SLS/Orion vs “New Space” Approach

This is kinda a placeholder for a longer piece that I want to do regarding NASA Space exploration vs its commercial counterpart.  I did this as a post on Facebook in response to an article by a good friend of mine Donald Robertson.

I highly respect Donald, and I know that some would like to cast this as some kind of tug of war, but I think that this is mostly inappropriate.

In a world where rationality reigned, there is a place for both approaches, and they are complimentary to each other. This goes back to the very foundation of Western civilization’s approach to government vs private effort.

I would place SLS/Orion in the category of “internal improvements” as defined by Abraham Lincoln (who was in his private life a railroad lawyer) who saw the development of the “national railroad” as a key element of macroscopic economic development for the United States, and who prioritized resources for the national railroad even in the midst of a titanic struggle for the life of the nation. (Pacific Railway Act of 1862).

Government, in its best role is the developer (or supporter of development through favorable legislation) of macroscopic infrastructure that is then used by private enterprise to generate economic activity, that through taxation of that activity provides a return on investment to the nation.

Placing SLS/Orion in this context is that in theory they should be designed to have a high enough launch cadence (its not) to support the development of a lunar infrastructure that is then used by private enterprise to generate economic activity and thus create the virtuous circle described above. This also is not happening.

The problem is not that SLS/Orion is too expensive to develop and operate, the problem is that its use is misdirected. NASA since the 1970’s and especially since the Challenger disaster has been science dominated in its raison dat. Science is important, and is not to be cast aside, but science must not be allowed to dominate all planning and execution of our national space policy. The purpose should be to support economic development. Arthur C. Clarke saw this back in the 1960’s and stated it in the forward to Neil Ruzic’s “The Case for Going to the Moon”
“This book is a practical one. It maintains that science and space travel should have a practical purpose. Because of this attitude (as opposed both to the pure science and the political approach), and because it is written in ordinary English, this book is for three classes of readers. First, it is for intelligent payment who have wondered why we should spend all that money to go to the Moon. Second, it is for statement attempting to divest their opinions about space from vested interests as they ponder why we should spend all that money to go to the moon. Third it is for the scientists unashamed to admit that we’re all layman in someone else’s field as they contemplate why we should spend all that money to go to the moon.”

The key is “science and space travel should have a practical purpose”

The entire “fight” if you want to call it that, between the new space people and the NASA SLS/Orion supporters boil down to the science based “vision for exploration” and the practical basis. This is the issue, that if we solve it, will resolve the conflict between government space and the agitation of private space. The Bush era “Vision for Space Exploration” attempted to resolve this conflict but it was hijacked by the agents of the status quo who dismissed the “practical purpose” (See Marburger’s 2006 Goddard symposium speech) and turned it back into a science only focus and nothing more than another means whereby the defective process of the current contractor-industrial-complex uses NASA to fund high profit margin FTE’s but make little real progress.  That is where the problem in execution lies on the NASA side.


9 thoughts on “SLS/Orion vs “New Space” Approach

  1. I think there is no question that space operations should ultimately have an economic return that allows continual expansion. The problem is that apart from commercial satellites, there has been no compelling economic case for space. Whether resource extraction, tourism or colonization, there has been no strong case made for commercial activity. This is unlike the case for aircraft where Nasa’s predecessor, Naca, was able to support aircraft technology development.

    Nasa could have taken an approach to drive down costs rather than create very expensive hardware, but without competitive drivers, the organization naturally operates like a monopoly with all the attendant dysfunction. Your last sentence sums up the problem. I would argue that the result was almost inevitable.

  2. Big discussion on NASAWatch about Scott Hubbard editorial on Keeping the Focus on Mars:
    “The Moon is scientifically much less diverse and interesting than Mars.”

    I posted your paragraph that begins with “The problem is not that SLS/Orion is too expensive to develop and operate, the problem is that its use is misdirected.”

    And in another thread on NW, I posted “Moon is really close, and has water (ice)! What are we waiting for?”

    Someone replied, “Moon has water? ice? 100% proof? You might want to check the data showing ppm ranges as the only hard physical evidence.”

    I guess if we industrialize the Moon it has to be on a industrial scale. So far no business model so I guess this is where the government(s) come in and kickstart this as they can spend billions without having to show a private company return-on-investment.

    1. –And in another thread on NW, I posted “Moon is really close, and has water (ice)! What are we waiting for?”

      Someone replied, “Moon has water? ice? 100% proof? You might want to check the data showing ppm ranges as the only hard physical evidence.”–

      I think the lunar poles has ice, but problem is the proof.
      And the proof isn’t an estimate, like there is million tonnes or billion tonnes of ice at lunar pole.
      If it were true, that there was billion tonnes of ice at north or south lunar pole- that is useless.
      What is useful or proof is that there is 10,000 tonnes within some location and within 1 km radius and it’s within 1/2 meter of the lunar surface.

