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SpaceX wins competition to build Artemis manned lunar lander, using Starship

Starship prototype #8 on first flight test
Starship prototype #8 on its first flight test,
December 2020

Capitalism in space: NASA has just announced that it has chosen SpaceX to build the Artemis manned lunar lander, using Starship.

The award, a $2.9 billion fixed price contract, also requires SpaceX to complete an unmanned demo lunar landing with Starship that also returns to Earth, before it lands NASA astronauts on the Moon. The contract also still retains the goal to get this to happen by 2024, though NASA official emphasized that they will only launch when ready.

After these flights the agency says it will open bidding again to the entire industry, which means that others are now being challenged to come up with something that can beat SpaceX in the future.

Nonetheless, the contract award was a surprise, as NASA originally intended to pick two teams to provide redundancy and encourage competition. Instead, the agency completely bypassed lunar landers proposed by Dynetics and a team led by Blue Origin that included Lockheed Martin and Draper.

Even more significantly, though NASA explained in the telecon that they still plan to use SLS and Orion to bring astronauts to Gateway, who will then be picked up by Starship for the landing, this decision is a major rejection of the Space Launch System (SLS), since Starship will not use it to get to the Moon, while the other two landers required it.

In fact, this decision practically makes SLS unnecessary in the Artemis program, as NASA has also awarded SpaceX the contract for supplying cargo to the Lunar Gateway station as well as launching its first two modules, using Dragon capsules and Falcon Heavy. SLS is still slated to launch Orion to Gateway, but Starship can replace Orion as well, since Starship is being designed to carry people from Earth to the Moon. This makes SLS and Orion essentially unneeded, easily abandoned once Starship starts flying.

NASA’s decision also means the Biden administration is willing to use its clout to push for Starship over SLS in Congress, which has favored SLS for years because of the pork it brings to their states and congressional districts. They apparently think that Congress is now ready to risk the end of SLS if it comes with a new program that actually accomplishes something. These developments firmly confirm my sense from February that the political winds are bending away from SLS.

This decision is also a major blow to Blue Origin and the older big space companies that Jeff Bezos’ company partnered with. Their dependence on the very costly and cumbersome SLS rocket meant that their ability to launch on a schedule and cost desired by NASA was severely limited. NASA looked at the numbers, and decided the time was right to go with a more radical system. As was noted by one NASA official during the press teleconference, “NASA is now more open to innovation.”

Based on the details announced during the announcement, NASA was especially drawn to Starship’s payload capability to bring a large payload to the Moon, at the same time it brings humans there as well. It also appears SpaceX’s recent track record of success also added weight to their bid.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

53 comments

  • Call Me Ishmael

    I dunno. This contract will inevitably come with NASA “oversight” in spades. I hope it doesn’t end with SpaceX being effectively co-opted.

  • Call Me Ishmael: Your concern is definitely warranted, but considering how well SpaceX and NASA ended up working together to get manned Dragon flights going I think things will work out. The big slowdown there was NASA’s stupid safety panel, not NASA management itself. That panel’s credibility at this point is low and should not impact the Starship project significantly.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Gobsmacked. Totally gobsmacked.

    Was prepared for the worst possible decision, but got this instead. Unreal.

  • Trent Castanaveras

    Also:
    NASA wants people to be on the moon in 2024. SpaceX wants people on Mars in 2024 or 2026.
    NASA has all of this long duration human spaceflight tech. SpaceX wants the fastest solutions to their goal. This collaboration could provide that fast tracked development.
    It appears that the Lunar Starship is not the same production model as that Earth/Martian Starship (although that may simply be an interpretation based on the different renders for the craft). Consider that with NASA’s help and direction SpaceX gets a paid-for tutorial on how to build long duration human spacecraft. Win-win, all around.

  • Special podcast-only report from Mr. Zimmerman on this surprise announcement from NASA about Artemis and SpaceX..

    It will likely be posted here as well. Tonight after 10 pm ET.

    Including comments on my amateur question about the Hollywood Rule: “Follow the Money.”

    cheers J

  • Trent: Excellent point. SpaceX knows really nothing about making interplanetary space ships. This is exactly the knowledge that NASA can provide, based on its experience at ISS.

    What I want however most from this decision is it to be a wake-up call for Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin. They have the talent and capital to compete. They just haven’t been doing it. Get going guys, make this a game already. SpaceX shouldn’t have all the fun.

  • Max

    This is great news, a challenge to occur in two years that’s inconceivable for NASA bureaucracy to achieve. (Time is of the essence, the Chinese and others are breathing down their neck’s)

    I’m also concerned that the “customer is always right” that NASA may make unreasonable demands. (A regulatory body that doesn’t use/miss use its power, is seen as a push over… that it doesn’t have power)

    Fortunately, SpaceX is in a unique position to make its own demands. There are allways other customers.

    There are goals that can be achieved along the way, benefiting itself and NASA at the same time. killing two birds with one stone.

    For example;
    “The award also requires SpaceX to complete an unmanned demo lunar landing with Starship that also returns to Earth”
    Starship must carry ballast equivalent of astronauts, food, air, equipment to this lunar landing. Opportunity to deliver a rover, tesla made of course, and bring back a large load of Moonrock’s while they still have a high value to collectors around the world. The trip could virtually pay for itself.
    I wonder how many colleges/universities will rise to the call for a “free ride” for their experiments and seismographs/Solar wind and lunar atmosphere sensors etc. (there might be a bidding war for room on the trip from other countries?)

