Rocket envy

By Phil Plait | April 26, 2011 9:57 am

Now this is interesting.

On March 3rd, a Chinese news agency reported that China plans on building the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of launching a staggering 130 tons to orbit.

A few weeks ago, NASA announced the White House NASA budget request for FY 2012 (PDF), stating that $1.8 billion dollars be spent on designing a new rocket system to replace the Shuttle (and the canceled Constellation program). The lift capability specifically mentioned in that budget outline? "100 – 130 tons". This is in line with the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which called for a 130 ton payload rocket. That Act was signed into law by President Obama in October 2010.

Hmmmm. Like I said. Interesting.

Let me make a few points here.

1) China, I think, is quite capable of following through on this. They’ve made a lot of progress in just a few years. They’ve put men in space, launched two successful missions to the Moon, plan on an unmanned lunar landing in the next few years, and an unmanned sample return mission after that. This new rocket — as powerful as a Saturn V — would be quite capable of landing humans on the Moon. However, I have no idea just when they would be able to build such a rocket, let alone launch one. Politics aside, the US could have one ready in a few years (spitballing, maybe 7 or 8?), but when it comes to NASA politics can never be put aside.

Of course, the added monkey in the wrench is the private company SpaceX announcing they’re working on a heavy lift vehicle. While it only has half the lift capacity of this proposed 130 ton payload rocket, SpaceX has a history of delivering on its promises, and at prices much lower than the competition.

How this plays out will again be interesting. If a launch on this rocket costs much less than half the proposed 130 ton rocket, then it might be more cost-effective to break up a mission into smaller payloads (for example, launching supplies and such to the Moon in an unmanned rocket, then following up with a second launch with astronauts). That’s not feasible for every mission, of course, but it may have an effect on the economics of heavy lift.

2) I hope this budget announcement itself kills the dumb and wrong idea that President Obama is killing manned spaceflight*. That is a meme that won’t hunt, folks. As I’ve said countless times, President Bush (correctly IMO) canceled the Shuttle program, but the Constellation program designed to replace it was falling way behind. Obama (correctly, again IMO) essentially killed Constellation, but even if he hadn’t there would be at least a 4-5 year gap between the end of the Shuttle and the time the US could launch people into space again. So the idea that Obama is destroying manned spaceflight is wrong for that reason alone.

Plus, this new budget allocates funds to develop this next heavy-lift vehicle using a lot of known technology (like Shuttle parts), with the clear goal of taking humans not only back into orbit but on longer, more distant missions as well. In fact, the budget specifically calls for long-term "…missions to multiple destinations, including the Moon, Lagrange points, near Earth asteroids, and Mars and its moons."

So if anyone says President Obama is trying or has killed manned spaceflight, call them on it. It’s baloney.

3) I could tear apart this budget piece by piece and examine it, but I won’t bother yet. It’s just the President’s request, and Congress still has to vote on it. And, of course, the knives will be sharpened first.

The good news is this budget request does not represent a huge cut for NASA; ignoring inflation it’s very roughly the same as the 2010 and 2011 budgets. It’s hard to say what will survive Congress, which apparently has recently almost entirely lost its collective mind. But the past few budgets have not been as destructive as I had feared, and in many ways were targeted better than they have been in the past.

Tip o’ the nose cone to Slashdot and Universe Today.


* Even Wikipedia is parroting this nonsense, saying the FY 2011 budget is "forcing NASA to stop working on sending people to space." That’s not true for the 2011 budget, nor is it for 2012. [UPDATE: Shortly after I published this article, the Wikipedia entry was edited to reflect my complaint! I'll have to keep my eye on that and see if the editors discuss it.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

Comments (76)

  1. chris

    #correction ” That Act was signed into law by President Obama in October 2011.”
    should that read 2010?

  2. Chris

    “That Act was signed into law by President Obama in October 2011.” – hmmm, prez is time traveling now, huh?

  3. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Damn it, Chris, you beat me to it! ;-)

  4. thetentman

    I just read that SETI is dead due to lack of funds. Any thoughts, Phil?

  5. “That Act was signed into law by President Obama in October 2011.”

    Um, do you mean was signed, or will be signed?

  6. Jim

    Even Wikipedia is parroting this nonsense, saying the FY 2011 budget is “forcing NASA to stop working on sending people to space.”

    Not anymore!

  7. Rob

    I assume it would cost more to launch two rockets that carry 65 tons each instead of a single rocket carrying 130 tons. Economy of scale and all.

    But on the other hand, if they contract from SpaceX I’m sure using two launchers would be MUCH cheaper than anything the usual suspects can build for NASA.

    So really… what would be the downside?

  8. China envies SpaceX itself too because the Long March 5 will look old compared to the Falcons:

    “executives at China Great Wall Industry Corp. are finding it hard to believe that California-based Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) is offering lower launch prices than they can. [...] The Chinese officials say they find the published prices on the SpaceX website very low for the services offered, and concede they could not match them with the Long March series of launch vehicles even if it were possible for them to launch satellites with U.S. components in them.”

    http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=space&id=news/asd/2011/04/15/11.xml&headline=China%20Great%20Wall%20Confounded%20By%20SpaceX%20Prices

  9. Magnetar Runner

    Clearly, this is a matter of national pride (and xenophobia). America has to build the Sea Dragon. 550 metric tons to LEO? We’ll bring a lightsaber to a knife fight.

