No Minister

NASA is dead

with 5 comments

So I’m sitting on the upper deck this morning, looking at a clear blue sky, and there it is: a waning half Moon, as clear as crystal in the sky, and I sigh and wonder how much longer I have to wait to see a part of my childhood relived with men standing on the surface of Lunar.

And then I see this from space buff Robert Zimmerman, NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25.

Plus this bonus, courtesy of the latest Inspector General Report (pdf)

We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV (p 4).

I knew things were bad with NASA’s Artemis program.

But not this bad.

… although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost (p. 4 of the report (pdf)).

Perhaps they intend to hand the work over to Nigerian princes?

The cost of the Apollo program was about $156 billion in 2019 dollars, $172 billion if you add in the preceding Gemini program, which you should because it was essential to Apollo’s success. Taking into account all the test and operational flights in both programs, plus four flights of surplus Apollo gear from cancelled Moon missions that was used for the Skylab program, I figure that at about $5.6 billion per flight.

Except that this was for an effort starting from scratch that did the job in less than ten years.

By contrast Artemis has come only to this point after seventeen years of developing the system, starting with its predecessor, the Constellation Program in 2005, which was little different. That’s one of the killer aspects of this failure; it was built on previous developments that should have saved time and money. The Aries V rocket became the SLS, which itself extends rocketry used for the Space Shuttle since the 1980’s; the Orion spacecraft is the same, plus new spacesuits (the report points to them for delaying the landing to 2025), and changes to the launchpad, LC-39B, first developed for Apollo more than half a century ago. As Robert Zimmerman says of the schedule:

NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

The final kick in the guts is that the IG report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

This crap is already having flow-on effects, although they will be positive if the objective is the human exploration of the Solar System. Scientists have already been given the green light by Congress that one space probe, the Europa Clipper (to study a very important moon of Jupiter, Europa) , can launch on a commercial rocket, after years of insisting it had to be launched on the SLS, a sign that Congress has finally (and quietly) realised the terrible truth. Zimmerman has tracked down another obscure “White Paper” where scientists effectively told NASA that its way of doing things can’t work any longer in the face of SpaceX:

With Starship, missions to the Moon and Mars will no longer be very constrained in terms of weight. Nor will launch schedules be slow and far between. Rather than plan a few billion dollar NASA unmanned missions taking a decade to plan and launch, using Starship NASA could have many planetary missions launching fast and for relatively little cost, with far greater capabilities.

The scientists recognize this, and wrote their paper in an effort to make NASA’s hide-bound management recognize it as well.

What I suspect is going to happen is that the scientists will eventually bypass NASA entirely. Because of the lowered cost provided by Starship, they will find other funding sources, many private, to finance planetary missions. Those other sources will also be much more capable than NASA for reacting quickly to Starship’s fast timetable and gigantic capabilities.

Why bust your gut over sending a 1 tonne rover to Mars every couple of years when you can dump a dozen on the planet in one go? The Earth-based logistics of building and supporting them is another question, but scientists would likely regard this as a happy problem.

One last note that’s not about NASA but a SpaceX competitor, Blue Origin. Their proposal to NASA for a lunar landing vehicle was rejected (along with others) in favour of a modified SpaceX Starship vehicle, so they lodged a complaint with the Government Audit Office (GAO). When they lost that appeal they took it to the US Court of Federal Claims, who announced their decision a couple of weeks ago:

The Court finds that Blue Origin does not have standing because it did not have a substantial chance of award but for the alleged evaluation errors. Its proposal was priced well above NASA’s available funding and was itself noncompliant. Blue Origin argues that it would have submitted an alternative proposal, but the Court finds its hypothetical proposal to be speculative and unsupported by the record. The Court also finds that several of Blue Origin’s objections are waived.

Even if Blue Origin had standing and its objections were not waived, the Court finds that it would lose on the merits. Blue Origin has not shown that NASA’s evaluation or its conduct during the procurement was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law. NASA provided a thorough, reasoned evaluation of the proposals, and NASA’s conduct throughout the procurement process was not contrary to law.

Ouch. It doesn’t get worse than that. The synopsis is that Blue Origin submitted a weak, overpriced bid, and when it lost on the merits, whinged and said it would have done something different if only had it known. What bullshit.

