The Race to Space and Mars: Let Private Firms Compete
Past posts have outlined problems with the federal government’s continued rocket planning and contracting. See “Federal Space Transportation: Time for Reform,” for example. The benefits of federal space transportation planning and rockets tends to be concentrated with key defense contractors, but the costs diffused among today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers.
It’s is no longer a question of going to space or not, it is a question of keeping NASA-centric rocket research and development funded or letting private firms innovate better, faster, cheaper rockets. NASA should focus on space exploration and let go of it’s decades-old space transportation monopoly. The Saturn V was great, the Space Shuttle not so much. NASA engineers did the best they could, but times change and now the private rocket industry is a dynamic reality.
For a video overview of how and why private sector innovation for rocket (and other) transportation see this 2011 TEDx video: TEDxSanJoseCA – Jeff Greason – Rocket Scientist: Making Space Pay and Having Fun Doing It:
More recently “SpaceX’s Mars Vision Puts Pressure on NASA’s Manned Exploration Programs,”(Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2017), reports the story continues:
With [SpaceX’s] Mr. Musk laying out a much faster schedule [for reaching Mars] than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—while contending his vision is less expensive and could draw primarily on private financing—a debate unlike any before is shaping up over the direction of U.S. space policy.
Elon Musk says SpaceX can take astronauts to Mars with private funding and a decade earlier than NASA’s so-far-unfunded Mars program. Maybe Musk is wrong. Tesla has been behind schedule with new electric car rollouts
. But not a decade behind schedule. Why not let private investors fund space transportation and exploration, and focus NASA’s efforts on research and development of cutting edge technologies?
The WSJ article was published ahead of a White House Space Council meeting expected to be:
taking the lead to reassess, and likely restructure, NASA’s Mars endeavors. One possible scenario would involve eventually pitting Mr. Musk’s unconventional SpaceX, as the company is known, against traditional NASA contractors, industry officials said.
And it’s not just Musk and SpaceX in the space race. China, Russia and other countries have government space programs, but the main competition to SpaceX seems to be Blue Origin:
Jeff Bezos, founder and chairman of Amazon.com Inc., also has announced plans for heavy-lift rockets designed to take humans to the moon and beyond, though his space startup, Blue Origin LLC, has released fewer details.
NASA’s space transportation efforts should be put on hold.
Current programs “will look increasingly foolish,” Mr. Miller said, “once it becomes clear to everybody that alternatives are flying that are much more affordable.”
For space historian Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University, Mr. Musk’s latest announcement is bound to alter the relationship between public and private space goals.
“It may not turn out exactly as [SpaceX] has proposed,” he said. “But it’s likely to spark something” different for NASA.
NASA contractors want federal funding to build new giant rockets. Again the biggest supporters are lobbyists for the companies who will receive the contracts to build them (much like light-rail and high-speed rail projects across the country).
NASA’s proposed heavy-lift rocket, called the Space Launch System, and Orion deep-space capsule, with combined expenditures of more than $3 billion annually, continue to enjoy strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. That is partly because contracts and subcontracts are spread across dozens of states.
See also “Elon Musk knows what’s ailing NASA—costly contracting,” (Ars Technica, July 19, 2017):
NASA simply asked SpaceX for a service—cargo delivery to the space station—and left the details to the company. And so Musk and his small workforce, with a Silicon Valley mindset that pushed employees hard, set about delivering. The analysis found that SpaceX spent just $443 million to develop the Falcon 9 rocket—a little more than a tenth of what NASA would have expended for a comparable rocket.
The key to reform space transportation (as well as military contracting) is:
“We’ve got to change the way contracting is done,” Musk told the governors. “You can’t do these cost-plus, sole-source contracts because then the incentive structure is all messed up. As soon as you don’t have any competition, the sense of urgency goes away. And as soon as you make something a cost-plus contract, you’re incenting the contractor to maximize the cost of the program, because they get a percentage.”
For more on the history and economics transportation innovation and space exploration, see our nifty eight-page Economics of Space Exploration study guide: SpaceStudyGuide2011-Bestsm (pdf).