Thursday, February 17, 2011

How COTS-D Was Killed

Lest we forget, under Mike Griffin NASA awarded to SpaceX an option in their Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract to develop a crew transport capability. The Space Act Agreement looked like this:

Project Management Plan Review and
Crew Demo 1 System Requirements Review
Financing D1$10,000,000
Crew Demo 1 System Preliminary Design Review$22,420,000
Crew Demo 2 System Requirements Review$25,420,000
Crew Demo 1 Critical Design Review$20,420,000
Crew Demo 2 System Preliminary Design Review$20,420,000
Crew Demo 1 Demonstration Readiness Review$20,420,000
Crew Demo 3 System Requirements Review$25,420,000
Financing 2D$10,000,000
Crew Demo 2 Critical Design Review$18,420,000
Crew Demo 3 System Preliminary Design Review$20,420,000
Crew Demo 1 Mission$15,420,000
Crew Demo 2 Demonstration Readiness Review$18,420,000
Crew Demo 3 Critical Design Review$18,420,000
Crew Demo 2 Mission$8,420,000
Crew Demo 3 Demonstration Readiness Review$18,420,000
Crew Demo 3 Mission$8,420,000

As with all the COTS milestones, SpaceX would not have received these payments until the milestone was completed. The finance milestones were required to demonstrate that SpaceX could fund and complete all the milestones without using the payments from NASA as "seed money".

The COTS-D option was never activated. You may even hear some people at NASA say that it was never "funded", this is wrong. The final nail in the coffin of COTS-D came in the form of an intriguing exchange between Sen. Bill Nelson and then acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese. Here's the relevant part of the long transcript.

Senator Nelson. In last year's authorization bill, there was guidance to NASA about COTS-D Space Act agreements to develop a U.S. commercial alternative to Soyuz. We authorized $150 million in funding for COTS-D. I noticed that you are
putting $150 million of stimulus funds toward the Commercial Crew and Cargo program, but not actually initiating COTS-D agreements. Why are you not initiating these Space Act agreements?

Mr. Scolese. Well, we are working the commercial program as you defined. There was cargo on it. We have those two contracts with SpaceX and Orbital to do cargo. We had one for COTS-D. I cannot recall a specific--$150 million to go on to COTS-D. We did this year in the stimulus identify $150 million to stimulate a commercial activity, and it is broken into two pieces: $70 million to go off and develop capabilities that any visiting vehicle would need, including commercial vehicles, and that includes developing the human space flight rating requirements, the requirements that you need to be certified for human space flight. As you well know, we build human spacecraft and design them so infrequently that we have to write those requirements down. So part of this is to make those available to everybody, make them understandable to everybody, and that will help not only the commercial providers broadly, but all of us. And then $80 million to stimulate activity for a commercial crew.

[recess for a vote]

Senator Nelson. I want to go back to the question that I had asked you earlier. You described the breakdown of how you intend to program $150 million for Commercial Crew and Cargo. Instead of putting the dollars into the various component pieces that would enable crew capability, would it not make more sense just to invest that in a milestone-based demonstration flight?

Mr. Scolese. We discussed that, and we believe that we need to take a measured approach to developing commercial crew. As you know, again it is a very difficult prospect to develop a crewed vehicle to carry crews safely to and from space, let alone rendezvous and dock with the Space Station. So we are working a measured development where we work progressively from developing the capability to get into space, to conduct the rendezvous and docking with the Space Station, to crew rescue, which can be done without having to worry about crew escape,
all the way up to carrying crew. That is the philosophy that we are working to achieve. To do that, we needed to do some things that broadly help the community that wants to do this, as I mentioned earlier, about developing clear and concise specs and standards so that we can safely put our crew on those vehicles. And further, I think you have seen the annual report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel that had some questions about the detail of our human rating requirements. So that is all part of what we are trying to accomplish, and we believe that will get us a commercial crew capability quicker and safer than if we were to just go off and suggest that we fund a capability.

Senator Nelson. But that was not what the legislation said. The legislation said that $150 million was funding for COTS-D. In this case, you would not even have to pay until the COTS-D partner was able to successfully demonstrate that capability. Is that not right?

