Commentary | The Safe Decision, but Wise?

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In choosing Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for contracts to deliver astronauts to the international space station, NASA made the safest commercial crew decisions possible.

There are good reasons for these choices. Boeing is developing a conservatively designed capsule called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100. The CST-100 is a relatively simple spacecraft that will be launched on the extremely reliable Atlas 5 rocket. It meets NASA’s minimum requirements and has the backing of a large corporation with great financial, technical and institutional resources.

SpaceX’s crewed version of the Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle are both based on the successful Dragon freighter: a great deal of SpaceX’s technology and hardware is already flying. In spite of the Dragon capsule’s greater capabilities and complexity — and the company’s relative newcomer status — SpaceX likely represents the lowest technical risk.

Picking two contractors ensures competition and the best chance to achieve assured access to space for U.S. astronauts. CST-100 and Dragon have few components in common.

In today’s safety-obsessed country and NASA, the most likely choices were either Boeing and SpaceX, or just Boeing. If NASA’s only goal is to deliver astronauts, Boeing and SpaceX are clearly the best choices. However, especially since Boeing’s potential award is so much larger than SpaceX’s ($4.2 billion versus $2.6 billion), the safe decision is not necessarily the wise decision. Expensive single-purpose spacecraft and the safest course are no ways to explore the solar system. That is going to require flexible, capable yet inexpensive spacecraft; companies willing to take chances; and a great deal of risk.

In purely financial terms, Boeing has shown no obvious intent to put what former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin called “skin in the game,” by which he meant money. Boeing has stated it would not continue without an award of NASA funds. Arguing that each contractor got the subsidy it needed instead of splitting the money evenly, NASA indirectly acknowledged Boeing’s lack of financial commitment.

Griffin started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) project to help two competitors develop commercial freighters able to deliver cargo to the international space station. When he did so, Griffin argued that investment of substantial private or corporate financial resources should be a key determinant of who would win the COTS awards.

By any measure, COTS was an extremely successful program. For a remarkably low public investment of about $1 billion, COTS gave NASA access to two brand-new medium-class launch vehicles and two Earth-to-orbit freighters, one of which can return cargo to Earth. All of them are now fully operational and earning money for their corporate investors.

Griffin was right, and the “skin in the game” policy should also have applied to the commercial crew contracts. Boeing is happy to accept money from NASA to provide a service, but not to invest more than the minimum required to win the award. This is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the COTS model that worked so well to develop cargo services to the space station.

Win or lose, with or without additional NASA money, SpaceX said before receiving the award that — although it might need to move more slowly if it lost — it would continue to invest in what it believes is cheaper and better transport of astronauts to orbit. More importantly, SpaceX intends to move beyond the commercial crew awards to deep-space transportation. Its past behavior makes this a believable claim.

The first part of SpaceX’s extraordinarily ambitious private endgame — to land astronauts on Mars, leading toward settlement — is identical to NASA’s endgame of a human landing on Mars. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has not taken the company public so that its income can be reinvested into his long-term goals, without having to answer to shareholders. Musk is willing to put his money where his mouth is, and NASA is right to support this ambitious company. SpaceX has already brought commercial launches back to the United States, an industry the country had all but abandoned.

The third announced contestant, Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) Space Systems, while losing the commercial crew award, still has long-range plans and significant skin in the game. It has reserved an Atlas 5 launch vehicle for an automated test flight. In spite of laying off 9 percent of its work force in the wake of the loss, the company has indicated it will go forward.

As the dark-horse candidate, SNC has consistently taken the greatest risks. It got the smallest subsidy for research and development, yet made apparently great progress. When it became clear that NASA might not be leaning SNC’s way, it lined up international support. Announced partners include the European Space Agency; the German Aerospace Center, DLR; and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; as well as Lockheed Martin in the United States. The overseas development partners might become international customers, helping the project survive.

SNC’s spacecraft is more ambitious than the other contestants’: a reusable, winged lifting-body spaceplane called the Dream Chaser. It is comparable to a smaller version of the space shuttle, less complex but more aerodynamically advanced.

The space shuttle demonstrated the operational utility and flexibility of a winged vehicle; in low Earth orbit, the Dream Chaser would be a more versatile spacecraft than the capsules. Like the shuttle, it would be able to support satellite repair, maintenance and refueling. It would land more gently, with relatively short notice and at many airports, exposing both cargo and astronauts to a less-stressful environment. The Dream Chaser could have military and commercial markets beyond the reach of the capsules NASA chose.

It is easy to second-guess difficult decisions like the selection of commercial crew winners. Picking the risk takers, SNC with SpaceX, would have been anything but safe. In the long term, it would have been wise.

NASA would have gained two partners willing to take financial, institutional and technical chances, which Boeing clearly is not prepared to do. The agency would have gained an operational replacement for the space shuttle, as well as a capsule. As it is, the agency will have two capsules, one of which is technically conservative and very expensive but has little demonstrated hardware and can do little beyond delivering astronauts. It might not have a future beyond the space station.

SNC, meanwhile, plans to move forward, albeit at a slower pace. SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust quoted SNC spokeswoman Krystal Scordo as stating, “We are aggressively pursuing commercial and international paths for our program. SNC has made the decision to continue the development of the Dream Chaser to flight.”

When the company is done licking its wounds, let us hope its stays the course and weathers the financial and technical storms sure to come. Without quite making a commitment, Scordo strongly implied that the company would bid on the next commercial cargo award with an automated version of the Dream Chaser.

Scrappy SNC did not win an award to deliver astronauts to the space station, and nothing should be done now to try and change that. Nonetheless, NASA should do everything in the agency’s power to help the company succeed. Unlike space shuttles, capsules are a technology other nations have mastered. The United States’ technological and operational lead in space may depend on SNC and the Dream Chaser.

 

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. For further examples of his work, see www.DonaldFRobertson.com.