A rocket launch pushes Congress towards free enterprise


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Several key elected officials who have generally been hostile to commercial space have commented positively to the successful launch of the Dragon capsule last night.

First, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) released this short statement:

I was pleased to see the successful launch of the Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft this morning. This launch has been a long time coming, and I am happy to see this very challenging mission begin. There are many crucial milestones to be reached and capabilities to be demonstrated during this flight, all of which we hope leads to a demonstrated ability to provide cargo service to the International Space Station. Reliable cargo delivery is critical to fully utilizing this magnificent National Laboratory capability, in which we have invested so much as a nation and as a partnership.

Hutchison has consistently tried to trim the commercial space program in favor of the Congressionally mandated heavy-lift and very expensive Space Launch System (SLS). That her comments focus so much on cargo supply to ISS fits with her general hostility to using competitive independent companies to ferry humans to and from space instead of a pork-laden NASA-built rocket/capsule like SLS. However, she can’t ignore SpaceX’s success, though she can hope to limit its political impact against the programs she loves.

Second, Congressman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) issued this statement:

I would like to congratulate SpaceX on its successful launch. This was a momentous launch, and I am hopeful that the Dragon spacecraft will successfully complete its mission to supply cargo to the International Space Station and safely return to Earth. The unmanned launch, which took place early this morning out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, is the first of its kind. This is a complex mission, and if successful, will be a giant step forward in commercial cargo capability to the International Space Station.

I have long supported the development of commercial cargo spaceflight, and while we still have a long way to go before American astronauts can fly aboard a commercial spacecraft, I hope SpaceX can build upon this success.”

I will continue to support those who can access the International Space Station, and want to keep the door open for our future successes.

Hall was one of the key figures behind the House budget that insists that NASA make a quick decision on which company will provide ferrying services to ISS. He has also shown a great deal of skepticism about commercial space during House hearings. It is obvious from his statement that SpaceX’s success has placed him under political pressure to adjust his position. He might not like it, but if commercial space gets the job done, he will have little choice but to give commercial space its due.

None of this is surprising. The political winds favor commercial space. The federal debt places great pressure on Congress to find programs that can be trimmed or cut, and SLS is definitely a cash burner with little payoff. Moreover, the opposition to commercial space has generally come from Republicans, who are under even more pressure to find ways to cut spending, coming from a party heavily influenced by tea party advocates.

If SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are both successful this year in their test flights to ISS, it will become increasingly obvious to these elected officials that commercial space is a more cost effective choice. I expect the funding for SLS to die, either next year or the year after that.

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16 comments

  • Nick Sheridan

    Robert, when you refer to SLS, are you also including Orion? I thought SLS/Orion and F9/Dragon were designed for different purposes – above LEO and LEO respectively?

    If that’s the case, Orion MAY have a purpose – I haven’t seen much beyond Elon’s broad statement of targetting Mars re how Dragon would change to do what Orion is being designed for? F9 growth is clearer to me – but its also a long way to achieve all SLS is to do – and is the F9 timeline really committed?

    Not having a go at anyone – I sat there glued yesterday and cheered too when the solar sails clicked into place – yahoooo! cheers Nick

  • Joe

    Both the Hutchison and Hall statements are measured, respectful and in keeping with their past positions on Commercial Cargo. Hutchison has in fact been supportive of Commercial Crew, just not at the expense of funding the MPCV/SLS. Nothing in her statement would seem to change that position.

    I would think the most interesting point to you would be the statement from Hall: “I hope SpaceX can build upon this success”. Not that long ago you and a poster on this website were exchanging comments implying Hall was trying throw the Commercial Crew competition to Boeing.

  • Darren

    Well SLS/Orion is for BEO exploration whereas Commercial is for cargo delivery and eventually crew to LEO/ISS. It’s not for BEO, at least not now. It’s Elon Musk’s long term goal is to reach for Mars, but that shouldn’t preclude NASA from concentrating on BEO now.

    Currently that process is SLS/Orion. Could it be done in a cheaper way? Probably. But I believe they should still proceed with it in absence of anything else. Keep Commercial developing for LEO/ISS, keep the door open for future possibilities, but don’t kill BEO development as it is now…in fact to do that would probably put half of NASA out of business and kill a few NASA centres, which politically isn’t really possible in an election year or other years for that matter.

  • Hi Nick,

    Yes, when I refer to SLS I automatically include Orion.

    Orion might become useful, but not as long as it is attached to SLS. The cost is too high, and it will take too long to get into orbit. By the time SLS flies, I expect it will be out of date and bypassed by the multitude of private commercial companies developing launch vehicles and manned spaceships right now.

