Sunday, August 10, 2014

Commercial 130+ Metric Tonne Rocket Competition Imagined

COTS; Courtesy of NASA
The current Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that is in development is a 70 metric tonne vehicle.  By comparison, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is a 53 metric tonne rocket.  The Falcon Heavy is slated to make its maiden flight towards the end of 2014.  SLS is slated for a 2017 maiden flight, but that time seems to be slipping.  These dates often slip, even for commercial companies like SpaceX.  The SLS program is also slated to create a 130 metric tonne rocket to explore the solar system.  Consider that commercial space services have already been successful and saved NASA money.  Consider also that a new space services market has been created and is growing.  I do not think that SLS will survive long in a commercial space services dominant environment.  I think a competition for a 130 metric tonne rocket is in order for NASA.

In 2006 NASA's Commercial Cargo & Crew Program Office (C3PO) created the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) which was a competition for companies to create rockets and spacecraft to provide the International Space Station (ISS) with cargo.  COTS also lead to Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) which was the operational missions to supply the cargo.  While there were many entrants into COTS, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences won, and are supplying cargo today.  The CRS contracts were fixed price versus the traditional Cost Plus contracts which is how SLS is being developed.  Under CRS the companies retain ownership of their rockets and spacecraft, and also the risk associated with development and operation.  Risk is one of the potentially most costly aspect of any project or program.  By giving companies the risk, NASA has also given the companies freedom for innovation.  Essentially NASA has helped create new competition in the space launch world and has saved money at the same time.  SpaceX's Dragon first berthed with ISS in 2012.  Orbital Sciences' Cygnus first berthed with ISS in 2013.  The success of COTS is historic for the planet.  For the first time, orbital commercial services became a reality.

Think of the future where commercial space companies dominate launch and operation services. What place does a costly SLS have in this environment?  Already Falcon Heavy encroaches on the lifting capability of the 70 metric tonne SLS.  SpaceX has plans to launch cargo and people to Mars.  They will make a very large rocket that competes with 130 metric tonne SLS.  What future does SLS have?  Even is SLS functions perfectly, its cost will make it obsolete.  With a constraint budget, NASA would be tempted to launch the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on a commercial launch service.  They might even be tempted to use a commercial capsule for missions like a new version of SpaceX's Dragon.  To me, the mighty dollar is going to doom SLS the scrap heap.

In the aerospace industry, competitions is what spur innovation and development.  Charles Lindbergh won the Ortieg prize in 1927 by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a non-stop flight with his plane the Spirit Of St Louis.  This resulted in our current transatlantic flight market.  This also resulted in round the world air commercial air travel.  Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites won the X-Prize in 2004 by flying their space craft SpaceShipOne to suborbital space twice in a two week period.  This has spurred the new commercial space market.  Now Virgin Galactic, Xcor, and others are competing for customers for their first suborbital passenger space flights.  These competitions work.  Let us go a step further and make a competition that will result in more than one commercial launch system of 130 metric tonnes or greater.

Why would we need such monster rockets you may ask.  Commercially, the bigger the rocket, the less money per kilogram is needed to launch anything.  Who would use these?  Besides NASA, there are current companies and organizations with big plans and ideas.  Bigelow Aerospace makes inflatable habitat modules for future commercial space stations/space ships/moon bases.  The Mars Society members long to get to Mars.  Google Lunar Xprize participants have big plans for the Moon. B612 is an organization with a mission to help protect Earth from asteroids. Our current rocket only can start these big ideas.  These represent many people from many countries.  They want to go to space.  They need very large rockets to get to their endgame.

As wonderful an idea SLS is, it is just not cut out for the future that is just around the corner.  If NASA is not relieved of the burden of a 130 metric tonne SLS, the agency will be bypassed by commercial companies in the field of exploration.  NASA should take the lead in exploration, not lag behind.  They should not make any more rockets.  They should hold a competition to develop 130+ metric tonne rockets.  Then they could use those commercial rockets and services to get their spacecraft out in the solar system.  Then they can make more of the wonderful discoveries they have been doing since the 1970s.  These discoveries have helped people on Earth through the decades.  New discoveries can only help those on Earth and those out in the solar system.