THE world’s most expensive competition is being played out in America. In one corner of the ring, backed by the US Government in the form of Nasa, is a mighty rocket, the SLS (Space Launch System) Vehicle, with Boeing as its prime contractor. Work on it started in 2011 and it was originally scheduled to launch to Earth orbit in December 2016. Since then 15 more launch deadlines have come and gone, with yet another due for August 29, nine days hence. So far this project has cost the US taxpayer up to $23billion.
In the private-sector corner is a relative upstart. Three years before the start of the SLS project, a newcomer called SpaceX delivered its first successful launch (after a string of failures that nearly bankrupted the company). Since then SpaceX has flown its Falcon series of rockets more than a hundred times, has achieved the routine recovery and re-use of its vehicles and has sent astronauts to the International Space Station. Apart from an initial $400million from NASA (since repaid), no government money has been involved.
SpaceX is now gearing up to launch its massive Starship to orbit Earth in a breakneck and dramatic development programme which follows the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘move fast and break things’. (Although it is perhaps unfair to expect a major passenger aircraft company such as SLS’s Boeing calmly to accept having its prototypes crash in fireballs as part of the learning process.) Rather belatedly plans are being made to integrate Starship operations into the Artemis programme, which aims to return humans to the moon, primarily using SLS rockets.
We have been here before. In the 1920s the British government decided, on the strength of the success of the German Zeppelin airships, that they should get into this business as well, and not one but two airships were to be built. The R100 was to be constructed in the private sector by the defence company Vickers, and the R101 by the government, at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington, Bedfordshire.
R100 was completed on time and in budget, although many details were changed and many innovations made to overcome unexpected problems. The R101 was over budget and late in completion because the original design had features which, it turned out, could be incorporated only at great cost and delay and with doubtful value. But incorporated they were.
The R100 completed its trials and undertook a successful maiden voyage to Canada in July and August 1930. The R101 was due to make its maiden voyage to take the Air Minister to India in early October, and to meet this deadline the final work was rushed and trials were omitted. It left Cardington at 6.36pm on October 4 and almost exactly eight hours later it crashed in Northern France, killing the Minister and forty-seven others.
The novelist Nevil Shute had been an engineering designer on the R100, and set out what he believed were the reasons for the R101 disaster. They were, he wrote in 1951, ‘fundamental to the incursion of a government department into industry and are the same today, whether the product be airships or guided missiles’.
Specifically, governments impart a rigidity into what should be a fluid situation. Once a decision has been made it cannot be easily altered; public money has been committed and must not be thrown away, even if the reason for spending it has vanished. To give an example, in the case of the British airships the original plan was to use diesel engines, more efficient and with a less flammable fuel. But such engines were still little developed and turned out to be much heavier than expected, requiring the belated insertion of extra gasbags in R101. The R100, not being publicly committed, decided to stick with petrol engines and the original envelope design. The R101 could not say ‘we were wrong’ without diminishing its political masters as well as itself, and so it flew away dangerously underpowered.
Nevil Shute spelt out these conclusions, but he also had some definite views on attempts by Governments to encourage development which also ring true today. Based on his own experiences when trying to create an aviation company, Airspeed Ltd, in the 1930s, he wrote: ‘It is no good going to a government office charged with the development of industry. Such organisations frequently think quite sincerely that they are putting out a portion of their resources in the form of risk capital, but their definition of a risk is different from mine. I never got any of them to touch Airspeed.’ This, in my experience, still accords today – unless the supplicant is also a government-created body.
In conclusion, the SLS is not a R101, but it is bankrolled through a government agency. Nasa is no doubt conscious that it has a unique place in the eyes of Americans (and elsewhere) as a source of wisdom in all matters concerning space. It is this sentiment that has enabled it to continue to spend over a billion dollars annually on the SLS. But now, with SpaceX and a number of others sending up rockets, the space launch business has at last evolved from a crusade into an industry. This is as it should be, but it has left the original crusader in acute danger of losing its money or its reputation. Or both.