Assuming it gets the necessary funds, Boeing anticipates flight tests of its CST-100 reusable manned capsule in 2016.

More news from commercial space: Assuming it gets the necessary funds, Boeing anticipates flight tests of its CST-100 reusable manned capsule by 2016.

This story is part of the on-going lobbying effort to convince the Luddites in Congress to subsidize the new commercial space companies. To get some context, even if Congress gives NASA all of the money it has requested for this program, the annual cost will still be less than a third of the NASA-built Space Launch System, and will get us four different ways to get humans and cargo into orbit, and do it in far less time.

Pick a destination already!

A report issued today illustrates once again to me that those running our space program in both Congress and the Obama administration have a profound lack of common sense or basic intelligence:

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) – a body that provides the NASA Administrator with counsel and advice on programs and issues of importance to the Agency – has insisted a human exploration plan, or at least a destination, should be selected as soon as possible.

This request specifically applies to the Space Launch System (SLS), the heavy-lift rocket mandated by Congress that will use the Orion capsule. SLS is also the same rocket system that is costing the taxpayers $3 billion per year, and is expected to cost between $18 to $60 billion total by the time it flies its first operational mission in about nine years. The advisory council also noted that

While the vehicle hardware development is now moving forward at full speed, specific destinations – or a roadmap – is still lacking from NASA’s exploration plan.

It took nine different committees plus a central committee formed from the original nine committees to come to this Earth-shattering conclusion.

To put it in plain English, Congress and the Obama administration have committed billions of taxpayer dollars to the construction of a rocket and manned capsule without ever putting much thought into the specific mission they want to send that rocket and capsule on.
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Stupidity on display

In hearings Wednesday, several members of Congress suggested that NASA force the new competing commercial space companies to combine their efforts in order to save money.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a March 21 hearing on the agency’s 2013 budget the same question he asked of the White House’s chief science adviser last month: would NASA’s partnership with commercial companies to develop astronaut transports be cheaper if the companies competing for NASA funds combined their efforts into a single “all for one and one for all” project?

Similarly, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) made the same stupid argument in her continuing effort to keep the funding of the Space Launch System, the rocket-formerly-called-Constellation, as high as possible, at the cost of cutting everything else in NASA if necessary.

If you needed any evidence that members of Congress are ignorant idiots, you only need read the comments of these elected officials at these hearings to get your proof. Wolf or Hutchison as well as several others from both parties very clearly haven’t the slightest idea what these various space companies are building. Nor do they have the faintest notion of the difficulties entailed in building these manned space vessels.
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Explaining the limits of the Congressionally mandated Space Launch System

Explaining the limits of the Congressionally mandated Space Launch System.

In trying to explain why SLS can never function as a crew ferry for ISS, I think Muncy also illustrates why the whole system makes no sense and is really a complete waste of money. Consider this:

SLS’s first uncrewed test flight would be in December 2017, with the first crewed mission nearly four years later, in late 2021. Even worse, NASA’s plan showed that Orion and SLS would be able to fly only one exploration mission every two (or more) years.

We are spending a lot of money for very little results.

Using its Space Launch System and Orion capsule, NASA is aiming for an unmanned test flight around the Moon in December 2017.

Using its Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule, NASA is aiming for an unmanned test flight around the Moon in December 2017.

Two important tidbits revealed by this article: First, the first test flight of Orion will use a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Two, NASA hopes to have its heavy lift SLS rocket ready for the 2017 mission.

Forgive me for being cynical, but I will believe the second tidbit only when it happens.

ATK prepares for another test firing of its five-segment solid rocket motor.

ATK prepares for another test firing of its five-segment solid rocket motor.

The qualification campaign, led by rocket-builder ATK, will prove the solid-fueled motor is ready to help propel the Space Launch System from Earth on two test flights in 2017 and 2021.

Though obviously funded out of the Space Launch System program (SLS), there is no guarantee at this moment that ATK’s solid rocket will be used in these test flights. NASA has said that they are considering all options for picking the launch rocket.

In a sense, we are now seeing a side benefit produced by relying on independent and competing private companies to get into space. It has placed pressure on NASA and the companies building SLS to perform. Unlike in the past, when failure to produce a new rocket or spaceship meant that NASA would simply propose a new concept and start again, now failure will mean that someone else might get the work. The result: SLS might actually get built, for less money and faster.

Though I don’t see how NASA can possibly cut the costs down to compete with these private companies, their effort might succeed enough for Congress to keep the money spigots open until the rocket gets built.

Even as I say this I remain skeptical. Considering the federal budget situation, the politics of the upcoming election, and the strong possibility that private companies will successfully provide that launch capability at a tenth the cost, I expect that sometime in the next two or three years Congress will finally balk at SLS’s cost, and eliminate it.

Ed Weiler quit NASA over Mars planetary program cuts to be announced Monday

Ed Weiler quit NASA in September because of the cuts to the Mars planetary program that the Obama administration will announce on Monday.

Weiler was NASA’s chief science administrator for most of the past thirty years.

