The Space-Industrial Complex In Transition

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Some in the space community watch with anticipation the hopefully inexorable approach of the transition to the re-usable launch vehicle era. At the same time, many others are either oblivious to that era's approach or are actively resisting it. Right now the major players in our government-supported space industry seem confident and sure of themselves. The NASA and industry publicity videos and images of the current and planned vehicles and their intended missions seem at first glance to be impressive, sophisticated, believable and accurate. However, this is just like the position IBM was in a generation ago, seemingly without peer in the computer field, just as the PC-clone makers were stealing market share from it in increasingly large chunks.

To some observers, the manned space enterprise in particular seems to be headed not just down a dead-end road, but driving instead right toward a hidden economic cliff that the driver (who is effectively blind to economic factors), cannot see. These divergent views on the future of the U.S. government's military and civilian space program are due in large part to the existence of a "Space-Industrial Complex" or S.I.C. Just like the original Military-Industrial Complex named by President Eisenhower, ours is simultaneously a source of economic strength, pride and technical skill, and a millstone around our necks.

Why should we refer to part of the space industry as a "Complex" at all. The critical fact here is the mutual but informal and unofficial feedback of support between politics and industry. The military, government space, and transportation infrastructure arenas are all areas where politics plays a crucial role in determining the losers and winners of contracts and the location of selected projects. The industry and political components become self-supporting and self-perpetuating. (In most other areas of the economy, economics itself primarily calls the shots, not politics). The current blatant attempts at interference in space policy by Senators Richard Shelby of Alabama and Bill Nelson of Florida are good examples, especially with two of the first 10 Google items on Shelby (on June 28,09) referring to NASA issues. The damaging result of the interaction was driven in by the statement in the lead SPACE NEWS article (p 1, 6-29-09), by Peter de Selding: "... the two principal U.S. rockets, Atlas and Delta, have in effect been removed from the market to focus on more profitable U.S. government business".

Using the term "Space-Industrial Complex" may seem excessively negative. However, our community, especially those parts of it who are public interest groups, must approach critical public decisions, such as the path the new administration will take in space, with our "eyes wide open". Simultaneously, we must recognize the reality that real human costs and jobs are at stake no matter what decisions are make. There is a huge reservoir of vital skills that exist in the space manufacturing and development workforce, both within NASA and the contractors. We are currently dependent on them for all of our manned, unmanned scientific, observational, military and commercial launches and they are vital to our national industry. In addition, it must be made clear that the vast bulk of the hard-working people within the S.I.C. are not responsible for the problems facing us. Yet the extraordinarily high costs of continuing to do "business as usual" for space launches is perpetuating a terrible and crippling burden which is preventing us from doing many of the things that the space frontier once promised us.

So just what is this terrible burden. Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation created the best analogy yet in his famous video of almost 20 years ago, which publicized the DC-X SSTO program as originally supported by the Air Force. In the video, the parts of an airplane are thrown away after every flight. Lets take the analogy a little further. Imagine that you are flying from New York to LA. You and all the other passengers board a brand new airplane that has never been flown before. Assuming that you make it to LA in one piece, the brand new airplane is then thrown away by sending it to a metal salvage yard to be shredded into its constituent elements and melted down. When your trip is over, you get onto another brand new airplane that also has never been flown, to fly back to New York, where that airplane is also thrown away.

Now, just how expensive would it be for industry to create airplanes which are so perfectly built and assembled that most of the time they will fly perfectly the very first time they are flown. How many passengers would take the risk of about 1 chance of dying for every 100-200 flights? Flight attendant's careers could not last too long, and very few pilots would get to be very old. How expensive would your airplane ticket be if the airline used such extremely expensive airplanes for only a single flight before disposing of them? Did you say tens of millions of dollars? Guess what the current ticket to orbit cost is for space tourists or private astronauts - ten of millions of dollars.

This epitomizes the current situation in the space industry. Expendable rockets are directly analogous to my scenario, since they cannot be test flown before they are used for the first and only time, and the degree of reliability required must be extraordinary and is very costly. With some private players, the payloads, such as communication satellites and the mass-less goods (voice, video, images and data) that they handle, happen to be so valuable in orbit that the high launch costs are considered a normal cost of business, and satellite-based communication businesses can complete with cable-based ones. Thus there is no comparable "Space Communications Industrial Complex".

However, for any effort (such as renewed lunar exploration or space development), which requires substantial amounts of mass placed repeatedly in Earth orbit or beyond, the cost penalty is very steep. Reliance on fully expendable or partially re-usable or "refurbishable" booster systems have led to launch costs which (in the case of the shuttle) can be calculated to be as high as 50 million dollars a ton. (With the cost to maintain shuttle flight capability estimated to be at about 5 billion dollars a year (with the actual flight costs a minor part of the annual maintenance costs), and if the shuttle flies a nominal 5 missions a year with 20 tons of cargo per flight, that is about 100 tons of actual cargo in orbit per year at a cost of 5 billion dollars or 50 million a ton.).

While launch costs for unmanned expendable boosters are not this high, the satellite industry still has to make extreme and costly efforts to reduce weight, and increase reliability. The lack of in-orbit satellite servicing and repair, due to the very high cost of manned operations, means that a disabled satellite, or one that has run out of propellants, is usually a total loss. These high costs which make most satellites disposable and forces their eventual replacement, also make it uneconomical to provide for de-orbit capability for satellites which are old or too badly damaged to warrant repair. This contributes to the rapid buildup of large numbers of derelict satellites, all moving at speeds of several miles per second. The number of recent collisions in orbit, each of which can generate thousands of lethal fragments, is making all orbital operations increasingly risky.

While keeping the current jobs in the current locations seems to be the short term intent of those controlling the "Complex" at the moment, they are ignoring the long term truth that if the transportation equipment was cheaper, more of it would be sold. Compare the number of large airplanes built each year to the number of large rockets built each year, and the comparison is inescapable. Current NASA budgets based on the use of expendable launchers may soon force a Moon or Mars, but not both, or even a "go nowhere" decision. With re-usable boosters, even just with re-usable first stage boosters, the whole equation of orbital costs would be changed, and thousands of new space-related jobs could be created, allowing financially sustainable exploration and space development programs. Without them, sustaining the annual transportation budgets for any new planetary or lunar exploration program would be politically very difficult, and any such program could well suffer a political collapse, ending American hopes in space for another generation.

What, if anything, should and can be done to break this status quo imposed by the Complex? The political forces currently driving the situation are relatively strong. In the short term, new political leadership within NASA and the re-establishment of a strong National Space Council outside of NASA could help set a new course which takes the economic factors into consideration. However, in the long run, if the American Space-Industrial Complex does not change itself by making the needed transition, barring some global catastrophe, other countries such as India will eventually create their own industries based on re-usable boosters. This kind of situation happened once before 30 years ago, when the European Ariane booster family started capturing international and commercial launch business, due to American political mistakes and European business astuteness. If current efforts to resist the transition, (such as apparent attempts to gut the COTS budget) can be stopped, one or more new companies will soon begin commercial operations with significantly less expensive and or re-usable boosters.

If anyone demonstrates the recovery of a first stage orbital booster in a undamaged and re-usable state, using any practical method, a shudder will go through the existing space industry giants. This is likely to happen within about two years. The giants will then be forced by economics to begin to compete in the re-usable arena, or they will eventually be forced out of the booster business. Even the government would sooner or later be forced to switch to drastically lower cost boosters. Any such collapse is entirely unnecessary, since the large companies have all the talent and financial resources needed to create their own re-usable boosters in direct competition with the new companies. All they lack is the motive at the top.

The short-term disruption to lives and careers that a collapse of the existing S.I.C. booster industry would cause, as many workers transferred to the new companies, would be great, but the current exorbitant launch costs are causing even greater harm to the long term interests of our country and the world. A real economic breakout into space could allow true space development, such as Space Solar Power, and would greatly enhance our ability to explore. This path totally depends on achieving economical space transport. Without it, most of our dreams will remain on the ground.


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