Mr. Scolese. It would be dependent upon how we structured it. Of course, we wanted to maximize competition for the vehicle. As you know, there is only one COTS-D provider.

Senator Nelson. Well, when I say "you," I am referring to NASA, and you were not the Acting Administrator at the time. This is an example of where NASA has not followed the legislation. Now, let me ask you this. Would $150 million be enough to demonstrate that capability?

Mr. Scolese. We would have to look at it, but I do not think so, sir.

Senator Nelson. Well, what do you think it would be?

Mr. Scolese. I would have to get back to you on that, but it would be several times that, I would expect, because recall, we have to develop not only the crew portion of it. We have to develop the life support systems, the launch escape systems, the recovery systems. All of those have to be developed and demonstrated, and $150 million does not seem enough to do that.

Senator Nelson. We had a unique opportunity, if NASA had listened and followed the law, we had a unique opportunity this year between the 2009 operating plan and the additional funds provided by the stimulus bill and the development of the 2010 budget to craft a COTS-D plan that would have funded the program at the level that the folks needed. That path was not pursued. NASA did not obey the law. Again, I am not saying it to you because you are the Acting Administrator since January 20, but I want to point this out that sometimes NASA does not want itself to be helped. We have got to get our act together.

And that was the last opportunity for COTS-D. Had NASA obeyed the law and provided the $150M that was allocated in the FY09 budget, SpaceX could have started COTS-D and completed the first seven milestones. When the $150M in stimulus money came in SpaceX would have been on much better footing to claim part of it. Instead, Sen Shelby was able to divert $100M to the development of Ares I, a vehicle that was later scheduled to be cancelled prompting him to insert language into law prohibiting NASA from doing that. Of the remaining $50M, SpaceX received none.

The official position of NASA seems to be that the CCDev program has replaced COTS-D. SpaceX has put in a bid for the new round, which NASA has been prohibited from starting due to the failure of Congress to pass a budget for FY11. Should SpaceX be successful, they intend to start work on the launch abort system which will also allow the Dragon spacecraft to land vertically on land. While I have been assured that the CCDev program will be "milestone based" like COTS, I still have my doubts that it will capture the simplicity of the COTS-D option.


  1. Bennett1:19 PM

    Thanks for laying that out, Trent. I had heard allusions to the exchange, but it is fascinating to actually read the transcript, for the pure double-speak involved.

  2. Anonymous11:56 PM

    Yes Trent, Nelson's political double-speak is very telling here. Thanks for posting this.

    And people wonder why I'm cynical about all politicians.

  3. Vanguard12:33 PM

    Trent, Another key component was that COTS2 had been recompeted with no extra money and OSC was selected to replace RpK but with even less funding. As I recall in rough numbers RpK was to get $208m, SpaceX $278m,(I never understood that - why not 50/50) and for recompete the awardee (ultimately OSC) was to get $178m (what remained from the unspent RpK funds). So right away the recompetitors were going to be down nearly $100m from SpaceX and down $30m from what RpK was to get. So the first mistake by NASA ESMD was right there. For recompete they should have plus'ed up the $178m to $278m from some of the largess wasted on Constellation. No doubt Shelby would have tried to thwart this but we will never know now. I believe this reduced funding level precipitated the elimination of a COTS-D section from the recompete SAA, but no matter what the reason it clearly isn't there in the recompeted SAA which OSC won. So this was the second and crucial mistake, because without two competitively awarded SAA's with COTS-D, SpaceX's COTS-D could not be activated because it would have amounted to a sole source for a commercial crew capability to directly compete with Orion which was not defensible politically and probably legally. You are correct however in pointing out the ineptitude of NASA leadership which at the time seemed especially out of touch with the wills of Congress. In hindsight I doubt SpaceX could have achieved full crew capability with only an additional $308m, but doubtless they could have started on things like a life support system and launch escape system and made significant headway in the 2-3 years.

  4. Nelson is kinda being cheeky, he knows Acting Administrator takes more guidance from the subcommittee than from the President. In other words, his hands were tied. The same people behind the SLS (and we know the pejorative for that pile of "never being built").

  5. If you say so.. I think it is clear that $150M got allocated and they chose to refuse SpaceX because they were too far ahead already. Note that in the same financial year NASA awarded the long sort CRS contracts that Griffin had been dragging his feet on. He wanted to wait until SpaceX and Orbital Sciences had actually demonstrated the capability before promising them contracts for services - a sensible course of action that Congress would later criticize the Bolden administration for not adhering to. This was also the work of Scolese. Finally, there's the question of the $70M for developing requirements... wtf? Were they planning to hire 1400 people to write those requirements or what? Perhaps they had to be written in unicorn blood?

  6. I think Scolese should've pulled the trigger, but I have my doubts that he felt he was in a position to sign off on $150M, particularly in light of Griffin's budget woes that had just been scrutinized. He was, imo, a figurehead that was listening to all parties involved and didn't want to make a move that he wasn't prepared for.

    Never expect appointees or politicians to make the bold move, particularly figureheads who are only there for a short while.

    Not defending Scolese, btw. I don't think COTS-D would've been chosen even if Bolden was signed in day 2 of Obama's presidency. I think Obama wanted to be middle of the road and reach across the isle and I think most of those pork loving politicians would prefer the jobs stay in FL and AL.

    The real failure to invoke COTS-D, imo comes from Griffin. I think he foolishly thought his resignation would be rejected, and that he'd continue working on Cx, so he was biding his time with funding COTS-D, if he ever was going to fund it (after all, COTS-D and CRS would be useless once Griffin scuttled the Space Station). Waiting for demonstration is all well and good, except, you only pay if the demonstration is successful, so it's pointless to 'wait' for such a trivial contract. It's not like, you know, launching a fake SRB to 'show' a proof of concept, or failing drop tests, only to still get paid. In my mind it's insulting and unreasonable to not give a company a chance when you don't have to pay a dime if they fail.

  7. Nah, I disagree completely. When Griffin was on The Space Show he made it abundantly clear that he continues to be annoyed at how much the commercial cargo and crew programs have been bastardized since his departure, and I've heard others talk about how much of an uphill battle it was to even get the program started in the first place.

    I think commercial crew died with CRS on that day, 23 December 2008, when NASA awarded 12 missions to SpaceX at $1.6 billion and 8 missions to Orbital Sciences at $1.9 billion. They never bothered to explain why Orbital got more for less flights (or not the same, as the minimum payload delivery requirement is identical for both: 20 tons). There was no incentives offered for the company that completed the COTS demonstrations first, or could deliver on time, etc etc.

    As for Griffin not doing COTS-D when he could have.. when was that? No funding was provided until he was gone. It was certainly in the President's budget request in earlier years, but Congress zeroed it out. The moment funding that didn't have to go through Congress was awarded, it went to Ares-1.. thanks to Scolese and Shelby.

    Griffin was the best friend commercial spaceflight ever had. It's sad and disappointing to have to say that, but that's NASA for ya.

  8. COTS-D wasn't funded in either the 2008 or 2009 budgets. Are you saying that when Scolese failed to give COTS-D a line item under commercial crew, that he was responsible, but when Griffin failed to get a line item, he wasn't? Could you clarify with a link? I'm looking at the 2008 (Griffin), 2009 (Griffin), and 2010 (Scolese) budgets. COTS-D is not funded in either of Griffin's budgets and Scolese doesn't even mention it (foregone conclusion by then, new direction and all).

    SpaceX fans like to simply argue (and yes, I'm one of them), that the billions sunk into Ares-I could've went to COTS-D. And Griffin would be responsible for that failure. I see absolutely no indication that he ever intended to fund COTS-D, so my earlier comments that he may have were just me being nice and forgetting these details from when those debates were ripe.

    NASA gets a fixed budget for the most part, the administrator and his team is the one that decides where that budget goes, particularly as it involves the direction the administration is going. I remember those days, I was all excited that maybe Bolden would do the right thing and cancel all the FL pork jobs and just let us have a full on private space industry, but that didn't happen.

  9. Griffin requested authorization to start COTS-D every year that it was an option. Congress denied him. The GAO was on his ass to stop using SAAs for commercial crew from the start of the program.