Big-ticket rockets in the news

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Credit: lovepik.com

Lots of rockets are in the news this week. Not all the news is good, and not all of it is new.

Yesterday the U.S. Air Force announced it had awarded nine-figure contracts to three aerospace companies for new expendable launch vehicle projects. According to Reuters, the value of the contracts is a total of $2.3 billion.

The contracts go to Blue Origin ($500 million) to build a launcher called New Glenn, United launch Services ($967 million) – an arm of the United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – to build a launcher called Vulcan, and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems ($791.6 million) to build a launcher called OmegA. These rockets will be designed to launch spacecraft, not people.

As of today, according to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos – who owns Blue Origin – has a net worth of $144.7 billion. With a B. He could build his new rocket all by himself. (He’s received subsidies and contracts from NASA to build his New Shepard rocket system.)

Meanwhile, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on the development of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), designed to launch people into space, first to the International Space Station (ISS), and then, presumably, elsewhere. Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online reports that “poor performance by [contractor] Boeing and program management by NASA are blamed…. Boeing will spend twice what was planned” – $8.9 billion rather than the $4.2 billion awarded to build the system – “through 2021 for building two core stages and an upper stage while delivery of the first core stage has slipped 2.5 years already and may be further delayed.” See Marcia’s report for a good summary of the OIG report.

In a 2016 report on the development of so-called “commercial” human-rated launch systems – SLS and SpaceX’s Falcon 9/crew Dragon system – the NASA OIG said that NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program had awarded fixed-price contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion). “Given delays in the Commercial Crew Program,” according to this report, NASA had to extend its contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos for astronaut transportation through 2018 “at an additional cost of $490 million or $82 million a seat for six more seats.” Roscosmos’s Soyuz rocket is the only means of transporting NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

As Space Policy Online reported today, this week’s launch of a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station was a failure. The Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned, the crew capsule separated from the rocket, and the crew returned safely to Earth. (Will NASA get a refund, or will it have to pay twice to get its guy to the ISS?)

The 2016 NASA OIG report noted that “in November 2013, we reported on the status of and challenges facing the Commercial Crew Program.In that report, we noted the Program had received only 38 percent of its requested funding for fiscal years (FY) 2011 through 2013, and as a result, NASA had delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from 2015 to at least 2017.”

In August of this year, NASA reported that its “Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX are finalizing plans for launch day operations as they prepare for the company’s first flight test with astronauts on board. The teams are working toward a crew test flight” to the ISS with two astronauts “in April 2019. In preparation for this test flight, SpaceX and NASA will continue to complete and review the important analyses and tests leading to launch.” (Whatever that means.)

So it appears that now we’re looking at 2019 (not 2015, not 2017) as the earliest possible date for a NASA “commercial crew” launch. And somehow I doubt that it will happen next year…

I work with space science programs at NASA – astrobiology and planetary defense. What does all this rocket stuff have to do with space science? It eats up a huge chunk of federal funding available for space activities. By my estimate, human space flight activities take up at least two thirds of NASA’s budget, leaving the rest for aeronautics, science, facilities…. (And I won’t even get into the military space budget….) Meanwhile, space science missions are growing more and more complex, and thus more and more expensive.

The cost of NASA’s Europa Clipper project — an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, now in its design phase, has been estimated at $2 billion. Given the history of space science mission development (take a look at the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is years behind schedule and many billions over budget), the cost of this mission is likely to be much higher. The astrobiology community would love to see NASA take on a Europa lander mission – which undoubtedly would be more expensive than Clipper, an orbiter mission. NASA’s budget for planetary defense – the request (not yet appropriated) for the current fiscal year is $150 million – is not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based near-Earth-object survey telescope, a $500 million mission that the planetary defense community has long advocated as a top priority.

Yesterday the National Academy of Sciences released a report on NASA’s astrobiology strategy for the search for life in the universe.  The expert panel that prepared this report recommended that “to advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should accelerate the development and validation, in relevant environments, of mission-ready, life detection technologies. In addition, it should integrate astrobiological expertise in all mission stages— from inception and conceptualization to planning, development, and operations.” The report also says that NASA should push forward the development of “high-contrast starlight suppression technologies in near-term space- and ground-based direct imaging missions,” and that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability” on other planetary bodies. These are all sound recommendations, but it will take more than the $65 million a year or so in NASA’s budget for astrobiology to make such things happen. (I will post more about this report sometime soon.)

Here’s my five cents worth: given that space science missions are focused more and more intently on the search for habitable environments and life in the solar system and beyond, astrobiology should be elevated from a research and analysis program to a full-blown program, with a big enough budget to develop life-detection missions.  As the National Academy of Sciences report noted, astrobiology investigations now fly as add-ons to mission designed for other purposes – such as the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory. As to planetary defense, though it’s still not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based NEO survey telescope, the 2019 budget request for it does elevate planetary defense from a research program to a full-blown program with the potential for developing missions.

On a final note, earlier this week Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson said – for the umpty-umpth time over many years – that he will be launching his first tourist-in-space flight into suborbital space, um, soon. Branson told CNBC“that he hoped to be onboard an early Virgin Galactic flight ‘in months not years’, with passengers willing to part with $250,000 (£192,000) taking their seats ‘not too long after that’.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

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