Still, the silver lining of this failure is that it may spur Bezos to STFU and start building the space capabilities he’s been taking about for a decade.


See also my 2020 post, Wanderers. Here’s the video.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 28, 2021 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Space, USA

Tagged with , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Problem is there is no compelling reason to go to the Moon

    When the Dutch East India men sailed to the Far East, which was a dangerous proposition at the time and no mean feat , they generally returned set up for life

    What has the Moon got to justify the cost and effort?


    November 28, 2021 at 7:13 pm

    • It’s a good question Andre and my answer would be a mix of philosophy, science and pragmatism.

      On the philosophy side I think it’s good for humans to explore and while there’s plenty of work to be done down here there really isn’t any part of the Earth that’s not been touched by humans. The deep sea is there but I think it offers less return for the risk and cost than the Moon. Good means good for the soul; I think if we try staying in one place we’ll just slowly become so introspective that we’ll become nothing. Besides which, even in exploring the barren places of this world we’ve learned things, as well as finding out that they’re not quite so barren. Not to mention learning by doing. Might be valuable one day?

      Which brings me to the science. The Westerners who went through the deserts of Arabia would have thought they were useless, given that nothing much grows there. Yet we found oil there, which makes the world go around. Maybe it will be the same with the Moon. I’m not going to push the Helium3 stuff because fusion power is already enough a dream. But fifty years ago, in fact even into the 1990’s, we thought the Moon was anhydrous; not a breath of water. Now we know there’s water ice at the poles, and that means it could be a fuel station on the way to Mars or other places. I’m not ignoring the arguments of those who say we should jus go straight to Mars, nor the likes of Bezos who can’t see the point of dropping down another gravity well. But maybe the incremental thing to do is also the wise move.

      And I guess that’s where the pragmatism comes in. The longer we have only the Earth as our home, the more likely we are to meet the fate of the dinosaurs and 99% of the rest of the species that have gone extinct. A place like Mars is a better bet as a colony, but the Moon has its place in the long-term scheme of things.

      Tom Hunter

      November 28, 2021 at 9:16 pm

  2. I always thought Carl Sagan had a pretty good take on this, and I posted about it a year ago.

    Tom Hunter

    November 28, 2021 at 9:26 pm

  3. The big old space industrials (including blue origin) seem like retirement homes. Where good engineers go to lose their will to live, get medicated and die. It’s a trap, run!

    The NZ company Rocket Lab is one of two private companies offering launch facilities. They are working through the logistics of catching the first stage with a helicopter, last launch 18 Nov, next launch in Dec is a catch attempt. Also working on human launch, Neutron program. You can buy RKLB shares in US market. Try e-trade. Rocketlab took a healthy 50% spike after listing. Don’t wait too long. Beck is a natural. He’s outside the retirement space industrial complex, but swimming with venture capitalists. Stay alert.

    Starship will land on moon before too long. First Launch in Jan 2022. Booster stage, 23 engines, and starship stage. Splashdown near Hawai.

    You can’t buy SpaceX public, but they do plan to go public in starlink and launch a dedicated phone soon. Get in early. By the way, Tesla is about to start production from Berlin (December 2021) and before long Texas. 2022, will be a good year for Spacex adjacent stock, get TSLA, if you’ve some cash. This is the 1970’s Apple stock. Going higher. More like the Tyrell Corporation and far more ambition and talent than Apple ever had.

    But, what would I know.


    November 30, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    • The big old space industrials (including blue origin) seem like retirement homes.

      Blue Origin have only been around for a bit over ten years but they apparently got a lot, perhaps all, of their management from the likes of Boeing, Rocketdyne and others like that so your point stands.

      I haven’t written about Boeing as an example of this but their development of the Starliner spacecraft has been almost as bad as what I describe here for NASA and the SLS. The idea was that having two spacecraft, Crew Dragon and Starliner, as crew vehicles to and from the ISS, would be a great backup if/when one of them developed problems, and so it has been, but I bet nobody thought it would be Boeing that would be the weak point.

      Tom Hunter

      November 30, 2021 at 4:07 pm

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