Bad news for NASA, good news for private space


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Earlier this week NASA submitted a report to Congress reviewing the design and construction status of the heavy-lift rocket and manned capsule that Congress has required them to build and launch by 2016. NASA’s conclusion: the space agency doesn’t think it can do the job in the schedule or budget that Congress has provided.

NASA does not believe this goal is achievable based on a combination of the current funding profile estimate, traditional approaches to acquisitions and currently considered vehicle architectures. . . . We will not commit to a date that has a low probability of being achieved.

NASA’s conclusions here are not surprising. The agency had been having trouble building Constellation on the much bigger budget and longer schedule given to them by past Congresses. For them to build the-program-formerly-called-Constellation for less money and in less time is probably impossible.

Nonetheless, this was the response of the Senate Commerce committee:

The production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It’s the law.

This is why I have been saying that the money for this program is nothing more than pork. Congress knows that nothing can be built on this budget, but wants the money spent nonetheless, to keep people employed in their districts.

Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, Space Adventures yesterday announced a new deal with Russia, whereby the Russians have agreed to build and launch one extra Soyuz capsule per year, beginning in 2013, to fly 3 tourists to ISS. In addition, there is this report today about how SpaceX is successfully meeting all its milestones in building its cargo ferry for ISS. An earlier report last week also noted how Orbital Sciences is also moving forward with its cargo ferry, with a planned first test launch by the end of 2011.

All in all, this news is not good news for NASA. The space agency’s manned spaceflight program appears to have two futures, neither of which will involve it continuing to build rockets or fly humans into space. In one option, the new Congress, when it finally sits down to write a budget, will decide that pork and happy constituents are more important than a balanced budget, and will appropriate the money for the-program-formerly-called-Constellation. NASA will struggle hard to build it, but will not succeed. Thus, no government-built manned space program.

In the second option, Congress will agree with me and decide that it just doesn’t have money for pork, especially considering the terrible state of the federal budget. Moreover, seeing the success of the private efforts of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Space Adventures, Congress will wonder why it needs to pour more billions into a vain effort by NASA to build something it can’t, when there are other private companies that can do it, and do it for less. In this circumstance, it will be very easy for them to cut the-program-formerly-called-Constellation. Once again, no NASA manned program.

Neither scenario is actually a bad thing. What we are actually seeing play out here is the free competition of different companies attempting to provide a service to a customer, and the customer eventually picking the best company from which to buy the product. NASA, as a government agency, simply can’t compete, and unless Congress decides to provide them welfare, will lose this competition hands down.

The U.S. will still have the capability of getting into space, but for far less money. And having multiple private companies competing to provide this service will also encourage innovation, something the rocket industry has sorely needed these past five decades.

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5 comments

  • .
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    over FIVE YEARS and $10 billion LOST to finally propose MY idea of a FAST-SLV:
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    gaetanomarano.it/articles/005_SLVnow.html
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    a rocket that will be ready to fly only after 2016 + delays and costs overruns
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    unfortunately, the FAST-SLV “was” good FIVE years ago, while, now, it isn’t the best choice
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    this also because the ET is no longer produced, the SSME is too expensive for an expendable rocket, the SRB-5 has more extra dry mass than extra thrust, etc.
    .
    in other words, in 2016-2018 we will NOT see any new NASA rocket liftoff from KSC but only a futher $15-25 billion “hole” in NASA budgets
    .
    .
    .
    .

  • Bob Steinke

    “We will not commit to a date that has a low probability of being achieved.”

    Wow, that is a seismic shift for NASA.

  • Kelly Starks

    > Congress knows that nothing can be built on this budget

    Thats clearly wrong Bob. NASA can’t build it (they haven’t been able to build anything in decadse and were forced to turn Spacestation over to Boeing to design and build after NASA failed badly), and more important they don’t want to build it at that time and money budget since they a program big enough to support them. But the amuont of money and time is completly reasonable to develop it. The NASA of the ’60’s did such things.

    >== NASA, as a government agency, simply can’t compete, and unless Congress decides to provide them
    > welfare, will lose this competition hands down. ==

    You forget its not a competician, its a decision to proceed or discontinue with US maned spacefight. They already dismissed the option of a non program using commercial crew to the station. Continuing ISS participation for 5 more years with Soyuz carrying US crews is a option – its politically, and economicly advantagious (far cheaper then commercial crew, adn the point of the station was outreach to Russia) but distastefull. In this budget climate the real apealing option would just be to pull out of the station in 2015, and mothball NASA. With no other significant market for human space flight around – it would likely cost us the industry though.

