Letter: It’s Time for a Reality Check on the Future of Heavy Lift
In the natural world, to keep supple and strong, birds periodically molt, snakes shed their skins, furry creatures replace old fur with new, deer strip cover from their growing antlers, etc. Not so with the animal that is the space transportation arm of NASA, which stands in sharp contrast to the superbly performing space exploration arm. Sixty years of evolving contractual requirements, piled one upon the other, have left it so mired in bureaucratic process that thoughtful, energetic endeavor is no longer recognizable, and achievement of engineering projects on time scales demonstrated in the 1950s and 1960s is now unthinkable.
A window into the dilemma is manifest in NASA’s Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) of June 29, curiously labeled a heavy-lift vehicle study [“NASA Seeks Affordable Heavy-lift Rocket Ideas,” July 5, page 8] but demanding information on a level far beyond what should be reasonable for a $625,000 contract. To put this in perspective, any one of the proposed awards is equivalent to a $50,000 study performed in the 1950s, a direct result of the decline in what a dollar can now buy. In those days, for studies of that size, a one-page work statement was sufficient to satisfactorily achieve a host of study tasks. In most cases, the principal engineer worked closely with a single counterpart within the agencies.
The BAA’s 14 pages read like boilerplate, seem not to have benefited from the preceding request for information from industry, and expect a world of data to be delivered — with nary a nod to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent position speech on space. One suspects that NASA’s mind is already made up regarding what it intends to do. That this is true is buttressed by awareness that buried in the BAA is a statement that essentially says: “While we invite other concepts, we are already predisposed to a liquid oxygen-kerosene (LOX/RP-1) heavy-lift launch vehicle.” Further substantiation is NASA’s plan to develop a 1 million-pound thrust LOX/RP-1 engine. There is no hint of Obama’s charge to NASA to develop an advanced heavy-lifter.
The money allocated to heavy-lift studies, if this is indeed the intent of the BAA, would be far more productive were NASA to put forward a simple work statement embodying the following:
1. Premising that a heavy-lift vehicle capable of launching a 100-ton payload to low Earth orbit is available, prepare and present your vision of space missions and architectures that will serve the nation for the next 50 years. Include orbital transfer vehicle requirements, reusable passenger vehicle for ascent to and return from orbit and other orbital support systems.
2. Prepare and present your concept for an advanced heavy-lift vehicle capable of meeting the requirements established by your proposed architectures. Prepare weight and structural analyses and flight performance estimates. Identify propulsion requirements. Identify technology requirements. Perform a preliminary life cycle cost analysis and preliminary cost to first production article.
3. Prepare and present a proposed heavy-lift launch vehicle manufacturing synthesis. Identify possible launch sites and prepare concepts for a system processing and launch capability.
4. Prepare a suggested work statement for carrying your concept into a next phase.
Such studies, prepared by several forward-thinking firms, would provide a clear picture for NASA’s transportation arm to find its way from A to B, and for the first time a selection of missions and architectures extending far into the future, from which firm planning might emerge.
Perhaps it is time for the encrusted animal that is the transportation arm of NASA to be brought to a merciful end. Perhaps it is time to establish a Space Transportation Authority that has a clear mandate to attend to the needs of the commercial, military and space exploration communities, styled so that it promotes long-term availability, safety and lowest possible cost, and constantly rejuvenates itself to the demands of the times — and thus stays supple and strong.