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Capitalism in space: At the annual convention of the National Space Society, Elon Musk revealed some significant new details about his company’s future engineering and launch plans.
The first two stories are related, as it had been powered landings that SpaceX hoped to use for its Red Dragon Mars landings. Dropping powered landings, at this time, means that the first Dragon mission to Mars will likely not happen in 2020. While Musk outlined a number of good engineering reasons for this decision, to me this quote from the first article was significant:
SpaceX planned to transition from splashdowns, which is how the current cargo version of the Dragon returns to Earth, to “propulsive” landings at a pad at some point after the vehicle’s introduction. Certification issues, he said, for propulsive landings led him to cancel those plans. “It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety, particularly for crew transport,” he said.
In other words, NASA was balking at this innovation, and was putting up so many obstacles that it just wasn’t worth the company’s effort at this time. NASA is their main customer for manned launches, and NASA doesn’t like daring or creativity or innovation. The powered version of Dragon will probably have to wait for other private customers looking for a way to get into space.
The third story outlines the engineering challenges that SpaceX has been dealing with in its effort to build the Falcon Heavy, and includes this tidbit from Musk:
With all of these elements in consideration, Mr. Musk is urging caution regarding public expectation for Falcon Heavy’s first flight, saying that there is a “real good chance that the first vehicle [won’t] make it to orbit. So I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.”
Even more telling was how Musk continued on this point, stating that he hoped Falcon Heavy makes it far enough away from LC-39A before failing so the pad will escape significant damage. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it’s not going to cause damage. I would consider that a win, honestly,” said Mr. Musk.
Thank God NASA is not involved in the development of the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX would have probably had to abandon this as well.
During his remarks Saturday, Musk said NASA could avoid unnecessary delays and costs by transitioning to a system of competitive awards for fixed-price contracts, in which companies are only paid when they meet “milestones” such as completing a flight test or satisfying NASA about the safety performance of a vehicle. Additionally, he said, at least two entities should compete during the development process.
There’s a lot more there, and it is worth a full reading.