Cost Estimates

I agree with Bob Zubrin that the numbers coming out of Aerospace on development costs are highly suspect:

Following retirement of the Shuttle, Aerospace’s cost estimates have ground operations cost triple to $900 million by 2012, and then continue to rise to $1.8 billion by 2022. This sixfold rise in ground operations cost would be difficult to explain in any case, but in the absurdity of this instance is outstanding since during the entire ten year 2012-2022 period in question, there are NO heavy lift flights at all for the ground operations to support. In other words, the Aerospace Corp’s estimates have NASA’s ground operations costs rising sixfold over Shuttle flight support requirements, spending $15 billion over ten years, in order to launch nothing.

Rather than basing their projections on actual grounded estimates of development costs for different types of hardware, what the Aerospace Corporation appears to have done is to regard each program element as an “activity” which each need to be funded continuously at multi-billion levels per year. The program is then arranged so that no flights beyond LEO can take place before around 2023. So, with a budget of about $3 billion per year (equivalent to 30,000 employees on payroll) the Ares 5 development program is allowed to run for 12 years, bringing development costs to the spectacular $36 billion level. Why, in this day an age, a launch vehicle development program needs to run 12 years (or require 30,000 people) is left unexplained. In contrast, the Saturn V development, done at a time when much more still needed to be learned about launch systems, took only 4 years to complete (Contract awarded in 1962, first flight in 1966.) Summing up all such activities the net result is a program which costs $14 to $20 billion per year (140,000 to 200,000 employees) and which does nothing at all for a decade.

I disagree with this, though:

Americans want and deserve a space program that is actually going somewhere. In order for that to happen, a radically different methodology to that being accepted by Augustine Committee needs to be employed. Rather, a real goal, worthy of spending serious money on, if necessary, needs to be selected. That goal can only be humans to Mars. Then a minimum cost, minimum complexity, and, critically, fastest schedule plan needs to be selected to achieve that goal. In order to minimize schedule and cost, such a plan should avoid advanced propulsion, on-orbit assembly, or other futuristic ideas, and instead get the job done in the manner of the Mars Direct and Semi-Direct missions by employing a strategy of direct transportation to Mars of required payloads using an upper stage mounted on the heavy lift launcher.

I don’t agree that the goal “can only be humans on Mars,” at least as the focus for the program, though it may be a useful long-term ultimate one, as the Augustine panel has stated. And the notion that on-orbit assembly is a “futuristic technology” is quite amusing, seeing that we’ve been doing it with ISS for over a decade.

[Update late afternoon]

There are a lot of good comments by “Red” over at Space Transport News. Also, I would add that while I consider the numbers suspect, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Aerospace or its methodology so much as the NASA inputs and assumptions.

Only Forty Years Left For The Planet

Because they aren’t taking our advice to not shout:

Great. So if there is an advanced civilization on Gliese 581d, the very first communication it’ll get from us will be a two-hour long text spam attack. How, exactly, is several billion variations of “u r teh suxxors rofl” and “OMG ur my new BFF aliens!!11!!!” supposed to convince an alien planet that we’re actually intelligent. More importantly, how will this convince them that we’re actually good neighbors?

Seriously, why should they be allowed to put the entire planet at risk like this? Listening is one thing, but deliberately broadcasting (or even, as in this case, narrowcasting) our presence doesn’t seem very smart to me.

America’s Chamberlain?

Has President Obama already sold out eastern Europe to the Russians?

Ellison thinks that “Obama’s people believe that many global problems will be more easily solved together with Moscow.” In particular, nuclear disarmament. Ellison says that Obama will “sacrifice a lot” to get it. You know, the way Czechoslovakia was “sacrificed” to a certain mustachioed German house painter several decades ago.

Is Barack Obama going to become America’s Chamberlain? Is he going to ignore the horrific spate of obviously political murders the Kremlin has been committing ever since Putin arrived? The invasion of Georgia? The relentless anti-American rhetoric? The nuclear bombers buzzing Alaska with metronomic regularity?

Is he going to eliminate nuclear deterrence in Europe and leave its eastern regions helplessly vulnerable to Russian tanks, just as Georgia was left vulnerable?

It seems so. As blindly as Chamberlain, Obama appears to believe that our foes can be appeased into becoming friends and that we can rightly sacrifice smaller nations to our noble vision.

I wonder if people thought they were voting for this last fall?

A Brief History

…of NASA’s resistance to commercial competition, in a comment (number 31) over at Space Politics by Al Fansome:

For the last 25 years, NASA has had to be brought KICKING & SCREAMING every step of the way — into a partnership with commercial industry. It has been resisted by the NASA iron triangle (NASA + contractors + Center politicians).

* The DOT was given the legal authority by Congress in the 1980s to regulate commercial space transportation over the objections of the traditional status quo space powers.

* Commercial payloads were taken off of the Shuttle after Challenger by the Reagan Administration over the active opposition of the then NASA Administrator (Fletcher).

* The Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990 — which was the first law mandating that NASA buy commercial space transportation services — was passed by Congress over the objections of NASA.

* Instead of partnering with the American Rocket Company in the late 1980s, NASA MSFC created a competing hybrid rocket R&D program in an attempt to put AMROC out of business. (They succeeded.)

* The Congress passed the Commercial Space Act of 1998 that mandated that NASA should purchase ISS cargo resupply services. NASA resisted that mandate for 6 years — until Columbia happened and the Bush Administration created the Commercial/Crew Cargo services budget as part of the VSE in 2004. In December 2008, over 10 years after CSA98 passed, NASA finally signed an ISS cargo services delivery contract.

* NASA is still resisting doing commercial crew — which was part of the original official VSE plan (it was the CREW/cargo services program in the VSE). It has taken a national commission of space experts — reporting to the White House — to unequivocably recommend (its in all the options) that NASA institute a commercial crew (instead of Ares 1).

* NASA could have instituted “propellant depots” as part of the national strategy years ago. Why were propellant depots so obvious to the Augustine Commission as a key enable for our national goals in space, but ignored by the traditional NASA bureaucracy?

It is not because the NASA bureaucracy is dumb. I assert the reason is that creating a depot based architecture is not in the “bureaucratic interest” of NASA, as it outsources a large portion of the supply chain for exploration to commercial providers.

Prediction — NASA will resist creating propellant depots to the extent it is given the means to do so.

I think it’s a safe prediction. Those means have to be restricted. Though at least, this time, I think that we have top NASA administration on the right side.

[Early afternoon update]

He left out the saga of the Industrial Space Facility.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!