SFF on Griffin's VSE Plan: You Can't Get There From Here

Unaffordable and Unsustainable: NASA's Failing Earth-to-orbit Transportation Strategy - A Policy White Paper of the Space Frontier Foundation

"In developing this strategy, NASA has apparently ignored key elements of the White House's Space Exploration Policy and several critical recommendations of the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy ("President's Commission"). Instead of planning its exploration transportation in a way that maximizes economic (and national security) benefit, NASA is working with its incumbent contractors to develop a series of government-designed and owned space exploration transportation systems to service ISS as well as explore the Moon."

Comments? Send them to nasawatch@reston.com Your comments thus far:


For those suggesting that the SFF has anything good to say about the Big 3 (Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop), I offer the following paragraph, right out of their ExSum:

"We will show that NASA can expand its timid outreach to America's NewSpace industry (most notably its underfunded Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program) to solve the near-term challenges of minimizing the "gap" and affordably servicing ISS. Furthermore, we will show that turning over low Earth orbit (LEO) space operations to NewSpace is the only way NASA can focus its talents and resources on returning humanity to the Moon and achieve the goals of the VSE in an affordable, sustainable and credible manner. Also, turning LEO over to NewSpace will broaden the U.S. space exploration community, grounded in the traditional American values of free enterprise, entrepreneurship and opportunity that opened our first frontier of the West."

Typical alt-space rhetoric, but "NewSpace" does not strike me as shorthand for the folks from Boeing, LM, or NGC.


The ulterior motive for the SFF paper may or may not be to reopen COTS to another round of competition. I don't know. But the opinions expressed in this piece shouldn't be dismissed as a mere tirade from a disgruntled group of losing proposers. We at NASA should recognize that this paper reflects some real concerns being voiced from many outside the agency.

I for one didn't read anything indicating that the SFF does not acknowledge NASA's importance to VSE. Rather, I saw a strong recommendation for NASA and industry to segregate their roles along the lines of what they do best. Industry should spearhead the first step of developing reliable, cost-effective access to low earth orbit, because this area has the most immediate potential to become a commercially viable market. Taking advantage of existing U.S. launch assets, such as the Atlas and Delta, may make a lot more sense than building a new, government-owned asset based on the most complex, operationally-intensive launch system in history. NASA, on the other hand, should concentrate on what it does best - conducting missions and developing systems and key technologies that may not have an immediate or obvious commercial application. Most would probably agree that lunar missions, space science missions, and advanced spaceflight technology fall into this category.

This philosophy started gaining steam during the Clinton years, and reached a full crescendo with Admiral Steidle and the original implementation of VSE. This philosophy was promulgated with a heavy dose of DOD acquisition strategy, which together clashed with the traditional NASA culture and way of doing business. It required simultaneous execution of a broad set of programs spanning research, technology development, flight system development and operations. Many felt that this approach, with its heavy reliance on large technology demonstrations and competitive fly-offs, would weigh down execution of VSE and result in an unnecessarily protracted effort. But the main reason why it failed to gain traction was that it emphasized industry involvement in all aspects of the program, at the expense of NASA's considerable in-house technical expertise. This didn't fly well with the congressional delegations that had NASA centers and support contractors as their constituents.

Enter Dr. Griffin - a man on a mission with a clear vision of what was needed to get U.S. space exploration back on track. His engineering and technical know-how has rightly dazzled us to the point that many have likened his appointment to a "second coming" - an answer to their prayers for the agency to recover the focus it had during its early years. However, the result has been an all-consuming focus on the near-term job of replacing an aging Shuttle fleet with a new vehicle that is supposedly simpler and safer to ride into orbit. Apart from closing out Shuttle and international obligations to ISS, everything else has become secondary.

The truth is that the NASA of today cannot go back to what it was before. The socio-political environment that spawned NASA has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. In the late-1950's and early 1960's, the country was willing to "open the spigot" to a young, maniacally focused NASA in order to beat the Soviet juggernaut and gain the high ground of space. We are now in an environment where the competition has become more economic, and our leadership in launch services is quickly eroding thanks to the subsidized efforts of other countries.

If we go back to the way things were done in Apollo, we starve the U.S. launch industry, while keeping NASA in a business line that diverts it from the core VSE mission. The SFF is right on in this respect, and we need to heed the message.