    I have been upset because of the wasted opportunity that presented itself when they launched a Tesla car outside of earths orbit, without a scientific package! Like a remote sensing, ping radar, high gain telescope a board. A publicity stunt that would last years!

  • Gary

    Welcome to the site Mr. Batchelor! So glad your show resumed after the “hiccup” as your varied programming is a welcome companion on my long walks and travels.

  • Jeff Wright

    I like Dynetics myself. I would have supported them as a second. Lunar Starship is an easier build. Solid rocketry will need SLS. The ICBM replacement has been given the kibosh, Mr Zimmerman. I think America’s enemies want to exploit the unpatriotic libertarian bloodlust againt SLS to do a double whammy to enegetics output of the United States. Reagan didn’t stomp out Communism-he brought it home with porous borders and offshoring…which turned us into a service economy that Covid nearly quashed. China supports their national push-while libertarians undermine ours. We should cheer Old and New Space alike.

    If I were George Soros–I would cheer you…aid in undermining Old Space to kill solid infrastructure, and more. That done, I then kill New Space…with no one else to take up the slack. And you, I must say, are doing exactly what America’s enemies want. Like Greens-libertarians just do not understand infrastructure.

  • Peter

    What I believe is most important about this award is that it makes NASA into an ally instead of a potential obstacle. I realize they have been working together on dragon and other projects, but this really cements things. If NASA is fully on board with Starship the chance that agencies like the FAA or the EPA putting roadblocks up is greatly lessened. I have been thinking Elon’s obvious libertarian political leanings could have brought trouble from the agencies. I think this mostly eliminates that risk.

  • Richard M

    Got to say, this was an amazing, surprising, development.

    It is going to make some people on the Hill rather unhappy (starting with Bernice Johnson and the entire Alabama delegation). But they dug this hole themselves, by shortchanging NASA so hard on HLS funding. Judging by Jurczyk’s report, it looks like SpaceX *was* going to pass the downselect no matter what (Starship rated highly across the board, and NASA was deeply impressed by all the hardware actually flying), but with even just double the FY 2021 HLS funding, Jurczyk very likely could have selected a second lander proposal, too.

    When Jurczyk marches up to the Hill later this spring to get mauled by the space committees, he can throw it right back in their faces. “Look, this is all the money you gave me to work with. And as it was, I had to force SpaceX to hack their bid price down further. If you want a second lander, or you want this to go cost-plus, you will have to give me more money. A lot more money.”

    Step by step, SpaceX almost seems to be taking over Artemis. They’ve got the launch contracts for all but one of the CLPS missions so far; they’ve got the launch contract for the Gateway; they’ve got the Gateway logistics contract; and now, they’ve got the human lander system, too. This amounts to a massive vote of confidence by NASA and its partners in SpaceX.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Richard M, “Step by step, SpaceX almost seems to be taking over Artemis. They’ve got the launch contracts for all but one of the CLPS missions so far; they’ve got the launch contract for the Gateway; they’ve got the Gateway logistics contract; and now, they’ve got the human lander system, too. This amounts to a massive vote of confidence by NASA and its partners in SpaceX.”

    A great comment.

    My cynicism has taken some serious hits lately. Still trying to get my jaw off the floor after today’s.

  • Richard M

    Hello Bob,

    ….this decision is a major rejection of the Space Launch System (SLS), since Starship will not use it to get to the Moon, while the other two landers required it.

    I thought that the other two landers had provision for being launched also by Vulcan-Centaur? I know I saw at least a couple renders depicting such…

  • Richard M

    Chris B over at NASA SpaceFlight points out that it would *appear* Blue Origin submitted a proposal that immediately disqualified them from an award (from page 18):

    However, the SEP did identify two instances of proposed advance payments within Blue Origin’s proposal. Pursuant to section 5.2.5 of the BAA, proposals containing any advance payments are ineligible for a contract award. The solicitation’s advance payment prohibition applies to proposed CLIN payment amounts and, separately, to proposed milestone payment amounts within those CLINs. Blue Origin’s proposal is not compliant with the latter of those two requirements. Specifically, Blue Origin proposed milestones at the outset of its Option A performance that the SEP determined were not commensurate with performance. I concur with the SEP’s assessment that these kickoff meeting-related payments are counter to the solicitation’s instructions and render Blue Origin’s proposal ineligible for award without the Government engaging in discussions or negotiations with Blue Origin, either of which would provide an opportunity for it to submit a compliant revised proposal.

    Wow. Seriously, what were they thinking? Their lawyers know the procurement rules backwards and forwards.

  • Rod

    Is this real? They intend to send a starship to the Moon and return? If you do the math:
    Delta V to TLI: 10250 feet per second
    Delta V for lunar orbit injection 2200 fps
    Delta V for lunar landing 7800 fps
    Delta V for direct Earth from Lunar surface 9000 fps
    Add an extra 1000 fps for maneuver and Earth Surface Landing
    Total 30,250 fps
    Raptor ISP 380. Mass ratio~12!
    Starship not stripped down since it will need to land back on Earth
    I’m guessing that Starship will mass around 240000 lbs. add some extra lunar crap ~260,000 lbs
    TLO mass 3,100,000 lbs. They’re gonna need to put some extra tanks in the cargo volume.
    Extra propellant needed in Earth orbit 2,660,000 lbs. They’ll need 11 tanking runs to fuel up in LEO.
    They’re gonna do all this in three years? On a fixed price contract?
    Bravo!

