Kill the Congressional Launch Vehicle

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It is good to see some in the NASA leadership try to embrace new transportation systems to and from the near frontier of Earth orbit that are financially responsible, create jobs over the long term and show faith in the concept of the “Made in the U.S.A.”

It is sad to see that some in the agency, old aerospace and their pals in Congress (oddly including so-called fiscally conservative Republicans) are pushing hard for billions of our tax dollars to be spent on projects that are being cancelled, supporting the Russians so they can better compete with U.S. commercial space firms and placing huge down payments on giant socialist spaceships we aren’t even sure we need — and that if we did would be better and much more cheaply designed, built and operated by our commercial space sector.

The main battle right now is over what some call the Heavy-lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), wherein NASA would design and cost-plus contractors would build a new version of the Saturn 5 to carry mythical someday payloads between 70 and 130 tons into orbit to support old Apollo-style “carry your house on your back” exploration missions (the size depends on who you talk to and which day of the week they are asked).

Forget the term HLV; what we are really talking about is a CLV (Congressional Launch Vehicle) designed to carry large amounts of cash home to replace old dead-end jobs and contracts with new dead-end jobs and contracts. Although its proponents cite such things as the economy, jobs and exploration, if these were the real drivers we would have a rational discussion on the type of exploration planned, the most cost-effective means of carrying it out and how to do so in a manner that best creates a new space industrial and job base on and around Earth. Of course I used the word “rational” — for even as I watch this cosmic train wreck occurring I must retain a sense of humor.

Here are a couple of examples of the amazing dialogue now under way:

On the one hand, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall’s staffers put out a statement that failure to build the CLV will result in “continued reliance on the Russians’ Soyuz to transport astronauts” to the international space station. What? I know we are facing an obesity epidemic, but I doubt the astronaut corps has expanded (literally and per person) to the point where we need 130-ton capability to carry them into orbit. I like Congressman Hall — after all, we are both from Texas — and I understand he thinks he is fighting for new jobs back home. But they are the wrong new jobs, and this is the wrong argument. So either this is a misleading statement designed to fold the CLV into the attacks on commercial space, or the leadership of our most important space committee is woefully and scarily misinformed.

On the other hand, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (from what I hear a decent guy who follows orders while exhibiting minimal leadership skills and vision) stated in a congressional hearing that the United States would not need exploration capability until after 2020. What? We needed new exploration capability 30 years ago, yesterday and today, and the agency he allegedly runs has failed repeatedly to provide it. Whoever wrote this for him or coached this answer should be fired. This is not only ridiculous, but a tepid passing of the leadership baton to another generation and an insult to the taxpayers who fund this nation’s space program and want results. (It also plays directly into the hands of those accusing the White House of trying to kill our human spaceflight program and is thus a disservice to his boss.)

These supposed leaders aren’t just talking past each other, they aren’t even in the same conversation. And since they aren’t, I will take the liberty of jumping over the first 50,000 words of the debate (as one of my mentors, Tom Rogers, used to say) and make a few assumptions:

  • We do want a strong and robust human exploration program ASAP.
  • For now, NASA should lead far frontier human exploration as our current-day Lewis and Clark organization.
  • We have limited funds.
  • The nation cannot afford another multibillion-dollar, government-designed, cost-plus, use-it-and-throw-it-away Saturn 5 that is destined to be a museum piece rather than the core of a new space industrial revolution.
  • The best bang for the buck investment in our future is a system where industrial activities such as carrying freight and building buildings are done by people who do them everywhere else in our society — the commercial sector —rather than an expensive cost-plus single-use government program.

OK. There you go. Months of congressional hearings and NASA babble cleared out of the way. To put it in terms even a congressman or top NASA manager can understand:

Government employees can explore but cannot design or drive trucks or build buildings.

What is left is a reasonable debate to be had between the “build it in space” or “pre-build it on Earth” points of view.

One side aims to seed commercial launch and on-orbit activities as different elements designed for space-to-space use are flown to orbit by different smaller carriers (catalyzing a commercial launch market) and assembled into much larger vehicles and facilities (catalyzing a commercial on-orbit industrial base) that then depart for the far frontier. This method has the benefit of creating an orbital “port” and seeds an orbital industrial infrastructure that can support both commercial and government activities in the near and far frontiers, as larger numbers of companies are involved, expertise is developed in space and “civilian” support and interactions create a low Earth orbit economy.

The other side believes that far frontier exploration and other uses require large preassembled elements launched from Earth rather than built from smaller pieces delivered to orbit. They point to the simplicity and shorter-term efficiency of constructing complex facilities and systems here on the ground. They believe that by placing these larger elements into space both in the near and far frontiers they will create a “pull” effect on pioneering space activities by achieving grand goals such as Mars and lunar outposts more quickly. This side believes the super space truck can be built for a fraction of the proposed government version by funding commercial teams to come up with and build such vehicles to be used by both sectors — perhaps based on currently flying systems or new designs, and possibly by starting at the smaller end of the scale and working upwards using modular designs.

In either of these cases, the U.S. taxpayers and the future of our leadership in space win. We save money, kick-start new space jobs and industry that can grow rather than die at the end of a program such as the shuttle, and insure a robust human exploration program.

In the case of the current CLV, we lose. We waste billions on dead-end jobs, set up the government to compete with the private sector and create a cost-heavy, unsustainable program that eventually will collapse, leaving flags and footprints and few museum pieces behind as its legacy — if anything gets built at all. Kill the Congressional Launch Vehicle. Let’s do this right — and open the frontier.

 

Rick Tumlinson is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant in the space industry.