Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The SFF Hits the Nail on the Thumb

You can be sincere and still be stupid. ~Charles F. Kettering

The shuttle Discovery, as everyone knows by now, made it back in one piece, no thanks to Michael Griffin. It is clear that some folks at NASA didn't share his optimism that everything was okey-dokey and who-needs-to-listen-to-safety-managers-anyway attitude. The last inspection for 'micrometeorites” was particularly interesting. Micrometeorites have never been a major concern with the shuttle; why there was so much interest in them, particularly as they might relate to the edge of the wings. But, an interest in the wing edges just might have indicated that some of the folks in Houston were more than a little concerned about those “unimportant” pieces of foam that came loose, despite their statements to the contrary.

However, what I really wanted to discuss is the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF). According to the provocatively titled article “NASA Vision Plans Doomed, Space Advocacy Group Reports” over at Space.com, the SFF has determined that the whole Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) thing is a dumb idea. Well, I certainly agree with that, but the story goes on to state that NASA is messing up implementing the President's space “vision”. Since Mr. Bush applied this vision in tandem with budget cuts to NASA, how they could actually succeed in the first place is open to debate. Further, it was obvious from the get-go that the “vision” was some political malarkey to deflect everyone from the mess in Iraq for a few minutes.

But, the SFF report shows that they've got an agenda with this NASA-bashing. This group wants a law passed to force NASA to buy ISS support services from private companies, despite the fact that the private space business isn't exactly crowded. In fact, the number of people who could launch ISS modules or supplies in sufficient quantity to keep the station operational number exactly zero.

What these supporters of private enterprise want is for the government to shift a few billion bucks from the CEV and its companion devices to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), meaning these free enterprise supporters want a pile of taxpayer dollars to kickstart their own underfunded, under-researched, under-engineered abortive efforts to make a quick buck.

Let's look at the state of private sector space flight. Burt Rutan is building his fleet of SpaceShipTwo's, so people say. Except that he's not testing anything, at least where anyone can see it. To me, it would be rather strange to build a bunch of space ships without doing at least one test. Some guy named Bigelow launched an orbiting blimp on top of a Russian-Ukranian rocket into space, something NASA did years ago. But, Rutan loved it because now his mythical spaceships can fly mythical millionaire passengers to mythical Motel 6's in space.

So much for the successes. Remember all those guys going for the Ansari X prize? Hasn't it gone quiet? Well, SpaceX finally launched Falcon 1, which promptly blew up. It turns out that there was a propellant leak, caused by corrosion of an aluminum nut on a steel fitting. So we have a spaceship company that doesn't have enough engineering sense to a) have sensors to detect propellant leaks, and b) doesn't have anyone with enough knowledge to know that dissimilar metals in an oxidizing atmosphere will make a nice battery that corrodes like crazy.

And then there's the Russians, who are trying to make space into a paying business. Recently, they announced that for a mere $15 million, they will let you take a space walk at the ISS. That's in addition to the 20 million bucks to get you there and, theoretically, back. I'm sure the ISS astronauts are looking forward to having to put some rich dude on a tether and drag him around outside for a while, all the time hoping against hope that he doesn't break something or get them all killed.

Just to let that potential spacewalker know how good his chances of getting back in one piece are, a Russian launched rocket managed to crash, taking out 19 satellites in one fell swoop. Gosh, the space business sure is booming ... literally.

It is ironic that the SFF, looking at this track record, is begging the government for money, given that Burt Rutan, after one of his SpaceShipOne tests, talked on and on about corporate innovation and how, by golly, he showed the government how to do it. What he did was show the space entrepreneurs how to do it: Use technology developed by the government, then neglect to tell people that. Makes for much better press than, "Thanks to years of NASA developement and the government contracts I've gotten, I was able to create something that the government was able to do in the 1950's."

The SFF goes the next logical step and demands the government pay them outright to use old technology (developed in federal programs most likely). Who is this SFF, anyway?

I checked out their web site and discovered that one of their cofounders was a real estate magnate, while the other's (a “visionary”) claim to fame seems to be creating animations for the Air Force. Other board members include:
  • a psychology major who is real interested in commercial space flight;
  • an aerospace engineer who liked business more than engineering and who didn't much care for space “activism” (but somehow decided that SFF was a good thing);
  • a “political consultant” (i.e. lobbyist);
  • an investor in commercial space endeavors;
  • a geologist who wrote to President Kennedy when she was nine asking to go into space;
  • and a former consultant who is now owner of a company (with the catchy initials CSI) that actually was a NASA subcontractor.
In other words, the SFF is a group shilling for commercial spaceflight outfits. There's no vision beyond tossing people into low orbit for large amounts of money. Spaceflight in the hands of a bunch of companies trying to cut each other's throats is no different that the non-cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that wasted so many years. Had the nations of the world cooperated on a common set of missions to space, we would have landed on Mars by now.

