How To Explore

Alan Wilhite, Doug Stanley, Dale Arney and Chris Jones have put together an extremely politically incorrect technical presentation, in that it explains how one does serious space exploration and even development without using the Senate Launch System. They baselined Falcon 9 and its heavy version for the launch systems. I haven’t looked at it in detail, but as Jon Goff and Clark Lindsey have noted, it is a much more affordable concept than the SLS route. They appear to be assuming that the Merlin 2 won’t be developed, but if it were, I would imagine a significant decrease in recurring costs, particularly for the heavy. I’m curious to know how much cooperation they got from SpaceX for this work.

I’ll be looking it over and figuring out how to repurpose it to wage some political battles, but for now I’d just note chart 6, and the dominance of the costs for heavy lift in the HEFT studies. There are a lot of things that we could buy for that $2.5B per year that would have a lot more value.

One other point (as Jon also mentioned) — I’ve known Alan Wilhite and Doug Stanley for decades, having done a lot of work with them at Langley in the early nineties, and they’re both good guys, but Doug was in charge of the controversial ESAS activity that gave us Constellation (he had left Langley and gone to work at OSC, where he was working fairly closely with Mike Griffin). Whatever one wants to think about that effort, I would say that this one redeems him considerably. It also (as Jon notes) makes a very powerful statement about the earlier results and the need for heavy lift. Also, Doug was on record of opposing a lunar return, wanting to get on to Mars. I’m thinking that the de-emphasis on the moon in the new “Flexible Path” approach has freed him up somewhat (not to mention that he no longer has to please his former boss).

[Update a few minutes later]

I would add that there some very clueless comments at the NASA Watch post. Those commenting either didn’t actually read, or didn’t understand the briefing, if they still believe that HLV is more cost effective.

[Update a while later]

OK, I’m glancing through the briefing, and they don’t seem to be considering the fact that dry launching the in-space hardware will reduce its structural weight somewhat. Doing so will make the concept even better.

Also, Chart 31 is interesting — note the note: “These NAFCOM costs are a factor of 3 to 6 higher than actual costs for ISS Cygnus and Dragon DDT&E.”

NAFCOM is the NASA Air-Force Cost Model. I’ve been wanting to write a piece for a while now with the title, “The Cost Models Are Broken.” We’ve sort of known it since DC-X and the X-Prize, but SpaceX has really completely shattered them. This is actually good news, since parametric costing has been locking us into high costs on cost-plus contracts for decades.

More later as I continue to peruse.

[Update a while later]

Here’s the summary of the issues and benefits:

Issues

  • Authorization Act language

  • Requires longer storage of cryo propellants than alternatives and addition of zero-g transfer technologies
  • Multiple launches statistically will result in more launch failures, but most launches are to the depot and not on critical mission path
  • NASA loses some control/oversight
  • Added complexity of depot

Benefits

  • Tens of billions of dollars of cost savings and lower up-front costs to fit within budget profile (no HLLV-based options fit within budget)

  • Launch every 2 or 3 months rather than 1 every 18 months with HLLV
  • – Provides experienced and focused workforce to improve safety
  • – Operational learning for reduced costs and higher launch reliability.
  • Allows multiple competitors for propellant delivery
  • – Competition drives down costs
  • – Alternatives available if critical launch failure occurs
  • – Low-risk, hands-off way for international partners to contribute
  • Reduced critical path mission complexity (AR&Ds, events, number of unique elements)
  • Provides additional mission flexibility by altering propellant load
  • Commonality with commercial crew/COTS vehicles will allow sharing of fixed costs between programs and “right-sized” vehicle for ISS
  • Stimulate US commercial launch industry

They forgot the biggest issue — it doesn’t preserve the Shuttle Industrial Complex, particularly in Utah. Though they may be subtly alluding to that with their semi-cryptic “Authorization Language” bullet. As for the benefits, it’s almost like they read my essay.

7 thoughts on “How To Explore”

  1. “There are a lot of things that we could buy for that $2.5B per year that would have a lot more value.”

    If this report (or something like it) catches attention in Congress, I’m betting they just cut the NASA budget instead of re-routing savings to “more valuable things.”

    Not that doing so would be all bad. Simply killing off SLS and giving SpaceX a major boost would do wonders for the private space market, and move things in the right direction (even with reduced demand for services from NASA).

