Public Private Space Exploration

SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo Flight has splashed down after a two month flight that saw a return of America flying it’s own astronauts to space. I was proud and delighted for NASA to make this incredible and historic achievement. It was a moment of great pride for America and it marked a new era for the space industry and the advancement of human capabilities in science and technology.

To mark the occasion I decided to turn this into a feature of my blog by combining my Science Museum Ambassador work to tell science stories as a live video feature. The idea came to me when I saw one of my friends from university start her own science show blog called Theatre of Science. It went down well to my followers and so I have decided to share it with you by this post. I haven’t got the video so instead I will give you the transcript to the video with links to the pictures that I describe in the video.

Comparing Rockets

The state run space agencies like NASA, ESA, JAXA, ISRO and Roscosmos operate with government funding and rely on public support for their science and their space missions. They rely on national interests in ambitious goals for the types of space missions that they want to achieve. This is a great strategy for the space agency because it generates a vast amount of money that can support their imaginative ways of creating new innovations for rockets, space systems and new forms of technology. However just because they get bucket loads of money from the taxpayer doesn’t necessarily mean that they can build anything. Every dollar they receive comes with strings attached from politicians who expect good value for their money and to serve the public good.

The private space industries don’t have much to worry about in terms of how they run their business or who controls them, but they do have significantly less money than state agencies. But what makes them special is that they are focused on one mission, one goal and one piece of hardware that can provide a useful service at a reasonable price. They also have a lot more space of their own to develop ideas that are untried and untested that would take years wrapped in red tape in a state agency caused by bureaucracy handling paperwork out for everything. Take SpaceX for example they developed a brand-new type of reusable rocket called Falcon 9 that is vastly superior to anything that NASA has developed in it’s history. It’s been so amazing in it’s ability that NASA has outsourced it’s low earth orbit transportation means to SpaceX for resupplying the ISS and now delivering crews to the orbiting laboratory.

Out of the money that NASA gets it has to distribute it across it’s entire operations and has to be very selective about what projects it can build. Say for example it had a number of space scientists that wanted to send 10 space probes to five different planets in a time frame of ten years and it would cost $20 billion for the lot of them. While at the same time the human space flight programme wanted to build a space station that would require the cost of all those interplanetary missions at $15 billion and can be built in eight years providing all those interplanetary space missions are cancelled.

The technology that the space missions require is also an important factor. The newer the technology required the more money is needed in research and development. When President John Kennedy announced in May 1961 for the American nation to achieve the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. To push this goal NASA had to not only work fast but build an entirely new different infrastructure from scratch that had never been seen before. First they had to build a large number of buildings which consisted of launch towers, assembly buildings, training equipment, astronaut villages, laboratories, test stands, equipment factories, and wherever they required private sector involvement contractors for the rockets and spaceships.

Contracting Firms

The Saturn V moon rocket and the Apollo spacecraft wasn’t actually built by NASA themselves, they outsourced those to aerospace companies. The F1 and J1 engines were built by Rocketdyne, the first stage was built by Boeing, the second stage and the Apollo Command and Service modules were built by North American Grumman, the third stage was built by Douglas Aircraft Company built the third stage, Grumman Aerospace built the Lunar Module and the avionic instrument unit was built by IBM. The reason for this is because of a national directive set out in NASA’s policies to spread it’s projects across the country to reflect the national effort of the industrial might of America.

Building the Saturn V was a humongous challenge. Everything about it was brand new and that meant vast amounts of NASA’s budget had to go on R&D instead of building and operating it. It takes more time and money to develop an effective and useful new piece hardware than to use an existing piece of hardware. It took Rocketdyne 6 years just to get the F1 engine working effectively with guaranteed success for NASA and another 2 years just to get it fight ready to lift the Saturn V into space. During that time components would get redesigned and test fired at the cost of tens of millions of dollars adding more constraints on the budget that it reduced the other plans that NASA had once they got to the Moon.

When your developing hardware for an ambitious government dependent project you will have to sacrifice specific things just to keep the programme going and that affects the outcome of the science. In July 1971 Apollo 15 landed on the Moon on a very science heavy mission that required the use of motor car called the Lunar Rover to give them a wider exploration of the surface. This vehicle that we’ve all seen is like a beach buggy, but many years before it went there it was originally conceived as a mobile laboratory complete with a functioning airlock. Unfortunately this one never got made or sent to the Moon because of a cost and logistics issue. It would have required two Saturn Vs per mission just to get it onto the surface of the Moon. One to send the rover there and the other to send the astronauts there. So NASA had to downsize the rover and limit the range that they could travel across the surface just to make it cost effective.

