Elias: Technology Alone Cannot Solve Launch Costs
By Ben Iannotta, posted at 9:00 a.m., 16 January
Antonio Elias of Orbital Sciences Corp. delivered a tough message Wednesday afternoon to the audience at the von Kármán astronautics lecture at AIAA’s SciTech Forum. Elias argued that there is no Moore’s Law for rocketry, much as everyone might like one, and that the only way to significantly reduce launch costs would be to spread costs over more launches.
Chemical rockets are amazing, he said: “We’re dealing with power densities [similar] to nuclear explosions. On the other hand, the fundamental technology on which we rely is at a dead end,” said Elias, who is Orbital’s chief technical officer.
Elias ran through the long history of attempts to reduce launch costs through technology. One of his slides showed the cover page from a now infamous study predicting that the U.S. would launch more than 50 space shuttle orbiters a year. Shifting to another slide, he directed his red laser pointer to the high points on a bar graph showing rising annual launch rates for other vehicles. “This is where they assumed the shuttle was going to be,” he said. “This is where it ended up,” and he pointed the laser toward the bottom of the arc.
The shuttle “was a great technological achievement, but certainly from the standpoint of reducing launch cost, it didn’t work,” Elias said.
He expressed amazement that “every seven years” someone “comes out with yet another study of reusable launch vehicles.”
Calling the shuttle an “aerodynamically driven concept,” he said history suggests that the answer won’t be flying airplanes into space. “People then, and sometimes people today, still believe in the comparison between rockets and launch vehicles and airplanes,” he said. In his view there is no comparison: “our Antares equals 98 Boeing 747s in terms of energy.”
Reusability won’t be the answer, and chemical rockets are at a technological “dead end,” he said. So, “what’s left?” he answered his own question: “Rate: To what degree can we increase rate? If we build them, they will come, and that’s the argument I want to make.”
For Elias, the importance of launch rates has not been well appreciated through history, or even today. He cited the example of the modernized Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets developed in the U.S. under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle or EELV program.
“The U.S. government chose to force Atlas and Delta to co-exist as self competing vehicles in a single market, therefore almost automatically chopping the rates by a factor of two for a given market,” he said.
Meanwhile, the French Ariane 5 arose as “one vehicle serving one market.” Why does Arianespace have a price edge? “I totally refuse to believe that that’s because of some higher competence of the French – I mean, European engineers and managers – over the United States.”
At the end of the lecture, Elias struck the same theme in answering an audience question about the huge Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule that NASA and its contractors are building to exacting government specifications. In a separate initiative promoted by NASA, other contractors are vying to provide commercially designed craft for the NASA market.
“I believe the U.S. government only has enough budget to support one of these approaches, and there has been a political decision to support both, which means the budget required to support these approaches would be insufficient. Therefore, we have doomed both approaches to failure,” he said.
The master of ceremonies for the lecture, David Throckmorton of Northrop Grumman, returned to the microphone: “Well, I don’t want to end this conversation on this note,” he joked. But he did.
(Image: Dave Throckmorton (general chair) presents Antonio L. Elias with the von Kármán Lecutreship in Astronautics Award)