Commercial space and six questions for a good story – Pt. 3 of 3 (wonkish)

A launch failure is a visual event, out there for all to see, a program’s failure to meet cost or flight rate or other fuzzy goals, not so much. With an odd hardware failure, a unit gone bad, engineers might do a hybrid of Monday morning quarterbacking and applicable anecdotes. Of course, there is methodical troubleshooting too. Programs that fail to reach fuzzy goals also get these post-mortems, just like real hardware, but oddly never with the same rigor, even if with more passion.

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about ingredients for partnerships and commercial acquisitions, the details of “how” a government agency and a private partner work together. These ingredients are specific markers which could be used as a checklist for future programs. Part 2 of this series was about incentives, “why” these ingredients are in the mix in the first place, possibly what makes it all come together successfully, the motives and the messy parts.

“Who” and commercial space.

A natural next step is to ask “who” are the real-life examples against which to check the checklist? Does the checklist hold water when checked against the real world? (It seems to). At least, the checklist does provide value just from the process of reviewing it against past projects. It’s a starting point. Unfortunately, even going decades back, there are not too many real-world examples out there. (If there was an abundance of examples, this and many related debates would probably not happen.) Commercial programs in NASA or DOD in the wild are few and far between. Our clinical trial sample size here for commercial space launch and space systems begins with five programs. Maybe six. We will have another data point soon – the NASA human landing system / lunar lander program.

Aside from the small number of partnerships and commercial space acquisitions, by dollar amount only the smallest smattering of NASA space flight or DOD space launch funds have been commercial. To boot, an ingredient of these programs is they have small government management offices. That means that even when these projects do well, only small numbers of agency personnel are infected with the new way of doing business. This same effect may occur on the private partner side too, to the extent there are improvements in price, meaning less labor, so again fewer people compared to what a less efficient contractor would employ. Albeit, the employment effect from improvements in price can be amazingly larger than direct government contract spending would show. An example is SpaceX leveraging its successful Falcon 9 for commercial customers and for Starlink.

I was fortunate to be a team member in one of the handful of recent commercial government programs, the DARPA Experimental Space Plane (XSP). I also have the privilege of knowing people who were there in the earliest days of the ISS commercial cargo program. It is not difficult to go down the ingredients list and check each one against the small number of commercial programs to date.

Table of public private partnership and commercial ingredients ("how") versus past space system programs / projects ("who", "when"). Credit: Edgar Zapata,
(I’m leaving out the late 1990’s X-33 and X-34 in the NASA Reusable Launch Vehicle program. At the time, I was in the X-33 program my mind leaned to just design and technology. I naively believed technology (alone) was what leads to a desired outcome – affordability, low cost operations. I will return to add X-33 later, after more research into NASA Research Agreements, contributions in-kind and checking to verify my memory against that of others.) Credit: Edgar Zapata,

Patterns of force

Humans have minds custom built for pattern recognition, like when presented with tables of one-thing vs. another.

First, the obvious, arguably the most successful commercial program in the batch, commercial cargo for ISS, has a nearly complete set of check-marks down the list. Some time ago there would have been an “X” on Dragon, not having attracted non-government customers. The Inspiration4 mission will change that soon to a check-mark.

Then, there is the one program, XSP, that did not reach fruition. There are a few “X” marks there, but for two of those ingredients other programs also have “X” marks and those were not terminated. The unique “X” mark, not in common with other programs, was on the government commitment to buy future services. This warrants further discussion and analysis (to say the least). When this ingredient is missing, does it mean an inability to bring about a proper alignment of incentives? Having to spend more dollars than planned when running into unexpected technical problems can be overcome, a project deciding to continue full-steam ahead because of that opportunity in the future to get a return on any dollars. Lacking a government commitment to buy future services that opportunity evaporates, leaving everyone fixated only on the problems here and now. Pain now plus bright future means proceed. Pain now and no bright future means terminate. Arguably, beyond a vision of future services, proceeding in the face of technical problems in development also requires faith these can be resolved for added effort while still creating a system that’s as attractive as originally envisioned.

As well, projects vs. ingredients change over time. The DOD EELV (now NSSL) program went from an initial idea of two competitors providing launch services, to one entity (ULA), and more recently back to two with the addition of SpaceX. Intuition would say there’s a cost savings to DOD now that was missing for a time, but the facts (and budget) on the ground are more complicated. (The DOD is not seeing cost savings even with renewed competition and lower SpaceX prices vs. ULA, a point in need of more eyeballs).

The table begs for even more observations. There was an ingredient in the hugely successful partnership for cargo to the ISS that is not on the table – NASA telling everyone the answers to the test. In the COTS program NASA put its budget out there at the start for everyone to see. The partners who bid initially had a very good sense of how much they might bid to even be considered, knowing this total budget would probably be split in two. As if that was not enough, the total budget was an almost ridiculously low $500M. The teacher was not just telling you the answer to question #3 was “B”, you were also being given the outline for the essay section –think lean and mean, avoid business as usual, and translate low costs to low prices to NASA.

This Rorschach test of a table of commercial ingredients vs. real world projects will get additions. We learn more every day, and we will come back to X-33 way-back and a lunar lander Starship most recently. This is a discussion that’s worth continuing, not just for “what” commercial space is, but for “how”, and “why” an agency goes commercial for its space systems. Add in the historical evidence and we start to see patterns of force, “who” did what in programs past – to learn how lightening might strike the same place again in our future

Also see:

NASA invited offerors to demonstrate their commitment to the public-private partnership by providing a corporate contribution; these corporate contributions not only have the effect of significantly lowering offerors’ proposed firm fixed prices, but also show how each offeror intends to leverage its corporate contribution to enable its approach for commercializing HLS capabilities.

NASA Source Selection Statement

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