  • Richard M

    I said above that Bernice Johnson (D-Houston, Chair of the House Science Committee) would be deeply unhappy with this, and boy, she lost no time today in making that clear: “I am disappointed that the Acting NASA leadership decided to make such a consequential award prior to the arrival of a new permanent NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator.”

    She adds that NASA “has no realistic chance of returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2024.”

    That House space committee hearing is not going to be boring.

  • Richard M: What is important to recognize is that Starship will be built regardless of what Democrat Johnson wants. It has been privately funded, and though the extra cash from NASA will help, I do not see how the loss of that could be serious. There are plenty of others who want to invest, or buy this product.

  • V-Man

    I think it’s a case of NASA realizing that SpaceX *is* going to the Moon and Mars — by themselves if they have to — and NASA can either be part of it, or be the laughing stock of history.

  • Mitch S

    My guess is the survival instinct of NASA’s bureaucrats kicked in.
    Maybe someone reminded them that it wasn’t so many years ago that they were laughing at the possibility that SpaceX could beat the established players in getting astronauts to ISS (after all Boeing would surely have Starliner up there…) and now look.
    So they realized that it would be a disastrous embarrassment for NASA astronauts to finally land back on the moon only to be invited by SpaceX engineers to have a beer at the Solar City moon hotel.

    And politically Alabama doesn’t count much anymore. Shelby (or “Jeff Wright”) is retiring and Alabama is a red state in a congress controlled by the blues. Last time there was a moon program in a Democrat controlled country, the space program wasn’t popular with the left wing. A moon program isn’t likely to be popular with Biden’s masters either.

    Wouldn’t be surprised to see a reboot of this old song:

    https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/2586440/Whitey+on+the+Moon

  • Jeff Wright

    That may not be the case. If I am Malthusian Miserablist-I want pro-space folks to fight one another. Had Dynetics won-as most of you feared-Musk could have gone and done his own program as you say. Maybe even upstage NASA-which can’t be allowed. Thus you are puzzled. Not me. I read ‘Screwtape’ enough to know that folks will do more out of revenge than love. Congress especially: Double NASA budgets? No. Kill off Artemis as revenge-and calling NASA now Musk-Pork and turning people off spaceflight? I can see DC doing that. Tie Musk with NASA and bring them both down. The SLS states will do it out of hurt feelings. No-you should want a true independant race. Both fully supported. You no doubt think I’m just being partisan here. But this move is just so…unlike-what I would expect from this administration…I’m looking for scorpions inside this gift basket.

  • Brian

    V-Man hit it on the head, Spacex is going to the moon, either with NASA or without, and NASA made the decision to get on board and not be up staged.

  • Calvin Dodge

    “Starship not stripped down since it will need to land back on Earth”

    No. Lunar Starship will remain in space. No heatshield, and no fins. Crew and cargo will be transferred to some other vehicle for the return to Earth.

  • Richard M

    Hello Bob,

    What is important to recognize is that Starship will be built regardless of what Democrat Johnson wants.

    Oh, absolutely.

    And the Source Selection statement largely makes that point to SpaceX’s advantage, too:

    “SpaceX’s plans to self-fund and assume financial risk for over half of the development and test activities as an investment in its architecture, which it plans to utilize for numerous commercial applications, presents outstanding benefits to NASA. This contribution not only significantly reduces the cost to the Government (which is reflected in SpaceX’s lower price), but it also demonstrates a substantial commitment to the success of HLS public-private partnership commercial model and SpaceX’s commitment to commercializing technologies and abilities developed under the Option A contract.”

    It’s almost zany to see NASA offering such sound logic in a procurement decision like this.

  • Richard M: More and more I really believe that people in Washington and NASA actually did read my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space [free pdf download]. With this decision they are accepting every single one of my recommendations. Every. Single. One.

  • PR

    A couple of points. Although the selection document stated that Blue Origin technically could not have received an award because of two legal errors, it also made clear that this error would have been correctable and would not have disqualified them from getting a contract if they had then been willing to correct those errors. This is explicitly stated in the doc. It also makes clear that Blue origin did not offer sufficient value for money to be a first choice though the doc heavily implies they would have gotten an award if the money had been there. They did however say they thought blue would have serious issues with propulsion and long delays.

    To me it looks like a finger in the eye to the SLS crew in Congress who intentionally short sold the commercial crew forcing it to be drug out for twice as long as needed if it had been fully funded. The same was going to happen to Artemis. The politically safe decision would have been to split the money between spacex and blue origin. That would also have meant virtually nothing would get done.

    What NASA seems to have done here is to told Congress critters loud and clear “We want to actually do stuff. We want to build a lander and go to the moon. We are willing to also fund your preferred partners if you give us sufficient cash but if you don’t then the guys who build things get all the money and your boys get nothing. You don’t get to treat Artemis like you did commercial crew.”

    Eddie Bernice Johnson and Ricard Shelby are retiring at the end of next year. Their new SLS loving boss hasn’t on-boarded yet. They saw their chance and took it. More power to them.

  • VMan said it best above: “I think it’s a case of NASA realizing that SpaceX *is* going to the Moon and Mars — by themselves if they have to — and NASA can either be part of it, or be the laughing stock of history.”

    Ah, to be relevant again.

    The NASA official who said, “NASA is now more open to innovation” could have expanded that statement a bit. Perhaps: “NASA, a bloated govt-funded bureaucracy that quit with Apollo 17 in 1972, is now more open to innovation.” Ya, that’s better.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Other shoe: Biden steps in it and decries single-source award as “undemocratic”? Don’t bet against it.

  • David Eastman

    The rumor mill has it that the NASA HLS crew that was there for the SN10 and SN11 tests wrote SpaceX a glowing review, even with the ultimate failure of those flights. Presumably they really liked what they saw in terms of the people, facilities, and processes, as well as the Lunar Starship mockup.

    On the other hand, Blue Origin, as well as most of Oldspace, is consistently failing to deliver. I mean, it’s been almost a year since the SpaceX crew flight, and Boeing Starliner still isn’t ready. Blue Origin can’t even do a properly compliant proposal, apparently. Reading between the lines on that one, that was just too blatant a “this isn’t a proposal to deliver, this is a proposal to milk change requests”, and that doesn’t fly anymore when SpaceX is actually succeeding at mission after mission.

  • PR wrote, “Their new SLS loving boss hasn’t on-boarded yet. They saw their chance and took it. More power to them.”

    Exactly. In a sense this contract award mirrors the first cargo contract award to SpaceX and Kistler back in December 2008, at the very end of the Bush administration. The pro-capitalism faction in NASA realized that if they didn’t do it before the new Obama administration took power, they might never get the chance.

    The big difference is that the pro-capitalism faction is now much larger at NASA, and in control. The choice of Biden-twin Nelson as administrator will do nothing to slow it down. And the choice of Melroy as deputy administrator might very well strengthen it.

  • Jeff Wright

    I don’t see it that way at all.

    I learned a long time ago not to get hopes up.

    I would not have been surprised if NASA chose the guys at Dynetics–and them only. Which would have been a mistake. But Musk would have gone on with Lunar Starship anyway.

    A smarter choice would have been to fully support Dynetics and Lunar Starship to hedge their bets.

    My thinking WAS that the Lunar competition goes in one of two ways:

    1.) My Alabama guys in Dynetics pull off a great achievement–kick it between the uprights (the solar panels do look like goalposts)–and Lunar Starship tumps over. Musk rethinks things–focuses on LEO and makes money making things in orbit–letting the big boys from ‘Bama do the heavy lifting for BEO. Rammer Jammer!

    2.) Then too, the steely eyed missile men may very well have have lot their mojo–and wind up being rescued by Musk. Both fully funded–with Musk saying that while Apollo was good–it is time for the torch to be passed.

    I’d be cool with either of the two outcomes. We settle things on the field of honor–the Moon now the greatest possible stage.

    But now–there is a third option.

    3.) Musk gets suborned into the Artemis narrative.

    Lunar Starship lands–the NASA football facing the camera–the American flag and SpaceX logo very small.

    The nice, woke female astronaut climbs down the ladder. Walks over to a camera where she looks taller than her ride–the globe of the Earth above her head.

    She stands with arms akimbo–and talks about with her act, human spaceflight has met its conclusion. She then says that this (she points to the Earth) not this (she points to Starship) is now Humanities sole focus.

    If she doesn’t return–a modified Safire letter kills human spaceflight even faster.

    If she does lifts off, docks with Gateway and comes home with either Orion or Dragon (it won’t matter any more at that point which)–she writes a book about how she conquered that evil, outsized phallic symbol–and becomes the new media darling for the DNC–their new star.

    Stennis is dynamited, SpaceX is shut down too–outside of launching weather sats–and Starlink is seized for global free internet–with approved content only. He’s from South Africa right? What better reparations than Starlink to unite the world under one message–one way of thought.

    I can just **see** this outcome…..

  • Questioner for a day

    Jeff Wright:

    I congratulate Elon Musk on winning the development contract. Her serves it. A big thing. Jeff, thank you very much for the appropriate comment above, especially for what you write at the end of your comment.

    By the way, you also noticed that in the NASA announcement video (see link) only women and people of color appear as actors and moderators. The white man has been completely eliminated, although he created, and is essentially still creating, all of this technology. Isn’t that a new form of racism?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-sA3R4MWjA

  • Richard M

    Hi Bob,

    Exactly. In a sense this contract award mirrors the first cargo contract award to SpaceX and Kistler back in December 2008, at the very end of the Bush administration. The pro-capitalism faction in NASA realized that if they didn’t do it before the new Obama administration took power, they might never get the chance.

    The irony is, it was Government Monster Rocket Enthusiast Mike Griffin who cooked up COTS. Of course, he had no intention of taking the idea any further, but hey – credit where credit is due.

    The big surprise, though, was the emergence of a much more commercial space oriented faction with the new Obama Administration, led by Lori Garver. The Obama White House tried to get a tolerably pro-commercial Administrator, too, but unfortunately Bill Nelson kept swatting down candidates until he got the man he wanted — Charlie Bolden. Someone he could feel confident would stretch Shuttle out as long as possible, and keep the pork money flowing to Florida. In the end, Garver got her way, but only after letting Nelson and Shelby keep a Government Monster Rocket. Nelson and Shelby, of course, tried to renege on the deal by starving Commercial Crew as much as possible to divert the money to SLS, which in turn delayed Commercial Crew’s progress.

    I disagree with Lori Garver on all sorts of things (and her old boss on even more) but I am grateful she ended up at NASA when she did. What happened yesterday was a major vindication for her, and everyone else in those days urging an entrepreneurial approach to space procurement – including, of course, guys like you and Rand. It took longer than it should have, but we finally got here.

  • Richard M: Yup, on all counts.

  • PR

    Richard M and Bob – This may really be that historic moment we’ve all been waiting on. Lets hope the decision stands and that we really have gotten over the hump. If SpaceX can show success landing starship and then launching super heavy I think it will be very difficult to turn back the clock and pretend it didn’t happen. Shelby’s retirement along with Johnson’s will help.