As I have already noted, the programs that NASA shouldn’t cut are its planetary and astronomy programs. Far better to dump the Space Launch System, which eats up a lot more cash and will end up producing nothing. By doing so you would not only reduce NASA’s actual budget — thereby saving the federal government money — you could simultaneously increase the budgets of the planetary and astronomy programs.

NASA is soliciting private aerospace companies to bid on building their designs for rocket upper stage that will send the Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit.

NASA is soliciting private aerospace companies to bid on building their own designs for the rocket upper stage that will send the Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit.

This is good news: Rather than design the upper stage themselves, NASA is behaving like a customer and looking for someone else to provide them the product, much as the agency has been doing in buying from private companies crew and cargo services for ISS. Using this approach the agency is more likely to get its upper stage quickly and at less cost.

Space exploration and the unexpected consequences of government decisions

On Thursday, December 15, 2011, NASA management announced what seemed at first glance to be a very boring managerial decision. Future contracts with any aerospace company to launch astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) will follow the same contractual arrangements used by NASA and SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for supplying cargo to the space station.

As boring that sounds, this is probably the most important decision NASA managers have made since the 1960s. Not only will this contractual approach lower the cost and accelerate the speed of developing a new generation of manned spaceships, it will transfer control of space exploration from NASA — an overweight and bloated government agency — to the free and competitive open market.

To me, however, the decision illustrates a number of unexpected consequences, none of which have been noted by anyone in the discussions that followed NASA’s announcement back in mid-December.
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NASA budget compromise

Congress has come up with a NASA budget compromise. More details here.

Overall, the NASA budget is cut by about a half billion dollars, the total matching what the agency got in 2009. The key figures are $406 million for commercial manned space, $3 billion for NASA’s in-house heavy-lift rocket and capsule, and $529 million to finish the Webb telescope.

I predict that the $3 billion will be a waste of money, the project getting cancelled before completion.

NASA halting work on its J-2X rocket engine

Par for the course: NASA, having successfully completed a 500 second test of the J-2X rocket engine, has halted all further development work on that engine.

The NASA program to build the heavy-lift rocket is expected to get $1.2 billion per year, and yet it doesn’t have enough money to develop both its first and second stages simultaneously? Kind of proves my point that NASA’s fixed labor costs, imposed on it by Congress, makes it impossible for the agency to ever build anything at a competitive price.

The result: every project dies stillborn.

NASA picks the Delta 4 Heavy to launch Orion into orbit on its first test flight

NASA has chosen the Delta 4 Heavy rocket to launch the Orion capsule into orbit for its first test flight in 2014.

So, tell me again why NASA needs to spend $18 to $62 billion for a new rocket, when it already can hire Lockheed Martin to do the same thing? Though the Delta 4 Heavy can only get about 28 tons into low Earth orbit, and only about 10 tons into geosynchronous orbit — far less than the planned heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket — Boeing Lockheed has a variety of proposed upgrades to Delta 4 Heavy that could bring these numbers way up. Building these upgrades would surely be far cheaper than starting from scratch to build SLS.

Corrected above as per comments below.

NASA moves first flight test of Orion capsule up three years to 2014

NASA has moved the scheduled first flight test of the Orion capsule up three years to 2014.

This action, while good, was almost certainly triggered by the competition from the private space companies. The managers at NASA are finally realizing that if they don’t speed up deployment of their own spacecraft, they will certainly lose in the competition for government dollars. That they will have to use another rocket other than their heavy-lift vehicle for this launch, however, will not help that particular project’s lobbying effort.

Either way, I think this action is only further proof that the more competition we have, the quicker we will get into space. And the journey will cost less too, not only because it will take less time and therefore less money, but the competition between companies (or NASA) will force everyone — including NASA — to lower costs to show they can do it better.

Elon Musk and the forgotten word

Elon Musk at National Press Club

When Elon Musk gave his speech at the National Press Club on September 29, he was asked one question to which he really did not know the answer. He faked it, but his response illustrated how completely forgotten is one fundamental fact about American society — even though this fact is the very reason the United States became the world’s most wealthy and powerful nation less than two centuries after its founding.

To explain this fundamental fact I think I need to take a step back and talk about the ongoing war taking place right now over how the United States should get its astronauts into space. On one side we have NASA and Congress, who want NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket to carry its Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit. On the other side we have a host of independent new space companies, all vying for the chance to launch humans and cargo into space for fun and profit.

Which is right? What system should the United State choose?
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Space News suggests Congress use the billions for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket to fund JWST

In an editorial yesterday Space News suggested that Congress use the billions it is allocating for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket to fund the James Webb Space Telescope instead.

This is not surprising. Webb already has a strong constiuency (astronomers, the public) while the Space Launch System has little support outside of Congress and the specific aerospace contractors who want the work. With tight budgets as far as the eye can see into the future, and the likelihood that Congress is going to become more fiscal conservative after the next election, it would not shock me in the slightest if SLS gets eliminated and the money is given to Webb. And if the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences cargo missions to ISS go well then cutting SLS would almost be a certainty, as this success would demonstrate that these private companies should be able to replace SLS for a tenth of the cost.

And I also think this would be a much wiser use of the taxpayers money.

