The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

t/Space CXV
Entrepreneurial ventures like t/Space are proposing innovative commercial solutions to NASA’s ISS resupply problems. Can such proposals stand up to scrutiny by the space agency and potential investors? (credit: t/Space)

Asking the tough questions

The announcement last fall by SpaceDev that they have completed a study that says that they could place a human on the Moon for $10 billion (or less than one-tenth of what NASA expects to spend) is just one of the latest announcements by a company or group that says that they can do spaceflight much faster and cheaper than NASA and their traditional contractors. Have any of these groups asked the tough questions? And why should people be asking the tough questions?

Anyone can say that they can do NASA’s job better and more affordably than NASA. While I don’t doubt that improvements can be made to any plan NASA or anybody else has, I wonder if any of these alternative ideas has received the proper scrutiny. I would like to know if any of these plans have merit. If they do, they should be considered. If they don’t, they should be challenged so that they don’t derail NASA’s plans by making decision makers think that there are great alternatives out there that are being ignored.

I would like to know if any of these plans have merit. If they do, they should be considered. If they don’t, they should be challenged so that they don’t derail NASA’s plans by making decision makers think that there are great alternatives out there that are being ignored.

Some of the ideas I’ve read about are from Transformational Space, SpaceDev, Kistler Aerospace, SpaceX, and Masten Space Systems. According to their web sites, they have projects in the works to launch small to large satellites, people on suborbital to orbital missions, or even on to the Moon using a variety of innovative technologies. Most of the more ambitious parts of the plans seem to be just in the early phase of design. If I was a NASA official considering using their services, or a venture capitalist considering investing in one of these companies, there are a series of tough questions I would want answered before investing or spending a penny.

SpaceDev developed the hybrid rocket engine that carried SpaceShipOne into space. Their Dream Chaser launch stack images show a vehicle with three rather large boosters that seem to be at least two-thirds the size of the shuttle SRBs. The following are some of the questions I would want to know about their stack:

  1. Have you proven that rubber in the hybrid engines can be poured and set consistently in such a large booster casing?
  2. Can a large hybrid engine be controlled accurately enough to avoid asymmetric thrust problems that could threaten a vehicle with side-by-side rockets?
  3. Is the cost of tooling and manufacturing facilities included in your budget estimate?
  4. When large disposal facilities for tires catch on fire they create a massive toxic cloud from the burning rubber. Would the exhaust from large hybrid rockets create such an environmental hazard? Have you budgeted for an environmental impact statement?
  5. Does rubber cast in such a large booster hold its shape until launch or does it slump under its own massive weight? If it slumps is that a problem?
  6. Is the cost of a massive launch pad, assembly building, stack transporter, and other ground infrastructure in your development estimates? Do you have a way around these infrastructure needs?
  7. Do you have a number of test flights included in the development budget?
  8. Are you counting on any “off the shelf” technology that has never been used or tested for a harsh space environment?
  9. Is there a budget for FAA licensing and/or certification of the vehicle for carrying paying passengers?

SpaceX, Kistler Aerospace, and Masten Space Systems are developing boosters that are all or in part reusable, and in some cases intended to be scaled from small to much larger vehicles. Scaling vehicles is not always a question of making a bigger version of the same technology. In the development of airplanes, each jump in scale brought some significant new challenges. I am sure the same is true for rockets. For these companies I would ask the following questions:

  1. Small launch pads typically don’t need water acoustical and overpressure suppression systems. Large ones do. In your financial models have you included the cost of such a system for your scaled-up vehicles? Do you know at what point you need one? If using solid fuels have you included the cost of filtering toxic residue out of the used water?
  2. The shuttle SRBs are large, heavy, durable structures. How do you know that the reusable boosters on your vehicles can survive exposure to salt water upon landing? Have you budgeted for inspection, cleaning, refurbishment, and replacement of damaged parts in boosters between launches?
  3. Have you calculated the cost of manufacturing larger components and the facilities and tooling required to produce them?
  4. Do you have teams in place to work with payload customers to help them integrate their payload with your vehicle?
  5. Is launch insurance affordable for an unproven vehicle?

