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« More Giggle Factor Reduction | Main | Not Sauce For The Gander »

The Dinosaur Empire Strikes Back?

In a decision that left Boeing's once-mighty but now flailing manned spaceflight business reeling, Lockheed Martin has also thrown the so-called "NewSpace" community (those private ventures started up to dramatically reduce the costs, while increasing the reliability and frequency, of access to space) into a state of confusion, with its announcement a couple weeks ago of plans to investigate rating its Atlas V launcher to transport humans to orbit. To the consternation of some, this was announced in a joint press conference with Bob Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace, in which he declared his intention to launch a small "space hotel" capable of three people by the end of the decade, with an expansion to nine guests within three years after that. Bigelow has always been considered a member of the new guard, and the move left many scratching their heads.

NASA is no doubt concerned (and some of its personnel perhaps infuriated) about Lockheed Martin's announcement. They are currently trying to justify the development of a new launch system, partially based on Shuttle hardware, for their new Orion lunar exploration spacecraft, the contract for which was awarded to Lockheed Martin only three weeks ago. Part of the justification for that new launcher was that it would be "safe, simple and soon," and that the existing expendable launch vehicles available from Lockheed Martin and Boeing would cost too much to "human rate" for the new crew system. Lockheed Martin's claims are potentially a body blow to this argument. After all, if Lockheed Martin is contemplating doing this with their own money for commercial purposes, it's hard to imagine that it costs the several billion dollars that it would have to in order to justify spending that amount on a whole new launcher. NASA will no doubt continue to argue that the Atlas doesn't have the necessary performance for the job, but Atlas performance improvements could probably also be included in the human rating process. NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Associate Administrator Scott Horowitz (whose former employer, ATK, is lined up to build the new vehicle) can't be pleased.

Why would Lockheed Martin take this action, sure to anger one of its biggest customers, so soon over the Orion award that many viewed as a surprise, when it toppled the expected winner and incumbent human spaceflight contractor, Boeing? One theory is that it is finally starting to take the new commercial space age seriously (something that Boeing, at least so far, seems to continue to fail to do), and are willing to risk NASA's wrath to take advantage of this new future market. Both they and Boeing had to dramatically increase their prices a few years ago when much of the anticipated market for the the new Atlas and Delta, whose development was heavily subsidized by the Air Force, failed to materialize, and there were too few missions to effectively amortize their fixed operational costs over each flight. So one consideration could be that they hope to increase their flight rate for the vehicle by finding new customers, which could reduce their per-flight costs considerably, providing some margin for future price reductions.

This is possible, but it seems improbable, given the company's historical aversion to either commercial space or investing its own bottom-line money in space. In order to determine whether or not it's true, we'll have to see a lot more than a press announcement over the next few months and years. There was, after all, no commitment to do anything except perform some studies of what might be needed technically, along with some business cases. If they actually start spending their own money to make the needed modifications to the vehicle, then this will look like a more tenable interpretation.

Was it instead a PR move to draw more support from potential users in the NewSpace community? Or a feint to somehow keep Boeing off its game? At this point, those outside the company's executive suites can only speculate, barring additional data.

Equally, or perhaps even more interesting, is Bigelow's motivation for this new arrangement. He had been long viewed as an informal partner and supporter of Paypal founder Elon Musk's new Space Exploration (SpaceX) company, which promises much lower launch costs than any of the existing American providers. He reportedly has contracts in place to use the company's Falcon launchers, upon achievement of operational capability, to launch his hotel prototypes, and the company planned to develop a crew module as well as part of its recent contract award with NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program, to help provision the International Space Station after the Shuttle is retired in 2010.

But SpaceX's projected schedule continues to slip. Their first delayed launch attempt of their initial small Falcon 1 vehicle early last spring resulted in a launch failure shortly after leaving the pad in Kwajalein, and the months since have been spent in fixing the problem that caused it, as well as other potential issues. Their next attempt is scheduled for late November. Perhaps Bigelow, a shrewd businessman, is simply hedging his bets. Or he may be spurring competition among his potential providers. Either way, it would seem to indicate at least a reduction, if not a loss, of faith in the ability of SpaceX to deliver on Bigelow's part.