      “I guess if we industrialize the Moon it has to be on an industrial scale. ”
      I don’t think one can start at an industrial scale.
      I think it has to start with something 100 tons of water mined in one year- and that is not an industrial scale.
      I think you start with 50 to 100 tons per year and double the yearly production every year or two,
      so even within 10 year, you are still not at a industrial scale, but within decades you would be.

      The problem other than knowing where there is minable water, is having enough customers
      for the water or the rocket fuel you make from the water.

      Now if there was settlements on Mars- you have customers. In that case one do at a industrial scale.
      I would biggest advantage of lunar water mining is you can start it at small scale.
      I also say similar thing in regards to Mars settlements- you start with a town of 50 or less- though might double or triple in size fairly quickly.
      With the moon all need is 10,000 tonnes of water in a location that you can mine, in one location- assuming there other locations you go to after this. And there could be 100,000 ton or more within 100 meter radius.

      1. Btw, Paul D. Spudis gives good summary of what known about water at lunar poles:

        And says: “Although more orbital measurements would be valuable, it is most critical to get instruments down on the surface of the Moon next, at the poles, in order to make detailed site surveys”

        And basically I would say what we know, is there is good case to explore the Moon in order to find minable water.
        NASA or someone should do that. And once that is done, a decision can made regarding whether or when lunar water can be mined. NASA shouldn’t make such a decision- it should a commercial decision.
        So NASA should explore the Moon, then Mars should explore Mars to determine if and where there could be viable human settlements. NASA also doesn’t make decision to make settlements. NASA job is to explore, and not to mine or make towns.

      2. You are also going to, by definition, start small on Mars. As for the “proof” of lunar surface waters, I am good with what we have now as evidence. Time to get to the surface and do the real work for measuring and verifying with ground truth!

  3. I think the arguments of SLS over alternatives are getting incredibly thin, especially in a future where Falcon Heavy, BFR, New Glenn/Armstrong are operation and at least partially reusable.

    However, this could in some sense be viewed as a false comparison. It’s also very easy to approach it with the frame of mind that the massive SLS/Orion budget would be better spent on fixed-price commercial development contracts (a la Commercial Cargo/Crew). There is no such guarantee that Congress would make these dollars available for a non-SLS/Orion alternative.

    The railroad analogy is shaky at best. A railroad itself is a hard asset which can be maintained and operated by anyone with the proper expertise. Even if a govt foots the initial bill, once the rails are laid, they’re there, and technically you can run whatever engine/cars/cargo you want on them. Launch is a one-time service, with all the complexities of manufacturing compounding the already-complex science of rocketry. Even in the case of reusability, there’s return, inspection, refuel, relaunch. This will still be a very specialized endeavor for some time. It’s not like NASA will just hand the reins of SLS/Orion over to some private company at some point. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that NASA is going to build the railroad as a lasting feature instead of building hard assets…destinations.

    This is something that I think can and does work. The ISS was built by an expensive workhorse (Shuttle) but even now that Shuttle is gone, the ISS is still there and provides a destination for crew and cargo on commercial rockets/ships. The railroad is gone but the train station is still there. This, in my view, is the general concept behind the cis-lunar Deep Space Gateway or a Moon Village. They’re destinations. But they’re also payloads, not rockets. They can theoretically be accomplished with any launcher… SLS/Orion are not “mission critical” even if NASA would lead you to believe they are. Obviously the throwing capacity does have a significant effect on the end design, but maybe that chunk of the budget would more palatable with a cheaper launch vehicle.

  4. NASA needs to change the way they fund manned space programs. The way they do it now is a total failure. A NASA contract is an open invitation for a “for profit” corporation to spend themselves rich. They promise these contractors $1.20 for every $1.00 they spend on “research and development” and then wonder why it takes so long. They wouldn’t wonder if it was their own money they were spending.

    When NASA worked, they hired good, qualified people to design their vehicles in-house rather than outsourcing that work to profit motivated defense contractors. The defense contractors built the vehicles, but for the most part did not design them. Thus the inherent conflict of interest that exists in a contract that provides a profit on development costs was minimized.

    Today this situation has completely reversed itself. NASA designs almost nothing themselves and outsources nearly all development. And they fail. They pay more for failure. They incentivize failure. They have become a source of public ridicule and are synonymous with failure. It’s time to turn that around.

  5. Are you participating in the Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop at Ames Research Center (Jan 10-12)?

    How was your presentation at IEEE Consultants Network of Silicon Valley yesterday?

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