  10. Eric

    Interesting. A new space race, but with SpaceX and the Chinese playing, so there will be lots of competition, especially on price.

    I’m all for peaceful competition for space and I’m happy the Chinese are in the game. If they, along with SpaceX keep this up, it will be much more difficult for Congress to treat NASA as only a source of pork and welfare for aerospace companies. It puts pressure on Congress to stop messing things up and try to make NASA a more effective organization. NASA can do the risky pioneering science and engineering, while SpaceX and other competitive companies can turn these advances into cost-effective and reliable spacecraft.

    I think we’re actually going to start to see the start of a real Space Age, and I’m super excited, despite all the gloom and doom of the Federal Budget, Congress’s insanity (and anti-science idiocy), etc. Long term, I think this is going to make really exciting (in a good way) future!

  11. Maybe someone here can answer this for me, while we are on the subject.

    Why does Charles Bolden, in an attempt to cover up the fact that NASA has no planned manned mission heavy lift or not, keep talking about Lagrange Points?

    What possible benefit could come from a manned mission to a Lagrange point? I mean I guess you could do astronomical research there, but that is best left to robots. I guess you could build a space station there, but you can build a space station anywhere.

    The microgravity would probably be a little more pure, not having to make attitude, and altitude corrections all the time like they do on the ISS. But microgravity research has proved to just be a big waste of time and money. Mir, Salyut, and Skylab were enough to test man’s ability to survive in zero G.

    Lets do something new Mr. Bolden. That is if it doesn’t get in the way of Arab world outreach, which you said was the top priority for NASA.

  12. Chip

    A rocket capable of launching 130 tons, either built by America or China is likely not going to be used to lift a 3 ton satellite into orbit, so that’s one area where Space X can offer cost-effective launches. But it begs the question, what kind of package and/or mission do you launch when you have such a gigantic capability? President Obama’s proposals come to mind pending on what Congress does in their politically motivated way. But a big rocket services big projects – so I’m wondering what China and America have in mind in the longer term, after such rockets are perfected – such as a large military or civilian multipurpose orbiting platforms, a future automated or manned lunar lander, parts for a new space station or other large space constructions? (And in the more distant future, a large payload rocket can facilitate the eventual human landings on Mars.)

  13. noen

    “Rocket envy”

    Well, going by that pict at least they are practicing safe rocketry.

  14. davidlpf

    thetentman(#4) It just plain sucks that SETI lost it funding, they do a lot of work specially now with the Keppler. Most of this from the fact the worlds economy has shrink because some greedy idiots on wall street couldn’t contain themselves.

  15. ASFalcon13

    “SpaceX has a history of delivering on its promises”

    Well, except that it actually doesn’t. According to the original COTS contract, all three uncrewed COTS launches should be off the pad by now, and we should be less than two months away from the first crewed launch. As it stands, we’ve only seen the first uncrewed launch so far, and that happend over two years after its original September 2008 contract date. That’s not exactly what I’d define as “delivering on its promises”.

    SpaceX has been able to make systems that work, but when Elon starts talking about costs and timelines, I’d suggest taking those with a grain of salt.

    SpaceX COTS contract at http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/pdf/189228main_setc_nnj06ta26a.pdf for your viewing pleasure. Appendix 2 is the part relevant here.

  16. JIm (#6): Wow, cool. Did you edit that? I went into the history of the page and was unclear on who did it. I updated the footnote to reflect this, and hope that edit remains intact!

  17. Paul

    Rob: while a launcher that is too small is more costly, so is a launcher that is too large, since the latter will have a lower flight rate over which to amortize the cost of its development and the maintenance of its infrastructure and manufacturing facilities. The Falcon Heavy reuses many components from the Falcon 9 (the strapons are near-copies of the F9 first stage), which reduces these costs.

    The 130 ton Senate Launch Vehicle has the additional drawback of using the very expensive legacy components from the shuttle. SpaceX’s vertically integrated approach has proven to be much cheaper. It has the “drawback” of not funneling billions of tax dollars to certain special interests.

  18. Orlando

    What is really sad is that the US won’t be able for five years to put a man in space on its own, spending much more than other countries COMBINED:

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_b1AE8x4eLKI/SrySidwWQYI/AAAAAAAAORc/ZJIkFDdlhoA/s1600-h/2008_finance_300.JPG

    (Taken from http://danielmarin.blogspot.com/2009/09/presupuesto-de-roskosmos-para-2010.html)

    Russia has Soyuz, is making preparations to maintain its own space station in the event of US finishing funding to ISS and even planning manned missions to Mars!

    If I were NASA, i’d rather outsource Roscosmos. Put a third of NASA’s bugdet in their hands, and we will be sending men to Mars and the asteriod belt in ten years.

  19. @Orlando (#19): not so fast. The Russians can’t launch their single Mars probe since the nineties. Having and launching the Soyuz is one thing, R&D is another. Upgrading the Soyuz, developing the Angara launchers, Vostochny spaceport all’ve been delayed multiple times and proceeding with sluggish pace. Seems like Roscosmos is already too busy with just launching all that stuff.

  20. Cheyenne

    @thetentman and davidlpf – I read this morning they might get some funding from the Air Force to track orbital debris. Would be great to utilize the array in some capacity.

  21. Pete Jackson

    For me, a 500-ton capability is sort of like a magic number, since that would be about the lower- limit for a nuclear-powered interplanetary spacecraft, capable of bringing manned flights to Mars and the asteroids.