Some in the NewSpace community have expressed concern that the Lockheed Martin announcement could bode ill for the COTS program, by indicating that the company will have the capability to do the job without the need for NASA to invest in the two contractors. But like Bigelow, Mike Griffin was using the COTS program to hedge his own bets that NASA will be able to develop the new systems planned to get the agency out of low earth orbit, in the hope that a fledgling industry could perhaps pick up that slack, and this announcement would seem to do nothing to change his need to do that--he can't rely on Lockheed Martin either (particularly when they haven't yet actually taken any concrete action). For those concerned that this move could put that company in a position to take all the market of the NewSpace industry, this would seem to indicate little faith in that industry. The premise, after all, is that the "mammals" of NewSpace can do it cheaper and better than the old "dinosaurs" of old space. Lockheed is not developing a new vehicle, after all. It is still the expensive Atlas, and any modifications needed to allow it to carry humans can only make it more so. Increasing its flight rate will allow price reductions, but there is a floor on the price set by the marginal costs of throwing an expensive launch vehicle away with every flight (unless Lockheed is willing to operate at a severe loss to grab the market--something that it has never done before). Both SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, the two COTS awardees, with partially and fully reusable vehicles, respectively, should in theory have much lower marginal costs than the Atlas, since they don't throw their vehicles away. If this turns out not to be the case, then the promise of NewSpace was a false one, and they don't deserve the business anyway.

Either way, the future of human spaceflight just got more interesting in the near term, because regardless of whether Lockheed Martin is serious or not, Bob Bigelow has demonstrated himself to be. He is following the dictum of the movie, Field of Dreams, in the hope and expectation that if he builds it, they will come. With the latest private space adventurer docking to the only existing space hotel, the ISS, just a few hours before his announcement, it's looking like an increasingly good bet.

Posted by Rand Simberg at October 05, 2006 10:34 AM
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Given that Atlas rockets boosted the first Americans into orbit, shouldn't that system be "grandfathered in" to man-rated status?

If it was good enough for John Glenn it should be good enough for anyone.

Cambias

Posted by Cambias at October 5, 2006 11:36 AM

Given that Atlas rockets boosted the first Americans into orbit, shouldn't that system be "grandfathered in" to man-rated status?

You're kidding, right?

Given that Boeing jets have flown people for decades, do you think the FAA should "grandfather in" the 787 and automatically approve it for commercial flight?

I'll also note that John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury astronauts were essentially test pilots and would routinely participate in activities that most normal people would consider far too risky. If I recall correctly, 2 of the 5 pre-Glenn Mercury-Atlas rockets were destroyed during their launches. That's not what I would call 'man-rated', or 'good enough for anyone'.

Posted by Stephen Kohls at October 5, 2006 12:06 PM

Rand:

Do you really think their is a such thing as "NASA's wrath" in this situation? In what manner can one determine if anyone at NASA has or will get pissed off at LockMart for this? Isn't it just conjecture? It seems like most of the time NASA decision makers are just painfully oblivious to alternatives.

Posted by John Kavanagh at October 5, 2006 12:48 PM

John is right. NASA is likely either indifferent or perhaps even secretly pleased, since two launchers capable of lofting an Orion (provided a man rated Atlas V can do that) would add some flexibilty.

Posted by Mark R Whittington at October 5, 2006 12:59 PM

What I find most interesting is the idea that Bigelow may have lost confidence in SpaceX. Not saying that I agree or disagree with that premise, but I did find it quite odd that Bigelow made the deal that he did with LockMart.

If Bigelow has had some loss of confidence with respect to SpaceX I imagine it must be based on more that just the failed launch. I would suspect such lack of confidence would only come if he were dissatisfied with something hes learned since; for example dissatisfaction with how SpaceX is going about fixing the Falcon I problems.

Of course this is all conjecture, but interesting (to me at least) nonetheless.

Posted by Cecil Trotter at October 5, 2006 01:00 PM

NASA is likely either indifferent or perhaps even secretly pleased, since two launchers capable of lofting an Orion (provided a man rated Atlas V can do that) would add some flexibilty.

Yes. Of course. Mike Griffin and Scott Horowitz are entirely indifferent to the fact that Lockmart just cut the legs from a major justification for The Shaft.

Posted by Rand Simberg at October 5, 2006 01:33 PM

Exceot, Rand, Lockmart did no such thing. As you wrote yourself, all Lockmart pledged to do was to study the possibility of a man rated Atlas V, not actually build one. No, if Lockmart were to build one, would it be guarunteed to be capable of lofting an fully loaded Orion into leo. Nor, were they were to build an Orion capable Atlas V would it " cut the legs from a major justification for The Shaft." Indeed, one of the critisms I've been hearing about the Ares 1 is that it provides only one way of launching an Orion. If a commercially built Orion capable Atlas V becomes reality, then that criticism goes away.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at October 5, 2006 02:00 PM

Bigelow has always been considered a member of the new guard, and the move left many scratching their heads.

It seems reasonable to me; Bigelow is in business, not here to support an ideology.

You can dream, sure, but you gotta keep your eye on the bottom line. There is money to be made here, letting ideology get in the way is a Bad Idea - down that path lies Bankruptcy.

