I wrote this shortly after the announcement, in 2004 of the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). The VSE was the first real attempt to do beyond low earth orbit exploration since the previous Bush administration in 1989. The VSE for the first year was an amazing time, one where the old paradigm was thrown out the window and we were architecting a new way to go to the Moon and Mars. Gone was the religion of the heavy lift launch vehicle, which opened the door wide to alternative paths for exploration.
Unfortunately, after the departure of NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe, it became hostage to the mentality of fighting the last war, and Constellation was born out of the ESAS report. It was doomed to fail, as I have shown in previous writing, there simply is not the prioritization within the federal government to provide the priority and funding needed for such an Apollo type effort. Besides, it was 40 years later and with the culture of Silicon Valley it was rendered obsolete. However, the powers that be did not get the memo, but Elon Musk did. This missive was about how the culture of Silicon Valley, the real faster, better, cheaper approach, could have revolutionized exploration circa 2004. It still can, and Elon Musk is now showing at least one way to make it work using that cultural approach.
I put this back out to show that this thought process is still valid, and has been validated, both by the failure of NASA’s government centric approach and the growing success of the alternate contracting methods advocated in this article.
To Boldly Go…………………
As a long time space advocate (or perhaps in spite of being one) I was thrilled at President Bush’s announcement of a new venture into space, beyond the Earth, to the Moon and eventually on to Mars with an integrated robotic/manned spaceflight architecture. I am hopeful in spite of prior efforts that have started grand and later turned to dust and ashes. I am hopeful in spite of the incredible torrent of articles and punditry that says that this new space venture will cost a trillion dollars and bankrupt the nation, will give Halliburton control of future drilling technology, or as a payoff to the military industrial complex who have not made enough from the war on terror. I am hopeful in spite of articles by eminent scientists that it is science fiction to utilize the resources of the Moon to build rockets and provide fuel for the eventual trip to Mars or who say that we know everything about the Moon so why go there (we don’t by any stretch of the imagination). Finally, I am hopeful in spite of those who think that it is an election year trick and will not go anywhere. The reason that I am hopeful is that…………..We can do this!
I don’t know how many people really and truly understand this, but we live in the year 2004. That is almost 40 years since the time of the design and production of the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Excursion Module. When our forefathers went to the Moon in the dawn of the space age it was with the computer equivalent of stone knives and bear skins. It is truly mind boggling to the modern computer engineer that we were able to do what we did in going to the Moon with the hardware and software that was developed from scratch back then. This is not to disparage but to honor those who came before in making the Apollo program happen in the successful manner that they did because in doing it and in the aftermath of the Apollo program many of those people went on to be a part of the silicon revolution embodied by Silicon valley. Fast forward forty years and it looks like the engineering and technology from Silicon Valley has what it takes make this new space era happen.
In 1969 the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) sported the most advanced and compact computer in the solar system built up to that time. It had 16k of RAM and a keyboard where you could type commands and instructions in machine code in real time. It had a small monitor to display data. It could control the navigation and flight of the LEM using radar data as well as transfer that telemetry in real time back to NASA on the Earth. It had a processing speed of more than a hundred thousand instructions per second. It was a remarkable computer in every respect. However……….. compared to anything now it was so primitive!
Today a computer smaller, lighter, using less power and much cheaper would operate at tens of billions of instructions per second (that’s 10,000 times faster today not including multiple processor systems common with desktops) and perform tens of billions of 64 bit floating point mathematical operations at the same time. Today that computer could input the global gravity map of the Moon, as well as a three meter high resolution 3D radar terrain data overlain by a global 50 centimeter visual atlas of the Moon into its database and then perform all the mathematical calculations required to guide the spacecraft to a precision landing using input from real time laser altimeters, 3D stereo visual and radar sensors to match the real time with the predicted optimum trajectory and landing location. At the same time the communications system could transfer back gigabits per second of data via a real time laser communications link to send back the landing in stunning 3D High Definition video.
