As many of you know, I have been an avid supporter of the Constellation program and have expressed grave doubts about Obama, Senator Nelson, and former Congresswoman Kosmas’s plan to turn our entire Human Space Flight program over to unproven commercial space companies such as SpaceX. The commercial companies, which now seem to prefer to call themselves “New Space” (Sounds like another boy band created out of Orlando doesn’t it?), have included older aerospace companies such as Boeing and some very young upstarts such as SpaceX run by Elon Musk. The New Space boys have pushed hard with success to see the Constellation Program killed along with thousands of well-paying jobs that will devastate the economies of local communities near the various NASA space centers and place our nation’s Human Space Flight program at serious risk. During that push to kill HSF, they have made some pretty big promises on when they can launch humans and their capabilities, and have set their eyes on over $1.2 billion taxpayer dollars per year that can come their way with no need to pay it back. The American taxpayer has not had a choice, but is now forced to be “investors” in companies that claim they can do it cheaper and faster than NASA. But, I think New Space has miscalculated. As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, for you just might get it.”
New Space companies have done some wonderful and impressive things. The two leading contenders in the news right now are SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, and Bigelow, owned by Robert Bigelow. In the beginning, Elon Musk originally risked his own money and actually bragged that he would not take any handouts from NASA or the American taxpayer. Though he has had failures in one form or another with his various launches, he has still persisted and has managed to place payloads 150 miles up and in orbit. Not many companies let alone countries can do that. SpaceX has promised they will be able to transport cargo to the International Space Station starting in 2011 and has not stated to my knowledge when they will transport their first human crews.
Bigelow, which licensed technology from NASA (one of the purposes of NASA is to share technology or spinoffs created in HSF programs with the nation), has already had two small “space stations” made of puncture proof fabric material launched into orbit on Russian rockets with the hope of someday providing “space hotels” and orbiting space stations for use by other countries and companies. Robert Bigelow “is willing to risk up to $500 million of his personal wealth on developing the world’s first commercial space station.” Though Bigelow has no way of launching their space stations or hotels on their own, they have recently partnered with Boeing (Boeing has taken $18 million from NASA as part of the $1.2 billion fund set up for commercial companies.) Boeing (with their as yet un-built spacecraft) and Bigelow have promised they will have the first commercial space station in orbit and inhabited with human crews by 2015.
What these New Space Companies have done is impressive, but I have argued before that they are not ready to take on the responsibility of our nation’s HSF. It’s like an excellent little league baseball team that is so good they won the Little League World Series. Suddenly the owner of the NY Yankees shows up and flashes NY Yankee salaries in their faces and says he wants them to replace the NY Yankees and play professional baseball. He gives them the former Yankee’s uniforms, which are way too big for those 10-11 year old boys, all the equipment and stadium, etc. and expects them to compete on a professional level. I’m sure the stockholders for the NY Yankees and the fans would have a problem with that.
Florida Today, Brevard County and KSC’s local newspaper, has been a strong supporter of New Space to the detriment of KSC and its workforce (who happen to be its largest customer base). Recently they published two stories (here and here) to advocate New Space and try to promote how good it would be for the local economy. But, even in their stories, they had to admit that New Space is “highly unpopular” with the people at KSC and that though Florida Today predicted a “launch boom” in the near future, they had to admit that “Past projections for commercial launch booms have been bust.” Even Robert Bigelow is quoted in the articles as saying, “The future of this country is hugely reliant on some version of this architecture working successfully. If not, boy, I don’t know where we are going to head.”
Most of my concentration in this post will be on SpaceX for they have been the most vocal on their wish to replace America’s HSF program and they make a good example of the major challenges New Space faces. Elon Musk used to boast that he could do things 10-100 times cheaper than NASA, and faster. Though Constellation had planned on its first human missions to the ISS in 2015, Mr. Musk had indicated he could do it faster with his Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Just when, I have not been able to find a concrete date he has set, but his first unmanned mission to the ISS is scheduled for 2011. As I said, he boasted about using his own money until Obama dangled nearly $1.2 billion in front of his nose and the opportunity to be one of the main providers to transport astronauts to the ISS. Then, it became all about the money in my opinion, and that money has blinded him to the challenges he will face trying to play in the big leagues.
His first challenge, and the same challenge that all aerospace contractors face each year, is the budget battle. Just because you are promised by a politician a set amount of money each year does not mean you will get it. Politicians break promises all the time. Just ask the KSC workforce about Obama’s promise to close the gap and speed up Constellation. Recently, an Obama appointed deficit reduction commission, headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, proposed, among other things, the complete defunding of commercial space. “Bowles and Simpson called commercial space flight “a worthy goal” but said it’s unclear why the federal government should subsidize it.” New Space howled at the suggestion in protest. Welcome to the big leagues gentlemen! NASA, and its contractors, has had to fight the budget battle for 50 years. It is part of the game and it never ends. Some years you win, some years you survive, and some years you are cancelled.