And so? Capitalism (hello, Gordon Gekko) works by incentive. If it can be done then incentives to make money will see it done. Not neatly but it will serve it's purpose.

Just my opinion.

Posted by Brian at October 5, 2006 02:55 PM

I don't think a search for hidden subtleties of motivation is required here.

Bigelow has a program and a schedule to which he has, thus far, been able to stick. His current launch provider is adequate for his sub-scale prototypes, but can't handle the heft of the full-size article. He must, perforce, look elsewhere for his now well-defined mid-term future launch service needs.

SpaceX, whatever its eventual ability to deliver on its considerable promise might be, is - right now - quite a speculative play. To this point they have been unable to "back their brag" as the saying goes.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. Bigelow is, quite sensibly, auditioning other "bands" for his upcoming shindigs in orbit. It simply makes good sense to start with a group that has, so to speak, actually managed to show up and play a gig at least once.

The fact that LockMart is willing to publicly announce its interest in "auditioning" for Bigelow's gig is just the largest, even if, in light of the Neiman-Marcus catalog listing, not the latest, piece of evidence that the "giggle factor" about non-governmental space ativity is, at best, on life support in a permanent vegetative state.

Multiple players with serious money and track records are jockeying for position. Anyone still giggling simply isn't paying attention.

Posted by Dick Eagleson at October 5, 2006 03:15 PM

Chiming in with more non-surprise at Bigelow's decision. It seems like a pretty fundamental business ploy: play your suppliers off against each other. Keeps them on their toes to beat the other guys on price, performance and schedule. I think it's a fine idea.

Posted by Patrick at October 5, 2006 04:38 PM

> Given that Boeing jets have flown people for
> decades, do you think the FAA should
> "grandfather in" the 787 and automatically
> approve it for commercial flight?

If they were grandfathering in the A380 that way I would.

The key point is that the Stick is not being man-rated either, nor was the Shuttle. The Shuttle was grandfathered in, and the Stick is inheriting that grandfather.

NASA has to stack the deck this way because on any even playing field, Atlas and Delta win hands-down.

Mike

Posted by Michael Kent at October 5, 2006 05:02 PM

> One theory is that it is finally starting to
> take the new commercial space age seriously
> (something that Boeing, at least so far, seems
> to continue to fail to do)

Boeing has already poured $1.5 billion into its commercial Delta III and about $2 billion of its own money into Delta IV. Had the commercial space market taken off like they thought it would in 1998, they were planning to build an RLV to replace the Delta II by 2010.

But then again, "Boeing" in those days (the part of it pursuing commercial space projects) was called McDonnell Douglas and hasn't been the same since the Rockwell guys took over after the merger.

Mike

Posted by Michael Kent at October 5, 2006 05:07 PM

The key point is that the Stick is not being man-rated either, nor was the Shuttle. The Shuttle was grandfathered in, and the Stick is inheriting that grandfather.

The Stick is planned to be human rated, as far as I know. And the Shuttle wasn't really "grandfathered." It was simply never man rated.

Posted by Rand Simberg at October 5, 2006 06:00 PM

"NASA is no doubt concerned (and some of its personnel perhaps infuriated) about Lockheed Martin's announcement."

Proof?

Posted by Gordon Grant at October 5, 2006 06:49 PM

The first time I met Scott Horowitz was at Bigelow Aerospace. I think there is a "New NASA" as well as a New Space" movement. I think NASA is thrilled to see Bigelow up there. The Transhab technology is getting a dry run and they did not have to fight congress to fund it. The only people upset maybe some Greybeards who pontificated that inflatables are beyond current technology. Bigelow is as shrewd as they come, this move with Lockheed gives him options with a "launch history." Something he has been talking about from day one. Boeing is too busy with defense work anyway, this is a win-win for everyone.

Posted by Tony Rusi at October 5, 2006 07:59 PM

Rand

Excellent dissection of the current state of turmoil. Just a couple of years ago Lockmart was looking to completely exit the NASA market as it was not profitable, took a lot of their limited engineering talent pool, and had little rewards and many pains. They made a decision to go after one last project, Orion, and in doing so spent far more money and put together a much better proposal than the BoNor folks. As either you or someone we were with in San Jose said, the BorNor team was specifically built for Craig Steidle, after he was gone the rational for the team evaporated but the dinosaur just kept munching along.

Lockheed has issued a dual challenge.