    When people see Starship in orbit around the moon and realize it can carry crew, SLS and Orion will be exposed as completely superfluous. All the new space companies going public may also create enough excitement in the right circles to make Congress pay attention. I think if Nelson senses which way the wind is blowing and realizes a lot of that money will come to Florida, he may acquiesce in NASA’s transformation. Fingers crossed.

  • Jeff Wright

    Am I the only one who thinks things are going a little too well for Musk? I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It feels like my Huntsville is going to be the new Poland for this little Hitler/Stalin pact.

  • A. Nonymous

    Per Scott Manley, Dynetics was overweight on their proposal, at a time when you really need to be underweight in order to compensate for unforeseen issues.

  • Richard M

    Per Scott Manley, Dynetics was overweight on their proposal, at a time when you really need to be underweight in order to compensate for unforeseen issues.

    And that was hardly the end of their problems. Major cryogenic fluid management issues, mission sequencing problems, and lots of subsystems at low TRL’s. Quite surprising to see them with a low “marginal” technical rating, when in the first phase awards, NASA had given them the highest technical rating. I guess once Lueder’s people finally got to really look under the hood, the problems could not be hidden any longer.

    Worse, their revised pricing made them the most expensive bidder.

    Which is a shame, because I think the basic architecture was quite innovative and had some very attractive advantages.

  • Edward

    Max wrote: “Opportunity to deliver a rover, tesla made of course, and bring back a large load of Moonrock’s while they still have a high value to collectors around the world.”

    I’m not sure that Tesla would be so eager to be distracted from its mission just to make a one-off unit that is outside its experience. Lunar and Martian rovers are designed very differently than Earthbound cars.

    I have been upset because of the wasted opportunity that presented itself when they launched a Tesla car outside of earths orbit, without a scientific package! Like a remote sensing, ping radar, high gain telescope a board. A publicity stunt that would last years!

    I keep reading suggestions that our space probes should do more than they do. Martian flight demonstrators, dead masses, and other missions should not become complicated nightmares. Failure of a secondary mission becomes very likely, as it is of lesser importance and priority, and is seen in a very bad light as being publicity stunts that could damage reputations for years.

    A dead mass should remain a dead mass rather than become a burden on the Deep Space Network for mere publicity.

    Karl Ushanka wrote: “The NASA official who said, ‘NASA is now more open to innovation’ could have expanded that statement a bit. Perhaps: ‘NASA, a bloated govt-funded bureaucracy that quit with Apollo 17 in 1972, is now more open to innovation.’ Ya, that’s better.

    I see it a bit differently. After Apollo, which Congress reduced in scope even before Apollo 13, NASA intended to have an Apollo Applications Program (AAP) to do several great things in space until the Space Shuttle was ready. Instead, Congress, which holds the pursestrings and thus controls what NASA can do, squandered the knowledge, skills, and talents of NASA employees and contractors and prevented AAP past the Skylab space station. The Space Shuttle was also a political compromise that ruined its utility. The International Space Station (ISS) is barely what NASA had proposed to Congress, because Congress thought that $32 billion was too costly (instead, Congress funded the Russian participation for a total cost of three times what they originally rejected). Congress even thought themselves to be rocket scientists by directing NASA as to how to design SLS.

    I am more in agreement with PR, who thinks this is NASA’s way of insisting that it be able to do stuff and once again accomplish great things. NASA going it alone, on Congress’s leash, has not gotten us very far, but many commercial space companies are eager to achieve accomplishments, and they believe that they can make profits (the reward for better efficiency) by doing more for less cost than the government-run space program has been doing. It is long past time for all the money that Congress has spent on NASA to finally bring us the commercial benefits from the research that we have paid for. Unleash the talent at NASA so that we all can benefit.

    Jeff Wright asked: “Am I the only one who thinks things are going a little too well for Musk?

    Yes. Things are going well for SpaceX and Rocket Lab, because they both figured out how to get payloads to orbit more efficiently, for less cost and at a rapid cadence. This is what the Space Shuttle was supposed to do. SpaceX, Rocket Lab, NanoRacks, and other commercial companies are doing well, because they do not accept mediocre or poor performance but improve performance and efficiency whenever possible. Unlike government space, which is willing to put up with disappointing Space Shuttle performance for three decades and allows political considerations to drive up the cost and reduce the performance of ISS.

  • Jeff Wright

    Block IB would allow for Dynetics. But folks want to kill that too. The fix is in.

  • john hare

    “”Block IB would allow for Dynetics. But folks want to kill that too. The fix is in.””

    At current rate of progress, Block 1B might be able to make an appearance in the 2030s. The fix is in, and SLS is the one that put it there by failure to perform, excess cost for a system that does not work, and not least by insulting the people that actually get things done. In short, the ones that are doing the most to kill SLS are the ones supposedly building it.

  • Richard M

    Block IB would allow for Dynetics. But folks want to kill that too. The fix is in.

    The original video render did show the ALPACA launching on a Block 1B SLS. But since last year, Dynetics has been baselining on launching it on a Vulcan Centaur (one of the heaviest variants, no doubt). The refueling missions would also fly on Vulcans.

    Link: https://spacenews.com/dynetics-to-use-in-space-refueling-for-nasa-lunar-lander/

  • pzatchok

    Space X vs old space.

    Build it and then sell it. vs sell it and then build it.

    Sort of like the auto industry.

  • Max

    pzatchok,
    I like that, good example.

