Exploring Space in the 21st Century

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For the past two months I have been very focused on writing what I hope will be a somewhat influential space policy paper for the Center for New American Security, comparing the different approaches the federal government has taken in the past fifteen years toward encouraging a robust launch industry in the United States. Essentially the policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century: How the American space effort since 2000, both private and public, is changing the global aerospace industry, compares the big government rocket launch programs like Orion/SLS and the Air Force’s EELV/ULA with the commercial rocket launch contracts that NASA has signed with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to get cargo and crews up and down from ISS.

The comparison is profound, and is devastating to the supporters of big government programs. Commercial space has literally accomplished ten times more in a third the time for a tenth the cost.

That bears repeating: Commercial space ($4 billion) cost one tenth that of Orion/SLS ($43 billion), took one third the time to go from concept to launch (5 years versus 15 years), and accomplished ten times more (22 rockets/capsules versus 2.5 rockets/capsules). In analyzing these numbers, I also took a close look at why the differences are so profound. Surprisingly, the high cost of Orion/SLS has little to do with its engineering challenges, nor is it caused by any significant overcharges by the contractors. The problem is more fundamental.

The paper also reviews the effect the competition introduced by SpaceX has had on the entire launch industry. Launch costs are dropping and innovation is increasing. This, combined with the lessons learned by NASA in commercial space, suggests that the future of getting into space looks quite bright indeed.

This policy paper should be ready for publication sometime in the next two months. On Monday, however, I will be part of a space policy panel at the Center for New American Security’s annual conference in Washington, DC., where I will give a short overview of my findings to a lot of major players in the upper echelons of the Washington elite community. Their response should be quite interesting.

Thus, I will be traveling to DC this weekend, and am not sure if I will be able to post much on Monday, since I very much wish to attend the entire day’s conference and listen to the other speakers, including Vice President Joe Biden. It is my plan to write about what I see once I get back.


  • LocalFluff

    And the gov’s projects aren’t creative or innovative! SLS is the shuttle without the shuttle, designed in the 1970’s. It will like the Soviet Energia in the 1980’s, but less flexible and less modular, its liquid boosters are still flying as separate launchers. Still they have to modify everything for SLS, like the launch pad, the crawler, the welding equipment, the buildings, the main engine, the solid boosters, the main tank. And are they still planning to develop the intermediate upper stage for one use only? They brag about it in press releases, they should be ashamed. How can anyone think that this is good? Otherwise great guys like the Planetary Society admire it, what are they thinking with?

    And Orion is a 1960’s style capsule. It will launch with an escape rocket tower which is a huge waste of launch mass, and a danger to separate from when it has not been needed, while the Dragon uses its landing engines for launch abort, it doesn’t cost them a pound extra weight. Dragon will land beutifully anywhere on any planet or moon. Orion can only land on Earth and it dangles in parachutes and splashes down in an ocean in a way which looks like an emergency. They test launched it on a $450 million Delta IV Heavy, but with a heat shield which they already had decided had to be redesigned. Wasn’t that the most important part to test??? The service module is being developed by ESA, it is not even included in the absurd costs. And there’s no plan for what to use it for.

    Trump doesn’t care at all about space, but when he, like any businessman, takes a look at the SLS/Orion scandal, he will scrap it immediately. The people at NASA are not stupid, so we know that it is pure corruption with no intent at all to actually explore space.

  • Cotour

    You being the messenger that tells Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen that what they are funding is ten times as expensive and takes three times as long as commercial efforts should make you very popular in Washington, I wish you the best of luck.

    The good news is that there is probably little that they can do to stop the powerful private money forces that are behind the commercial efforts.

  • Maurice

    I wish you luck, but you might want to grab the video of general graves on the aerospace corporation YouTube channel, and very carefully review the last annual report for that organization. Not to distract, but the analogy of FedEX versus the USPS comes to mind… Somehow the USPS is allowed to exist in an age of email and yet is completely insolvent. Then again, someone has to take the first good whack against the inertia that’s responsible for the russkies owning us..

  • wayne

    Very cool Mr. Z!
    Any idea if C-Span will be covering the Conference?
    Not readily listed as “live,” although they tape a lot of stuff for replay & their library.

    I did run across this, from 12-19-1998 Book TV

    WAY cool! busily downloading it right now.

  • I had more hair than, and it wasn’t grey.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z, great Book-TV interview!
    I don’t recall watching that at the time, but I must have– my wife gave me your Apollo 8 book for Christmas that year (& I love Book-TV in general).

    Absolutely impressed by the depth of your passion for Space in general & Apollo-8! (It shows.)

    We’re about the same age & I was watching Apollo-8 launch about 3 miles away.
    Most spectacular thing I have ever witnessed, in my entire life.
    -I’m going to have to check my slides of the launch & see if you are in the crowd somewhere!

    Congrats on the Space Policy paper! (Really hope C-Span will be taping the conference.)

  • Tom Billings

    “Trump doesn’t care at all about space, but when he, like any businessman, takes a look at the SLS/Orion scandal, he will scrap it immediately.”

    Do not count Senator Shelby’s coalition out. Remember that “Constellation” was started, with Ares1/Orion as a “backup” to COTS, during a Republican administration. The same distractions, of a world war, are going to dog any Trump Space Policy enactments, and Trump’s own self-image is as a “dealmaker”. As long as Richard Shelby anchors the SLS/Orion coalition as Chair of the committee overseeing NASA funding, some form of SLS/Orion will continue to bleed NASA human spaceflight dry.

    “The people at NASA are not stupid, so we know that it is pure corruption with no intent at all to actually explore space.”

