[FPSPACE] Launch vehicle costs, overruns

DwayneDay zirconic1 at earthlink.net
Mon Oct 11 12:18:25 EDT 2004

-----Original Message-----
From: Allen Thomson <thomsona at flash.net>
Sent: Oct 11, 2004 9:15 PM

Not a bad article:


 Oct 10, 2004
 Rocket program deep in the red
 Military miscalculations combined with depressed commercial market lead to 
$14.4 billion overrun


That is actually a pretty good article.  I believe that Kelly has been covering the space beat for only a few years, but has really gotten the hang of it.  For those of you with slightly longer memories, Florida Today used to be the operator of the Space Online website and the _first_ place where everybody went for current space news.  They then got rolled over by Space.com and the newspaper also decided that covering space on the Space Coast was not something they cared about, and their space coverage took a dive.  It's a shame, really.

Anyway, Kelly hits some of the key points, including one of the chips on my shoulder, which is that NASA gets blamed all the time for cost overruns, but the military, and military space, also overrun all the time and yet nobody complains very hard about them.

In fact, as a recent Congressional Budget Office report noted, NASA and military cost overruns are remarkably similar, so NASA is not really any worse than the DoD at estimating the cost of stuff.  (In fact, some recent military space programs have experienced some huge cost overruns, and I imagine that if you only looked at cost overruns for military space programs, their numbers are going to be skewed considerably.  I think that SBIRS-High is overrun by something like 400% and I doubt that NASA has ever been that bad.)

I do have a few quibbles with the article, however.  For one, although it states that EELV costs more because everybody predicted a big launch market that never materialized, it does not state _why_ they expected that market.  That market was predicted around 1996 or so based upon several major factors: the dawn of the "Big LEO" comsat constellations, and a hefty Asian GEO comsat demand.  Both of those things collapsed a few years later.  The Big LEO constellations never really happened.  (The Commerce Department once predicted that there was a market for no more than two of these companies, and it looks like there is not even a market for one of them.  Iridium could not survive if a) it had not gone bankrupt already, and b) it did not have the DoD subsidy.)

In fact, the case for a hefty launch market was somewhat like the case for WMDs in Iraq--everybody, and I mean everybody, thought that there was a market, and yet the underlying fundamentals upon which the assumption was based were weak.  Asia was experiencing a boom that had signs of collapsing, and the Big LEO comsat explosion was also dubious.  But all of this stuff is easier to see in retrospect than in foresight.

Another quibble I have is with the assertion that the government predicted lower launch costs for shuttle and for Titan IV for the same reason as for EELV.  Shuttle, yes, but I don't think this is true for Titan IV.  Everybody knew that Titan IV had only one customer, the government.  And the number of payloads that were going to fly was also known.  Titan IV's high cost was not due to the USAF buying fewer Titan IVs, it was due to lousy estimates of how much the Titan IV would cost.  I heard Sheila Widnall, former Secretary of the Air Force, once say that she was very unhappy with the contractor and the costs they were charging for the Titan IV.  She considered it to be a major screwup.

As for the article's discussion that we need two launch vehicles for insurance against one of them going down, this is a complicated issue and deserves more study.  As various people have pointed out, one of the problems with this assertion is that both vehicles use the same upper stage, so if the problem is with the upper stage, then both vehicles are grounded.  And although there is supposed to be commonality between vehicles, so that a payload can be launched on either one, I wonder how real this is.

Note that the White House was supposed to produce a space transportation policy paper long ago and still has not done so.  One would hope that it would resolve some of these issues.


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