- Parabolic Arc
- March 30, 2023
SAS Unimpressed by SLS “Competition”
Space Access Update #124 6/20/11
Copyright 2011 by Space Access Society
We don’t (currently) expect further legislative action on NASA Exploration budget and policy before sometime in July. As the political season slows to its usual hot-weather saunter, it’s a good time to take a look at where things stand on some of the issues we care about this year. Briefly, things are… interesting. Neither as bad as they could be, nor in some cases as good as they may superficially appear. Much is in flux, little definitively settled yet.
SLS “Competition”: We’re Not Impressed
Lawmakers cutting public deals are generally about as subtle and delicate as a brontosaur courtship. The recent grafting of “competition” onto the ongoing NASA Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lifter boondoggle was no exception.
To recap the action, a couple weeks ago Aerojet (Sacramento CA) put out a press release with Teledyne Brown (Huntsville AL) about cooperation in developing rocket engines for NASA, engines that NASA to that point had not been asking for. Shortly after, Senators Feinstein and Boxer of California, previously not visibly involved in SLS, announced that they thought “competition” would be a really fine thing for the program. Then, the male brontosaur responded – Senator Shelby of Alabama announced that “competition” would indeed be a good thing for SLS, and of course he’d been in favor of it all along.
For those not versed in interpreting this arcane mating dance, what just happened was that our coalition apparently scored some hits last month, going after SLS as the world’s largest non-competed Congressional earmark. (Thanks again, everyone who helped! And you who didn’t, why not? Next time, weigh in.) The pro-SLS regional-pork Congressional coalition seems to have decided it needs some heavyweight help, plus at least the appearance of adding some “competition” to the SLS program.
Hence, Aerojet (who have the US rights to develop the Russian NK-33 liquid-fuel booster engine) and Teledyne Brown (who are masters of making projects taste just right to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville – MSFC controls NASA booster development) will get together to design an upgraded NK-33 for use in new SLS liquid-fuel strapon boosters.
This potentially throws ATK (Utah) (makers of the currently planned large solid-rocket SLS strapons) under the bus, but brings the much more influential California delegation on board, and also brings more business to Alabama. NASA then softens the blow to ATK and keeps Utah at least temporarily in the coalition by leaking that the latest SLS plan is still to fly with ATK solid strapons initially, then after a few years have a “competiton” for new (possibly liquid-fuel) strapon boosters for an upgraded SLS version.
You’ll have noticed us repeatedly putting quotes around “competition”. That’s because we don’t actually see any such thing here, other than among Congressional delegations maneuvering for shares of the pork.
The basic design of the SLS is still being determined by MSFC, the same organization that brought us Ares. Most of the major SLS components will still be made by the same contractors who make their equivalents on Shuttle (and who were to make their equivalents on Ares.) We are not impressed with a nominal competition for bigger strapons later on in the project.
The real competitions we’d like to see:
– Competition between different management teams at NASA. If we must have an SLS, consider the team that led the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, AKA commercial Station resupply) program to the point of one new booster already flying and another flying within months, for a tenth of the money MSFC wasted on Ares. Let them bid against MSFC to manage SLS.
– Competition between different concepts for SLS. If we actually need a booster that large, write a simple payload capability spec then let US industry submit their concepts. There are now multiple US commercial outfits who’ve successfully developed new boosters this century, which is more than NASA’s MSFC in-house booster bureaucracy can say. These commercial vendors moreover all did this at a fraction of NASA’s habitual costs.
– Competition between different concepts for future human space exploration. It’s not at all clear that an SLS-sized megabooster is the right answer – progress in orbital assembly and fuelling means that a considerably smaller “heavy lifter” flying far more often (and thus far more economically) may be a far more affordable and scalable approach. NASA HQ has spent the last year politely hinting at this to the Congress. Yet Congress still insists on SLS. If the pro-SLS faction in Congress has a plausible reason for this other than maintaining home-town pork, we haven’t seen it.
Meanwhile, for any of our colleagues inclined to giddiness because we got a reaction to our attack on SLS as a sole-source earmark, well, yes, it’s good that the pro-SLS faction felt they had to respond. This indicates our coalition was tactically effective. But thus far, the response is more lip-service than real competition – a tactical retreat, not a major defeat. The fight continues.
Commercial Crew and Cargo
It has been said that no good deed goes unpunished. This has been spectacularly true for the managers of NASA’s innovative COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, AKA commercial Station resupply) program, whose reward for their success thus far has been to see management of the followon CCDev (Commercial Crew to Station) program assigned elsewhere in NASA, with many COTS lessons learned in danger of being ignored.
A quick digression into procurement arcana: NASA traditionally buys major systems under the standard Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) using Cost-Plus contracting. Cost-Plus means the contractors get paid whatever their costs are, plus a fixed percentage profit. This has a number of bad effects:
– The FARs mandate excruciatingly detailed contractor cost accounting for Cost-Plus projects. This increases contractor overhead expenses significantly (we’ve seen estimates ranging from forty to one hundred percent) over normal commercial practices.
– Cost-plus contractors also have little incentive to save money, and sometimes (depending on contract details) active incentive to spend more.
Combine these two effects and you have basic government Cost-Plus contracting often costing double or more normal commercial practice.
– By far the worst effect though stems from the reason NASA insists on Cost-Plus in the first place: NASA’s large development bureaucracies are prone to endlessly fiddling with every minor detail of a project (think multiple fly-in-from-around-the-country meetings over the precise optimum thickness of gold plating to be applied to the newly-added-to-the-spec kitchen sink) and Cost-Plus lets them do that without destroying the contractors. (Ruining them for affordable commercial work, yes, but the stockholders stay happy.)
This last tendency is the core of why major NASA systems developments in recent years tend to get budgeted at five to ten times their commercial equivalents, then overrun those budgets by an additional factor of two or three. It’s why we think the major existing NASA systems development bureaucracies should be cherry-picked for talent to support new smaller COTS-style development teams, then quietly pensioned off before they can embarrass the country at great expense yet again.
Back to COTS, which did *not* use Cost-Plus contracting under the FARS to produce its two new booster/cargo-capsule combinations, flying this year, for a total expense to NASA of less than half a billion. COTS instead used an alternate procurement method called Space Act Agreements that allowed NASA to sign fixed-price, payment-on-performance-milestone contracts to leverage significant commercial investments in new Station cargo transport, while providing NASA expertise only as requested by the contractors. COTS has been able to punish failure (Rocketplane-Kistler was dropped from the program for missing milestones after only $32 million in NASA money spent) and reward success – SpaceX successfully flew their Falcon 9 booster/Dragon cargo-capsule combination last fall, and Orbital is due to fly their Taurus II/Cygnus combination over this fall and winter.
Contrast this with the NASA Constellation program’s Ares 1/Orion booster/capsule combination, done NASA-micromanaged Cost-Plus business-as-usual, recently cancelled after ten billion dollars spent while still years away from flying.
The latest we hear is that the followon to COTS, the CCDev Commercial Crew program, is seriously considering abandoning the COTS approach of fixed-price milestone Space Act Agreement contracts, and returning to Cost-Plus under the FARS. The theory behind this seems to be that it’s all well and good to allow commercial vendors to do things their way for cargo, but crew safety requires traditional NASA deep-in-the-contractor’s-shorts intensive project management. Alas, NASA’s recent record indicates that this would be a good way to massively increase CCDev cost and delays, for no certain gain in safety, effectively destroying the program. (For more on this issue from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation industry group, see https://www.commercialspaceflight.org/?p=1551.)
Finally, adding insult to injury, in recent Congressional hearings a key NASA oversight Chairman (and, we note, member in good standing of the SLS pork coalition) complained about COTS that “there is no Plan B”, faulting the program for the fact that if both SpaceX and Orbital fail we’ll be stuck with buying Russian Station cargo services indefinitely. We politely point out that COTS *is* Plan B, that Plan A was the spectacularly failed NASA Ares/Orion project whose managers this Congressman now wants to trust with billions more for SLS, that it’s a damn good thing we had COTS for a Plan B, and that this Plan B is in fact going rather well.
We won’t go into detail on the current state of the Newspace industry; others already cover that (extensive) ground very well. We do have two observations, however.
One is that the First Law of Projects (also known as Cheops Law, though it was probably already old back when he was designing his pyramid) is that, no matter what you estimate going in, the project will take longer and cost more. Many Newspace commercial vehicle projects are in fact taking longer (and presumably costing more) than originally hoped. This has been used as a club to beat certain commercial outfits, but we note that the club wielders tend to be partisans of government programs with a record of indefinite delays and mountainous cost overruns that make their commercial counterparts look like molehills. Our view is that it takes a certain optimism to get involved in Newspace in the first place, and the commercial project delays we’re currently seeing don’t strike us as cause for major concern.
Our other observation is that the US commercial space industry is doing something unusual recently, growing from the top. A number of the existing major government aerospace contractors seem to be hedging their bets and making moves toward the commercial entrepreneurial side of things. We are very encouraged by this; it hints that we may not the only ones who see the handwriting on the wall for old-fashioned cost-is-no-object (and-neither-are-results) government space megaprojects.
Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act Extension In The Works
Speaking of projects always taking longer than planned, when the CSLAA was passed in late 2004, it included an eight-year moratorium on overly detailed regulation of commercial spaceflight ventures, temporarily limiting FAA AST to ensuring that the uninvolved public is kept safe and that spaceflight participants are properly informed of the risks. The idea was to allow a period of industry innovation and experimentation to identify and validate best practice, rather than stifling innovation by trying to guess in advance what best practice might be then codifying the guesses.
The results so far have been very good; innovation is busting out all over, while the uninvolved public has been kept safe. But the eight years are drawing to a close soon (December 2012) and things haven’t advanced as far as some might have hoped. A move is afoot to extend the moratorium period. See https://www.spacepolitics.com/2011/04/28/faa-commercial-space-budget-hearing-and-a-policy-initiative/ for more.
And that’s all for now. Stand by for more NASA budget/policy action next month, and meanwhile have a great summer!
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