Bad news for NASA, good news for private space

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.

A new deal to fly tourists to ISS using Russian Soyuz capsules

A new deal has been announced to fly tourists to ISS using Russian Soyuz capsules. According the arrangement between Space Adventures and the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA) and Rocket Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia), three seats will be made available on Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS), beginning in 2013.

These seats will be made available through the increase of Soyuz production, from four to five spacecraft per year. Each flight will be short duration, approximately 10 days, and will contribute to the increase of launch capacity to the ISS.

A private science mission to an asteroid?

A proposal to revive a project to send a private science probe to an asteroid.

The original project, NEAP, was proposed back in 1997 by the late Jim Bensen of SpaceDev (now Sierra Nevada). Benson wanted to not only do research, but he planned to claim the asteroid as his property upon landing. Though his proposal never flew, it was clearly a forerunner to today’s resurgence of the private space industry, and in many ways kickstarted that resurgence.

Two old unused Soviet Almaz space stations sold to private company

Two old unused Soviet Almaz space stations have been sold to a private company and have arrived in their new home on the Isle of Man. Key quote:

The stations will be initially stored in Jurby, but there plans for research, testing and possible launch into orbit.

For those who do not know, the Almaz station was built in the 1970s by the Soviet Union to do manned military reconnaissance. Two manned Almaz stations were eventually flown, Salyut 3 and Salyut 5. The station hull itself became the fundamental module for all subsequent Soviet/Russian stations, including Mir and ISS.

Automakers suing EPA over higher ethanol mix gas

Good intentions strikes again! Automakers are suing the EPA over its decision to allow a higher ethanol mixture in gasoline. Key quote:

Automakers say they are worried the EPA decision would eventually lead to motorists unknowingly filling up their older cars and trucks with E15 and hurting their engines. The problem could be exacerbated if E15 fuels are cheaper than more conventional blends, prompting owners of older vehicles to use the fuel despite the potential engine problems.

Electricity from wind plant so expensive no one will buy it

The electricity produced from a proposed wind plant will be so expensive the company can’t find customers. They do have one customer, however, but one wonders why:

In its 15-year deal, National Grid agreed to pay 18.7 cents per kilowatt hour for Cape Wind power beginning in 2013, with a 3.5 percent annual increase. The starting price is twice what National Grid pays today for power from fossil fuels, and regulators say the contract will add about 1.7 percent to its residential customers’ bills.

Read the whole article. It explains a lot about the failures of renewable energy, and how the efforts of the government and environmentalists to force it on us is misguided and downright foolish.

The flight of Falcon 9/Dragon: Doing it right

For those that want to relive the experience of success, SpaceX has posted a short highlight video of last week’s successful test flight of Falcon 9/Dragon capsule.

It is difficult to overstate the importance or magnifience of this achievement, accomplished not by a government but by a private company. As SpaceX rightly brags on its website:

This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from Earth orbit. It is a feat previously performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.

What I find even more telling is how quickly SpaceX got this done. The first launch attempt of their first rocket, Falcon 1, took place in March of 2006. About that same time they began work on Falcon 9, and were able to successfully fly its first mission only four years later. Contrast that with NASA. President Bush proposed building a replacement for the shuttle in 2004, and six years later all NASA could do was fly a mockup of Ares I/Orion, not the actual article. And that leaves out NASA’S numerous previous attempts to build a shuttle replacement that spent billions, and never did more than produce pretty powerpoint presentations.

SpaceX’s speed of operation (a sure sign of efficiency) is reminiscent of the early days of the space age. Then, NASA might have laid out the overall plan, but everything was built by private companies, all used to fighting for profits and market share. None could afford a leisurely pace, nor could they afford to do things badly. If they did either, their business would suffer. As a result, the United States was able to go from having no ability to put anything in orbit to putting its first man in space in less than three years, and was able to follow that up with the first manned lunar mission only seven years later.

The greed for power, or why it is always better to do without government help

In an article today on “NASA: It’s Our Space Station – Not Yours,” Keith Cowing has some harsh words for NASA and its management of the research on ISS. Based on what he witnessed at a NASA meeting, it appears that NASA wants to retain control over all research on the space station, while denying access to outside other researchers. Key quote:

In addition to prohibiting the ISS National Laboratory contractor from getting its hands on human-based research, Mark Uhran also stated that any proposal that proposed to do anything with spacecraft systems or engineering would be similarly deemed non-responsive. In other words two of the most interesting things you can do on the ISS – the sorts of thing you’d want a larger research base to focus on (assuming you are really interested in outside participation) are off limits due to executive fiat.

Where is NASA’s justification for limiting the ability of the private and educational sectors from making full utilization of the amazing capabilities that are offered by the ISS? Answer: NASA made it up. Truth be known, NASA was dragged kicking and screaming into supporting this National Laboratory concept. Congress had to enact a law to make them do it.

None of this surprises me. NASA is a government agency, and as a government agency it is going to protect its turf, come hell or high water. It is for this reason I think it a bad idea for the new space rocket companies to take any NASA money, up front. If they do, NASA will immediately use those funds as a club to force these new companies to do things as NASA wishes, rather than being free to compete and innovate on their own. In other words, NASA will use the funds to maintain control of all space exploration.

Better the new companies build their rockets and spaceships on their own, and then sell these new inventions to NASA or whoever else wants to use them. Let the profits pay for the work, not the needs and regulations of a government agency.

Not only will this free competiton produce a lot more creativity and innovation, it will almost certainly help to reduce the cost of space travel, as these companies fight to gain market share. And most importantly, it will frame the future exploration of space in the context of freedom rather that a state-run endeavor.

And isn’t freedom the principle that the United States of America stands for?

Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic team up to propose orbital craft

Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic have teamed up to propose a four person reusable orbital spacecraft to ferry crews to ISS. Key quote:

The spacecraft, designed to launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket and dock with the international space station, could be ready for test flights as early as 2014. The remotely piloted spacecraft would be able to carry four passengers initially, including three astronauts and one paying ticketholder, though based on market demand the number of private rides aboard the vehicle could grow to two, with four astronaut seats available, sources said. In the works at Orbital for the past year, the reusable spacecraft would be built using existing materials and technologies, employ standard hypergolic propellants and rely on a pusher escape system in the event of a launch mishap, sources said. [emphasis mine]

Note their insistence that they be allowed to fly tourists. This is a major change from how NASA has operated in the past, as a Soviet-style government agency hostile to commercial profits.

Correction: Clark Lindsey notes that the Orbital press release makes no mention of Virgin Galactic, as reported above.

Falcon 9 launch a success. Dragon capsule returns successfully

SpaceX is two for two! The Falcon 9 launch today was a success, and was topped off by the successful return of the Dragon capsule after two orbits.

This is big news. Think about it: a private company — not a government — has designed and built a rocket and capsule, capable of carrying astronauts, and successfully launched both and recovered the capsule. Hot dog! True space travel might very well be around the corner at last.

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