    You see, Orion isn’t really that different that Boeing’s CST-100 or Dragon. To make Orion capable for missions beyond Earth orbit you have to add a large service module, something you’d also have to do with any other vehicle.

    More important, building Orion to get us to the planets is a significant engineering mistake. For those kinds of long interplanetary missions, you need an interplanetary spaceship, something more akin to Mir or ISS, not an “Apollo capsule on steroids.”

    Thus, I remain unconvinced about the value of SLS or Orion.

  • As I said in my post, SpaceX’s success yesterday is applying pressure on these elected officials to support commercial space. Politically, Hall has no choice but to be positive about SpaceX. While two months ago he might have wanted to cut the budget of commercial space, today it is far more difficult for him to do so.

  • Nick Sheridan

    Robert, so when I hear the Orion people talking about the extra work they have done on Orion for longer travel – including radiation considerations – you are saying they are ummmmm overstating the benefits over Dragon? cheers nick

  • Joe

    Hi Nick,

    Just for reference the following quote is interesting:

    “You see, Orion isn’t really that different that Boeing’s CST-100 or Dragon.”

    Information (the detailed engineering sort – not press releases) on Dragon is hard to come by, so there is no point in trying to make a real comparison between Orion and Dragon.

    CST-100 is a different matter (Boeing is more transparent than Space X). There are large differences in the requirements to which the two vehicles (Orion and CST-100) are being built. Operational life of components and ECLSS redundancy are just two areas where a book could be written on the differences. This by the way is not intended as a slam on Boeing who are working the vehicle in the cheapest way to address its ‘Earth Orbit Taxi’ goals and Boeing is very straightforward about this. This is not to say the CST-100 could not be converted into a BEO vehicle, but that would take time, manpower, money and incur technical risk (beyond that for an LEO configuration).

  • Joe

    Two months ago Hall was supporting the House budget proposal for Commercial Crew ($500 Million) and nothing in his statement implies that has changed. He was also saying that a that budget level (or the Senate level of $525 Million) there was not enough money to properly fund four competitors and was suggesting an early down select to no more than two. Again nothing in his statement indicates that has changed.

    You and another poster were positing a theory that Hall wanted the early down select so he could throw the Commercial Crew competition to Boeing because they are considering use of some JSC Facilities. This apparently based on the idea that JSC was in Hall’s district, which – of course – it is not.

    Now Hall says: “I hope SpaceX can build upon this success”. I would suggest that could mean Hall would be perfectly happy with Space X as the survivor of an early down select (provided they can build on their success). You probably would still not be happy with that, but where does it leave your theory about corrupt congressmen only interested in maneuvering money to their home districts.

  • Dean Kennedy

    Darren, as Robert Zimmerman suggested, the arguemnet against Orion is that by making it dependant on SLS as a launch vehical we greatly reduce its value as an ‘X’ vehical for BEO missions. Launch it unmanned with a Delta IV for the inital tests, taking it around the Moon and return. Then launch unmanned again with a Delta IV Heavy, transfer crew and supplies and refuel in orbit (maybe at ISS) for test missions to validate BEO capability. That should set us up for a new ‘commercial translunar vehical’ competition much sooner and at greatly reduced cost when compared to SLS.

  • Nick Sheridan

    Robert,
    Re your comment about a MIR/ISS Mars ferry…..do you know of strawman baseline requirements and reference designs for what would be required for various length Mars missions? By that I mean, if, say, a 6 month mission for 4 people, based on what we now know about bone loss and radiation, do we need (1) a centrifuge (2) n kg water per person per day (3) radiation shield of n mm of water (4) toilet of such a design (5) exercise machine of dimensions XxYxZ… and so on? DARPA’s hundred year starship project is an interesting thought exercise, but what might a Mars spacecraft look like right now based on current technologies and requirements knowledge? cheers nick

  • Nick,

    You really should read my book, Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel. I discuss many of these issues there, and where I don’t my bibliography will tell you where to look to find out more.

  • Kelly Starks

    Having been one of those folks who were on the engineering design teams for Orion — no way. Certainly the Boeing CST-100 folks don’t say that – and I’m not even going into SpaceX’s status.

  • Kelly Starks

    Sadly though space advocates talk about “commercial space” (certainly in SpaceX’s case, they are no more commercial then Delta or Atlas) for Earth to orbit and “having NASA focus on exploring beyond”, but they all adamantly want the only human BEO project Orion/SLS canceled. SpaceX’s success further fuels the push to end maned space exploration.

  • Nick Sheridan

    Robert, ok will do – thanks

  • Kelly Starks

    You can’t launch it around the moon with a D-IV – certainly can’t do any intended lunar missions with it.

    And given the D-IV’s adn Atlas-V’s are likely to be phasing out in 10-15 years — kind of a moot point.

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