The SFF wants to leave the real missions, like science and exploration, to NASA, but they want NASA's budget handed over to them gratis so they can line their pockets for a while until they've killed off a joy-riding millionaire or two. At that point, they'll be regulated or litigated out of existence, but the only ones that'll lose will be the stockholders and the taxpayers who funded the companies and their spaceports.

Poor Ken Lay; how much fun he could have had in this "industry".

7 comments:

Benigno Muniz Jr. said...

John,

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts," so let me correct and/or add to the record here. In the interest of disclosure, let me add before I start that I'm Chief Technical Officer of CSI, a former member of the Board of the Space Frontier Foundation, and a current Advocate of that group.

You said "This group wants a law passed to force NASA to buy ISS support services from private companies, despite the fact that the private space business isn't exactly crowded."

This discussion has been going on in the space policy field for many years, and the intent would be to follow on the successes of previous laws like the Air Mail Act of 1925 (aka "Kelly Act"), which helped the rise of the US airline industry, and the Launch Services Purchase Act, which by making it illegal for NASA to launch commercial satellites actually led to a resurrection of the US commercial launch vehicle industry. (see http://www.cwo.com/~davida/ )

"In fact, the number of people who could launch ISS modules or supplies in sufficient quantity to keep the station operational number exactly zero."

On 27 April 2000, the world's first privately funded space station resupply cargo mission to arrive at an active orbital station was launched by a private company. Progress M1-2 was built an launched by Rocket Space Corporation Energia, which at the time and still is majority held by private shareholders. The 38% of Russian government ownership in RSC Energia is comparable the 37% share the French government held in Airbus at the start of that consortium.

"What these supporters of private enterprise want is for the government to shift a few billion bucks from the CEV and its companion devices to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), meaning these free enterprise supporters want a pile of taxpayer dollars to kickstart their own underfunded, under-researched, under-engineered abortive efforts to make a quick buck."

See my above comment about Kelly Act & LSPA. In fact, NASA these days buys commercial launch services for its missions, like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, from companies like Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services Inc. that exists because of the LSPA. (see http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=20506 )

As for "under-engineered" efforts:

CSI's COTS proposal was based on our patented LEO Express(SM) space cargo system, which would use (in the initial phase of operations) the existing Soyuz/Progress systems that have been flying in space for over 35 years.

The baseline CSI cargo system uses an existing Progress that is already built and paid-for, and located at ISS, as a tug. Progress M first flew in space in 1989 (the original Progress first flew in 1978, derived from the Soyuz that first flew in 1973). The Progress M1's first flight was 2000. Both the Progress M and M1 spacecraft can be used as a space tug. The baseline CSI cargo container is modified from the STS/Mir Docking Module (launched on STS-74 in 1995) and the ISS Pirs Docking Compartment-1 (launched to ISS in 2001).

CSI's launch vehicle for our COTS proposal was the Atlas V, first launched in 2002. For NASA's Alternate Access to Station (AAS) program, CSI's baseline launcher was the Delta II, which can trace it's heritage back to 1960.

RSC-Energia, CSI's principal contractor for our cargo system, performed a System Feasibility Study in Oct 2002, wherein they concluded that CSI's "LEO Express(SM) System is technically feasible."

As a prime contractor, CSI completed a NASA System Design Review in July 2003 under the Alternate Access to Station (AAS) program, during which technical details were presented to NASA such as: mass, power and propellant budgets; launch vehicle fairing clearances; rendezvous, prox ops, and docking capabilities and constraints; manufacturing schedules; test and verifications plans; and program management plans -- all based on hardware and operations in current use at ISS. The proposed schedule for 1st launch was at Authority To Proceed (ATP) + 2 years, which is in fact consistent with the demonstrated scheduled for manufacture and launch of current Soyuz/Progress/STS-Mir DM/Pirs DC-1 hardware.

Subsequently, CSI's designs have undergone further privately-funded development to a greater level of detail.

For our COTS proposal, CSI's vehicle and operations teammates included:

* RSC Energia (builder of Sputnik, Vostok, Soyuz, Progress, Salyut, Mir, ISS, etc.),
* Lockheed Martin Space Systems (Atlas series first launched in 1957),
* Oceaneering Space Systems (numerous STS & ISS hardware products for NASA since 1988),
* ARES (ISS Program Integration and Control (PI&C) contractor & winner of 2004 JSC Small Business Prime Contractor of the Year award),
* Odyssey Space Research (Prime contract for Rendezvous, Proximity Operations and Capture (RPOC) support to JSC, including ATV & HTV spacecraft), and
* Barrios Technology (25 years of Human Spaceflight experience, including the ISS Mission Integration Prime Contract).

Additionally, the technical and management team CSI put together for our program have extensive experience in the industry on projects at companies and organizations such as NASA, USAF, Fairchild, Astrotech, Inmarsat, Astrium, Grumman, Rockwell, Hughes, and RSC Energia.

Perhaps you can tell us what we "under-engineered"?

"Let's look at the state of private sector space flight."

Your subsequent discussion does not cover either the commercial launch or satellite industry, and so is very incomplete.

"Some guy named Bigelow launched an orbiting blimp on top of a Russian-Ukranian rocket into space, something NASA did years ago."

The Echo satellites NASA launched in the early 1960's were just balloons that contained no internal structures or other subsystems, unlike Bigelow's Genesis I, which is in fact a major step forward in advancing the technology of inflatable space structures.

"So we have a spaceship company that doesn't have enough engineering sense to a) have sensors to detect propellant leaks, and b) doesn't have anyone with enough knowledge to know that dissimilar metals in an oxidizing atmosphere will make a nice battery that corrodes like crazy."

True enough to some extent, although I imagine the same things were being said as NASA struggled with its Vanguard program.

"I'm sure the ISS astronauts are looking forward to having to put some rich dude on a tether and drag him around outside for a while, all the time hoping against hope that he doesn't break something or get them all killed."

I certainly don't want to downplay the risks of EVA, but as an engineer I would be interested in seeing an unbiased assessment of those risks vs. the risks that private individuals undertake daily around the world in the technical scuba diving community. Mistakes in both environments can be fatal.

"Just to let that potential spacewalker know how good his chances of getting back in one piece are, a Russian launched rocket managed to crash, taking out 19 satellites in one fell swoop."

The Dnepr launch vehicle that just failed has nothing to do in any way with the Soyuz return capsule. By analogy, when a commuter turboprop airplane crashes, unrelated jet airliner fleets are not grounded.

"What he did was show the space entrepreneurs how to do it: Use technology developed by the government, then neglect to tell people that. Makes for much better press than, "Thanks to years of NASA developement and the government contracts I've gotten, I was able to create something that the government was able to do in the 1950's."

As far as I know, the US govt. did not invent the wing/tailboom “feather” maneuver, nor the composite materials of SpaceShipOne, nor the hybrid rocket engines that was used.

"The SFF goes the next logical step and demands the government pay them outright to use old technology (developed in federal programs most likely)."

The US commercial launch vehicle industry that NASA uses today (see link above) got its start with technology developed under govt. contract.

"I checked out their web site and discovered that one of their cofounders was a real estate magnate, while the other's (a “visionary”) claim to fame seems to be creating animations for the Air Force."

If you'd do a bit more research, you'd find history going back to the days of the L-5 Society and direct work with Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, founder of the Space Studies Institute.

"a psychology major who is real interested in commercial space flight;"

Whose bio also noted that he graduated from the Studies of the Future graduate program at the University of Houston/Clear Lake, and became an IBM Systems Engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

"an aerospace engineer who liked business more than engineering and who didn't much care for space “activism” (but somehow decided that SFF was a good thing)"

Actually the "somehow" was stated as: "Having no interest in revisiting the past glory days of Apollo, Kerinia generally avoided space activist organizations. However, the Space Frontier Foundation's multi-pronged approach – changing legislation to enable business, focusing on the media to change perception, and prizes to help create financial incentives – was a different matter."

I'd go on, but I hope I've made my point that these people bring much more to the discussion of space than your brief summary would indicate.

"and a former consultant who is now owner of a company (with the catchy initials CSI) that actually was a NASA subcontractor."

Which is a company that has also done work under private contract. BTW, Constellation Services International, Inc. (CSI) was incorporated in Oct 1998, long before the TV show, if you are insinuating that we stole the initials from them.

"In other words, the SFF is a group shilling for commercial spaceflight outfits. There's no vision beyond tossing people into low orbit for large amounts of money."

Let me quote from the website: "The Space Frontier Foundation was created in 1988 by a group of space community leaders who were dedicated to opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible."
(see http://www.space-frontier.org/History/ )

Although you may disagree with that vision, I'm not sure how you can say that a group that says in public the phrase "opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible" has ***no*** vision.

"The SFF wants to leave the real missions, like science and exploration, to NASA, but they want NASA's budget handed over to them gratis so they can line their pockets for a while until they've killed off a joy-riding millionaire or two."

I believe the emerging private space companies merely want NASA to expand what it already does in commercial launch services. I also know of no space company that is seeking to kill off their customers.

I have tried to keep from interjecting my opinions while laying out certain facts here, so now let me now summarize my own feelings with a quote from Dr. Milton Friedman, winner of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Science: "Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself."

Benigno Muniz Jr.
Chief Technical Officer
Constellation Services International, Inc.

The Gog said...

First of all, thanks for your comments. There is sufficient detail here that a response in this space from me would be inadequate. I hope you won't mind if I use my regular space to respond. I will encourage any readers in that space to read your comment in full.

I will, however, take a moment here to take exception to your opinion at the end of your post. I am not opposed to free enterprise. The competitive market, when it is truly competitive, is a good thing. And never accuse me of having a lack of faith in freedom. That is insulting (although I doubt you meant it to be) and means you haven't read many, if any, of my writings in this blog or in Gog's Blog (http://thegogblog.blogspot.com).

I'll post a response on Tuesday.

adiffer said...

You need to do a little more research on us my friend. You have a number of things backwards and you are a little quick to suspect conspiracy or idiocy.

A number of us are easy to reach and some won't bite (hard).

As an example of what you have backward try this on for size. Many of us believe in the need to unleash free enterprise if the space frontier is to be opened any time soon. We believe it enough that some have gone so far as to set up their own businesses and put everything at risk. Consider other space groups where the majority of the members watch from their armchairs and you'll begin to see how we are different. The fact that a number of NewSpace businesses can be found through the Foundation is a reflection on our Advocate's beliefs in our vision.

Dr Alfred Differ
CTO - General Orbital Corp
and
Advocate - Space Frontier Foundation

The Gog said...

Dr. Differ, I don't feel I have anything backwards. I worked in the "free enterprise" sector for 25 years. Conspiracy and idiocy? Where do you want to start? GE and Westinghouse conspiring to fix prices in the 1960's? The auto industry in the 1990's trying (unsuccessfully) to get laws passed prohibiting auto owners from buying lower-cost aftermarket replacement parts? Healthsouth screwing stockholders and bribing state officials? The Ford Pinto gas tanks? The dot-com bust? Apple, McAfee and others under investigation for playing fast and loose with stock options?

Enron?

How much conspiracy and idiocy do you need?

And every one of these companies has (or had) glowing vision statements.

Dr. Differ, if your associated members can do the job of getting manned exploration to the planets and the stars beyond going (not bus rides to some motel in orbit), then I will be the first to cheer for you. But when you start demanding government money so you can use old, worn out technologies to do the same old things, then that's not free enterprise; that's corporate welfare.

But, then, that seems to be the standard "business" model these days.

Benigno Muniz Jr. said...

John,

I certainly don't mind if you blog your reply. I agree that this comment space doesn't quite do the job of a decent BBS or newsgroup, but we'll work with the tools at hand.

I certainly did not mean to be insulting, and I have read your blog and find your posts on science topics to be quite enlightening and enjoyable. (As a transplanted New Yorker living in No. VA, I especially enjoyed your " A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias" series.)

But when you say things like "This group wants a law passed to force NASA to buy ISS support services from private companies" as if that's a bad thing, while ignoring current law that does exactly that for NASA's ELV launches, I have to wonder about your depth of knowledge in this field.

And when you say that "these free enterprise supporters want a pile of taxpayer dollars to kickstart their own underfunded, under-researched, under-engineered abortive efforts to make a quick buck", and that "the SFF is a group shilling for commercial spaceflight outfits. There's no vision beyond tossing people into low orbit for large amounts of money", and that "they want NASA's budget handed over to them gratis so they can line their pockets for a while until they've killed off a joy-riding millionaire or two." and finally "Poor Ken Lay; how much fun he could have had in this 'industry' " then you should expect that I would wonder about where you stand with respect to free enterprise as it applies to space development.

It is my experience that many people seem to think differently about space than they do other subjects. For example, in another post you wrote "nothing that so-called private rocketry is developing will have any use other than to be a toy for the very wealthy."

