What is the price of space?

March 1, 1997
WASHINGTON - There`s a small irony buried in the defense and space budgets now before Congress. Two issues that have occupied the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for decades - and were once closely intertwined - are going to have to be wrestled with again.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON - There`s a small irony buried in the defense and space budgets now before Congress. Two issues that have occupied the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for decades - and were once closely intertwined - are going to have to be wrestled with again.

At the Pentagon, to placate a Congress that has been demanding action on a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, the Clinton Administration has gone to great lengths to spotlight its $3.5 billion request to accelerate the program.

NASA officials, meanwhile, saddled with the exorbitant operating costs of their space shuttle, have quietly slipped in a $400 million item to at least make a start on the job of developing a more efficient post-shuttle launch vehicle.

The irony is that, back in the heady days of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the 1980s, these two programs were almost joined at the hip. It was obvious to the SDI proponents that their then space-based BMD system would never even approach the criterion of cost-effectiveness without a much more economical launch system than the shuttle - in fact, 10 times more economical.

Curiously, that`s exactly what NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin is proposing now, at a time when BMD has been scaled back to a land-based system intended only to counter missile attacks from such "rogue states" as Iraq, Iran, or North Korea. He wants to resurrect those reusable launch vehicle technologies, which the SDI people wanted so badly then but which became a moot issue with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"One day, we expect these technologies to be in vehicles that reduce the cost per pound of getting a payload to low earth orbit by an order of magnitude - from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound," Goldin told a NASA news briefing on the agency`s $13.5 billion request. "And its reliability by at least 10 times."

Specifically, the NASA request covers concept analysis, ground-based technology development, and a series of flight demonstrators - the DC-XA, X-34 small reusable demonstrator, and the X-33 large-scale advanced technology demonstrator.

It`s a case of too little, too late. Without a major customer like SDI, there`s no chance of getting the volume of payloads into space up to where tenfold improvements in costs and reliability are possible. There simply aren`t enough payloads. Even the international space station, which the Russians will help to put into space, can`t generate the necessary traffic.

It was obvious even before the Challenger tragedy of 1986 that the shuttle would have to be replaced eventually. When President Nixon approved the program in 1972 it, too, was supposed to reduce the cost of delivering a pound of payload to low earth orbit by an order of magnitude. That never happened.

At the time of the Apollo program to land a man on the moon in the 1960s, Wernher von Braun, who spearheaded the launch vehicle development program, estimated the cost per pound to low earth orbit at $500 and his goal was to drive it down to $50 with a reusable launch vehicle. Admittedly, there has been considerable inflation over the past 30 years, but that accounts for barely half of today`s launch price tags.

NASA designers were somewhat foresighted in their attempt, however, because their primary method to cut costs was to get away from the prevailing rigid specifications for man-rated space hardware and instead use what we now call commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology. That effort wasn`t entirely successful, but it may have played a role in the subsequent acquisition reforms pioneered at the Pentagon.

Where NASA leaders went off the track was in assuming sufficient traffic to justify at least 50 launches a year. With a payload bay capable of carrying 60,000 pounds per flight, if each flight carried the maximum payload (virtually an impossibility), that would mean delivering 3 million pounds a year to low earth orbit. Instead, NASA flies the shuttle about half a dozen times a year, but the fixed operating costs on the ground are the same whether there`s one flight or 50.

With higher levels of integration (thus reducing the number of electrical connections, which is the prime cause of failure) and open-system architectures to accommodate technology upgrades, NASA designers should have no trouble developing a cost-effective advanced avionics system.

Unfortunately, the big cost (and reliability) hurdle is the propulsion system, and this technology proceeds at a snail`s pace compared to electronics. Lacking a breakthrough there, Goldin`s new vehicles don`t appear likely to progress beyond the technology demonstration stage.

The only way NASA officials could change this situation is to find enough business for the future space station to require a steady stream of visitors and thus create economies of scale and enough launch experience to improve reliability. But John Pike, a persistent critic of BMD and the shuttle pooh poohs this idea. Pike leads the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.

There are only two things you can do on a space station, he says: study the long-term effect of the space environment on humans (a somewhat circular form of logic since there`s no hope at this stage for any long-term missions to, say, the moon or Mars) and use the microgravity and hard vacuum of space to develop new chemical processes.

On the latter point, Pike is dubious. It might be possible to achieve breakthroughs in growing purer semiconductor crystals or producing medicines that might even cure cancer, but this research can be done a lot cheaper in terrestrial laboratories. "It was Tang and Velcro back in the Apollo days," he quips. "Now it`s miracle cures and mystery crystals."

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