The Price of Duplication

August 8, 2011 by
Filed under: Civil Space Flight 

NASA’s proposed next big effort is to build a rocket to replace the space shuttle. And the price tag? Thirty-eight billion dollars or about 10 times what private industry, as exemplified by SpaceX, will charge for the same job. Is this really the best use of taxpayer dollars?

Proponents argue that a government-owned rocket is needed as an alternative in the event that the commercial sector fails to deliver a viable system, but that alone is not sufficient reason for going ahead with the plan. There must be a justifiable cost benefit. If the current debt crisis teaches us anything, it is that the US government is not a bottomless pit of cash.

Over the projected 10 years that it will require to design (and yes I know it will stem from heritage shuttle systems, but it’s hardly plug-and-play), build, test and put into operations this new system, it is expected to fly only twice. That’s a flight rate than doesn’t begin to cover even the paltry rate of the shuttle. First, it was promised that the shuttle would be cheaper to operate than the single-use rockets like the Saturn V it replaced. That did not materialize. The life-averaged cost of operating the shuttle was about $1.3 billion per launch. Much of the reason for that astronomical price tag was low flight rate, which brings us to item two. The shuttle was to have flown every 30 days, but in it’s final 5 years of flight, it averaged about 4 flights per year: just 25% the rate originally sought. In every measurable sense, the space shuttle failed to deliver on the promise of exceeding it’s predecessor’s capabilities. And now, NASA proposes to build another, even more expensive system demanding 19 times the operations cost of the now-retired orbiters. The term used to describe this class of vehicle is “heavy lift,” referring to it’s ability to lift large payloads into space. But perhaps it better describes the force required to lift the tons of cash required to operate it.

R&D is something the space agency does extremely well, yet it continually strays into areas well outside its bailiwick. There is no other reason for this than poor management; one with a chronic lack of focus and understanding of its own charter.

Seasoned space professionals recognize a term used early in this article: operations. The word is the very antithesis of research and development, which is the stated purpose of the space agency. Once a technology moves from the R&D world into regular use – as rockets now have – it becomes operational, at which point it should be tasked to another entity with the manufacturing and fiscal agility to deliver the system at a reasonable cost. This in no way describes NASA.

It’s one thing to deliver criticism and another to follow it with better ideas. To formulate them, we start with a premise and a question.  Our premise is that our sole purpose is in creating something never created before; in other words, research and development. The question is simple: where is research and development in space most needed? Infrastructure. And why is that? The biggest impediment to making space exploration attainable on a permanent basis is cost, and the biggest contributor to cost is a lack of infrastructure to support the venture.

Consider this: every time a spacecraft leaves Earth, it must carry absolutely everything with it that will need during the mission. This one fact adds tremendously to the cost per flight. Remove that restriction, and the cost dramatically drops.

A giant leap forward would be to develop orbiting refueling stations. NASA has begun to fund this type of research but at levels so modest as to amount an afterthought. It has awarded $2.4 million to four companies to begin looking at ways to store cryogenic fuels on orbit. The contention here is not that the agency has failed to identify fuel depots as a need but rather that it grossly underfunds the effort. The priority given the rocket development program should instead go into infrastructure, but the proverbial cart has been placed in front of the horse.

There are still other infrastructure technologies that should be getting the fast track as well such as on-orbit manufacturing processes. If we’re to build interplanetary vehicles and support system in a cost-effective manner, we’ll need to know how to assemble them in space. Building complete systems and launching them from the ground is too expensive, not to mention restrictive. But it all comes down to one thing: focus. NASA has taken its eye off of what’s important and concentrated it on duplication of effort, and it comes at the expense of forward momentum in space exploration.

Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to thinking in terms of “some day” that we fail to see what’s possible here and now if we simply stay focused and prioritize. Why don’t we try taking a recommendation from Larry The Cable Guy and “git-r-done.” Heck, if for no other reason than to see what happens when you think outside the box.

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