    Edward Said;
    “I’m not sure that Tesla would be so eager to be distracted from its mission just to make a one-off unit that is outside its experience. Lunar and Martian rovers are designed very differently than Earthbound cars”

    If it’s a distraction, there are others who have built them, and prototypes already made in a storage bin someplace. But we are talking about musk! An Engineer with an army of electrical, mechanical, chemical, computer program engineers on his payroll. Does he get NASA to make another moon buggy?
    I think not because he will need functioning equipment specially tailored to moon and mars in the near future. I can think of no one else more qualified than the manufacturer of electric cars. He would do it just to test it in self driving mode just to show off how it can maneuver in and around obstacles.

    “I keep reading suggestions that our space probes should do more than they do. Martian flight demonstrators, dead masses, and other missions should not become complicated nightmares”
    “A dead mass should remain a dead mass rather than become a burden on the Deep Space Network for mere publicity”

    I agree, but personally I can’t help but dream of something better, more purposeful. If you’re going to launch it to space, why a dead mass when something useful that wouldn’t normally be a high priority or worthy of the expenditure. College and universities have projects for a free flight with no expensive insurance required.

    As for a burden on the deep space network, musk already has hundreds of his own communication satellites with his own Purchased Radio frequencies. With new laser communication, it’s more likely that his relay system will lighten the load rather than burden it.

    If a human is going to Mars, there will be a lot of things that’s never been done before. Might as well use the opportunity to test out new Proto types. It will be fun! It may jeopardize the mission, but he will learn something. That’s why he keeps blowing up perfectly good ships…

  • Edward

    Here’s another thing that angers me about how Congress squanders NASA’s resources. NASA was formed out of the National Advisory Council on Aviation (NACA), which was founded in order to assist the U.S. commercial aviation industry remain the leaders in the world’s aeronautical technologies. NACA did this very well, providing assistance, such as capital intensive wind tunnels, for companies to hire for their research. NACA was a good resource, with its own talented, knowledgable, and skilled employees. NASA was directed to be America’s space monopoly.

    However, once NACA became NASA, the focus changed from the commercial industry’s needs to the government’s needs. Because commercial needs were so ignored, it took half a century for commercial companies to begin finding any real funding in order to operate in space. Because government sees limited benefits for itself from space operations, expanding into space and exploring the resources of space have been limited for the three quarters of a century that man has had the capability to reach outer space. Government largely sees space as a resource for military needs, such as ballistic missiles, but space has also been used for national prestige, such as Russia putting the first person in space, America putting the first person on the Moon, and China trying to show that they can do it, too.

    The exception to the government monopoly was the communication industry, which managed to get into the space business in the early 1960s. Communication, the transfer of information, is so important that it was easily profitable for satellite operators. Indeed, it took a third of a century for the first financial failure of communication satellites, with the bankruptcy of Iridium and Space Systems/Loral’s constellation.

    Around 1980, rocket expert Robert Truax had wanted to found a commercial launch company, but he was unable to find funding, because the Space Shuttle was going to be so routine and low cost that no one dared fund a competitor to this government monopoly. Soon after Truax’s idea was rejected, the government declared that the Space Shuttle would be the sole supplier of American launch services. It was another quarter century before the government chose to begin encouraging good old American free market capitalism in space, when the U.S. president declared that commercial companies would take cargo to the ISS, and if that worked out then commercial companies would be allowed to carry astronauts to the ISS. It was 2008 that NASA first hired commercial operators to carry cargo to the ISS, and four years later this was demonstrated to work. In 2014, NASA hired commercial companies to carry astronauts to the ISS, but government was still reluctant to give up this power over its populace, so it took twice as long as expected for this service to begin.

    In the 1960s, Americans expected NASA to do the things that commercial space is working toward today. In 1968, Americans thought it feasible that by the year 2001 Pan American Airlines might routinely ferry a couple dozen people to a large space station that had scores of workers producing benefits to earthlings, and a Starship-sized transport might routinely take dozens of people to a lunar base that had been built in an ancient lava tube. Instead, all we had was an expensive government shuttle that occasionally took a mere seven people to an expensive under-construction government space station that was still a decade away from having a capacity of six people who barely work on anything of benefit to earthlings. Two decades later, we still can only dream of lunar bases.

    What little commercial space industry we have today still competes with each other for some small share of business that the government monopsony condescends to throw toward those commercial companies. We finally have some space companies that are designing their products for the commercial market and then convincing the government market that it works for them, too. Falcon 9 was designed to take commercial satellites to Geostationary Transfer Orbit, then SpaceX convinced NASA that it could take a cargo vessel to ISS orbit as well as supply that cargo vessel. SpaceX next convinced the Air Force that Falcon 9 could also carry their satellites to orbit, and then NASA again that it could carry a manned vessel to the ISS. Now SpaceX has convinced NASA that a vessel they are currently designing for other purposes can carry both men and materiel to and from the lunar surface.

    Commercial space has had a four or five decade delay in getting started, and there are fewer companies working on it than we probably would have had four decades ago had it gotten its start in 1968. Some people still think that government should lead the way, but as we have seen, government hinders rather than helps, because Congress has little interest in having NASA develop the benefits that we can get from space resources. Which explains why the government-created Outer Space Treaty is itself such a hindrance.

    Max asked: “But we are talking about musk! An Engineer with an army of electrical, mechanical, chemical, computer program engineers on his payroll. Does he get NASA to make another moon buggy?

