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« The Truth Trickles Out | Main | Signal To Noise Ratio »

Counting The Swimmers

NASA is scrounging parts for the Shuttle on E-bay.

That is a consequence of our nation's fundamentally-flawed space policy for the past thirty years. And there is nothing in the current plans that will change it.

NASA has trouble finding spares for the Shuttle for the same reason that Shuttle is so expensive to operate--because they just barely use it.

Boeing maintains a healthy array of subcontractors to support their aircraft fleet because they sell many hundreds of them, and their customers fly them many thousands of times per year. NASA flies four Orbiters a half dozen times a year (total, not per vehicle)--in a good year.

In order to keep their subcontractors alive to build parts that are either unique to the Space Shuttle, or are obsolete, but still used on the Space Shuttle (like 8086 computer processors used in the original IBM PC in 1981), it would cost NASA many more millions of dollars per year beyond the emperor's ransom that they are already spending, and the cost per 8086 chip would be hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars per processor. Given their situation and minimal activity, it makes sense to simply find the parts used on the Internet, buy them at the bid price, and keep the system limping along.

And based on their ostensible plans for the "Shuttle replacement" from the Space Launch Initiative program, the future will be no better.

The requirements (as estimated under contract to NASA) for "the new launch system" (note that it's singular, not plural, just as the disastrous Shuttle decision was) seem to be based on (as usual) the existing market, with linear projections. They basically describe the current geostationary communications satellite market, linearly extrapolated out many years. There has been no other market data put forth (at least publically, as would be expected of a civilian government agency) as guidance to NASA's notion of the future need for launch vehicles.

The implications of this are that the new launch vehicle (singular) must be capable of delivering twenty thousand+ pounds to geostationary orbit, which means at least twice that to low earth orbit, to account for the stage and propellant to deliver it the rest of the way (i.e., it must have performance similar to the Shuttle).

In addition, since there is no market other than this and the space station market (a few Shuttle-class flights a year), and there is a limit to the GEO market due to bandwidth and slot limitations, the market for a new vehicle is...the market for the existing Shuttle, with a few more flights for the commercial launches that it must steal from the commercial launch market, and it must be sized to satisfy both those markets.

That means that the new "vehicle" (not vehicles--sorry to keep hammering the point, but I have no alternative) must be oversized like the Shuttle, and underflown like the Shuttle. And thus the Shuttle, because it will have too little activity to amortize its annual operating costs (like the Shuttle), let alone its development costs.

What's the point? Other than, that is, to continue full employment in northern Alabama, and the locales in which the contractors live?

It's been said that, had the builders of the Golden Gate Bridge based the demand for it on the number of swimmers between San Francisco and Marin County, it would have never been built. But that is the official position of NASA and its contractors for SLI. The market is a straight-line projection of the existing market, and no unforeseen markets shall be considered.

Such a projection ignores the following (likely) possibilities that might result from lower-cost access:

  • a vast increase in public space passenger travel;
  • routine servicing of low-orbit satellites and platforms
  • a huge increase in the number of flights
  • the potential for on-orbit assembly and fueling of stages to GEO and points beyond.

A vehicle that is designed for a market that requires forty thousand pounds to low earth orbit in a single launch will be unlikely to take advantage of these markets, because it will cost too much to develop, and it will have too few flights to amortize its development or operational costs, thus increasing its per-flight costs beyond what will be possible to generate those new markets. The underlying theme is that NASA wants a (single) Shuttle replacement that can do exactly what the Shuttle does, ignoring the fact that there may be alternate, and superior, ways of achieving NASA's true needs. The geostationary satellite market serves as a surrogate for the real agenda, allowing them to maintain the facade that it will be a "commercial" system, though this market is already more-than-adequately satisfied by the existing launchers.

Until NASA accepts that we need a new commercial space transportation industry, rather than a new launch vehicle, and that they cannot and should not attempt to predict what the markets and uses for it will be, we will remain mired in the same central-planning muck--the same five, and ten-year plans, that has been impeding our progress in space since the beginning of the Cold War.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 14, 2002 11:31 PM
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Very good article. Lots of points I'd
never thought about. One thought that
was stirred up:

In one respect the shuttle needs government LESS than any other form of transportation, simply because (after launch) it travels in an open frontier and thus has no need of traffic signals, cloverleafs, holding patterns, speed limits, drawbridges, navigation beacons.... In short, the various methods and devices of controlling or facilitating transportation, which are properly the role of government, do not exist
in the shuttle's "highways".

Posted by ockham at May 15, 2002 06:49 AM

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