1. To NASA

I think that Lockmart finally got tired of being pushed around by NASA. They were under intense presssure to refrain from bidding an Atlas V as the Ares 1 vehicle and from what I hear, it ticked them off. They make much more money off of DoD work and have a much better relationship on that side of the fence. Also, they perceived a strategic weakness in Boeing to be exploited. Boeing is much like Energia in that it expects to get a certain number of contracts, no matter how poorly they perform. They got a wakeup call on the FIA program but simply thought that it was an aberration. Now Lockmart is only marginally better in performance on the DoD side of the house but they have taken better care of their engineers, and it shows in the work that is put out. Very few people remember how badly Boeing screwed their engineers after the strike in 1998 and those pigeons are coming home to roost.

2. NASA

I simply think that finally NASA ticked them off. Also, they had a great "out" to bring forward the Atlas V idea for Bigelow. This solves their "problem" (after of course winning the CEV) of bringing the A5 into the human spaceflight market. They would love to not only win the A1 business but the A5 as well. That is where the big bucks are for them in terms of profit rakeoff on development and this puts them in a very nice position there as it is a certaintly now that Lockmart will have most of the Ares 1 work through their teaming agreement with Thiokol/Pratt. This also works for Mr. B as this ratchets up the pressure on Space X to perform.

The next few months are crucial for Elon and should the Falcon 1 have another failure it will be very bad for him and his plans. This is not good for new space and everyone wants him to succeed but the going bet right now is at least 1.25 to 1 that the second flight will fail for reasons unrleated to the first launch problem. Rocket science is just that, it ain't something that can be done on the cheap as every single company that has really tried to cut metal has found out.

Interesting indeed.

Dennis

Posted by Dennis Wingo at October 5, 2006 10:00 PM

What about the ULA? If LockMart and Boeing are really going to combine their lanchers, would an Atlas V for Bigelow come from LockMart of from ULA? Just curious.

Posted by Dan Schrimpsher at October 6, 2006 07:44 AM

Under the ULA profit sharing agreement Lockmart gets the profits from the Atlas line and Boeing gets the profits from the D-IV line.

If Atlas gets market traction and the D-IV line does not, guess who profits the most.

Dennis

Posted by Dennis Wingo at October 6, 2006 10:12 AM

Going back to the grandfathering for human rating the Atlas V question/comment. The Atlas V is a very different vehicle than the Atlas used on the Mecury program. It now uses Russian high pressure kerosene/lox engines instead of the Rocketdyne booster/sustainer combination. Its propellant tanks are now structurally stable instead of being pressure stabilized. And, it also has large solids attached that may or may not be used for the Bigelow mission. In my opinion, this would make human rating by similarity difficult.

While perhaps bigger now than in the Mercury progrtam, I don't believe there is any significant difference in the Centaur upper stage such that grandfathering might be OK. The key would be in the avionics and plumbing for redundancy or failure response approaches.

Posted by Dallas at October 6, 2006 10:27 AM

Dallas,

The Centaur upper stage was not used in the Mercury program.

The Atlas was 'stage and a half' for putting the Mercury capsule in orbit.

Posted by Mike Puckett at October 6, 2006 12:40 PM

Along the line of what Dallas wrote - the Atlas V is a completely different rocket compared to the original ICBM based Atlas that was used to launch the Mercury program. In fact, aside from them both being rockets, about the only thing they have in common is the name - a comparison between a Boring 707 and a 787 is appropriate.
Now I work airplanes, not rockets, so I don't know what is involved in making a launch system "man rated", but I find it hard to believe that creating a new system from scratch would be cheaper than modifying a reliable, existing system to be man rated.

Posted by tdracer at October 8, 2006 10:44 AM

Bigelow has sought more than one way to get to his station, just as he has sought more than one way to get the stations launched. The Satan missiles from Ukraine are 8G affairs and unable to be human rated. Even if SpaceX succeeds, Bigelow will seek a second launcher and probably and second lander. Expect Rocketplane Kistler to cozy up to Bigelow when they get closer to reuse success. Expect SpaceShip 3 and any orbital entries from any other US operation to do so too. He posted a prize for $50 million plus $1 billion in spaceflight firm purchases and options after all.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at October 8, 2006 03:43 PM

I can't imagine NASA getting worked up over this. If somebody wants to build a nine tonne capsule, Atlas can offer a fairly reliable way of getting it into orbit. At present, Atlas can't launch a 25 tonne capsule and service module into orbit at all, let alone reliably.

Also, Bigelow doesn't care that Atlas is currently dependent on imported Russian engines. If the US government is paying the bill, it cares.

However, this isn't just hollow posturing. Suppose Falcon 9 isn't as reliable and/or inexpensive as the builder hopes, but the Dragon capsule is built and works reasonably well. isn't this an opportunity for Atlas?

Posted by Will Mclean at October 8, 2006 07:36 PM


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