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat line was the world's 1st airline in 1914. It carried a total of 1205 passengers that 1st year.
http://home.earthlink.net/~ralphcooper/pimagm9.htm

And yet from that humble start: "... today nearly everyone is a "jet-setter," a term once reserved for the wealthy few. In the past three decades, seat costs per mile have shrunk to a point where most Americans can afford to fly. And they do. It's estimated that 80 percent of Americans older than 16 have flown at least once."
http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1211/p15s02-stct.html?entryBottomStory

Maybe private spaceflight will follow the path of private airflight, or maybe not. So many people have become so conditioned to think that space = NASA that anything outside that realm tends to be either ignored, or dismissed, or categorized as a threat. But the history of commercial communication satellites vs. government remote-sensing satellites give me hope that the private sector is the right approach to eventually opening up spaceflight to the public.

There is much history here to be explored that would shed some light on some of the issues you raise. For example, you wrote, or at least seemed to imply, that these new space companies want to "line their pockets for a while until they've killed off a joy-riding millionaire or two." The Space Frontier Foundation, other organizations like the Space Access Society, and the private rocketplane companies took it upon themselves to go the FAA (not the other way around) years ago to start talking about appropriate regulation for this emerging industry. See http://www.space-frontier.org/Events/CATS1997/>
and http://www.space-frontier.org/Events/CATS1997/CATSfoustarticle.html for what some of these would-be millionaire-killers started over 9 years ago, when few people took their prospects seriously.

Rather that avoiding this situation, "As with the first NPRM, folks in the shiny new commercial space transportation industry appear comfortable working with FAA/AST, and continue to speak highly of the thoughtful efforts the agency puts into promulgating the proposed rules."
http://spacelawprobe.blogspot.com/2006/06/on-faa-rocket-permit-rules.html

That would seem to hardly be the work of people who want to kill their passengers.

Ben Muniz

adiffer said...

I have no doubt the system can be gamed. I have some idea of how to do it. Just watching the news provides lots of educational material in that regard (unfortunately).

What you have backwards is your assumption that we are already trying. Our community has a strong ethical vein running through it. We aren't all identical, but we generally do agree on what is not (or should not be) permissible.

I'll try an example for you. Federal purchasing/contracting rules twist regular open market practices into a bad joke that costs tax payers (you and me) far, far more than is necessary. The rules place an unhealthy amount of attention on a vendors profit margin and less on the absolute price. If I ask for more than 10% profit, eyebrows will rise, but if I ask for 20% more for labor than my nearest competitor that just might be acceptable.

Imagine a project and we will look at one task. This task could be done by a 16 year old fry cook, but most contractors will avoid saying so. They will argue that it takes skilled labor to do it and they will adjust the description of the task to sell it that way. They do so because they labor cost for the more skilled person gets paid by the contract just as the fry cook's rate would be paid at no residual cost to the vendor. However, the absolute profit made is larger when the rate is higher, so the fry cook won't get that job.

This method of inflating the base price for a project that keeps engineers employed in the defense industry wouldnt' work if the customer were not complicit. Projects are more politically fashionable when they appear more complex and technical. Fat profit margins create political risk, while large project costs do not as much. Even the source of the money (Congress) is complicit.

I know how to play this game and make a reasonable living doing it. It makes my skin crawl, though. Free enterprise deals with excessive profit margins by introducing competitors. The current market distortions are what we tend to get upset about at SFF because we know they are not only stupid, they are also acting as a barrier to entry for new companies that would open the frontier and save your tax money at the same time. Some of us would like to have the government as a customer, but we would prefer a sensible market environment. Read our words that way and they might make more sense.

Now, just for clarity I should say that I don't actually speak for the SFF in a legal sense. I'm one Advocate. Others can say what they want too. I can help you meet more of them if you want to do the research and see the depth of our vision, though.

The Gog said...

Mr. Muniz is right: The blog format is lousy way to conduct a threaded conversation. It's partly my fault because of the template I use, because, well, with my "vast" readership [*snirkle*], comments haven't been much to worry about.

However, beginning today, I have a two part response (sorry about the length) to Mr. Muniz' original comment, which I doubt will convince either of you. Frankly, it would be surprising if it did, because you both strongly support your views, which is to be expected. I strongly support mine, too.

I doubt that we'll come to a consensus, but a healthy debate never hurt anyone.

By Saturday, I'll post some discussion about your most recent comments.

Now, I better get back to my day job.