Tag Archives: United Launch Alliance

The $62 million (and higher) question


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Which is worse? An advertised price many folks say can’t be true? Or an unavailable published price taxpayers are normally on the hook for?

The second question refers to the published prices SpaceX has on its website for launch services. The company makes it seem simple: $62 million starting for a Falcon 9 launch or $90 million for the new Falcon Heavy. It’s so simple, even people not following the industry can understand the pricing. And yet, there are many who say these prices can’t be true.

The third question refers to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company that sits closer to the other end of that transparency spectrum for launch pricing. The company does have the “Rocketbuilder” site which seems as if it’s providing some insight. The site covers Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V rocket, but none of Boeing’s Delta line. And then ULA goes a bit car-sales technique on us, using the word “value” for a little obfuscation, with the price somehow diminishing as value is added. This situation is also unsatisfactory.

Why bring up both companies? They are great examples of one question the global rocket industry has attempted to obscure for a long time: how much does it cost to launch a rocket?

It’s a problem people following this industry have had to deal with for a while. Until SpaceX, launch costs have traditionally been guesses, wrapped in wikipedias, and veiled in press releases. Government launches in particular don’t highlight launch prices for reasons such as national security, contract secrecy, or maybe, perhaps, shame? Motivated people find examples of NASA/ULA contracts, like this one, listing launch services using the Delta IV Heavy. Why not just outright publish the pricing? Is it because it’s worse than we think? Would high prices get a government acquisitions SES in trouble? It certainly wouldn’t be because the prices are as low, or lower, than SpaceX’s offerings.

ULA and other U.S. companies aren’t the only ones keeping launch prices somewhat of a secret. Arianespace, China Great Wall, Japan, and India also keep prices in the shadows. Russia, does this too, except lately: the relatively new Glavkosmos launch service seems to list the price of Soyuz 2.1a/2.1b launches. Again, there is ambiguity. Is that 20-22 M supposed to be 20-22 million dollars? Ruples (not likely)?

Why talk about this? After all, if it weren’t for all these ambiguities, some of my work would be gone (and, honestly, I enjoy looking for this stuff).

It’s just to highlight the weirdness of people seeing a price that’s low, and saying it can’t be true. What’s weirder is the lack of unambiguous pricing data, period. How weird would it be if a car’s pricing depended on how far I intended to drive it? And how frustrating would it be if the pricing data would only be available after I started talking to the car salesperson, and only if I signed an agreement not to say how much said car would cost me?

Wouldn’t you rather have a baseline price for launches (the rocket Monroney) and then see all the add-ons itemized? Even then we would know that price is a fiction (you don’t pay full sticker, do you?)–but it puts us in the ballpark when we’re car-shopping.

Imagine a sticker with the base launch service pricing. Then imagine the add-ons. The equivalent of underbody rust protection, mission assurance=$40 million. Geosynchronous orbit=$20 million. Low Earth orbit would be a deal=$10 million.

Hey, maybe ULA is on to something…

However, these things are changing. Rocket Lab advertises its Electron launch service as $4.9 million. Of course there’s SpaceX with its prices. Glavkosmos may also be responding, if those numbers are indeed money values. This is also why ULA did put some of its inventory up with Rocketbuilder, “values” notwithstanding. A person can hope one day that all that needs to be done is to go online to a particular launch service provider, and just see the Monroney for its inventory. It won’t be CarMax, but it’s one small step.


Amazoom? Blue Origin launches a rocket

It does look a little…weird. But this is what Blue Origin’s rocket looks like. Picture from Blue Origin’s site.

Blue Origin is one of those rocket companies that’s been fairly secretive in its activities. But it’s very difficult, unless you’re Russia or China, to secretly shoot a rocket 307,000 feet (58 miles) into the sky. But launch is just what Blue Origin did last week, on 29 April.

The company not only tested the rocket, but then popped the capsule off of the rocket’s top. The capsule, which Blue Origin calls New Shepard, deployed parachutes and appeared to land successfully. Which is great when you consider Blue Origin would like to put passengers in that capsule. You can see it in the video below.

