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starship-design: FW: SSRT: Space Access Update no. 84 (fwd) (Since Kelly mentioned it...)
From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] On
Behalf Of Chris W. Johnson
Sent: Thursday, June 17, 1999 7:42 PM
To: Single Stage Rocket Technology News
Subject: SSRT: Space Access Update no. 84 (fwd)
Date: Thu, 17 Jun 1999 19:58:12 -0400 (EDT)
From: Donald L Doughty <email@example.com>
To: DC-X <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Space Access Update #84 6/17/99 (fwd)
Space Access Update #84 6/17/99
Copyright 1999 by Space Access Society
Editorial: Right Intentions, Wrong Direction -
NASA's Destructive Approach To Cheap Access
Let us be clear from the start: NASA's leadership may well share our
vision of the importance of cheap access to our future - but their
organization has screwed up the cheap access initiatives entrusted
to it to date, from the mismanagement of DC-XA into a crash (we
still haven't seen full public release of the predictable blame-the-
contractor report on that mess) to the muddled morphing of X-33 into
a half-assed Shuttle II. As far as we are concerned, the current
push to do "X-Ops" reusable rocket low-cost operability demos in
Future-X is NASA's last chance - if they mess this up too, come 2001
we'll be pushing hard for removal of RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle)
technology development responsibility from NASA entirely.
We reluctantly came to this conclusion last fall, and started
working quietly behind the scenes to advance Future-X X-Ops work.
Why are we going public now? Because over the last two months the
evidence has become overwhelming that the NASA old guard is
reverting to malign old habits - they are once again pushing their
internal agendas with reckless disregard for the interests of US
industry and of the country as a whole, to the point of actively
attacking the credibility and investment-worthiness of the reusable-
launch startups. They have done so repeatedly, and (under the most
charitable interpretation) factually incorrectly.
This must stop, NOW. If NACA in 1930 had been allowed to tell
potential investors that Douglas and Boeing couldn't possibly build
robust all-metal monoplane airliners without ten additional years of
massive NACA research funding, we'd all still be taking trains.
Assuming, of course that we survived WW II at all.
If NASA can neither usefully support entrepreneurial low-cost launch
ventures, nor at minimum shut up and stay out of their way, then
it's time to start looking carefully at the parts of NASA involved,
constraining the ones still needed, and defunding the rest.
Our evaluation is that NASA is doing this to advance two major
agendas. One is to maintain the massive NASA Shuttle/Station
bureaucracy into the indefinite future, by preempting all possible
alternatives to some sort of huge full-employment Shuttle Upgrade or
Shuttle Followon project.
The other is to fund a wish-list of blue sky launch technology
projects (including hypersonic airbreathing launch vehicles - NASP
II, anyone?) at most of the other NASA centers under the name
"Spaceliner 100", by attacking current (rocket) technologies as
simply not good enough. (For a NASA Spaceliner 100 briefing, see
That's only our estimate of their motives, mind. It's always
possible NASA is attacking the commercial RLV outfits out of sheer
random institutional bloodymindedness. But attacking they are - and
in general, the main content of their attacks is, uh, incorrect.
In evidence, point #1
- From the April 8th speech by Administrator Goldin to the US Space
Foundation (at http://www.nasa.gov/bios/goldin_speeches.html) in the
context of supporting Spaceliner 100 (by the way, we totally agree
with the grand vision expressed in this speech, of the importance to
coming generations of investing in cheap space access now. It's the
proposed implementation that we vehemently disagree with. We
suspect Dan Goldin has been getting very bad technology advice
lately): "At NASA, the technology barrier is the rocket." He goes
on to state, more or less correctly, that Shuttle launch costs are
about $10,000 per pound, and then says "Expendable vehicles are not
significantly cheaper" (with the unspoken corollary that reusable
rockets can't possibly be much better.)
It depends on your definition of "significantly", we guess - aside
from the Titan 4, which involves almost as much bureaucracy as
Shuttle, current medium-to-heavy commercial expendables cost from
about half (Delta 2, Atlas 2) to about one fifth (ILS Proton) of
$10K per pound to LEO. NASA's recent line that even reusable
rockets can't make more than a factor of ten reduction over Shuttle
launch costs looks pretty foolish when decades-old expendable
designs already undercut Shuttle by factors of two to five. And at
least two credible current expendable ventures are shooting for that
factor of ten reduction.
It is indeed possible that rockets, *as conceived by NASA*, can
never get much cheaper than Shuttle. There's considerable evidence
to support this in NASA's recent RLV efforts. But, if we can keep
NASA from strangling the innovative RLV startups in their cradles,
there is no fundamental law of physics preventing clever engineers
without NASA's forty years of bureaucratic baggage from undercutting
Shuttle costs by factors of ten right from the start, getting down
to factors of as much as a hundred once experience refines systems
and flight rates rise.
In evidence, point #2:
- May 8th "New Scientist" magazine - at
>From an article on Richard (Virgin Atlantic Airways) Branson's
investment negotiations with Rotary Rocket Company, a quote from a
top-level NASA official dismissing Roton and other such reusable
rocket concepts as "...system gimmicks to overcome the unbelieveable
lack of technology they [the startup reusable rocket companies]
Hmm. NASA, by implication, has far better technology. Oh, really.
Who has full-scale graphite-epoxy LOX tanks? Who has access to the
best (Russian) rocket engines in the world? Who can build composite
fuel tanks, liquid hydrogen or plain old kerosene, that *don't* leak
like sieves? Who knows how to tow-launch high wing-loading
vehicles? Who has the biggest concentration of expertise in the
world on vertical-landing rockets? On aerial cryo-propellant
transfer? On rapid prototyping of high-strength ultra-light
composites? On high-performance non-toxic storable propellants?
If you answered "NASA" to any of the above, you are *wrong*. The
answer in every case is "private industry", and in most cases the
startups. NASA still has pockets of excellence, but they float in a
sea of mediocrity. NASA slamming the startups' technology in order
to get more funding for their own endless noodling is, frankly,
That said, precisely what is wrong with "system gimmicks" if they
*work*? Are they somehow impure, unclean, unworthy of the true
scientific guardians of higher-tech-at-all-costs? A case in point:
Modern military aircraft require a base with a ten thousand-foot
concrete runway to operate effectively, right? No possible way to
cut that to one-tenth the size and, better yet make it mobile, short
of some ultra-advanced technology like anti-gravity? Right?
Uh... What is an aircraft carrier but a collection of "system
gimmicks" - massive victorian-tech steam catapults for takeoffs,
arrestor wires and tailhooks and mirror-and-light flightpath
indicators for landings, angled flight decks to allow both at once,
plus the accumulated operational expertise to make it all work, a
mobile airbase a tenth the size of fixed landbased versions. If the
"system gimmick" RLV startups can make a major dent in launch costs,
and it looks as if, given a chance, they can, we do not give two
figs how "gimmicky" their technology is. To quote some anonymous
Cold War weapons designer, "'better' is the enemy of 'good enough'".
In evidence, point #3:
This week's "Space News" - "Reusable Launch Vehicles A Decade Away,
NASA Says." We mentioned in Update #83 that the results of an
industry study on what to do about Shuttle (STAS, the Space
Transportation Architecture Study) were out, and that while many of
the proposals were (predictably) for massively expensive one-size-
fits-all Shuttle replacements, at least some of the conclusions were
sensible, IE gradually replace Shuttle with an EELV/CTV system that
would meet NASA manned-space's basic needs with a relatively small
investment while having (a major point to us) negligible impact on
the commercial launch market.
(STAS public non-proprietary results are at
(EELV are the heavy-lift versions of the Enhanced Expendable Launch
Vehicle, aka Delta 4 and Atlas 5. CTV is a proposed Crew Transfer
Vehicle version of the X-38 Station "Crew Rescue Vehicle" lifeboat.)
Now it seems the NASA/Aerospace Corp response to the various STAS
reports has been leaked to Space News, and the gist of it is: NASA
slams the various RLV proposals as unrealistic regarding schedule
and budget (not surprising if they're geared to actually getting a
contract to replace Shuttle; spending too much money over too long a
time in all the right districts is an unspoken requirement for any
would-be Shuttle replacement - it seems unfair to slam the proposals
for soft-pedalling these unspoken specs) and proposes that NASA
essentially micromanage a drawn-out process to eventually replace
Shuttle sometime in the 2010's.
Previous intentions to encourage commercial RLV developments have
evaporated; NASA Shuttle II will be the only game in town, at least
by this tell-the-customer-what-they-want-to-hear custom blueprint.
Mind, we haven't seen this study ourselves yet; we're going on Space
News's reading - but this agrees with the other recent evidence. By
essentially dismissing the chances any of the current crop of RLV
startups could succeed and thus position themselves to meet a
significant part of NASA's space launch needs, NASA significantly
reduces the startups' chances of getting the investment they need to
succeed, in a fine example of pernicious self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, by ignoring the meet-JSC's-needs-and-no-more EELV/CTV
approach in favor of some flavor of massive-overcapacity Shuttle II,
this study continues NASA's implicit threat of a subsidized grab of
the core of the existing commercial launch demand, adversely
affecting the investment climate for commercial space launch in
This is rapidly approaching the point where we'll be able to make a
convincing case that this nation's future in space would be better
served by a radically reduced NASA. We'd rather not find that road
the only one left to us.
Fixing the problem
For starters, we'd like to see whoever's peddling this line at NASA
HQ fired, or at least transferred to counting seabirds at some
remote tracking station. Not that the person in question is more
than a representative of widespread NASA tendencies, but it will at
least serve as an example to the rest.
We'd like to hear an unambiguous repudiation of the totally
unacceptable anti-RLV startup investment advice voiced in the May
8th New Scientist article.
We'd like to see a firm NASA committment to "X-Ops", supporting
interested startups in proving out and refining their low-cost
launch approaches via low-cost subscale flight demonstrations on
NASA's dime, in order to get them to the point where they are
unmistakeably ready to raise commercial funds to develop full-scale
commercial vehicles on an acceptable commercial timescale.
Under those circumstances, we would find it appropriate to support a
minimum-investment approach to guaranteeing Shuttle's NASA-unique
missions, and to support a moderate level of investment in getting
the various "Spaceliner 100" technologies closer to ready for prime
time - we note that the proposed RBCC (Rocket-Based Combined Cycle,
a hybrid rocket-airbreather) engine in particular has huge remaining
unknowns in terms of weight, cost, and speed range, and much work
needs to be done before any Trailblazer-class (~$500m) flight
vehicle program is appropriate. In other words, "show us the
engine!" - given X-33's develop-a-partially-new-engine problems,
this should go without saying, but it apparently doesn't.
We can understand why there might be dissatisfaction with reusable
rockets at top levels in NASA, given the reluctance of the post-
consolidation aerospace majors to compete with themselves by
committing significant resources, and given the organizational
cluelessness in efforts to date. But stomping the startups in an
effort to fund NASP II and/or Shuttle II is not the answer.
Give the startups a real chance now - tight funding, tight schedule,
tight accounting, but minimal engineering elbow-joggling - and in
three to four years, we'll know what's really possible.
Stick with business as usual, and sooner or later the country will
realize what damage NASA is doing, and will act appropriately.
Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions
in the cost of reaching space. You may redistribute this Update in
any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety.
Space Access Society
"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System"
- Robert A. Heinlein