Sunday, April 9, 2017

Before Reaching the Launch Pad, Rocket’s Price May Be Returning to Earth: Cost-cutting push so early in program reflects challenges facing Boeing and Lockheed Martin




The Wall Street Journal
By ANDY PASZTOR
April 9, 2017 9:00 a.m. ET


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Before NASA’s Orion exploration capsule has had its first full-blown test flight, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.  already are talking about slashing roughly 50% off the price of later versions of the spacecraft and its heavy-lift rocket.

The unusual cost-cutting push so early in the program, spelled out by officials from both companies at a conference here, reflects new financial and policy challenges confronting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its two largest contractors.

The agency likely faces flat or declining budgets for at least the next few years, even as funding needs for these and other big-ticket development programs persist and perhaps even climb.

The result is that Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for Orion, and Boeing, which heads up the team developing a powerful rocket called the Space Launch System, are seeking to fend off rivals and shore up congressional and public support by emphasizing projections of aggressive cost reductions in future years.

Orion’s immediate challenges include potential extra costs if NASA and the White House opt to put astronauts on the first test flight. The initial schedule called for a 2018 mission without a crew, followed by one in 2021 carrying astronauts. But to show more dramatic progress, NASA and Lockheed appear to be leaning toward accelerating certain work to allow two astronauts to be on board for the first demonstration flight that is targeted for 2019.

Over roughly the same time frame, Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Blue Origin LLC run by Amazon.com Inc. Chairman Jeff Bezos are proposing privately funded cargo and crewed missions beyond Earth’s orbit, some targeting the moon and even Mars.

Those commercially funded trips are slated to cost just a fraction of the roughly $1.6 billion NASA is committed to pay for the first or second Orion demonstration flight. Orion’s champions aim to show that subsequent flights of their deep-space vehicle would be considerably less expensive.

Jim Chilton, president of Boeing’s network and space systems, told reporters that managers for the SLS rocket “are trying to get good economics into the production system” by relying on increased automation, which translates into fewer workers on the factory floor.

Reflecting large upfront engineering and development costs, NASA has estimated that early SLS flights are likely to cost roughly $1 billion apiece. But Boeing has an internal target of eventually reducing recurrent launch costs to about half that, according to company and industry officials familiar with the details.

Costs for big aerospace programs typically drop following the development phase, though savings in this case will be harder than usual to achieve because the production volume will be so low—NASA anticipates a single Orion launch annually. Signaling cost concerns, the agency last fall made a preliminary request for the industry to propose less-expensive alternatives, potentially using different hardware.

SLS is slated to be the most powerful rocket ever built, designed to weigh more than 5.5 million pounds and stand taller than the Statue of Liberty. In the ultimate version, it is intended to carry more than 130 tons into orbit with thrust equivalent to the power of roughly 30 Boeing 747 jumbo jets. “No other system currently in development can do that,” said Peter McGrath, another senior Boeing official.

SpaceX and Blue Origin have said they plan to build even more powerful rockets than SLS. But those concepts are nowhere near production or testing.

Mike Hawes, a veteran former NASA official who now runs the Orion program for Lockheed Martin, said in an interview that his target is reducing the capsule’s eventual per-flight cost to less than $300 million from today’s roughly $600 million figure. “Part of getting the costs down,” he said, is locking in the design of environmental-control systems and other components as early as possible “to prepare for the ultimate production role.”

Eventually, Orion is supposed to enable four astronauts to start exploring the solar system. But just to get to the first crewed flight, engineers need to overcome major technical hurdles related to software and the operation of emergency crew-abort systems.

One of the biggest questions affecting recurrent costs is whether NASA will allow the capsules to be reused after fiery returns to Earth that by design, will erode Orion’s heat shield, Mr. Hawes said. Lockheed Martin envisions reusing crew seats, avionics and other portions the spacecraft, he said.

But to determine whether the structure itself can be flown again, he said the first capsules would be outfitted with special sensors to gauge stresses and loads during flights and landings.

In addition, the team is considering “a lot more 3-D printing and advanced manufacturing” to cut costs, Mr. Hawes said. Already, engineers were able to save a lot of weight and make the crew module simpler to assemble by reducing the number of pieces to seven from more than 33, he said.

In contracts with suppliers for the simplified parts on future capsules, he said, “we’ve cut the cost of those by roughly 50%.” 

Original article can be found here: https://www.wsj.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

SLS's primary mission is to launch money from the beltway to congressional districts. It doesn't matter how much it costs, how often it flies, or what it explores. It is already a big success.