Lost in space 

NASA is at an ultimate crossroads. The remaining Space Shuttles, while in excellent condition, are growing old. In theory, they are capable of flying for the foreseeable future. But keeping the orbiters in the air costs a lot of money. It is only a matter of time until another accident grounds the fleet, possibly forever.

As experimental rockets, the Space Shuttles broke technological frontiers, becoming the first regularly reusable launch vehicles. As operational spaceliners, they have made human spaceflight into a relatively routine activity. Almost every flight demonstrates a new capability in space. Yet, the Shuttles have done little to reduce the high cost of reaching orbit or to duplicate the frequent, every-day occurrence of an airliner leaving the airport tarmac. While the orbiters can be improved, they will never become the fleet for a true spaceline.

So why not simply build a new and better Space Shuttle? Money.

Today, flying the Shuttle costs NASA something between $3 billion, and $5 billion or more, every year, depending on what you bill to the program. Soon, another $2 billion, or more, will be spent each year building and supplying the Space Station. These costs are very hard to reduce without drastic revisions in the way NASA does business. With great effort, NASA has managed to cut the Shuttle's budget by about one-fourth. There is little left to cut: two senior Shuttle managers recently resigned, apparently (although they both deny this) to protest the safety risks inherent in further cuts planned by NASA.

There is little money to develop a new, second-generation shuttle that might be cheaper to run. Yet, says NASA's request for industry's help, a cheaper way of getting into orbit is essential if the United States is to promote the creation and delivery of new space services. These services are required for the continuing economic development of near-Earth space, and [to] open the space frontier to human exploration. Needless to add, there also is no money to build lunar or Mars bases, to send prospecting missions to the asteroids, or for any other dramatic new initiatives.

What about all that money tied up in flying the Shuttle? Even part of that money could represent a solid down-payment on the $5 billion to $10 billion a new shuttle is estimated to cost, again depending on whom you listen to. Why continue flying the Shuttle if that money can better be used to develop a better vehicle?

Politically, gutting the Shuttle completely is extremely risky. Unless you think some aerospace company is ready to take over the existing space program, it means abandoning human spaceflight for the years it will take to ready the new vehicle. That, in turn, means abandoning the Space Station, viewed as necessary if there are ever to be human missions into the Solar System. All forward momentum in human spaceflight, both technical and political, would be lost. A new, replacement shuttle might not actually get built. Conceivably, quitting now could mean that a broke United States abandons the new frontier forever.

NASA has been grappling with these contradictory pressures ever since the Shuttle started flying and it became clear that it could not live up to the agency's hopes. None of the alternatives are acceptable to the space agency, nor, apparently, to the nation. The result has been two decades of indecision.

For years, some advocates of commercial space have claimed that, if only the government would get out of their way, private industry would explode into the Solar System. The aerospace industry may now be given the chance to live up to their rhetoric.

No more free lunch

A century ago, the United States' government promised title to vast swaths of land to any entrepreneurs who would build railroads to tie the country together. Later, the Navy worked with those same commercial railroads to develop the diesel-electric engine, which drove early military submarines and powers most of the locomotives in use today. Likewise, the government used contracts to deliver mail to help the early commercial airlines. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency guaranteed the launch of small payloads, which let Orbital Sciences Corporation raise enough money on Wall Street to start developing their revolutionary Pegasus Air-Launched rocket. That set the financial foundation for the new, small launch vehicle industry. Very few transportation-related industries ever got started without government help.

Many space advocates have pushed a similar model for space. The government, loathe to lose control of a technology with dire military applications, has resisted widespread commercialization of rocketry. Now, lack of money -- and Europe's success at commercializing Ariane and taking off with 60 percent of the launch market -- is forcing the Bush administration and NASA to reconsider the idea.

If there is to be a new operational Shuttle, it has to be a commercial vehicle. There will be no more free lunch to the aerospace industry. If American companies want to compete in the market to deliver satellites and material to orbit -- now dominated by the Europeans, and increasingly by the Russians and Chinese -- then the aerospace companies themselves will have to cough up most of the money.

Already there are signs that NASA may insist on designing this commercial vehicle, possibly in return for providing money. In fact, in its revised agreement, the agency responded to corporate criticism over the level of required government involvement, saying, "By definition (policy), cooperative agreements require substantial government involvement (not cash only) ... "

NASA's requirement to deliver payloads to the Space Station is very different from industry's need to reduce the cost of access to those orbits frequented by communications and commercial Earth observation satellites -- and not, at least yet, by space stations. A vehicle that can service these commercial orbits can probably service the Space Station, but a Space Station delivery tug cannot necessarily reach geostationary or polar orbit at reasonable cost. Design a spacecraft to service commercial missions first and government missions second, say NASA's critics.

And now the crucial question: Will industry really come to the table with their purses? $5 billion is a lot of money even for a giant aerospace company. Companies are being asked to bet on a high-risk project without a large, definite market. But if the government is not paying the bills, maybe it won't cost quite $5 billion or more to develop the new vehicle. Maybe the aerospace industry will search their collective souls and find a way to do things a bit faster, smaller, cheaper, and better.

As always, when dealing with money, the devil is in the details.

NASA has promised that this time things really will be different. No more vast government Shuttles or Space Stations, carefully designed to employ every NASA office. NASA will run the new program in the model of Lockheed's Skunk Works advanced development office. The Skunk Works has a reputation for developing unique vehicles -- the F-117 stealth fighter; the old SR-71 spy plane that is still the world's fastest publicly known aircraft -- in a few years, at relatively low cost, with a tiny team of engineers under one manager.