  • Jim Nobles

    Kelly said, “…its a decision to proceed or discontinue with US maned spaceflight.”

    Kelly, I don’t see it the same way. I don’t think US manned spaceflight is going to be discontinued if NASA doesn’t
    design and build the earth to LEO vehicles. Private companies are going to build them and do much more of the
    designing in-house. NASA, I’m sure, will be available and willing to give their input as necessary. And the financial
    processes and arrangements will be somewhat different than what everyone is used to.

    The people that will probably be hit hardest are those who actually designed and built the vehicles at NASA. They
    might find themselves looking for a job in the private sector. It could be rough because commercial is usually
    pretty watchful of bloat in their workforce.

    Notice what happened when Constellation got canceled. With Ares 1 gone, Falcon/Dragon is on the way to taking
    its place. Or to launch people to LEO anyway. Falcon/Dragon is nearly ready to go operational for cargo and not
    long after, crew launches. I don’t know where we’d be if we were still waiting on Ares 1 and Orion. I’m sure we
    gained some time with that change but I don’t know how much.

    Maybe something similar can happen with HLV. I believe Obama/Bolden/Garver/Holdren want to get NASA out
    of the rocket building business. A lot of people, including me, want NASA to get out of that business as well.
    I absolutely don’t believe that Obama wants to kill US manned spaceflight (I know you didn’t say that but some have.)
    I believe Obama wants to boost the commercial production of these vehicles because of the positive effect it
    should have on the marketplace. I’m sure most of Obama’s advisors have been telling him that NASA needs to
    get out of the rocket building business. That’s what I would be telling him if he asked me.

    All in all, I think the future of US manned spaceflight is looking fairly positive. But if some people are commited to
    the idea that only NASA can design and costruct the vehicles, the current situation probably looks like doomsday
    to them. I’m glad I don’t feel that way.

    Peace and Out…

  • Kelly Starks

    re: Jim Nobles says: Posted January 13, 2011 at 3:02 PM
    >>Kelly said, “…its a decision to proceed or discontinue with US maned spaceflight.”
    > Kelly, I don’t see it the same way. I don’t think US manned spaceflight is going to
    > be discontinued if NASA doesn’t design and build the earth to LEO vehicles. ==

    The point is that doesn’t leave much of anything to do, nor to spend a lot of money on.
    Voters see NASA’s value to the country as NASA gives the US prestige since they were the moon landing shuttle etc folks. The quintessential symbol of US exceptionalism, etc. Also NASA brought pork to districts. If NASA not involved in a big expensive development program, and doing something exceptional – it has nothing to offer voters (and hence Congress) wants to spend money on. Becoming completely expendable is a bad place for a agency to be ni a budget cutting era.

    Also I didn’t just mean NASA, I meant any manned space flight by the US. NASA is currently the only buyer of human launch services adn systems in the US, and has funded about all human space flight systems development. (Including most of SpaceX.) One other potential market a lot of folks had banked on was Bigelow, but their future is looking much much dimmer then it did several years ago. So as shuttle and Constellation shuts down, virtually everyone in industry involved in developing or building anything for manned space – or space period – are being laid off. So even the industrial capacity to HAVE a manned space program is going away.

    So in short:
    With no markets, the associated industry dies.
    We canceling the markets.

    >== Private companies are going to build them and do much more of the designing in-house.
    Nit, but NASA hasn’t designed anything in house in 40 years. They tried and failed with station, and turned it over to Boeing. They wanted to learn how to be a engineering leed on constellation, but that isn’t going well. NASA always hired others to design and build their ships and gear.

    NASA simply has no engineering skills or experience to offer.

    > Notice what happened when Constellation got canceled. With Ares 1
    > gone, Falcon/Dragon is on the way to taking its place. ==

    Actually even Musk doesn’t think he has a shot at getting commercial crew business anymore, and Ares-I hasn’t been canceled yet. Congress intends to, but the last congress never got around to it.

    >== I absolutely don’t believe that Obama wants to kill US manned spaceflight
    > (I know you didn’t say that but some have.)==

    I disagree – strongly – but the results will be that if anything like his proposals are implemented — though they were completely rejected so that’s moot.

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