In this Issue:
– Bill Gaubatz
– Experienced Engineering Teams And US Space Launch Development Policy
– SLS Sole-Sourcing
– 2014 Space Politics: Halftime Report
- Senate Appropriations Impasse, Other Legislation
- Commercial Crew & Cargo at Crossroads
- Defense Launch & Propulsion Politics
– Supporting Space Access
Bill Gaubatz, leader of the McDonnell-Douglas team that built and flew the DC-X, left the scene permanently earlier this month, and we are all the poorer for it. He was a good man, a good friend, and he never gave up on helping this new industry forward. We’ll miss him.
Experienced Engineering Teams And US Space Launch Development Policy
The DC-X 20th Anniversary conference Bill Gaubatz helped organize last summer reminded us of an industry fundamental: If you need to produce a useful new advanced aerospace vehicle, and you want to minimize your risk of abject failure, start with a talented engineering team that already has experience working together – successfully – on similar projects.
Top aerospace engineering teams are seldom just assembled from new hires, ready to succeed at a major task. They generally must build capability over time on a series of increasingly complex projects before they’re ready to produce, say, a high-performance reusable aerospace vehicle. The DC-X team is a prime example. In the years before winning the DC-X contract, they handled the Delta 2 launcher’s return to flight post-Challenger, then the Delta 180, 181, and 183 space test missions for SDIO. This team’s experience (plus SDIO’s flexible non-micro management) was a huge factor in DC-X flying in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the money the NASA establishment thought possible.
A few other examples: Von Braun’s Rocket team had decades of experience before they took on the Saturn 5. The old Lockheed Skunk Works had done dozens of advanced aircraft before producing the SR-71. Boeing’s 707 team was fresh off the B-47 then B-52. The Atlas 5 development team had a great deal of experience with the Titan and Atlas launchers. (We’ve heard that it was a marketing decision to name the new vehicle Atlas 5 rather than Titan 5 – Lockheed-Martin at that point owned both launchers, the design heritage was a mix, but “Atlas” focus-grouped better.) And even SpaceX’s team got the steepest part of their learning curve out of the way on the Falcon 1 prior to the successful debut of the Falcon 9.
There are any number of examples from the other side of the coin, ad hoc assemblages of talent that had never worked together before, and that when thrown in the deep end failed expensively and spectacularly. This includes pretty much every NASA attempt to replace Shuttle for the last 30 years, but we’ll just focus on one here. Lockheed-Martin won the X-33 competition (over the DC-X team and a Rockwell team with Shuttle experience) in part via a nod-and-a-wink campaign hinting that their Skunk Works had already flown something similar “black”, and that X-33 would thus be a piece of cake for them.
Assuming it was true that Lockheed-Martin actually had such an experienced team (there were some interesting visual sightings and reentry-boom seismic readings over southern California and Nevada around then) they apparently had other priorities for that team once the X-33 contract was theirs. The disastrous problems with the X-33 composite tanks sure didn’t sound like a team with previous experience. And the LASRE experiment (transonic testing of a subscale aerospike engine to be carried on a NASA SR-71) that was also a Lockheed-Martin selling point never flew, because the engineers assigned to LASRE couldn’t even get the hydrogen plumbing to stop leaking dangerously. That sounds more like interns than the engineering “A” team.
We see two lessons here:
If you don’t already have an experienced team, start by hiring the essential highly talented people, yes – but plan on spending some years after that building team experience on smaller projects before you can hand them a really big one with reasonable odds of success.
And once you have such a team up to speed, it is a precious and hard-to-replace resource, not to be dispersed or under-employed lightly.
US Launch Development Policy
This brings us to the current US launch vehicle scene. We see only three such US teams with current-generation successful experience building and flying useful space launch vehicles: SpaceX, Orbital, and ULA. (Blue Origin may be there soon, and XCOR, Virgin, and others are also headed that way, but those first three are the proven teams we have now.)
As such, they are precious national resources – scarce, and expensive and time-consuming to replace.
We should treat them that way. We don’t seem to be doing so in the case of ULA.
