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Saturday 24 February 2018

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Be Careful What You Wish For…

by gregory n. cecil, m.a.s.
As many of you know, I have been an avid supporter of the Constellation program and have expressed grave doubts about Obama, Senator Nelson, and former Congresswoman Kosmas’s plan to turn our entire Human Space Flight program over to unproven commercial space companies such as SpaceX.

The commercial companies, which now seem to prefer to call themselves “New Space” (Sounds like another boy band created out of Orlando doesn’t it?), have included older aerospace companies such as Boeing and some very young upstarts such as SpaceX run by Elon Musk. The New Space boys have pushed hard with success to see the Constellation Program killed along with thousands of well-paying jobs that will devastate the economies of local communities near the various NASA space centers and place our nation’s Human Space Flight program at serious risk.

During that push to kill HSF, they have made some pretty big promises on when they can launch humans and their capabilities, and have set their eyes on over $1.2 billion taxpayer dollars per year that can come their way with no need to pay it back. The American taxpayer has not had a choice, but is now forced to be “investors” in companies that claim they can do it cheaper and faster than NASA.

little dog with big bone

But, I think New Space has miscalculated. As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, for you just might get it.”

New Space companies have done some wonderful and impressive things. The two leading contenders in the news right now are SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, and Bigelow Aerospace, owned by Robert Bigelow.

In the beginning, Elon Musk originally risked his own money and actually bragged that he would not take any handouts from NASA or the American taxpayer. Though he has had failures in one form or another with his various launches, he has still persisted and has managed to place payloads 150 miles up and in orbit. Not many companies let alone countries can do that. SpaceX has promised they will be able to transport cargo to the International Space Station starting in 2011 and has not stated to my knowledge when they will transport their first human crews.

Bigelow, which licensed technology from NASA (one of the purposes of NASA is to share technology or spinoffs created in HSF programs with the nation), has already had two small “space stations” made of puncture proof fabric material launched into orbit on Russian rockets with the hope of someday providing “space hotels” and orbiting space stations for use by other countries and companies.

Robert Bigelow “is willing to risk up to $500 million of his personal wealth on developing the world’s first commercial space station.”

Though Bigelow has no way of launching their space stations or hotels on their own, they have recently partnered with Boeing (Boeing has taken $18 million from NASA as part of the $1.2 billion fund set up for commercial companies.) Boeing (with their as yet un-built spacecraft) and Bigelow have promised they will have the first commercial space station in orbit and inhabited with human crews by 2015.

little dog with big bone
I can play pro ball!

What these New Space Companies have done is impressive, but I have argued before that they are not ready to take on the responsibility of our nation’s HSF. It’s like an excellent little league baseball team that is so good they won the Little League World Series. Suddenly the owner of the NY Yankees shows up and flashes NY Yankee salaries in their faces and says he wants them to replace the NY Yankees and play professional baseball. He gives them the former Yankee’s uniforms, which are way too big for those 10-11 year old boys, all the equipment and stadium, etc. and expects them to compete on a professional level. I’m sure the stockholders for the NY Yankees and the fans would have a problem with that.

Florida Today, Brevard County and KSC’s local newspaper, has been a strong supporter of New Space to the detriment of KSC and its workforce (who happen to be its largest customer base). Recently they published two stories (here and here) to advocate New Space and try to promote how good it would be for the local economy. But, even in their stories, they had to admit that New Space is “highly unpopular” with the people at KSC and that though Florida Today predicted a “launch boom” in the near future, they had to admit that “Past projections for commercial launch booms have been bust.” Even Robert Bigelow is quoted in the articles as saying, “The future of this country is hugely reliant on some version of this architecture working successfully. If not, boy, I don’t know where we are going to head.”

Elon Musk of SpaceX

Most of my concentration in this post will be on SpaceX for they have been the most vocal on their wish to replace America’s HSF program and they make a good example of the major challenges New Space faces. Elon Musk used to boast that he could do things 10-100 times cheaper than NASA, and faster. Though Constellation had planned on its first human missions to the ISS in 2015, Mr. Musk had indicated he could do it faster with his Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Just when, I have not been able to find a concrete date he has set, but his first unmanned mission to the ISS is scheduled for 2011.

As I said, he boasted about using his own money until Obama dangled nearly $1.2 billion in front of his nose and the opportunity to be one of the main providers to transport astronauts to the ISS. Then, it became all about the money in my opinion, and that money has blinded him to the challenges he will face trying to play in the big leagues.

His first challenge, and the same challenge that all aerospace contractors face each year, is the budget battle. Just because you are promised by a politician a set amount of money each year does not mean you will get it. Politicians break promises all the time.

Just ask the KSC workforce about Obama’s promise to close the gap and speed up Constellation. Recently, an Obama appointed deficit reduction commission, headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, proposed, among other things, the complete defunding of commercial space. “Bowles and Simpson called commercial space flight “a worthy goal” but said it’s unclear why the federal government should subsidize it.” New Space howled at the suggestion in protest. Welcome to the big leagues gentlemen! NASA, and its contractors, has had to fight the budget battle for 50 years. It is part of the game and it never ends. Some years you win, some years you survive, and some years you are cancelled.

The second challenge facing New Space is NASA oversight. Elon Musk used to complain that the paperwork required to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), right across mosquito lagoon from KSC, was so excessive that he had to go through the expense of hiring people to process and track it. Well Mr. Musk, if you think CCAFS paperwork was excessive, you’ve seen nothing yet.

SpaceX and other commercial companies have no idea what type of regulations and oversight they will experience as they get into bed with NASA. All these New Space companies see is the $1.2 billion of taxpayer dollars for the taking. As a former shuttle worker I have seen first-hand how much time is devoted to paperwork and dealing with the NASA bureaucracy. Oversight and regulation are what NASA bureaucracy does best and no matter how many speeches is made by Charlie Bolden, the current NASA administrator, on how regulations and paperwork will be cut down, that decision is really not up to him but up to the bureaucrat hidden in a small office deep in the bowels of NASA that developed, wrote, and enforces his pet regulation.

Not all regulations and oversight are bad and some are actually needed to ensure the safety of the ship and crew. But when you throw in a risk adverse army of bureaucrats trying to cover their backsides, the regulations will grow exponentially.

Former Flight Director Wayne Hale said “As with all good government bureaucracies, NASA believes that improved processes (read: increased bureaucracy) is the answer to preventing future problems. So NASA writes longer and longer specifications and requirements, and demands more and more documentation and proof.”

Mr. Hale wrote two wonderful posts about this problem in his blog located here and here. As he said, “Commercial Human Spaceflight is poised to enter a bad relationship and I wonder why everyone is so blind they cannot see what is about to happen.” Well the blindness is caused by that $1.2 billion dollars.

During a typical Space Shuttle Flow, the two weeks prior to shuttle rollover, a series of teams will be formed by the contractors to review all paperwork. This actually will take two weeks to do or longer, at least it did in the TPS department where I worked. Every signature, every stamp, and every checkmark must be done. Nothing can be overlooked or NASA bureaucrats will ding the company.

If Elon Musk thought CCAFS was excessive in their paperwork and oversight, he’s in for a rude and expensive surprise when he comes under NASA’s thumb.


Well how bad can it be? Take the lowly screw that would end up on a Space Shuttle. The following would need to be documented by a contractor in order to satisfy NASA. Has the screw been “human rated”, tested in space conditions such as vacuum and radiation? What is the sheer load for the screw? Is it resistant to corrosion? Who made the screw? When was it made? Who inspected it? Who and when was it delivered? Who accepted delivery and inspected it? Who stored it? Who signed it out? Who inspected it again? Who installed it on the ship? Where was it installed on the ship? What was the lot number? Who oversaw the technician during the installation of the screw? Did the Quality Inspector inspect it? Get the idea?