Another look at the cost of building NASA’s heavy lift rocket

Clark Lindsey takes another look at the cost for building the Congressionally-mandated heavy lift rocket, what NASA calls the Space Launch System and I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation. Key quote:

Finally, I’ll point out that there was certainly nothing on Wednesday that refuted the findings in the Booz Allen study that NASA’s estimates beyond the 3-5 year time frame are fraught with great uncertainty. Hutchison and Nelson claimed last week that since the near term estimates were reliable, there’s no reason to delay getting the program underway. That’s the sort of good governance that explains why programs often explode “unexpectedly” in cost after 3-5 years…

In other words, this is what government insiders call a “buy-in.” Offer low-ball budget numbers to get the project off the ground, then when the project is partly finished and the much higher real costs become evident, Congress will be forced to pay for it. Not only has this been routine practice in Washington for decades, I can instantly cite two projects that prove it:
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NASA to unveil its heavy-lift rocket design

Two stories, one from AP and the other from Florida Today, say that NASA will announce today the design of its heavy-lift rocket, mandated by Congress and estimated to cost around $35 billion. Here is NASA’s press release. To me, this is the key quote (from AP):

NASA figures it will be building and launching about one rocket a year for about 15 years or more in the 2020s and 2030s, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet made. The idea is to launch its first unmanned test flight in 2017 with the first crew flying in 2021 and astronauts heading to a nearby asteroid in 2025, the officials said. From there, NASA hopes to send the rocket and astronauts to Mars — at first just to circle, but then later landing on the Red Planet — in the 2030s. [emphasis mine]

In other words, after spending $1.7 on the National Space Plane, $1.2 billion on the X-33, $1 billion on the X-34, $800 million on the Space Launch Initiative, and finally, almost $10 billion on Constellation, none of which ever flew, NASA is now going to spend another $35 billion on a new rocket that won’t fly for at least another decade.

To be really blunt, this new rocket, like all its predecessors, will never fly either. It costs too much, will take too long to build, and will certainly be canceled by a future administration before it is finished. It is therefore a complete waste of money, and any Congress that approves it will demonstrate how utterly insincere they are about controlling spending.

A clarification: Some of the $35 billion mentioned above has already been spent for the Orion capsule. This however still does not change any of my conclusions.

$18 billion for one test launch

NASA thinks it will cost $18 billion to complete and launch in 2017 one test flight of the Congressionally-designed Space Launch System, the program-formerly-called-Constellation.

This is madness. One flight, unmanned, in seven years? No sane customer would ever buy such a product, especially when there are now a number of cheaper competitors who will likely be flying manned in less time.

Note also that even if NASA’s figures are exaggerated, which I am sure some Senators and Congressmen will claim, I would bet that they are not that far off, based on the space agency’s fixed labor costs and past history.

Senators lambast Administration for SLS budget numbers

The space war heats up: Two senators have issued a statement lambasting the Obama Administration for its budget numbers for building the program-formerly-called-Constellation.

All of this is fantasy and foolishness. These senators might succeed in forcing NASA to spend money on the heavy-lift rocket that Congress has mandated, but there is no way the space agency will ever get enough funding or time to finish it. Even if the lower estimates are right, the cost is exorbitant, many times that of what the private companies have spent for their rockets and ships. And if construction does begin in earnest, it cannot be finished before the arrival of a new President in 2016 (at the latest), who, like all new Presidents, will have his own plans and will not want to build something started by the previous administration.

Much better to end this farce and save the money, especially considering the debt of federal government.

Sticker shock over Congressionally designed rocket

The Obama administration has discovered that the cost to build the program-formerly-called-Constellation, required by Congress, is going to be far more than they can stomach.

White House budget officials increasingly are concerned that some of NASA’s manned-exploration plans may be unaffordable, especially as the space agency weighs options that would raise the cost by billions of dollars by speeding up the development of rockets and spacecraft, according to people familiar with the issue.

The cost concerns are coming to a head, these people said, as the White House Office of Management and Budget ratchets up questions about NASA’s proposed program in light of the current emphasis on deficit reduction.

None of this surprises me.
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The immediate consequences of the Progress freighter failure

The immediate consequences of the Progress freighter failure:

The longer term consequences? Congress will anguish over the lack of a shuttle. Some will demand more money for the program-formerly-called-Constellation, while others will demand more money for the new commercial companies. In either case, they will ignore the reality of a bankrupt federal government that simply can’t afford either at the moment.

Senate Issues Subpoena to NASA for SLS Materials

The space war over NASA continues: The Senate has issued a subpoena to NASA, demanding documents related to its plans for building the Congressionally-designed Space Launch System (SLS), what I like to call the-program-formerly-called-Constellation.

In related news, NASAspaceflight.com reports that those NASA documents state that the agency’s plans for building SLS will take 21 years (!), with the first flight not taking place until 2032.

No wonder NASA has stalled releasing these documents. Nor am I surprised. Based on the budget that Congress gave the agency, it is literally impossible for NASA to build this rocket any faster. And at that rate, no one should be surprised if it never gets built at all. Far better to cancel it now and save the taxpayers the money.

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