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The man who killed the X-33 Venturestar

Cheap airplane like access to space was… very close… 20 years ago.

The X-33 Venturestar demonstrator project could have heralded the age of cheap reusable space ships already in the beginning of the 2000’s. It was a single stage to orbit system that would be reusable and inherently cheaper to use and reuse than both multistage single-use rockets and the partly refurbishable Space Shuttle System, which dragged a humongous drop tank into orbit and jettisoned it once in LEO without repurposing it. With the Venturestar, USD 1000/kg to LEO was an achievable price point, compared to the 100.000/kg for the Shuttle, and it would have given an amazing revolutionary capability to NASA, the USA, and the world twenty years ago.

Read more about SSTO’s

Why SSTO’s are not a bad idea

A 1992 idea for a Martian SSTO

What if the rocket launcher is the payload and launches itself


So… What happened?

Management and technical problems marred the program, although no more than earlier programs. The engineers working on the project had found satisfactory solutions to all of them, including a problem with the weight and maturity of newly developed cryogenic composite propellant tanks which was solved by simply using older reliable aluminium-lithium welded technology that turned out to be fit for purpose, an amazing 25% lighter than and as cheap as the proposed composite tech.


Some of the technical marvels achieved by the team were a tiled metal thermal protection system able to be replaced with simple mechanical bolts, which saved millions of man-hours compared to refurbishment operations on the delicate ceramic tiles of the now-retired Space Shuttle. This would increase the ease with which to reuse the Venturestar.


11 April 2000, a fateful day.

However, nothing could have prepared the teams working on the project for the following. When Congress took to heart the recommendations of a former NASA director, they canceled the project, leaving everybody in the space community with their jaw dropped to the floor, incredulous about the cancellation of a project that was 85% complete, ready to fly and, according to the engineers, as economical as originally envisioned while available for further iterative improvements.


That is why the following testimony by Ivan Bekey is a crucial piece of Space History arcana, important for everybody that wants to get a deep understanding about the sometimes arbitrary nature with which the fate of projects, even successful ones, can be decided.


It is unfair to single out Ivan Bekey, at that time former NASA Director of Advanced Programs in the Office of Space Flight and holding roles as a valued consultant after that period, as the sole person to kill the X-33. Higher NASA management and members of Congress could have easily stepped in to defend the project but chose not too. To this day wild accusations of collusion with the business interests of competitors are flung around, of which the veracity to us is unknown.


But we can present you with the information that is publicly available.


Make up your own mind, and tell us what you think about the line of reasoning presented in the testimony of Ivan Bekey on April 11, 2000:


Testimony of Ivan Bekey before the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Hearing on the FY2001 NASA Budget Request: Aerospace Technology Enterprise
Tuesday, April 11, 2:00pm
Hearing on NASA’s FY2001 Budget Request:
Aero-Space Technology Enterprise
Testimony of Mr. Ivan Bekey
Bekey Designs, Inc.Appearing before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
Committee on Science
U.S. House of Representatives
Mr. Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman

April 11, 2000

Testimony of Mr. Ivan Bekey

“Mr. Chairman, it is an honor and a privilege to be able to address the Committee on its hearing on NASA’s FY2001 budget request: Aero-Space Technology Enterprise. I will be restricting my comments to the advanced space transportation portions of that Enterprise.


I am quite familiar with advanced space transportation, having spent 19 years at NASA Headquarters from 1978 to 1997, including 6 years as Director of Advanced Programs in the Office of Space Flight in which I was directly responsible for the identification, definition, and advocacy of advanced Earth-to-space and in-space transportation, and other positions directing Advanced Concepts which identified a broad range of far-reaching technologies for space transportation. Since leaving NASA I have been a consultant to industry in advanced space technologies and concepts, including future space transportation techniques.


I would like to comment on the 2nd generation RLV program, the X-33 program, the 3rd generation RLV technology activities, and conclude with some general comments about the promise of space activity as related to the proposed budgets.


Second generation RLV

NASA is to be applauded for including a competition between two different RLV designs in its 2nd generation RLV plan, and for proposing the expenditure of almost $3 B over 5 years in definition and technology risk reduction activities leading to it. Nonetheless, I have several reservations with respect to the competitive aspects of this program. While such competition is necessary and healthy, the designation of one of those competitors as a “Shuttle Derived Vehicle” is neither.