The other part, the more interesting one to me, is the reusable rocket part–the rocket body under the capsule . That’s the part they didn’t really focus on, and according to sites like Mashable, Blue Origin didn’t say what happened to the rocket body once the capsule was deployed. Supposedly, the rocket body is supposed to land the way it takes off, vertically. It’s the way SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage rocket body is supposed to land, when the Falcon 9 eventually succeeds in landing. You can go to Blue Origin’s “Technology” page to see what they’d like to do.

There’s really very little good information on that page, though, if you’re interested in details. There’s no payload weight range to LEO, GEO, GSO, etc. But, maybe they’ll have that information there eventually. They do list information about “payload lockers,” specialized containers to carry experiments to orbit in New Shepard. But I’m certain only so many of those boxes can be carried up.

So, Blue Origin has finally done something more visible for spaceflight. Sure, they’ve tied themselves to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) last September (still not sure why) to develop a rocket engine to take the place of the politically incorrect Russian engines. Maybe they’ll call the partnership BlULA? But, it is something I’ve noticed–most of these “New Gen” space companies, with as much chest-thumping as they do about changing the space scene, still rely very much on the older companies for some of their tech and processes. Perhaps that’s an article subject for another day.

Still, it’s very exciting to see someone else start launching rockets, even if it’s not that high or long. It’s only a matter of time…and Blue Origin’s money. And for those wondering about the title–Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is also the owner of Blue Origin.

Another False Step for Mankind?

Image from NASA.

The Orion capsule was successfully tested last week. For those who don’t know, the Orion is NASA’s future crew capable capsule, which will hopefully be used to explore to the moon and beyond. The capsule was tested on December 5, 2014, lofted into space for a very short time and then reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to land just off of Baja California’s coast.

I’m glad it worked. I’m glad so many people who worked on the Orion test received the gratification of a successful test. For the work they’ve done, they deserve to celebrate. But what does it mean? We’ve done something like this before nearly 45 years ago. Then for the next few years after that we did it better, with humans inside capsules, with better funding, greater public motivation, and very competitive external political pressure.

This is why I see this test as a false start. The conditions in the late 60’s/early 70’s helped to fund NASA for a bit. But the conditions don’t exist now. One might say the opposite of those conditions exists now: desultory and low funding, a generally uninterested public, and no real external competition. So why would anyone think NASA will be able to keep Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) on track? Politics tends to get in the way of progress, sometimes, why should it be any different with space?

Look at it this way: NASA’s budget hasn’t really increased or decreased very much (page 10 of this slideshow), politicians still quibble about whether the program is even necessary (and some do believe so, a few for the wrong reasons), and I still don’t hear very many of the general public talking about the need for space exploration. I do hear plenty of worry about the U.S. economy, affordable care, ISIS, gasoline prices, education, and unemployment. But such issues are natural for us to worry about. They are more immediate, more tangible–even though many people in the U.S. use many products that would likely never have existed without a space program.

Those issues are why NASA will likely not achieve momentum to keep this current effort going. Social programs will ALWAYS outcompete NASA, and so NASA lives a bit like the brilliant, but spurned, step-child, getting crumbs from the adults’ budget table every now and then. As crass as it sounds, NASA’s programs like Orion are akin to the building of monuments to kings. It will probably always be like that, so long as space exploration lives at the sufferance of the very few: presidents, senators, and representatives. They are why NASA came into being. They are why NASA received money for Apollo. They are why NASA started living hand-to-mouth nearly 40 years ago. They will be NASA’s destroyers. They are why there was no real follow-up to Apollo. By the way, they are theoretically doing what we told them to do.

It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see something like the Orion capsule being tested. It’s not that it’s uninteresting. I want to see us as a species move out into the stars. It’s just that I must wonder what kind of start this is. NASA’s Administrator Bolden said this “Day One of the Mars era.” I’m not so sure. It might’ve been a good day for NASA, but what does that mean?

I know it sounds bleak, but there are good things happening with space. Small satellites seem to be interesting to more people and more companies. Some bigger internet companies are expanding on that interest, making very big plans for small satellites. These big plans with small satellites require more launch capability, which will hopefully be developed. It looks like that might happen, too.

