"A Moore's Law for Launch"
Dr. George C. Nield, Palo Alto, California
February 29, 2012
Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference
Thanks, Alex [Saltman]. And good afternoon, everyone. I’d like to start off my remarks today by expressing my appreciation to Alan Stern and his team for inviting me to be a part of this outstanding event. It’s really great to see so many people come together to talk about the research opportunities and the potential benefits associated with regular and frequent suborbital spaceflight.
I flew out here last night from Washington, DC. My office at FAA Headquarters is in the Orville Wright Building on Independence Avenue, and let me tell you – this is a pretty crazy time right now inside the beltway. Between the run-up to the November elections, and the continuing debates on how best to deal with the deficit, it is going to be very interesting to see where we end up on a variety of important space-related programs.
One of the items that I will be watching closely is the funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The President requested $830 million in FY2013 for this program, up from $406 million in FY2012, which will hopefully allow multiple companies to continue the development of systems to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station. As you know, now that the Space Shuttle has been retired, we are currently completely dependent on the Russians to get our crew members to and from the Station, and we are paying them about $62 million per seat for that service, at least until they decide to raise the price once again.
So my question is: Wouldn’t it make more sense to have U.S. companies, employing U.S. workers, and operating from U.S. spaceports, carrying out that mission? Right now there are seven U.S. companies who have stepped forward to sign Space Act Agreements with NASA, offering to take on that responsibility, and pledging to work with NASA on their development programs. Four companies (Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin) are receiving limited government funding for their efforts. Another three companies (United Launch Alliance, ATK, and Excalibur Almaz) are participating through unfunded agreements.
I believe that getting the United States back into the business of launching people to orbit should be one of our nation’s highest priority objectives – from a national security perspective, from a technological leadership perspective, from an economic competitiveness perspective, from the perspective of national pride, and as an opportunity to inspire our youth to focus on STEM education. Those of us in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation are certainly eager to do whatever we can to assist our partners at NASA in accomplishing that goal.
Even though the companies involved are investing significant amounts of their own money, some of program’s critics are concerned that there isn’t enough market demand to allow commercial business cases to close. They are apparently afraid that unless the government is calling all of the shots, as it has traditionally done on many large, complex, aerospace programs, the companies involved will eventually lose interest and go back to building airliners, selling books on the Internet, or developing electric cars.
That kind of thinking reminds me of some of the predictions made over the years concerning the market for computers. Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, famously observed in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Thirty four years later, in 1977, Ken Olson, President, Chairman, and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, observed that, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” That may well have been true, but for whatever reason, 48,000 personal computers were sold that year. By 2001, shipments of personal computers reached 125 million. As of 2008, more than 1 billion personal computers were in use worldwide. So much for a limited market.
Today, it’s hard for us to contemplate what life would be like without our personal computers, laptops, iPads, and smart phones. Much of the growth in popularity of those devices is no doubt due to the improvements in capability and the corresponding cost reductions that are described by Moore’s Law. The law is named after Gordon E. Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, who observed that the number of components contained in integrated circuits had doubled every year from 1958 up through1965. In an article published in Electronics magazine back in April of 1965, he noted that he expected that the trend could continue for at least 10 years.
Incredibly, half a century later, the technological enhancements are continuing at about the same rate. In fact, there are a series of metrics showing that same kind of exponential improvement, ranging from transistors per integrated circuit, hard disk storage cost per unit of information, network capacity, and pixels per dollar in digital cameras.
One of the reasons for the continuing trend may well be that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Originally, Moore’s Law was intended as a simple observation and as a short-term forecast. But as it became more widely communicated and accepted, it became a goal for the entire industry. Inside semiconductor manufacturing companies, both marketing and engineering departments having been working hard to demonstrate the kinds of processing power improvements that they have assumed one or more of their competitors would soon achieve.
So let me ask you something. What would the impact be if we were to experience something similar in our industry? What would that look like? Would it even be possible?
Now I’m sure that we could identify a number of technical breakthroughs that would be nice to have – stronger and lighter materials, exotic propellants with higher specific impulses, more robust thermal protection systems, and so forth. But it seems to me that we already know the basics of how to launch people and cargo into space. After all, we have been doing it for more than 50 years.
What we haven’t been able to master, at least on a regular and continuing basis, is how to build launch vehicles and spacecraft that are capable of conducting aircraft-like operations. Now by aircraft-like operations I don’t mean that they need to have wings, or that they need to takeoff and land on a runway. Instead, I mean that they are capable of completing multiple flights per day, with a very rapid turnaround. A perfect example would be XCOR’s X-Racer, which successfully flew seven times in one day back in 2008. Typically, the way to achieve that kind of operability is to have a vehicle with a relatively simple design, and to use hefty design margins throughout.
How do we know what design features we should incorporate, or how conservative we need to be when it comes to selecting those design margins? Well, the only way to answer those questions is to fly, and then to fly again, and again, and again. Only with that kind of experience, will we finally be able to compile the kind of database that we have benefited from in aviation, and which has resulted in such an impressive safety record for today’s commercial airliners. After 30 years of operating the Space Shuttle, but only 135 launches, NASA was still learning things on every mission. That’s what is so great about the suborbital vehicles that are the focus of this conference. In addition to allowing us to conduct state-of-the-art research in life sciences, technology, microgravity sciences, solar physics, and many other disciplines, the high flight rates and quick turnarounds that we expect to see should allow us to learn what we need to know in order to build safer, more reliable, and more cost-effective vehicles in the future.