If we are going back to the Moon and on to Mars within the guidelines of the president’s budget, we will do it on the back of Silicon Valley, turning the technology wheel full circle from the day in 1963 when the first batch of small scale integrated circuits came off the production line at Texas Instruments. These chips were used to build the flight guidance system for the Minuteman nuclear launch vehicle (now used to launch small satellites for NASA and the Defense Department). There is a display in the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC that shows one of these early circuit boards. Those who are electrical and computer engineers can see what the date codes are on the chips and know when they were produced. NASA and the Defense Department funded a huge amount of the non recurring engineering that was needed to qualify silicon chip production infrastructure and push forward silicon integration that forms the beginning of the curve that now is known as Moore’s law. Today that technology can help make the trip to the Moon truly faster cheaper and………
The concept of faster cheaper and better for spaceflight projects was nobly thought up but often not implemented very well. The concept comes from Silicon Valley and is the heart and soul of the revolution that continues to shake the world and transform the way we live our very lives. Most people today who have grown up with and use the Internet on a daily basis could scarcely think of giving up our access to the net. Millions of people are able to afford computers to connect to the Internet due to low cost, now less than $500. Few people remember however, the early days of the Internet (or ARPAnet) when an Ethernet controller (the heart of all cable and DSL broadband connections) cost over a thousand dollars and the computer that hosted it cost over $5000 dollars. Dial up modems cost hundreds of dollars. The maximum size of a disk drive was 10 megabytes and cost a thousand dollars extra. Even with all of the advances since then (that same controller now costs $30, the computer $400 and a 10 gigabyte hard drive costs $50 and holds thousands of high resolution pictures) profit margins remain and Silicon Valley, even after the dot com bust, is hugely larger than it was in 1983. It would take NASA three years at its current $15 billion dollar budget expenditure before it would even spend the cash that Microsoft has in its bank account today and that same amount would fund the first eight years of NASA’s proposed Lunar exploration effort. However this is not all that Silicon Valley brings to the table.
Faster cheaper better failed because NASA tried to overlay that concept onto an existing aerospace industrial process. It was often said that in the faster, cheaper, better aerospace world that you could pick any two but you could not have all three. Silicon Valley does it every day. The ham radio community has done it as well many times in building satellites for communications for a small fraction of the price of government contractor constructed satellites. The British company Surrey Satellite Limited incorporates Silicon Valley practices and with that advantage has the motto that “we give you 80% of the capability at 20% of the price of large government contractors”. Silicon Valley (my meaning here encompasses the whole American semiconductor and computer industry) lives in a world where a new technology can literally destroy old ways of doing business while at the same time reducing costs and improving productivity. How many who read this in the high tech world still use travel agents? Also, look at the music industry, absolutely in shambles by the rise in portable digital music devices which made their old physical distribution system as obsolete as manual typewriters.
The aerospace world has ever so slowly integrated improvements that have led to vast improvements in spaceflight hardware. Today a company can buy a micro machined integrated circuit chip weighing less than an ounce and uses a couple of watts of power that takes the place of a hugely expensive, complex, and moderately reliable set of inertial guidance components. This micro machined chip is also an order of magnitude more accurate than its macro mechanical ancestor. This same company can order off the shelf a flight qualified star field camera that weighs no more than a few pounds (most of that in the optics) that can locate a spacecraft in space and provide an attitude reference to within an arc second. This star field camera integrates the Yale bright star catalog of over 20,000 visible stars with a microprocessor that can take an image from its CCD of any section of the sky and match that with the catalog up to hundreds of times per second and output the data to a navigation computer. Today a spacecraft can carry a flash memory hard drive that has gigabytes of on board storage that also weighs no more than a few ounces that takes the place of unreliable, expensive, and heavy tape recorders.
