SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and Mars

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Two stories this week illustrate the difference between lobbying the government to get anything accomplished, and doing it yourself with the goal of making money from it from private customers.

In the first case SpaceX is planning to fly a Dragon capsule to Mars, using its Falcon Heavy rocket, and do it by 2018. It would not be manned, but would do the initial engineering testing for later manned missions, using larger interplanetary spacecraft. SpaceX is not asking the government to help pay for it. They are only making sure they have dotted all the legal “I”s required. The goal is to build spacecraft that can take anyone to Mars who is willing to pay for the flight.

In the second case Lockheed Martin is proposing a big government program to put six astronauts in orbit around Mars, in 2028. They haven’t really built anything yet to do this, they merely are lobbying the federal government to pay for it.

Which do you think is more likely to happen? Anyone who reads Behind the Black knows that I choose SpaceX. For 40 years I have seen many different variations of Lockheed Martin’s proposal, all of which came to nothing. They are powerpoint proposals, not real engineering, designed to wow Congress and NASA and get funding for the company. Nothing will ever be built, since the actual construction is so far into the future and so untested that it is impossible to predict what will really happen.

SpaceX however is planning a real mission, which is being designed to lay the groundwork for later more complex attempts. Rather than propose something big for far in the future, they are building something reasonable and doable now. Moreover, they aren’t lobbying the government, they are advertising their skills to the entire world, with the goal of convincing everyone to buy their very real product.

UPDATE: I should add a link here to Orbital ATK’s proposal in Congressional hearings on Monday to use their Cygnus capsule to build a cislunar space station by 2020. Like Lockheed Martin, they are lobbying Congress to build a mostly powerpoint concept. Why don’t they instead make an investment of their own money, like SpaceX, to send some Cygnus capsules to lunar space and demonstrate the concept, while also learning what needs to be done? I would have greater faith in the reality of their concept if they did that.


  • wodun

    they are building something reasonable and doable now

    This has always been one of my main problems with SLS.

    There are always any number of ways to do something but when capabilities exist to do things right now, it doesn’t make much sense to wait until other capabilities become a reality, especially since those future capabilities are inferior in many ways.

  • Tom Billings

    “Why don’t they instead make an investment of their own money, like SpaceX, to send some Cygnus capsules to lunar space and demonstrate the concept, while also learning what needs to be done?”

    Both LM and Orbital/ATK are still operating on the 70 years old business plan, of being supplicants to Congress. If a President of either of these 2 companies went before their respective BoDs, and produced a plan to get money directly from the citizens, by selling to the citizens what they have invested multiple billions of the company’s money to produce, for *anything*, much less human spaceflight, there is a *very* good chance they would walk out of that meeting as a *retired* president of the company! Congress has carefully sculpted the culture of its job suppliers over the last 7 decades, and this is the result, whether the products putatively bought are Army Boots, Tanks, Ships, Aircraft or Spacecraft. When was the last time LM sold an airliner? IIRC, the last time *anyone* in aerospace invested in a new combat aircraft development privately was when the AF encouraged Northrop to build the F-20 Tigershark. The result was a 10 years long effort that did not produce more than 3 aircraft, and steep losses to the company.

    Note that, in spite of selling to private companies and other governments, Boeing Airline Corp. is an *entirely* different company from Boeing Defense and Space. IMHO, if Lockheed had done the same split after not selling their nice turboprop airliner in the early 1960s, they might have avoided the mistakes of the L-1011, and still be selling airliners today. Congress still would not have tolerated a LM Defense and Space Corp. that did not produce the high employment numbers that lay down a high minimum cost for Defense and Space products, mind you, but that must be solved by detaching from Congress entirely to a market that is *not* a monopsony!

    My major hope for that is the companies like Made-in-Space, with their Auquinaut concept and Tethers Unlimited, with their SideFab concept, who are still below Congress’ radar, who may be able to build spacecraft on orbit, whether in LEO, or better at EML-1, and sell them directly to those who wish to do things in Space. No one who must hold out jobs under a congressman’s nose to get contracts has a hope of producing spacecraft cheap enough to help settle the solar system.

  • wodun

    I should add a link here to Orbital ATK’s proposal in Congressional hearings on Monday to use their Cygnus capsule to build a cislunar space station by 2020.

    What do they need to make this happen, propulsion and life support? Maybe some sort of frame, hub, or truss?

    SpaceX has its customers pay for the development of reusability. Every landing attempt is mostly free. Orbital ATK could do the same if they didn’t have to act like a garbage truck. They could repurpose Cygnus’ after supply deliveries. They just need a tug or something to take them to a lagrange point. Something like this. Orbital ATK should see if they can talk to this company and make something happen…

  • Edward

    When government is in charge, you get what the government wants. When We the People are in charge, we get what we want. In the case of SpaceX being in charge, they are getting what they want — a Mars mission that helps to pave the way.

    Bigelow is an example of “build it and they will come.” They put two of their habitats in orbit and NASA bought a habitat from them for the ISS. If Orbital wants a cislunar habitat, they should do it. They may even be surprised that their customers are commercial, rather than governmental.

    Government now seems to be much more interested in various forms of welfare programs than programs that accomplish goals. SLS, for example, does not even have a goal to accomplish, but there is some vague implication that it will be used for a future — and too expensive to afford — Mars program.

    I strongly suspect that a commercial space company, such as SpaceX, will get to Mars before any government does, and I also suspect that a commercial company will take people back to the moon before even China does.

    The Tigershark is an excellent example of why defense contractors wait for government to want something before working on it. Northrop’s experience exemplifies that the defense contractors were fooled once but they don’t want to be fooled twice.

  • Steve Earle

    Northrup should have learned their lesson with the Flying Wing. All that work just sent to the scrapyard……

    IIRC, Jack Northrup was ordered to stop the production line and line up every one of them to be counted before carting them off. The government even refused requests to keep one or two for museums. Heartbreaking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *