Status Report

Space Access Update #98 8 March 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
March 8, 2001
Filed under ,

Every time we think we’re getting caught up, something new comes
along. This time, it’s the Bush Administration’s first major moves at
NASA, about which more in a moment…

Oops, and now it’s leaked info on who NASA SLI is negotiating
contracts with, with a couple of surprises. Boeing, OSC/Northrop-
Grumman, and Lockheed-Martin getting offers was predictable, Kistler
and USL getting offers was not, and Kelly getting no offer (if true)
is quite a surprise. See Brian Berger’s Space News piece at:

Meanwhile, as usual, we’re running just-barely-in-time putting
together this year’s Space Access ’01 conference, but be assured it
will again be an interesting mix of the usual suspects and some
unusual new additions, once again providing an intensive informal
snapshot of where the nascent cheap space access industry is this
spring of 2001. The schedule is intro sessions Thursday evening April
26th then main sessions all day and evening Friday the 27th and
Saturday the 28th, the hotel is again the Holiday Inn Old Town in the
heart of downtown Scottsdale Arizona, and the reservation number is
480 994-9203 – book soon and mention “space access” to get our $72
rate. Conference registration is $100 in advance, $120 at the door,
mail checks to: SAS, 4855 E Warner Rd #24-150, Phoenix AZ 85044.


contents this issue:

– ProSpace’s “March Storm” Starts This Weekend

– Changes At NASA: Tidying Up Or The Start Of Real Reform?

– X-33, X-34 Won’t Get SLI Funds

– SLI Growth Rate Cut Back, But No Fundamental Reforms Yet

– Essay: Competition Is The Answer


ProSpace’s “March Storm” Starts This Weekend

Our colleagues at the Space Frontier Foundation’s lobbying branch,
ProSpace, begin their annual “March Storm” amateur-volunteer lobbying
expedition to Washington this coming Sunday March 11th; we recommend
it as a worthy effort. (See for details.)

Unfortunately, ProSpace’s website still doesn’t list the planned March
Storm lobbying agenda. However, the emailed agenda outline we’ve seen
does include support for radical reform of NASA’s Space Launch
Initiative, a goal we share. Alas, details of ProSpace’s approach are
still lacking. It happens we believe fixing SLI is one of the more
useful and doable thing activists can push for this year. Here’s what
we think Congress needs to hear on that subject in the coming days:

– Build and fly more X-vehicles.

(Modestly-sized practical ones, not grandiosely misconceived
boondoggles like the late unlamented X-33.)

– Do so competitively, involving both new agencies within the
government and new companies as contractors.

(NASA’s RLV monopoly has failed, expensively. Spread out slices of
SLI’s planned budget to multiple new outfits – DARPA, AFRL, NRL, NSF,
DOT are a few possibilities – and may the best agency win. Meanwhile,
giving ambitious startup companies a real chance to prove themselves
couldn’t possibly produce worse results than what we’ve seen from the
complacent post-consolidation aerospace majors recently.)

Space launch is a high-leverage economic enabler – recent government
estimates are that space puts over $60 billion a year into the US
economy, leveraged off less than $2 billion worth of high-cost space
launch. How much more would space add to the economy if we had
reliable low-cost launch? “A lot” is a pretty safe bet.

We’ve seen in recent years that the current space launch market is too
small to readily support commercial development of low-cost launch.
But the potential economic (and national security) leverage of low-
cost space launch makes effective government development support a
highly attractive national investment.

Note, though, we said “effective” – NASA has badly mismanaged their
seven-year monopoly on reusable launch R&D, spending close to two
billion dollars on little more than a couple hangars full of ill-
assorted hi-tech aerospace parts. NASA’s new Space Launch Initiative
as planned to date will be more of the same – we need to dramatically
change course.


Changes At NASA: Tidying Up, Or Real Reform?

The Bush Administration last week did some house cleaning at NASA.
They removed George Abbey as boss of the tail that wags the NASA dog,
the Houston JSC-based “Human Space Flight” division (HSF runs Shuttle
and Station, half of NASA’s overall budget once you add in personnel
and overhead.) They killed several Station-related projects to make
up for massive Station overruns. They also cancelled NASA Marshall’s
troubled X-33 and X-34. It’s a start, but at least in the space-
launch R&D area we specialize in, there are still major problems.

