Good and Bad News in Launch Industry

There was good news for the American launch industry this week. Boeing's newest launch vehicle, the Delta IV, had a successful launch on Wednesday.

Despite that, the U.S. launch industry is unfortunately still in big trouble, and it's not clear that the Bush administration has any coherent or effective strategy with which to deal with it.

Five years ago people were predicting there would be 60 commercial rocket launches a year by 2002.

Manufacturers developed a new generation of rockets hoping to win new business.

But while the rockets themselves are now ready, nobody wants them.

There will be just 21 commercial satellite launches this year.

There seems to be an inability in both industry and government to recognize that the traditional commercial launch markets, and even the traditional government (including military) launch markets, are now, and always have been, insufficient to justify the billions spent on new launch systems to satisfy them.

In light of this, it's interesting to note that this week, the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, chaired by former chairman of the House Science Committee, Robert Walker, released its report.

The report argues for the United States to create a "space imperative" -- harnessing Department of Defense, NASA and industry talent to build new boosters, open up public space travel and bolster the commercial development of space.

That's the good news. Unfortunately (while I haven't yet read the full report) it's short on specifics.

What is the "space imperative"? How should we "open up public space travel, and bolster the commercial development of space"?

To the limited degree that NASA's current policy represents U.S. civil space policy (a degree too large, in this pundit's opinion), the answers aren't currently very encouraging.

I had (and continue to harbor) high hopes for the new NASA administrator. But I think that he's been getting both insufficient and bad advice.

Let me begin by saying that I don't believe there's a back-room conspiracy of black-robed bureaucrats trying to keep us firmly on terra firma.

That being said, NASA has often been accused by many in the space policy community of actually holding back commercial development of the new frontier, either because of unintended consequences of well-meaning endeavors, or protection of specific programmatic turf. There's abundant empirical evidence that such is the case.

It happened again in the past few days.

First, there was this web page from the NASA science directorate. Here's the key excerpt, just a few paragraphs down:

A viable space-tourism industry is, however, decades away.

"Decades away."

They state this as though it's an indisputable fact, rather than an opinion of the "NASA rocket scientists" who wrote the web page.

Let's consider an even more egregious and related example, because it undoubtedly had much wider coverage. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe says that the goal of reducing launch costs (currently about $10,000 a pound) by a factor of 10 is "unrealistic."

"I haven't found anybody who can attest to the fact that there is any technology that could achieve that..."

One wonders how hard he looked.

Now, put yourself in the place of an investor considering a space tourism venture. You know that for it to be ultimately successful, the costs must come down, dramatically. You also know that it must provide a return in a very few years in order to make any investment sense at all.

First you read a NASA website that says that the industry won't exist in a viable form for decades.

Then (because you're a smart, and not a dumb investor) you do due diligence. Upon further investigation, you read another article that says the administrator of NASA, the premier space agency in the world, says that no technology exists to significantly reduce the launch costs to the point necessary to make the space tourism viable.

What do you do?

If you're a typical investor, you'll probably believe that if NASA can't do it, no one can, and tell the prospective investee, "Sorry, it's just too risky. NASA says it can't be done for decades..."

The problem is that administrator O'Keefe's point is both right and wrong.

If one constricts one's thinking to the current commercial market, and the pathetic goals for the government space program, he's right. There's no technology that can dramatically reduce costs for any vehicle that only flies a few times a year.

Indeed, there's no cost justification for any new launch vehicle, because considering the development costs for space launch vehicles (particularly those managed by the govenment, as such a new vehicle would be), it would never pay back the investment at the current trivial flight rate.

But if one wants to consider new (previously unconsidered) markets, the technology to achieve those cost goals is trivial.

Launch costs are not a technology problem--they are a market problem. Until the decision makers in government recognize this reality, we will make no progress.

The cancellation of SLI and the "next-generation shuttle" was a good thing, but as is usually the case in correct government decisions, it was for the wrong reason.

If there is really a goal to reduce costs of launch, the policy makers in Washington have to rethink their basic assumptions.

If the trivial space goals that are currently planned are satisfactory, then indeed there is no need for a new launch system, including the newly envisioned Crew Transfer Vehicle. The manned space program, at its current activity level, is not worth investing another dime in.

If, on the other hand, we want to be a truly space-faring nation, then the NASA administrator needs to stop listening to folks who tell him that significant cost reduction is impossible, and instead seek out some who will tell him how to achieve it.

If we're unwilling to question the fundamental assumptions behind the current space program, we've driven into a cul de sac. As anyone who has done so knows, there's only one way out of that. One must turn on the light, look at the map, determine how one ended up in such a place, and turn completely around to get on the right road.

I hope that our space agency is up to the challenge. Sadly, I see little to indicate that's the case.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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