Boeing and Lockheed-Martin look very much like they’re treating ULA as a cash cow, maximizing near-term income from sales of its current high-cost expendable Delta 4 and Atlas 5 launchers, while allowing ULA to invest only token amounts in its long-term future. ULA’s owners apparently prefer to run the operation into the ground for short-term income.
Consider: ULA is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, the result of a 2006 government-motivated merger between these two parent companies’ EELV operations. As such, the parent companies effectively control how much ULA can invest in staying competitive for the future: How much of ULA’s operating income is shipped off to the parents as profit, how much ULA can reinvest, and whether ULA can go looking for additional outside investment capital.
Atlas 5 and Delta 4 met the goals set for them twenty years ago. They are reliable, they cost significantly less than Shuttle did, and they do this within the requirements of the traditional (high-cost and inflexible) USAF space-launch procurement system. But “significantly less than Shuttle” is no longer enough, “price-and-service competitive with SpaceX” is rapidly becoming the new standard. ULA’s current service edge almost certainly won’t last. There’s no way ULA can then compete purely on price against SpaceX’s next-generation manufacturing operation without at minimum a complete overhaul of ULA’s manufacturing/procurement process. If SpaceX’s reusability push pans out, ULA may also need major vehicle redesigns to keep up. Neither of these moves comes cheap.
ULA’s parents were reported at the time of the merger to share ULA profits equally. Lockheed-Martin is reported here to have received $300 million from ULA in 2013, and here to be on track to increase that for 2014. Even allowing for peculiarities of corporate accounting, ULA income to the parent companies is clearly significant, hundreds of millions annually.
Meanwhile, the visible evidence of ULA future investment is a few engine study contracts here, a small-scale upper-stage propulsion hardware demo there. These, plus their published work on propellant depots, advanced deep-space upper stages, etc. do indicate to us that ULA understands where they need to go – but the level of financial commitment seems wholly inadequate. We’d estimate the annual amounts involved to be in the millions – at most in the (very) low tens of millions – far short of the hundreds of millions of investment needed if ULA is to have a long-term competitive future.
As an irreverent colleague put it, “someone really needs to call Protective Services on ULA’s parents.”
The US government has not been shy in the past about imposing national policy on the US launch industry. In this case, we suggest that they let Boeing and Lockheed-Martin know that if they’re unwilling to invest in ULA for the long term themselves, for the good of country and company both, they should sell ULA to a deep-pockets outsider who will.
Otherwise, what we’ll likely see some years from now is ULA’s current product line priced out of the market entirely, obsolete and near valueless, while ULA’s development team will have burnt out, retired, or gone elsewhere. That’s no way to treat a useful – and perishable – national resource.
This reminds us of a related issue. Once it was decided (however foolishly) to base a new NASA Heavy-Lift Vehicle on leftover Shuttle systems, arguably it made sense to (effectively) sole-source Ares 5 to the existing Shuttle contractors. The same logic might still apply for the core and solid boosters of SLS, although the gap with Shuttle is widening. Boeing, for instance, was just granted a multi-billion dollar contract to produce two SLS core stages on a sole-source, non-competed basis. We’re not utterly convinced, but nor are we really interested in arguing that point. (We prefer to focus on the overall unwisdom of basing a new HLV on 1970s hardware and bureaucracies if there’s to be any hope of it affordably flying useful missions.)
But reading farther down in that story, it occurs to us to ask what, precisely, qualifies Boeing to also get a $307 million sole-source contract for the 4x RL-10 powered interim SLS upper stage?
There are two RL-10 powered hydrogen upper stages in current use in the US. They’re both produced and operated by… ULA. The sole engineering team in the US with practical experience building and flying hydrogen upper stages works for… ULA. The team that’s spent considerable effort designing a scalable 4x RL-10 upper stage, along with a variety of long-endurance deep-space hydrogen upper stage enhancements, is at… ULA.
This is a bit of a head-scratcher. We’d almost think there was politics involved in SLS procurement decisions.
Even the Government Accountability Office is questioning this. From page 26 of http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664969.pdf, “..program officials… ..also stated that the [SLS] program does not plan to compete the upper stage development because its initial award to Boeing in 2007 under the Constellation program was done competitively. Since that award, however, our work indicates that the marketplace for spacecraft development has shifted considerably as new commercial providers have since developed and have launched, or are currently developing, upper stages.” (We at SAS would add that the “Interim” upper stage currently contemplated for SLS has also “shifted considerably”, as in it’s a totally different stage than the one awarded to Boeing in 2007.)