Money and Politics

NASA had spent over $25 billion dollars ($140 billion today) on the entire Apollo project. Off that money it was spent on new innovations that required endless amounts of testing and assurances. It was no easy ride as a project under a government order. Sometimes the engineers were hard pressed in such a way that they would sometimes struggle to maintain safety standards. This raised fears amongst some politicians in Congress that they were seriously considering undermining NASA to divert funds to other American programmes to the point that the Apollo project would be cancelled. Public interest in the space programme even started to dwindled in the late 60s. They felt that money was being spent on so many national projects that social services like healthcare and civil rights that they got far less enthusiastic about the Moon as the years went on.

Which brings us to the next generation of NASA, and that is the space shuttle. One of the biggest things that NASA gets asked about what happened after Apollo 11 is why we didn’t carry on going back there. Well as this story has shown, governments are the reason why we stopped and they were problem. Policy makers dictated NASA’s ambitions. Today NASA’s annual budget is around $20 billion per annum and despite being a very rich country, the United States on it’s own can not conquer space with a human presence across the solar system. It needs to share it’s resources and it’s ambitions with other countries if it is to be successful. This is something that is does today.

But it’s not just to save money, it is also for the benefit of world peace and economic development. By working with other partners the USA is able to build trade relations with other nations and promote international cooperation and allies for foreign and domestic affairs. Consider the achievements from NASA and the European Space Agency. Nasa built a spaceship called Cassini that travelled to Saturn in 1997 and it carried with it an ESA spaceship called Huygens that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2004. This collaboration turned into one of the greatest achievements in space science that was one of the most valuable means of making progress in space research. It also generated a lot of revenue for NASA as it increased their budgets and they were able to win favour with politicians and make them see value in their services to the American public and promoting American science at it’s finest.

Recycled Hardware

In April 1981 the space shuttle lifted off on it’s maiden voyage into orbit and it was technological marvel for all the world to see. Looking at this magnificent machine it looked like NASA had perfected space planes and it was now possible to make space travel routine. This meant that ordinary citizens would have the means to travel into space on a fixed flight schedule with a fast turnaround time. But in actual fact the shuttle but a technological marvel. It was born as a flawed design that was never what it was originally meant to be.

In February 1969 President Richard Nixon appointed Vice President Spiro Agnew to look over NASA’s next plans to follow on from Apollo. A consortium of space advocates including their chief architect Werner Von Braun wanted to progress onwards from Apollo and start making plans for human missions to Mars. However the conditions of this plan was to reduce costs and make it a long term and sustainable approach as opposed to short term gunshot for the Apollo programme. Originally the space shuttle was supposed to have been a stepping stone to the manned Mars programme. But after Apollo 11 lanced on the moon political support for space missions was waning and the public didn’t care much about space exploration. As a consequence of this, Congress and the president decided to reject NASA’s proposal, except for one part. That was the space shuttle.

NASA Spin Offs

Before I go onto anymore of the Shuttle’s story I think it’s worth noting something else about the private science sector. At the beginning of the 1970s many of the scientists that worked in the national space agencies started to break away from government and start making money from their science in private industries. They realised that the technology they had developed in the Apollo programme had useful applications that they could apply on Earth. One of those was the hydrogen fuel cells used in the manned space programme to generate electricity and water. These things were useful for the long duration missions to the Moon because they could prolong the missions for them to be able reach the Moon safely with an adequate supply of light, heat and water.

This machine had originally been built by an English engineer called Francis Thomas Bacon in 1932 and NASA adapted it for use in their satellites and spaceships 30 years later. In 1966 General Motors started experimented with them, having seen their usefulness in NASA’s Gemini space programme and decided to use them to build their own car engine. The technical engineers from GM saw NASA’s use of them and thought ‘hang on, hydrogen fuel cells producing electricity and water. We could use that as a car engine and make our cars more environmentally friendly.’ Which of course they did. They progressed onwards and continued to perfect the technology until it could be made affordable to the public. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the first commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicles went on the market, aided by the technical expertise of former Apollo technicians.

Several years later in the midst of the environmental movement a lot of the technology that NASA developed for space travel became environmentally friendly green technology. This led to the creation of market in which the space sector could spin off and create new inventions, companies and jobs in the private sector that could create more wealth and prosperity than what they could do as government workers. That just goes to show that science and technology accelerates in development more effectively in the private sector compared to the bureaucratic oversight of government ministers. They can crowdfund for their R&D from hundreds of different sources and operate outside the interference of the state.

A Bird’s Troubled Birth

Which brings me back to the Shuttle’s development. The space shuttle is the spaceship of my generation. I’ve always adored it as a highly advanced spacecraft that has captured by imagination. It’s got about the same level of grandeur and stories to tell as the ships that each of the orbiter’s were named after. However what I never realised for most of my life was it’s flaws often outweighed it’s brilliant design. As you can see the space shuttle consisted of a winged orbiter, two solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank. The astronauts fly aboard the orbiter, the solid rocket boosters burn for two minutes and are then jettisoned and fall back into the sea to be recovered and the external tank is then discarded after the shuttle has used up all the fuel it has in the tank. A very effective design for a reusable spacecraft.

