Life finds a way

NASA just rolled out an expendable rocket nearly eleven years after the last launch of its Space Shuttle. This is a long time coming, a project where too often “next year’s” major milestones receded by about one and a half years every year. An expendable Shuttle-derived launch system will go down in history as what followed the semi-reusable Space Shuttle. For all the endless time and energy spent on studies, committees, arguing, and cost and technology analysis about expendable versus reusable rockets, the next NASA-exclusive launch system is expendable. Yet is this the end of the story for reusable launch and NASA? I was told early in my career at NASA, and no doubt many heard the same – ““No” just marks the start of the process.” I took this saying to heart, finding it true and helpful, more often than not.

2005 Coordination memo, where Department of Defense Executive Agent for Space Sega and NASA Administrator Griffin divvy up responsibilities in an expendable world. Also available in Appendix B of this RAND report.

In ancient history (it seems), it’s 1994, and the Whitehouse puts out the word. We operate a semi-reusable Space Shuttle. We have learned so much from that experience. NASA’s next system will likely be even more reusable. Get to work. Then we can make “decisions on the development of next-generation reusable space transportation systems that greatly reduce the cost of access to space.” Other U.S. Agencies, the Departments of Transportation and Commerce, would be “responsible for identifying and promoting innovative types of arrangements between the U.S. Government and the private sector.” The Defense Department would continue to focus on expendable launch systems. It’s easy to accuse the crystal ball of malfunctioning. Or maybe not.

By 2005 the tide turns. Reuse was out as the expendables strike back. A new space policy was out, and the NASA Administrator coordinated the response with the Defense Department. NASA would go expendable, using “existing capabilities with the Space Shuttle external tanks and solid rocket boosters.” The Defense Department did not change, holding steadfast since a decade earlier, still committed to expendable launchers.

This NASA sea-change happens in the wake of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the decision to use the Shuttle only to complete the construction of the International Space Station. As much as we learned with reusable Space Shuttle orbiters – Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – at the cost of human lives, our next steps turned away from a long-term view. Where once we saw reuse as inevitable to have truly sustainable launch systems, now we would use what came before, the disposable parts anyway. We would continue using the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, which failed Challenger. Boosters were at least recovered in the ocean, rebuilt, and refilled for reuse in the Shuttle’s operations. The solid rocket boosters for the next system are entirely expended. We would also continue using tanks covered with foam, a large piece of which shed and hit Columbia, leading to another tragic loss. The only part of the Space Shuttle’s lacking such failings, the reusable Shuttles themselves, would not inform a future system.

When it came time for advocacy about things reusable, any new system lacked a stakeholder with a pulse and a voice.

In a sense, this direction was inevitable. When it came time for advocacy about things reusable, any new system lacked a stakeholder with a pulse and a voice. Future reusable systems existed only in the abstract. On the other hand, existing expendable systems already had a seat at the table, complete with workforces raising their hands wildly like a student overly eager to answer the professor’s question. One of many blind spots hid this reality, which any game theorist would have spotted much earlier.

And yet, expectations back in 1994 may not have been that far off the mark, if a little confused. “Innovative types of arrangements between the U.S. Government and the private sector” would be pursued, but not by the Transportation or Commerce Departments. Instead, NASA led the push for innovation with public-private partnerships for cargo to the ISS. This resulted in a new rocket, the SpaceX Falcon 9. Over time this rocket that began life fully expendable has become very reusable, with a first stage recently flying again for the twelfth time. Even the DoD would eventually reuse a rocket. This got done for the bargain-basement price of about a tenth of what it would have cost NASA under the usual contracting relationships endemic to old-style “by the hour” payment. (Guess… how …long… that… takes.) Once flying, cargo to the ISS using Falcon and Antares launchers and Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft showed they not only cost less to create, they cost less to fly.

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX

Less advertised, NASA is a major investor in Starships – again as a partnership.

Similarly, a Starship is getting its “wet-dress” – the test of loading of propellants at the launch pad, just like NASA’s SLS will do soon. Less advertised, NASA is a major investor in Starships – again as a partnership. The award to SpaceX in 2021 for its Starships as NASA Lunar Landers has a value of $2.89 billion. Consider that in a relationship between NASA and a company stressing results, paying for progress, not before or during, there is a significant factor of financial leverage. If one-tenth leverage has been floated (the high end of a range), that’s $28.9 billion of result for just $2.89 billion of NASA’s budget, more than has been spent to date on the SLS.

Among other news, in 2021 scientists confirmed that two California Condors had virgin births – Parthenogenesis. This fatherless creation is beyond rare in mammals, but to quote Goldberg, “life finds a way.” As another reminder that life is much more interesting than we can ever predict, NASA actually has ended up leading the way on reusable launch. After all the work, hesitation, barriers, and tragedy, leaving one to think all those reusable eggs were infertile, some have unexpectedly hatched. NASA is learning to invest and provide expertise in new ways, while committing to be a future customer of reusable launch systems. There is a reusable Starship as a lunar lander within a NASA lunar exploration architecture, which has a pit-stop at a NASA Gateway in lunar orbit that will be supplied by reusable launchers.

Because after all, reusability finds a way.

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