As we see it, if there were an actual competition for this SLS upper stage contract, with team experience as a significant criterion, some SLS money might then go to developing an actual functional scalable hydrogen deep-space-capable upper stage, which might then be usable elsewhere, and that would be somewhat less SLS money utterly wasted.
But if SLS management is content to ignore the only proven hydrogen upper stage engineering team in the US in sole-sourcing their latest new upper stage, and if Congress is willing to let them, well, we think it says a great deal about the SLS project as a whole, and we think they will probably get exactly the upper stage they deserve.
2014 Space Politics: Halftime Report
It’s midsummer in Washington DC, and Congressional activity on US space policy has largely come to a halt. Not that the year’s space legislative work is done. We expect a flurry of activity before the federal fiscal year ends September 30th, and another after the November elections are past.
Nor is Congress the only thing happening in US space politics this summer. NASA HQ is now talking about a decision in August or September on the winner(s) in the next round of Commercial Crew development. And the next batch of Russian RD-180 engines for Atlas 5 either will or won’t be delivered to ULA in August.
The current pause seems a good time to review the state of play.
Senate Appropriations Impasse
When last we wrote, the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science (NASA) Appropriations bill was on its way to the Senate floor for debate and amendment as part of a “minibus” package with the Transportation-HUD and Agriculture appropriations. Senator Shelby had stood up and defended his Commercial Crew/Cargo cost-plus accounting poison-pill during the preliminaries, and Senator Nelson had responded that a balance between oversight and innovation is needed.
Then before the day was out, election-year politics intervened, and action on all Senate Appropriations bills came to a screeching halt. (See the fine print** below for the details, if you care.)
That’s where things still stand. The Senate’s election-year impasse doesn’t look like getting resolved until, yes, after the elections. It looks very much like we’ll see an omnibus Continuing Resolution to maintain government funding after the end of this federal fiscal year on September 30th until at least some weeks into November. The effect will be to maintain the status quo at least till sometime late in the year.
The status quo is a good thing as far as we’re concerned, since Senator Shelby is the one pushing for radical changes here. We also see a good chance that when it does come time to finalize things, he quite likely will not prevail, since with your help we’ve succeeded in making his cost-plus accounting mandate controversial and in stirring up Senate opposition.
Not a satisfyingly definite conclusion to the matter, no. But it looks for now like a win, and we’ll take it.
** We can find no single clear description of the Senate’s election-year Appropriations impasse to point to. Our attempt to summarize: The EPA is introducing new CO2 emissions regulations that will significantly raise the cost of coal-fired electricity, affecting a lot of voters. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sees an opportunity to put together 51 votes for an amendment preventing this, with his 45 Republicans plus a half-dozen Democrats who are facing tight races this fall. Senate rules allow for 51-vote amendments – but only when 60 Senators agree to it as part of the ground rules for how a given bill is considered. Reversing their usual positions, McConnell wants a 51-vote amendments threshold to allow him to either pass his energy amendment or put those half-dozen tight-race Democrats on the spot, while Reid wants a 60-vote threshold to allow his at-risk Democrats to vote for McConnell’s amendment and satisfy their home state voters while still defeating the amendment. Meanwhile, no Appropriations bill can advance without a 60-vote majority agreeing on the amendment and debate rules, which means while this impasse lasts no Appropriations bill can advance, period.
The House CJS (NASA) Appropriations bill passed back in June. It also has a harmful Commercial Crew provision in the accompanying Report language: A requirement to downselect immediately to one contractor, eliminating competition. We’ve been considerably less worried about this, since it is directly contradicted by language in the House NASA Appropriation itself saying that Commercial Crew “..will also benefit greatly from competition among multiple US commercial spaceflight companies”, making it much easier for NASA to ignore. More on the intent behind this (and Senator Shelby’s poison-pill) in the next section.