The space shuttle was never even meant to look like this. In fact there were several design ideas floated around that were heavily scrutinised as the most useful and practical design. One of the most favoured was a two piece design consisting of an orbiter and a supersonic plane. The supersonic plane would fly up to the upper atmosphere and then release the orbiter, which would then fire it’s engines to launch into space. The plane would then return to land on the ground and then when the orbiter was ready to come home it would glide back down to Earth and travel by jet engines to fly to it’s nearest landing spot.

This sounded like a good idea at the time but when NASA estimated the projected running costs against the actual costs they found that it was unsustainable and therefore they had to rethink the design. They estimated that it would cost $7.45 billion in development and $9.3 million per flight with a flight schedule of 24 flights per year costing a total $223 million for operating costs throughout a single financial year or $1.2 billion today. The actual cost of running the shuttle was $450 million per flight (in 2011) or $1.5 billion if you factor in mission costs. Had they launched 24 missions a year, it would have cost $10.8 billion a year, which is just about half of NASA’s budget current budget.

To remedy this they needed to bolster it’s purpose and give it more use to fulfil long term goals in the future for the building of a space station and a network of satellites in low Earth orbit. To the end they approached the US Air Force who were looking to upgrade their expendable launch rocket called Titan that they used to launch large spy satellites. To secure funding NASA adapted the design of the shuttle so that it could carry heavy payloads of up to 23 tons into orbit at the cost of $260 per kilo. 

This political and economic strategy would again influence the design of the shuttle. To keep costs down they based the technology on what was built for the Apollo era. This led to a machine that was not completely new technology, in fact the shuttle shared over half of it’s components with the Apollo-Saturn V systems. They took the J2 engines that were used for the Saturn V and upgraded them as a completed new engine called the RS-25. The RS-25 had a few differences to the J2. They had an engine nozzle that was injected with coolant to stop it from melting so it could be reused dozens of times, double the thrust for lifting heavier loads, and it could be disassembled and maintained for upkeep and refurbishment.

The design of the shuttle was also not as safe as NASA had originally planned and it was no longer what they wanted. But because of the technology available to them and the political will of the American public they had to accept it as it was done. However I won’t write it off as a white elephant at all, it was a fantastic machine and it did some really good feats of science that inspired many people’s imagination. It launched the Hubble Space Telescope, became a vehicle that drove international relations for diplomacy and world trade, delivered and built parts of the International Space Station, and launched the satellite industry into a multi-billion-dollar business.

Sadly it ended in tragedy, after two space shuttles were lost the government decided that they are no longer fit for service and the structure of the space programme is now outdated. It was just too expensive to keep it running all the time. Challenger exploded in 1986 and then Columbia was lost on re-entry in 2003 and NASA was given a mandate to decide what to do about it’s future. Having been forced to retire the shuttle programme the next step was to revive an old dream that had been planning to do for over 30 years previously: go back to the Moon and then onto Mars and beyond. The big questions was how do they do it this time?

Around the same time the space private space barons were making good progress and transitioning from start-ups to profitable businesses. One company called Space Adventures was offering flights to space that ordinary people could pay for to go to International Space Station as part of a public-private partnership with NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency. For $20 million Dennis Tito became the first private space tourist to go into orbit and he publicised space travel for ordinary people as a way to boost the fortunes of space travel for the masses. Space exploration was no longer to be the preserve of government funding and directives from world leaders, it was going to be an international private industry which would create thousands of jobs and millions of any currency.

Elon Musk set up SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of making space travel affordable and to break the private sector into the space launch business. It was to be to space travel to what the emergence of the jet age was to air travel over 70 years ago. According to Musk the raw materials used to make a rocket account for just 3% of the sales price of a rocket. Musk had a background in software engineering and set up a number of online businesses before SpaceX and he realised the vertical integration method used in company management could be applied to producing 85% of the hardware in house, and the modular approach from software engineering would allow him to cut the launch price by a factor of 10 and still enjoy a 70% gross margin. This clever tactic cut the cost of rocket production so drastically that NASA went to SpaceX asking them for rockets to resupply the space station in the shuttle’s absence.

This strategy got Congress and the NASA thinking differently about how to run America’s space operations. Instead of running it purely as a national industry, run it as a public private partnership. The government would supply the funding, NASA would provide the contracts, the private companies would supply the hardware and operate the use of them all by themselves. This strategy is being applied to the returning of humans to the Moon. In fact America’s space operations are now half public, half private.

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