Space Launch Complex 40, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Image hosted by The Conversation, provided by SpaceX.
This post is the completion of a short analysis I started yesterday about why NASA’s and the DoD’s launch operations will not be affected by SpaceX’s choice to build and use a launch operations center in Brownsville, Texas. It was prompted because of a post The Space Review put up on their site Monday, which suggested that SpaceX’s move might prompt some more changes in space launch operations for NASA or the DoD. In essence, I doubt it will.
Yesterday, I suggested that politics is a condition that hasn’t changed (in that it’s changing all the time), and there are many porkfathers trying to protect their political pigpens. Another condition that ties into that is there’s also disagreement from many politicians about how NASA should be spending its budget. So whenever a budget is agreed upon for NASA, there are many stipulations. NASA, the House, the Senate, and the Administration all have different ideas for what’s the most important thing NASA should focus on. Each budget, then, is a struggle and eventually, a mish-mash of how NASA will spend its money. The latest 2015 NASA budget changes are a great illustration of the kind of changes that happen for every single NASA budget submission.
Budget is the other factor that seems unchanging. NASA’s budget stays fairly stable, with very small annual increases. Considering the differing mission visions of elected leadership, and the turf wars certain congressional staffers initiate, it almost seems that changing any sort of operations or project has an element of risk which may adversely affect NASA’s budget. The budget is a version of Damocles Sword for NASA.
Budget also affects the technologies NASA uses. Because high visibility engineering and manufacturing feats give NASA a favorable image to the public, other, less visible but important systems suffer. The arguments to spend money on the “sexy” tech are always very logical—if NASA shows off a new robot, moon rover, or space launch system, it shows they’re doing something important and fantastic, and more money will hopefully come their way. But such arguments are shown to be false when looking at NASA’s historic budget, which does grow, but very slowly. Very useful, but certainly less visible, infrastructure such as the technology used for launching rockets in the Eastern Range suffers from this kind of decision-making and eventually falls behind. In the latest story regarding the aging of Eastern Range technology, one of the Air Force’s primary launch tracking radars went down, and there was no back up for it. Everyone apparently knew there was a risk, but as with all organizations just trying to get things done, they had accepted the risk and moved on.
MAD—Mission Assurance Debauchery
This, and other, risks have been examined and documented because both NASA and the military have fairly hefty mission assurance requirements, with or without SpaceX. The acceptance of the risk of blowing up unique satellites with unique payloads is very low, and so mission assurance will continue to be a catch-all for risk management activities for NASA and the DoD. The requirements to identify as many risks as possible, with as many mitigation processes and solutions implemented as possible, throughout the acquisition, building, and launching of rockets is generally considered to be one of the bigger reasons SpaceX is moving to Texas. However, if SpaceX continues to launch government satellites, then each of those launches will still be scrutinized fairly slowly and closely. Mission assurance will still be a requirement for the government. In turn, because time and manpower are added on to every government launch, a government satellite will be more expensive to launch—even if SpaceX does it from Texas.
A Problem of Motivation
If the SpaceX was faced with this kind of frustration and equipment, it should be easy to see why they are moving to Texas. Politics, money, risk—these conditions all still exist for NASA and the DoD. They are very real motivators for both to stay the course and not rock the boat. With that in mind, while SpaceX’s move is interesting, and potentially great for SpaceX’s future, there will barely be any significant operations that will change at the Eastern Range—until something terrible happens. Does this mean there’s no chance for change? No. But until these critical conditions change, there’s no motivation, at least in their worlds, for change.