According to Wayne Hale, the CCT-REQ-1130 ISS Crew Transportation and Services Requirements for commercial companies wishing to fly crews to the ISS has been issued. This is how Mr. Hale describes the document: “The document runs a mind-numbing 260 pages of densely spaced requirements…on pages 7 to 11 is a table of 74 additional requirements documents which must be followed in whole or part. Taken all together, there are thousands of requirement statements referenced in this document. And for every one NASA will require a potential commercial space flight provider to document, prove, and verify with massive amounts of paperwork and/or electronic forms.” And gods forbid if there is an incident, injury, or fatality during a mission for it will guarantee even more oversight and regulations if not outright cancellation of their contract or program.

All eyes are now on you.

The third and last challenge I want to cover that New Space will have to face playing in the big leagues is being in the spotlight.

If SpaceX or any other commercial company thinks that their work and missions can be edited, withheld, or hidden from the public as it can be right now, think again. When you are in bed with NASA and you are using taxpayer dollars, everything is public record. Every bump, scrape, near miss, success and failure is for public viewing. And don’t think the media isn’t going to amplify it and whip you every each way to Sunday. They will because they like doing that. It’s a blood sport to them. So will your critics.

New Space caused a civil war within NASA and the aerospace community and cost thousands of jobs in the Constellation program and possibly our nation’s HSF program. Those people have endured New Space’s quiet and not so quiet war against them for seven years and now will be watching the New Space companies like a hawk. Fair or unfair, it will be interesting to see if New Space can take was well as it gave. Miss a deadline, people will pounce. Break a promise and people will quickly point it out and never let you forget it either. Lose a ship or astronaut, and fortunes will be lost. Get the picture?

To sum it all up, New Space wanted to play in the big leagues. Well now you’re here and it’s time to put on that oversized uniform and see if you can play ball. I do wish the New Space companies luck, but remember, when it comes to America’s Human Space Flight program, if you can’t back up your words and promises you made to the nation and rise to the challenges, you will find your major league career over quite quickly.

New Space has cost our taxpayers $9 billion so far by getting Constellation cancelled, done a lot of damage to thousands of people who worked on Constellation, and jeopardized our nation’s HSF program to get into the big leagues. I sure hope it was worth the cost.

gregory cecil is a lifelong space fan, retired NASA employee and writes the blog RV-103.COM

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22 Responses to “Be Careful What You Wish For…”

  1. D. Messier says:

    A poor analysis. Factually challenged. And with several leaps in logic. I scarcely know where to begin.

    OK, let me correct just one fallacy:

    “As I said, he boasted about using his own money until Obama dangled nearly $1.2 billion in front of his nose and the opportunity to be one of the main providers to transport astronauts to the ISS. Then, it became all about the money in my opinion, and that money has blinded him to the challenges he will face trying to play in the big leagues.”

    Until this year, SpaceX has been funded under NASA’s COTS program, which begun under the Bush Administration. That is a public-private partnership to deliver cargo to ISS. The agreement had a provision for “COTS-D” in which NASA and SpaceX would have funded improvements to Falcon 9 and Dragon to carry humans into orbit.

    NASA chose, for various reasons, not to fund COTS-D. Instead, it began the CCDev program that has essentially the same goal but was open to more participants. Out of that, the space agency got a mix of proposals from start-ups and established players like Boeing.

    There are all sorts of legitimate concerns about NewSpace. This just doesn’t address them very well.

  2. Rich Godwin says:

    Sounds like a lot of sour grapes, which I can understand. But people are still forgetting one crucial important item…namely that the United States is financially bankrupt and therefore needs to seek more cost effective ways to do the things it wishes to do. You might not like NewSpace but business as usual at NASA is “Just not an option”
    One other thing, when comparing SpaceX to Boeing, try to remember that not only is there a pricing differential here, but also a substantial philosophical difference when looking at space travel.
    America should be proud of what it’s private industry can achieve and not be averse to changing government programs into economic success as only Americans can do.

  3. Rocketman says:

    @D. Messier,

    First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my commentary/opinion and for commenting. It seems we do disagree and I respectfully ask that you back up your “analysis” of my “analysis” with some links.

