The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that the recent SpaceX Falcon 9 disaster cost NASA $110 million, a significant amount of money for the space agency. As of this writing, neither NASA not SpaceX has ascertained the cause of the accident, not to speak of come up with a solution. But, one of the fallouts of the destruction of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon payload has been a reevaluation of the idea of commercializing parts of NASA’s space operations, started under President Bush and doubled down by President Obama.
An opinion piece in The Week suggests that one problem is that the culture of Silicon Valley, where many of the commercials “new space” firms spawned, may be incompatible with the realities of aerospace.
“The problem is that innovation doesn’t work the same way in Silicon Valley as it does in space travel. In Silicon Valley, it’s all about who gets there first. While that proved true for America’s race to the moon, the years since have been less of a sprint than a distance marathon, as much about endurance as it is speed. While NASA itself struggled with keeping up its pace — during decades of defunding and public disinterest — it will prove an even greater challenge for Silicon Valley.
“In Silicon Valley, the race is won or lost on the instant gratification of innovation — a constant stream of what’s new. It’s about branding, image, and timing as much as implementation of ideas. However, NASA focuses heavily on implementation, waiting until it is 100 percent ready for launch. This is the way you have to operate when lives literally hang in the balance.”
The problem is mitigated in part because commercial space efforts, thus far, relies on infusions of NASA money. Accidents such as happened to the Falcon 9 can always be fixed by funding. That, of course, tends to mitigate against the supposition that commercial is always cheaper than NASA.
But, Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist who writes about space policy issues, finds that there is an even more fundamental problem.
“My concern here is with a different issue – space marketing, the billing and selling of relatively minor events as major “accomplishments.” The distortion of program realities has left the public with a false impression about where we stand in space capability. Five years ago, this administration conducted a major re-vectoring of our national civil space program – arbitrarily terminating the strategic direction provided by the Vision for Space Exploration (an established program that had drawn overwhelming bipartisan support). In its stead, a Potemkin Village program was devised – a slight-of-hand maneuver that proclaimed a human mission to an asteroid and then to Mars as the nation’s new long-range goals in space. An effort to supply the ISS supply by ‘commercial’ launch services was heralded as a “new direction” for the American space program, when in fact, it was already part of the existing program.
“The initial success of SpaceX’s spacecraft for ISS re-supply missions (hyped as ‘privately developed’) ignited a barrage of marketing about the superiority of this new mode of operation over the traditional model of government-developed spacecraft. Supposedly, this new modus led to better capability for less money. (Who would argue against that?) In fact, with the retirement of the Shuttle, we now have less capability than we did, yet we are still spending about the same amount of money per year on NASA as we did when the ‘money-draining’ Shuttle was operational. The Shuttle could deliver over 24 tons of supplies and equipment (and people) to the ISS on each flight; up-mass for the SpaceX spacecraft Dragon is about 3 tons. Shuttle had a cargo bay and cradle so that complex spacecraft could be worked on, refurbished and repaired. Neither the SpaceX Dragon nor the new Boeing CT-100 spacecraft (both intended to ultimately transport people to and from low Earth orbit) possesses that capability.”
In other words, we will have less capacity than the shuttle for just about the same amount of money as it took to run the shuttle. To be sure, the money is also paying for the development of the Orion and the Space Launch System, to conduct deep-space missions of some sort in the 2020s.
Spudis’ argument is a compelling one. The space program has been hollowed out based on the promise that commercial “new space” will take up the slack by being nimble enough to accomplish great things for a fraction of what stodgy old NASA would be able to do them. Colonies on Mars will be easy if we let Elon Musk do them. But, that is the sort of hype that would daunt Don Draper of “Mad Men” fame.
The partnership between NASA and commercial space is here to stay. But there seems to be a growing concern that commercial space may be expected to do too much. The next administration, while it is examining the direction, funding levels, and leadership at NASA, will almost certainly have to also revamp the commercial space partnership and the division of labor between the two, based on a realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses.