“Solyndra in Space”
We now pay the Russians $65 million per seat to take our astronauts to and from the space station. And the Obama Administration’s unimaginative and amateurish vision for space exploration — even if successful — will not revive the dying program. It merely follows the disturbing pattern of the Solyndra scandal, funneling tax dollars to Obama donors and fundraisers.
So, it’s bad that we might pay the Russians $260M to send four U.S. astronauts to the space station on Soyuz each year, but it’s worse that we might pay three American contractors an average of up to $667M total per year (depending on milestone performance) to develop multiple new indigenous crew vehicles capable of launching up to seven astronauts to the ISS on each flight…presumably for a lower cost per seat, and with the added bonus of enabling follow-on commercial space development?
How is that like going against advice to give loan guarantees to a nearly-bankrupt politically-connected company producing an overpromised product with obvious problems at the basic physics level in a market glutted with competing products thanks to government-subsidized overproduction? Sure, Musk has been chummy with Obama on occasion (and his brother was one of the board members of the leftist Democracy Alliance that helped get Obama and other “progressives” elected since 2006), and donates to Obama (among others, including a GOP rising star), but one can’t seriously make the claim that Musk started SpaceX simply to milk the taxpayers of money being lavished on cronies via a government-stoked fad. SpaceX is solvent and predates the commercial crew-cargo program in question, and at no point has there been the same “popular delusions” mania around commercial space as around “green energy”…the sort of mania that drives the bubble of speculative schemes and crony scams we’ve been watching pop over the past year or so.
This bit is so short-sighted that Landrith must have left nose prints on his screen while writing it:
However, whether the space station will be in service in a decade is not clear. So we may be paying top dollar for the development of something we will never use. In the mean time, we continue to rely on Russia. Even if SpaceX can eventually safely carry astronauts to the space station, it will not constitute a serious space exploration program. The space station is in low-Earth orbit and we cannot explore space or even the moon if we cannot travel beyond low-Earth orbit.
“…the space station…”: George, meet Bob.
The shortsightedness here is a failure of imagination and a static view of the world in which all changes occur in isolation. A new invention will only be used for that for which it was originally invented, and won’t open up new opportunities and unexpected applications. How does he know that a product line of operational Dragon spacecraft won’t be used by NASA or others (civil, military, academic, or commercial) for a program of exploration? How does he know that someone (like…Musk?) won’t get an itch to go to the Moon or Mars, and use/modify/upgrade Dragon spacecraft accordingly? How does he know that with a commercial spacecraft fleet providing less expensive crew and cargo access to LEO that a market for other space stations or for other destinations or other applications of the technology won’t form? He doesn’t – he simply can’t imagine it happening.
And why would the three companies involved have an obligation to form a “space exploration program”, serious or otherwise? They don’t, any more than Bath Iron Works is obligated to implement a “serious ocean exploration program”. These companies are building transportation systems. Exploration is supposed to be what NASA is for, no?
The challenges of space exploration require a vastly different capability than SpaceX is trying to develop.
And the challenges of curing cancer require a vastly different capability than Ford is trying to develop…for cancer researchers to use in getting to and from work.
Cue the obligatory dollop of romantic “Golden Age” NASAtalgia and attendant fellation of the “Kennedy Vision” to which it seems even conservatives are not immune:
Since President John Kennedy energized the nation with the mission to put a man on the moon, NASA had always been about big ideas in space exploration, not politics. But this changed in 2010. NASA largely abandoned any serious goal to explore space when the White House directed NASA to concentrate on Earth-based projects like researching climate science which simply replicates the research being done by thousands of other institutions, universities and scientists. While NASA has a space exploration program on paper, its vision is unfocused and its funding is raided to support small-idea projects that are not worthy of NASA’s proud tradition.
Pining for a return to the days when nearly all activities in space were conducted under the technocratic auspices of a state bureau for space exploration doesn’t seem to jibe with a preference for free markets and limited government. Especially not when getting back to that “vision” would entail strangling in the crib the emerging commercial startups that would lead to a free market in space access and in-space activities, and thereby reduce the role of the state to those activities like basic science and pathfinding exploration to which it is arguably somewhat better suited.
While I’m with Landrith against duplicative global warming research (why is that not NOAA‘s domain?), the last time I checked it was one ‘big idea’ in space exploration, the Webb Space Telescope, which was hoovering up the money from other NASA projects.
NASA claims that these companies will “compete” with each other. But with only two trips per year to the space station scheduled over the next decade, it is unclear how these companies can profitably “compete.” This is what will likely happen — the taxpayer will provide massive funding to several companies to build the same thing and in the end there will not be enough work for the companies to compete over.
There is a limited manifest of flights to the ISS over the next decade because our ability to get crew to and from the ISS is limited at present to Soyuz, with its monopoly pricing and political complications. A domestic option for crew rotations and cargo delivery at a lower cost than Soyuz would allow for utilization of the ISS at levels closer to what it was designed for (the full crew of six, plus visiting crew and maybe some space tourists; more and more-frequently-swapped experiments; etc.), and thus increase the market for commercial crew and cargo flights. And again, Landrith presumes that ISS is the only game in town – it may be that today, but given a commercial crew capability other destinations are already poised to enter the new market, and competition itself can drive new applications, activities, and markets by companies striving to stay afloat.