X-33, X-34 Won’t Get SLI Funds

Both X-33 and X-34 have already gone well beyond their original
budgets, both are already years late, and both are more years away
from flight. It’s now official that neither will get any money from
NASA’s new Space Launch Initiative, effectively ending both projects.


The NASA Marshall/Lockheed-Martin X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle flight
demonstrator project is finally dead, after eating six years of our
time and by our estimate a billion and a half total taxpayer dollars.
We’ve been writing about the reasons X-33 was headed nowhere for years
now – see Updates #71, #84, and #91 for the core we-told-you-so’s. We
can summarize these for now by saying the project was mis-specified,
mis-selected, misdesigned, misdeveloped, and mismanaged, and its
demise is long overdue. With luck someone will write a book about it,
because the X-33 program should serve for generations to come as a
horrible example of everything not to do in developing an advanced
aerospace vehicle.

And speaking of overdue demise, we recently came across the NASA
Advisory Council minutes for their September 12-13, 2000 meeting. It
turns out NASA knew last summer that X-33 was going to take 2-3 years
and another billion dollars to finish. NAC advised mothballing the
project; NASA a couple weeks later instead paid out $68 million in
unearned flight-test progress payments to Lockheed-Martin to keep the
project alive until March ’01 – after the election, we suspect not
coincidentally. See, click on
“NAC” at the bottom right of the screen, click on “Meeting Minutes”,
click on “September 12-13”. Read it and weep.

Orbital Sciences X-34 is also dead, after NASA spent over two hundred
million dollars. That project was more of a mixed bag; had NASA not
saddled it with the never-ready MSFC hobby-shop “Fastrac” engine, had
NASA not reacted to the consecutive Mars failures by decreeing that
X-34 systems had to be totally redone to reduce the risk of crashing
one (despite there being three copies of X-34 precisely to deal with
the risk of crashing one), X-34 might well have succeeded. Oh well.

(Our sympathy, by the way, to all the people who honestly worked their
tails off trying to make X-33 and X-34 fly. It may be the nature of
the industry these days, but it’s seldom easy getting laid off and
finding a new job. And of course, for those of us who care, working
our hearts out in a cause that it turns out top management doomed from
the start just flat out sucks.)

SLI Growth Rate Cut Back, But No Fundamental Reforms Yet

The Bush Administration has dumped some of NASA’s more obvious excess
baggage, but so far NASA SLI’s course remains very much on the same
wrong track that led to X-33’s protracted failure. The project is
still centrally planned around NASA’s space launch needs alone, still
massively skewed by NASA’s deeply ingrained prejudices about how those
needs ought to be met, still pays no more than lip-service to bidders
other than the remaining post-consolidation handful of established
major aerospace contractors, and still has little chance of producing
any vehicle design with a realistic chance of winning commercial
development funding.

NASA’s SLI approach is particularly noteworthy for its continuation of
the single worst aspect of the X-33 project: A total inability to
understand or adopt the classic tightly-integrated co-located
engineering development team approach that produced the vast majority
of the world’s successful advanced aerospace vehicles. NASA seems
permanently married to mass-assault contractor-in-every-district
distributed engineering – totally inappropriate for cheap fast
development of advanced experimental aerospace testbeds.

Art Stephenson, director of NASA Marshall, the agency’s lead center
for RLV development, had this to say about the demise of X-33: “..our
technology has not yet advanced to the point that we can successfully
develop a new reusable launch vehicle…”. We predicted years ago
NASA would claim “nobody else could have done it either, so give us
more money” when X-33 finally collapsed of its own weight. We’ve
rebutted the assertion in considerable detail more than once – see the
previously mentioned Updates.

(Though we have to admit that Stephenson does have a point – NASA
Marshall demonstrably does need more advanced technology, albeit
mostly to make up for their mediocre management and mass-assault

The real lesson here is NOT to give NASA massive new funding and
another five years – that would be pouring money down the same old
NASA RLV monopoly rathole. The lesson of X-33 is, next time give the
job to people actually willing to go at the problem in a manner that
gives them a chance of solving it with the wide array of advanced
technology that’s already practical and available.

This means letting multiple other agencies take a crack at the
problem, in competition with each other, so “it was too hard” after a
half-assed screwed up effort is no longer a safe excuse. Multiple
competing outfits, possibly inside NASA (Ames and Dryden, Glenn, or
Langley Centers come to mind) but certainly outside (DARPA, AFRL, NRL,
NSF, and DOT are some possibilities) should now get a chance.

