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When Elon Musk gave his speech at the National Press Club on September 29, he was asked one question to which he really did not know the answer. He faked it, but his response illustrated how completely forgotten is one fundamental fact about American society — even though this fact is the very reason the United States became the world’s most wealthy and powerful nation less than two centuries after its founding.
To explain this fundamental fact I think I need to take a step back and talk about the ongoing war taking place right now over how the United States should get its astronauts into space. On one side we have NASA and Congress, who want NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket to carry its Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit. On the other side we have a host of independent new space companies, all vying for the chance to launch humans and cargo into space for fun and profit.
Which is right? What system should the United State choose?
To find out, I think it makes sense to reduce this issue to its simplest terms: let’s consider the United States as a customer. It needs to get its citizens into orbit. It also needs to do it quickly for a reasonable cost. As a customer, then, let’s look at the various products being offered and see which makes the most sense to buy.
NASA, under the dictates of Congress, has proposed building a heavy-lift rocket capable of putting at least 75 tons into orbit. This rocket will carry both crew and cargo and will make its first test flight in 2017, followed by its first manned mission four years later. The cost to build this rocket is estimated to be from $18 to $62 billion, depending on who you ask and how much of the program you wish to include.
Putting aside the ungodly cost, for very little return on the dollar, we must ask a more pertinent question: What are the chances this rocket will even be built?
Consider the government’s past attempts to replace the space shuttle. In 1986 President Reagan proposed building the National Aerospace Plane, which he claimed would “by the end of the decade take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound attaining low-Earth orbit, or fly to Tokyo within two hours.” After spending $1.7 billion, and building nothing, this program was canceled in 1992.
Then in 1996 Vice-President Al Gore announced that NASA was going to build the X-33, a single-stage-to-orbit reusable spacecraft. “This is the craft that can carry America’s dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century,” enthused Gore. After five years and $1.2 billion, the X-33 was canceled when cracks were found in the spacecraft’s experimental fuel tanks.
During these same years, NASA pursued the X-34, a smaller two stage reusable rocket launched from a belly of a L-1011 jet, and the X-38, a reusable lifeboat for the International Space Station. After four years, over $1 billion, and little hardware, both programs were scrubbed.
At this time NASA also started and then abandoned the X-37 mini-shuttle. Interestingly, the Air Force subsequently picked this project up and has successfully built and flown two X-37s, no thanks to NASA.
In 2000, even as these projects were being put to the torch, NASA came up with another program, called the Space Launch Initiative. For the next two years the agency spent $800 million drawing blueprints for a plethora of proposed shuttle replacements. Nothing got built, and in 2002, this program was scrapped like all the rest.
The reason all of these projects failed is twofold. First, NASA has very high fixed labor costs. The agency has too many employees at too many centers scattered across the country. Any project it undertakes has to use this vast hoard of employees, even when the job could be done with a tenth the number. And as much as the agency would like to reduce this labor force, it cannot because Congress refuses to let NASA close down any of its many space centers, even though several have become completely extraneous.
These high costs eventually make members of Congress blanch. Though they willingly commit to start-up costs, Congress always backs off when it becomes necessary to spend the big money to complete construction.
Second, none of these projects can ever get completed during the term of any single administration. Thus, when George Bush Sr. left office and Bill Clinton took over, the National Aerospace Plane died. Then, when Bill Clinton left office, George Bush Jr. killed X-33. And when Bush Jr.’s term ended and Barack Obama became President, Constellation was canceled.
Each new administration wants to create its own space project, refusing to follow through on the plans of its predecessor. It is for this reason that I like to call Obama’s Space Launch System proposal the-program-formerly-called-Constellation. Obama canceled the heavy-lift rockets under Constellation so as to not have to build a program created under Bush. He is now following up with a heavy-lift rocket program of his own, renamed, redesigned, and restarted. Sadly, other than a vast amount of wasted time and money, the differences between these two projects isn’t really that much, when you think about it.
All this history suggests quite strongly that it is insane for the taxpayer (or our representatives in Congress) to put any faith — or money — in any NASA-built shuttle replacement project. As skilled as NASA’s engineers might be, the politics of a government-built project make it impossible for the space agency to ever complete it.
Now, let’s consider the new commercial space companies and their proposals.
Of these new companies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket stand out by far as the most successful. In less than four years and for about $300 million, Falcon 9 went from a concept to a successful launch, followed soon thereafter by a second launch that put the Dragon capsule in orbit and then successfully returned that capsule to Earth.