    He gets SpaceX to make it. They may choose power and drives from Tesla, but much of what Tesla makes needs modification for off world use. Tesla’s engineers may not be as qualified as Max assumes. On the other hand, if NASA is contracting for the transporter, they likely will bid it among several companies.

    If you’re going to launch it to space, why a dead mass when something useful that wouldn’t normally be a high priority or worthy of the expenditure

    I explained that. It is nice to dream, but the reality can be very different. But to add to what I already said, what happens if the dream payload is not ready in time? What if someone comes up with yet another dream payload shortly before launch? How to handle all the complaints that one dream payload was chosen over another or for not flying a dream payload that no one thought of until after launch?

    As for a burden on the deep space network, musk already has hundreds of his own communication satellites with his own Purchased Radio frequencies.

    Starlink is both under powered for the job and pointed in the wrong direction. The configuration is not suitable, either.

  • humphreyrobot

    I should be drunk on the Moon by now.

    Read, for years but I lived on a bad network so I couldn’t comment.
    reat work on your reporting.

  • Jeff, you are much more pro-SLS than I, but I do see your point about tying NASA and SpaceX together in order to kill them both with one stone. Even if that is a plan/goal, I don’t think that Musk will fall for it – for example, the oil platforms he’s repurposing – but it is definitely a PR danger lurking in the future.

  • Richard M

    Great reflections, Edward.

  • While lunar or Mars rovers may not be a current “official” project of Tesla or SpaceX, I wouldn’t bet that they aren’t at least looking at them, or doing internal development work already. When you have that many talented scientists and engineers, you’ve got to assume that at least some of them are looking beyond their current company projects.

    When I was working on advanced batteries and electric vehicles in the early 80’s, our “secret lab” within the larger development company worked on non-core and non-Government contract work, coming up with new technologies. This is how you can keep some of the more talented or “bigger name” people on staff, happy and productive. Even my electronics group was allocated money for each technician to “play” and learn and keep our skills current, as well as come up with new ideas. That “playing around” ended up saving the company a lot of money and even more valuable time. And application proposals we were asked to look at, even if they didn’t go anywhere then, proved useful. One of my engineering studies became the basis of a plug-in hybrid the auto industry put into production, and one of the big military suppliers used it for a vehicle design as well.

    The chance to work on something like a manned rover design, even if it’s just to study the problem and get ideas, has got to be attractive, and they certainly want to attract and keep this kind of talent. Elon could probably fund a start on it himself out of petty cash on a lark, but either or both companies ought to be doing it, maybe together, just on general business principles.

  • Star Bird

    It would be nice if they could send all liberals to Mars and leave them there

  • Richard M

    It would be nice if they could send all liberals to Mars and leave them there

    That seems terribly unjust to the Red Planet.

    That said, Ceres is certainly available…

  • Edward

    Another difference between commercial space and government space is that commercial companies tend to start small, learn from their early operations, and make adjustments as they grow. Revenues for the company and benefits to the rest of us begin early. As we have seen from government space, NASA tends to design big, take a long time and a lot of money to make the item operational, but be fixed in the design as they realize what should have been done better. The ISS is a good example. Rather than build a small single-module station to launch in 1990 and start learning lessons, NASA went for a complex, expensive design that took three decades to build, and by the time lessons were being learned, the design was already fixed and changes were difficult.

    We spent 100 billion dollars on ISS building it, and we will spend another 50 billion dollars operating it. However, about half the manpower on board is needed for various types of housekeeping activities, leaving about three people available for research. Because it is considered a research lab, we are not getting as much benefit from it as we could were it also functioned as a manufacturing facility. Had NASA started earlier with a smaller space station, lessons could have been learned in order to reduce the manpower for housekeeping. Had the government not continually reduced the scope of the station, we could have had more people performing research and maybe even performing manufacturing that would benefit Earth. ISS was treated less like a resource to benefit us and more like a possession to have.

    By the way, Space Systems/Loral’s telephone communication constellation was Globalstar. I couldn’t remember that, yesterday.

    Max,
    Please keep in mind that you said that it was a lost opportunity as well as calling it a publicity stunt. You had made it sound less like a dream and more like a lost opportunity for a publicity stunt.

    Adding another mission to even a dead mass means a lot of effort and takes up valuable resources. It is nice to dream of every payload being able to do all things, but the reason a dead mass often goes up on a first launch is that the risk can be large, and losing a payload that has cost some serious money is not what launch services are about.

    Some people, such as Jeff Wright, think that a successful, profitable business means that things are going too well for it and its owners. However, profit is the reward for finding better efficiencies than the competition, and when the competition is government then finding better efficiencies is easy. SpaceX was not challenged to make Falcon 9 more efficient as a launch system than ULA’s or Arianespace’s launch systems. SpaceX’s challenge was in making a booster stage inexpensively reusable with short turnaround time. These days SpaceX’s challenge is a fully reusable launch vehicle and also getting man to Mars, two challenges that government has not taken on. Government has pondered therm and thought, “too expensive.” SpaceX looks at them and thinks, “stretch goal.”

    I have created a list of advantages of having a strong commercial space industry over government space industry:

    1. Free market capitalism is our economic philosophy, preferred over central control by government. It shows the world that our economic system, freedom, and liberty work anywhere, even in space, even with the limitations of the draconian Outer Space Treaty that discourages our economic system.*

    2. Free market capitalism pursues projects, exploration, and products that are expected to pay for themselves, becoming self sustaining.

    3. Commercial space is less fickle than government space.** Using available resources, such as geostationary orbit, commercial space is motivated to stay.

