Fresh from the X-33 debacle, the iron triangle of the aerospace industry is coming up with a plan for a new round of corporate welfare, under the pretense of lowering launch costs.
Now don’t get me wrong–no one wants to lower launch costs more than I do. It’s been a personal crusade for more years than I like to think. My business plans and personal plans rely on it. But if a definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, then NASA and the Air Force have to be, at this point, certifiable.
The activity to bring NASA and the Air Force together is being led by a group, called the One Team, that is undertaking a four- month RLV assessment. The goal is to devise a program that would build on funding from both government departments and could see first flight of a prototype system around 2007.
“One Team,” eh? 2007, eh? Well, five-year plans are in the best tradition of Lenin, Mao, etc. To heck with this competition nonsense. We don’t need no stinkin’ markets…
But finding a way to combine the civil space and military requirements won’t be easy. Already, analysts assessing the two constituencies’ needs are finding that they don’t coalesce in several areas.
Once upon a time, there was a launch vehicle program. It was supposed to meet NASA’s needs in space, to provide cheap transportation to the space station that they were going to launch once upon another time, and it was to be called the Space Shuttle. And it came to pass that the evil King wouldn’t allot the funding for it unless it received the blessing of the knights of the realm (aka the Air Force). The knights wanted it to not only go into space, but to be able to carry 65,000 lbs. into space, and to have a landing cross range of a thousand miles. And so it grew. Then the various lords of the manor said, “but it must provide jobs for us in the fiefdom of Houston. And Huntsville. And Cape Canaveral.” And the Duke of Rockwell North American said, “but we accepted the blame for the loss of Sir Apollo 1, in the deadly conflagration, the fault for which was rightfully NASA’s, and so it must also provide us jobs in southern California.”
And thus was born a vehicle designed by a committee, and it was good. Except it only flew a half dozen times a year, and cost over half a billion dollars a flight.
Well, there is one hopeful thing about the article. At least they are no longer deluding themselves that a single vehicle can satisfy both NASA and DoD requirements. However, they continue to delude themselves that one vehicle can satisfy DoD, and another one NASA. This is about 90% as foolish as the Shuttle “one-size-fits-all” assumption.
The problem is that we lock ourselves into failure with our assumptions.
The thinking goes something like this. Space vehicle development is very expensive. Therefore, we can only develop one vehicle. Therefore we have to make damn sure that we develop the right vehicle, so we have to do lots of studies, and have lots of government reviews, and make sure that the risk is minimized, and that we don’t lose any vehicles. All this, of course, makes the vehicle very expensive to develop (and operate), and thus is the prophecy fulfilled.
And of course, since both agencies want to do such trivially few activities in space, there is no way to get the costs down, because there are no economies of scale.
But NASA will continue to develop technologies, because when you’re a technology hammer, all problems look like nails–never mind the fact that the problem of launch costs is not a technological one.
If they could take just one percent of the money that they plan to waste^H^H^H^H^Hspend on technology development on market research and analyses to figure out how to generate much larger traffic models, they’d be way ahead of the game.
But that won’t provide jobs in Houston, Huntsville, Cocoa Beach, Canoga Park and Orange County.