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Space: The Private Frontier

Liftoff of upgraded Falcon 9

Thanksgiving was going to be a big day for SpaceX—the privately owned, Elon Musk-led space exploration company. SpaceX was set to launch its first satellite into geostationary orbit, in what Musk called his “toughest mission to date.” The maiden flight was originally scheduled for Monday evening, but pressure fluctuations in a liquid oxygen tank pushed the date back. But yesterday, out of an abundance of caution, the SpaceX team scrubbed the launch a second time, citing a desire to “take a closer look at the engines” and pushing the date back another “few days.” The caution is understandable—SpaceX can still properly be considered to be in “beta,” and the success or failure will color the way many perceive the fledgling private space company.

The launch will be a big test for SpaceX, but that it’s even gotten this far shows just how much progress commercial space flight has made in recent years. The American government is taking notice, having just last week outlined a new policy encouraging the growth of the commercial space industry. The WSJ reports:

At least through the beginning of the next decade, the [new policy] aims to lock in current National Aeronautics and Space Administration priorities to rely on commercial rockets and spacecraft to deliver cargo and astronauts to the international space station.

Under the new White House guidelines, the Pentagon also is required to allow less-expensive commercial launch providers to compete “on a level playing field” with legacy Air Force rockets built by a Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture.

NASA’s budget—as a percentage of the total federal budget—has steadily declined over the past fifty years. That’s led some, like pop-science maestro Neil Degrasse Tyson, to lament missed opportunities and advocate for a larger budget. But private companies are stepping up, putting price pressures on the building and launching of spacecraft. We should be encouraging more private investment, and to that end it looks like Washington is on the right track.

[Liftoff of upgraded Falcon 9 spacecraft image courtesy of SpaceX]

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  • TheRadicalModerate

    And yet 70% of NASA’s FY13 space exploration budget is being spent on the Space Launch System (SLS), aka, derisively, the “Senate Launch System”. This is a heavy-lift launch system with no definite mission attached to it other than to act as a giant jobs program for various NASA labs and contractors.

    Even when you omit R&D amortization from SLS, the most optimistic estimate is about $8500 per payload pound to low earth orbit, with some estimates running as high as $19,000 per pound.By comparison, SpaceX is advertising Falcon Heavy prices at about $1000 per payload pound to LEO. The one advantage that SLS has is in payload capacity: 77 tonnes to LEO for SLS block 1 vs. 53 tonnes for Falcon Heavy. (There’s a 130 tonne version of SLS planned, but its schedule is further out.) But it’s still cheaper to do on-orbit assembly and fueling with a propellant depot with two or even three Falcon Heavy launches than it is to do one SLS launch.

    SLS consumes about $2.7 billion per year in the NASA budget. That budget could be used for real deep-space exploration R&D if the SLS’s giant welfare program were cancelled.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    If we’d only cancel the Space Launch System, which costs, optimistically, about 8 times as much per pound to LEO as Falcon Heavy, NASA could take the $2.7 billion a year it spends on this glorified corporate welfare program–70% of NASA’s space exploration budget–and do some real deep-space exploration R&D.

  • ToniTexas

    Re NASA’s budget, three explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. First, many individual federal programs are likely a smaller proportion of a gargantuan budget. Second, any craft (like a satellite) that doesn’t have to keep humans inside alive is cheaper. Third, the ever-falling price of microelectronics means NASA can do more with less money.

    That said, competition in a free market will likely produce a better product or service for a lower price. Remember $3,000 toilet seats approved by the Pentagon?

  • ToniTexas

    PS Elon Musk is behind the curve. A couple of decades ago, Orbital Sciences pioneered private-market space rockets, and later got into making satellites.

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