I was channel surfing last week and landed on a video clip of Elon Musk blubbering about how no less than certified American icons Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan were bad mouthing Musk's commercial space initiative. He was close to tears. Actually, in testimony before Congress, Armstrong and Cernan weren't so much exclusively dissing SpaceX, Musk's company, as they were the very idea that commercializing space operations is simply another indication that NASA has lost its way and has no vision. (I could have told them that, without need for committee hearing.)
Having said that, I was left with the impression that maybe it's Armstrong and Cernan who are even more lost; two old warhorses stuck in NASA's glory days when only the government could launch rockets and do space. It worked then, we should stick with it, they seemed to be saying.
Musk, in case you don't know, made a gazillion bucks with PayPal and setup SpaceX in 2002 to build boosters and spacecraft. He also founded Tesla Motors, an electric car company that he predicted would basically make extinct the internal combustion engine. Anyone in the energy business knows what vaporous eyewash that claim is, but Musk's achievements with SpaceX deserve serious consideration. Musk describes himself as a self-taught rocket scientist, having read a few books on the subject.
But in a mere 10 years, SpaceX has developed two successful launch systems (the Falcon 1 and 9) and has flown and recovered from orbit a spacecraft call Dragon. In the works is a heavy lifter booster with twice the payload of the shuttle. Under contract to NASA, it resupplied the International Space Station last month. Dragon doesn't yet dock directly, but does a capture-and-berth maneuver that still gets the mission done. SpaceX's contract is worth $1.6 billion for a dozen such resupply missions. To deliver on the contract, SpaceX built its own plant in California which is intensely vertically integrated. It builds its own engines, airframes, instrument packageseverything.
As far as that goes, that's hardly commercialized space. It's different only by degree. In the salad days of NASA, the agency still engaged the likes of Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Northrop and Grumman to build the hardware that NASA flew. Now it just pays companies like SpaceX to heave stuff up into low-earth orbit as a turnkey deal. That's NASA's current thing; to turn LEO over to commercial companies. And if it's cheaper to do that, why shouldn't we? (SpaceX has other contracts to launch satellites, having grubbed that business from Arianespace. And that is commercialized space.)
Lockheed, Boeing and other established aerospace giants, through surrogates, have claimed that SpaceX bids low then raises the price due to overruns. (Like Lockheed has never done that. And I seem to recall they're now charging the Air Force $19 million to fix the F-22's oxygen system.) SpaceX's competitors also seem to try to sell the impression that NASA is turning over all the launch business to this inexperienced upstart. But other companies are competing and winning contracts, too. Maybe because SpaceX is a brash upstart that hasn't been invited into the aerospace Gun Club, it's considered less worthy.
If SpaceX's claims hold true for its NASA launch contract, it will indeed be cheaper. Before it retired, the Shuttle was costing about $450 million per launch, for a pound-to-orbit total of $27,000, according to Futron Corp. But the shuttle carried twice as much as the Falcon 9, it was man-rated and reusable. A better comparison is with the Delta 2, whose orbital cost per pound is about $16,600. Depending on whose numbers you want to believe, SpaceX's costs for the Falcon 9 are between $1500 and $2600 per pound. Even if they're three times that amount, that's still a better deal than the boosters NASA has been using.
Understanding full well how contract prices with the government escalate and how the hapless taxpayer can hardly judge value given the details we're not aware of, I'm having trouble seeing what Armstrong and Cernan were on about. Cernan called it a "pledge to mediocrity," again implying that only governments can do spaceflight right. Really? I think if Musk and SpaceX have proven anything, it's that we're well beyond that sort of thinking. SpaceX wants to be the next contractor to launch American astronauts into orbit and although Dragon and Falcon 9 aren't man-rated yet, there's no reason to believe they can't be. True, SpaceX could still stub its toes, have a couple of launch failures and go under. But in the meantime, it seems to me Armstrong and Cernan ought to be cheering them on.