The desire to continue the Shuttle program, perhaps with flyback boosters or other such major changes, can never result in low-cost transportation. This is especially true if operated in a purely commercial mode in which the R+D investments are amortized into the per-flight costs, the same way that other competitors would have to be judged. This was proven conclusively in the landmark 1993-1994 NASA “Access to Space” study, in which I participated and for which I wrote the final report. This was an all-NASA major study that examined Shuttle-derived vehicles, new expendable and partially reusable vehicles using current technology, and new advanced technology reusable launch vehicles–both single and multiple stage and airbreathing vs pure rocket designs. All options were compared using a common mission model, and advocacy groups were formed for each class of vehicles to best represent their particular interests.


One of the main findings was that even though billions of dollars were spent on improving the Shuttle, the flight costs would not become significantly lower. This study also determined that partially or wholly expendable vehicles would not result in savings greater than about 25-50%, conclusions that were seconded by the USAF “Moorman” study a year later and became the basis for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program with precisely those numbers as cost savings goals. The Access to Space study determined that only fully reusable vehicles, and within those, only single-stage-to-orbit pure rocket vehicles, offered the order-of-magnitude savings that were desired.


I am not aware of any study that has come to significantly different conclusions, and thus I fail to see why a Shuttle Derived Vehicle would be baselined as one of the competitors to the 2nd generation RLV. It is, of course, appropriate to continue Shuttle upgrades that increase its safety, as NASA cannot afford another catastrophe. That does not mean, however, that we should designate a new Shuttle Derived vehicle to become one of only two competitors for the 2nd generation RLV, as it sends the message that NASA really intends to fly the Shuttle forever in one form or another.


However if it is decided, for whatever reason, that a Shuttle Derived vehicle must be one competitor for a 2nd generation vehicle, then I think there should be a total of three parallel competitors, two of them being new commercially developed vehicles and all having equal NASA contributions to their risk reduction. The choice should not be allowed to devolve to only Venture Star vs Son of Shuttle, particularly with Venture Star being a completely new vehicle requiring commercial funding for its development while the Shuttle-Derived vehicle would benefit from many tens of Billions of dollars in government investments over 25 years.


There is another aspect of this intended competition, which would choose one RLV in 2005 for full-scale development and initial flight in 2009. The desire for a downselect understandable, especially if the industry and NASA choose that vehicle together. However, this winner-take-all proposition means that all of NASA’s missions, at least to the ISS, would be committed to that winner. It would be desirable to aim at keeping two different approaches available, much as the USAF did with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, however, the size of the NASA market is not large enough to support two large RLV developments. Therefore it would make sense to augment this competition with a purely commercial parallel initiative.


In this commercial initiative NASA would pledge to allow full and open access to launch all its future missions to purely commercially developed vehicles of any size, beginning as soon as such commercial vehicles are proven sufficiently safe and reliable, even if they do not take a part in NASA’s RLV definition program, so long as they had access to all the results of its risk reduction activities. This would allow freedom from the “requirements-driven” process and might result in innovative low-cost solutions. Furthermore, such an equal opportunity of access to the NASA market is a necessary enabling condition to entrepreneurial firms when seeking investors. Such a step would require neither current appropriations nor future budget scoring, as those future NASA missions are contemplated but need not be guaranteed to anyone. Commercial entrepreneurs could well surprise us–let’s let the engines of commerce have a parallel go at the NASA market, totally unbridled.


Also troubling is the length of the NASA approach. 2000 was to be the year in which RLV development would begin, based on the results of an extensive ground technology program and X-33 flight data. That must now slip a year or two due to the X-33 tank rupture. But to slip it into 2005 could only be justified by the time required to develop a new engine, which does not appear to be in the budget. Thus the proposed 4 years of ” requirements definition” and “system engineering” by thousands of NASA and industry personnel before beginning development, which is a mind-boggling prospect by itself, does not appear to have been thought through given the absence of an adequate main engine.


The X-33 program

The X-33 program is absolutely critical to the development of a 2nd generation RLV, and reducing launch costs to about 1,000 $/lb. It was the direct result of the “Access to Space” program’s recommendations, which included a ground technology program and an experimental flight demonstration vehicle whose purpose would be to test all the new technologies working together in a flight environment. It was recognized that the X-33 would be a high-risk program, and it was designed that way. We must place the state of the X-33 program into this context of high risk-high payoff experimental flight programs: failures and major setbacks are to be expected. That is the heart of the experimental/developmental X vehicle concept. Thus the failure of the X-33 composite fuel tank and other components should have been anticipated by well-funded parallel component developments. This was not done for budgetary reasons, and though the about $1.5 B investment in the X-33 cannot be called puny, it nonetheless was single-string, with its attendant risks that led to the result we now face.


I understand that NASA and Lockheed Martin are proposing to fly the vehicle in about a year, but with an Aluminum fuel tank. I think to do so would be a big mistake for 3 reasons:


1) The principal purpose of the X-33 program is to fly all the new technologies that interact with each other together on one vehicle, so that they can be fully tested in an interactive flight environment. If that is not done, the principal reason for the flight program disappears. Even though the thermal protection system and the engine would be tested, the structure and its interaction with the tanks and support for the thermal protection system would not be tested. Since the biggest set of unknowns in this vehicle configuration have to do with the structure-tankage-aeroshell-TPS-airflow interactions, it is my belief that to fly the vehicle with an aluminum tank makes little sense from a technical point of view.

2) Single-stage fully reusable vehicles have a sufficiently large number of critics, who will only be silenced with flight demonstration of a vehicle containing all the relevant new technologies, scalable to a full-scale vehicle. To fly a vehicle with an aluminum tank will give those critics much ammunition to claim that not only was the X-33 vehicle too small in scale but its flights did not even test one of the most significant new technologies or demonstrate the successful integration of the new technologies, and therefore single-stage-to-orbit fully reusable launch vehicles have not yet shown to be feasible. That would be a needless tragedy.

3) Worse yet, flight of an X-33 with an aluminum tank will increase the difficulty of raising private capital for a commercially developed VentureStar from the merely “very difficult” to the “essentially impossible”.


What I would recommend is that NASA and Lockheed Martin face up to the risks inherent in an experimental flight program and renegotiate the X-33 cooperative agreement so as to delay the flight milestone until a replacement composite tank can be confidently flown. Both NASA and Lockheed Martin should make the investments required to build another composite tank and to absorb the program costs of the delay because only then will the X-33 program be able to meet its objectives. To do anything less is flying for flying’s sake, wastes the funds already expended, and makes little sense.


Technology program for 2nd generation RLV

The technology program appears to be well conceived with the exception that it does not appear to mention the inclusion of the development of a government-funded new rocket engine. A new engine, other than the Aerospike for VentureStar, is critically needed for a 2nd generation RLV. Its principal characteristics are robustness and reusability, with at least 100 missions desired without refurbishment; self-test; and a sea-level thrust-to-weight ratio of at least 70. These numbers come from industry as well as NASA’s own studies as necessary if the cost reduction goals of such RLVs are to be met. Such a development is probably in the $1-2 B range, and will not be made by industry with its own funds, although some cost sharing may be possible. Without such an engine, and preferably two different kinds of such engines, there will be no 2nd generation RLV.


Another concern is that the 2nd generation RLV program appears to concentrate almost exclusively on lowering the cost of transportation from Earth to low orbit. However, it is equally important to address the lowering of costs of in-space transportation (from LEO to GEO and beyond) which is usually even more expensive than the cost of getting into LEO by cost factors of 4 or more. Thus it appears that the budgets shown for the program (properly adjusted or augmented to include one or more new main engines), while they may be adequate for an Earth-to-orbit vehicle or for an LEO-beyond vehicle, cannot be adequate for both. While the funds being requested are impressively large compared to those of past years, they are still not fully adequate to address both parts of the problem.


Another aspect of this problem is that the “technology base” funds must be properly apportioned between those that support Earth-to-orbit and those that support in-orbit transportation, lest an imbalance result in starvation of either one. The details of such an apportionment were not available.


Technology for 3rd generation RLV

The plan shows a line for investments in so-called 3rd generation systems–those that have as their goal flight costs of 100 $/lb. This is the right cost/pound of payload goal because it is necessary to enable a great expansion in space use. However, both the allocation and timing of those funds are inappropriate. These funds should be in a separate program-specific line item separate from the technology base, and their budget level is grossly inadequate. These thoughts are amplified below:


1. There are many concepts and technologies in advanced propulsion, thermal protection, structures and materials, and other areas that must be pursued in parallel because it is neither possible nor desirable to pick the winners ahead of time. This parallel approach does require greater funds than if a few were pursued serially, but will result in much faster progress. The NASA budget in this area is too small to allow for parallel technology activities at a reasonable activity level.

2. If these advanced technology activities remain as in the “technology base” line item they will be eaten up by the NASA technology hobby shops. They must be collected into a separate identifiable and properly focussed strategic program. If this is not done their funding level will remain so low that they will forever remain as technical promises not yet to be taken seriously. A strategic plan should be developed for a true 3rd generation RLV technology program with milestones, time-phased goals, and an appropriately aggressive budget.

3. The schedule of having this technology ready by the 2020 time frame is agonizingly and unnecessarily slow. A focussed program should be able to complete technology readiness by 2010, and result in first flight of a vehicle by 2015. Let’s get this program area off the back burner.

4. This 3rd generation technology program is critical to space development, because it alone aims at realizing launch prices of $100/lb. Many studies, especially the “Commercial Space Transportation Study” done by industry when there were still 6 viable sources, determined that only when prices drop to that level will the non-traditional markets such as Solar Power from Space, Public Space Travel, Space Business Parks, Sports Pavilions, and other lucrative commercial activities become economically viable. But when they do their magnitude will dwarf all current and past space activity levels, including the Apollo program, with 10-100 times the tonnages to space and launch rates now experienced, and result in total commercial revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars.


Because of this commercial attractiveness, if NASA takes the risk out the new technologies commercial ventures will fall all over each other to build vehicles and commercial space businesses around them in a way not possible even at $1,000/lb. Witness the difficulties Lockheed Martin is having in finding investors for the VentureStar, principally due to too small a market. Therefore it is absolutely crucial that NASA undertake a focussed, well-defined program to make this 3rd generation technology a reality, and request much greater funds so that this future can be enabled.


For the same reason, Congress should fence whatever funds are so appropriated against the constant and inevitable raids that such technology programs always experience. The raiders are all kinds of near term programs in trouble, and the stolen funds are usually insufficient to save those programs yet assure the destruction of the longer term more visionary technology program.


Total budgets and their implications on the future of space activities

I have called for more funds for development of both ETO and in-space transportation, extending the X-33 program to include a replacement composite fuel tank, development of at least one new high operability main engine, and creating a more rapid and focussed 3rd generation program to produce low risk technology to attain transportation costs of $100 /lb. The added funds could well be in the 1-2 billion dollar range over a few years, on top of the large augmentations that NASA has already requested. Rejecting this call out of hand would be penny wise and pound foolish: let me develop a few approximate numbers to illustrate why this should be done.


At current launch costs of about 10,000 $/lb (full cost recovery), and launching an average of 25,000 lbs per payload an average of 12 times per year, NASA would pay about $3.0 B annually for launching all its payloads. If the cost were reduced to $100/lb the cost for launching the same payloads would be reduced to only $30 M/yr, a savings of almost the entire $3 B per year, or $30 B in 10 years. But the most telling numbers result from the explosion of non-traditional commercial space activities, which could easily result in 10 or 100 times the current flight rate. If commercial industry paid for 10 times the flight rate at the same average payload weights, their total cost would be reduced from an unaffordable $30 B/yr to $300 M/yr, a savings of almost the entire $30 B per year or a staggering $300 B over 10 years. Savings for greater flight rates would be proportionately larger.


So the savings to either NASA or commercial industry over a few years would be so large as to completely swamp any investment that could conceivably be made in the technology that would permit such savings. Another way to say this is that the Return On Investment (ROI), or the Internal Rate of Return (IRR), would be so large as to make financing such ventures easy and quick, and comparable to other commercial investments. This leverage, both for NASA and industry, is so large that we should work very hard to reallocate priorities to make possible the needed investments. At stake is nothing less than affordable space exploration for NASA, and perhaps even more importantly, a full-scale Industrial Revolution in Space.


Respectfully submitted


Ivan Bekey
Bekey Designs, Inc.

// end //”


So ended the Venturestar. Decisions regarding government-funded projects can be tough for all involved. We hope that our privately funded project keeps this cautionary tale in mind and steers clear of similar episodes.

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