Charles Bolden poo-poos private space

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In remarks at a conference yesterday NASA administrator Charles Bolden expressed his distrust and lack of confidence in the ability of private companies to build large heavy lift rockets.

“If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles,” Bolden said. “I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in large launch vehicles just yet.”

…Despite the demonstrable efforts by both SpaceX and Blue Origin, Bolden nonetheless said that “normal people” cannot, or do not want to, develop large launch vehicles. What the administrator appears to be asserting here is that NASA is more special, or better, than those in the private sector when it comes to building rockets.

The article at the link notes the strangeness of Bolden’s remarks, especially since NASA itself has failed, despite repeated efforts, to build its own new rocket since the 1970s. The author also notes the high cost of SLS, though the numbers he cites — $13 billion to develop and build SLS — is actually about half the real cost, which will be about $25 billion to build two SLS rockets.

Bolden here illustrates the old way of doing things. He will be gone soon, however, and a new way will replace him, private, competitive, innovative, and fast moving, everything that NASA has not been in the past four decades.


  • Alex

    I am thinking Bolden’s statement is imbecility and displaying his political background ideology. I am citing from the article:

    “Speaking about NASA’s SLS rocket and private developers last year, Garver said, “What we’re working with is more of a socialist plan for space exploration, which is just anathema to what this country should be doing. Don’t try to compete with the private sector. Incentivize them by driving technologies that will be necessary for us as we explore further.”

  • Andrew_W

    The fact that Bolden can believe things that are so irrational and that fly in the face of reality is no surprise, I see a lot of it.

  • Tom Billings

    Note that Bolden didn’t poo poo *all* private space, ….just that which threatened several key places in NASA’s funding hierarchy.

    1.) Large private launchers threaten to take away from NASA’s hierarchy the greatest single photo-op in aerospace, the launch of “The biggest rocket in the world!”, …and replace it with a photo-op for/by a private company. NASA won’t be the hero of launch day anymore. Since 1963, when “God Speed, John Glenn” was spoken, NASA has been about being personified as heroes, at minimum through their astronauts, as the basis of them being tolerated by the public when budgets are tight.

    2.) Large private launchers threaten the deal that had finally been worked out this year, to get Senator Shelby and his SLS/Orion coalition to fund commercial crew enough to get US astronauts off Russian rockets, and do it before Putin *throws* them off in the next confrontation over Putin restoring the Russian Empire.

    3.) The many small programs that are the right and proper replacements in spending the same amount of money, as do SLS/Orion are far more costly, in political favors, as 20 line items in the budget require far more favors traded than 2 each year. Remember that Space is *not* politically important, and Bolden rightly worries that NASA will be reduced to its pre-1961 priority levels, at exactly the same time that that these political costs increase.

  • Edward

    From the article: “Both companies have developed brand new engines (the Merlin 1D by SpaceX and BE-4 by Blue Origin) at a time when a major new rocket engine hasn’t been brought forward in the United States in decades and when US national security offices must rely on Russian engines to deliver their spy satellites into space.”

    Not only that, but NASA now relies on the Russians to take people to the ISS.

    Also from the article: “both SpaceX and Blue Origin are designing their heavy lift rockets to reuse the large first stages by landing them on the ground or sea-based platforms. This aggressive approach to reusability, which has the as-yet unfulfilled promise to substantially lower launch costs, stands in contrast to the Space Launch System, which is entirely expendable.”

    Back in the “good old days,” NASA was the innovative entity. NASA is supposed to be the entity that “pushes the envelope,” as Tom Wolf wrote in “The Right Stuff.” Now it is commercial companies that Bolden is not a fan of that innovate and push the envelope.

    Bolden’s way of thinking, may be one of the reasons why I think that the talents and abilities at NASA have been squandered for the past decade or more.

  • wodun

    Back in the “good old days,” NASA was the innovative entity. NASA is supposed to be the entity that “pushes the envelope,”

    Its funny you mention that because that is exactly what Bolden said too. But as you noted, NASA isn’t doing that with their BFR.

    There is a case that people/groups want to use a super heavy lift vehicle but what is NASA’s role in providing that capability? If the government needs something for self defense that the private sector can’t provide, then the expense makes sense. Government run research isn’t as strong of a case. However if private companies and other groups need this capability, is it really NASA’s role to provide it? They aren’t a business and can’t be run like one.

    NASA acting as a business will create enormous perverse incentives and promote corruption on a massive scale.

  • Edward

    “There is a case that people/groups want to use a super heavy lift vehicle but what is NASA’s role in providing that capability?”

    So far, government does not have a need for a super heavy lift vehicle. It was a direct order from Congress, and they seem to only want a big, expensive toy, as they have no plan for using it — other than send a probe to Europa that could be launched on a less expensive existing rocket.

    Back in the good old days, NASA or the Air Force provided the rockets that put stuff into space, but that is changing — fortunately. Now, NASA and Congress should be happy that commercial companies are getting into the launch business, as they seem to be eager to do it right for lower cost. They are even eager to be innovative. Maybe NASA’s role in providing launch capability should be dropped for a newer and more exploratory role. Leave business to the businessmen, and keep to the science and research that they were always good at.

  • Tom Billings

    Edward said:

    “Bolden’s way of thinking, may be one of the reasons why I think that the talents and abilities at NASA have been squandered for the past decade or more.”

    Try *45* years! That’s because the pattern was established before Bolden was ever an astronaut. The NASA Administrator always eventually learns that he can only push so hard against the committee chairs that OK his agency’s checks, and then he must compromise, or destroy the agency through lack of a budget.

