wrong to call such rockets “fat”. Big lift, full-figured, robust, plump, shapely, or Rubenesque might be better terms.

  11. The other thing is, many of the questions being raised about the Starship paradigm are derived from propaganda so old its orgins are forgotten or never known by many people.

    Von Braun wanted to build huge, sturdy reusable rockets that used their margins to attain the sturdiness and reusability, with multiple small engines to get the necessary thrust. Proto-OldSpace replied with snark about “Brooklyn Bridge Engineering!” and “Cluster’s Last Stand!”

    When the Shuttle failed, because it was badly designed, not because it was too big, the propaganda mill was cranked up again. Large numbers of people continued to claim the break-even point for reusability was 60 launches per airframe, and some do now even after Musk has proven profitability is at 2 launches per airframe, with a breakeven point for the rocket family in the dozens (depending on price point, not engineering).

    The idea that we could lower the price of space travel by building smaller, cheaper expendable rockets to launch fuel to an orbiting depot fails when you examine it in detail, but the arguments go on ad nauseum.

    1. The “badly designed” part of the Shuttle argument rightly fills volumes, but I think the real failure was that it was a too-big-to-fail government program. The first attempt at a re-usable space system was complex and expensive to build, and in some ways purposely so since Apollo was a hard act to follow and NASA feared being radically downsized. But it turned out to be even more of a beast operationally, and it sucked up all the oxygen and most of their budget, and it employed so many personnel that it was politically untouchable.

      That precluded treating the Shuttle, the first approach, as an engineering and financial data point so we could follow it with a string of other approaches to the space launch problem based on lessons learned.

      SLS repeats that mistake, re-using even the same hardware, facilities, and personnel, with flight schedules projected to span almost half a century – of program stagnation.

      1. so we could follow it with a string of other approaches to the space launch problem based on lessons learned.

        I don’t think the government would do well at this. People like to point to what the government spent on SpaceX and wonder what the government could have done if they took the same approach SpaceX did but these wonderings always ignore the differences between SpaceX and NASA that allowed SpaceX to succeed and would doom NASA to failure.

        It always goes something like, “SpaceX built all these things and only spent $X. NASA could have funded N new launchers and whatnots for what was spent on SLS.” Nope, it is much more complex than that.

    2. IMHO, the concept of using smaller existing expendable rockets to launch prop to depots, plus also using orbital assembly for larger payloads, made sense as an architecture at the time. The goal was to do it cheaper than squandering tens of billions on a super-expensive behemoth like SLS.

      The key metric IMHO is cost per pound to LEO. Reuse makes far more sense – but back then, economical reuse was evasive at best, so the expendables plus fuel depots made far more sense than SLS.

  12. And today the NASA Administrator announces he thinks *they* can be to Mars by 2035 or so. Geez! Maybe they can save money by renting a cottage from Musk or Bezos.

    1. And BO announced they are working with the likes of Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Draper. It looks like Musk it trying to work around the system but Bezos is trying to be the system.

    2. Yup, the only way NASA gets to Mars by 2035 is buying tickets on Starship.

      However, unless SLS is canceled in the meantime, 2035 is looking pretty plausible for NASA flying EM-1.

  13. Bottom line:

    Should Starship development fail, SpaceX has a direct failover option to SuperHeavy-R/Starkicker. Most risk for SuperHeavy reuse has already been retired by Falcon 9. In partially reusable format, that gives us an LV roughly 2x the Saturn V-INT21 variant (avoiding direct comaprison to Saturn V Classic, which was highly specialized for a single job), with an all expendable version around 30% more than that. SuperHeavy-R/Starkicker could easily send that BlueOrigin/Coalition of OldSpace lunar flight on its way.

    And if Starship succeeds, beyond LEO operations could be simplified by a SuperHeavy-R/Starkicker-Tanker that could give a 3-launch solution to Mars that only expends the Tankers and their three engines apiece (so 6 total). The savings on launch ops costs alone might make that idea worthwhile, until larger, more sophisticated Starships come on line in time.

    1. I think a perhaps more important shift is with SuperHeavy/Starship is that the engines and assembly methods mean that if there’s a need for a smaller or larger version, they could design, build, and fly the new vehicle within a year, and probably less than half that.

      Prior construction methods of using special aluminum alloys, specific diameter tooling, precision fixtures, and friction-stir welders have made it extremely difficult to do anything other than small tweaks to existing vehicles.

      NASA abandoned the ARES in part because its diameter differed from the Shuttle external tank, potentially creating huge delays and cost increases. Yet even the modifications to an external tank have taken many long years. If NASA wanted a fatter SLS they’d push development out for a decade.

      In comparison, Superheavy might as well be a variable-size booster where a customer can freely select propellant mass and lift-off thrust to meet the application.

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