The people bashing this white paper are NASA bureaucrats trying to maintain the status quo, which in my opinion is doomed to fail just as the white paper predicts. These are not "COTS losers" representing small companies trying to muscle in on NASA funding (maybe they are, but they are NOT saying give it to us little guys). They clearly state that we should be purchasing LEO services from industry, including the big aerospace companies currently providing EELV services to DoD, NASA and industry. They are saying that ALL American companies old and new, big and small, be given the chance they deserve. I believe that US industry has proven its ability to provide reliable launch services to LEO. Their point is that there is plenty of room in this business for all. Let industry provide crew and cargo delivery to LEO (a 45-year old business) and let NASA work on exploration systems to get us back to the Moon and Mars.

They are right about one thing, NASA will spend hundreds of billions just getting back to the Moon and more that a trillion by the time we get to Mars. You may laugh now, but remember my words in 20 years. I know, I have worked for NASA long enough to know that if they say it will cost X, it will cost between 3X and 10X. Griffin freely admitted $104 billion through 2018 jsut to get to the Moon, so $300 billion to get to the Moon by 2025 or 2030 would be par for the course for NASA. The CLV cost of using the "existing SRB" has already tripled from $1 billion to $3 billion. I would bet my sweet bippy that EELV could provide the entire CLV, not just the first stage, for $3 billion. The person who said "show me some flight-proven hardware, and demonstrable systems engineering expertise, and then I'll listen to their pitch" apparently didn't read the white paper with an open mind. Boeing and Lockheed both have flight-proven hardware and systems engineering expertise far greater than in-house NASA. NASA hasn't built anything in over 25 years, and even then they hired Boeing and Lockheed to build it.

What NASA needs to do is say to industry, here are my high level requirements for LEO access and I will pledge $2 billion per year in development costs thru 2010 and will then buy $1 billion per year in launch services after 2010. This would be much cheaper than the current CEV-to-ISS effort. NASA could then focus on getting to the Moon with the remainder of its Exploration budget NOW. I know that industry, particularly Lockheed and Boeing, could meet this challenge. We can either pay them as competing suppliers or as sole-source suppliers through the current plan of the VSE. I choose the former. History has shown that competing suppliers are ALWAYS more cost effective than sole-source suppliers.

If NASA continues its business as usual, the VSE will fail without a doubt. This may be our last chance to get it right, and we are doing it all wrong. I just hope that it doesn't fall apart before I can retire.


The document itself is a very poor read with its lack of logic and misleading quotes, to say nothing of the numerous errors in it. I have never seen such a poorly written "White Paper". What I wonder though is which of the COTS losers paid the space frontier Foundation to front this document? Its nothing but a bald attempt to force NASA politically to fund a new round of COTS funding so the losers could try again to get NASA money for their pet projects.

The sad part is they hope to do it by stealing the money from the CEV, eliminating any hope of an early Shuttle replacement. This is the same strategy they used to undermine the X-33, SLI and OSP, putting us in the mess we are in today. If anything NASA should pull ALL of the COTS funding now and use it to accelerate the Block 1 CEV. Perhaps the funds could be used to conduct some of the studies the GAO has just recommended before awarding CEV contracts. In any case it would be put to far better use then having firms that have never even built an orbital launch system build the Shuttle's replacement.


Keith - Great site; keep it up.

In reaction to some of the later posts on the SFF paper, the comment that "NASA's track record on bold space exploration initiatives is appalling" apparently was written by someone who has missed the reality that NASA, DOD, and the US aerospace industry are the organizations that have:

A) Made HSF in LEO operationally routine;
B) Made EVA in LEO operationally routine;
C) Made planetary and lunar exploration, via flyby, orbital observation, and surface landing and exploration, operationally routine;
D) Made HSF-related on-orbit assembly and check-out in LEO operationally routine;
E) Made earth-orbital satellite operations, in LEO, GEO and otherwise, operationally routine;
F) Made liquid- and solid-fuelled launch vehicle utilization operationally routine; and
G) Made systems engineering the standard in aerospace design and manufacturing;

And this is not even pointing out the American system of civil service/military/industry/university partnership is what got the human race to the Moon, soft landings on Mars, and orbital surveys of every planet - but one - in the solar system, all in the course of less than 50 years of dedicated scientific research, engineering development, and mission operations into the science and practice of astronautics.