    Debates are good for the community as long as they are fact based and/or experienced based. I am looking forward to hearing from you again in the future.

    Be safe and well,

    Gregory N. Cecil, M.A.S.

    P.S. I originally wrote this opinion piece last fall and I still stand by my “analysis.”

  4. Allen Taylor says:

    You say:

    “New Space has cost our taxpayers $9 billion so far by getting Constellation cancelled, done a lot of damage to thousands of people who worked on Constellation, and jeopardized our nation’s HSF program to get into the big leagues. I sure hope it was worth the cost.”

    This is blatantly false. New Space did not cost the taxpayers $9 billion. That $9 billion was wasted on an unsustainable program that, in the current budget environment was never going to fly anyway. Now there is at least a chance that something will fly. All those lost jobs that you lament, were a major part of the unsustainability of the NASA “Business as usual” paradigm that Rich refers to. Those days are gone. We can’t keep pouring money down that rathole. SpaceX and other New Space companies have a business model that actually is a business model. They are already finding ways to do things faster and cheaper. The bureaucracy that you describe so accurately, is a part of the problem and privatizing access to space will go a long way to eliminating that particular impediment to human space flight.

  5. Rocketman says:

    @Rich Godwin,
    First of all, thank you for commenting. It truly is not “sour grapes” but a legitimate concern that we have given over our nation’s HSF program to an entity, the New Space Boys, that are just not ready yet therefore setting them and our nation up to fail. Remember, they haven’t even launched a squirrel let alone a human yet, nor have they launched an unmanned craft to the ISS. They are still learning and I do wish for them to succeed, but it’s not the right time for them to take on our entire HSF program.

    I sincerely hope I am wrong, but I do believe that it will be at least 10 years before you see an American astronaut fly on an American ship after the last Shuttle lands.

    Be safe and well,

    Gregory N. Cecil, M.A.S.

  6. D. Messier says:

    NASA’s Space Act Agreement with SpaceX:

    Page 39: Capability D Crew Transportation

    Falcon 9 and Dragon were designed from the beginning for human rating. SpaceX states that in the agreement. Elon Musk is quite serious about colonizing space. He has said so many times. This had nothing to do with Obama dangling money in front of him.

  7. Rocketman says:


    And I did not see Mr. Musk turning down the money.

    Anyway, you said you had problems with my entire opinion piece. I would appreciate you making the time to give a counter analysis instead of just implying it is weak.

    Be safe and well.

  8. Allen Taylor says:

    Jeff Greason’s talk at ISDC does an admirable job of exposing the weak points in Rocketman’s opinion piece. You can view it at http://www.moonandback.com.

  9. Rocketman says:

    @Allen Taylor,

    Thank you for participating and adding your voice.

    “This is blatantly false. New Space did not cost the taxpayers $9 billion. ”

    I respectfully disagree. New Space, right or wrong, has done quite a “whispering campaign” against Constellation for many years in my humble opinion.

    Whenever someone criticizes New Space, even if it is constructive criticism, immediately the New Space Boys try to discredit the person by saying it’s “sour grapes”, or “they work for a company that has a vested interest in seeing New Space fail”, or “they are upset over losing their job”, etc. They never address the message or try to look at objectively.

    Many critics of Constellation also had ulterior motives and wanted to see it fail in my humble opinion. There was plenty of “motives” on the New Space Boys side when they were criticizing Constellation. There was also plenty of legitimate criticism of both sides to be fair. The point of my little essay was to present legitimate concerns about New Space and the challenges they will be facing.

    Was Constellation perfect? No. I will be the first to admit that, but it was to be the successor program and actually had a mission, hardware, ground support equipment, workers, etc. So far New Space has many promises and not many launches or the years of experience we have.

    Anyway, the point is moot. New Space has managed to kill Constellation and replace our nation’s HSF program for good or for ill with their “promises” and “Power Points.” Now it’s time for them to “deliver.” Many of us will be counting the days until an American flies on their ships, and holding their feet to the fire on their self-imposed deadlines/promises.

