Congratulations, SpaceX! Now Maybe We Can Really Get Things Started

So anyone paying even moderate attention to the space culture recently knows about Friday’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a dummy Dragon capsule. I’m nothing if not proud of them, but I would warn people not to get too excited about it. It’s a fantastic accomplishment, but I think it’s more important for its effects on the rest of the industry than as a launch system itself.

But before I talk about that, let’s talk about the reaction in the industry.

From Space.com:

“‘I think this bodes very well for the Obama plan,’ SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said after the launch. ‘It really helps vindicate the approach he’s taking.'”

Of course, he also said:

“‘The Falcon 9 launch[‘], he continued, ‘should not be a verdict on commercial space. Commercial space is the only way forward’ because of the unsustainably high costs of government programs. He later said that ‘if some company like SpaceX doesn’t succeed, then the future of space is not a bright one.'”

I can agree that commercial is the way forward, but I don’t know why Obama is focusing on a start-up like SpaceX as the key to his new policy when more experienced companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin (through ULA and USA) are sitting there with operational and oft-used rockets. As for the cost of said rockets, all NASA has to do, it seems, is stop agreeing to cost-plus contracts and let SpaceX and other companies put pressure on the establishment, if not outright surpass them (the “effects” of which I wrote).

Parabolic Arc has a nice summary of the reactions of important Congresspersons regarding the launch. So far, I think my favorite reactions tend to come from Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida. Though he is understandably attempting to save certain aspects of Constellation (he’s from Florida after all), he appears to be the most flexible in his positions, something sorely needed in this issue.

Personally, I’m rather fond of this plan from ULA (if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, NSS Phoenix has a nice summary). I apologize if you’ve seen it before, but I’ve only recently found out about it through The Space Review’s intriguing post on a LEGO space program (just read it. It will make sense then).

Basically, it’s supposed to be a sustainable plan for a long-term lunar exploration program, with the option to easily expand it to a Mars exploration program. It proposes using existing EELV launchers with a new, evolved upper stage as a common propulsion system (the stage is apparently already set to be used in normal EELV launches anyway). A pair of propellant depots–one in LEO and one at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point–will be used to provide everything from a resource base to a market for start-up space launch companies (the idea being that fuel is noncritical, relatively inexpensive, and extremely important, so not only will there always be a need for fuel to be launched into space, it’s not a huge deal if a new, experimental rocket explodes carrying some).

The plan also uses the Orion capsule system, so all the hard work being put into it isn’t wasted, and Orion isn’t reduced to what some see as an unnecessary rescue vehicle (what with the Soyuz there and all). The lunar lander is an interesting new concept, but due to the fuel depots and the manner in which the vehicle lands, not only does the descent stage have a new use as propellant delivery and eventual storage (which will be used in the future to close the environment loop), but the ascent stages can be used repeatedly as ferries to and from the lunar surface. Just dock a new descent stage–full of “too much” propellant and other useful consumables–and away you go. This would significantly reduce the amount of weight that would need to be launched to the Moon as the program continued.

The ULA plan would also allow continuous–and briefly overlapping–four-month crew missions, similar to the ISS, with all the advantages that brings (specifically, maintenance and continuous production and such).

As for Mars, the L2 station could provide a valuable and extremely useful departure point for Mars transit, with ship modules possibly being constructed out of lunar materials and assembled in lunar orbit.

All in all, it’s an extremely interesting proposal, and one that looks like it could be done within the current budget. It would be exactly, it seems, what Obama is looking for, while still maintaining a NASA presence (ULA works with NASA a lot) and not relying so much on what many worry are as-yet unproven companies.

So, congratulations to SpaceX. Now, let’s adopt a real wide-reaching, ambitious program involving cooperation between the national and commercial space programs, shall we? Something with numbers and plans and destinations, something that people can get excited about.

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One Response to Congratulations, SpaceX! Now Maybe We Can Really Get Things Started

  1. Pingback: So What’s With These Reactions? « The Space Geek

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