Lets look at some other advances since that so called magical space age of the sixties. The solar array that is on the SkyLab flight copy at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC has 2 centimeter by 2 centimeter solar cells that are eight percent efficient in converting sunlight into electrical energy. Today a company can buy off the shelf cells that are 4 X 8 centimeters or larger and are 28% efficient with custom cells that are over 30% efficient. Dr. Nevell Marzwell at NASA’s JPL led a group that demonstrated a cell at over 65% efficient as part of a recent space solar power effort. That advance alone revolutionizes space power. However, Congress and NASA defunded the effort at the point of success. Power supplies are dramatically smaller, lighter, and more efficient today. In 1968 the typical DC power supply on a spacecraft was about 70% efficient, that is 30% of the energy was wasted as heat in the act of conversion. Today anyone can buy DC power supplies that are typically 97% efficient. JPL has integrated Wind River’s VxWork’s real time operating system into the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to control the computers, sensors, and communications. This at a fraction of the cost of developing a system from scratch as was the case in Apollo. However, for all of these advances the cost of spacecraft have not really declined much over the past 40 years.
In Silicon Valley the intense glare of global competition drives a corporate culture where the primary question is not why as in the aerospace industry but why not? You might say, peoples lives are at stake in human spaceflight we can’t do it that way! Have you driven a modern car lately? From the firing of the valves (eliminating mechanical cam shafts), the overall engine timing (eliminating the mechanical rotary distributor), to the electronics that monitors and adjusts engine for optimum performance and fuel economy in real time, you put your life in the hands of a computer every day. The sensors in a car’s air bag have their origin in acceleration measurement units for inertial guidance systems. Real time computers and sensors such as this, multiplied by the millions, are on the road today. The automotive, semiconductor, and computer industry can serve as models of how reliability and production of silicon systems, woven together with robotics and human participants in the assembly process can be brought to bear to reduce the cost, improve the quality, and enable a Lunar/Mars development program within the budget proposed by the NASA administrator Okeefe and the President.
For this process to work some method (legally of course) of working outside of the confines of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR’s) and the NASA/contractor process and culture must be considered. The FAR’s and NASA processes are geared to monitoring, controlling and costing the process developed by the aerospace industrial complex and the government over several decades. The FAR’s are completely inadequate to the task of producing the lowest cost, highest reliability, and fastest implementation of the Bush plan or any other plan for that matter. This is for several reasons. One is that profits are capped at a number around 8% of the total contract value. When the government buys a copy of Microsoft Office or Windows they do not tell Microsoft what their percentage profit is nor do they say that to Dell, Apple or even the providers of scientific software. Second is that there is a culture that has evolved over time (different than the one that the CAIB commission addressed) associated with the review of proposals. NASA or the Defense Department have proposal preparation instructions that have guidelines associated with manpower loading, expected overhead rates, and projected costs for development. This has led to a two fold problem. A company has as its prime directive, the maximization of profits and business opportunities. Companies therefore, in order to get business, underbid contracts the vast majority of the time because the goal is the win the contract. Adding to this, is that the only way to maximize profits is to maximize the overall costs of a project. This is evident in almost every NASA and Defense Department contract today. Just the overruns from DoD space contracts today are more than the entire Bush NASA initiative costs for the first several years. The only way out of this quagmire is to develop new ways of rewarding companies that want to participate in the exploration initiative without becoming part of the military industrial contracting culture.
Silicon Valley can be the enabling factor that can bring the full weight of both modern technology and management style into the space world and Bush initiative to revitalize a system grown old and inefficient. Very few Silicon Valley style companies want to bid on government contracts for the reasons enumerated above as well as just the hassle of government contracting. The government is mostly a bad customer in the Silicon Valley world. Late payments, delayed paperwork, and a contract award to payment cycle that can be as much as six months to execute. Add to this, the capricious nature of congress and NASA that gives contracts and takes them away or change the whole program focus to eliminate half completed contracts. In that same six months most Silicon Valley companies have already produced new products and generated tens of millions of dollars in sales. For most high tech commercial products the entire product life span is less than the development time embedded in government contracts. The contractor culture works (as much as it works) because aerospace companies have adjusted their corporate culture and personnel into this mold. New entrants have to adjust to this culture or lose out on contracts. So the key to bringing in the Silicon Valley culture without destroying it is to develop a new way to reward these companies for their performance, not for their effort.