The real kicker is that if, and when, SpaceX’s development is complete, NASA will not own the technology, SpaceX will own it.
It depends. Based on prior experience, I’d expect new technology developed by CCiCap participants would be covered by agreements between NASA and the companies regarding IR&D spending and proprietary information. If a company spends exclusively internal funds developing a particular bit of technology, they retain ownership. If NASA pays for some or all of it, NASA has certain rights to it.
For example, when purchasing manned flight to the moon, designing the space shuttle, or a high-tech supersonic stealth fighter jet, the marketplace doesn’t have completed products sitting on a store shelf or in a warehouse waiting to be purchased. In these cases, we have a highly developed set of government contracting rules that require accountability and transparency and which are designed to ensure that the government achieves the desired results in a timely fashion and at a reasonable cost. That is how we got to the moon, and built the shuttle, the space station, and most of our world-leading high-tech military technology.
We got to the Moon on time, but via a fiscally unsustainable program whose firm deadline imposed high costs in money and lives.
The Space Shuttle entered service three years late and 30% over its initial cost estimate (and that’s not even considering the awful design compromises needed to keep the overrun on development costs that small, which in turn made the lifetime operational costs signficantly higher).
The Space Station was notoriously over-budget, to the point that vital elements like the Crew Return Vehicle (whose predecessor is the basis of what Sierra Nevada is building as part of CCiCap…), the habitation module, and the TransHab (whose technology Bigelow Aerospace licensed and improved upon for their future commercial space stations…) were cancelled to contain ballooning costs. It’s hard to find good numbers at the ready, but if this is any guide, the initial cost estimate was around $8B, and the final cost at the completion of construction was around $35B (excluding Shuttle costs).
As for high-tech military technology, many major new military procurement programs of late seem to have ended up behind schedule and/or over budget during development: F-22, F-35, DD-21, LCS, SBIRS, FIA, MUOS, GMD, V-22, RAH-66, E-I-E-I-O…
SpaceX collects tax dollars so that it can learn how to build and develop something that other companies were doing a generation ago.
I’m not aware any companies were sending people and cargo into space on a commercial basis a generation ago. Having been a space nerd since about 1972, I’m surprised I would have missed something like that.
It is curious that SpaceX is now receiving so much taxpayer cash given its stunningly thin record of success in space.
I hear this complaint every time SpaceX accomplishes something. If launching a commercial EELV-class rocket successfully the first time, following it up by successfully launching and recovering the first commercial space capsule, and following that up by successfully rendezvousing and berthing a commercial capsule to a space station for the first time, from scratch, all in under ten years of existence as a company, while using far fewer people and far less money than comparable government-led efforts of the past is a “thin record of success in space”, I’m curious to know what real success looks like.
And it is even more troubling given that SpaceX’s founder and CEO is a big-time Obama donor. This is starting to sound like another Solyndra where friends of the administration get unsustainable sweetheart deals at taxpayer expense.
No, what this sounds like is someone allowing his distaste for the Obama administration to poison his opinion of a third party through guilt by association.
However, the problem with how the Obama Administration is pursuing its uninspiring and unimaginative space program goals…
…which include (mirable dictu) a program to jumpstart a commercial industry in crew and cargo delivery…
…goes well beyond picking donors to receive favorable contracts and guaranteed government cash with little accountability.
Boeing received a bit over 4% more from CCiCap than SpaceX. Are they corrupt and unaccountable crony capitalists in bed with Obama, too? Are they ~4% more corrupt than SpaceX, or is the difference in corruption in the noise at that level?
And how do “fixed price, pay-for-performance milestones” square with “guaranteed government cash” and “little accountability”?
Even if SpaceX accomplishes everything asked of it, it will not get us beyond low-Earth orbit.
Musk claims Dragon is being designed to do just that despite not having been asked to, and Falcon 9 is GTO capable…something which, to judge by the company’s launch manifest, has been asked of it. Not sure who “us” is, but SpaceX will get its paying customers beyond low-Earth orbit, as asked of it, and deliver a spacecraft capable of more than has been asked of it to-date. Assertion: FAIL.
Simply stated, the Obama administration’s vision for space exploration is essentially to replace the hauling capability of the shuttle — something that was developed more than 30 years ago.
With CCiCap, perhaps so. But that’s a little like saying Boeing’s vision for the 787 is merely to replace the passenger capability of the 757: it ignores the motivations for doing so and the means employed in the effort. There’s also a no duh element to his complaint whose utter banality I don’t think Landrith in his blue-faced demand for a space pony quite appreciates: the program is replacing the hauling capability of the Shuttle (for crew in particular) because we no longer have the Shuttle to haul anything with.
Okay, the space pony thing is unfair. Landrith doesn’t anywhere say he wants a space pony. Unfortunately, he doesn’t anywhere say what he does want. Which makes his rant rather impotent, don’t you think?
Beyond that, real space exploration is not a serious priority.
Good. It’s about damned time. The priority now (at least with CCiCap) is space commercialization. You know, like capitalism? And if we play our cards right, it could be the start of space settlement. I personally have had enough “real space exploration” to last me a lifetime. It’s long past time to start actually accomplishing something more than sending a few scientists a year into space to dink around with exotic materials and biology experiments.