The House NASA Authorization (Authorizations tend to be more concerned with policy direction) also passed a while back, with some provisions of interest to us. The earlier SLS/Orion cancellation-proofing “termination liability” provisions have been watered down to 120 days notice required, which we can live with. And safety is still defined as the highest priority for Commercial Crew. It strikes us that a balance between safety, affordability, and the earliest possible operational capability would be both more appropriate, and more realistic in terms of what the country actually expects from the program. Again, we expect NASA will be able to handle this point sensibly.
Commercial Crew & Cargo At Crossroads
The CCiCap phase of the program is winding up. The top three contenders (Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX) have all submitted bids for the final development phase, CCtCap, where actual transportation capability will be demonstrated, with first flight to Station taking place by the end of 2017. Funding for CCtCap looks likely to be adequate, with both houses of Congress currently supporting near $800 million for next year.
The politics of the CCtCap selection are, uh, interesting. There seem to be two main schools of thought on how Commercial Crew should go forward.
One, which we (and we hope still Commercial Crew management) favor, is to pick for CCtCap contracts the two of the current three bidders most likely to produce a useful timely affordable crew transport capability, with a continuation of the current non-traditional NASA management style. IE, fixed-price milestone contracts with significantly less-than-traditional NASA micromanagement. (It’s worth noting that the only way the program can afford to keep two competing contractors is to continue this lower-cost approach.) Given ongoing political difficulties with Russia, the contractor with best potential for an accelerated operational capability (IE, significantly before the nominal target of December 2017) (IE, SpaceX) would likely get a larger share of funding to pursue that option.
The other approach, pushed by a coalition between old-school NASA and their Congressional supporters, would downselect to one old-school contractor (Boeing), give them all the funding, drop the current Commercial Crew management and bring things back under old-school NASA management, ignore the goals for contractor co-investment, for commercial potential beyond NASA, and (practically speaking) for any early capability, and revert to the traditional cost-plus NASA-micromanaged development approach. (Boeing and its supporters have been hinting broadly at various aspects of this approach for years.)
This traditional approach to producing new NASA crew transportation has failed every time it’s been tried for over thirty years now, but it has the attraction of predictability – of keeping program and funding control in the same old hands and jobs in the same old districts. The result in this case would very likely be another protracted expensive failure. This result is apparently acceptable on the grounds that it wouldn’t be obvious for years and by then the voters will have forgotten. Not, we say, if we have anything to do with the matter.
(Oh, and a note of possible sympathy for Senator Shelby. If you assume the old-school sole-source approach as given, then more stringent accounting rules to keep the sole-source contractor from playing fast and loose might actually be a really good idea. Mind, we tend to think that no program at all would be better at that point, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.)
The most recent word we’ve seen from NASA HQ on when the CCtCap announcements will be made is, sometime in August or September. We await the results with great interest, and in the meantime we sympathize with those undoubtedly being subjected to immense and conflicting political pressures. Do the right thing, guys – it won’t get you a VP slot at Boeing, but you’ll sleep better at night.
Defense Launch & Propulsion Politics
Reports of the demise of Atlas 5’s Russian-supplied RD-180 engine have been somewhat exaggerated, at least so far. One angry tweet from a Russian official who’d just been personally sanctioned does not (necessarily) a Russian policy make. Certainly the possibility exists and should be planned for (as we advised back in May), but as of a month ago ULA has agreed with the actual Russian manufacturers to move two RD-180 deliveries (out of a batch of five originally due in November) up to August, and to increase the overall order to eight engines a year from the previous six.
Our take: Russia is already seeing enough economic problems from Western sanctions (and from general loss of investor confidence) arising out of their Ukraine policies. An actual cutoff of RD-180 shipments would temporarily inconvenience the US and cost it some billions, while also pushing the US toward domestic engine production that would reduce both export revenue and influence for Russia over the long term. We will await August with interest (not nearly as much so as ULA, of course) but we think the way to bet is that those two engines will show up.
Regarding reducing US defense launch political vulnerability to Russia via US production of either the RD-180 or a close substitute, back in May we advised that if a US substitute is in fact required, an RD-180 clone might be preferable to a new design, as being less likely to turn into an extended development boondoggle. We’ve since been told by multiple sources that a major issue with the RD-180 is that its design is extremely labor-intensive to manufacture, so at US skilled aerospace labor rates cloning RD-180 isn’t as obviously superior to developing a new substitute as we’d thought.