Slice up the SLI budget a half-dozen ways, set a half-dozen agencies
loose on the problem, encourage them to take chances with streamlined
procurement and non-traditional vendors, and tell them that every four
years, the two most successful among them get 50% of the budgets of
the two least successful. Then stand back and watch the RLV’s fly!
That would be the ideal.

Practically speaking, SLI has too much fiscal momentum now to kill
outright. The White House budget request does scale back SLI’s
planned rate of growth; its 64% increase over this year’s $290 million
comes to $475 million for FY’02, considerably less than the program’s
baselined FY’02 $610 million. Projected forward, this would bring
SLI’s total funding down closer to $3 billion than the planned $4.4
billion, but either way SLI is still a large mass of money that a lot
of Congressmen are counting on coming to their districts.

If we were asked for practical advice, we’d say, scale back SLI
further and formally redirect it towards addressing only NASA’s
internal launch requirements. There’s a real need for some sort of
bare-bones Shuttle backup launch system to guarantee US ability to
meet our international space commitments. The best concept we’ve seen
so far is some flavor of EELV launched Crew/Cargo Transfer Vehicle,
but leave it up to NASA what best serves their needs – within a
strictly limited budget, of course. SLI should also be told to
revamp the Alternate Access program to provide successful affordable
near-term on-demand light logistics support for Station.

SLI’s Next Generation Launch Services program, meanwhile, should
probably migrate over to a more appropriate home such as NSF, closer
to the intended light science-sat/university-sat customers and farther
away from NASA’s tendency to overcomplicate and overspecify. NASA has
managed to make bidding NGLS so paperwork-intensive that we’re told it
has been for all practical purposes no-bid by every last one of the
startup rocket companies it’s intended to help. If NASA can’t fix
this problem, someone else should be given the job.

Give NASA Marshall a chance to redeem themselves on meeting NASA’s
internal launch needs – but as far as any further responsibility for
US commercial and defense launch development goes, the country can no
longer afford their mismanagement. Fund that R&D elsewhere.


Competition Is the Answer

After spending seven years explaining in vain to NASA how to usefully
pursue radically cheaper space transportation, last fall we decided it
was time to step back and take a more fundamental look at the problem.

The problem is, competition. Or rather, the problem is a lack of
competition. In the name of efficiency, in 1994 NASA was named the
sole agency responsible for developing reusable space transportation.
The NASA bureaucracy then proceeded to very efficiently burn up nearly
two billion dollars over the next seven years for few tangible results
beyond temporarily boosted white-collar employment in a number of
politically important districts.

The bureaucracy’s response to anyone pointing out the lack of results
has been “give us more time and money, what you gave us wasn’t
enough.” Implicit in this is, “trust us, nobody else could have done

Absent competition, there’s no way to prove otherwise, no current
baseline to measure them against. There’s the history of projects
that have done far more, far quicker, for far less, but the automatic
response is “but things are different now!” And absent competition,
there’s no way to prove that things aren’t *that* different.

Absent competition, a bureaucracy has little incentive to give its
nominal mission higher priority than the universal bureaucratic
imperatives, organizational continuity and expansion.

Absent competition, a bureaucracy has every incentive to do its
nominal mission as slowly and expensively as possible, claiming all
the while nobody else could do better, lest it work itself out of a
job and be faced with the uncertainty and stress of trying to find a
new mission, with defunding likely if it can’t come up with one.

Given competition, given another agency or field center or research
lab that’s encouraged and funded to pursue a similar mission, results
suddenly become a bureaucratic priority, lest the other outfit succeed
first and get their funding increased at the less successful
organization’s expense.

We’ve spent the last seven years, since the previous Administration
gave NASA a monopoly on reusable launcher development, talking
ourselves blue in the face on how they might succeed. They didn’t

Now we have a new approach that doesn’t depend on anyone listening to
either us or to the Congress for the details. We’re going to push for
competition, and let the competing organizations that want to win
figure out the details for themselves.

There’s a reasonable chance such competition can happen, soon, under
this new Administration. The new competitors will find that there’s
no lack of information on how to go about developing advanced new
aerospace capabilities on tight schedule and budget, no lack of
examples from the past. Some of the people who’ve actually done the
job before are still around to be asked, or even – who knows – hired.


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”

SpaceRef staff editor.