It remains to be seen if NASA is capable of copying this model. NASA has vast institutional interests: Every one of NASA's centers (and its associated member of Congress) will want a piece of the action, and it will take extraordinarily tough management to tell them, "No."

Asked if the post-Cold War aerospace corporations really could or would pay for a commercial shuttle, Boeing program manager Bill Gaubatz said yes. "We are in this for the long pull. Corporate money, Wall Street money, investment money -- whatever you want to call it -- is out there, if you can demonstrate that you have a technology and a market. This has to be driven by economics. The government needs to do the risk reduction and NASA has to be a predictable customer." Can NASA be a predictable customer? It's predictable today, says Gaubatz. The government spends $7 billion dollars per year on space transportation.

Advocates are trying to get Congress to change the laws so that NASA can promise a long-term guarantee to buy launch services from a single winning company. This is the same model the Advanced Research Projects Agency used to help develop the Pegasus. NASA would say to the aerospace industry, in effect, We will guarantee to launch so many kilograms of payload into orbit if you will develop a cheaper rocket.

This is another goal space advocates have been pushing for years. It should be relatively easy to do. The Space Station will require a lot of material to be delivered to orbit, day in and day out. Gaubatz agreed that the Space Station could prove to be the principle market that allows private companies to raise enough money to develop a commercial reusable launch vehicle. In addition, there is increasing evidence that a large, truly commercial launch market might really exist.

More is less

Given that the United States' budget problems will continue far into the future, the alternative to a commercial shuttle appears to be ... nothing. A grim future of continuing to launch a few commercial communications satellites and the odd planetary probe on ancient, unreliable, and hugely expensive converted Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. No true exploration with astronauts, no industries in space, no human settlement of the planets.

Maybe. But there is, in fact, a middle road. The Space Shuttle, by some measures, is a hugely capable spacecraft. The operative word is "spacecraft." The Shuttle's many problems mostly involve the process of getting into and, to a lesser extent, out of orbit. While in space, its pilots view the orbiters as exquisite flying machines, extremely stable platforms capable of the most precise maneuvers. In orbit, astronauts truly fly the orbiters, unlike any spacecraft ever before. By keeping the orbiters in space longer, you can get more benefit out of each launch. Likewise, replacing the orbiter with payload, the Shuttle launch system can lift the same mass as an Apollo Saturn-V for about one-third of the cost.

The Shuttle's costs are fixed. That is, the major expense is not actually flying the Shuttle. It is the cost maintaining the infrastructure of launch pads, control rooms, and that standing army of engineers to refurbish the orbiters. Fixed costs are extremely hard to cut, and NASA deserves credit for successfully cutting these costs by about one-fourth.

On the other hand, refurbishment hardware and fuel costs are relatively low. If you fly the Shuttle more often, the additional incremental cost on top of the fixed cost is high, but nowhere near the almost-a-billion-dollars-per-flight estimates of those who divide the total annual cost of operating the Shuttle system by the number of flights each year. (Recall that this is anywhere from $3 billion to $5 billion divided by five to eight flights, depending on who is doing the counting.) The incremental cost of one Shuttle flight is hard to pin down, but probably is somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million dollars, or even less. This is not all that much higher than flying same payload on old expendable rockets.

So, one alternative is to continue flying the Shuttles, but do it more often and have each mission stay in space longer. This is politically unpalatable. Sticking with the current Shuttle maintains a very high cost item indefinitely on the Federal books. Simultaneously, since it eats up all the money, keeping the Shuttles flying limits what we can do in space to what the Shuttle can do. It does not allow any grand new projects for politicians and NASA engineers to sign their names to.

It is, however, a realistic option. Investing more money in the Shuttle system could enable a proven rocket to fly substantially more often without a huge up-front investment or vastly higher costs. The Shuttles have achieved 112 successful flights with only two failures; the Shuttle is the second most reliable large rocket ever developed, conceding second place only to the much smaller Delta. It orbits a huge payload, and with modification can carry a much larger one. The crew have proven their worth time and again.

To some degree, this strategy is already what the United States has chosen, by default. Unable to make a decision and with no alternative in sight, the country simply continues to fly and slowly -- inadequately -- improve the Shuttles.

Is there a way to take the Shuttles out of the government budget while keeping them flying, so that NASA can concentrate on helping industry develop a replacement? Maybe so.

There is revived talk both in NASA management and in Congress of commercializing the Shuttle system. This would consist of setting up a government-chartered corporation, like Amtrak or the European's Arianespace, which launches Ariane rockets. In a government-chartered company, the government puts up the money, but the organization otherwise behaves much like a private company. The idea has a long and successful career in the history of exploration -- the British East India Company that did much to create Britain's commercial empire was a government-chartered company.

The idea also has one key advantage that many of the other dreams of space advocates don't: It is known to work. It allows semiprivate projects that are too expensive or uneconomic for the private sector to undertake by themselves.

Rockwell once offered to take over Shuttle operations, as did several other companies. Probably much to the their subsequent relief -- this was before Challenger -- NASA declined. NASA believed Rockwell could not successfully make a commercial operation out of the Shuttle; cynics believe NASA simply did not want to lose control of the program. Today, however, if the government were willing to pay what launches actually cost, it could probably be commercialized.

A commercial Space Shuttle would remove that big item from NASA's budget. NASA would pay for each launch when and if needed, and other customers might be found to pay part of the total bill.

Republicans in Congress, who like the idea of commercializing government services, might support the idea. It would free up NASA money to do what NASA was originally founded to do: develop new technology.

Say, the new technology for that Single-Stage-to-Orbit shuttle ... and then, the odd lunar or planetary base?



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