For this to happen the government must set aside a portion of the proposed NASA funds to fund specific items outside of the bidding process. This is what I call a Contingency Contract Arrangement (CCA). A CCA is set up in the following way: NASA wants to open up the exploration of the Moon and obtain scientific data. There is a plethora of science missions that have to happen as a precursor before a landing can be made in the most intelligent fashion. For example we need a high resolution map of the Moon in the visible light spectrum. This map could be at a 50 centimeter (approximately 19” resolution). This resolution is entirely adequate to locate dangerous terrain that might crack up a landing mission. It would also allow pre planning of a robotic mission to investigate the terrain in a certain area. An other related example would be a high resolution (3 meter in resolution) radar map such as the European Mars Express is executing on Mars now. In fact we have better maps today of Mars than we have of the Moon. In many areas we know more about Mars than we do the Moon.
What we could do, since it is the consensus of most of the science community that these types of data sets are needed is to provide the funding in an account to purchase these data sets from a private effort. Lets say that we put an amount of $90 million dollars on the visual map and $100 million for the radar map. The government would also say that they will only pay for the first company that successfully does this mapping. Nothing for second place. The government would also put a strict time limit on the offer, say 24 months to get to the Moon and another 9 months for the data. If a company is one day late it is out of luck. The observer might say that there is no way any aerospace company would do this. Exactly the point! However, Silicon Valley lives with this level of risk every day and there are both companies and entrepreneurs who would be willing to go for such a deal.
What the government loses is control of the process, which is a good thing! In the end who cares what the process is as long as the product is what the government wants at a price that they are willing to pay in a time frame that is acceptable. What the NASA peer review community would do is to determine the exact data set that they need, the format that they need it in and the delivery method. After their criteria are met, the company that provides the data first gets paid. If the company that provides the data, in the right format, delivered how NASA wants, and within the time period specified, is able to do all of the above at a price below that of what the government has set as the price then great! That is called profit. Normally, if NASA contracted for this the company building the imagine spacecraft might make $7.2 million dollars (at a 8% profit rate) but if there is an overrun NASA usually pays that too along with the profit on that overrun. In this scenario if it costs the company $200 million to provide the data, they get $90 million dollars or if it cost them $40 million dollars they get $90 million dollars. The government gets no oversight role other than to verify the format of the data and its quality. This is simpler for the government and simpler for the provider of that data. If the money is not claimed within the required time period the CCA is voided and NASA gets the money to do it the traditional way. This is a win-win scenario for the government and for any potential providers of this data.
If the first two of these CCA’s are successful then the concept would be extended to cover landing and even manned missions associated with the exploration effort. The benefit here is that private enterprise could bring a new and refreshing burst of life and technology to the space development effort. Today the contractor world is very conservative by nature and is reluctant to bring new technologies to bear on spaceflight efforts because of the fear of mutual embarrassment if something fails. Private enterprise can be conservative as well but there is a culture of measured risk acceptance that is absent in the government/contractor world. If it works there will be some revolutionary new spacecraft designs that could completely revolutionize the state of the art. There would be new entrants into the field of spacecraft development bringing welcome competition to a defense industry that has experienced the assimilation of the hundreds of companies around in the sixties down to just a few megagiants and a few scrap feeders on the sidelines. This process would bring new engineering talent back into the field. For over a decade aerospace has had the reputation as the steel industry of the modern age and a place where innovation was not rewarded and projects took most of a professional lifetime to implement. The end result is to be able to implement the president’s vision for the exploration and development of the Moon and to be able to use the resources of the Moon to go on to Mars and to benefit all humanity here on the good Earth.