NASA Space Launch System

Dan Dumbacher of NASA and John Strickland of the National Space Society are having an argument over the Space Launch System. Unfortunately, both gentlemen are missing the point when it comes to space transportation.

Lee Roop of The Huntsville Times has written about the dispute in an article with the rather ponderous title,
NASA defends Space Launch System against charge it ‘is draining the lifeblood’ of space program.

Dumbacher is Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, played a key role in designing the Space Launch System, and, of course, wants to continue building it. Strickland believes “The US government should either decide to turn the SLS into a reusable HLV booster… or open a competitive bidding for a privately designed and built reusable HLV.”

Strickland’s objections to the current SLS program have some justification. The program is extremely expensive. The SLS booster and its Orion capsule are slated to cost over $20 billion to develop. Once developed, operating costs will be huge. Ironically, NASA retired the Space Shuttle (which failed to fulfill its original economic goals) in order to replace it with an even-more-expensive launch system.

Contrary to popular belief, which Dumbacher seems to share, expendable launch systems are not cheaper to develop than reusable vehicles. In the 1960’s, General Dynamics did a study comparing the development of the suborbital X-15 with an expendable missile (Atlas A) of similar size and performance. General Dynamics found that the X-15, although more complex and of higher reliability, was about 30% cheaper to develop. A US Air Force study conducted around the same time, using different methods, came to a similar conclusion.

Even NASA’s Second Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle program, which Dumbacher managed, provides evidence for this. The 2GRLV was overdesigned and oversized for the market, but still, the estimated development cost (using traditional NASA development methods) was only around $5-6 billion — less than SLS or the Orion capsule.

This is not to say that NASA ought to build 2GRLV. If built, 2GRLV would fail to meet its cost goals for the same reason the Space Shuttle did. To achieve low operating costs, it is not enough for hardware to be reusable in theory. It must be reused in practice. Even if the Shuttle hadn’t run into technical problems and the design hadn’t been compromised by political meddling, it still would have failed economically because there weren’t enough large payloads to fill the mission model for which it was designed.

This has happened in aviation, also. The Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the “Spruce Goose”, was similarly oversized. Even if it hadn’t run into technical problems, the Spruce Goose would have been an economic disaster. The much smaller DC-3 was a better fit for the military and commercial markets at the time. Hughes apparently realized that, late in the development program, and so the aircraft never flew more than a single test flight.

A reusable launch vehicle will be economically viable, if and only if it is reused, frequently. Achieving such a high flight rate requires that the vehicle be sized appropriately for the market, as the DC-3 was in the 1930’s and 40’s, not oversized like the Shuttle or Spruce Goose. It must be sized for the payloads that can be commonly expected, not the largest payload imaginable.

Both Dumbacher and Strickland take it on faith that NASA “needs” a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, but faith is no substitute for sound engineering architectures. The late Max Hunter, father of the Delta rocket and the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X), liked to point out that the largest single payload which could not be broken down for shipping was only about 200 pounds (an adult human being). Recent architecture studies by Boeing and United Launch Alliance, among others, have shown that orbital propellent depots can replace super-heavy launchers in NASA’s exploration plans.

The use of in-space architectures such as propellent depots has a number of advantages. Not only would it reduce the overall cost, it would allow NASA to get started on its deep-space exploration plans more quickly (before politicians lose interest and decide to cancel the whole show). It would kickstart the development of an in-space infrastructure, which could serve a variety of scientific, commercial, and military missions in addition to NASA’s exploration program. Finally, it would open the door to the future use of extraterrestrial resources mined from the Moon, asteroids, or other objects.

NASA is historically prone to the mistake of trying to build the biggest rocket possible, rather than a rocket that makes economic sense, because it is isolated from the financial disciple of the market. NASA depends for funding on politicians, a profession that is not generally known for its good financial sense. So, projects such as SLS are justified on the basis of how many jobs they create (i.e., how much money NASA manages to spend) in key Congressional districts, rather than the missions they can perform.

The only way out of this trap is to leave development of new space transportation systems to the private sector (just as we leave the development of air, sea, and land transport to the private sector). Strickland would probably agree with that, since he gives lip service to the idea of a “privately designed and built reusable HLV.” Unfortunately, he falls into the “new space” trap of calling government projects “private” or “commercial” just because the government slaps a “commercial” sticker on them.

Space-transportation visionary G. Harry Stine, quoting Robert Heinlein, said that an elephant is a mouse built to government specifications. Strickland wants the government to select a contract to build a “privately designed” elephant to government specifications. There is no reason to expect such a vehicle to be cheaper simply because the logos say “Boeing” or “Lockheed” instead of “NASA.” Since the owner/operator of such a system would have a government monopoly, they would have no incentive to bring cost down.

To bring launch costs down, we need market-based competition, not a government-sanctioned monopoly, and commercial vehicles that are designed to commercial specifications, not government specifications.

In the 1990’s, Congress passed the Launch Services Purchase Act, which required NASA to purchase future space-transportation services from the private sector, rather than developing its own launch systems. This law was later weakened, then ignored entirely. In the 1990’s, NASA justified the development of X-33, X-34, X-37, X-38, and 2GRLV on the basis that they were “experimental” systems and not covered by the LSPA. By 2004, when the White House announced the Bush Vision of Space Exploration, the law was simply ignored. “New space” activists (some of whom, ironically, had once lobbied for the LSPA) were so eager for NASA to return to the Moon that they turned a blind eye to the gutting of commercial provisions. But almost 10 years later, NASA is no closer to the Moon than it was in 2004.

Although weakened, the LSPA language still on the books. 51 USC Sec. 50131, “Requirement to procure commercial space transportation services,” states:

Except as otherwise provided in this section, the Federal Government shall acquire space transportation services from United States commercial providers whenever such services are required in the course of its activities. To the maximum extent practicable, the Federal Government shall plan missions to accommodate the space transportation services capabilities of United States commercial providers.

The exceptions to this requirement are strictly defined:

The Federal Government shall not be required to acquire space transportation services under subsection (a) if, on a case-by-case basis, the Administrator or, in the case of a national security issue, the Secretary of the Air Force, determines that —

(1) a payload requires the unique capabilities of the space shuttle;

(2) cost effective space transportation services that meet specific mission requirements would not be reasonably available from United States commercial providers when required;

(3) the use of space transportation services from United States commercial providers poses an unacceptable risk of loss of a unique scientific opportunity;

(4) the use of space transportation services from United States commercial providers is inconsistent with national security objectives;

(5) the use of space transportation services from United States commercial providers is inconsistent with international agreements for international collaborative efforts relating to science and technology;

(6) it is more cost effective to transport a payload in conjunction with a test or demonstration of a space transportation vehicle owned by the Federal Government; or

(7) a payload can make use of the available cargo space on a space shuttle mission as a secondary payload, and such payload is con- sistent with the requirements of research, de- velopment, demonstration, scientific, com- mercial, and educational programs authorized by the Administrator.

Even stronger language remains on the books. 51 USC Sec. 50133, “Shuttle privatization,” states:

The [NASA] Administrator shall prepare for an orderly transition from the Federal operation, or Federal management of contracted operation, of space transportation systems to the Federal purchase of commercial space transportation services for all nonemergency space transportation requirements for transportation to and from Earth orbit, including human, cargo, and mixed payloads.

Attempts at privatization precede the Obama Administration’s “Commercial Crew and Cargo Program” by more than 20 years. The Reagan Administration successfully privatized NASA’s expendable launch vehicles, resulting in the current commercial industry for unmanned satellite launches, but transferring human spaceflight to the private sector remains unfinished business. Based on the actions and statements of Congress-folk like Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), it appears that today’s GOP no longer believes in private enterprise and seeks to expand government’s role in space transportation (regardless of its implications for the Federal budget).

What cannot continue will not continue, however. The Apollo-style, centrally planned space program advocated by both Dumbacher and Strickland is no longer sustainable. Indeed, it hasn’t been sustainable for the last 40 years, which is why NASA has not been back to the Moon. NASA needs to make radical changes if it is to survive. (Just following these laws that are already on the books would go a long way, however.) Currently, there is no indication that politicians are going to allow that.

Written by Astro1 on July 30th, 2013 , Space Policy and Management

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    jim brown commented

    With a bit of orbital docking Falcon Heavy can put together two hundred tons. If the that can be made as fully reusable as I have been told LEO can get below ten dollars a pound. It takes about twice in fuel to GEO and about five times to anywhere else like the surface of our Moon or Mars. If a package can go to a depot very few packages need to be larger than fifty or eve thirty tons. SpaceX is gearing up to be able to launch a half dozen every day if their rockets are fully reusable.

    NASA should get out of the launch business and encourage cheap reusable systems and cheap fuel ready depot. Supplying the depot should be using open bid contracts to supply it. This would be enough to do all projects anyone has suggested be done withing the next half century.

    July 30, 2013 at 5:27 pm
    Charles Pooley commented

    Before building the elephant, how about first building a mouse?

    Before you can sell large scale plans no one will pay for, I suggest build a new community, analogous to that which appeared with the advent of the Altair and the other 1st generation microcomputers in the 1970s. I type this on the outcome of that.

    Endlessly flogging large scale plans will never work. Apollo and the conditions which created that are history and will not repeat. Time to think fresh…

    August 3, 2013 at 4:37 pm
    John Strickland commented

    Thanks for keeping this debate going. I would like to suggest that a couple of my main positions have been inadvertently misinterpreted. If you will check my article on depots:, my articles supporting depots as far back as 2005, and my more recent space review article supporting the cis-lunar architecture concept, you will see I am a very strong supporter of reusable spacecraft as well as boosters, and that depots are absolutely critical to such an architecture. Much of crew and fuel transport can and will be accomplished through medium sized reusable boosters and capsules.

    I have a very specific reason for wanting an HLV. My support for creating a “giant” rocket has much more to do with the diameter of the payload than the total mass to orbit. A payload I would like to see launched to LEO, a reusable Mars ferry, is 14 meters across at the base, but it is only 30 metric tons dry with no payload. The ferry must be put in LEO before it can be used on a Mars expedition. While it is practical to create large two-dimensional structures in space, such as aero-shields, trying to create a 3-dimensional complex vehicle structure with an integral re-entry aero-shell would take hundreds of workers in orbit. We do not have that capability yet and will not have it for a while. (Imagine designing the shuttle orbiter in chunks 16 feet wide, launching them and assembling them with a few astronauts. How long would it take in space suits?.) As I often tell people, you cannot launch a pancake on a pencil – so to launch a 14 meter wide conical payload takes at least a 10 meter wide launcher using a reverse fairing, with the payload up to 50% wider than the booster.

    I envision that planned human and robotic exploration programs should be carried out by NASA but NASA will not and cannot afford effective programs if they try to design and build the boosters. I am even starting to wonder if they should design and build the spacecraft. If NASA continues in is current course it will accomplish little of value. However, exploration generally cannot make a profit and so cannot be normally supported by private enterprise. It is possible that SpaceX under Elon Musk is different and will be able to divert some of its resources in this direction in less than 1 generation. If we want to have human exploration programs in the near future, they must have some source of funding. I do agree that this poses the very real dilemma of a government funding source never managing the funding well enough to accomplish any real goal. The current NASA funding levels, if directed properly, would in fact be able to sustain an aggressive program of developing the cis-lunar transport system, enabling most space goals to be reached.

    If the rational Newspace forces prevail, I anticipate that gradually, more and more of the in-space hardware will be built by private companies to meet NASA’s and others needs but the designs will not be controlled by NASA. There will have to be international interface standards and agreements about docking, power, etc. for a complex space-based transport system to operate with different components built by different companies and countries.

    John Strickland

    August 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm
      Astro1 commented

      You overlook the technical fact that it’s possible to assemble or deploy structures in space. If you need something that’s 14 meters or 140 meters in diameter, that doesn’t mean you have build a rocket 140 meters in diameter.

      More importantly, NASA does not have infinite funding. It has to make choices.

      You want NASA to build a huge new rocket and propellant depots and a giant reusable Mars ferry? How much will that cost? Where will the money for it come from? Neil Tyson’s magic “Penny for NASA” is not going to happen.

      That is something G. Harry Stine hammered into our heads years ago. “The problem isn’t Isp, it’s ROI.” If you don’t have a sound financial plan and affordable transportation, you’re going nowhere.

      The idea that “exploration generally cannot make a profit and so cannot be normally supported by private enterprise” is historically false. Ask anyone in the oil- and gas-exploration industry. Or the mountain men who explored the western US before Lewis and Clark. Or the Italian bankers who financed Christopher Columbus. Even when exploration was financed by governments (which was rare), those governments were generally looking to make a profit from it. Project Apollo was a historically anomaly.

      Ultimately, if exploration does not make a profit, it will not continue. That’s why we need to pay attention to how much things cost.

      That is not to say that every exploratory expedition has to make a profit. “New space” has the bizarre belief that the private sector is motivated soley by profit and anything that doesn’t return an immediate profit must be done by government (specifically NASA). In the real world, there are many private-sector institutions that do not seek immediate profit — churches, private foundations, universities, and so on. The National Geographic Society, for example, was (and is) quite active in funding expeditions. Even not-for-profit institutions must be able to cover their expenses, however, so again, cost does matter.

      And even when a project does require government support, NASA is not the whole of the US government. There’s the US Air Force, FAA, etc. As Kipling said, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every one of them is right.”

      August 6, 2013 at 12:45 pm
        John Strickland commented

        Right now, I do not see any of our large companies engaging in exploration at their own expense. Most of the lunar startups are having a very hard time, and the only companies that may succeed have a firm business plan that intends to actually make a profit with asteroids. In their plan, exploration is required to be able to find the right asteroids to mine. This is like the mountain men who explored to find places to trap. A limited amount of exploration and development has also been sponsored by organizations.

        If you have visited a rocket assembly plant such as the huge one at Decatur, Alabama (Near Huntsville), you will see the large number of employees. It takes a lot of people to correctly assemble and inspect complex spacecraft. With a crew of 7, where most manhours are needed to maintain the facility and health, how long would it take to re-assemble a large spacecraft ready for reentry, even if it had been designed for reassembly.

        With today’s shrunken budget and dollar, which I agree shows no sign of increasing, we obviously cannot develop all the hardware simultaneously, as we did during Apollo. The work can be split among an international consortium, or the most critical and useful components could be designed and built first, with latter additions. A space tug and small depot based at the station would be a good start.

        So , I am uncertain of your position. Are you saying that NASA should not be exploring or developing anything, or promoting such work by private initiative such as Commercial Crew? The Lewis and Clark expedition was sponsored by the government.

        August 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm
          Astro1 commented

          “Right now, I do not see any of our large companies engaging in exploration at their own expense.”

          Then you haven’t looked very far. Exxon Mobil reported capital and exploration expenses of $22 billion for the first half of this year. What do you consider large?

          “With a crew of 7, where most manhours are needed to maintain the facility and health, how long would it take to re-assemble a large spacecraft ready for reentry”

          A crew of seven??? You apparently assume that ISS is the only place where humans will ever live and work in space. There will be hundreds, then thousands of people living in space, when the cost of space access is reduced. Read “The High Frontier” by Prof. Gerard O’Neill, “The Third Industrial Revolution” and “The Space Enterprise” by G. Harry Stine.

          “Are you saying that NASA should not be exploring or developing anything, or promoting such work by private initiative such as Commercial Crew? The Lewis and Clark expedition was sponsored by the government.”

          Once again, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the rare exception — and the Corps of Discovery existed for just three years. It was never intended to be a permanent agency, and it certainly did not make a return expedition to Oregon 50 years later. It did not establish mining operations, build settlements, or do any of the other things “new space” wants NASA to do.

          What we think NASA should be doing is irrelevant. NASA could play an important role in basic R&D, similar to what the NACA did for the airline industries. It could conduct detailed explorations alongside private industry, similar to what the US Geological Survey does in the US. It could create incentives for private industry, through technology prizes, data purchases, and launch purchases. But NASA will not have money for any of these things. The Bush Vision of Space Exploration is a financial snowball rolling downhill, and it’s too late to stop it. By the time it reaches bottom, there may be nothing left of NASA.

          That is unfortunate but not tragic. It simply means we need to stay out of the snowball’s path while we develop sustainable commercial space programs that are not dependent on NASA funding.

          August 8, 2013 at 5:39 pm
            John Strickland commented

            I had not checked this site for a while. I guess I should have specified large SPACE companies. An oil or gas company does exploration for specific natural resources since it expects a profit within a specified number of years. Planetary exploration has no immediate promise of profit, no matter who does it. Exploration of near-Earth asteroids would be closer to what you describe. The level of exploration conducted by NGS is much smaller than any government effort.

            I see that 5 years after the end of the Bush Administration, people are still blaming things on him. The blame for the initiation of the bad program goes squarely on the shoulders of Michael Griffin, who derailed the technically progressive policies put in place just before he arrived, and suppressing studies of reusable lunar landers, etc. The current blame goes to Congress and the Senate, for continuing a bad program that was out of date 40 years ago.

            You are clearly taking my comments about the crew of 7 out of context. I met Dr. O’Neill in the late 1970’s and support his goals as well as surface colonies. This spring I went to a large effort to show how rotating colonies could be built at reasonable cost. Some of the resulting images can be seen at:
   and were presented at the ISDC in San Diego in May.

            I agree with you that NASA is being driven right toward a cliff, from which their manned program will have a hard time recovering politically and financially if they do not stop soon.

            I also see that Rand Simberg currently agrees with my analysis at:
            He even calls the elephant by the right name: WHITE.


            August 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm
            Astro1 commented

            “Planetary exploration has no immediate promise of profit, no matter who does it.”

            Saying so doesn’t make it a fact. There’s no reason why planetary exploration can’t be profitable, if the cost is less than the value of what you’re exploring for. That is basic economics.

            The key is reducing the cost of space transportation. You insist on building uneconomical transportation systems, then say it’s impossible to make a profit on anything. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            Mike Griffin was not responsible for initiating the Bush Vision of Space Exploration. He didn’t rejoin NASA until some time later — and was welcomed with open arms by the people who now demonize him. (Google “good captain for NASA.”) It’s odd that you think George W. Bush was not responsible for what went on at NASA during his time in office. Do you not know that the NASA Administrator is appointed by the President and serves at his pleasure?

            It’s easy to blame the failure of a centrally planned economy on the man in charge. Too easy. It allows people to avoid recognizing that the problem is the system itself, not simply the man at the top. (It’s said that when Communism fell in the Soviet Union, leaders were still blaming Stalin for their economic problems.)

            Big government is not the solution to every problem. We’ve tried that approach to space development for 50 years. It’s time to try something new.

            August 21, 2013 at 5:36 pm