Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Elon Has Left the Building

April 15, 2010 ... President Obama tours the SpaceX operation at LC-40 with Elon Musk. Image source: Wikipedia.

On March 11, 2010, three months before the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida Today published an editorial which demanded President Barack Obama mandate that commercial companies could only launch from the Space Coast and nowhere else.

As noted, the commercial push could pay dividends down the line. But it's a blank slate, with companies claiming they can fly astronauts by 2014-16 and critics saying it will take a decade.

Obama should salvage some of Constellation and develop a heavy-lift rocket program that could eventually carry astronauts to Mars and immediately start a test program at KSC that could save 1,500 to 2,000 jobs. At the same time, funds also could be spent on the commercial sector in a dual-track push.

The plans call for spending $2 billion there the next several years to turn it into a 21st-century spaceport, but to what end? There's no guarantee commercial companies would fly from KSC and, with Constellation dead, the historic launch pads could become a ghost town.

The president should make KSC the commercial hub and mandate it in his policy.

The article claimed that ending Constellation “could drive Brevard County's 12.7 percent unemployment rate to 17 percent or higher.”

They were completely wrong.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Brevard County unemployment rate topped out at 11.8% in January 2010 and a year later began to decline from 11.3% in January 2011.

Kennedy Space Center is hardly a “ghost town.” Eight thousand people are employed at KSC. Pad 39A is being remodelled by SpaceX for its Falcon Heavy; that renovation is being paid for by SpaceX with no taxpayer dollars.

Congress agreed with the Obama administration and cancelled Constellation. The program was years behind schedule and billions over budget. The GAO issued an audit in August 2009 which concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and listed its technical problems. The independent Augustine Commission later that year found that the Constellation Ares I was scheduled to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station no earlier than 2017, but would be funded by closing the ISS in 2015. Ares I would have nowhere to go, so why build it?

Congress replaced Constellation with another porkfest at Pad 39B called the Space Launch System, declaring it would save jobs but never bothered to say what missions it would fly.

The editorial's most egregious demand was that the President essentially grant a legal launch monopoly to Brevard County, ignoring not only the basics of capitalism but also the basics of orbital mechanics.

For years, some of the people and politicians in Brevard County have believed that the Space Coast is entitled by divine right to guaranteed government aerospace jobs for life. In the spring of 2010, local politicians were falling over each other in whipping up hysteria to score political points. At a March 9, 2010 space policy forum hosted by Florida Today, Rep. Dave Weldon (who left Congress in January 2009, succeeded by Rep. Bill Posey) falsely accused Obama of “killing the manned spaceflight program.”

Lobbyists were sent from Brevard County and other states with Constellation-related operations hoping to save the program. They claimed their message was to “fund human space exploration,” but failed to say why or how it would benefit the American taxpayer. The main interest seemed to be to protect local jobs — needed or not.

Local unions held rallies demanding that Constellation jobs be saved. “Those members interested in saving their jobs” were asked to attend to “gain congressional support for the continuation of human space flight at Kennedy Space Center.”

February 18, 2010 ... Governor Charlie Crist addresses the Space Industry Summit. Image source: Central Florida Partnership.

In Orlando, meanwhile, a more bipartisan group gathered February 18, 2010 at a Space Industry Summit to warn that Florida had better change its ways or lose the coming commercial space race.

A statewide space symposium convened by Gov. Charlie Crist in Orlando on Thursday heard repeatedly from industry executives, academics and experts that Florida had to adapt to a new U.S. national space policy that favored commercial rocket companies or give up its ambitions to be a world-class launch center.

“This [administration's shift towards commercial space] should not come as surprise to anybody,” former Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Bob Walker told 200 participants. “For a decade there have been presidential commissions that have said that the way this country had to move was to commercial space . . . The question is are you going to embrace where the world is headed?”

Patti Grace Smith, a former Federal Aviation Administration official under President George W. Bush, was even more harsh, saying that Florida had to walk away from John F. Kennedy's legacy and “step out from behind its past . . . if Florida is to remain a major space player.”

But some at the event told lies to protect the status quo. Rep. Posey falsely claimed:

“Most people in this room remember when the president was campaigning here he made a promise that he would close the gap between shuttle and Constellation,” U.S. Rep Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, told NASA's deputy associate administrator Charles Scales. “Well, it appears he hasn't closed the gap. He's made it eternal.”

Candidate Barack Obama never promised to continue Constellation. Speaking at a Titusville rally on August 2, 2008, he said he would speed “the development of the Shuttle's successor.” He didn't say what that successor would be.

That successor was the commercial crew program, created under President Bush in 2005 but unfunded at that point. Obama's proposal would have had commercial crew vehicles flying astronauts to the ISS by 2014.

Posey, ironically, was one of the House space subcommittee members who voted to cut commercial crew's funding by 62% between Fiscal Years 2011-2013 — extending NASA's reliance on the Russian Soyuz by at least two years. Obama tried to close the gap. Posey widened it.

While SpaceX fought entrenched bureaucracies at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, the company began buying up land near Boca Chica State Park in Cameron County, Texas, near Brownsville and the Mexican border. SpaceX founder Elon Musk decided to go his own way, planning to open the world's first privately owned commercial spaceport.

Space Florida, a state aerospace economic development agency, responded with a proposal to build a commercial spaceport at Shiloh, an abandoned farming community within KSC borders north of the Volusia County line. Environmental groups objected, and while Space Florida awaited an environmental impact statement SpaceX continued to buy up land in Boca Chica.

On August 4, SpaceX officially announced that Boca Chica would be the site for its commercial spaceport.

