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Space-based radar illustration
Space-based radar is one topic that has seen its share of grandiose proposals, few of which have made it beyond the proposal stage. (credit:

Halfway to the stars (atop piles of paper)

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If you work in the space field for any amount of time, one of the things you eventually learn is just how much money is spent on hardware studies of things that never go anywhere. The amounts are huge. And over the decades many thousands of hardware studies have been done for spacecraft that never even got to an initial development stage but simply got tossed in the trash. The study might only result in a report a few hundred pages long, or even only a set of briefing charts, but they represent enormous amounts of money and work.

If you work in the space field for any amount of time, one of the things you eventually learn is just how much money is spent on hardware studies of things that never go anywhere.

Over the years, NASA has sponsored studies of missions to the asteroid belt, missions to Venus, missions to the Sun, to the far reaches of the heliopause, X-ray space telescopes, UV space telescopes, radio telescopes on the Moon, regenerative fuel cells, space nuclear reactors, space stations, spacecraft hangars for space stations, centrifuges for space stations, man-tended research facilities, space tugs, cargo carriers… well, you get the point. The Department of Defense has also sponsored hundreds if not thousands of studies of communications satellites, surveillance satellites, transfer vehicles, etc. And of course there are also contractor-supported studies, often performed by companies hoping to come up with an idea that somebody wants to buy, or a spacecraft that can win in a competition called by the government. The companies spend their own money, but since most aerospace firms make most of their money from the government, all they are really doing is spending money that they got from the government in the first place (and which the government got from you, the taxpayer).

The amounts for even small projects can be staggering. Although nobody who really knows likes to talk about this, in general small spacecraft proposals submitted for NASA science competitions can cost several hundred thousand dollars to prepare. An organization like the Applied Physics Laboratory or a NASA center will usually sponsor several of them for each competition, and they will often secure the participation of an aerospace contractor and other scientists and engineers who will also contribute. Medium-size spacecraft can cost twice that much to propose. And that’s only for phase one—proposals that get selected for further study can spend considerably more money in the second phase. These proposals can still lose the competition, meaning that all that money does not result in an actual spacecraft. Really large, “flagship class” missions follow a more complex path to development, with lots of money being spent proving and refining concepts. They still generally spend millions of dollars before even getting to the initial development stage.

But all of that is chump change compared to the really big contract proposals. A number of years ago a former aerospace official told me that their company had spent over $80 million to put together a proposal for a major NASA spacecraft contract. They did this knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that the contract would eventually be canceled, as it was only about a year after it was awarded. The company spent all this money pursuing a walking dead project for essentially two reasons. The first was that they hoped to win and figured that they could make back that $80 million before the inevitable cancellation. The second was that if they did not bid, company executives believed that it would send a message that they had no confidence in NASA’s project, embarrassing agency officials, and this would hurt their chances of winning future contracts. So they bid, and lost. They undoubtedly found some way to recoup that money with their other government projects, or maybe simply wrote it off on their books.

Hardware studies are ultimately cheap. Hardware development is expensive.

The story sounded dubious. But only a year or so later the New York Times published an article about the National Reconnaissance Office’s failed Future Imagery Architecture (or FIA). FIA was a next generation spysat that proved to be technically infeasible. People in the reconnaissance field don’t talk about much, but somebody revealed to the Times reporter that Boeing had spent over $100 million on its successful bid for the contract. Several years and several billion dollars later, FIA was canceled and Boeing’s contract was canceled as well. The article did not indicate how much rival Lockheed Martin had spent on their unsuccessful bid, but it must have been comparable.

If you dig into old space archives, you can find lots of examples of studies of spacecraft and related hardware that never advanced beyond the paper stage, but that obviously took a great deal of effort to produce. Recently somebody showed me a 1974 report produced by the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Division and The MITRE Corporation, about the feasibility of launching a constellation of giant radar satellites into geosynchronous orbit where they would monitor aircraft. The satellites would have 300-meter diameter dishes. Three of them could be used to monitor the airspace around the United States to detect Soviet bombers on their way to nuke American cities. Or three of them could be used to monitor the airspace around China and the Soviet Union to detect aircraft in, or leaving, those countries. Seven of them could be used to monitor air traffic around the entire planet. (You can download the 8-megabyte report here.)

It’s pretty amazing. Bold and forward-thinking, also a little nutty. Undoubtedly super-expensive. For the next fifteen years a few Air Force generals kept pushing this idea of giant space radar satellites. Various other groups did their own studies. Lots of money was spent, and the idea never went anyplace.

That was probably a good thing. No matter how much money gets spent on hardware studies, even dozens of them, it is easily dwarfed by the amounts spent on projects once they enter the development phase. Lots of projects entered into development, blew through hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars, and then got killed and forgotten. During the 1980s, at the same time that some in the Air Force were pushing the space radar idea, the Air Force spent nearly half a billion dollars trying to develop a satellite laser communications system that never worked right and finally got canceled.

This is another thing that you ultimately learn in the space business: hardware studies are ultimately cheap. Hardware development is expensive. Initial studies might cost a tenth of one percent of the ultimate cost of a spacecraft.

But why so many studies? Why so much work that charges down blind alleys? There are a lot of reasons. One reason is the simple competition of ideas. Lots of things have to be proposed in order for a few things to be selected. Another reason is that it is not always easy to recognize a blind alley until you’ve gone down it—and sometimes it is impossible for the person or company or group to recognize that it is in a blind alley, and somebody else has to figure that out.

Sometimes people can stand atop those mountains of paper and actually touch the sky.

These studies can serve more beneficial purposes as well. They keep employees engaged and interested and keep their creative juices flowing. They are good for education and knowledge building and even morale and recruitment. In the past decade the Indian Space Research Organisation noticed that they were finding it increasingly difficult to attract young engineers to work on their projects. Not many people wanted to design the eighth version of a weather satellite. So ISRO initiated a robotic lunar program in part to attract workers who might be excited about designing a lunar probe. Lots of other companies have “advanced development” divisions simply to make their company seem more forward-looking and exciting to new recruits. Does anybody really think that Shimizu Corporation is going to build lunar hotels? But it’s certainly sexier than parking garages, and looks great on their website.

Finally, there’s the value of proposing and refining an idea until you get it right. A wise person once pointed out to me that virtually every Discovery or New Frontiers planetary mission that got selected had lost a previous competition, sometimes two or even three. Sitting on my desk is a tall pile of mission proposals from the early 1990s. There are dozens of them, and most of them never got built. But looking through them, it’s possible to start to recognize peoples’ names and mission concepts and procedures that eventually did get selected, sometimes a decade or more after they were first proposed, often in a slightly improved form. Sometimes people can stand atop those mountains of paper and actually touch the sky.