In that same period, a grand total of four manned spacecraft, two American and two Russian, have been lost operationally; which, given the miles covered and hours flown, is a jaw-droppingly successful record, for both countries - neither of which, of course, relied on libertarian space cadets or venture capital millionaires to accomplish.

The above record is undeniable - the only way that the only two space-faring nations of note in human history have succeeded is by making astronautics a public - not private - responsibility, and by requiring a "national" partnership of government, industry, the military, and academe.

The same, of course, applies to China, which is the only other country to manage a manned orbital flight.

There is absolutely no evidence, from the histories of astronautics OR aeronautics, that it can be done any other way; and for those who think "prizes" are the way to go, the idea that transcontinental or transoceanic aircraft capable of carrying a useful payload would have come into existence without the impetus of publicly-(i.e., government) funded research and development, procurement, and operational use, need to read some history - 1914-18 and 1939-45 especially.

Enthusiasm is one thing; denial of the laws of nature, engineering, economics, and political reality are another.


While there are many points made here that merit discussion, the central argument is irrefutable: NASA's track record on bold space exploration initiatives is appalling (witness the Shuttle and ISS) and they are utterly incapable of accomplishing the VSE goals unless a radical transformation is undertaken. This by the way, is by NASA's own admission as well as the President's Commission Report.

The SFF White Paper is simply pointing out that there has been no profound transformation and that NASA has reverted to the "business as usual" model. It is a reasonable extrapolation to expect the same results we are sadly accustomed to: massive budget overruns, decades of schedule slippage, and a continuing erosion of the scope of the mission until we wake up decades later and realized that we wasted billions of dollars and decades of precious time... Oh wait, all this has happened already and we did not wake up: We are embarking on the exact same path.

Those who argue that relying on private space is naive and unrealistic must concede that this is merely their opinion, while relying on "business as usual" has proven multiple times to be an abject failure. Private space should be given a chance to prove them wrong.

What's the worst that can happen? Private space will fail to implement VSE, but in the process of failing it will have grown a new industry.

If we allow NASA to stay on the path they have chosen, they will surely fail, and in the process, they will have replaced the Space Shuttle with Space Shuttle II (maybe).


After reading the summary of this "white paper" I realized it was a tirade against NASA and all of its contractors offering no facts to back up their conclusions. The only thing I got out of it was anger. I didn't know where to begin to refute its findings. So, I downloaded the entire document to understand their reasoning. It was written like a propaganda document, not a balanced examination of the pros and cons of NASA's choices. It reminded me of TV shows on UFOs. The presenter presents an out there conjecture, then in the next scene, states it again, this time as a fact, as the building block for the next conjecture. By the end of the show, UFOs are an obvious fact.

The next question is why. A glance at the board reveals COTS losers, Gerard K. O'Neill and Robert Zubrin followers, and science fiction professionals. While I may not agree with their approach, the authors and the people who paid for it are thinking space professionals with a valid view of the future. OK, they don't like big government and NASA, but what are they really saying?

I came away from this with the feeling the authors do not think big government and its contractors can accomplish this mission or any large program and that space should be left 100% to small companies. It does not seem sufficient to them for small companies to be encouraged and subsidized to develop technologies and systems. They seem to suggest the entire space program should be handed over to smaller firms and the entire NASA budget should be converted to a $15b annual subsidy.

While this approach has worked in some sectors, it has also had spectacular failures. Setting the transformational risk, financial and human costs aside, if small companies suddenly become our source of space transportation, those small companies will become large companies. Will we be better off while still accomplishing our objectives?


The SFF paper is a welcomed breath of fresh air. The points that it makes are right on the mark. In unabashed prose, it describes how NASA has clearly veered off course from the original purpose and intent of the President's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).

As the report points out, NASA's current implementation of VSE has indeed become overly government-centric. Rather than focusing its near-term efforts on expanding the frontier, NASA has decided to concentrate on developing a system to replace the Shuttle and maintain NASA "home grown" access to low earth orbit. Although this effort is couched in the framework of returning to the moon and ultimately venturing to Mars, it clearly steps on the toes of the struggling commercial launch market, which would gladly welcome the business.

Another consequence of this approach has been the dramatic erosion of NASA's space science programs and total elimination of important technology efforts. Over the last year, a cadre of NASA managers pining for the "glory days of Apollo" have systematically gutted NASA investments with an almost maniacal zeal. Ironically, these are the very science missions and technologies that would enable NASA to truly push at the frontier's boundaries.

