Every now and then, an article, like this one posted in USA Today, shows up. The gist of the article is: the Pentagon is looking for a “cheap” way to get satellites into space. In this particular case they’re looking at a “space plane” called XS-1.
We’ve heard this before, with pretty much the same reasons given for why the government is looking into building space planes. In fact, one of the reasons for the space shuttle program was to reduce the cost of launches into space. But it didn’t–shuttle flights ended up costing at least $500 million dollars a launch instead of the $10 to $20 million fairy tale everyone was initially told. Why was that? This Fact-index.com article seems to give some good reasons, but it comes down to some simple principles, too. One primary one: anytime you add people to a project, in this case building launch systems, the people expect to be paid. More people equals more money, and the United States government is VERY proud of employing 10 people were only 1 is really needed. There is no reason, aside from a taxpayer revolt, to expect this kind of “efficient” use of people to not continue.
Let’s just take a look at some things going on today. Virgin Galactic, the budding “space-tourism” company run by Sir Richard Branson, is successfully on its way to accomplishing what the Pentagon would like to do. Sir Branson is expecting to offer a way to launch satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) for very little money (around $10 million). Admittedly, this amount is double what the Pentagon wants to pay, but it’s still quite cheap, and it’s early days yet, for Virgin Galactic.
The Pentagon is saying they’d love to spend about $154 million to develop the XS-1. That would be the limit of money spent in a perfect world, but as the US citizenry is seeing, the Pentagon’s acquisitions corps (the guys responsible for buying things for the government and making sure it works before putting it in a soldiers hands), is very broken. The $154 million would be the very minimum the Pentagon should expect to pay for the XS-1. Then there would be the development extensions, the additional requirements for the “space plane” levied by other interested parties. Other contractors jump into the fray (more people equals more money, remember). The next thing you know, you have a very expensive compromise–just like the old space shuttle.
But why build XS-1 at all? Why spend the money, with the accompanying, inevitable out of control cost spiral that will occur? Virgin Galactic has a working system. Virgin Galactic is already funding development with their own money. The Spaceship Company, which is working with Virgin Galactic, consists of a little over 145 people instead of the inevitable thousands likely to flock to the XS-1 program (the shuttle program, at one point, had 25,000 people supporting it). Maybe a little extra cash paid to Virgin by the US government could help increase payload capability, but lower costs?
There’s too much history working against the Pentagon to develop the XS-1 inexpensively. There are too many existing contractors, like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or Northrop Grumman, who know how to run through program complexities and hoops, and still manage to make programs very expensive. We’ve been through this routine before, but for some reason we’re expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?
It’s time to stop going insane.