  10. Rocketman says:

    One more thing, I know that Mr. Musk has ambitious dreams for his company and dreams of colonization, but his dreams does not mean NASA will go along with them. And, as he becomes dependent on NASA for funding,etc., he will find NASA will have much more say in what his company does that he will.

    I applaud Mr. Musk’s dreams and share many of them, but I don’t think he’s seen the reality of what is in store for him when he partners with NASA.

  11. Allen Taylor says:

    Thanks for your good wishes for my health. I will need it to be able to go into space. However, I believe it is unfair for you to denigrate space entrepreneurs by calling them “New Space Boys,” implying they are somehow less mature than the “Old Space Men.” I also think your Little League analogy falls flat, once again portraying seasoned professionals as children.

    There were many people other than space entrepreneurs who questioned the validity of Constellation. Apollo on Steroids really had no reason for being other than the maintenance of the existing infrastructure after the necessary retirement of the STS. There was no real strategy to do anything other than plant another flag on the Moon. Constellation was never funded properly, which effectively doomed it. It was on life support from the very beginning, with the constant threat that Congress would take the oxygen mask away in the next budget cycle. There was no funding for a lunar lander, for Heaven’s sake! As time went on, it became more and more obvious that Constellation was a launch system to nowhere. Finally the Obama Administration had the courage to declare that the emperor was not wearing any clothes. Cutting the losses at $9 billion was the smart thing to do. Too bad it wasn’t done sooner. Now Congress is mandating that NASA develop a heavy lift launch vehicle, even though no mission has been defined for such a vehicle. Management by committee usually ends in folly, but the US Congress seems to go the extra mile in proving the old bromide.

    Health to you also, Rocketman.

  12. Rocketman says:

    @Allen Taylor

    Though Constellation was not perfect, it did have a destination and mission. From the briefings I attended at KSC, the goal was to set up a long term base on the Moon and use it to travel to other deep space destinations such as Mars. Yes, Congress and the Bush administration did starve it for funds, and the lunar lander Altair wasn’t even funded at the time, but it was still better than the current Senate Plan authored by Bill Nelson (who authored the plan when he realized supporting Obama’s plan would cost him his reelection.), and the New Space plans or promises. (On another note, Bill Nelson’s plan is more like a “jobs program” instead of a Human Space Flight program with a mission and destination that incidentally requires workers to implement it.)

    I was not trying to say the New Space Boys were less mature, but trying to say they didn’t have the experience or track record to take on the entire mantle of our nation’s HSF. New Space is a title they took upon themselves to differentiate themselves from us “old space guys,” so I had some fun adding the “boys” suffix to their self-appointed title. If that offends you, I apologize, but there are many that find it amusing and understand that it is just a play on words. I could claim that their choosing the title of “New Space” implies that we are “Old” and choose to be offended but I’m not. I actually don’t care what title they take even if it’s “Grand Poobah” from the Flintstone’s cartoons (yes I’m that old.).

    I do understand there were others besides the New Space that questioned Constellation. I also remember those that questioned Mercury (remember, John Glenn’s eyes were supposed to float out making him blind?), to the Shuttle program (I remember articles about how we couldn’t get the tiles to stick and we would never fly).

    The point is, since so much money was at stake, and the hypocrisy of New Space always trying to discredit their critics by saying we have ulterior motives while they themselves had ulterior motives during their seven year campaign to destroy Constellation, I think that honest debate about how New Space is going to handle the challenges coming is being lost.

    I’m not here to fight old battles for Constellation. New Space won that battle. I will hold them to the same accountability as I did with “Old Space” though. (There are no free passes for New Space since they are playing in the big leagues.) I’m here and I comment/write because I want what is best for our nation and for it to continue to be the world leader in HSF. I hope at least we can agree on that Mr. Taylor.

  13. I was asked to comment on this article. I think Greg’s replies have done a better job than I ever could have in proving the futility of such comments.

    According to him, the world consists of the established and successful NASA and the young and inexperienced “New Space Boys” and no-one else. Inexplicably the Boeing corporation exists in both camps.

