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The COTS Enigma

The Kistler K1 orbital vehicle spacecraft.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) Jan 16, 2007
NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program has been widely hailed by the alt.space community as a breakthrough in US launch policy, but the numbers just don't add up. This project will be too late and too little to make a significant contribution to closing the post-Shuttle ISS supply gap - except perhaps as a slush fund to cover cost overruns in Orion/Ares.

NASA has put money into some strange projects over the years. But nothing in recent memory is as hard to figure out as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program which recently awarded $278M to SpaceX and $207M to Rocketplane-Kistler to develop new boosters and spacecraft for logistical support of the International Space Station. There are several ways to interpret these contracts:

1) NASA really wants a US cargo delivery capability to ISS to replace the Shuttle after 2010.

This was the stated goal of the program -- but the choice of two firms with no flight experience, only pieces of their proposed boosters, and notional spacecraft shows that this is nonsense. Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV are spacecraft currently in development to haul supplies to the ISS. They will perform COTS Mission B: Delivery of pressurized cargo and disposal of trash by destructive reentry.

Both SpaceX and RpK have proposed much more sophisticated vehicles to perform COTS Mission C: Delivery of pressurized cargo and return of experiments to a soft landing. They also show artist's concepts of manned versions that would perform Mission D: Crew exchange and lifeboat duty.

Both ATV and HTV were designed by firms with many years of experience building and flying smaller spacecraft. Yet each of these vehicles will have consumed close to a billion dollars and ten years of time by the time of its first flight.

COTS envisages that rank amateurs will build and test two much more sophisticated spacecraft , plus two reusable boosters, for about 1/4 the money and 1/3 the time it took experienced professionals to develop ATV and HTV. The manned COTS-D vehicle is supposed to make its first flight in 2012 - two years ahead of the current plan for NASA's own lavishly funded Orion and its even more lavishly funded Ares I booster.

If you think this is possible, I have an asteroid I'd like to sell you. This program is built on the alt.space community's shared fantasy that they can somehow magically reduce the cost of developing complex space hardware by using smaller teams and simpler management structures. Somehow they manage to ignore the 30-year history of abject failure by many firms using this model.

The COTS contractors are supposed to invest a significant amount of their own money to supplement the inadequate NASA funding (as in the late X-33 project). The problem is that neither of these firms has much money to invest in anything. SpaceX has run through most of Elon Musk's fortune and is dependent on advance payments from the Pentagon for future military launches. Kistler has gone bankrupt twice and has made no progress on their booster for years.

A highly publicized NASA contract can be used to attract investment capital, but recent history has poisoned that well. A large amount of money was invested in cheap private space boosters during the orbital cell phone bubble of the 1990s and most of it was lost. Boeing and LockMart spent a lot of their own money in the EELVs and have gotten no return on that investment as the projected market failed to appear.

And any potential investor who researches COTS with due diligence will discover that NASA states outright that they may choose not to purchase any actual deliveries to the ISS -- even if one of the contractors succeeds in making a demonstration flight! Nobody in their right mind will put money into a private ISS supply system at the same time that NASA is pumping billions into Ares I and Orion Block 1 to perform the same mission in-house.

So COTS makes no sense as an actual attempt to solve the post-2010 ISS supply gap. If this were NASA's intent, they would have chosen one of the proposals to buy Americanized versions of ATV, HTV, or Progress and launch them on Delta 4 or Atlas V. Combining and adapting existing hardware is the only way a COTS spacecraft could be operational by 2011.

2) NASA just wants to mollify the Space Cadet community and keep them supporting the base NASA program.

There are two big objections to this conspiracy theory. First, the alt.space community is already on record against the VSE. Everybody from Bob Zubrin to the Space Frontier Foundation has been attacking it in every possible forum and the COTS awards have had no obvious effect in moderating this criticism.

Second, the choice of SpaceX and RpK to get the money makes no sense in this context. If NASA wanted to generate real enthusiasm among the alt.space community, they would have chosen some of the really blue-sky proposals -- certainly t/space which has Space Cadet heartthrobs Gary Hudson and David Gump on board.

3) they want to develop cheaper alternatives to BoLockMart as booster suppliers.

This explanation has increasingly been used by NASA officials trying to justify the program. It also jibes with the winning teams.

SpaceX and Kistler both are proposing reusable booster designs that eschew unaffordable blue-sky technologies like scramjets, flyback boosters, and SSTO. Instead they intend to use boosters that are basically the traditional flying storage tanks with the minimum additions needed to recover and reuse them.

If you view this $500M as basic technology development or long-term corporate seed money it actually makes sense. The money is just enough to rejuvenate these firms and keep their research programs rolling. But is enough to produce any real results?

I've been observing these two firms closely for some years because I believe that they are the only ones with technically workable concepts for a near-term reusable booster. I started out with high hopes that one of them would succeed. But both of them seem to have drifted off track in the process of working out the details.

Kistler started by hiring a team of former NASA greybeards with excellent political connections and a vast fund of knowledge inherited from previous programs. Unfortunately, these previous programs were dismal failures.

Kistler's K-1 uses rusty engines from the Soviet N-1 lunar booster, Shuttle tiles for reentry protection, and the insane Return-To-Launch-Site abort mode of the Shuttle as the normal mode of booster recovery.

Just to make things interesting, they propose to launch the K-1 from inland sites at Woomera and Las Vegas which would require the vehicle to fly over populated areas of Queensland and Utah. Objections from several US State governments scuttled similar plans by the USAF to launch ICBMs from operational silos in the 1960s and the howls of protest would be even louder today.