    @11 Krikkit: Manned missions to the Lagrangian points could be used to service robotic spacecraft that are/will be stationed there. Thinking particularly of James Webb ST, which is going to end up costing so much that a servicing capability is beginning to look attractive.

  22. Orlando

    @lacalaca (#20): Ok, but look at the figures. As a matter of fact, Russia will be able next year to send men to space with a budget 10 times lower than NASA’s, while US won’t.

    What kind of R&D is this one that can’t allow Americans to do in the 2010s what they achieved in 1960s in just eight years???

  23. @ #6 Jim & #17 Phil

    As far as I know the budget is forcing them to stop working on sending people to space.

    Sure they are paying other companies to develop their own ways
    Sure they are paying the Russians as a stop gap

    But as of now NASA itself is not working on sending people into space. The heavy lift that is in the budget has nothing to do with actually sending men to space.

    The wiki article was correct, albeit a little dubious. But you shouldn’t delete a truth because of a little skewed language.

  24. Tim G

    I could be mistaken, but I seem to recall Robert Zubrin stating that payload costs roughly scale with the square root of the payload capability. This approximate relationship cannot continue forever but I wonder if we should develop a 500 tonne-to-LEO rocket. Such a rocket could carry multiple reentry vehicles to Mars ahead of a manned mission. The reentry vehicles would include what would be needed for survival, exploration, and return: an ascent vehicle, a methane/oxygen production system, a cryogenic refrigeration system, a miniature power plant, a rover, a habitation module, etc.

  25. Ray bonner

    Get out the Orion dammit! We’ll bomb our way to mars!

  26. Robin S.

    Krikket (#11): As someone else pointed out w/ a link to a Wikipedia article, Lagrange points are attractive because to get to them and back from them requires minimum energy expenditure. What’s attractive about going to a Lagrange point (other than the one between Earth and Moon, which we’ve already done) is that it give an opportunity for deep space travel with sufficient and spare fuel and life support needs. Needing less fuel means carrying more life support essentials. Since we have no real deep space travel experience (the Moon doesn’t really count), missions to Lagrange points would provide such experience with a potentially significant margin for error.

    NASA hasn’t been charged by Congress to come up with a specific plan for new manned space travel and cannot do so without money. If you want a plan, tell your congressmen to vote to pay for development of such a plan.

  27. CB

    @ Orlando:

    A realistic one not based around Cold War one-upmanship. You want to fund NASA as much as it was during Apollo? Great! I’m all for it! Now convince Congress to do it. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Too bad Congress doesn’t want to give NASA a big enough budget, or let NASA deal with the reality of developing under a smaller budget, meaning taking on many smaller tasks. Nope, gotta have that Shuttle Derived Pork-shoveler consuming NASA’s scant resources.

  28. Elmar_M

    Excellent Post, Phil! Exactly what I am thinking as well.
    For everybody else:
    Here are a few very good videos explaining why we dont need a super heavy lifter and why decisions are made by congress the way they are.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4J9uvhJQM0
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2HeHfVSybo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_RMphRObEo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L1fKoFKyuQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIxM1hziRhM

  29. Happy Camper

    I support Space X in their development of the falcon 9 heavy booster. There is still one thing that bothers me and that is the use of 9 merlin engines per booster segment. That’s 27 engines! From a reliability standpoint I am a bit squeamish but if they can make it work I’m fine with it.
    What I want to see go full speed ahead is a vasmir technology demonstrator from LEO to the outer planets (or at least to mars) and back.

  30. Yes, Phil, the Chinese are very worried that they can’t match SpaceX’s launch prices as stated here:
    http://bit.ly/hxBTtJ

    Also, I wrote an article for Yahoo! News about the not-so-noble motives of the Senators who came up with 130 ton lifter in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act :
    http://bit.ly/ho7qzt

  31. Douglas Troy

    Happy Camper (#30)

    From the SpaceX website:

    The Falcon Heavy is designed for extreme reliability and can tolerate the failure of several engines and still complete its mission. As on commercial airliners, protective shells surround each engine to contain a worst-case situation such as fire or a chamber rupture, and prevent it from affecting the other engines and stages. A disabled engine is automatically shut down, and the remaining engines operate slightly longer to compensate for the loss without detriment to the mission.

  32. The Captian

    As Krikkit said “Sure they are paying other companies to develop their own ways
    Sure they are paying the Russians as a stop gap”

    NASA is being straddled with paying for the R&D of all these private companies (who will charge a for profit price back after NASA foots the bill for the rocket development), while the Chinese will only have the cost of their one program. Alas even with NASA’s lead of experience I think the Chinese are in a better position to “win” any new space race.

    Just in the last week or so NASA have committed to spend $370 mil on developing private rockets, $270 mil for 4 firms as a grant, and $100 mil for a test flight of Taurus (Now that IS public risk for private gain, as we foot the bill for Orbital Sciences own test!). Unfortunately it looks like NASA’s new mission post shuttle is going to be as a slush fund for public funds to be transferred to private companies in exchange for rockets that NASA could just build on it’s own (yes, NASA could just build a rocket with the same capabilities as Space X, NASA knows how to do that already).

  33. Ian

    I love space races. I cannot wait to see Falcon Heavy do it’s thing.

    “NASA is being straddled with paying for the R&D of all these private companies”

    The cost is always paid by the customer. NASA is not SapceXs only user.

    NASA could build the same rocket for the same price? LOL. See: Ares 1x scam. The problem is NASA cannot do it cheaper.

    SpaceX is motivated to do it at low cost and high efficiency. Something that is just not part of NASA culture.

    The fact of the matter is SpaceX builds what appear to be awesome rockets at prices the likes of Lockmart and Boeing cannot touch.

    Lets be realistic if “NASA built their own” it would not be “their own” it would be contracted out to one of the big guys and cost 10x.

  34. @The Captian
    NASA is being straddled with paying for the R&D of all these private companies (who will charge a for profit price back after NASA foots the bill for the rocket development), while the Chinese will only have the cost of their one program. Alas even with NASA’s lead of experience I think the Chinese are in a better position to “win” any new space race.

    Under the old method of cost-plus contracting that NASA used to use, what you said would be true. However, the new paradigm used for commercial crew development requires that each company foot part of the development bill and NASA pays the other part. Also, all of the CCDev moneys offered by NASA now and in the future would amount to only a fraction of the cost overruns that occurred with Ares I before it was canceled.

    As far as your assertion that the Chinese may now be in a better position, see my previous post.

  35. The Captian

    @ Ian

    But are all these other “customers” pre-paying Space X for the R&D? No they’re not, only NASA is being used as that sucker. And yes, you do end up paying for the R&D of a product anyway in the final price. But, just like I paid for the R&D of my Toyota, I didn’t have to also pay for the R&D of the Honda, Nissan, and Ford I didn’t buy, But NASA is by funding R&D for way more projects than they will use just to see who will win. Also I paid for the R&D AFTER the product was proved to work, Toyota too the risk of R&D, here the risk lies with the public.

    There is nothing inherently good about “low cost and high efficiency” in space travel. NASA learned that with blood.

    And no, there is nothing special or magical about the Space X Rocket, Boing and Lockheed could build it, but you compare the small rocket of Space X to the bigger more capable systems the others are working on. That’s comparing Apples to oranges.

    “Lets be realistic if “NASA built their own” it would not be “their own” it would be contracted out to one of the big guys and cost 10x” And it should not be! But because it was before is no reason to assume (or throw your hands up and give up) in the future. A failure of government contract management is not a failure of the idea of government (NASA) but if the previous leadership.

    @Rick Boozer

    That all depends on what the current ratios of funding are, and how many different projects NASA has to fund.

    Look, I’m all for private space travel I just do not want, or think it’s a good idea if the public (NASA) foots the bill for it! Especially for NASA in the long run. (what science projects did we not get funding for so $370 mil could be spent last week on R&D for private companies for products that they may never perfect?).

  36. @The Captian
    There are just 4 companies being awarded a few hundred million. That’s chicken feed compared to the billions normally spent on development for one year on ONE human space vehicle. To suggest that this is worse than the billions per year that before were spent on such projects defies logic. Why are people who were fine with the fact that NASA was footing the whole bill of billions per year now upset about NASA putting out much less funding and getting more vehicles in the process?

  37. ChrisG

    A very exciting time. It’s almost like the 60′s again. Go Elon.

  38. Happy Camper

    Douglas Troy (@32)

    Yes I am quite aware of Space X’s claims but my many years in statistical QC and QE have taught me that me the truisms of murphy’s laws. If anything can go wrong, it will. I don’t think I’m being pessimistic but rather realistic. Simple is just better.

    HC

  39. Grand Lunar

    I’d rather that the SLS be a 70 ton launcher. That ought to be big enough (as mentioned on the Space Launch Report), not to mention cheaper.
    Sure, upgrade it with 5 segment SRBS and the Ares 1 upper stage.
    Beyond that, it’s just recapturing past glories.

  40. The Captian

    @ Rick Boozer

    I believe the last number I saw was that the Nasa Authorization Act 2010 that was signed set aside 1.3 Billion over the next 3 years to pay for R&D of private companies. Where as the yearly budget for Aeronautics research is funded at $535 million, and education is at $145 million, both I think more important than insuring the investors of private companies get to reduce the risk of their privet venture at the publics expense. Not to mention how long that could be used to keep Hubble going, until the JW ever gets up (which is about 1.5 bill short on funds).

  41. Chris Winter

    I just learned some bad news. It’s not directly related, but you should be aware of it. On 22 April, due to a budget crunch, the Allan Telescope Array was mothballed — I hope temporarily.

    http://www.cosmicdiary.org/blogs/nasa/franck_marchis/?p=1081

    AIUI, the total cost of the operation is $2.5 million per year. This should not be so hard to find, even under current conditions.

  42. Ken

    when it comes to NASA politics can never be put aside.

    The hard part is finding a way to spread the building of one rocket out across two hundred eighteen Congressional districts in at least thirty states. (It used to be twenty six states, but it’s no longer possible to get anything through the Senate on a simple majority.)

  43. Coastal Ron

    The Captian Says (41):

    …more important than insuring the investors of private companies get to reduce the risk of their privet venture at the publics expense.

    I think you’re looking at this equation backwards. NASA is the one that needs commercial crew in place by 2016 so that we can stop paying the Russians. If NASA did nothing, then we would have to keep paying the Russians progressively more and more $/seat, and we are dependent on them 100% for access to the ISS.

