Testimony of Orbital Sciences Corporation Before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, House Committee on Science
October 27, 1999
Dr. Michael Griffin,
Chief Technical Officer
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss our mutual goals of reducing the cost of space transportation and maximizing the Governmentis use of commercial launch services. At Orbital, we believe that the interests of NASA and the US aerospace industry are best served when NASA uses commercial services to the maximum extent possible. This Subcommiteeis formulation and passage of important legislation, such as the Commercial Space Act of 1998, is making an important contribution toward supporting the U.S. commercial launch industry, which is currently threatened by heavily subsidized foreign competition.
In my position as Chief Technical Officer of Orbital Sciences Corporation, I am currently serving as the Principal Investigator for our efforts under NASA's Space Transportation Architecture Studies (STAS). We commend the Administration and NASA for having the foresight to initiate these studies and for inviting Orbital and other members of industry to participate. Orbital is a publicly traded, commercially oriented aerospace company with over 5,000 employees and almost $1 billion in annual revenues.
Orbital was selected to participate in these studies because of our vast experience at successfully developing and operating commercial launch system, such as our Pegasus and Taurus launch vehicles. Our commitment to reliability and safety is evidenced by the fact that we have now completed 16 successful launches in a row of Pegasus and Taurus. In addition, Orbital is pleased to be an integral part of NASA's Reusable Launch Vehicle Program, which this Subcommittee has so strongly supported in recent years. Our X-34 Technology Demonstrator will pick up where the X-15 left off and fly to the edge of the atmosphere at seven times the speed of sound next year to demonstrate a range of new space transportation technologies. The operational experience that we will gain from regular flights of the X-34 will help pave the way to develop low-cost Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV) like those under examination in the STAS studies.
As a part of these STAS studies, we have examined and evaluated a large number of vehicles and architecture approaches. Orbital's recommended architecture, includes a small, multifunctional Crew and Cargo Transfer Vehicle (CCTV), referred to as a Space Taxio, which would serve as: a two-way human space transportation system, a small cargo delivery and return vehicle, an emergency crew return vehicle (CRV) for the International Space Station (ISS), and a passenger module for a future Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). The Space Taxi could initially be launched on a heavy-lift Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), currently under development by U.S. industry and the U.S. Air Force. Together with a small cargo carrier located behind the Space Taxi, this system would be used to meet future ISS servicing requirements. Later, a two-stage, commercially developed RLV, under study by Orbital, would replace the EELV in launching the Space Taxi system at a significantly lower cost. This RLV system will provide NASA and other customers with unprecedented reductions in cost and improvements in reliability, safety, and performance. We project that full implementation of this architecture would save NASA over $1.5 billion per year in launch costs and provide an order of magnitude improvement in human safety.
Further technical details and recommendations concerning Orbital's recommended architecture are contained in Attachment 1, A Space Transportation Architecture for the Future. This paper, which summarizes Orbital's STAS Phase I and II study results, was recently presented at the 50th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation.
NASA Requirements vs. Industry Capabilities
In the development of our recommended architecture, we have attempted to merge NASA and industry needs to the maximum possible extent. The vast majority of NASA's needs to launch science and technology payloads can be met and are being successfully met by commercial launch vehicles and satellite platforms. However, a major difference between NASA's needs and those of commercial industry will remain because of the existence of a government-owned and operated International Space Station, government-owned and operated space observatories, and a potential government-run human exploration program for the Moon and Mars. Unfortunately, there are no near-term commercial requirements for transporting humans to and from space or for returning significant amounts of cargo. This important observation provides the key to understanding how to develop a cost-effective architecture solution for NASA and industry. Orbital has attempted to minimize the effect of these NASA-unique requirements on the structure and timing of our recommended architecture in two major ways. First, by challenging the stated irequirementsi and analyzing them in detail to determine which are true requirements and which are simply solution approaches to meet the true, often unstated, root requirements. Secondly, by developing solution approaches to meeting these itruei requirements that maximize commonality with existing or planned commercial launch systems and that reduce the number and cost of NASA-unique transportation elements.
