NASA rejects Blue Origin’s proposed SLS upper stage


A quick holiday fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black!
 
Scroll down to read this post.
 
In past years I have managed to avoid asking for donations for Behind the Black during the holiday season. My finances however now compel me to do a short one-week fund-raiser, from November 11 to November 17.
 
I do not use Twitter for ethical reasons, which I have been told cuts down on traffic to the website. So be it. Furthermore, Facebook has clearly acted in the past two years to limit traffic to Behind the Black, almost certainly for political reasons. So be this as well. Finally, I do not post outside ads, as I have found them annoying to my readers and not that profitable to me.

 

Therefore, I need to ask for the direct support from my readers. If you like what I do here, please consider contributing, either by making a one-time donation or a monthly subscription, as indicated in the tip jar below.


 

Regular readers can support Behind The Black with a contribution via paypal:

Or with a subscription with regular donations from your Paypal or credit card account:


If Paypal doesn't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
 
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

 

Or you could consider purchasing one of my books, as indicated in the boxes scattered throughout the website. My histories of space exploration are award-winning and are aimed for the general public. All are page-turners, and all not only tell the story of the beginning of the human exploration of space, they also help explain why we are where we are today. And I also have a science fiction book available, Pioneer, which tells its own exciting story while trying to predict what life in space will be like two hundred years in the future.

 

Note that for this week only I am also having a sale on the purchase of the last 20 hardbacks of Leaving Earth. (Click on the link for more information about the book, which was endorsed by Arthur C. Clarke himself!) This award-winning out-of-print book is now only available as an ebook, but I still have a handful of hardbacks available, normally for sale for $70 plus $5 shipping. For this week only you can buy them, personally autographed by me, for $50 plus $5 shipping! Just send me a check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to the address above, with a note saying that the money is for the Leaving Earth hardback.

 

Please consider donating. Your help will make it possible for me to continue to be an independent reporter in the field of space, science, technology, and culture.

After considering an alternative bid by Blue Origin to build a less expensive upper stage for NASA’s SLS rocket, replacing the stage that Boeing is building, NASA has decided to reject that bid and stick with Boeing.

NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

The article notes that there were also significant political reasons as well that pushed NASA to favor Boeing.

The article also states that SLS’s cost per launch will be about $2 billion. Though I think that number is probably low because it does not include any of the $25 billion spent for development, it does compare badly with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch.

Share

7 comments

  • Richard M

    Depressing, Bob.

    But today Eric has a new story up on the cost question: The OMB sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee (guess who the chairman is!), and it turns out that Eric *underestimated* slightly: apparently, it will cost more than $2 billion for an SLS Block 1 launch. (What Block 1B will cost is left unstated).

    https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/11/the-white-house-puts-a-price-on-the-sls-rocket-and-its-a-lot/?comments=1&start=0

    And mind you, that’s not an amortized cost, either.

    The point of the thing is that OMB is repeating NASA’s plea to launch Europa Clipper on a commercial launcher – like, you know, Falcon Heavy, which while admittedly taking a couple extra years to get the probe to Jupiter would cost about a tenth as much, even with the Star 48 kick stage added in. Also, it’s guaranteed to be available on schedule (with a far longer track record of launch reliability).

    So now we have a price tag from the administration, finally. And it’s a hefty price tag. Living in the swamp is never cheap.

    P.S. Lori Garver tweets a follow up on Eric’s story: “Are you aware Blue bid for the SLS initial booster competition? They proposed a Space Act Agreement at a fraction of the cost – but NASA wouldn’t accept anything but cost plus. I pressed as hard as I could & couldn’t get it done. Just one of my many frustrations & regrets.” https://twitter.com/Lori_Garver/status/1191922277622915072

  • wodun

    Past development costs are sunk costs and shouldn’t be considered. This is one of the problems with government programs that prevent people from making good decisions. The money is spent, its gone, there is nothing that can be done about it. What is important to decision making is the money being spent right now, going forward, and the cost of alternatives.

    Past development costs aren’t important because of their value but because they show the program is run poorly and any claims about future performance and timelines shouldn’t be trusted in the comparison against alternatives.

    How was BO even allowed to compete for changes in SLS at this late stage? Bezos is working realllllly hard at capturing government.

  • Richard M

    Hi Wodun,

    1. It’s a reasonable argument on development costs. But even if we agree with it, the simple building and operational costs are astronomical enough by themselves! $2 billion per launch – good gravy! And that doesn’t count the cost of the CSM or the lander!

    2. Lori has some follow up tweets to explain more, it is worth digging down the thread.

    Q: Why didn’t Blue Origin bid cost plus if that was the main sticking point?

    Lori Garver: “I asked the same & they said they just weren’t set up for that at the time. The FAR’s would have added a bunch of cost, paperwork & bureaucracy. They were already working on their big rocket (now New Glenn) & were offering to accelerate. Sort of like offering lunar lander now!”

    Q. Was this for liquid side boosters, or the core stage?

    Lori Garver: “Advanced booster – the only piece we competed. All others were JOFOC Justification for Other Than Full and Open Competition – extend CxP contracts. Law required existing contracts to the greatest extent practicable. I argued $20B & $2B per launch wasn’t practicable – but lost.”

    You know, I’m a conservative Republican. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of Lori’s political views do not sync with mine. But when it comes to space policy, she’s been one of the few voices of sanity in senior NASA leadership over the last generation, and I am happy to admit it. One wishes she would have gotten her way more often.

  • Richard M

    P.S. So to be clear, in answering your question, Wodun – this obviously happened a long time ago, when Lori was at NASA (2009-13), so actually, this happened early on in SLS development. And it was just for the advanced boosters, which were not going to be needed until the notional Block 2 SLS.

    Really, the whole thing is just depressing.

  • wodun

    “the simple building and operational costs are astronomical enough by themselves! $2 billion per launch”

    That’s the whole point of my comment. The costs going forward are far more persuasive in changing people’s opinions than dwelling on the past. Focusing on what will/would be spent is the better decision making process too.

    Why is this? Because most people look at spaceflight as a complex endeavor that will naturally be expensive and face setbacks. They look at the money and time spent as being a lot of both but also as being a potential byproduct of doing something so hard and view the costs as worthwhile.

    It is only when looking at the costs going forward in comparison to other alternatives that they will pick a development path to support.

    The Sunk Cost Fallacy is what it is. It’s just too bad more people don’t know about it, especially congress. But that’s an assumption, it could be they know and don’t care.

  • M Puckett

    Elon is not saying a Starship flight will end up costing 2 million per sorte and the Stsrship itself less than 35 million to construct.

  • M Puckett

    Is now saying…not NOT!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *