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What goes around, comes around…

July 19, 2011

Sierra Nevada's Dreamchaser on an Atlas V

NASA and United Launch Alliance announced yesterday they would “share data” in making it possible to launch NASA manned missions on Atlas V launch vehicles. The Atlas V has been used to launch many satellites, but has not been “man rated” up to this time.

United Launch Alliance, LLC, is the company formed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing to handle the commercial launches of the Delta and Atlas rockets. They sort of pooled their resources to avoid competition. In fact, their only competition in the satellite launcher market have been ArianeSpace and the Russians, unless you count SpaceX, which is just getting into it, or Orbital Sciences, which has been only launching small stuff. And the satellites that were carried on the Shuttle, of course.

Now y’all know I’m for competition in the marketplace. But y’all also know I’m for a level playing field. I hope Elon Musk and his folks at SpaceX are right and they can build and launch cheaper, because another roadblock has just been thrown in their way. While this looks like a good thing for everyone, this “data sharing,” I am concerned that SpaceX has been give the bumpy road while the good old boys – LockMart and Boeing – get the wink, wink, nod, nod. This article says that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin manned capsule is going to use the Atlas, as is Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser and “perhaps” Boeing’s own CST-100.

I completely understand wanting to use a tested technology. I’ve been hollering about that myself for years. But all of a sudden this agreement pops up, just when SpaceX, with their own, privately developed launch vehicle, is this close to being ready to launch a manned vehicle…well…

Anybody see the movie “Wind“?

It was a fictional account of how we lost the America’s Cup in sailing. Completely fictional, in fact; not related in any way to the actual events in Dennis Connor’s races or anything about Dennis Connor. In fact, the skipper who lost was a northeastern, old-school yachtsman, not an upstart middle-class sailor like Connor.

The challenger for the Cup the next time around for the USA is a group of young folks with a boat built by aeronautical engineers, designed and tested in the desert southwest. The young tactician from the team that lost is skipper this time, and he and his young upstarts have the Aussies down to a tie with one race to go…and the former skipper, who lost the Cup, brings his old school folks in and attempts to take over for the final race. You kids did a great job, but now it’s time for the big boys to take over and bring the win home. (Unknown to the kids, the funding for their efforts mainly came from him, through various shadow groups.)

Of course, the young skipper says no, and they go on to be victorious, bringing the Cup back to the US. The sailing sequences are gorgeous and kind of make up for the stupidity of the plot sometimes. Matthew Modine is the young guy, Jennifer Grey his onetime girlfriend and one of the engineers (the one who designs the secret new sail that wins), and Cliff Robertson is the old-money, slightly crazed loser of the Cup. The film came out in 1992.

NASA and ULA are looking a bit too much like Cliff Robertson’s character for me, here. I’m afraid when it’s all said and done, SpaceX will be left out in the cold and the good old boy space network will close back up, and we’ll see manned missions only launching on ULA Atlas launchers and using Boeing CST-100s. It won’t be about who has the better hardware, or who can do it for the least money, or any of that: it will be about protecting jobs in the places where Boeing and ULA are located…places where influential congresscritters reside, perhaps?

Atlas V with the Boeing capsule - Boeing just happened to have prepared this image!

I’m not saying the Atlas is bad hardware. The Delta isn’t bad either, for that matter. But what about all this crap we just went through fixing the pogo problem with the Stick? Did ATK have better lobbyists? Or did they get told, “Sorry, guys, but we couldn’t sell it. We have to go with liquid fueled rockets after all.” If we could man-rate the Atlas so easily, why wasn’t that the primary option back before NASA started screwing around with the Orion for five years?

Sheesh. More time and money wasted. I swear, those pinheads do not deserve to be given that kind of money to throw around. They pissed away five years and untold billions, then Obama glances down into Florida for a minute or two and says, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and it turns out there was a backup plan waiting in the wings the whole time…right. And there are no conspiracies in the Federal government.

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