The extent to which the current ISS re-supply requirements have been influenced by the capabilities of the Space Shuttle can not be overemphasized. It is no accident that the return cargo irequirementsi of the ISS coincide exactly with the required number of Space Shuttle up cargo flights and the Orbiter payload volume. NASA's true requirements are to rotate three to four ISS crew members every three months, transport needed supplies to the ISS, and return scientific data and experimental results for analysis in Earth-based laboratories. We believe that these requirements can be met by the Space Taxi with significantly lower costs and improved crew safety. Current plans to return ISS subsystems, facilities, instruments and logistics carriers to Earth for repair or refurbishment are a product of the non-market economics of the Space Shuttle system, whereby the transportation cost of return cargo is treated as practically free. With the Space Taxi architecture approach, market economics can determine which supplementary items are cost effective to return and refurbish rather than replacing. Orbital's approach of replacing, rather than refurbishing, significant amounts of ISS hardware and logistics carriers will likely require some changes in current plans. Designing elements, up front, to be expendable, rather than refurbished, will likely result in significant cost and weight savings. Economies of scale in producing expended items will add further cost savings. Many rack-size facilities and logistics carriers would likely be redesigned to be more modular and allow the replacement of individual components. Some large unpressurized items might be redesigned to be more modular or be stowed more efficiently. With the proper data and analysis, ISS return cargo requirements can be optimized to reduce cost and improve convergence with commercial requirements to the benefit of both NASA and industry.
The Space Shuttle was originally designed to safely transport humans to and from space, launch government and commercial satellites at a very low cost, and serve as a mini-Space Station for two weeks at a time. With the advent of the Challenger accident and the Commercial Space Act, government and commercial satellites will be launched exclusively on commercial launch vehicles whenever possible. With the advent of the International Space Station, a short-term mini-Space Station is no longer needed. Hence, the only two unique requirements that remain for the Space Shuttle in the near-term are to safely transport humans to and from space and to return small amounts of high-valued cargo from the ISS. Orbital's Space Taxi approach provides a minimum-size vehicle and infrastructure for meeting these NASA-unique requirements at a significantly lower cost than the current Space Shuttle. This lower cost is achieved because of the Space Taxiis small size, its potential for dual use as a CRV, and the fact that it is commercially owned and operated and launched on a commercial booster. This approach maximizes NASA's commonality with commercial launch systems, while meeting NASA's unique requirements at a minimum cost.
We envision this Space Taxi to be industry owned and operated; however, the cost of development, production, and operation of the Space Taxi System would be paid for predominantly out of government funds because it satisfies unique NASA needs that are not currently aligned with those of commercial industry. The launching of this Space Taxi System, however, could be competed among commercial RLV or EELV suppliers that meet the cost and safety requirements. These future RLVs would be commercially developed with private capital and would be commercially owned and operated. Their development will be enabled by NASA's current and planned future investments in RLV technologies and could be enhanced by government-backed financial incentives, such as tax credits, loan guarantees or advanced purchase agreements. Once a truly commercial Space Station becomes operational or the current Space Station becomes sufficiently commercialized, NASA and industry launch needs will be in almost complete alignment, and a completely commercial Space Taxi may become a viable business opportunity. We strongly believe that industry ownership of the Space Taxi from initial operation is critical to enable the eventual development of such a commercial Space Station.
Selected Findings from STAS Phase I and II
The STAS studies were quite extensive in their scope and depth. They included detailed mission and cost analyses, system definitions, development plans, technology roadmaps, and policy and regulatory recommendations. Hence, a large number of findings and recommendations were generated. Selected findings are summarized below:
- Upon full implementation of the Space Taxi Transportation System and retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA would save over $1.5 billion per year in launch costs under very conservative assumptions. These savings would represent a Net Present Value of $10-15 billion to NASA in current dollars if NASA were to invest in the development of this architecture.
- NASA would recover its investment in the Space Taxi Transportation System within two to three years after full system implementation and retirement of the Space Shuttle, and the required annual investment would not exceed NASA's current budget wedge for space transportation development.
- Implementation of the Space Taxi Transportation System could provide an order-of-magnitude improvement in crew safety because of its use of a Launch Escape System that would allow intact recovery of the Space Taxi vehicle in the event of a catastrophic booster failure at any time during ascent.
- Because the Space Taxi is designed to serve as a Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) for the International Space Station, the true cost to NASA of the Space Taxi is the marginal cost over what the Agency would have paid for CRV development and implementation.
- The CRV Program, with the development and space flight test of the X-38 vehicle, is critical to the success of the Space Taxi because it will demonstrate many of the enabling technologies in an operational environment. Orbital strongly supports continuation of the CRV Program in parallel with a more detailed technical and cost analysis of potential CCTV concepts.