Some of these companies are suggesting that they could offer services to ferry crew and cargo on a commercial basis to the ISS. Considering their firms have never carried a human being nor successfully docked vehicles in orbit I would ask the following questions:

  1. Rendezvous and docking in orbit is a difficult task, as shown by the DART failure. Europe had to get Russian help on docking control for their ATV. How will you be able to create a reliable docking control system for your vehicle that will be reliable enough to safely dock with the ISS? Considering a Russian Progress cargo vehicle crashed into the Mir space station during a docking attempt and ruptured a segment, how will you test your vehicle before it is allowed to dock with the ISS?
  2. What criteria are you using to human-rate your vehicle?
  3. How do you plan to scale up your workforce, manufacturing facilities, and operational capabilities quickly while maintaining the quality of the workforce?
I am not against a small company getting a chance to compete for large projects. I own one. Many small businesses—in all fields—fail because they failed to ask of themselves, or were not asked by others, the tough questions that need to be considered.

In my work I have to create proposals for implementing software projects that include timelines, personnel requirements, and cost estimates. The ones I do are on a far smaller scale than estimates for launching a rocket or sending humans back to the Moon, but many of the principles are the same, including unknowns and confidence factors. The unknowns increase and confidence factors are reduced if the projects are larger and they include technologies you have less experience with. In these cases you have to build in bigger reserve margins to reduce the chance that an unknown will pop up to bite you when you least expect it. If a proposal is for something my company has never done before we will try to find outside objective experts to peer review it to see if it makes sense.

I was provided the following perspective by Malcolm Peterson, the comptroller of NASA during the Dan Goldin era, on the questions you need to ask when evaluating the cost estimates on large projects:

Based on my years of experience with major program cost estimates, I have found that there are many ways in which startling reductions in projected costs can be produced. First, use “new ways of doing business” assumptions. Second, use “off-the-shelf commercial grade” parts and assume these are “proven” (no need for testing) and suitable to use in radically different environments. Third, don’t reveal the confidence level of the estimates; for example, don’t tell reviewers that you used a 20% confidence level, and claim that the extensive heritage enables use of 10–15% reserves. Fourth, assume new technology solutions will be forthcoming that will be funded by others for different applications without any additive cost to allow the new technologies to be applied to your application. Fifth, ignore the cost of scaling; assume the hobby shop cost environment can be used to produce multiple qualities without the need for special tooling, written documentation and procedures, supplier quality control assurance. Sixth, assume expedited timelines, no inefficiencies due to start-up costs or delays caused by lack of timely funding or (the list goes on and on…) Seventh, the implementing companies assign their “best and brightest” engineers to a low-profit-margin venture and that these engineers will work tirelessly six-to-seven-day weeks for years on end. Eighth, assume there are little to no costs for making the interfaces with domestic/international partners, government agencies, regulators, etc. It would be useful to see how SpaceDev derived their estimates [for its lunar exploration proposal]. I would be delighted to look at their “basis of estimates” documents to see if they are credible and pass sanity checks.

When a small business grows, scaling operations brings many problems that require competent management and adequate funding to overcome. If you add only a couple of engineers a year to your staff, the chief engineer can often take time out to interview each top candidate to make sure you’re getting the type of hard-working creative person you want. Try doing that if you’re adding one, two, or ten engineers a week. The problem magnifies itself when extended to other departments. A larger company needs an HR department, an IT department, and other supporting infrastructure that a small single location facility doesn’t. There are growing needs to have staff to maintain compliance with government rules and regulations. All of these things add time and costs and do not bring economic cost advantages of scale to a business, but they are necessary.

I am not against a small company getting a chance to compete for large projects. I own one. If they truly have a better idea and have a credible plan for implementing it, I’m all for giving them a shot. If these companies want to be taken seriously, it would make sense if possible for their plans and budget estimates to be reviewed by an independent, respected, qualified, and hopefully unbiased group. If a review backed their claims, maybe NASA and or potential investors could get these companies the boost they need. Many small businesses—in all fields—fail because they failed to ask of themselves, or were not asked by others, the tough questions that need to be considered. With all the publicity these small companies are getting, maybe it is the time to ask them the tough questions.