According to a press release from Texas Governor Rick Perry's office:

The State of Texas and SpaceX first discussed this potential project in the spring of 2011 during a TexasOne mission to California. The governor has since met with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and provided letters in support of SpaceX's efforts to get FAA clearance for the site. Governor's Office staff has worked closely with local officials in South Texas throughout the process, and also testified before the FAA in support of bringing the project to Texas.

Perry offered $2.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund and “$13 million from the Spaceport Trust Fund to the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. The fund is used to support the development of infrastructure necessary for establishing a spaceport.”

Space Florida couldn't compete.

Commercial companies leasing pads from KSC or CCAFS have the government as a landlord, meaning they have to deal with government bureaucracies where sometimes the rules are made up by people who are more interested in protecting their own little fiefdoms than doing what is best for the nation's economy.

SpaceX has brought the commercial satellite launch business back to the Space Coast. It was driven away by the legal monopoly granted United Launch Alliance by the federal government in 2006. That drove up launch costs, so commercial satellite companies went overseas.

Before SpaceX, the last CCAFS commercial satellite launch was in 2009. The SpaceX business model, which observers guess charges one-third the price of a ULA launch, has brought the commercial satellites back to CCAFS. Four commercial satellites have launched from Pad 40 since December, including yesterday's AsiaSat 8.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 on the pad with AsiaSat 8. Image source: SpaceX.

But AsiaSat employees had difficulty accessing their satellite before the mission.

According to a Florida Today report:

William Wade, AsiaSat president and CEO, is excited for the upcoming launches, but confirmed the company's experience here has not been as easy as at other launch sites.

Access to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for roughly 60 employees, shareholders and customers now in town — most not U.S. citizens and many who are Chinese nationals — has been difficult.

“That is proving to be somewhat cumbersome,” Wade said. “We have to go through all the security clearances, which is expected, but we are finding as a foreign company that it is a bit more difficult conducting our launches there.”

The company found the process easier when it last flew from the Cape in 2003, on an Atlas IIIB rocket.

Here, Wade said, the company also worries more about the potential for launch delays because of federal government missions that may be given higher priority, which adds uncertainty to its financial forecasting and marketing of satellite services.

“The government launches, those are a little bit unpredictable,” Wade said. “You don't really know whether you're going to get bumped, whether issues might come up that could create a situation where they take precedence. So that has proven to be a little bit more worrisome, whereas in some of our previous experiences elsewhere, we haven't seen that to be as big a factor.”

A desire for more control over range operations and customer access are among the key reasons why SpaceX wants to develop a private launch complex for commercial missions, separate from its two East Coast pads on federally controlled property at the Cape and Kennedy Space Center.

Space Florida can't tell the federal government what to do. Shiloh isn't viable unless NASA is willing to cede control of the land to the State of Florida. KSC's recently released master plan for the next twenty years shows no hint of doing so — but it does suggest a new NASA-controlled Pad 39C north of its two siblings.

Frank DiBello, Space Florida's CEO, told July's National Space Club Florida Chapter meeting that he was “mad as hell” he couldn't offer SpaceX a competitive offer. And a July 12 Florida Today article suggested Florida congressional leaders are leaning on federal bureaucrats to change their ways before more commercial opportunities flee elsewhere.

The location (in red) of the proposed SpaceX commercial spaceport at Boca Chica. Image source: Parabolic Arc.

This morning's Florida Today reports that U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has “downplayed” the Boca Chica news.

Nelson said SpaceX's Texas site has some limitations.

For example, he said, it is suitable only for missions to equatorial orbits that must “thread the needle” between the Florida Keys and north coast of Cuba.

“How many launches will be financially viable for them to do that from there?” he said. “I think that's a story still to be told.”

Of the four commercial satellite missions SpaceX has launched from the Cape since December, three fit such a flight profile, including the AsiaSat communications satellite launched early Tuesday.

But missions angling to the northeast would start from Florida to avoid flying over populated areas.

Nelson said Brownsville, where the Federal Aviation Administration would license missions, also lacks a range to oversee flight safety.

“So something's got to be developed down there,” he said. “I'm sure they have their plans, but that is a story yet to be told as well.”

He noted that SpaceX would continue to launch government missions — potentially including astronauts — from the Space Coast, plus some commercial missions.

My SpaceX sources say their business model is for CCAFS LC-40 to be used for Defense Department payloads, KSC LC-39A for NASA payloads (including ISS crew rotations), with commercial launches going to Boca Chica.

That's a rule of thumb, and as Senator Nelson notes there may be safety limitations, although so far the FAA has not issued any regulations prohibiting SpaceX from launching over Florida or Cuba.

Polar orbits, popular for military reconnaissance satellites, would continue to launch from the SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California.

As for flights to the northeast, those could also launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, Virginia. MARS already launches Antares rockets for Orbital Sciences.

SpaceX will continue to have a presence on the Space Coast, but local leaders and government bureaucrats once again are driving away the commercial launch business. They love to blame Barack Obama, but the fact is the blame lies only with themselves.

President George W. Bush announced on January 14, 2004 that the Space Shuttle program would end once ISS construction was complete. That set the clock in motion for another downturn as after Apollo in the early 1970s.

No one did anything about the potential job loss until it was too late, and when it was too late they reacted by shooting themselves in the foot — demanding a launch monopoly and that obsolete jobs be protected, never mind the cost to the taxpayer.

Brevard County was warned many times. They didn't listen.

So Elon has left the building.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Stephen. Really well put together. Thanks!