  2. Given the track record of overruns on just about all Air Force space projects, their cost model doesn’t work well for cost-plus contracts. Since private market development like that done by SpaceX is so rare, it isn’t hard to understand how the model fails to predict the cost of Falcon 9/Dragon development. It’s a radical departure in how space systems have been developed to date. It’d be like if a company spent its own money developing a next generation fighter plane* instead of milking the government for everything it’s worth like Lock-Mart has done with the F-22 and F-35.

    *The most recent example I can recall was Northrup’s F-20 back in the 1970s.

  3. Rand, I’m with you. This report needs to be pushed in the faces of all who think HLV=HSF. They need to be challenged on their statements with great vigor.

    I’m sending the best comments from you, Clark, and Jon to my reps as part of a letter imploring them to get involved.

  4. Larry,

    I think the fundamental problem with cost models are:

    1-People on the AF/NASA side actually believe them, so if you bid something for a cost-plus contract that’s too far below what their model says, your bid is likely to get rejected for low-balling. Basically they think you’re trying to lie to them to get into the contract in hopes of jacking up the price later.

    2-I’m guessing most of the contractors have access to NAFCOM or NAFCOM like models, so they know what the answer is “supposed” to be, and thus adjust their bids accordingly. Ie you want to be within a certain range, not too high, not too low, not too connected with what you think the process should actually cost.

    3-With cost-plus contracts, there’s very little incentive to say No to feature creep, and very little incentive to come in under budget. Which means that most projects will end up coming in over budget, even though the amount they proposed was targeted to a number that may have been higher than it necessarily needed to be. This money is going to legitimate sounding activities–more analysis, more tests, more “this specialist is worried about this bizarre corner case, so we need to twist our entire design to mitigate this 1/10,000 probability event”, etc.

    4-The new programs, which always come in higher than the old NAFCOM predictions get rolled into the NAFCOM model meaning that the new target that everyone is trying to shoot for is steadily increasing.

    There’s a very real chance you could create a mathematical simulation modeling how NAFCOM interacts with cost plus contracting, and my guess is that the steady rise in costs is a fundamental feature of the use of such parametric cost modeling–ie it is fundamentally a positive feedback loop.

    I wish I had the time to write the paper with you Rand, that would be fascinating. And disturbing at the same time.

    ~Jon

  5. Jonathon Goff wrote:

    1-People on the AF/NASA side actually believe them, so if you bid something for a cost-plus contract that’s too far below what their model says, your bid is likely to get rejected for low-balling. Basically they think you’re trying to lie to them to get into the contract in hopes of jacking up the price later.

    This is not just a theoretical problem. It actually does happen from time to time that a contractor will lose a contract for bidding too low. Sometimes even on fixed-price contracts.

    Sometimes it also happens within a big prime that if one group, say engineering, develops more realistic cost models that their contracts group will reject them and refuse to bid them. To save the company from having to cover the “inevitable” cost overrun, of course.

    Mike

  6. “It actually does happen from time to time that a contractor will lose a contract for bidding too low. Sometimes even on fixed-price contracts.”

    And there’s why flat-rate “buy” commitments without a contract would be useful.

    Following along with the depot plan outlined, there’s eight separate “fuel-only” missions. Figure out a rate at which someone (SpaceX) can do the job, commit to actually paying that much… but then do the payouts based on first-come, first serve. You open the door a smidge for either a ticked-off rival or an upstart to invest and aim for a slice of the $760 million-ish, and you simultaneously get the actual provider (SpaceX) to focus on meeting or vastly exceeding their timeline. Go too slow and money you’ve been regarding as ‘yours’ is gone.

  7. Instead of pricing 8 missions, you offer to pay X number of dollars per kilogram of propellant delivered to the depot. If one company can do the job with a series of small boosters requiring more flights, fine. If another company with a larger booster can deliver more propellant per flight, fine. You don’t pay for the launch but for services rendered, in this case, propellant delivered to the depot. That opens up the market to rival solutions and prevents being locked into a single company. Having multiple suppliers pretty much eliminates the problem of extended down time in the event of a launch failure by any one company. Having a customer for the launch services would make it easier for a new launch company to get financing. It would also open up new possibilities for solving the problem, such as reusable vehicles verses Big Dumb Boosters.

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