The second challenge facing New Space is NASA oversight. Elon Musk used to complain that the paperwork required to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), right across mosquito lagoon from KSC, was so excessive that he had to go through the expense of hiring people to process and track it. Well Mr. Musk, if you think CCAFS paperwork was excessive, you’ve seen nothing yet. SpaceX and other commercial companies have no idea what type of regulations and oversight they will experience as they get into bed with NASA. All these New Space companies see is the $1.2 billion of taxpayer dollars for the taking. As a former shuttle worker I have seen first-hand how much time is devoted to paperwork and dealing with the NASA bureaucracy. Oversight and regulation are what NASA bureaucracy does best and no matter how many speeches is made by Charlie Bolden, the current NASA administrator, on how regulations and paperwork will be cut down, that decision is really not up to him but up to the bureaucrat hidden in a small office deep in the bowels of NASA that developed, wrote, and enforces his pet regulation.
Not all regulations and oversight are bad and some are actually needed to ensure the safety of the ship and crew. But when you throw in a risk adverse army of bureaucrats trying to cover their backsides, the regulations will grow exponentially. Former Flight Director Wayne Hale said “As with all good government bureaucracies, NASA believes that improved processes (read: increased bureaucracy) is the answer to preventing future problems. So NASA writes longer and longer specifications and requirements, and demands more and more documentation and proof.” Mr. Hale wrote two wonderful posts about this problem in his blog located here and here. As he said, “Commercial Human Spaceflight is poised to enter a bad relationship and I wonder why everyone is so blind they cannot see what is about to happen.” Well the blindness is caused by that $1.2 billion dollars.
During a typical Space Shuttle Flow, the two weeks prior to shuttle rollover, a series of teams will be formed by the contractors to review all paperwork. This actually will take two weeks to do or longer, at least it did in the TPS department where I worked. Every signature, every stamp, and every checkmark must be done. Nothing can be overlooked or NASA bureaucrats will ding the company. If Elon Musk thought CCAFS was excessive in their paperwork and oversight, he’s in for a rude and expensive surprise when he comes under NASA’s thumb.
Well how bad can it be? Take the lowly screw that would end up on a Space Shuttle. The following would need to be documented by a contractor in order to satisfy NASA. Has the screw been “human rated”, tested in space conditions such as vacuum and radiation? What is the sheer load for the screw? Is it resistant to corrosion? Who made the screw? When was it made? Who inspected it? Who and when was it delivered? Who accepted delivery and inspected it? Who stored it? Who signed it out? Who inspected it again? Who installed it on the ship? Where was it installed on the ship? What was the lot number? Who oversaw the technician during the installation of the screw? Did the Quality Inspector inspect it? Get the idea?
According to Wayne Hale, the CCT-REQ-1130 ISS Crew Transportation and Services Requirements for commercial companies wishing to fly crews to the ISS has been issued. This is how Mr. Hale describes the document: “The document runs a mind-numbing 260 pages of densely spaced requirements…on pages 7 to 11 is a table of 74 additional requirements documents which must be followed in whole or part. Taken all together, there are thousands of requirement statements referenced in this document. And for every one NASA will require a potential commercial space flight provider to document, prove, and verify with massive amounts of paperwork and/or electronic forms.” And gods forbid if there is an incident, injury, or fatality during a mission for it will guarantee even more oversight and regulations if not outright cancellation of their contract or program.
The third and last challenge I want to cover that New Space will have to face playing in the big leagues is being in the spotlight. If SpaceX or any other commercial company thinks that their work and missions can be edited, withheld, or hidden from the public as it can be right now, think again. When you are in bed with NASA and you are using taxpayer dollars, everything is public record. Every bump, scrape, near miss, success and failure is for public viewing. And don’t think the media isn’t going to amplify it and whip you every each way to Sunday. They will because they like doing that. It’s a blood sport to them. So will your critics. New Space caused a civil war within NASA and the aerospace community and cost thousands of jobs in the Constellation program and possibly our nation’s HSF program. Those people have endured New Space’s quiet and not so quiet war against them for seven years and now will be watching the New Space companies like a hawk. Fair or unfair, it will be interesting to see if New Space can take was well as it gave. Miss a deadline, people will pounce. Break a promise and people will quickly point it out and never let you forget it either. Lose a ship or astronaut, and fortunes will be lost. Get the picture?
To sum it all up, New Space wanted to play in the big leagues. Well now you’re here and it’s time to put on that oversized uniform and see if you can play ball. I do wish the New Space companies luck, but remember, when it comes to America’s Human Space Flight program, if you can’t back up your words and promises you made to the nation and rise to the challenges, you will find your major league career over quite quickly. New Space has cost our taxpayers $9 billion so far by getting Constellation cancelled, done a lot of damage to thousands of people who worked on Constellation, and jeopardized our nation’s HSF program to get into the big leagues. I sure hope it was worth the cost.
Update: AmericaSpace.org has written a wonderful post about SpaceX’s attitude and the “wake up” call they are going to get soon from the media and public. Hat tip to our reader astronautics_student.