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Monday 22 December 2014



Impossibly High NASA Development Costs Are Heart Of The Matter

by henry vanderbilt
A release by the Space Access Society:
This will be shorter and hastier than we’d like; things are moving fast. We will ignore for the moment the arguments over whether the old-line NASA human spaceflight establishment is at this point capable of putting together an effective exploration program at any cost. The indisputable fact is that their costs for making the attempt have risen to unsupportable levels.

A NASA study last spring applied government project-cost estimating models to a recent commercial booster development. The result was a cost estimate for the same booster done the established NASA way of ten times the actual commercial development cost. This study also looked at the effect of a hypothetical streamlined version of traditional NASA system development methods, and came up with a cost estimate of “only” three or four times the actual commercial cost.

Note that these extreme cost ratios came from the type of tools used to come up with initial NASA project cost estimates. In another recent study, the GAO found that a dozen or so recent high profile NASA development projects actually cost on average over fifty percent higher than their initial estimates.

In other words, NASA major project development costs in recent years demonstrably ran roughly fifteen times higher than equivalent commercial project costs. Even with a streamlined “modified” version of traditional NASA procurement practices, costs still would run as much as six times the commercial equivalents.

In the current fiscal climate, this is a big problem for those of us who’d like to see NASA doing useful space exploration and technology development. It’s apparently not at all a problem for those who see NASA primarily as a hometown jobs program. But that’s a short-term outlook – in the long term, the ongoing expensive lack of results will inevitably bring NASA down. Ultimately, the real choice is, a new reformed NASA with a new and very different way of doing business, or no NASA at all.


NASA HQ just gave in to prolonged Congressional pressure and announced a vehicle configuration for the SLS “Senate Launch System” heavy-lift launch vehicle project. The project will be run under traditional NASA practices; the cost multiplier over doing the job commercially will thus presumably start out on the rough order of fifteen times as expensive.

Note we said, start out. We see indications that the NASA organizational dysfunction that causes that huge cost multiplier is not a constant, but rather has been growing in recent years. We thoroughly expect that SLS project cost will grow and schedule stretch, just as Constellation program costs and schedule did.

We predict that at some point, it will be as obvious that SLS will never fly usefully as it was obvious that Constellation was going nowhere, and SLS too will be expensively cancelled. We hope that SLS will go away before it’s wasted even more scarce dollars (and impacted even more actual useful NASA projects) than Constellation – but we wouldn’t bet on it at this point.

commercial crew

Back in July, when the Commercial Crew Program announced that they planned to abandon the previous successful COTS/CCDev project approach (non-traditional Space Act Agreements where NASA had strong insight and influence, but NOT control, over commercial developers) for a new, somewhat streamlined version of traditional NASA procurement that would give NASA control over commercial project details.

CCP management have stated that they must do it this way, because their lawyers told them they have to. In July they were asked repeatedly for the detailed legal brief from their lawyers, and also for the requirements they gave their lawyers that led to that brief. Months later, as best we know they still haven’t answered either question. We hope someone asks them again in the short-notice CCP briefing happening tomorrow, and we hope that this time CCP management provides real answers.

We suspect that won’t happen though, because our best guess is that the reason NASA’s lawyers told CCP management they have to dump the SAA’s that had been working well, in favor of a variant of traditional NASA (high cost) procurement, was because CCP management first told NASA’s lawyers “we must control the details”.

It’s an obvious circular argument, given both halves: “Our lawyers told us we have to use contracts that let us control all the details, because we told our lawyers it’s a requirement that we control all the details.”

All of which misses the basic fact that *by their own admission* NASA costs for “modified, streamlined” versions of their normal procurement process are still up to six times equivalent commercial costs.

COTS, and CCDev till now, succeeded because their non-traditional Space Act Agreement contracts *prevented NASA from imposing their normal procurement practices*, and allowed the commercial partners to get things done at far lower commercial cost levels.

If CCP management gets away with abandoning what’s been working and switching to modified traditional procurement, all the arguments over whether the results will actually be any better or safer are moot. There will be no results, because *the money isn’t there.*

The Senate appropriators reportedly just came back with $500m for CCP next year, somewhat more than the House, but still far less than the NASA request. $500m may be just barely enough to support multiple competing commercial crew projects – if done under the old arrangements.

Under anything like traditional NASA procurement practice, $500m will barely pay for the viewgraphs. If CCP management goes ahead with their current approach, they will be effectively killing the program, absent money miraculously raining from the skies.

It is in the strong interest of this country to have multiple viable commercial orbital passenger transport services. We hope that all concerned will recognize the budget-climate implications: That the only practical and affordable alternative now (regardless of the understandable old-line NASA organizational compulsion to control every detail of any potential astronaut carrier) is to stick to the existing successful project model.

Project insight, yes. Project influence, very much so, with NASA as the effective anchor-tenant customer. Project oversight, no – there simply isn’t enough money to pay the known huge costs of traditional close NASA project oversight.

Safety will inevitably be cited – but it is not inherently obvious that NASA’s traditional process will produce any safety improvement at all over the commercial/FAA process now coming together, let alone enough improvement to justify the many times higher NASA costs.

Human spaceflight will remain a risky business for a long time no matter who is in charge, the industry and FAA, or NASA. The only way it will become completely safe in our lifetimes is if it is made so expensive that we no longer do it at all. NASA getting their way on changing how CCDev is run may ultimately produce exactly that result.

Henry Vanderbilt is president of the Space Access Society. Space Access Society’s sole purpose is to promote radical reductions in the cost of reaching space. For more information about the Space Access Society visit http://www.space-access.org . To contact the Society email space.access AT space-access.org .

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