Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

COTS Parts

In today's The Space Review, Jeff Foust gives an excellent accounting of the COTS program thus far. While it has the potential to give birth to a true commercial market for manned orbital spaceflight, the execution has been uneven.

Some good commentary on COTS can also be found from "Rocket Man" at the "RocketsAndSuch" blog here, here, here, and here. It's definitely worth a read, even if you're not fond of his demonizing of "Emperor" Griffin.

Rocket Man has a good point in noting that NASA is spending COTS money on new rockets that essentially duplicate what we already have. Falcon IX is similar to the under-utilized Atlas V and Delta IV in their single-core versions. Taurus II is a more economical replacement for the Delta II, which will likely be retired by 2012 unless new orders come along. Could COTS move along faster if all of the funds were being spent on capsules instead of rockets? It's not always possible to crash the schedule by throwing more money at the problem, but I suspect that both Dragon and Cygnus capsules could be accelerated to some degree if the funding was present.

NASA's current strategy for COTS D is quite schizophrenic, as Mr. Foust points out. The capability isn't currently funded, even though it will sorely be needed after the shuttle retires in 2010. But let's assume that a manned Dragon flies by 2012. It will only be needed for another three years once Orion comes online in 2015. And Orion will be out of the ISS picture when the US abandons ISS in 2017. Does any of this make sense? COTS D appears to compete with Orion for a market that is very small to begin with. But COTS D only applies to Dragon, since the Cygnus spacecraft bus is probably too small to support a useful manned capsule for the COTS D mission (especially when Taurus II is the booster.)

The most enduring part of Michael Griffin's legacy is likely to be the COTS program, which is currently stimulating two teams attempting to resupply the space station. Eventually COTS may lead to a commercial manned spaceflight program. The opening of the orbital frontier to NewSpace will have a far more enduring legacy than any fiscally-unsustainable push to put humans on the moon by 2020 and establish a base. At the same time, space observers should have justified reservations about whether this effort is likely to succeed.

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