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NASA’s work on commercial crew development is a sign that the agency’s focus is shifting from The Man to The Mission. (credit: SNC)

Commercialization or normalization?


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The first successful SpaceX Dragon mission to the International Space Station is being hailed as a major milestone. Even before the launch, the cover of Aviation Week magazine showed the vehicle on the pad, with the legend, “The Commercial Space Revolution Has Begun.” This event is an important step for crewed launches, all right, but how does it fit the overall context of how the government has met its space launch requirements?

If the vehicle did not perform properly the Air Force would not accept it, the same way you might decline to pay for a TV set when you notice a large hole in the box or a tinkling sound from inside it while still standing in the checkout line.

From the earliest launches, the same basic approach has been used for the vast majority of unmanned space missions. The government specifies a set of requirements. Private firms propose solutions to meet those requirements. The government then makes its choice of what to buy, and contracts are issued. The hardware is delivered to the launch base, and the same contractors that built it then assemble it into the flight vehicle. All through this process the government inserts itself into the procurement and operations process to the degree required to provide the desired level of mission assurance, to manage the interface between the multiple contractors involved, to provide government procured services, and to ensure safety. The degree of government oversight varies with the perceived difficulty of the task, the criticality of the mission, recent experiences (e.g. a recent rash of failures tends to get people more interested), and the prevailing philosophy of the time.

For many years this process typically involved the government deciding on a single company’s design and then procuring major vehicle components and subsystems directly, as Government Furnished Equipment (GFE). The components then were provided to the vehicle contractor for installation and checkout. This provided the government with a greater degree of control over the vehicle—for example, a specific serial-numbered engine could be rejected based on its test data—and may have reduced government costs, but, more importantly, it was a legacy process that was a holdover from the aircraft industry. In fact, to this day newly-developed military aircraft largely are procured using that same method.

In 1984, with the Complementary Expendable Launch Vehicle (CELV) procurement that led to the Titan IV, the Air Force took a large step backwards out of the process. Unlike previous procurements, there would be a prime contractor that would procure all of the booster components and have Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR). The prime contractor would direct the other private firms that provided the hardware, be responsible for making sure that hardware worked, and assemble it all into a flight vehicle. On subsequent procurements of other ELVs, the same approach was not only employed but also expanded in concept. For next procurement, the Titan II ELV, the Air Force would not formally accept the vehicle until 45 days after launch. If the vehicle did not perform properly the Air Force would not accept it, the same way you might decline to pay for a TV set when you notice a large hole in the box or a tinkling sound from inside it while still standing in the checkout line.

For the next ELV procurement, that for the Delta II, the government even agreed in advance which processing steps it would leave to the contractor to control, which ones it would merely observe, and which it would actively control. And for the next ELV buy, that for the Atlas II, the Air Force took the step of never even accepting the launch vehicle at all, of instead simply buying a delivery service, not a rocket.

While the Air Force developed this new approach, NASA followed suit for its own ELV buys, to some extent even bragging that it had adopted a more “commercial-like” approach than even the Air Force.

That’s the way it was for unmanned space launches, and still is. Contractors did the work to meet the specifications agreed to by the government, and while the government was in control, virtually all of the hands on labor was done by private firms. But that’s not the way it was done for manned space launches.

For crewed launches there has been a great deal more direct government involvement. This was because such launches are considered to be much more challenging, and, even more importantly, far more symbolic.

In the beginning, no one knew how to build a crewed spacecraft. Human spaceflight required multiple companies to lend their skills and capabilities to the effort, and the government had to ride herd on this assemblage of talent. Of course, the same could be said of any major aircraft development effort as well. In the mid-1940s, no one knew how to build a supersonic aircraft, either—but crewed space launches involved another factor that was of even greater importance than the actual technical challenges.

NASA developed into a unique organization, especially in comparison to the normal American way of doing things.

Probably of at least equal importance to the unknown and challenging nature of the task was that it was of “national” importance. Manned space launches began as a competition between the US and USSR, a symbolic one that would define which system was superior. Faced with the huge challenge presented by the USSR in human spaceflight, it was important that the American nation be seen as challenging the USSR in space; the alternative was simply hiring a contractor to deliver what the government had bought.

NASA developed into a unique organization, especially in comparison to the normal American way of doing things. It spent the largest percentage of its budget on contractors of any government agency, while at the same time maintaining an unprecedented amount of control over what it purchased. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that when faced with what appeared to be the stunning success of the Soviet design bureau approach the US government created an organization to handle human space operations that fit much the same mold—but it’s not that much of an overstatement.

NASA was thus heavily involved in the technical details of the Mercury and Gemini programs, including developing the basic concept and the overall mission design, even though the hardware was built entirely by private firms and the manned spacecraft was boosted into orbit by modified military missiles. For Apollo, NASA involvement was even greater. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center designed the overall Saturn vehicle and Apollo spacecraft, including even the detailed design of the first stage. Private firms still built the hardware, but only per NASA’s detailed direction and approval.

For the next program, the Space Shuttle, NASA at first tried to use its Saturn hardware, and when that could not be made to work, designed a vehicle to meet its requirements, as well as everyone else’s in the country. Once again, private firms did a lot of the detail design and all of the manufacturing, but they were building NASA’s concepts, not their own.

At the launch base, more contractors—and not necessarily those who built the hardware, either—assembled the hardware under NASA control. NASA did not simply buy a service but a specific amount of manpower, to be used as the agency saw fit, and under its tight control. While NASA turned over somewhat more authority to United Space Alliance in the mid-1990’s, going to a “performance-based” approach, by that time the die was cast. NASA had specified the design and how it was to be processed.

In contrast, NASA’s use of “commercial” space launch capabilities utilizes the much the same approach employed for unmanned missions. Companies design and build their own hardware and NASA acts in an oversight role. While startlingly new for human spaceflight, it’s the approach used for unmanned missions since just about forever and especially since the mid-1980’s. The “new” approach will have some real, immediate, and direct benefits for manned missions and could conceivably have some transformative long-range advantages.

From the beginning, the emphasis on manned launches has been on The Man. Astronauts were, first and foremost, symbols, shining knights that rode forth carrying our banners into the unknown.

First, and most obvious, is the cost aspect. The one thing that the Space Shuttle program got right was the idea that integrating crewed and uncrewed missions would be cheaper than running two separate programs using two different sets of flight equipment and associated infrastructure. Of course, in reality the shuttle was designed with the human mission as its primary priority, rather than the far more numerous unmanned requirements. Building boosters designed primarily to handle the workaday business of putting up unmanned payloads and then adapting the rockets for crewed use reverses this approach.

The other aspect is that the “normalized” approach of launching astronauts on rockets also used for everything else is that it offers the possibility of redirecting the basic focus of human spaceflight. From the beginning, the emphasis on manned launches has been on The Man. Astronauts were, first and foremost, symbols, shining knights that rode forth carrying our banners into the unknown. This outlook has produced major consequences for manned space exploration. Apollo was designed as little more than a one-shot wonder. The shuttle was designed primarily to institutionalize putting people into orbit on a regular basis (See “Not in our stars”, The Space Review, May 14, 2007).

But what got lost in all of this focus on The Man was The Mission, as in real human space exploration. For example, we are told that spacecraft docking in orbit must have crewed docking ports in order for the docking to occur. After all, that’s why you dock, to meet the requirements of the men; it’s always been done that way. And, furthermore, we are told that because of the fact that docking has to be based on such docking ports, we cannot assemble ships in Low Earth Orbit to conduct space exploration. The docking ports represent an inadequate structural mating technique for missions requiring significant thrusting. Thus, we are told you cannot assemble ships going to Mars and other planets in orbit—and that probably is correct if you insist on that approach.

The normalization of human spaceflight offers the promise of changing this orientation. Humans can become an element needed to accomplish a mission rather than knights of the unknown with their main mission to be symbols. And if the focus is on manned space exploration and not The Man, other options become possible.

NASA is not first organization that has had to face this kind of paradigm shift: the Air Force had to get through its head that providing airpower was not the same as providing cockpits.

For example, back in the 1980’s an SDI program named Zenith Star involved remotely assembling a large laser in orbit. There were no people on board, no docking ports to worry about, and no one thought it impossible. Down on the ground in that same time frame, the Soviet Zenit booster was designed to mate to its launch pad and be erected for launch with no direct human involvement; hundreds of electrical, fluid, and mechanical connections mere mated automatically. It can be done, and like the typical aircraft, there are many parts of the machine that do not require in-flight human access.

NASA is not first organization that has had to face this kind of paradigm shift. Twenty years ago a top priority in the downsizing USAF was finding enough cockpits—or desks—to give its surplus pilots something to do. It was only after 9/11 that the Air Force began to stop worrying about cockpits and take Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) seriously. And even then, it was only because the CIA began flying armed Predator UAVs first; the Air Force Chief of Staff told his people in no uncertain terms to do so as well. Today UAVs are a key element of the service’s plans; the Air Force had to get through its head that providing airpower was not the same as providing cockpits.

NASA needs to realize that manned space exploration requires a focus on The Mission rather than on The Man. The “normalization” of crewed space launches offers a path to such a transformation.


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ISPCS 2014