Shuttle Retrospectives

Posted: July 9, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , , , ,

Rand Simberg has two shuttle articles, The Final Launch and 6 False Lessons Of The Space Shuttle.  This article will focus on The Final Launch; the second article warrants its own post.

The fundamental take behind The Final Launch is that the shuttle program didn’t work and the Constellation program wasn’t working, so the President was correct in pursuing a market-based solution to get astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.  The phrase “didn’t work” is a summary phrase to address a system’s actual cost, performance, and schedule versus what it had been advertised as doing. 

So while the shuttle may stir patriotic feelings, present a fantastic photo-op, and get astronauts and cargo to the ISS, it has 1) missed its own safety standards, 2) costs way too much (somewhere around 20 times the initial per launch estimate, and at that, government accounting can be charitable characterized as an imprecise black art) and 3) hugely misses its advertised launch tempo.  As such, the shuttle has been a money pit that has prevented NASA from undertaking other potentially more useful initiatives.

Simberg offers our whole civil space program is a major departure from Eisenhower’s first vision, was fueled by the Cold War, and suffers from the effects of regulatory capture.  I’ll add that it was purposefully romanticized beyond recognition after John Kennedy’s death.  So as Steven Covey might say, our space program reflects the law of the farm; we’re reaping what we’ve sowed for the last 50-plus years.

So what’s a nation to do?  Surprising many, the President has offered a common-sense, market-based space launch solution, and new space efforts like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Armadillo, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and Bigelow abound.  While many of these outfits have names that sound like microbrews, they are for real (although by government standards, the depth, breadth, and scope of their efforts is to-date smaller). 

SpaceX, for example, has a modern and capable facility in Hawthorne, CA (I spent about four hours not that long ago) where they make many of their own rocket components, to include rocket engines.  The SpaceX facility compares very favorably to the old General Dynamics facilities in San Diego (Atlas and Centaur manufacturing, infrastructure, and sustaining engineering) or especially the old Mac-Dac site in Huntington Beach (Delta launch vehicles) which was reminiscent of a 1950s high school metal shop writ large, complete with sea-foam green painted machines and oil-stained/metallic shaving covered concrete floors.  Although SpaceX’s facility (which was used in the movie Iron Man 2) is nothing like the behemoth EELV manufacturing facility in Decatur, AL, it doesn’t need to be (nor for that matter, is it easy to justify the massive amount of excesses capability present at Decatur).

And EELV itself is a great point of departure in examining all that hasn’t worked out as expected on the military side of the space launch issue.  Based on bad assumptions (exploding—figuratively, not literally—space economy) with shared infrastructure and overhead costs, EELV has failed to deliver on cost (and has in fact, breeched Nunn-McCurdy).  Since then, the “solution” was about what you’d expect: more government oversight and significantly, allowing the two major contractors to consolidate into a single effort.  Has it worked?  Performance and schedule-wise (including the NRO’s just-completed and fantastic launch campaign), yes; cost, no.  Isn’t it intuitive that reducing competition tends to do bad things on cost?

So whether it’s EELV or manned space flight, at the end of the day, it seems to be an issue of ‘keep doin’ what you’re doin’, keep getting’ what you got.’  Regarding manned space flight, the nation has an opening to move beyond the same-old government oversight/insight model and using the best tool at hand, new (commercial) space, pursue space-access solutions that are cheaper, faster, and better.  Will Congress let it happen?  Simberg offers that unless it doesn’t, our space access and manned space programs in general will wither away under the burden of unaffordability.

After all, it’s the law of the space farm.

(Image Wikimedia Commons)

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