The Space Review
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Boeing exploration illustrayion
NASA contractors like Boeing have already developed intricate plans for lunar exploration, but are these plans going in the right direction? (credit: Boeing)

Implementing the vision

NASA released a new feature associated with the Vision for Space Exploration earlier this month. Eleven companies have been selected “to conduct preliminary concept studies for human lunar exploration and the development of the crew exploration vehicle.” Each of these companies put forward a PDF file and a web site with a different take on the Vision. If we look at the interference pattern that develops contrasting the different approaches to the Vision, we can learn about the firms’ cultures and mentality.

t/Space is one to watch. They put several things into their presentation that none of the other firms did. First, they have Burt Rutan and SpaceX as part of their team. Second, they feature the Falcon 5 as a way to cut costs to orbit. With Falcon 5’s new specs in their August/September update, they get 5,450 kilograms to a 400-kilometer, 51-degree (space station) orbit vs. the 3,570 kg they were claiming until last month. If they can keep the $12 million launcher cost, that gets us to a price of $2,200 per kilogram, which is an important threshold number in English units.

If there is only one group of vendors, and if they make a mistake, they are given even bigger contracts to fix their failures. By having several firms that can produce each element of the plan, good performance can be rewarded with a higher-quality score toward future business.

They also emphasize three things that stand out from all the other presentations. NASA should specify functional requirements—six astronauts to orbit—not non-functional requirements—six astronauts per flight. Technology has come a long way since the 1960s. We got to the moon with slide rules, vacuum tubes and main frames, tools that now resemble the stone ax. They pick up on the old standard of using fuel and cargo containers as additional living space.

Furthermore, they recommend multi-sourcing. This is an excellent break from the past. If there is only one group of vendors, and if they make a mistake, they are given even bigger contracts to fix their failures. By having several firms that can produce each element of the plan, good performance can be rewarded with a higher-quality score toward future business. Lower-quality firms must settle for the dregs. The disadvantages to multi-sourcing are extra overhead and shared upside. A huge advantage is since the Vision takes too long to do in one contract, multi-sourcing keeps a long-term project affordable. A single qualified vendor could low-ball early work, lock in, and then charge NASA a negotiated monopoly price for all work subsequent to being downselected. Even if a firm pays NASA for the early contract, NASA is still in an inefficient relationship. It would certainly be a good test to see what the auction price would be if NASA scored all the vendors, then allowed the ones that met minimum criteria to bid in a handicap auction (where vendors get a handicap like in golf or bowling for how good they are) for the right to be the exclusive Vision prime contractor. That contract might be something a vendor might pay billions for.

However, multi-sourcing gives up some of the revenue (that NASA and many others that select by beauty contest leave on the table) from the initial auction in favor of more competition later on. If there are three Vision primes, then none of them can hold NASA over a barrel. They still charge oligopoly prices, but those are lower than monopoly prices. There is a point of diminishing returns for too much post-downselect competition. If NASA selected 20 prime contractors, none would get any economies of scale.

Other companies

Andrews Space has an interesting technology featured, which is robotic teleoperation. This has the potential to be a huge spinoff on earth. There are many potential uses on Earth: mining, taxis, airlines, security monitoring, and child care, some of which will require big cultural changes before being adopted. Suppose I am working at home teleoperating a lunar probe. Perhaps someone in India is teleoperating cameras and an intercom in my house watching my daughter upstairs and being a virtual nanny. Perhaps someone in Ireland is overseeing 10 nannies from India, China, Pakistan and Central Europe. Since we have reached Ray Bradbury’s age of the wall TV, it may be a smaller leap than you think.

Boeing appeared to be very politically savvy and hit all the buttons for the Bush administration. It touts security through technology leadership, international cooperation, and defense for asteroid collision. Hmmm, while more dangerous than hurricanes and terrorism on average, asteroids don’t rate up there with the flu. Granted if you are trying to maximize the worst possible outcome, asteroid defense should definitely get most of your money.

I would worry about China and India developing a cheap space economy and really sending us back to the drawing board the way the Japanese did for automobiles 25 years ago.

They also tout helium-3 mining. This stands with Harrison Schmitt’s article in this month’s Popular Science. Call me a party-pooper, but what evidence do these guys have that this is more viable than cold fusion? Energy content is fine. I am all in favor of electrostatic containment. But really, how is this cheaper than uranium at $60 per kilogram for uranium hexafluoride? Does it really cost us more to cart away radioactive waste than to cart a mining industry to the moon? Also, can we maybe have just one prototype commercial reactor before we invest in a new heavy lifter and lunar mining capacity? $15 billion seems like an R&D price that is simply too good to be true. If it is ten times that, it is still cheap, but if it costs more than uranium, $1 is too much to pay for research. Will they be bigger and more expensive to operate than standard nukes and still have some radiation? Even if it’s 3% of the radiation, public distaste does not seem to be linear. High fossil fuel prices will quickly cause consumers to rethink their objections to nuclear; does He-3 offer a big enough advantage to import it from off world?

The He-3 pipedream that Boeing alludes to is four-square with the hydrogen pipedream that Bush is touting for cars. The problem with hydrogen cars is that they require coal-fired electricity to crack the hydrogen resulting in more carbon in the atmosphere. I should not complain too much about Boeing, though, because tourism makes both their lists of space and lunar-based economic activities.

I am not sure what Draper was getting at when they said, “Ensure that no country can claim sovereignty of the Moon.” If there is no sovereignty, there are no property rights and if there are no property rights, there is no development. I hope they mean that we develop shared sovereignty, but I think they are referring to Heinlein’s Soviet menace of a hammer and sickle on the Moon. I would worry about China and India developing a cheap space economy and really sending us back to the drawing board the way the Japanese did for automobiles 25 years ago.

Lockheed Martin also seemed to be looking backwards by trying to minimize the number of missions required to sample all areas of interest by advanced engineering and rover design, rather than minimizing the amount of cash spent by offering a prize for sample return, an open contract for any samples returned, or a swarm of cheap samplers, some of which will fail. While conservative, innovative, and probably accurate in their claim that such a mission would have “more science accomplished in [the] first mission than in all of Apollo”, it is not ambitious enough to create a cheap, sustainable economy on the Moon. I like that they tout the Moon for astronomical investigations and also tout teleoperation. They devote a whole slide to ISRU (in-situ resource utilization), which does not surprise me because their culture produced Bob Zubrin. But they are still thinking like engineers and not showmen like Heinlein’s D.D. Harriman. Where’s the angle to make a profitable permanent operation without subsidy?

Northrop Grumman has a suspicious chart about different launcher sizes and capabilities that can fit within NASA’s budget. The chart does not contain Falcon 5-class launchers. I do like, though, their Mars Demo module. The Moon would probably be a great place to set up a Mars gravity train track. It could get the budget tourist business away from Martian destinations the way Zero-G may make more money than Virgin Galactic.

Northrop Grumman also has a very ambitious system of “trade options”. What is more important that is missing is a way to figure out which option slate has the best cost-benefit ratio. A technical stock market that traded bets on the timelines for different technologies might be much more valuable than an engineering analysis in this respect.

They [Lockheed Martin] are still thinking like engineers and not showmen like Heinlein’s D.D. Harriman. Where’s the angle to make a profitable permanent operation without subsidy?

Orbital also trots out He-3, but they get points for a Machiavelli quote: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, nor perilous to conduct, nor more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things… because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” They also site telescopes on the Moon, but predictably ignore Falcon 5.

I like Schafer’s Comm-Sat, Nav-Sat & Remote Sensor Network. A GPS and Iridium for the Moon would be a boon for all subsequent travel. I like how they talk the talk “Cost analysis vs. economic analysis”, but there is not enough innovation in thinking the rest of their presentation.

Raytheon’s presentation seemed a level more conceptual and less detailed than the rest. It struck me as an information technology pitch. The “network centric” concept will have more applicability in space than in Iraq, but that is only a means not an end, and a minor one compared to a way to pay the bills. SAIC system-of-systems analysis approach seemed promising, but only promising to shave the hard edges off of already bland proposals. I liked that they led with a picture of a space telescope. I would hope Spacehab has a heavier, cheaper version as well as a lighter, more expensive version of its Standard Propulsion Element.

Reading all of the presentations together, I learned more about the submitting companies than about how the vision will be implemented. There are some exciting ideas out there. Some of them will truly try to transform the space industry while others take the tried and true path.


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ISPCS 2014