Change is Coming to NASA Space Launch

by Rick Tumlinson on March 19, 2010

Change is coming to the US space program. At last! Real, dramatic and tangible change in both its effect and the course it will create in this nation’s future in space.

It is long past time for us to try something different, as what we have been doing in our human space program since Apollo has been a failure of epic proportions. And yet, some defend the status quo and are actually angry about the coming changes proposed by the Obama Administration. I find this amazing given the space agency’s track record over the last few decades. But then, if nothing else, our past experience with the government building and operating space launches has shown that to many, simply flying some stuff around in circles and creating jobs that do nothing to advance us in any direction is more important than succeeding in getting anywhere – so long as everyone agrees in the myth that they are going somewhere.

It is heretical to say it in many quarters, but unlike its astronomy and robotic exploration programs, the current NASA operated human spaceflight program has failed by any rational measure in almost every respect to achieve Any of the milestones put forth by those who sold them to the American people so long ago. The most glaring example of this failure to deliver in the area of transportation is totally unknown to the taxpaying public and often overlooked by the defenders of the old ways: The space shuttle system, glorious and impressive symbol of the space agency for so long is a complete failure when measured against its promised performance. Sold in the 1970s as being able to fly once a week and bring costs down to tens of dollars a pound, they have averaged around 5 flights a year…on good years. In the meantime NASA has tried and failed time after time to develop new space transportation systems, including the much heralded and disastrous X-33, which after a billion dollars of taxpayer funding was canceled, never to have even rolled out of the hangar.

The background of repeated failures by the government to build and operate its own Earth to LEO launch systems is what we must keep in mind when we judge the new commercial Earth to LEO space transportation plans being put forth by the White House and NASA. Frankly, as a long time skeptic regarding anything the NASA press office puts out when it comes to human spaceflight, I am not only impressed by the plan to hand over this role to commercial space firms, but am willing to allow myself just a hint of hope that if it can be successfully implemented (freeing the agency to pursue real space exploration) We may at last break out of the circular self gratification of our current space program and go somewhere – and more importantly be able to go there again and again and even stay if we want to (the key word being “we” as in not just NASA employees, but eventually the rest of us too!).

And yes, to do this NASA will have to make changes. Rather than seeing itself as the emperor of all things space, it will have to change how it views the zone from the Earth’s surface to LEO. The agency simply cannot get it right when it comes to trying to build its own launch systems in any economic sense, and it is time it stopped trying. The agency will have to step aside in this area that it long ago pioneered. It will no longer be its own trucking service for small package delivery to space. It will have to relinquish its role as its own taxi service to LEO and leave the driving to someone else. Instead this job will be given to privately funded New Space firms across the nation that are working on a variety of rocketships that could catapult us into the space frontier and global space leadership at a fraction of the cost of any new NASA system.

For example, California’s SPACEX from its creation through its first successful orbital flights and all the industrial tooling and facilities to support them spent far less than the $445 million NASA did on its recent smoke and mirrors alleged test flight of an Ares 1-X mock up to only 50k feet higher altitude than that achieved by parachutist Joe Kittinger in 1960. To get all the way to being able to carry humans in its Dragon capsule on its Falcon 9 will cost only a fraction of the projected cost of the Ares and Orion system – and almost more importantly, when not in use by NASA it will be used by commercial companies to carry their own payloads and customers into space. Orbital Sciences using its Taurus vehicle is in a similar position and projects similar cost savings over the as yet paper lion of Ares Orion.

Even if one isn’t willing to bet on NewSpace firms some of our largest traditional firms are moving ahead with plans to adapt their tried and true systems to carry payloads and people into orbit to serve commercial customers and even the ISS. For example, the Atlas V has flown some 20 times and Delta IV more than 10 which is about 20 times and 10 times more than Ares and the Boeing/Bigelow Crew Capsule now in development will cost a fraction of that needed for Orion and be usable by both the government and commercial customers. From now on, in a very real sense, NASA’s exploration job will no longer start at the launch pad, but begin in space itself.

But none of this will happen if NASA tries to manage these new players in its old way. NASA must change not just what it does and where it does it, but how it does what it does, and how it works with others that are doing the jobs it needs done. Agency managers will have to learn new ways of contracting that are based not on how much work is done on a project, but how much that work produces. Like the rest of us, as a customer it can no longer rationalize spending huge amounts of money paying for a failed effort to deliver a package to a destination, but only for success. Yes, the agency will need to set standards for the transportation of its employees to and from space, but these should not and cannot be any more stringent than those they set for let’s say their astronauts who fly in F-16s. And it will have to actually relinquish control over some other areas of space operations that have become somewhat mundane in return for being able to focus on what many used to see as its main mission – exploration, science and technology development.

Unfortunately, no matter how good (normal) all of this sounds to normal people who live in a free enterprise society, in the visionless and ironic land of old school government aerospace the pork must keep flowing and tradition will  fight innovation. The forces of darkness are already moving to crush the revolution right now, as those who do not understand the enormity of the promise in this change in Congress ally with those who do and want it stopped regardless, all well armed by those who have fed off the system for so long they forgot NASA’s job is exploring space and not the national wallet for their own ends.

And so the battle is joined. And in yet another dose of irony, many of us who for so long have been seen as the foes of the agency as we have fought for common sense will now be standing shoulder to shoulder with its new leaders. About time I say, as I have never enjoyed having to take on my childhood icon time after time as it has meandered far from the dream of exploring and opening space. And although I know this may be a brief moment in time, I take my hat (space helmet?) off to those who are working on the inside to make this happen, and pledge my keyboard to their defence in the coming months. I only hope they are willing to stand their ground as well, as the stakes are greater than simply who gets what contract for how much. What is at stake is the future of this nation in space and just how soon and how well that future is realized.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Urges Members to “Show the Space Settlement Flag” at Washington Event

Silicon Valley, CA - The Space Frontier Foundation urges its members and supporters to attend Explore Mars Inc.’s 2014 Humans2Mars (H2M) Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 22-24. Join us in letting our policy makers know how important human exploration and the settlement of Mars is to the future of both the U.S. civil space program and the human race.