    Instead, Congress designated commercial crew as the primary method of supporting the ISS, but since this is not exactly an off-the-shelf type of service, NASA needs to ensure that commercial providers have reduced their technical risks enough for NASA to depend upon them. This happens in the business world too, and the CCDev participants have to perform agreed upon tasks or else they are not paid.

    So if you do nothing, then Russia stays fat and happy, and they have us over a barrel for lots of international issues. Or, NASA can educate and oversee the creation of a redundant commercial crew industry that will more than pay back the small amounts of money that they are receiving.

    And that $1.3B that you quoted? Compare that to the $4B that it will take to finish the MPCV. With the $1.3B, we will likely end up with two or more commercial crew vehicles. With double that amount, you end up with one NASA capsule that is far smaller (4 vs 7 seats) and far more expensive to use.

    As always in life, you have to understand your choices so you can make good decisions.

  44. Fred Willett

    @#36 The Captian:

    The figures tell the story.
    Money spent trying to develop Ares 1 >$10B (with a B) with nothing to show for it.
    COTS money = $800M (with an M) and for that $800M you get 2 new LVs, Taurus II and Falcon 9 and two new space capsules Cygnus and Dragon.
    Which was the better value for the taxpayer. $10B wasted or 2 working cargo delivery systems for just $800M.

  45. vince charles

    >The Captain:

    “But are all these other “customers” pre-paying Space X for the R&D? No they’re not, only NASA is being used as that sucker.”

    This is a joke, right? SpaceX has rocket contracts (signed, funded) with commercial comsat builders, as well as foreign space agencies. As for manned flight, NASA contributions are matching funds; all CCDev companies must put up their own R&D monies (and show some progress!) before being taken seriously enough to get a contract signed. In the case of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, they’re putting up personal cash, as well. When you put the streams together, it’s enough for R&D if you’re a well-run company that doesn’t make too big of a mistake. And if you make a mistake, your competitor(s) might not; they might even learn from your example.

    Boeing is similar; they are speculating that between the ISS, some Bigelow station, and perhaps a tourist launch or two, there should be enough customers if all the numbers are correct. Are they? I don’t know, I didn’t manage Boeing BDS at the time of the decision. One positive is that Boeing’s costs aren’t that high, as they are recycling a lot of work from prior projects. So there don’t have to be that many tourists to reach break-even. Also, Boeing’s airliner work subsidizes Boeing’s space work. The airliner people will tell you that, over, and over, and over again.

    Automobiles are a STUPID analogy, because automotive ventures are hardly speculative. Someone will be buying a car, though maybe not from you. And even if you go and produce the new Edsel, the technologies and facilities that built that Edsel can be salvaged for the new… F100, or Mustang, or whatever. But there is no guarantee than anyone will actually need a ride to space, given three, six, even ten-year project horizons. Thus, private investors either won’t put up enough cash, or they’ll demand such a high risk premium that no competitors form viable markets. Hence, guaranteed ride contracts, or some form of tax break or subsidy, until the risk is retired and enough competitors form a healthy market.

  46. vince charles

    >Krikkit:

    “As far as I know the budget is forcing them to stop working on sending people to space.

    “Sure they are paying other companies to develop their own ways
    Sure they are paying the Russians as a stop gap

    “But as of now NASA itself is not working on sending people into space. The heavy lift that is in the budget has nothing to do with actually sending men to space.

    “The wiki article was correct, albeit a little dubious. But you shouldn’t delete a truth because of a little skewed language.”

    You fail epistemology. Scientists don’t use the term “truth” professionally, and engineers have yet another definition of the word. So, you’re neither?

    And you’re wrong about the budget. NASA is paying other companies… just like they paid McDonnell to build Mercury and Gemini, North American for the Apollo CM, Grumman for the LM, Rockwell for the orbiter, etc. etc. etc. McDonnell built their capsules in their plant, using their engineers, designers, and technicians, drafting their own subcontracts, etc. etc. etc. You’ll notice I didn’t call that ‘true’.

  47. Looks like that $1.8 billion appropriation for the Space Launch System is $0.85 billion less than what was called for in the NASA Authorization Act. They’re already cutting back.

  48. vince charles

    >The Captain:

    “I believe the last number I saw was that the Nasa Authorization Act 2010 that was signed set aside 1.3 Billion over the next 3 years to pay for R&D of private companies. Where as the yearly budget for Aeronautics research is funded at $535 million, and education is at $145 million, both I think more important than insuring the investors of private companies get to reduce the risk of their privet venture at the publics expense. ”

    Keep on believing whatever you want. 1.3 billion over three years is still less than one year’s Shuttle operations… let alone three. Nor does that money insure (or ensure) the investors of private companies. All companies contracted so far have had to put up similar amounts of money themselves. The winning of a NASA contract serves to attract and retain such private monies; they are not nearly enough to replace them, nor have any of the contracted competitors become sure bets now that they’ve been signed. Which is why four companies were signed- the private investors still bear significant risk, just like NASA.

    In particular, the details of Jeff Bezos’ approach, now more public, seem way, way speculative in my eyes. Perhaps that’s why he got less money awarded. Sure, there’s a chance he might pull it off, so he still got something. He has already built some hardware, lit some fuel, and got some air previously, so I gotta give him a little credit.

  49. vince charles

    BTW, I don’t want to look like I support blank checks for these firms. Elon Musk has a history of, erm, fudging his words. His estimates for Falcon 1 prices and schedules turned out to be a joke, possibly bailed out using his massive personal fortune. Will Falcon 1 failures and experiences benefit Falcon 9? Maybe, I don’t have enough information. Again, all the eggs were not put in a SpaceX basket.

    Also, what I’ve learned of Elon Musk, both professionally and personally, leaves me wanting to shower. And I’m not the only one in the space business to feel that way. Yeah, I know it’s an ad hominem, but when you personally put yourself in front like him, you make your personality a factor.

  50. ASFalcon13

    “And that $1.3B that you quoted? Compare that to the $4B that it will take to finish the MPCV. With the $1.3B, we will likely end up with two or more commercial crew vehicles. With double that amount, you end up with one NASA capsule that is far smaller (4 vs 7 seats) and far more expensive to use.”

    Sure thing. While you’re at it, be sure to compare the requirements docs too…there’s a world of difference between the interplanetary MPCV and the “commercial” (I prefer the term “privately developed”) LEO taxis.

    …and, honestly, this is what really tends to grind my gears. Comparing Orion/MPCV to the private sector guys is like comparing semi trucks to Toyota Corollas. Sure, the semi truck will get you through your daily commute, but it’s going to be the most expensive way to do it. However, if you have several tons of stuff you need to haul around, the Toyota just ain’t gonna cut it.

    In the same sense, recall that Orion was originally designed for the Moon and beyond, and with times on orbit measured from months to years. Meanwhile, the private sector has been designing ships for short hops to LEO. Can Orion/MPCV do ISS? Sure it can. But, as folks so helpfully point out, it’s more expensive than the purpose-built taxis. Well, yeah, of course it is, thanks for stating the obvious. Even when the ISS requirements totally buried everything else a couple of years ago, Orion to station was still a Lunar vehicle being utilized at a fraction of its ability.

    As for the cheap private guys, drop Moon/Asteroid/Mars and long-duration requirements on top of ISS servicing, and see if they can still stay cheap.

    And this, ultimately, is what torques my bolts. Congress still refuses to fund NASA at the level it needs (they get a flat budget, when the Augustine Committee clearly showed at least a $3 bil a year increase was needed in order to get anything interesting done), so we get fights between factions that should be working to complement each others’ strengths. Private development vs. NASA designed? Guess what: we need both. Private development will make LEO/ISS affordable and will relieve NASA and any interplanetary spacecraft of having to keep that task up. On the flip side, there currently aren’t any reasonable commercial opportunities past geostationary at the moment, so it takes a publicly-funded NASA vehicle to do the hard, risky exploration work.

  51. Messier Tidy Upper

    @9. Magnetar Runner : “We’ll bring a lightsaber to a knife fight.”

    LOL. And your problem with that is? ;-)

    (Okay it may be cheating but if we just want to win big , I like the idea.)

    The Chinese regime is utterly totalitarian, cruel, brutal and ruthless :

    Remember the 1989 Tianamin Square Massacre of their own people seeking freedom?

    Remember the genocide they’re conducting against the Tibetan people and their culture and, ditto, Xinjiang?

    Remember how the Chinese Communist regime menaces Taiwan and persecute Falun Gong , Chinese “non-state church” Christians and other dissidents?

    If you don’t, find out and think about these.

    I really don’t like the thought of the “People’s Republic” of China ruling our futures. :-(

  52. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Plans are all very well – but we all know that a huge number of plans never end up being built and flown. :-(

    I have grown very sick of seeing merely planned rockets-to-be, even good and interesting ones. I want to see some of these candles lit for real.

    @49. ASFalcon13 :

    “..this, ultimately, is what torques my bolts. Congress still refuses to fund NASA at the level it needs (they get a flat budget, when the Augustine Committee clearly showed at least a $3 bil a year increase was needed in order to get anything interesting done), so we get fights between factions that should be working to complement each others’ strengths. Private development vs. NASA designed? Guess what: we need both.”

    ^ This!!! Well said & seconded by me. :-)

  53. Elmar_M

    Actually Dragon can go to the Moon and even Mars. It was designed for that purpose. Just want to point that out. Orion does nothing better than Dragon.

  54. aleksandar

    NASA wont likely survive next decade. Delusions about building a new HLLV are just that, delusions. While Congress has made a law forcing NASA to build a 130ton to LEO launcher, they have no intentions whatsoever of providing money for it, or anything else.

  55. @Captian
    This is what I said
    “There are just 4 companies being awarded a few hundred million. That’s chicken feed compared to the billions normally spent on development for one year on ONE human space vehicle.”
    Notice I said “one year”, I was comparing per year costs. Yes, as you say, the whole multi-year budget is $1.3 billion. The award just made for this year is a “few hundred million” as I say. Specifically, $270 million.

  56. Aubri

    Phil, I kind of wish you WOULD make a detailed post about this. I really don’t understand how canceling a package deal of crew capsule, crew launch vehicle, and heavy lifter makes the situation better when you immediately then order NASA to develop a crew capsule, crew launch vehicle, and heavy lifter. Aren’t they just going to take the Orion and Ares designs, walk to the next office, and get right back to work?

  57. Smitty

    @Happy Camper (#30)

    That was my thought too. I was reminded of the Soviet Era N1 which had 30 motors… Aside from other issues that they experienced, one of them was synchronizing that many motors and their reliability, with that many you were nearly guaranteeing a failure.

    Granted, we have 40 years of technological development and we are drawing on talent at the global scale instead of the national level, but really? 27 motors?

