Sunday, July 31, 2011

Back from newspace 2011.

I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the NewSpace conference.
I enjoyed meeting lots of rocket friends, both old and new.

NASA was well represented at the conference and It's real clear that NASA as an organization has not digested the implication of the shuttle program ending. There are clearly NASA groups that are in denial, they are trying to figure out how to get back to where they were 5 years ago and continue growing their empire. Some of the NASA people see the possible benefit of greatly reduced commercial flight costs, as it opens up new exploration opportunities that were not there before. There are groups that are not completely in denial they think there organizations have real value and that they can market this value to the new commercial space vendors. What they don't realize is that their cost basis makes their facilities and capabilities unusable by the commercial vendors. The NASA cost model says Falcon 9 should cost 4B to develop, it cost 390M. Their basic organizational operational costs are 10X too high to be viable. If NASA can figure out how to sell services at a commercially viable price then commercial space needs to fly 100X as often as the shuttle did to support the same size workforce at the facilities, its not going to happen. I had three different conversations with three different people in different fields that were trying to work with three different NASA centers, all three thought that the value provided was not worth the price paid. This evaluation varied from unbelievably bad to marginally ok. If NASA wants to stay relevant in commercial space going forward they really need to examine why their costing models said F9 was 4B and Elon did it for 390M. Being wrong by a factor of 10 is not a minor thing.

A lot of the conference was about space futures that border on fantasy. Some dreaming or fantasy is good, it gives you a direction and a focus. If the fantasy is physically impossible then it can be destructive as it makes physically realizable space look stupid or dull. As long as we are using chemical propulsion anything that launches from the ground or changes it orbit in a significant way has to look like a propellant tank, if its not 90% tank by mass its not going to work. The gravity well and the rocket equation do not make exceptions for anyone.
Its not clear to me that Hollywood depictions of space, x-wing, star trek shuttle, firefly, etc have not done a disservice to the real space movement by making things look too easy.

A lot of people have read my recent blog posts and I got all kinds of advice.
At space access this year I expressed my concerns about the economy and the direction of the federal government and budget. A lot of people though I was too pessimistic. At this conference I encountered a number of people that were more pessimistic than I. I've become more certain of two things:
1)Commercial space is ready for someone to make an effort at building a truly low cost launcher, not a half price vax, but an apple II. (See earlier posts if you don't get the reference.)

2)Non governmental funding for space does not yet really exist, and governmental funding is the 5 to 10 yr time frame is really really uncertain.

These two "facts" do not sit well together, will a radically lower launch cost create a field of dreams where if you build it they will come, or is it a fools errand? I can't yet answer that question.

Where too from here?
In the real short term, I'm going to spaceup LA next Saturday.
The Sunday after that I'm going to Small Sat in Utah, I've never been, but I'm going with the specific purpose to try and evaluate what commercial market there is for a nano sat launcher.

I'm also looking at possibly submitting a proposal for an SBIR in the current NASA SBIR solicitation, they have a nanosat specific one that looks interesting. I'm not sure if getting on the SBIR tread mill is the best approach, would I be better off spending the time and energy looking for private funding, or just going slowly along on my own dime?


Gaetano Marano said...

NASA is DEAD [ ] and 99% of is blah blah blah

heroineworshipper said...

99% of the commercial spaceflight industry is conventions.

Nate Downes said...

Your price comparison is rather off, for it ignored that NASA paid for the development of a huge number of systems SpaceX got to use for free, such as the Pintle injector and turbopumps. I went over the total once, it came to about $1.5 billion worth of NASA R&D went into the Falcon 9. And NASA's cost estimate for a similar rocket was $1.9 billion in 2010 dollars (last time they were working on one was for the NLS-3, which we now call the Delta IV).

Paul Breed said...

You don't get to count the sunk cost twice.
The 1.5B of "research" that Spacex used would be available for both the 1.9B NASA effort and the 390M spacex effort.

Yes with some commercial assumptions the NASA amount was 1.9B, with full normal NASA loading it was 4B, 1.9/.0390 is still a factor of 5.

Thom Vincent said...

Are there links available that explain more about NASA's cost estimating of the $4 billion and $1.9 billion?

mike shupp said...

It strikes me there are independent test cases. The Japanese send up cargoes to the ISS, on their own rockets. It would be of interest to see what their R&D and procurement costs are, and how closely those match NASA estimates (or JAXA's own estimates, for that matter). It might be useful as well to compare NASA estimates for some ESA programs, and perhaps with some completed Indian projects. And it might be useful to look at estimated and actual costs for projects in South Korea, Brazil, and Scandanavia.

I'd also like to see if it's just NASA or do outfits like RAND and the Aerospace Corporation also come up with factor of ten differences between estimated and read program costs? Is there a similar difference between NASA estimates and program costs for manufacturers other than SpaceX?

My personal guess is that NASA's methodology is too closely tied to aerospace practices and estimating methods that were developed in the 1950s, and perhaps to the vagaries of long drawn-out government procurement policies.

I'd be nice to have more than one test point, however.

Andrew Gasser said...

Actually, we reported on this back in May.

NASA has a lot to figure out. The primary cost savings come from the use of Space Act Agreements. SpaceX has benefited form a partnership with NASA (limited government).

It was shameful that this was buried on the last page of the report.

Andrew Gasser
TEA Party in Space

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