“Capitalism in Space.” Bob Zimmerman, BehindtheBlack.com, @cnasdc

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03-13-2017

(Photo: Space X Falcon Heavy)

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“Capitalism in Space.” Bob Zimmerman, BehindtheBlack.com, @cnasdc

1. Restore Ownership

The rockets and capsules built by SpaceX and Orbital ATK are not owned by NASA, nor are they designed solely to serve NASA’s needs. Instead, the companies own them, and have designed them to have value both to NASA as well as other customers. This in turn requires the companies to keep the cost down so that all their customers can afford the product. Ownership also allows the companies to sell their product widely and make profits from it, regardless of whether NASA buys it. For example, Falcon 9’s design was aimed specifically for the commercial communications satellite market. Though it can haul cargo and crew capsules to the ISS, its design makes it affordable and useful to many other satellite companies. Thus, SpaceX can make money from it, which in turn lowers NASA’s cost.

Similarly, Dragon and Starliner are being designed not just to serve NASA but also a wider customer base. Boeing, for example, has signed an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to use Starliner to provide cargo and passenger service to Bigelow’s privately built space stations, which it hopes to launch by 2020.114 SpaceX and Sierra Nevada meanwhile have offered their Dragon and Dream Chaser manned spacecraft to other countries as an inexpensive way to develop a space program. Instead of building their own rockets and spacecraft from scratch, Third World nations can buy these affordable American spacecraft and rockets and do science research in space, quickly and for relatively little money.

In contrast, though Lockheed Martin purportedly owns Orion, it has had no control over the capsule’s concept or overall design. Instead, that control belongs to NASA, which has justified it to Congress and the public as a vehicle for sending humans beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon, to the asteroids, and even to Mars. To achieve NASA’s goals, the agency has required Orion to meet these ambitious expectations. The result has been higher costs, and a very expensive spacecraft that is not practical for Lockheed Martin to sell to other customers. For example, the original heat shield for the spacecraft initially was based on the heat shield design used by the Apollo capsules of the 1960s. NASA figured it would save money to use this older design, since that heat shield design already had been proven successful during actual flights returning from beyond Earth orbit at the high speeds and temperatures such flight paths produce. Unfortunately, even before the first Orion test flight, it was discovered that this design did not scale up well for the larger Orion capsule. The surface of the Orion heat shield ended up too uneven. The old design also proved far too expensive to make, as it required too much manual labor to inject by hand the heat shield’s ablative material into a honeycomb pattern of more than 330,000 individual cells. Similarly, NASA’s interplanetary requirements for Orion has forced Lockheed Martin to give the spacecraft more radiation shielding (even if insufficient for interplanetary flights) than carried by the Dragon or Starliner capsules, further raising its development and operational costs.115

The ownership situation with Boeing’s SLS rocket is even more tilted in the government’s favor. NASA designed it solely for deep space missions and then handed out contracts piecemeal to different companies to build the rocket’s different components. The rocket therefore essentially belongs to NASA, whose goals – exploring space – have nothing to do with reducing cost or obtaining profit. Even if NASA were interested in marketing it to the commercial market, which it is not, the cost for a single SLS is many times more expensive than the most costly ULA launch (priced at $460 million). No satellite company can afford it. NASA and the companies building SLS’s components thus have only one customer, the government, and the only way they can hope to make money on it is to charge the government a lot to build it

The hodge-podge of contractors involved in building SLS. Adapted from 2012 NASA PowerPoint presentation.

NASA

Recommendation: The government should leave the design work and ownership of the product to the private sector. The private companies know best how to build their own products to maximize performance while lowering cost, especially because it is in their own self-interest to do this well, as a unreliable rocket will not attract many customers. NASA engineers and administrators in turn might be very skilled, but their priorities tend to focus on management and regulation. If NASA or the Air Force require a service they should request it from the private market, becoming a customer like everyone else. This will result in increased competition and performance at a lower cost.

https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/capitalism-in-space

about 1 month ago
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