And how much should it cost? Over at my Pajamas Media piece this weekend, frequent TTM commenter “bbbeard” comments:
SpaceX has a launch record of 3 complete failures and two successes. What is disturbing about the SpaceX failures is that they hinged on relatively major oversights. Take the Demo2 flight, for example. SpaceX’s post-flight analysis showed that incorrect propellant utilization parameters were uploaded into the engine computer, a textbook case of sloppy configuration control. There was a recontact during staging, which initiated a slosh event — that was not mitigated because the LOX tank had no baffles. These are the kind of rookie mistakes that get you labeled as a “hobbyist”. It will take more than two successful flights to show that Elon Musk’s company has outgrown its hobbyist mentality and is ready to tackle human spaceflight.
Safety is the elephant in the foyer that you have not addressed. STS has suffered two launch failures in 132 missions (counting Columbia’s foam strike as a launch failure) — and what no one in NewSpace seems able to admit is that that loss rate is unacceptable. You can deny all you want that NASA is up to the job of designing a vehicle significantly safer than STS, but it is a fact that Ares is being designed to tough and unprecedented requirements for loss of crew rates — and Atlas and Delta never were. You claim Atlas has an “unbroken string of many dozens of successful flights” but by my count only 20 of the 21 flights of Atlas V have been successful — and that is an unacceptable loss rate. Only 2 out 3 Delta IV-Heavy flights have been successful — and that is an unacceptable loss rate.
Unlike SpaceX, the engineers at Boeing and Lockheed are the best in the business. But they were never directed to make Atlas and Delta reliable enough for human spaceflight. Using those platforms as human launch vehicles would be a step backward from STS safety levels, which are already unacceptably high.
What your argument boils down to is that you, Rand Simberg, think that the extra reliability that Ares aspires to is not worth the price tag. You may be right, you may be wrong. But why won’t you explain that that is your argument, instead of simplistically blaming NASA for poor cost control?
Man, there’s a lot to unpack there. I don’t know if I have time to deal with it right now, but let me at least lay out the issues. One is what an “acceptable” level of safety is (particularly relative to the reliability required to deliver a satellite worth a billion dollars). Another is how it is achieved. A third is how much it should cost to do so. A fourth is how much someone who had pretty much the same experience as other “professionals” in developing rockets for the first time can be said to be a “hobbyist.” (I would note as an aside that I don’t intrinsically accept “hobbyist” and “amateur” as pejoratives vis a vis “professionals” — many amateurs and hobbyists can be better than professionals — they just don’t choose to do it for a living. Space historian Henry Spencer comes to mind. I don’t think that there is anyone on the planet who is more familiar with both space history and space technology than Henry, but it’s not his day job.)
Anyway, I’m trying to figure out how to earn a living myself, so have at it in comments for now. I may weigh in later.