    “The Falcon Heavy is designed for extreme reliability and can tolerate the failure of several engines…”

    I certainly hope so. When that many potential failure points are designed into the system, it better be able to take it.

  58. Elmar_M

    When that many potential failure points are designed into the system, it better be able to take it.

    One mans failurepoint is another mans redundancy.

  59. Calli Arcale

    Smitty — regarding N-1, the problem of so many engines was exacerbated severely by the decision to use differential thrust and canted, fixed engines for attitude control. Losing performance on one engine means that all the others have to pull back to compensate, or else the rocket will tip over, and if you pull back enough thrust, you will no longer have positive acceleration. (Which was basically how one of the N-1s died — the computers ended up throttling back so much that it fell back down on the launch pad, destroying it and severely setting back the program.)

    Another problem is the domino effect. With that many engines, they pretty much have to be close together, and that increases the chance of an uncontained turbopump failure affecting another engine — potentially causing a catastrophic turbopump failure in that one as well, and on down the line. (Turbopumps failures are *violent*, with fan blades zinging off all over the place. Shuttle SSME’s are unique in their ability to contain most such failures — it’s just not economically feasible to make an engine strong enough to contain an exploding turbopump unless you’re gonna reuse it.) And that killed another N-1, if I recall correctly.

    Ironically enough, the N1 didn’t completely die. The engines for its upper stages were retained when the program was shut down, and some were eventually sold and licensed to Aerojet. The NK-33 engine is used in a modern rocket, and there is perhaps some irony there — that rocket is Taurus II, whose upcoming test flight will be funded partly by NASA as part of its CCDev program. NK-33 never got to push cosmonauts to space, but one day it might push astronauts.

  60. jfb

    Rob @7:

    I assume it would cost more to launch two rockets that carry 65 tons each instead of a single rocket carrying 130 tons. Economy of scale and all.

    There’s no economy of scale in using a rocket that only flies once or twice.

    You have a car that carries four people that you drive almost every day. One day out of a hundred, you need to carry 20 people somewhere. Do you go out and buy a bus, or do you just make several trips in the vehicle you’re already using?

    There’s only one customer that’s ever going to need to lift that much stuff, and we’ve already demonstrated that we can integrate large, complex systems in orbit. A rocket that gets used a lot is going to be significantly cheaper than a rocket that gets used once or twice; that’s where the economy of scale comes from. Most customers aren’t going to need anywhere that kind of capacity. They are going to need something more in the range of a single-core F9, meaning the cost per rocket is going to be significantly cheaper than building a special-purpose BFR (not to mention you can share the same launch pad infrastructure, rather than having to build a new one).

  61. Nick L

    Aubri Said: “Aren’t they just going to take the Orion and Ares designs, walk to the next office, and get right back to work?”
    I hope so. After all, the width of the payload you could put on top of the Ares V allowed for some interesting possibilities with regards to a proper successor to Hubble.

  62. Joseph G

    I hate to drag politics into this, but it’s impossible to ignore it. I can’t help feel like the US space program has been on a downswing (as far as willingness to innovate with crewed missions other then the ISS) since the end of the Cold War (and all the dick-waving it entailed). In the absence of long-term vision and human-centered priorities, China’s ascendancy may be just what we need to convince the US government (and the electorate) to invest more resources in NASA.
    It’s not an ideal motivator, to be sure, but you take what you can get, right?
    That said, Apollo-level spending is still unrealistic, especially now. At its height, NASA was getting well over 4% of the total federal budget. Right now IIRC it’s more like .65%.

  63. Joseph G

    @#4 thetentman: I just read that SETI is dead due to lack of funds.

    Personally, I’d love to see it federally funded again, and the money needed is infinitesimal compared to other federal projects, but spending is kind of a political live wire right now.

  64. Happy Camper

    Smitty (@59)

    And the Titanic was unsinkable!

    Just saying

  65. Smitty

    @ Elmar_M (#60)

    “One mans failurepoint is another mans redundancy.”

    A fair point!

    @ Calli Arcale (#61)

    Good to know, I knew that there was a lot more detail to the issues they had.
    As you said though, it wasn’t a total loss, it did add to the body of knowledge of how to get to space.

    Ad astra per aspera

  66. ND

    Wasn’t there a failure during Apollo 13′s launch, where one of the first stage engines lost power? The other engines compensated for that single one.

    I believe another issue that hurt the N-1 was transportation over railroads to the launch center. The trip was rough and gave the N-1 rockets some shaking. The US launch center is next to the sea. Nice smooth sailing.

  67. Buzz Parsec

    Chris @2, I saw on Facebook today a post mocking the birthers demanding that Obama produce some X-rays to prove he’s not a Terminator from the future. If he actually is, that would explain the bill-signing.

    Or maybe the bill won’t actually get passed and signed until October.

    This whole thing is complicated greatly by the fact that there are two bills that Congress needs to pass and the president needs to sign before anything can happen. (I don’t know if this is true for all agencies, but it does apply to NASA.) There is an authorization bill, which tells NASA what projects to work on, and an appropriations bill, which gives them the money to do it.

