NASA’s Future

I just got an email on deep background from an employee of a NASA contractor:

NASAWatch linked to a story today that NASA has an exploration plan they intend to announce shortly. Here’s a possible starting point for this plan, based on tidbits that I’ve assembled. Think of it as a “tin foil hat” scenario.

The first piece that fell into place was at “Technology Day” at JSC. One of the exhibits was about using propellant depots as an enabler for exploration space missions. The booth was manned by the civil servant that was responsible for the depot study that was leaked earlier this year, where JSC Safety & Mission Assurance endorsed depots as a safe, reliable way to enable low cost access to space. In discussion with him, he said that the past NASA opposition to them was based on a view that you had to have an unbroken string of successful flights to the depot, thus lowering mission success. However, S&MA has proposed an “n of m” model, where the probability of success for a full depot can be higher than the probability that the vehicle to be fueled gets there. He elaborated on this to say they had even pitched this as a way to bootstrap the commercial launch providers by reserving up the deliveries to them. He said they had suggested that the “m” deliveries be divided up among the two cheapest two bidders, the cheapest getting more launches. By having two providers, you guard against a vehicle being grounded for an extended time, you just exercise an option with the other provider for more missions. He also said that NASA would only pay for successful deliveries. Finally, he said that HQ had been “receptive” to the pitch.

Second, this triggered a memory of some briefings I had seen on cryocoolers for cryogenic propellants. Remember that initially, Orion was supposed to have a Methane/Oxygen main engine, the better to support ISRU at the Moon and Mars, and has a 6 month loiter time in LLO. Obviously you need good cryocoolers for that. There were hints that there was a classified program that had an LH2 cryocooler that had been tested or even flown and would work for this. So, now you have the possibility of being able to store LH2 and LOX in a depot for a long time.

Third, at an Orion program review this past summer, [a high NASA official] asked if Orion could produce two vehicles per year. (The answer was yes, btw.) He also said that NASA HQ had an exploration mission plan worked out, but it wouldn’t be released until after the election so that it wouldn’t be a political football.

Let’s put this together:
- There is no way that NASA can afford two launches per year of SLS/Orion, they can barely afford the one every 4 years in the current plan.
- NASA HQ receptive to depots. Possible off-the-shelf cryocooler available.
- The Obama administration is very supportive of SpaceX and other commercial providers. Elon Musk has said that a couple of missions/year to ISS is not enough to keep them going.
- Recent public discussion of how there is no money for payloads on SLS due to the high cost.
- Leak of L-2 orbital base idea.

My tinfoil hat leads me to believe that NASA[HQ] wants to:
- Cancel SLS and launch Orion on Delta/Atlas/Falcon
- Divert the savings from SLS to propellant depots and mission equipment
- Launch the depot and missions on commercial heavy lift launchers
- Do some kind of deep space exploration mission

While MSFC will be enraged by SLS going away, give them the propellant depot, refueling mission management, and deep space upper stages and they have cutting edge R&D work to keep them busy. It also gives the NewSpace companies something to keep the assembly lines open, and gets NASA out of the trucking business. [My emphasis]

None of this would surprise me. Here is my response:

What you’re saying is that HQ is coming or has come to their senses (assuming that they’d ever believed in SLS), and that this may become administration policy. My concern is that the money coming from SLS won’t go to the depots but will instead just be the cut for the sequestration/budget deal. The flip side of that is that any money going to Marshall for depots will be down the usual rat hole anyway. What NASA should be doing for depots is tech demos (and if they want to give a sop to Shelby to allow them to waste billions, that’s fine), but the business model should be like COTS/CCDev: have private industry build/operate the depots, and NASA pays for propellant and storage.

BTW, the argument that a depot-based approach increased mission risk was always insane, and generally just FUD to defend HLV, unless promulgated by someone technically clueless. Such people will remain nameless, except one example has the initials of MW…

32 thoughts on “NASA’s Future

  1. Roga

    This isn’t anything new. This sounds a lot like what the Augustine recommendations would have been if they actually cut to what the budget will be under sequestration.

  2. ken anthony

    past NASA opposition to them was based on a view that you had to have an unbroken string of successful flights to the depot, thus lowering mission success.

    These are the smart guys?

    You start with orbiting a cislunar ship, getting experience with fuel transfer. This might be a private commercial venture and alone could be a profitable destination for tourists or support NASA moon missions lowering future costs. That creates a market for fuel delivery to orbit so you let the market bid on that. Then you build a LOX depot which spreads out that market for easier scheduling and opens up the possibility of mining the moon.

    1. Charles Lurio Post author

      [Note: This is an addendum from Charles Lurio, not your host. For some reason it won't allow me to change the post name from his to mine]

      Addendum – I just read the article referenced by the “contractor employee” source, by Mike Wall of MSNBC.

      Your source seems to be spinning castles of wishful thinking re dropping SLS in favor of depots. The Wall assumes use of SLS, Logsdon is quoted in this regard. It also talks about not “breaking the bank” to do this, and of starting the exploration program with the second flight of SLS.

      Despite the insane cost of SLS, they could indeed do something like this rather than the expansive scenario proposed by your informant. All they have to do is keep objectives limited but ‘new’ (i.e. L2 as mentioned in the article)…limited enough not to need to fly SLS much at all.

      The “newness” of going to L2 is how they will try to compensate for the ultraslow process of exploration that SLS dictates.

  3. gbaikie

    Sounds encouraging.
    But probably only see it, once SLS has more obviously failed.
    But good there is this back up.
    And SLS failure might occur sooner rather than later.

  4. K Lundermann

    [OT] By the way, what’s your sense at this point as to who’s going to be taking over Hall’s job on the House science & tech committee?

  5. Dave Salt

    I really do hope this isn’t being done to ‘spike’ the guns of any similar commercial venture.

    1. Thomas Matula

      Probably, because I know of at least one commercial firms looking at L2. NASA is probably just trying on dragging such efforts under its control with the promise of government money…

  6. Engineer in Houston

    Two questions:

    1) Will this open the door for a more permanent presence in space beyond LEO for all, or is this going to end up being another stunt – what Marburger referred to as a “litter of ritual monuments”?
    2) Where’s the budget plan for this, and could it be accomplished much more judiciously by soliciting launch services rather than continuing down the path of SLS – the bottleneck of launch frequency and economy.

  7. Mark R. Whittington

    I think your so-called Deep Throat is right. This is tin foil hat stuff. Mind, fuel depots (in time) combined with heavy lift would be a great idea. At least that is what my technically astute secret informants tell me. Mind, the cost problem is real, but the nine launches per asteroid mission and four per lunar mission scheme is just whacked and likely far more costly than the proponents pretend, even if it was even workable, which it isn’t.

    Thanks for the jibe, by the way. Rand’s use of the Dr. House style of argument (“because you’re an idiot’) says all there is to be said about the strength of his position.

    1. Karl Hallowell

      but the nine launches per asteroid mission and four per lunar mission scheme is just whacked and likely far more costly than the proponents pretend

      The rebuttal is Titan IV. This is an example of a rocket that didn’t even launch once a year. The DoD spent vast sums on it before giving up and going with the EELV program.

    2. Godzilla

      Remember the ACES orbital depot proposal? Even people in Lockheed Martin think depots are a good idea. The problem is purely political.

      FWIW I think it would be a good idea to fund development of RL-60 or something similar. RL-10 is nice but an ancient design and most launches need two of them. It would also make something like ACES cheaper.

    3. K Lundermann

      [N]ine launches per asteroid mission and four per lunar mission scheme is just whacked and likely far more costly than the proponents pretend, even if it was even workable, which it isn’t.

      Exactly. It would obviously be impossible, for example, to put an international space station into orbit using dozens of launches. Only heavy lift could make such a thing possible, let alone feasible.

  8. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

    He said they had suggested that the “m” deliveries be divided up among the two cheapest two bidders, the cheapest getting more launches.

    Why limit it to only two?

      1. Ed Minchau

        Because there are more than three providers. If you state there will be M launches, with the lowest bid getting 45%, second lowest 30%, and third lowest 25%, you have set up intense competition for the correct best price point.

  9. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

    As for cryocoolers, I recently reread an old Boeing paper on the ULA website which mentioned cryocoolers:

    The Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) – A Low-Cost, Low-Risk Approach to Space Exploration Launch

    I had forgotten all about this, but according to the paper there are operational cryocoolers (for helium) that could be used virtually unchanged. I would have thought that cryocoolers for LH2 would have to be very heavy, but apparently this is not the case. Or perhaps they are not counting the required radiators?

    I have no idea why the authors argued in favour of trying passive solutions first, I’m starting to wonder if it had to do with unknown and unspoken political constraints that have since been overtaken by events. But if all this is true, I see no reason, or at least much less reason, to avoid relying on use of transfer and storage of LOX/LH2.

    And if all this is true, I wonder what this talk about secret LH2 cryocoolers is all about. Why keep it a secret if it has flown on public missions?

    1. Tom D

      Passive thermal solutions are usually preferable on general principles alone: they require no power and can be used indefinitely. However, the main reason I’d try it first is that you will need the most effective insulation and low-conductivity structure that you can afford even with active cryocooling. Liquid hydrogen must be kept very, very cold. The smaller the heat leak into the tank the better.

      1. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

        Sure, but the article states the cryocooler would need relatively little power anyway. I’m trying to figure out what the catch is. They don’t appear to be saying they need enormous amounts of insulation first. There must be a catch, or they’d already be doing it, wouldn’t they?

  10. Googaw

    My concern is that the money coming from SLS won’t go to the depots but will instead just be the cut for the sequestration/budget deal.

    For a more peaceful life I suggest not being concerned about the inevitable. If SLS is canceled, it’s astronomically unlikely that they’ll turn around and do a new start on this sci-fi “infrastructure”. The notorious “bridge to nowhere” had at least a few people and businesses it could serve, and bridges are actually known from experience to be useful. These cryo-depots have no users, only vacuum populated by nothing except even more far-fetched fantasies with even less prospect of funding.

    At best you’ve provided a nifty sci-fi story by which they can cancel SLS and yet convince astronaut fans that “we’re still going to Mars”, just some time conviently beyond the budget horizon. That’s the dirty little secret that the politicians are learning: to satisfy astronaut fans, you don’t need to fund actual expensive engineering. You just need to spin sci-fi stories in PowerPoint. Sci-fi authors come really cheap.

  11. Vladislaw

    I prefer that the fuel station buys from any supply they chose. Like on earth you are constantly buying fuels at the wholesale level at different prices, you sell it to the end consumer at an average price.

    NASA does not have to involved with launch providers .. at all. That is the fuel stations responsiblity. NASA just contracts bulk orders from the station.

    We need gas n’ go space based vehicles. it doesn’t matter where the hell they go. Run them to GEO to space platforms for mounting experiments .. whatever. All NASA has to do in the near term is burn gas. The more the better to jack up flight rates. They can test fly a Nautilus – X prototype and test closed loop life support and we won’t get bogged down with talks of bases. The ship is the station.

    1. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

      I prefer that the fuel station buys from any supply they chose.

      Exactly. They could use some sort of reverse auction scheme, or propellant futures trading, just as is done with oil contracts.

      All NASA has to do in the near term is burn gas. The more the better to jack up flight rates. They can test fly a Nautilus – X prototype and test closed loop life support and we won’t get bogged down with talks of bases. The ship is the station.

      Exactly.

  12. Vladislaw

    When settling the western frontier, people have to understand, that a frontier is the outlaying edge of where you exercise property rights. If you were exploring the frontier and drifted into canada, you were not exploring the frontier, you were exploring Canada. Same with Mexico. The frontier refered to land controled by the government.

    Today there is really only two terrestial frontiers. Antartica, which is a universal frontier with limited sovergn rights and the ocean floor which is still being disputed.

    With space, the frontier only extends to GEO. There is sovergn rights for space, governments control slots and you can own “real estate” with property rights out to GEO and that is where the bulk of our assets are. The moon and mars is not our frontier.

    If you kick Apollo out of the mix as a one shot “flyer” then 230,000 miles would no longer be the benchmark for human spaceflight and traveling 30,000 miles or the equivalent of ten United States it would seem like quite a trip.

    We can not travel 200 miles on a regular basis so the idea of just trying to do pop and drops to LEO and LEO2GEO until it is routine would be something to try and achieve. You get to test and mature technologies close to home. It burns gas, creates traffic to a fixed point, (think railroad – outposts) increases the flight rate and competition and turn around times would be a lot easier.

    I would like to see NASA as an anchor tenant for something like that. The ISS cost 100 billion and we can barely service it? A base or fixed station anyplace else would be how much more? Would it be more practical to let ships have a dual function, transportation and act as the station at the destination point? I do not believe we can afford both or get bogged down in another gravity well.

    Or would this be just another unaffordable option?

  13. ken anthony

    I would like to see NASA as an anchor tenant for something like that.

    Would NASA buy from a private LOX depot in LEO? If someone builds it will they come? With FH, anything to LEO has a base cost of about $2m/ton. What would NASA be willing to pay to fill a half empty departure stage?

    1. Vladislaw

      That is why I predicated it on NASA acting as the anchor. If they would build space based, like a Nautilus X, rather than ground based like the Orion they will need fuel regardless. Does the fuel get supplied on the ground based commercial model, that NASA currently uses to get fuel or does all the fuel get supplied through NASA launches of the SLS?

      Either way, if NASA does move to a space based vehicle it will need regular fuel delivery and we already know what the pork premium is that we have to add for NASA supplied transportation, the shuttle and the ISS and hardware projects in the past like the James Webb or Ares i if they do the depot.

      The atmosphere around congress for getting funding for NASA versus getting the same thing through commercial procurement for NASA looks a little bit better. I believe sequestration is going to make it even easier to do SAA’s for COTS Depot or COTS L2 … I can hope it is easier anyway.

      That tenfold pork preimum has to be delt with sooner or later.

  14. pathfinder_01

    Sadly I think this will remain a tin foil scenario.
    The incoming congress has not been seated and the outgoing one from what Boehner said about equestrian does not want to tie the incoming one down (i.e. He is willing to work on broad outlines, not specifics).
    I would love for your scenario to be true, but I think too many people will fight back and thus the SLS program is likely to cause much more damage.

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