More fundamentally, the K-1's high parasitic weights would appear to require extensive use of Unobtanium alloys. A large fraction of the first stage propellant is reserved for the blast-back recovery maneuver, and the whole second stage is coated with heavy Shuttle-derived tiles. Outside experts say that if you plug the published numbers for K-1 into standard rocket performance models, you get negative orbital payloads.

Before Kistler was purchased by Rocketplane, it had been in its second bankruptcy for some years and owed massive amounts of money to subcontractors. It had spent about $500M and publicly estimated that another $500M was needed to finish the first non-man-rated vehicle - more than twice the sum just awarded them by NASA.

Since most of Kistler's staff left after the bankruptcy, the plan in RPK's proposal to NASA involved subcontracting the entire project to old.space firms like Orbital Sciences. OSC chose to pull out as the main subcontractor in favor of concentrating its corporate resources on the Orion program, so RPK has replaced them with Andrews Space - another alt.space firm that has no experience with large space projects.

This management plan makes a mockery of the claim that alt.space firms can reduce costs by reducing overhead; in this case RPK is just another layer of unnecessary management overlaid on top of Andrews just like those bureaucrats at MSFC that all good Space Cadets hate so much.

SpaceX is in many ways the exact opposite of Kistler. It's run by Internet wunderkind Elon Musk, does almost all of its work in-house with a staff of young engineers not tainted by experience. It envisions a simple float-back booster (similar to Von Braun's classic 1952 Ferry Rocket) not burdened with weighty flyback hardware.

But again, the project seems to have wandered into a swamp. Musk frankly admits that he vastly underestimated the cost and difficulty of developing his Falcon I test vehicle and the $100M he planned to invest in the project is mostly exhausted.

Musk made a foolish decision to move his R and D program from the convenient and well-equipped Vandenberg AFB to a tiny sandbar on Kwajalein Atoll. The US military base at Kwaj is devoted to testing solid-fuel anti-missiles and has little to offer except an airstrip. The vast distance and huge time zone difference between Kwaj and California has led to inordinate expense and delay. SpaceX is actually flying in liquid oxygen by air from Honolulu to supplement the inadequate local production.

But the biggest nightmare at Kwaj is the extraordinary corrosion environment. A friend of mine who once worked at a tracking site quite close to the SpaceX facility reports that it was constantly swept by fine salt spray which required him to wash off his glasses every four hours. The main base stocked a variety of expensive high-tech greases and oils which were used to coat every metal surface - even painted or anodized parts.

SpaceX ignored all this hard-won experience and used incompatible alloys in its Merlin engine that encouraged electrolytic corrosion and led to the Falcon I launch failure. Musk has been quoted as saying that the market will allow SpaceX at most two more failures. Previous experience (e.g. Boeing's stillborn Delta III) suggests he is right.

So I no longer have much hope that either Kistler or SpaceX will actually perfect a reusable booster, much less a Progress-class spacecraft to ride on it. Bad technical decisions at the very top of both corporations have crippled their research programs and there is no sign that either one is reassessing their situation.

4) COTS is a concealed reserve fund for the VSE that will be raided to cover cost overruns.

Reluctantly, I am driven to the conclusion that this will be the ultimate fate of the COTS program, and that Mike Griffin probably intended it from the start. The COTS contracts contain a detailed list of schedule milestones that have to be met in order to obtain further funding. This is just the opposite of the open-ended cost-plus contracts without firm schedule and cost limits that NASA gives to its traditional old.space contractors.

Since these contractually fixed milestones are essentially impossible to meet, both COTS competitors are likely to be in default very quickly. This contractual structure gives NASA numerous opportunities to cancel the whole program for nonperformance with perfectly valid and legal excuses.

Of course, this procurement model is exactly what the alt.space community have been advocating for years. The abolition of cost-plus contracts and the associated onerous accounting and reporting rules has been one of their pet gimmicks for reducing launch costs.

What NASA is telling alt.space is: "You say you can do spaceflight cheaper than BoLockMartNorGrum if we relax the rules. OK, here is the amount of money you want and the rules you want. Now put up or shut up." When COTS proves to be a dismal failure, NASA will be able to point to it for decades as proof that old.space is the only way to fly.

The big question raised by this analysis is: Since COTS is unlikely to produce a logistics vehicle for the ISS and Orion is unlikely to produce one much before the 2016 deadline for US withdrawal from the ISS, how does NASA intend to support the "completed" ISS between 2010 and 2016? Many key items are too large to fly on Progress, ATV, or HTV. In particular, the ever-failing control moment gyros fall into this category, and the Block 1C version of Orion which was designed to transport them has been cancelled.

But nowhere in the body of documents released or leaked from NASA in recent years is there any detailed plan for ISS logistical support in 2010-2016. The NASA Advisory Council recently discussed the details of ISS termination in 2016, without any consideration of the 6-year Supply Gap. (In fact, some members of the Council seemed to think that ISS would somehow be operated after 2016, even though no NASA budget chart shows any such funding.)

Most critics of The Gap have pointed to the lack of any all-American crew exchange capability, and the consequent need to buy many Soyuz flights from Russia. They ignore the much more serious problem of supplies and fuel to counteract the much-increased air drag on ISS during the next Solar Maximum.

The complete lack of interest in this issue makes me wonder if the post-2010 ISS budget wedge is really another concealed reserve for Project Orion. Does NASA really intend to support the "finished" ISS for six years of high-school science fair projects while their flagship Return-to-the-Moon program flounders with inadequate funding?

Jeffrey F. Bell is a former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist. He does not actually own asteroid (3526) Jeffbell and is not accepting bids.

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Bleak Outlook For Russian-US Space Cooperation
Moscow, Russia (RIA Novosti) Jan 16, 2007
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