    NASA exists in a stupefying environment, which environment is focused on something NASA is not supposed to pay attention to, employment in and near NASA Centers. Their stupefaction is accomplished incrementally over the years inside the hierarchy extending down to themselves from the Chair Senator Shelby sits in when he passes, or doesn’t, NASA’s budget. The watchword of “compromise”, as in “compromise to keep your job”, allowed a plan to replace COTS with “Constellation” to come into existence in less than 5 years. “The Art of the Deal” is not the book from which to gain any clarity in such an environment.

    There exists *no* national consensus for funding a Space Policy to settle the Solar System, the only real use for human spaceflight. Since the above is the environment, we should not expect NASA policy to change beyond cancelling ARM, in spite of yesterday’s news of a “quasi-moon” that orbits as close to Earth as 10 million miles, and is far more tightly “locked” than earlier quasi-moon discoveries. There may be declarations about moonbases, but counting on government funding for them will be vain. Look, rather, to the activity such as Planetary Resources’ and Deep Space Industries’ MOUs with the Duchy of Luxembourg, and its passing of $200 million to get Space Resource sensing and mining to move towards fishing wealth out of the asteroid belt.

  • wayne

    Tom Billings:
    As always– very enlightening comments on the ins-&-outs of big-government Space!

  • Edward

    This dichotomy of the civil space and the commercial space communities is one of the reasons why I believe that commercial space will soon lead the way into the solar system. Civil space may still do much of the preliminary exploration, like Lewis and Clark, but commercial space will do much of the expansion, like the homesteaders and railroads.

    Not only does commercial space do more for less and faster, but it takes ideas that were discarded by civil space and makes them work. Bigelow’s expandable space habitats are a good example. Commercial space also dares to try new ideas, such as reusing first stages, which civil space had decided was uneconomical. There is more potential for more innovation and projects from the large number and diversity of commercial space companies than there is from the central planners of civil space.

    Commercial space need not be companies that make or fly space hardware, but may use space assets for their business. Amazon, ebay, and PayPal do not make internet hardware, but they use the internet for business; we still call them internet companies, and many space companies will be and are similar, today.

    While civil space has regressed in its manned space hardware — choosing to move away from late 20th century reusable, lifting body spacecraft to use mid 20th century one-use capsules — commercial space is working on a reusable lifting body spacecraft (e.g. Dream Chaser), like the late Space Shuttle, and a *reusable*, yet inexpensive, capsule (e.g. Starliner).

    Commercial space is finding that competition breeds necessity, which breeds invention, which sometimes breeds improvement on old ideas. Reducing costs is mandatory in any commercial endeavor. Improvement of hardware, services, and processes is also mandatory. Better, faster, cheaper is a way of life, not a slogan, otherwise the competition will eat their lunch (take their customers).

    ULA’s CisLunar-1000 idea may seem fanciful, but it shows that commercial space companies believe that there is gold to be made in them thar hills of the Moon and asteroids (paraphrasing Mark Twain’s character Mulberry Sellers). “There’s millions in it” (quoting the same character).

    I see NASA as a resource that is poorly utilized by Congress, which has its purse-strings, and various administrations, which direct its progress. Directed correctly, NASA could accomplish much greater things much faster and less expensively that they do now. NASA’s employees are smart and eager; they could start their own space businesses (and occasionally do).

    I hope that you are able to post your paper here, once you present it.

  • LocalFluff

    That quasi-moon is still too far away, 38-100 lunar distances, to reach with an Orion alone. And if it’s a fast spinner it will be difficult to make use of. Radar will soon find out. I think three or so SLS will fly to save face, for that Europa mission, a test and humans around the moon. Maybe the Orion will have a longer life if SpaceX builds a big enough launcher for it. A Falcon Heavy with two more cores like Angara 5 could lift it, but I’ve never heard that planned. It could go to Sun Earth L1 or L2 four lunar distances away to service a telescope built to be serviced. If left in space, docked with a space station, Orion could maybe be reused. Its three week life support gives it useful range in cis-lunar space or around Mars’ moons. With an airlock attached to it, it gets interesting. Once its costs are sunk, it has a chance, but SLS will be a pain to motivate when a much cheaper large launcher is available. Like ULA does react to the Falcon rockets which even the airforce will use.

  • Edward wrote, “I hope that you are able to post your paper here, once you present it.”

    I will be able to post yes. Stay tuned.

  • Edward

    I recommend that you ask the Center for New American Security to play this as your entrance music, unless you think it is too modest for such a “somewhat influential space policy paper”:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=py5M0JI9ceo (3 minutes, “Parade Of The Charioteers”)

    If it is not too modest, maybe it can be your introduction music for your radio interviews, too.

  • Cliff

    Mr. Z,
    I just finished listening to your latest interview on The Space Show. I have spent the past 20 or so years working as an engineer and consultant in both the commercial and government sides of the space industry. I’ve worked on various NASA programs as well as many commercial satellite systems. I am always amazed at your insight into the differences between government and commercial entities with respect to the space industry. As much as I whole-heartedly agree with your perspective (I’ve lived it!), I don’t hold out much hope for any substantive policy changes at the congressional level. The people in charge either don’t care or aren’t capable of understanding the inherent technical issues. But what do I know?! I thought Musk would have run out of money long before making SpaceX a viable entity. I wish you the best and hope you can affect some sort of positive policy change.

  • Thank you for the kind words. I am hopeful that the timing of my policy paper, which documents so clearly the profound comparison between commercial private space and big government space, is going to have an impact that might change things.

    And things are ripe for change, based on what I’ve seen with recent elections.

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