    4. Lightly regulated free markets result in competition, which result in reduced prices and satisfied customers.

    5. Lower prices result in more customers, which encourages more companies, who innovate more efficiencies or improved products, which result in more customers.

    6. Commercial space is motivated to pursue exploration that will produce revenue and profits, production that customers want and are willing to pay for.

    7. Commercial space is motivated to explore space faster than government space agencies. Faster exploration means more products to offer customers.

    8. Commercial companies doing their own things in space are forced to develop space-based products that benefit us on Earth.

    9. Commercial space starts small just to get a revenue stream started, thus benefits begin quickly. Government space goes for the big final product; it took a decade to create the Space Shuttle, three decades to get an operational ISS, two decades for SLS, and over a decade for a JWST, all of which are very expensive.

    10. Commercial space will find profits from going to the Moon and other places, building space stations, exploring the usefulness of space and free fall, and building space habitats or settlements. Profit is the reward for finding improved efficiencies in products that customers are willing to buy.

    11. A competitive commercial space industry is motivated to continually improve products and services.

    12. A competitive commercial space industry is motivated to optimize performance in relation to cost.

    13. Commercial space has incentive to find better efficiencies to reduce costs or improve products.***

    14. When governments run things, all we get is what the governments want. When the citizenry runs things, we get what we the citizens want.

    15. Commercial space spends its own money for development, relieving the taxpayer from the burden of funding space projects.

    16. Commercial space, because it spends its own money, has incentive to rapidly develop new technologies and methods, and to do this development at lower cost than government does.****

    17. Commercial space can be more agile than government space. It can make changes to budgets and priorities faster than Congress can.

    18. Commercial space can mine and manufacture in space, reducing the amount of pollution on Earth. In sixty years, government space operations have neither mined nor manufactured in space.

    19. Free markets act to meet the demands and needs of the market. (In space, governments are still the major market customer.)

    20. Free markets seek out new markets and new customers.

    21. As commercial space becomes a larger economy than government space, governments will have less opportunity to choose winners and losers in the space industry.

    22. Free markets weed out unsuccessful ideas and products. Resources stop being wasted on them.

    23. Free markets eliminate inefficiencies and the companies that are least efficient. Government may operate as inefficiently as it pleases.

    24. Price and demand are feedback for companies, helping to determine the supply needed, but governments may ignore demand and may charge all the traffic will bear.

    25. ’There is far more capital available outside of NASA [for use by commercial space marketplace] than there is inside of NASA.’ — paraphrased from an interview with NASA Administrator Bridenstine on the Ben Shapiro radio show on Monday 3 August 2020.

    26. Allowing commercial companies to do their own things in space allows government projects to explore the more basic scientific areas rather than the areas that show the most promise for profit.

    27. New commercial companies tend to risk it all to develop new methods and products that advance the state of the art (wasn’t NASA going to do that?), and that is their strength. These new companies hope to get a jump on the competition and make a lot of money while everyone else is trying to catch up. SpaceX and Rocket Lab are doing this right now.

    Freedom provides the opportunity to act on a variety of motivations.

    * The French gifted the U.S., on her centennial, with the Statue of Liberty as a light shining onto the rest of the world to show the way to become as free and liberated as America. Due to a silly poem, many people misinterpret the statue’s purpose, thinking it is a beacon for the rest of the world to come to America.

    ** Project Apollo was abandoned after a decade, once going to the Moon bored the government. Commercial communications is going strong after more than half a century, and commercial observation after two decades. Commercial space will keep us from ending up like Apollo, abandoning a perfectly good opportunity just because government lost interest.

    *** SpaceX rapidly reduced the cost of orbital launch, then further reduced the cost by recovering and reusing Falcon booster stages.

    **** Constellation was cancelled after six years (with Ares 1 in validation testing phase), and its follow-on, SLS, is taking an additional dozen years until first launch. ISS was first proposed in 1982, first funded in 1984, first segments launched in 1999, and construction completed and declared operational in 2012, three decades and $100 billion later. Government seems more interested in space as a jobs program than as an exploration program. The Constellation and Artemis rockets and capsule are costing about $40 billion to develop over two decades. However, in addition to paying for more than 30 missions to ISS, commercial resupply and crew services cost around $12 billion to develop a rocket (Antares) and five spacecraft (Cygnus, Dragon, Starliner, Crew Dragon, and Dream Chaser), each developed in about half a decade.

  • john hare

    22. Free markets weed out unsuccessful ideas and products. Resources stop being wasted on them.

    23. Free markets eliminate inefficiencies and the companies that are least efficient. Government may operate as inefficiently as it pleases.

    These are the key items in your list. When companies fail, they are gone. Friends of mine or not, several of the companies that either didn’t deliver, lost interest, or failed to attract capital are gone. Rotary Rocket, Kistler, Beal, XCOR, and many more are no longer in the field. As bad as we feel about failure, it leaves a cleaner field for other ideas. If SLS had been held to the same standards, either the design would have been streamlined, or it would have been stillborn in the concept phase. Individual failure is the societal strength of free enterprise.

  • Edward

    John hare wrote: “These are the key items in your list.

    I had thought that other items were more important, which is why those two items were so far from the top, but I see the point. Ideas or products that are not going to pay off need to stop wasting scarce resources, just a SLS is doing now. Another example of how scarce resources are squandered rather than being used on better projects is JWST. It may be a good idea and worth some resources, but it should have been restarted from scratch at least 8 billion dollars ago so that seven billion dollars would be available for other space telescopes and astronomy projects while still spending a billion on an infrared telescope.

    I will have to reorder my list.

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