    The good news is that those committee chairs will, by 2025, have control over a steeply shrinking minority of the money that goes to the aerospace industry. When it reaches a small enough percentage, the voters in their districts will figure out that the Senators who obstruct the commercial space industry are doing far more to hurt the job prospects of their voters than help them. The political profit margins will shift, drastically. At that point, the behavior patterns of the committee Chairs will change, and they will be willing to fund NASA as a space-going NACA for its technology development, which is what they have been avoiding for at least 40 years, since the Space Shuttle Main Engines and the SRBs finished development.

  • Alex

    Tom Billings & Edwards: If NASA would be really innovative, this agency would be on path to Proxima or Alpha Centauri in our days according the grant plan that Wernher von Braun made for major steps into space in NASA’s prime time. Manned mission to Mars were planned already for 1985, if von Braun would had got the means to do it.

  • wayne

    Armageddon–“You guys are NASA..” scene

  • Tom Billings

    Alex said:

    “Manned mission to Mars were planned already for 1985, if von Braun would had got the means to do it.”

    And, once Apollo succeeded, Von Braun would never have gotten the means to do it.

    Several days before the launch of John Glenn’s Mercury Seven, in 1962, 43% of US voters polled said they wanted human spaceflight funding expanded. Just 7% said they wanted it cut. The political profit margin was 35% of the electorate. In 1972, after the last Apollo mission, 43% of polled voters still wanted human spaceflight funding expanded, …but 38% of polled voters wanted it cut! The political profit margin had dropped 7/1. Apollo was part of a unique response to Kruschev’s unique Space Propaganda campaign.

    Neither will return. It’s past time to quit depending on the legacy of Apollo, and focus not on what Congress will fund, but on what citizens will buy for themselves.

  • Edward

    “It’s past time to quit depending on the legacy of Apollo, and focus not on what Congress will fund, but on what citizens will buy for themselves.”

    I agree. NASA has always been best at exploration and also research and development, which makes sense, as its heratage organization, the National Advisory Committee for Astronautics (NACA) did this kind of thing, and technical R&D and space exploration (manned and unmanned) were the first things that NASA was tasked with.

    NASA has done OK with the Shuttle and the International Space Station, although both turned out to be more expensive than I thought they should, but these past few years NASA has been a political football for both the president and Congress, which is why she has not been terribly productive this past decade. JPL has done very well, but now Obama is directing her efforts, as well. Do the scientists think that they can get new information with a Curiosity replica, or would they prefer different science on the next rover? Obama has made that question moot, as he — not the scientists — has directed that the next rover have the same capabilities as Curiosity.

    Although the question may be moot, it is possible that the talents and abilities of JPL’s scientists and engineers are now being squandered, too.

    Commercial companies have a great incentive to do the right thing at much less expense and on a more urgent schedule. They also have a multitude of missions that they would like to accomplish, while NASA has been only able to concentrate on a few at a time, and only one or two manned missions at a time (e.g. Shuttle and space station missions). Now that LEO has been fairly well explored and nicely understood, it may be time for commerce to enter this region for profitable use, just as it did in GEO.

    Congress is another, and larger, reason why I think that the talents and abilities at NASA have been squandered.

    But it is the current president that I think has done the most to squander NASA. He has left her with an abundance of strategic confusion that is unable to direct the workers in productive directions. Thus we are left with a costly SLS that may launch as many as three missions and an expensive Orion spacecraft that may launch only two crews. This is Obama’s NASA legacy.

  • John E Bowen

    “. . . commercial investment in large launch vehicles”

    How big should a launcher be? How big should a tennis racket be? The answer is the same for both questions. Investors make the best choices they can, and the market decides.

    When I was in grade school we used wooden rackets with heads not much bigger than those in Louis XVI’s day. By high school they’d mostly switched to steel frames, but the same size. It was what people were used to. Shortly thereafter, though, changes appeared at a quicker pace. Other metals and plastics, carbon fiber, etc. were tried. Most noticeably, the size of the head increased. On the strings, if I hit the ball within an area called the “sweet spot” I would have better control. A racket with a bigger head has a bigger sweet spot. Let’s call that a working principle, a rule of thumb.

    However, I can’t reason with just one principle; it’s too simplistic. There are other forces at work, which is why we don’t see tennis rackets 5 feet wide.

    It’s easy for me to say they can’t be 5 feet wide, but very hard to say exactly how big they should be. Gee, is there a method, a mechanism, to determine just how big a racket, or a launch vehicle, should be?

    I see an argument put forth often, not just by commenters but by such as Gen. Bolden and Dr. Griffin. If I can launch a little bit with each of several small launchers, then I can combine all the payloads and launch with one big launcher. The price per kg will be less. Therefore bigger is better. Drives me crazy, not because the reasoning is completely wrong, but because it fails after a certain point due to other factors.

    What other factors? How about someone builds the next, bigger launcher and it can’t get under the bridge cause it’s too fat? I understand SpaceX picked the diameter for the Falcon 9 partly because it would fit under the bridge (and along all other normal roadways). Taking advantage of the highway system seems smart to me, because then they can build it in California, or anywhere. They have choices, which tends to lower costs. Nothing wrong with Louisiana or Florida and shipping by barge, except that method represents fewer choices (can’t barge from Colorado) and probably higher costs.

    And this is just me, trying to reason from what I’ve read, and common sense. The really important factor is the market, as in, what if someone builds a really big launch vehicle and no one wants to buy it? What’s the difference between a C5-A Galaxy and a C130, both remarkable achievements? One is universally loved and used all the time; the other is used a little bit, and gets a mention on the History Channel, the Ooh Aahh Ginormous Machines segment.

    So, build it and they might come. The market decides. Perhaps in the future we’ll get the inside scoop of some principal investigator relating how his team picked a launch vehicle for their Europa probe: “Well, we were shopping around, and would have gone with SpaceX, but we had a coupon for $975m, plus a whole bunch of air miles to Alabama. Cheers.

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