Perhaps the most important point of the paper is that VSE was not intended to be an endorsement of Apollo and its approach. While Apollo was extremely successful in winning the Cold War battle of being first on the moon, it is no model for building a sustainable and economically viable space exploration program. The socio-political environment of today is totally different. NASA must trust in the ability of private enterprise to provide major portions of the infrastructure needed for exploration, while it focuses on the missions and technologies needed to sustain human presence beyond low earth orbit.


This stinks of another attempt to cash-in on a NASA program. This often seems to happen when someone gets a whiff of money to be made off NASA: they run to their congress-types to bully NASA, or to outright force it to do as they bid with new 'laws'. This is just the kind of profiteering crap that screwed up the Landsat program 20 yrs ago. If they REALLY have a good idea, why don't they go ahead, take the risk (like a REAL entrepreneur would) and pitch it to NASA on its own merits, instead of trying to foist it on them with arm-twisting and political maneuvering.


Until or unless an alt-space company designs, builds, and sucessfully operates a EELV or better class launch vehicle and a pressurized vehicle with soft re-entry capability from - at least - LEO, why should anyone take their opinions regarding HSF seriously?

NASA, DOD, and the aerospace industry routinely design, build, launch, and operate spacecraft - manned and unmanned - that are literally light years more complex than anything (Spaceship1 is a high altitude airplane, nothing more) that any alt-space type has yet to create and operate sucessfully. If and when anyone in altspace has a track record that even remotely approaches that of the Delta II for launch vehicles, Gemini for manned spacecraft, or Surveyor for planetary exploration, then they can offer their version of how the US should best maintain its national interests in space.

Show me some flight-proven hardware, and demonstrable systems engineering expertise, and then I'll listen to their pitch.


Of course "NASA is working with its incumbent contractors." The "standing army" of space shuttle support personnel work in states near and dear to the Bush administration and to powerful congressional representatives. It seems clear that technical decisions are being based on the need to appease the politicos by avoiding the layoffs of NASA personnel and contractors that would be needed if we started from a clean sheet of paper. Technical creativity and market forces are being ignored in the process.

The same thing happened in Aeronautics where the budgets and Center splits were established well before the technical requirements were identified and the content of the new Programs and Projects was formulated. So much for the "pursuit of technical truth" that is ballyhooed by leaders in our Agency. Sigh...


I find it very interesting that some of the board members of the Space Frontier Foundation work for firms that lost in the first round of COTS. Now they are calling for a new round of COTS, taking the money from real space firms with real engineers who have actually built space vehicles, not just viewgraphs and hype. I wonder if the Space Frontier Foundation would have issued this paper if they won?


I read the SFF paper. While I think it does have some merit, I think it toots the horn of the alt.space crowd a bit too loudly.

While I think that NASA should eventually buy servies such as LEO astronaut lofts, I don't think any of the COTS suppliers will be ready anytime in the next 5-10 years even with greater spending.

NASA needs to throw the COTS gang a bone and get them started. To use an analogy,railroads expanded greatly when they began to carry the mail. Space tourism isn't going to pay the billsyet. Remember that most of ailine travelers are indeed business people. The COTS spacecraft are a great way to jump start a developing space industry. They're just not going to be ready in the timeline stated by the SFF or NASA.


I didn't need to read further than this line-

America is the world's most powerful nation and the world's leader in high-tech innovation because we are better at capitalism, not because we are better at socialism.

SFF apparently doesn't realize that this kind of empty, 'commie-baiting' demagoguery is a relic of the past. If this is the argument they have to use, they've got nothing. They're ideological, therefore irrational. The world has moved on in the last seventeen years; and the fossils at the SFF needs to get with the program. Nothing to see here folks, let's move along.


As much as some parts of the SFF white paper (including the title, which almost conveys a sense of "marketing hype") initially caused me to bristle, I must say that in most respects, the observations and recommendations are right on target.


While there is no denying NASA has encountered difficulties in working through the details of the VSE -- these are the inevitable difficulties you would encounter in attempting to implement a complex plan. It seems to me that the "White Paper" recommendations are so transparently self-serving that they cannot be taken seriously. Effectively, they are just saying give us all the money. Please. Give me a break. More to the point, give the American people a break. I don't think Griffin or the other NASA people are complete idiots -- which they would have to be if you take this critique at face value.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 26, 2006 2:34 PM.

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