    The “whisper campaign” against Constellation, which no sensible person would deny existed, is absurdly attributed to “New Space Boys” in a futile effort to rewrite history – it was clearly NASA civil servants, contractors and other malcontents under the DIRECT banner who led that effort, advocating a Shuttle-derived launch vehicle over Griffin’s Ares launch family.

    If the civil war inside NASA is to be divided into two camps at all, those are the battle lines which have been firmly established. But like all bipolar characterizations, this is also too simplistic.

    The enormity of Greg’s worldview is just scapegoating – on the current administration and the new entrants into the much maligned space industry. It’s a desperate attempt to understand a complex interaction of multiple players with various goals by pointing fingers and crying foul. This kind of worldview can only be maintained by denial of contradiction, such as the Boeing corporation.

  14. Bob Steinke says:

    You compare new space companies to a successful little leage team trying to play in the big leagues, and imply that NASA is an established big league team with lots of capabilities that new space companies don’t have.

    NASA hasn’t successfully developed an orbital rocket since shuttle, 30 years ago. Most of the people who developed shuttle are retired. You are wrong to assume that NASA is a seasoned veteran with proven capabilities.

  15. Rocketman says:

    @Trent Waddington

    Bipolar? Now we are saying I’m mentally ill?

    So far I’ve been said to be “factually challenged”, implied to be a liar, full of “sour grapes,” and now mentally ill according to these distinguished commenters.

    Gentlemen, thank you for the “healthy debate.” It’s been quite revealing and has truly expanded my “world view” about New Space and it’s advocates.

  16. Allen Taylor says:

    Live long and prosper, Greg.

  17. Ahh, Greg, all I can suggest is that you obtain access to a dictionary.

  18. Tu8ca says:

    Gregory, you’ve missed what is probably the most important lesson of CxP

    Take any company, even SpaceX, and give them a monopoly on the shuttle parts which they supply. For decades. Along with the rationale to be the most expensive in the world. At the end of that time period they will be glutenous fat hogs, unable to compete. It’s a fundamental truth in this universe.

    These are corporations who report to shareholders. They exist to make a profit. In the absence of real competition they will always find ways to increase overhead and personnel. They will shun risk, and add layers of fat. They will come up with technological baubles, which bring small improvement in performance at a gargantuan cost. What they won’t do is bust their ass to become more efficient. There is simply no motivation to do so, no matter how much they thump their chests in self-righteous fervor.

    You state the nuspace companies aren’t ready to compete yet with the big boys, and yet the facts show the opposite is true; the big boys have forgotten how to compete, consuming between 10 and 100x what SpaceX spends on development.

    You fault NASA for it’s excessive bureaucracy, and yet by purchasing launch services from SpaceX instead of specing out their own rocked, they slash through much of that bureaucracy.

    Greg, your article is full of contradictions.

    You want NASA to survive and be successful … Then let the competition flow.

  19. Andrew W says:

    I struggle to understand what if anything Gregg is suggesting could be a solution to the excessive bureaucracy space suffers from. With New Space just maybe there exists an avenue by which pressure will be applied to drain away some of the quagmire that has been strangling HSF for decades, you’d think Gregg would welcome the possibility, but instead it’s as if he’s gleeful at the possibility that New Space will be caught and dragged under just as HSF under NASA has been locked into stagnation for 30 years.

  20. D. Messier says:

    I don’t understand why SpaceX would have successfully bidded on two programs (COTS and CCDev 2) and then turned down the money.

    Other than that, don’t have much else to say. Others have illuminated the flaws in the op-ed pretty well.

  21. lubos says:

    I work at NASA so I am not some anti-space / anti-human space flight freak. However, I am personally not too saddened with the end of the shuttle era. NASA should play the role of the leader in innovative research and technology development, not be running some space UPS delivery service. Which is what the shuttle program and the ISS have become. Role like that is much better filled by commercial entities. Hopefully now NASA can get back to pushing some new exciting space missions.

  22. Ronda says:

    You still look the same Greg. I’m happy to see life is treating you well.
    I think of you now and then.

    God bless

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