Private launch companies–ones not beholden (yet) to military and government funding–are trying to come forward. A few are even talking about eventually using their spacecraft to travel to Mars. There are a few countries that are becoming more active in space as well. Some aren’t waiting to see what the U.S. will do. And who knows, between those countries and private companies, someone might do it for less money than NASA can. And not a single politician will be in control, money-wise.


SpaceX’s Own Spaceport Will Not Affect NASA or DoD Operations, Part 2

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.

Money Rules

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.


SpaceX’s Own Spaceport Will Not Affect NASA or DoD Operations, Part 1


Yesterday, I expanded on a Space Review post of the possible reasons Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) is moving launch operations to Texas.  The company believes it will conduct about 12 launches a year from its own space launch complexes near Brownsville, Texas.  Such a launch rate is more than triple SpaceX’s 2013 launch rate of 3 per year,  and beats the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) 2013 rate of 11 launches. 

SpaceX may have a few good reasons to move space launch operations away from government–run complexes and organizations.  But, as a result hoped for in the Space Review’s article, do SpaceX’s possible reasons for moving impact organizations like NASA and the DoD?  Is it a wake-up call for Eastern Range operations, and will they change?  Fundamental changes in administrative and space launch operations are unlikely for either NASA or the DoD, even if SpaceX succeeds with their Texas launch operations.  This is a very cursory explanation and examination showing why such changes are unlikely.

Reason Roll-Call

The Space Review has a decent rundown of the possible reasons SpaceX is building a spaceport in Texas.  First, there are too many bureaucratic agencies to work with—each one with very specific rules and requirements.  All add a lot of overhead to the already complicated task of building and launching rockets.  Second, the Eastern Range is a busy place to launch rockets from and scheduling is very tight.  Any slip in schedule might impact overall rocket launch schedules severely.  Third, the technology used at the Eastern Range is outdated, and can’t support concurrent operations.  Fourth, the insidiousness of mission assurance and its impacts on the overall schedule of the mission.  It also reinforces and rewards a culture of risk aversion at any price.  The fifth reason—the limitations placed upon visitors before and during a launch, while seeming reasonable from a security standpoint, do not help foster good relations among countries and companies.

It’s a Matter of Motivation

So those might be the reasons why SpaceX is moving launch operations to Texas.  But why will SpaceX’s Texas move not change NASA’s or the DoD’s processes?  It sometimes helps to answer a question with another question:  Have the conditions influencing and motivating NASA and the DoD operations changed?  Are the major conditions motivating their behavior any different after SpaceX moves launch operations?  No.  Politics still heavily influences both organizations’ missions.  Their budgets are remaining fairly steady.  And government payloads will still require government processes.  These conditions definitely influence some of the reasons SpaceX might have as the company moves to Texas.

Protectionist Politics

The military and NASA are political organizations.  Each one makes plans and agendas based on input from current officeholders, then changes whenever new administration or congress members are elected to office.  Each one must react whenever any of their taskmasters have a question, a complaint, or a comment.  The examples used in this post for why things will not change will focus on NASA, as military space tends to operate a bit more in the background.

Even when NASA uses government-approved processes and delivery vehicles, such as Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts, it is still publically and politically questioned by senators and representatives who have companies that may suffer in their districts.  The latest use of this kind of tactic was conducted by Senator Richard Shelby and Representatives Mo Brooks, Mike Coffman, and Corey Gardner regarding NASA’s use of IDIQ with SpaceX.  Shelby and Brooks come from Alabama, where the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center and one of the ULA’s manufacturing facilities resides.  Coffman and Gardner, representatives from Colorado, have the ULA’s headquarters and facilities in their backyard.  Gardner, Coffman, and Brooks demanded that NASA change contract terms for more “transparency” into SpaceX’s rocket-building processes for NASA in July 2014.  I also wrote another opinion piece, “Crony and the Bandit,” highlighting the antics of these House members.

There’s more to come.  There are a few more existing conditions that need to be elaborated upon, showing why NASA, the DoD, and other bureaucracies will not change operations because of SpaceX’s move.