Mr. Chairman, members of the Commission, thank you for inviting me to address you today.
XCOR Aerospace was founded with the belief that dramatic reductions in the cost of space transportation are possible. Because of the lower cost of entry, we have chosen to work initially on suborbital vehicles. For those of you unfamiliar with XCOR, I have a short video clip summarizing some of our work over the last few years. The vehicle you saw flying there, the EZ-Rocket, is an operations demonstrator for low-cost rocket flight – and the incremental cost per flight is less than $1000 including fuel and labor.
I was born just before the Apollo One fire, and I can not remember a time without human spaceflight. I was inspired to choose an engineering career, in part, by the accomplishments of Apollo and Skylab. I would love to see America march forward again in the bold spirit of exploration. I think that the sight of America turning away from a new frontier after Apollo was a weakening of the strong, hopeful vision of the future – a vision synonymous with the American character. In spite of this, while awaiting the President’s new exploration initiative, I was cynical. I believed that no matter what direction he set, today’s NASA, the NASA of Challenger and Columbia, would not and could not follow it.
I am here today because I have seen signs of hope – an awareness that we cannot succeed by re-creating Apollo, and a dawning realization within NASA that this is truly their last chance to refashion the agency into a new and effective organization. The voices of reform are still a minority; it is to strengthen their hand that I speak today.
When President Kennedy set America on a course for the Moon, America had launched one human being into space, on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight. Eight and a quarter years later, the first men landed on the Moon. It is very likely that before this year is out, one or more private companies will launch human beings on suborbital flights with private funding, as part of the X-prize effort. The Space-X Falcon and the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne, as well as XCOR’s EZ-Rocket have all been developed with private money. No NASA budget and no taxpayers money were used on any of these vehicles, yet NASA has no plans to use them or their descendents. I would not be so bold as to predict that by 2012, private entrants will be landing men on the Moon – but I would not rule it out, either. As Chairman Boehlert said in the House on March 4, “This is about the future of the U.S. aerospace industry”. What is certain is that this is a time of great dynamism and daring by the private sector in space – a time which may yet see the emergence of passenger space travel by companies such as XCOR. Surely, at such a time, predicting what the private sector will be able to do by 2014 would be foolhardy.
XCOR developed the EZ-Rocket and finished the test program in 21 months. Scaled Composites began construction of their vehicle three years ago. It appears likely that SpaceX will take about three years from founding to first vehicle flight. Therefore, by 2014, privately built vehicles three generations beyond what we are now seeing should be flying. It is very possible that reusable orbital transportation systems will be available by then. NASA can not count on those capabilities, which do not yet exist – but NASA MUST plan their approach to exploration in a way that allows them to exploit private capabilities as they arise. How does NASA do that?
NASA can position itself to grow with the private sector very simply – by buying space transportation services available on the open market. That is a simple rule with profound implications – for I mean that NASA should use commercial providers as its sole means of transportation to Earth orbit. That means that if they cannot find a commercial provider for a given launch capability, THEY MUST DO WITHOUT IT. Off-the-shelf transportation settled the New World, explored the American West, and built the Antarctic stations. Surely, it can carry us into the future. Almost every bridge and building in the world was built with parts that come on trucks in 25 ton pieces. The Space Station is built from 25ton pieces. The South Pole station is built from 20 ton pieces that fit into an airplane. We can go to the Moon and Mars this way.
And if we are going to go, we have no choice but to do it this way. NASA will never again see the limitless budgets of the Apollo program – we must work within the budget we have. The inescapable truth is that current funding will not support both a NASA-unique launch vehicle and a series of payloads to put on top of it. While estimates vary, it is clear that sustaining a NASA-unique launch vehicle has a cost of several billion dollars per year; that is not affordable. That is not surprising; Delta-IV and Atlas-V take at least a billion dollars per year to sustain – but vehicles already on the market can spread their costs over many customers – which NASA cannot do. A simple economic analysis shows that a new NASA-unique vehicle would never pay for itself in launch costs – even if that vehicle were on schedule and on budget. The recent history of NASA suggests it will be neither.
If NASA buys launch services on the commercial market, they will also be able to continue the program during future budget rises and falls. Once you launch on commercial vehicles, you buy more or fewer launches depending on your budget. We need never find ourselves in the position we now have with ISS, where the failure of the transportation system imperils the enterprise. By using only launch capabilities available from multiple providers, we get a sustainable program, which can rise and fall with budget cycles, and keep flying regardless of vehicle failures. Coincidentally, Delta-IV, Atlas-5, and Ariane 5 all have similar payload capacity, roughly 25 tons, so this is not a difficult choice. And in the case of Delta and Atlas, they were designed for launch rates more than adequate to support an exploration mission.
By forcing the purchase of commercial launch services, NASA will stimulate the development of the launch industry. The surest path to lower cost and greater reliability is not “man-rating”, or review boards or mil-specs – it is traffic volume. The more frequent the launches, the faster the providers will learn. And let us not be distracted by the myth of “man-rating”. The difference in reliability between commercial satellite launchers and historic “man-rated” vehicles is a few percent – while the presence of a robust escape system can increase the probability of crew survival 10 or 20 fold. Clearly, that is where effort should be focused. If NASA is concerned for the risk of the launcher, let them buy insurance, just as any commercial customer would do.
NASA purchase of EELV’s will not help companies like XCOR today; but it will establish a clear precedent for NASA’s purchase of commercial services. In the event that new partially or fully reusable orbital transport becomes available by private means, NASA can purchase that on the same open market. Most probably, new launch technologies will start small before they grow large – but since most launches will deliver only propellant in the form of tanks or stages, there is ample opportunity for builders of smaller systems to participate.
There are other ways that companies like XCOR can participate. While today we could not do a system such as the full exploration vehicle, we have the capability to develop components such as engines, pumps, and tanks cheaply and quickly. We will certainly compete for those contracts as they arise. However, if the exploration initiative founders, there will be no business to compete for. And if NASA continues business as usual, that is where we are headed. America can afford to dare and do great things – but we have to do it as exploration has been done throughout history; by working with what we have, by living off the land where possible, and by building expensive custom equipment only when nothing else can possibly do the job. That is the true spirit of exploration – and an endeavor XCOR would be proud to be part of.
I have focused on exploration because that is the mandate of this Commission. I must point out that this is only half of the question. When President Bush announced this initiative, he pointed to the example of Lewis and Clark, who “made that journey in the spirit of discovery, to learn the potential of vast new territory, and to chart a way for others to follow.” That is the essence of why we go to space. There are business opportunities in supporting exploration, but they are dwarfed by the opportunities to exploit the new frontier of space. Because NASA’s job is exploration, the peaceful uses of space receive much less attention – but they must follow right behind exploration, for the taxpayer to benefit from these government expenditures. And ultimately, that is why NASA must be forced to buy rather than build; if NASA explores a new frontier with NASA-unique systems, commercial use is hindered rather than helped. If instead, NASA shows how to do something grand with maximum use of commercial hardware, they point the way for others to follow.
Copyright © 2014 XCOR Aerospace, Inc.