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New NASA Program Doomed to Failure, NASA Should Explain Failures, Space Frontier Foundation Tells Congress

Press Release From: Space Frontier Foundation
Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The initiation of NASA's latest space transport program, the Orbital Space Plane (OSP), was challenged today by the Space Frontier Foundation, which estimates the program's chances of success at zero.

"Through all its vehicle development programs since the Shuttle, NASA's record has been perfect: they've cancelled every one," said Foundation Board Member John Cserep. "We've seen no reason to believe NASA has learned the lessons of its many failed efforts, and every reason to expect that the taxpayers are going to lose billions of more dollars on another fruitless program."

The Foundation called on Congress to demand an explanation of NASA's repeated failures in every attempt to develop a new space vehicle in the last 20 years. In a letter issued this week to the leading members of the space-related Subcommittees in both houses of Congress [see attachment], the Foundation explains its so-far lone opposition to proceeding with OSP until satisfactory answers are forthcoming.

NASA's unbroken string of cancelled vehicle programs stretches back to the Reagan Administration's X-30 NASP, and continued with the X-33, X-34, X-38, 2GRLV and, most recently, the Space Launch Initiative or SLI. The two remaining "X-vehicle" programs – the X-37 and X-43 – are both well behind schedule and over budget, making their cancellation likely.

"We understand the urgent and legitimate need for NASA to find some new means of crew transport for the International Space Station (ISS); hence, their OSP effort," said Cserep. "But the importance of this requirement does nothing to improve the chances of OSP's success, and only means the danger to ISS will be that much greater if and when OSP fails."

The non-profit Foundation intends to propose a series of steps NASA and Congress can take to improve the chances of meeting NASA's transportation needs within current budget realities.

The Foundation's letter to Congress regarding the OSP is below:

The Honorable Lamar Smith
2231 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Cc: Hon. Dana Rohrabacher, Hon. Bart Gordon, Sen. George Allen, Sen. Ron Wye, House S&A Subcmte. Staff, Senate ST&S Subcmte. staff

January 12, 2003

Dear Mr. Chairman,
Our Board of Directors and members are disturbed that NASA has proposed undertaking yet another government space vehicle design program, the "Orbital Spaceplane" or OSP. With appalling consistency, NASA has failed to produce meaningful results from one such effort after another, and we urge you to demand a different approach from NASA this time around.

While the idea of the OSP itself may or may not have merit; it is the way OSP is undertaken which is of paramount importance. Absolutely all experience of the last two decades suggests – indeed insists – that the OSP is doomed to failure under typical NASA acquisition strategy. The litany of NASA's cancelled vehicle programs stretches back to the Reagan Administration's NASP "Orient Express," and includes the X-33, X-34, X-38, 2GRLV and now SLI. How many times can Congress abide these failures?

Public suspicions that NASA is little more than a jobs program are fueled by seeing NASA so comfortable with failure and endless retries. It is left to Congress and the White House to require that the correct lessons from these failures are learned and applied.

We recognize that NASA has suggested what it believes were the causes of problems in previous programs. For example, NASA has offered explanations of the X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle program, one of its most expensive but not most recent failures. But there are disturbing signs that NASA wants to rewrite history by implying this failure was someone else's fault. In a recent draft briefing proposal on its new Integrated Space Transportation Plan (ISTP), as reported by SpaceRef.com, NASA justifies ISTP by contrasting the current approach and environment with those of the X-33 program. We fear NASA is implying that the Lockheed Martin X-33 program was wrecked by changing requirements of the commercial launch sector – a nonsensical excuse we have not heard before, not even from Lockheed Martin.

Such disingenuous arguments appear to indicate a disturbing evasion of reality among NASA's managers in charge of launch vehicle development. We believe NASA has yet to come to grips with the causes of its problems. Congress and the Administration should refuse to continue funding OSP until NASA gives them reason to believe it understands how to avoid more program failures.

Although we have a number of ideas about how to improve the OSP program's chances of success, the key one we wish you to address immediately is simply to demand an accounting for the failures of past programs. Specifically, we urge Congress to demand an explanation of the failure of the X-33 and similar programs. Whereas failure investigations typically focus on explaining technical failures such as crashes, what is needed here is something quite different: a determination of the cause of program failure. Since none of these vehicles were ever completed and no flights were attempted, NASA was able to quietly sweep whole programs under the rug without such an accounting.

If NASA's rationalizations focus on the X-33 program, it is important that the failure report do so as well, to prevent NASA from shifting blame. Likewise, it is crucial that this effort be independently chartered by Congress, not NASA, in order to have credibility.

NASA continues creating and blithely canceling vehicle programs while wasting billions of dollars and producing no usable space vehicles. Meanwhile, our Space Shuttle fleet is aging, the cost of space transportation remains forbiddingly high, private sector investors and entrepreneurs are excluded from helping, and the USA continues to lose market share in the space launch business.

You have no doubt heard insanity defined as, "Repeating the same action and expecting different results." NASA's approach to OSP certainly qualifies as insane by that measure. We stand ready to assist in injecting sanity this time around, and hope you will also.

Respectfully,

John Cserep

Chairman, Message & Policy Committee
Space Frontier Foundation


1. For the limited case of the of the X-33 and X-34, GAO prepared a lessons-learned report, Critical Areas NASA Needs to Address in Managing Its Reusable Launch Vehicle Program (GAO-01-826T, 6/20/01). Subsequent vehicle cancellations make it unlikely that the lessons GAO identified were applied by NASA.

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