Letter: An Idea Whose Time Came – a Decade Ago

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Your editorial [“Gambling with Human Spaceflight,” Sept. 14, page 26] notwithstanding, embracing growing industrial capabilities for human spaceflight isn’t a gamble or even far-fetched. After all, such “outsourcing” of astronaut transport to low Earth orbit began more than a decade ago when Rockwell and Lockheed Martin consolidated their spaceflight operations teams into the United Space Alliance. Of course, since they operate a very fragile system for NASA, it’s done on a cost-plus fixed-fee basis.

But the U.S. Air Force proved with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program that the government can ease up on its bureaucratic reins and stimulate industry to develop innovative and affordable new capabilities that are reliable enough to launch multibillion-dollar national security payloads on which thousands of soldiers’ lives depend.

For this reason, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans, headed by former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norm Augustine, echoed over a decade’s worth of laws, national policy and the recommendations of the previous Aldridge Commission by arguing that effective use of the international space station (ISS) within even a “less constrained” budget required a commercial-style approach, rather than using exploration-optimized Constellation assets for the job of low Earth orbit trucking.

Importantly, the Augustine committee did not recommend a mere extension of the current Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to crew. Instead of COTS’s emphasis on new launchers, they argued that NASA should more robustly fund — at a total of roughly $2.5 billion, or about 18 months of the Ares 1 budget — several commercial-style crew spacecraft development efforts. They also insisted that NASA design this program to encourage bids from heritage aerospace contractors, something that the previous NASA leadership actively opposed.

Yes, as Mr. Augustine pointed out, large companies can be more bureaucratic, since their culture reflects how their government customer chooses to do business. But some of that “bulk” is, as he is quick to point out, scar tissue born of actual experience.

But can a Lockheed or Boeing succeed under fixed-price, commercial-terms contracts, even if more generously funded? Well, after Kistler dropped out of COTS, Boeing nearly won the second round with a small capsule that was designed to eventually handle crew. At that point, only $175 million was up for grabs. So it’s hard to argue that $1 billion today would be too little to motivate serious proposals from multiple proven companies.

Even so [with heritage entrants], Augustine’s recommended approach is to invest in several parallel approaches simultaneously. A portfolio strategy spreads the risk, embraces competitive motivations to encourage schedule and price performance, and maximizes the likelihood of overall success. And even this wild-eyed bunch of graybeards still believed that whichever heavy-lift option NASA pursued for exploration could still be used to launch Orion with crew as a backup, once it had someplace to go.

Is investing in commercial crew a risk? Yes. Instead of doing the same old thing over and over, expecting a different result, there’s actually a good chance we could change the paradigm of how NASA does business with industry. We might even actually get to expand American civilization into space. I’d say it’s a risk worth taking.