My hypothesis is that by flying a lot, and flying frequently, we are going to figure out how to make better vehicles, that will in turn enable us to fly more safely and more cost effectively. That's the kind of virtuous cycle that can lead to rapid progress.
So how about if we propose a different kind of Moore’s Law – a Moore’s Law for Launch, in which, for a specified period of time, the total number of licensed or permitted launches would double every year. Using last year as our baseline, in FY2011 there were five licensed or permitted launches – a SeaLaunch mission, a Falcon 9, a Delta II, and two launches by Blue Origin. With several COTS launches scheduled for this year, and the Flight Opportunities Program starting up, I think it is quite likely that there will be more than 10 launches in FY2012.
What would we need to have going forward? Well, if we want to double the number of launches every year, we would be looking for 20 launches in FY13, 40 in FY14, then 80, 160, 320, and 640 launches per year. At that rate of increase, seven years from now, in FY2019, more than 1000 launches would be conducted (1280 to be exact).
That sounds like a lot of launches. And it is, at least in absolute terms. But if you spread them out over the entire year, it works out to only about 3.5 launches per day. Would that be possible? Well, remember that XCOR has already demonstrated 7 launches in a day with their X-Racer. Now it's true that the X-Racer didn't go all the way to space, but you get the idea. And if you recognize that every day, in the United States, there are more than 30,000 flights by commercial airliners, then maybe 3 or 4 rocket launches per day doesn't sound too unreasonable.
So if we were to decide to adopt that kind of growth rate in commercial launch activity as a national goal, how could we turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Well, there are a number of ideas that have been put forward to stimulate the commercial launch market. Last Fall, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin presented a paper at the International Astronautical Congress in Capetown, in which he proposed that the federal government should offer to pay a fixed dollar amount per pound to any company able to transport construction materials, or even food and water, to the surface of the moon, where they would eventually be used, once we finally start construction of a lunar base.
Another frequently discussed proposal is to pay companies for each pound of propellant that they are able to successfully deliver to low earth orbit, and thereby establishing a propellant depot – essentially a gas station in space. That could be a game-changer in terms of enabling various exploration architectures that would otherwise be much more expensive.
Alternatively, one could adopt a sort of "build it and they will come" philosophy. I think you could make a reasonable case for just running a sort of rocket railroad, with launches occurring frequently, according to a published schedule, whether there were payloads ready and waiting or not. With that kind of certainty having been established for future launch opportunities, I suspect it wouldn't take much time at all to prime the payload pump, with experimenters lining up to fly. Even if you were launching empty, there would still be significant benefits in terms of maturing the vehicles, training and energizing the workforce, and strengthening the industry as a whole.
Such an approach sounds like it would be outrageously expensive, but think about it. To focus on the suborbital market, even if the price were an un-discounted $200,000 per flight, the total cost of 1,000 launches would only be $200 million. That is a level equivalent to about one percent of the current NASA budget. What I am talking about here is not all that different from the existing Fight Opportunities Program, which I think is a fantastic program. But in an ideal world, I'd like to see the program expanded and the funding increased, perhaps with participation from other Departments and Agencies.
What else could we do to stimulate private investment and increase launch activity? How about prizes? Last year, the FAA proposed a Low Cost Access to Space prize, that would award $5 million to the first non-governmental team that could demonstrate the ability to launch a 1-kg cubesat into orbit, using a system with at least one reusable rocket-powered stage. I suspect that we could also come up with some interesting ideas for prizes that would involve point-to-point missions between various spaceports.
In the research arena, there are a number of things we could do that would benefit from increased fight opportunities. For example, it might be desirable to develop and try out a "black box for rockets" that would record key flight parameters, but would be designed to survive a vehicle breakup during launch or reentry. Such a system could be invaluable in helping accident investigators in determining what went wrong, so that the problem can be quickly corrected and the vehicle returned to flight.
We may also want to do extensive testing on autonomous flight safety systems, or to demonstrate the feasibility of implementing special launch or reentry corridors, that could allow space transportation operations to be conducted in closer proximity to other users of the National Airspace System.
Finally, I'd like to see us make another run at an expanded Teacher in Space program. At $200,000 per seat, we could support 50 suborbital flights for only $10 million—not a lot in the grand scheme of things. That would allow one teacher from every state to experience spaceflight firsthand, and then to return to their classrooms after a once-in-a-lifetime experience, ready to inspire and motivate their students. I can't think of a better way to prepare the next generation of potential aerospace workers for their future careers.
So those are some of my ideas. If you have other thoughts, I'd love to hear them. Who knows? Maybe we'll see a Moore's Law for Launch come to pass, with a doubling of the number of launches taking place each year, without doing anything. If we're lucky, perhaps we will be able to just sit back and watch it happen. Personally, I'd rather do what we can to see if we can make that prophecy come true, or to see if we can make it happen faster. Shall we give it a try?