Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ten Questions for HSF Committee - Question 8

Should the relative risks and rewards of Ares 1 and commercial alternatives be evaluated?

The Augustine Committee report notes that

If we craft a space architecture to provide opportunities to industry, creating an assured initial market, there is the potential—not without risk—that the eventual costs to the government could be reduced substantially.


While there are many potential benefits of commercial services that transport crew to low-Earth orbit, there are simply too many risks at the present time not to have a viable fallback option for risk mitigation.

These are just examples; the report repeatedly describes commercial transportation services in terms of risk. It goes into some detail on those risks in section 5.3.3, "Commercial Services to Transport Crew to Low-Earth Orbit".

It is undeniably true that there is risk in using the commercial space industry for basic space transportation. However, there is also risk in using the traditional NASA cost-plus contract or in-house development approaches. Is one type of risk greater than the other? If so, which one? Let's use the Ares 1 program as an example. Ares 1 clearly demonstrates that NASA's traditional procurement approach can come with significant, and perhaps overwhelming, budgetary, schedule, political, and management risk. Other similar NASA rocket and human spaceflight programs have also shown that this type of risk is often quite high. The real question is not whether Ares 1 or commercial transportation involve risk, it's how the 2 approaches compare in their level of risk, and how the 2 approaches compare in their level of potential benefits.

One factor to consider when comparing Ares 1 and commercial transport risk is that a commercial approach like the current COTS cargo procurement can include multiple vendors, eliminating the risk of a single point design during development. Of course having multiple independent systems also reduces risk during operation. Consider the multiple years NASA was grounded following the Shuttle accidents, and the long delays during various other Shuttle investigations. Multiple Ares 1 class systems are presumably unaffordable, so Ares 1 by itself presents serious development and operation risk simply due to its being 1 system. The Augustine report imagines 3 commercial vendors, with one falling by the wayside during development. The report accounts for this level of competition in its budget estimates.

Another factor is that the COTS approach shields NASA from much of the budget risk, since NASA only has to pay when milestones are actually met, and since the commercial operators would take responsibility for some of the funding in such an approach. The commercial operators would be willing to take that responsibility in part because their services could be used in other markets beyond LEO crew transport for NASA, giving them an extra incentive to succeed that is not available to Ares 1 contractors.

We should also consider that commercial vendors are already used in areas with much higher stakes than human spaceflight. One example in the space industry is the use of EELV launchers for national security payloads. The issue is not one of government vs. private industry, since NASA already uses private contractors for Ares. As the report describes in detail, NASA would still have a strong safety oversight role when using the services of commercial vendors. The issue is how the government should purchase services from private industry, and how it should form contracts with private industry, in this particular market where technologies have been used for many decades and commercial vendors are eager to develop markets.

Another factor that shouldn't be overlooked is that the commercial vendors would only need to address the challenges of an LEO "taxi" service, and would not need to develop more difficult systems that are also capable of exploration missions.

Given the budget and schedule that we face, all options include risk. Which risk is greater, and is the greater risk worth taking because of greater potential benefits? The report should compare the options side by side.

If there are too many risks with commercial transportation for NASA to not have a viable fallback option for risk mitigation, why would there not be too many risks with Ares 1 transportation for NASA to not have a viable fallback option for risk mitigation? It seems that if a fully independent transportation system or fallback plan for such a system is needed for the commercial approach, such a fallback is also be needed for the Ares 1 approach, unless we come to the conclusion that Ares 1 is much less risky than multiple commercial services. This would truly be an astonishing conclusion, given what we already know about Ares 1 and the history of similar NASA development programs.

If a fallback for Ares 1 is needed, then the costs of Ares 1 have been considerably understated by the Augustine Committee. If the commercial options are to be burdened with an independent non-commercial fallback, all Augustine options using Ares 1 need to add the funding and schedule required for a fully independent crew transportation fallback in case Ares 1 fails.

A human-rated Ares V does not qualify as an independent fallback for Ares 1.


Anonymous said...

"If they get you asking the wrong question, it doesn't matter what answer you get."
This is the classic "wrong question". The correct question is "What is the best rocket for transporting people to orbit?" The candidates include Ares 1 and Falcon 9, but also Atlas V and Delta IV, and perhaps a few others.
IMO, if you just want to take people to LEO, ISS or elsewhere, Atlas V with no strap-on SRBs wins. Sure, you can't carry a lunar return rocket, or the environment for a week of trans-lunar travel, but that wasn't this question.

Ray said...

I'd say that the right question at the Augustine Committee's level involves comparing the pros and cons of Ares I vs. a commercial services incentive/purchase like COTS. In fact the Committee did address this type of question, but not in a side-by-side comparison like I think they should have done. If they'd done that, I suspect that they would have treated the 2 options comparably with respect to the need to have a fallback.

If the conclusion of such a comparison is that a commercial crew approach is better, the next step is to initiate the competition. At that point the question becomes "What is the best rocket for transporting people to orbit?" This depends on what the commercial competitors bring to the table. Atlas V is undoubtably a strong contender at that point. Even something not too different from Ares I in terms of hardware could have a commercial champion. The winners of the competition should be based not just on hardware (obviously an important consideration), but also on the financial backing, business plan, and other ingredients of a successful commercial service.

One reason I wouldn't want to go right to the "best rocket" question is that I think we'd be better off with at least 2 independent solutions, which already makes the question one of the "best rockets". However, 2 independent capsules on 1 rocket would be better than a single solution overall.

Roga said...


You seem to have fallen into your own trap. "What is the best rocket for transporting people to orbit?" is exactly the question NASA wants you to ask, because it is within the fudgability of the figures to claim that Ares (their paper rocket) is better than _____ (your operational rocket). The real question is, what is the best architecture for transporting people or orbit? When asked that way, you have to consider things like the cost and responsiveness advantages of having a broad customer base in emergencies; the advantage of having multiple independent systems in case of a major design flaw in one of them; the advantage of spreading R&D and overhead among several users.