- The Space Taxi Transportation System relies on existing or evolutionary technologies, rather than revolutionary technology advances. This greatly reduces schedule and cost risk.
- Because of its small size and potential to be launched on different boosters, the Space Taxi provides a high degree of operational flexibility. Future variants of the Space Taxi might be used for human exploration, satellite servicing and repair, satellite re-boost, space transfer, in-space construction, and even space salvage.
- Variants of the Space Taxi could satisfy a number of military missions as a Space Maneuver Vehicle (SMV), including: orbital and sub-orbital reconnaissance activities; global force projection and suppression; and satellite re-boost, orbit transfer, repair, and servicing.
- The development of a heavy-lift commercial RLV will be very difficult as long as the government-sponsored Space Shuttle remains as a competitor.
- Major upgrades to the Space Shuttle, such as Liquid Fly-Back Boosters, cannot be justified economically and actually have a negative Net Present Value (NPV).
- Government financial incentives should be governed by the following principles:
1. Provide for a balance of risk and reward between the government and the private sector in an appropriate manner.
2. Be structured to avoid excessive government intervention in market decision concerning the viability of a particular launch system development project.
3. Be broad-based, with qualification criteria that are as clear, objective, and measurable as possible.
- Investment tax incentives that allow investors to deduct investments in new commercial space transportation ventures from their tax obligations would greatly increase the probability of success of these ventures to the mutual benefit of the US industry and government.
- NASA's Future-X RLV Technology Program is critical to the development of low-cost, highly reliable commercial RLVs and should be fully funded at a consistent level.
STAS Phase III Status and Plans
In the current Phase III of the STAS Studies, NASA has asked Orbital to formulate detailed technology requirements and tasks to enable or enhance our recommended architecture. We have also been asked to integrate these tasks into detailed roadmaps for implementation as a part of NASA Future-X RLV Technology Program. We commend the Administration and NASA for inviting us to participate in the planning and implementation of their future RLV technology initiatives.
As a part of the current Phase, NASA has established requirements for an order-of-magnitude improvement in launch costs, reliability and human safety. NASA would like to reduce the cost of launching payloads to $1000/lb, improve the probability of vehicle loss to no worse than 1/1000, and improve the probability of crew loss of life to 1/10000. We believe that these goals are not achievable with Shuttle-based systems and will require the development of a new reusable architecture, like that proposed by Orbital, which includes a launch escape system to recover the Space Taxi in the event of a catastrophic booster failure.
In addition, NASA has asked us to examine the effect on Orbital's Phase II recommended architecture of a wide variety of additional requirements and potential future mission needs, including: delivery, activation, check-out and return of spacecraft; retrieval, repair and servicing of on-orbit spacecraft; assembly, service and check-out of space platforms, performing science and technology experiments on orbit, and transport of humans to Lunar and high-Earth orbit for future human exploration missions. We are currently in the process of designing servicing and propulsion modules that attach to the aft end of the Space Taxi to perform these wide variety of missions, while maximizing commonality with commercial practices. In addition, we are continuing to challenge each irequirementi and to analyze them in detail to determine which are true requirements and which are simply solution approaches to meet the true, often unstated, root requirements.
Future human exploration missions will require the transport of humans to Lunar orbit and to high-Earth orbits for rendezvous with Mars transfer vehicles. These missions cannot be performed by the current Space Shuttle system. Hence, a vehicle like the Space Taxi will be required to expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. Orbital is currently defining propulsion modules that would be attached to the aft end of the Space Taxi to allow it to perform these potential future missions. A human exploration program for the Moon and Mars will also require a significant budgetary commitment. We believe that the savings in NASA's budget generated by the introduction of Orbital's Space Taxi-based architecture are critical to enable the funding of such a program in the current budgetary environment.
Commercial industry and the Department of Defense routinely launch and check-out very high-valued payloads without human involvement and without the option of returning them to Earth. To date, no commercial business case has been made for servicing and returning satellites because of their high reliability and relatively short life, after which they will be replaced with higher technology upgrades. The high cost of human servicing and rapid advance of satellite technology make it difficult for the foreseeable future to justify economically commercial satellite servicing. At NASA's request, Orbital is currently investigating whether an economic case can be made for human check-out, servicing and return of future NASA payloads. As a part of this study, we are currently defining service modules that could be mated to the aft end of the Space Taxi to enable on-orbit satellite servicing. We would welcome the opportunity to report on these trade studies and all of our Phase III STAS results to the Subcommittee at a later date.