That said, there does seem to be a consensus emerging in Congress and at the White House that we should come up with a replacement for Russian RD-180, though not yet on what that should be or how to go about it. (This story, this, and this cover the matter in considerable depth, along with coverage of the SpaceX-ULA/DOD legal brawl).
Our summary: The House Defense Appropriators want to throw a lot of new money ($220m next year) at the problem, implicitly for a traditional government cost-plus procurement at Aerojet (the last traditional US engine vendor standing). The Senate Defense Appropriators so far are being more cautious, with $25 million new money (plus $43m previously for a generic liquid rocket technology program.) A traditional government engine procurement has been cited as costing $1 billion over five years, but high DOD officials recently warned (realistically, we think) it may end up more like $2 billion over eight years. The White House meanwhile said that $220m next year would be premature while they are still “evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition.”
The problem we see is that the only established large-rocket-engine vendor left in the US is Aerojet (they’ve acquired both Pratt &Whitney and Rocketdyne.) Aerojet has a reputation for being more than happy to soak up open-ended money and time in traditional government cost-plus procurements. Going back to our observation on skilled engineering teams, both of the other US candidate teams with current experience anywhere close to that engine size, at SpaceX and Blue Origin, were formed to meet their own companies’ engine needs and aren’t obviously interested in outside customers.
The White House seems to be on the right long-term track with ” public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition.” But in the short term, somehow affordably getting a useful engine out of Aerojet may be the primary option.
To that end, we have some suggestions:
First, insist Aerojet keep it simple, going for the souped-up NK-33 derivative they’ve talked about in recent years rather than a wholly-new-design technology-fest. The Russian NK-33 engine Aerojet has design rights to (they currently refurbish these for Orbital’s Antares booster) is reportedly much more easily manufacturable than RD-180. If Aerojet’s claims for the upgraded version they were trying to sell NASA a couple years back are true, the result should be usable (in pairs) as a reasonable RD-180 replacement.
Second, by keeping the technology risk low, the possibility opens up of a fixed-price, milestone-based contract rather than the usual open-ended cost-plus procurement. Doing so, with the will to hold the contractors’ feet to the fire on schedule and cost, could be good both for Aerojet’s culture and for US taxpayers.
Third, by keeping costs low this way, the possibility opens up of maintaining post-selection competition by splitting overall funding, with a minor share going to the best innovative newcomer vendor bid received. Think establishment consortium Galileo Industries versus Surrey Satellite on the ESA GIOVE Galileo navsat testbed project. The GIOVE that flew first (by years) and most effectively and by far the cheapest was upstart Surrey’s.
One final, more radical suggestion, to put all this in perspective: Offer a billion dollars in prize money for the first US company to build and test a suitable engine. (Perhaps split the billion 60-40 for the first two, to reduced the perceived risk of coming in second and getting nothing.) Then stand back and watch the American commercial ingenuity fly. Should Aerojet fail to come up with a serious effort to win such a prize, they might well find their top talent being hired away by more agile outfits, to the overall benefit of the country.
Supporting Space Access
It takes a fair number of hours just to keep up with all that’s going on these days. Putting out these Updates takes more time on top of that, consulting and debating and writing. The work of SAS gets carried on in the time we can spare from paying the bills, and in recent years that time has been getting less. (To the point where we had to cancel this spring’s conference, something we do not want to have to do ever again.)
SAS gave up paid memberships and active fundraising a number of years back for reasons that made sense at the time. Times have changed. If we’re going to continue doing this work, we need help.
In the near future we’ll be resuming taking paid memberships (with some interesting member benefits) and announcing how we’re going to support producing next spring’s Space Access Conference. We still have details to work out on these, though.
In the meantime, if you think what we’ve been doing to promote sensible policies (and occasionally chew on a deserving political ankle or two) is worthwhile, and you’d like to buy us more time to do it better, help, please. Send a donation of whatever size – ten, a hundred, a thousand, it all helps – via check for now – to:
Space Access Society, PO Box 16034, Phoenix AZ 85011.
Note that this is NOT tax-deductible, as we are not a 501c-anything. It is however entirely confidential, as we have never and will never share or disclose in any way our supporters’ names.
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