“Mars beckons us to explore and eventually settle it. Mars is in our future, and it’s important to start having serious discussions about the right and wrong ways to do it,”said Space Frontier Foundation President James Pura. “The right way helps create a sustainable human presence in space; the wrong way leaves us with nothing but flags and footsteps, and risks never getting there at all. Explore Mars Inc. gets this distinction, and we are excited to co-sponsor their event.

The 2014 Humans2Mars Summit will be a highly interactive conference. In addition to the onsite audience, there will be over a thousand schools – and tens of thousands of individuals – from around the world viewing the event. While H2M will be based in Washington, DC, the goal is to create a worldwide Mars exploration event.

“Getting human footprints and life-sustaining systems on the surface of Mars has long been a dream of both of our organizations,” said Explore Mars Inc.’s CEO, Chris Carberry. “It is our hope that this conference facilitates and pushes the serious discussions that are necessary within Congress and the White House to make the eventual settlement of Mars a reality within the next two decades.”

The topics being discussed at the H2M Summit will include:

  • Mission architecture and challenges
  • Science goals and robotic precursor missions
  • US Competitiveness
  • Affordable approaches for Mars exploration
  • Planetary protection
  • International cooperation
  • Mars and STEM education
  • In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)

Some of the speakers you will hear from at the H2M Summit:

  • Charles Bolden
  • Buzz Aldrin
  • William Gerstenmaier
  • Rick Tumlinson
  • Ellen Stofan
  • Charles Precourt
  • Michael Gazarik
  • Alan Stern
  • Julie Van Kleeck
  • Doug Cooke
  • Michael Raftery
  • Kent Rominger
  • Pete Worden
  • James Garvin
  • Rebecca Keiser
  • John Spencer
  • Rich Philips
  • Sam Scimemi
  • Pamela Conrad
  • Taber MacCallum
  • Miles O’Brien
  • Louis Friedman
  • Joe Cassady
  • Pascale Lee

To register for the conference, visit the H2M website at We look forward to seeing you at H2M!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The Settlement Enabling Test

March 18, 2014

The Space Frontier Foundation Releases a New Metric for Crafting Space Policy   Washington, DC – The Space Frontier Foundation is pleased to announce the creation of a new tool, the Settlement Enabling Test. This tool acknowledges that our fundamental goal in space exploration is large scale space settlement, and provides a way to determine […]

Read the full article →

Four ways to experience Space Tech Expo 2014

March 5, 2014

Silicon Valley, CA - Network, learn, engage, compare, source, research and discover – there are countless benefits to participating in Space Tech Expo, but only four ways you can participate in the West Coast’s premier space event. To find out how you can access three information-packed days in Long Beach (April 1-3, 2014), choose from the options below […]

Read the full article →

A New Generation Takes the Lead at the Space Frontier Foundation

February 12, 2014

Board Announces Retirement of co-Founder Bob Werb and Election of Space Entrepreneur Jeff Feige as Chairman The Board of Directors of the Space Frontier Foundation announced today that Bob Werb, Co-Founder and long-time Chairman of the Board, has retired from the position, and that they have unanimously elected space entrepreneur Jeff Feige to take over […]

Read the full article →

Registration is Open for NewSpace 2014, Register Today!

January 23, 2014

Registration for the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2014 Conference is now open! Take advantage of this opportunity to learn about the commercial space industry and be a part of the NewSpace revolution. The conference will take place in Silicon Valley, CA, July 24-26, 2014. Register today at NewSpace 2014 will feature a distinguished list of thought-provoking panels and […]

Read the full article →

Tomorrow’s Policy Changes Begin Today

December 17, 2013

Support Today and Receive a Limited Edition 25th Anniversary Gift “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” President of Michigan Savings Bank, 1903 “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” Chairman of IBM, 1943 “A rocket will never be able to leave the […]

Read the full article →

M.A.R.S. Bound

December 11, 2013

Student Experiment Headed to the ISS on Antares Rocket When Amy McCormick’s class developed their science experiment studying Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), they could only dream of flying it to space. Their experiment won the Teachers In Space annual spaceflight contest and later this month, their dream will become a reality when it launches to […]

Read the full article →

Disruptive Ideas Will Make Space Settlement a Reality

December 10, 2013

Support Today and Receive a Limited Edition 25th Anniversary Gift Imagine if you will…a young girl is getting ready to go to school, but first she takes her phone out of her pocket, takes a picture out the window, and posts on her Facebook page “It’s a beautiful day here on Mars…today I’m giving a […]

Read the full article →

Investing in the Future of NewSpace

October 31, 2013

Space Frontier Foundation Sponsors SpaceVision and Student BPC Nyack, NY – The Space Frontier Foundation is proud to announce its sponsorship of the SpaceVision 2013 conference and their Student Business Plan Competition (BPC). SpaceVision is run by the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), making the sponsorship a direct investment in the […]

Read the full article →

Sustainability Is Not An Option

October 29, 2013

Space Frontier Foundation Laments $1.2 Billion J-2X Dead End Nyack, NY – The Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) is distressed by the announcement that the J-2X Engine will never fly. NASA has numerous projects running on tight budgets that could have used the now-vaporized resources spent on J-2X. The engine was developed under NASA’s now-defunct Constellation […]

Read the full article →