“Space Launch Initiative: A Program Review”

Wednesday, June 20, 2001, 2:00 – 4:00 pm, Room 2318 Rayburn House Office Building

1. Purpose

The hearing will examine NASA’s Space Launch Initiative. Witnesses have been asked to address the agency’s procurement practices and investments in key technology areas and
processes for the development of new launch vehicle architectures that will increase the national launch capability. 

The panel will include:

Mr. Dennis Smith, is currently NASA’s Program Manager of the SLI/2nd Generation RLV Program Office, where he has responsibility for developing program objectives and
performance goals, implementing program requirements, determining resources, schedules and controls for program execution.

Mr. Allen Li, is director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the U.S. General Accounting Office, and is responsible for leading GAO’s NASA – related work and reviewing
other areas such as tactical aircraft and battlefield communications.

Mr. Steve Hoeser, is a space launch analyst who was involved in the early stages of the Defense Department’s highly successful Single – Stage – To – Orbit (SSTO) Program, also known as the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC – X).

Mr. Tom Rogers, is Chief Scientist of the Space Transportation Association (STA), and holds degrees in physics.

2. Background

Access to Space

Since the beginning of the space age, people have traditionally sent payloads to orbit with an expendable launch vehicle (ELV). The process of launching an ELV involves discarding
stages during the rocket’s ascent into space. The last stage carries either a crew or payload/cargo capsule. These stages eventually fall back to Earth and usually burn up in the Earth’s
atmosphere. (Crew capsules contain heat shields and other re – entry systems that enable them and their occupants to safely return to Earth.) Thus, an expendable rocket is used only
once. Because each rocket launch requires the creation of a new launch vehicle, ELVs are an expensive means of delivering payloads to space.

Engineers have long thought they could reduce the cost of access to space by developing a reusable launch vehicle (RLV), which would operate more like an airplane. After delivering its
payload to orbit, an RLV would return to Earth, where it could be refueled and launched again. Thus, one would not incur the cost of building a new launch vehicle every time it was
necessary to launch a payload into space.

In the 1970s, NASA began developing the Space Shuttle, the first reusable space launch vehicle. Unlike ELVs, which generally launched crew or cargo in a capsule separable from the
main propulsion contained in the lower stages, the Space Shuttle combines crew, cargo, and main propulsion in a single vehicle. (The Shuttle’s main fuel tank and two solid rocket
boosters that help it achieve orbit are separable from the main vehicle.) Moreover, in addition to merely getting to orbit, the Shuttle must be capable of rendezvousing with other
spacecraft and supporting human operations in space for several days. This makes the Space Shuttle a very complex and flexible spacecraft. Unfortunately, the added cost of that
complexity and flexibility exceeded the savings engineers sought in making their launch vehicle reusable. Currently, it costs about $10,000/lb to launch a payload to space aboard the
Space Shuttle, which is more expensive than the ELVs it was meant to replace. Where engineers seeking to develop RLVs had wanted the space – equivalent of an efficient cargo – hauling
semi, the Space Shuttle might be thought of as the space equivalent of a recreational vehicle, which can haul a lot of mass but not efficiently transport a lot of cargo.

By the late 1980s, the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Office, which later became the Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO), determined that neither the Shuttle
or existing fleet of ELVs would meet its needs. BMDO renewed efforts to develop a low – cost, reusable launch vehicle. There were several ways BMDO theorized it could attack the
problem of achieving cheap access to space. First, it could simplify the design of the launch vehicle, principally by separating the crew and cargo. (The need to keep people alive in
space and the unwillingness to take many risks during the launch and reentry portion of a mission require a variety of multiply redundant and complex spacecraft systems that are costly,
and unnecessary for unmanned vehicles.) Second, it could introduce new technologies that would make the launch vehicle more efficient. Third, it could develop new procedures and
technologies for use in the ground – based portion of preparing a space launch vehicle and its payload for flight. In the early 1990s, BMDO developed an experimental rocket known as the
Delta Clipper – Experimental (DC – X), which conducted a successful series of flight tests demonstrating that a small number of people, using the latest off – the – shelf technology could
prepare and launch rockets faster and cheaper. (It was notable that the DC – X did NOT seek to demonstrate many new technologies for use in the launch vehicle itself.)

In 1994, the Clinton Administration released its National Space Transportation policy, giving NASA the leading responsibility for developing RLVs. BMDO transferred the DC – X to
NASA, and DOD focused its space launch activities on marginally improving expendable launch vehicles, upon which it relied to place its uncrewed payloads into space.

