The State of Space

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

A year ago I posted a note here about the upcoming busy summer. Just about all of those missions were successful, although at that time SpaceX was planning on a dozen or so launches in 2014 along with the initial test flight of the Falcon Heavy. It does not look like they will hit that launch rate and Falcon Heavy certainly won’t fly this year.

I give SpaceX a lot of credit for investing in the development of reusable rockets. I am enthusiastic about a company that spends a lot of its own resources on this type of R&D. The spectacular recent test failure of the Falcon 9R Dev 1 test vehicle was a setback, but not a fatal blow to that effort. You learn from failures. The level of sophistication to include an autodestruct upon detecting an out-of-limits condition is impressive.

I see a lot of comments on line downplaying the impact of this setback. I wonder if it was a NASA test vehicle that crashed, would critics cut them the same slack? People seem to be eager to jump all over NASA when they have a setback (like the announced delay in the first flight of the SLS heavy lift rocket). But SpaceX gets a free pass, or even enthusiastic support for pushing the envelope. NASA, being taxpayer funded, has gotten into a situation where failure is not tolerated, thus testing may be more conservative, and progress slower.

Earlier this week, the Space Launch System passed a design review that enables the program to move forward. Unfortunately, the first flight slipped yet again. I have mixed feelings on this program. I think the US needs a big rocket, and I understand the problem that NASA doesn’t have enough money to develop a big rocket and the payloads to go on it. Maybe you do it in parallel. What are the options? You could not develop a big rocket and try to figure some other way to get beyond low Earth orbit (BEO). Lots of small rockets may work but look at the trouble it took to build a space station that way.

You could rely on a private firm to develop something that may or may not meet NASA requirements (like the SpaceX “Mars Colonial Transport” which is a viewgraph rocket). The Falcon Heavy doesn’t provide the capability of SLS but it’s a lot cheaper. The design and control of that vehicle is in private hands but the first BEO missions are undoubtedly going to be government sponsored. I hear arguments that a government developed and owned rocket will be ridiculously expensive, and I can’t argue that. But politically, I don’t think NASA (and its Congressional sponsors) can sit on their hands and do nothing, or wait for an Elon Musk to develop a big rocket. Doing nothing would be self-defeating – admitting that you cannot afford deep space manned exploration. Maybe we can’t.

So we end up playing “pretend” that we can afford to explore BEO. I think that SLS (and similarly the Asteroid Redirect Mission) is an attempt to do what we can with the resources we are given. It may not be a complete program, but the alternative is to do nothing. I don’t agree that hoping some private entity is a politically acceptable alternative. It may be a practical and realistic one, but politics and the workings of Washington DC are often neither practical nor realistic.

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