Stephen Metschan emails, per my recent piece in The New Atlantis:
I agreed with much of what you wrote especially with the lead up to how we got to where we are today. In fact even key elements of what you wrote as solutions to going further are actually part of the DIRECT plan which goes far far beyond the Jupiter Launch System which is just a one component of that plan. One day I wish you would at least publicly acknowledge this. In fact the CE&R were very informative in help us come up with a good compromise between the two extremes of Ares or an exclusive existing EELV approach. Also for the record we are no longer anonymous to the Commission as I promised them. In fact Leroy’s question of who are we was a call to arms. To suffice to say what they found will result in some significant changes shortly to NASA middle management.
You continue to have three key blind spots in three very different areas of physics, politics and experience.
Starting with physics. Whether we like it or not the rocket equation governs our current reality. In addition, RLV will always have higher mass fraction than ELV. As Carl Sagan once said “The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition”. Changing who the government writes the checks to won’t change physics or the golden rule. Further the dynamics of how young, efficient yet inexperienced organizations turn into old, inefficient yet experienced organizations, given enough time and money, won’t change either. While the last one is not strictly physics its durability across human organizational history is almost an axiom of the human condition which in turn mirrors the life cycle of individuals only on longer time scale.
Politics, you almost got it with the statement of the Iron Triangle but you failed to weave that into a broader understanding of solution that works. Politics is the art of the possible. As long as the space services customer base is dominate by government, elected representatives of the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill will have a dominate influence. Until something ‘like’ Lunar He3 comes along (ie this particular idea may never be possible) the space industry will be dominated by government, the market niche of joy rides for millionaires not withstanding. For now telling the likes of Senator Shelby that your plan is to shut down MSFC is like taking grocery bag to a tank fight. In addition, the Jupiter launch system is not just slightly better than Ares but is less than half the cost (development, operational and fixed). The fact that our plan saves so much money has actually been the problem with the Senator from Alabama. Any guess on how well a plan that destroys NASA as we know it would be received? In addition our fixed cost (ie no launches) is less than 20% of the Human Space Flight budget, well below Ares and an improvement over STS. At launch rates that far exceed our mission budget that percentage number barely moves while the cost per kg to orbit drops below $4,000. The biggest problem we have is that the incremental cost per launch is even lower than this already extremely competitive full amortized cost thereby make any conceivable ELV or RLV approach based on existing physics by any nation or organizational paradigm ‘more’ expensive not less. So your cost argument is completely backwards. In a Jupiter world the government will need to subsidize the ‘commerical’ market not the other way around by paying much more to launch the same payload via multiple smaller launchers than the incrementally cost of what one more Jupiter launch would entail.. Besides their is no absolutely no reason why the Jupiter couldn’t be designed, built and operated by a ‘commercial’ industry consortium or FFRDC for the matter. Again I see little difference between the commercial companies of USA, ULA, SpaceX, Rent-A-RLV, etc. They all are ‘commercial’ companies of one size or another yet the golden rule will still hold sway. Bottomline: lets not throw out the high volume heavy launch infrastructure and workforce out with the NASA management bath water.
Concerning Experience. You also continue to neglect for some reason the fact that launch cost is only 20% of the overall mission cost. As such even if a time machine delivered a device, that for some mysterious reason would only work on Earth, which could place any mass you wanted into Earth Orbit using Duracell battery you would only lower the cost of space exploration and development by 20%. On the other hand we have lots and lots of cost date from real programs that prove that attempting to pack 10kg of spacecraft into a 5kg box increases costs many times that of the actually launch cost think JSWT and MSL. Further even in an EELV paradigm the ISS would still cost more, have less capability and weigh more than Skylab which the Jupiter could put up in one launch. I for one much prefer Skylab over the ISS rabbit warren for trips Beyond LEO.
So in summary I agree with a lot of what you wrote by the ‘close’ on some of your key recommendations only make sense if you ignore physics, politics and experience.
I don’t have time to respond at length, but briefly, there is no correlation between mass fraction and launch costs of which I’m aware. If there is one, it’s certainly second order, relative to flight rate and whether or not you throw hardware away. So I (as always, as I did in a previous piece in The New Atlantis) summarily reject the flawed and false argumentum ab physics.
As for the politics, while closing down MSFC might or might not be a good idea, I do in fact recognize that it is politically unrealistic. I don’t, however, think it politically unrealistic to apply that resource to something useful, that actually advances us beyond LEO, rather than building Yet Another Launch System. For instance, propellant depot development should in theory be in their wheelhouse. Having them do it wouldn’t necessarily be the most effective way to get it done, but it may be the kind of political compromise necessary to at least get the agency to start doing the right thing, if not doing the thing right.
I also recognize that cost of launch is (currently) a small fraction of total mission cost. What I don’t recognize is that this is an iron law of aerospace, rather than an artifact of the way we’ve been doing space for the past five decades. And in fact, for a propellant delivery, the cost of launch dominates, and the vast majority of mass that has to be delivered to LEO (at least until we start to utilize extraterrestrial resources) for extraterrestrial missions is propellant. Also, I share the enthusiasm for Skylab over ISS, in terms of volume, but one can get volume without a heavy-lift vehicle. Just ask Bob Bigelow.
So I plead innocent to all three charges.
[Thursday morning update]
Clark Lindsey has a response to Stephen’s thesis.