Next there is Orbital Sciences, building its Taurus 2 rocket and its Cygnus capsule to take cargo to ISS. Once again, neither the rocket or the capsule existed four years ago. If all goes well, they will fly their first missions to ISS in early 2012. And both were built for even less than it cost to build Falcon 9 and Dragon.
Meanwhile, Boeing is building its own manned capsule, the CST-100. They hope to sell this capsule to both NASA and other private companies. In addition, Boeing is now considering marketing a commercial version of the X-37b, the unmanned mini-shuttle the company built and has flown for the Air Force.
In the suborbital market, there are about a half dozen start-ups, but Virgin Galactic, with WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, leads the way. Test flights are on going, and if all goes well, they expect to begin suborbital flights sometime in 2012. Moreover, they have already sold tickets to private citizens, scientists, other space ship companies, and NASA itself, which has purchased two flights to do suborbital research.
This is only a quick survey. I have left out Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Robert Bigelow’s space stations, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, XCOR’s Lynx, as well as ATK’s Liberty rocket. All are pushing hard to gain business, both from NASA and elsewhere.
Above all, what makes this private commercial space industry different from NASA’s past shuttle replacement projects is the multitude of parallel efforts. With NASA, we had one program at a time. When that program failed, there was nothing to fall back on except to start over with something new.
With these new companies, the United States has redundancy, variety, and flexibility. Moreover, the competition between these companies encourages efficiency and innovation, if only to demonstrate that their product is better than their competitors.
In addition, because these companies own their own products, they are not at the mercy of any specific administration or the whims of Congress. Instead, as administrations come and go they will live on, selling their product to whomever is in office. And if they need to cut their work force to save money, they are free to do so, unlike NASA which Congress owns and controls.
The result is that the government is getting things built very quickly, at a tenth the cost. And if any one or several of these private companies should fail (a very likely possibility in this high risk industry), there are still other companies ready and willing to fill the gap.
From a customer’s perspective, the choice seems obvious, at least to me. As a wise man once said, the best thing a buyer can ever have is two sellers. If the federal government buys its crew and cargo capabilities from this new emerging space market rather than NASA, the American people will not only have more than one seller, they will have saved a great deal of money and will have gotten their astronauts into space far sooner.
More important, doing things differently is now a requirement, considering the fact that the federal government is broke. It is living on borrowed time, with borrowed money that our country can no longer afford. Eventually, if we do not face this reality, in the not-to-distant future, this whole house of cards will collapse.
For the United States to maintain a presence in space, it can no longer afford the Soviet model, whereby we create a “space program” that is designed and built by a central government agency. Such a system costs too much, is not very efficient, is saddled with too much bureaucracy and paperwork, and functions too slowly.
Much better to buy the product from independent, private companies. It will cost less, and produce something sooner.
So, having laid out my rational for buying crew and cargo capability from many independent new space companies rather than paying NASA a lot of money the government doesn’t have to build a big new rocket, what is that fundamental fact about American society that Elon Musk missed during his National Press Club speech, and what does it have to do with space exploration?
During the question and answer period, the moderator asked Musk, “How is it that America is able to innovate so well, given all the challenges? How does that continue to happen? Why is that?”
This was Musk’s answer: “It’s kind of like the statement about democracy, it’s a bad system but it’s the least bad. The United States is the least bad at encouraging innovation.”
What Musk completely missed, however, is the fundamental reason why the United States still remains the world’s power house when it comes to attracting creative individuals like Musk. And that reason can be summed up in one forgotten word: freedom.
Freedom and the belief that each person has the right to follow his or her dreams is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it still provides Americans like Musk the best path to creative success, even at a time when everyone, including Musk, has forgotten this basic concept. In fact, freedom permeates our society so deeply that even as we have voted in favor of a big restrictive government during the past decade, a new renaissance of aerospace companies has still been able to blossom and grow.
At its core, NASA’s government-built rocket is hostile to freedom. Not only does it stifle creativity and innovation, it is hostile to competition from others. See for example NASA’s recent effort to regulate the new commercial industry. The proposed contract rules are so cumbersome and costly they might easily destroy this new industry. Above all, the rules illustrate clearly that NASA doesn’t want to buy a product from these companies, it wants to take over and control the industry, protecting its turf no matter the cost — even if that cost makes it impossible to build anything.
It is time for a change. Freedom should be our watchword again. Let these companies do their thing, come what may. Many will fail. Some will succeed. In the end, however, it will be their (as well as our) freedom to act that will make it possible for humanity to reach the stars.