A Static Analysis

Paul Spudis says that propellant depots are a necessary but not sufficient condition for opening up the solar system.

Well, in the long run, sure. But as Clark Lindsey notes, in the short term, I think that a dollar spent on reducing launch costs will have a lot higher ROI than a dollar spent on getting propellant from the moon. That’s just the harsh economic reality, largely because reducing launch costs is a very low-hanging fruit, given how ridiculously and unnecessarily high they currently are. Elon has already started to show the way, and fully reusable space transports that develop out of the suborbital and other markets will accelerate the process. Once we solve that problem (and it won’t take that long, once we get serious about it, which will start when the markets flower), then ISRU will start to look a lot more attractive, because doing it will be a lot cheaper as well.

Obama The Muslim

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I don’t think that Donald Trump thinks that Obama is a Muslim. What he said (which which I agree) is that there is something on his birth certificate that he doesn’t want us to see, and that it might be that it says he’s a Muslim (I think it might also, or instead be that Barack Hussein Obama isn’t listed as the father Who knows, unless we can see it?). That doesn’t make him one, though. As I’ve said before, in order to be a Muslim (or a Christian) you have to believe in something greater than yourself. I’ve never seen any evidence that Barack Obama does so.

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:


  • 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


  • 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.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!

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