Where DOD was focused on reducing the cost of getting payloads to orbit and had concentrated on simple vehicle designs and improved ground activities, NASA sought to develop new
technologies for use in the launch vehicle itself. NASA re – designed the DC – X (replacing metal tanks with composite tanks, for example), dubbed it the DC – XA and successfully flew
several missions before destroying the vehicle during a landing accident. Additionally, NASA started the X – 33 and X – 34 programs to develop even more advanced technology for use in
the launch vehicle itself. These included thermal protection systems, rocket engines, and structures, such as oddly – shaped fuel tanks made out of lightweight composite materials instead
of metal.[1] Unfortunately, both programs fell behind schedule, experienced significant cost growth, and failed to reach major performance milestones, including a first flight. NASA
subsequently cancelled them after spending roughly $1.3 billion.

Space Launch Initiative

In 2000, NASA went back to the drawing board and created the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). NASA intended to spend $4.5 billion between FY2001 and FY2005 to develop a “2nd
Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle” that would meet NASA’s 21st century space launch needs. (At this point, NASA decided that the Space Shuttle was the “1st Generation Reusable
Launch Vehicle.”) Unfortunately, NASA’s 21st century space launch needs seemed to change continually. For example, NASA presented SLI as a generic technology development
program with a range of applications for non – NASA missions, such as simply placing unmanned payloads in orbit at the lowest – possible cost. NASA expects such a vehicle to be
privately – owned and operated and to meet the bulk of U.S. commercial, civil, and military needs for access to space. Conversely, NASA also discussed SLI as a shuttle – replacement
program intended to meet NASA’s human – space flight needs. The private sector, however, has no need for such complex – and costly – launch vehicles. Thus, NASA’s desire to develop
a Shuttle replacement conflicts with its desires to develop a low – cost RLV and depend on the private sector for its human spaceflight needs.

Reorganizing SLI into a Technology – Focused Program

In developing the Shuttle and X – 33, NASA started with a particular design and then sought to develop the technologies necessary to realize that particular design. This past spring,
NASA reconfigured the SLI Program by employing a new strategy that emphasizes development of launch vehicle component technologies, as opposed to starting with a launch vehicle
concept. NASA’s new focus is to raise the technology readiness levels (TRL) of “high – risk” technologies to determine what kind of vehicle might be built. In short, SLI’s “bottoms up”
approach is the opposite of the “top – down” approach taken in the X – 33.

This does not mean that NASA is simply developing component technologies in isolation from one another, however. Simultaneous with its technology activities, NASA is studying
various “launch architectures” built around a specific vehicle concept. It hopes to conduct these architecture studies in parallel with its technology development activities so that the two
processes will benefit one another. The agency also expects to narrow the range of possible launch architectures to two or three by 2003 so that it can begin designing specific launch

This technology “bottoms – up” approach identifies ten major technology areas (TA) that, when integrated, will enable NASA to decide whether to initiate full – scale development of a new
launch vehicle beginning in 2006. The ten technology categories range from system engineering and risk reduction to flight demonstrations of experimental systems. NASA believes that
some technology demonstration proposals from industry have strong synergy with other technologies that support non – SLI programs such as launch vehicle /International Space Station
rendezvous and docking operations. In March, NASA awarded contracts to 22 companies for work in each of these ten technology areas. (Summarized in the appendix.)

NASA also has reworked its set of launch vehicle technology design requirements in accordance with the new strategy. These requirements are intended to guide the systems analysis and
engineering phases of SLI and are divided into primary and secondary categories. The primary set of requirements captures existing NASA – unique mission needs concerning International
Space Station re – supply, crew safety, and cost reduction in launch services. Secondary requirements includes theoretical NASA – unique missions such as rendezvousing with a Mars
orbiting vehicle and “evolutionary growth paths” for enabling future commercial development of space and supporting future military launch needs. NASA intends to study the
tradeoffs between primary and secondary requirements with an eye towards establishing an optimal mix of primary requirements. However, the criteria by which these tradeoffs will be
assessed remain unclear.

Current Structure

The SLI budget request for FY2002 totals $475.0 million, which is divided into five major investment areas: (1) Systems Engineering and Requirements Definition, (2) RLV Competition
and Risk Reduction, (3) NASA Unique Systems (4) Alternative Access to Station and (5) Future X/Pathfinder.

1) Systems Engineering and Requirements Definition establishes the program direction and determines plans and budgets for new launch vehicle systems.

2) RLV Competition and Risk Reduction is designed to raise the technology readiness levels of RLV technologies under review.

3) NASA Unique Systems concentrates on developing and demonstrating the designs, technologies and systems level integration issues associated with government unique space
transportation needs.

4) Alternative Access to Space (which was not included in the initial SLI procurement awards) seeks to take advantage of all U.S. launch systems and utilize then for ISS re – supply.

5) The Future X/Pathfinder program objective is to flight demonstrate advanced space transportation technologies by flight – testing.

Space Launch Initiative

Funding Through FY02


FY2000 Appropriations

FY2001 Appropriations

FY2002 Request

2nd Gen. RLV

Engineering &Architecture

– —–



RLV Competition & Risk








Alternative Access to




Future X/Pathfinder
















3. Issues

NASA has often been criticized for focusing on developing new technologies for optimal vehicle performance. By designing for maximum vehicle performance, NASA may lose sight of
more mundane issues such as reliability and operability. Operability and reliability, however, may play a greater role in determining the final cost of an RLV than performance. Engineers
sometimes describe the high-performance space shuttle as a formula 1 racer. They worry that by focusing on building a better formula 1 racer, NASA’s past RLV efforts have ignored the
need for more reliable, albeit less high-tech, transportation to space. SLI’s “bottoms-up” approach to technology and its decision to avoid prematurely selecting a final design may allow
NASA to pursue operability and reliability objectives in a 2nd Generation RLV. NASA’s space programs traditionally do not adopt this model of generic technology development, but
its successful aeronautics programs historically have.

NASA must also reconcile the contradictory goals of meeting its human space flight needs, reducing the cost of getting payloads to orbit, and depending on the private sector to develop,
finance, and operate its spacecraft. If NASA is the only customer for privately-owned and operated spacecraft carrying people into space, there may be no advantages in a
privately-owned and operated spacecraft. Conversely, if NASA excessively focuses on meeting its human spaceflight needs without regard to commercial realities, any RLV that results
from the SLI may not be commercially viable. In that event, SLI’s benefit to the country would be limited to any impact the program had on NASA.

Additionally, there are no guarantees the recent SLI procurement awards will produce hardware that ever flies in space. NASA must not permit the study phases captured within the 2nd
Generation RLV Program to overshadow the need for delivering tested, demonstrated, and validated hardware. Too often, generic technology development programs never leave the
laboratory and are never practically applied in space. The consequences of failure in this case will only extend U.S. dependence on the costly Space Shuttle for human spaceflight and
less-than-ideal ELVs for non-crewed payloads.
Constant oversight of major program phases will be the key in ensuring program success.

4. Questions

1) What is the process for determining the top level requirements and program goals for the Space Launch Initiative?

2) How does NASA balance its unique needs in the area of Human Spaceflight with the commercial and military need for low-cost, reliable access to space?

3) Which has greater weight in determining SLI’s direction: replacing the shuttle or reducing the cost of placing payloads in orbit?

4) What was the rationale behind NASA’s decision not to select the X-33 and X-34 experimental vehicles for flight demonstrations in the 2nd Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle


Technology Area Sample Near-Term Products Cost
Totals($ Millions)

  • Architecture
    Trade Studies

  • Updated
    Market Assessment
  • $88.66


  • Thermal
    Protect System Fabrication Demonstration

  • Initial
    Cryotank Materials/Design Concept Downselect
  • $130.20
  • PEM
    Fuel Cell Demonstration

  • Define
    Avionics Preliminary Requirements
  • $40.56
  • Develop
    ACCS and AIM Performance, Functionality, and Infrastructure Requirements
  • $37.04
    Vehicle Health Management (IVHM)
  • Concept
    of Operations Doc.

  • Demonstrate
  • $46.40
  • Demonstration
    Flight of Large Scale Hybrid Sounding Rocket HYSR

  • Demonstration
    of large Scale 250K Thrust Hybrid Rocket Motor
  • $4.05
  • Adaptive
    Guidance and Control Algorithms

  • GPS/Inertial
    Navigation System Component
  • $10.94
  • Prototype
    Subscale Preburner & Injector Uni-element Tests

  • IPD
    LOX Pump Tests
  • $219.40
  • Cockpit
    Architecture Roadmap

  • Inflatable
    Airlock Mockup
  • $7.30
  • Design
    for Adv. Near Range Proximity Sensor

  • Adv.
    GN&C Architecture
  • $182.55

    [1] The X-33 was intended to be a 1/3 scale prototype of a fully-operational RLV called the VentureStar. Because high flight rates are necessary to reduce costs, the VentureStar would have to launch commercial payloads
    to become cost-effective. This meant it had to be a privately-owned launch vehicle, as U.S. law does not permit the U.S. Government to launch payloads into space for commercial customers. NASA also hoped to reduce
    the cost to the taxpayers of developing an operational vehicle by procuring launch services from the private sector, thereby paying the marginal cost of only those launch services the government needed and ensuring that the
    taxpayers did not foot the entire bill of developing a fully-operational VentureStar. Thus, it pursued the X-33 through a cooperative agreement with Lockheed-Martin.