    The FY11 bill appropriation bill just got passed, I think. The House and Senate agreed to a compromise authorization bill for FY11 late last year, which Pres. Obama signed, but congress never passed the corresponding appropriations bill. Instead they just kept passing continuing resolutions that pretty much perpetuated FY10′s budget. The problem was the authorization bill (which tells NASA what to do) had provisions for the new approach, including canceling Constellation by abandoning Ares I and V and redirecting Orion as a crew transport for LEO with eventually being able to re-enter at or above escape velocity (needed for BEO missions), but not in the first iteration. (The Altair moon lander had been basically on hold for several years already; don’t blame Obama for this, that happened under Bush.) Also, it had a big increase for commercial crew, and advanced studies and preparation for other exploration missions. Basically the flexible path strategy that was looked at by the Augustine Commission. The FY11 authorization bill also contained the Senate provision for starting work on a new heavy lift booster. Under Obama’s original proposal, this would not have started until about 2014 or 15, under the theory that it would take 4-5 years to develop and it’s not needed until 2019 or 2020. (There would have been preliminary work on new rocket engines, presumably such things as thrust augmented nozzles, which are like afterburners, which at least in theory, can greatly increase payload by boosting thrust a lot right at launching when you need it the most.) However, since the corresponding spending bill was never passed, NASA had to continue spending money on projects which had been canceled, like the J-2X engine and the 5-segment solid boosters and upper stages for Ares I and V, and existing contracts like the $500M launch tower for Ares I, and so forth. Plus there was a provision from several years ago that NASA couldn’t cancel Constellation without explicit congressional approval, which apparently required changes to the appropriations bill (not just the authorization bill), so they had to keep working on it until a new budget was passed.

    It was a mess, but I think it’s finally resolved.

  68. Buzz Parsec

    SETI hasn’t received any federal funding since 1993, when congress noticed a tiny program, ridiculed the whole concept to score cheap political points, and prohibited further funding. Since then, all SETI funding in the US has been by private donations, including the Allen Telescope Array, which is on the verge of running out of money and is currently shut down, but that has nothing to do with the NASA budget.

  69. Messier Tidy Upper

    @68. ND asked :

    Wasn’t there a failure during Apollo 13′s launch, where one of the first stage engines lost power? The other engines compensated for that single one.

    Indeed there was – at least in the movie! ;-)

    I think there was an even more dramatic event on the Apollo 12 mission (or was it another one?) when the rocket was struck by lightning during the launch. :-o

    Off to wikipedia to confirm or deny I go! Links to follow if all goes to plan. ;-)

  70. Messier Tidy Upper

    Back again – and confirmed :

    “Thirty-six-and-a-half seconds after lift-off, the vehicle triggered a lightning discharge through itself and down to the earth through the Saturn’s ionized plume. Protective circuits on the fuel cells in the service module falsely detected overloads and took all three fuel cells offline, along with much of the CSM instrumentation. A second strike at 52 seconds after launch knocked out the “8-ball” attitude indicator. The telemetry stream at Mission Control was garbled. However, the Saturn V continued to fly correctly; the strikes had not affected the Saturn V’s Instrument Unit. The loss of all three fuel cells put the CSM entirely on batteries. They were unable to maintain normal 28V DC bus voltages into the heavy 75 amp launch loads. One of the AC inverters dropped offline. These power supply problems lit nearly every warning light on the control panel and caused much of the instrumentation to malfunction.”

    Legendary EECOM John Aaron – described as the original NASA “steely eyed missile man” – then came to the rescue.

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_12#Launch_and_transfer

    for the full(er) story. :-)

    Plus see on Youtube :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMYNy3JsHTE

    A fragment from the miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” on that.

    Also the scene from Apollo 13 (the Tom Hanks version) with the engine shutdown issue can be found here :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf5yLuyCTag

    With Wikipedia – Apollo 13 page – confirming the veracity of that incident too :

    “The mission began with a little-known smaller incident: during the second-stage boost, the center (inboard) engine shut down two minutes early. The four outboard engines burned longer to compensate, and the vehicle continued to a successful orbit. The shutdown was determined to be due to dangerous pogo oscillations that might have torn the second stage apart.”

    So good science & history marks for that great movie! :-)

  71. @jfb
    “There’s no economy of scale in using a rocket that only flies once or twice.”

    That assumption is incorrect. Especially if one of the rockets is designed and built under a traditional NASA cost-plus contract and the other is one produced through commercial competition. Mainly due to the “whittle knife” effect described here:
    http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2010-06-13/news/os-mike-thomas-elon-musk-061310-20100613_1_spacex-falcon-nasa

  72. jfb

    Rick @73:

    You’re reiterating my point, just in a different way.

    SpaceX is (hopefully) going to be building a lot of single-core F9s for their commercial contracts, so the cost per rocket is going to be relatively low since the components are going to be produced on a large scale (large scale for rocket launches, anyway).

    By contrast, only one customer is ever going to need anything like 130 tons lifting capability, and at a very low launch rate. Merlin 1-Cs and 1-Ds aren’t going to cut it; you’ll need bigger engines that are only used for this BFR. You’ll need bigger tanks, probably at a wider diameter, requiring different tooling. You don’t get anything like “economy of scale” with this booster.

    This is entirely independent of how the boosters are paid for. Assume both are built completely by SpaceX using the same sort of funding vehicles.

    The BFR is still going to be far more expensive to fly because of the low flight rate. You’d be better off divding the payload between several F9 boosters (or a couple of Heavies) and integrating in orbit.

  73. Luc

    Maybe it is a stupid question, but why don’t we just build another Saturn V? It kind of delivered, no?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »