Foust Forward | SpaceX, Rocket Lab seize the spotlight but miss an opportunity

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Feb. 12, 2018 issue.

If you had asked before Feb. 6 what might be the enduring image of a successful Falcon Heavy launch, the answers likely would have featured the triple-core rocket lifting off from the historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, or perhaps the two side boosters making synchronized landings several minutes later. And, indeed, those images got wide play on the front pages of newspapers and across the internet.

Roadster in Falcon Heavy fairing
The payload for the first Falcon Heavy launch will be a Tesla Roadster sports car, seen here being encapsulated in the rocket’s payload fairing. Credit: SpaceX

The images that attracted the most interest from the launch, though, had nothing to do with the rocket itself. For several hours after liftoff, SpaceX provided a live feed from cameras mounted on the upper stage, showing its attached payload: a Tesla Roadster sports car with a spacesuited mannequin, dubbed “Starman,” sitting in the driver’s seat.

The payload was no surprise, of course. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk disclosed plans to fly the Tesla more than two months earlier, and SpaceX subsequently released images of the sports car being prepared for launch, including a photo days before liftoff with Starman sitting inside. The day before the launch, Musk promised cameras would provide “epic views” of the car if the launch went well. Yet seeing it in space, with the Earth sometimes floating in the background and other times reflected off the side of the car, was a scene that for many was surreal and captivating.

It was also, though, a little controversial. Some objected to what they considered to be the ostentatious nature of flinging a sports car into the cosmos: a waste of resources by a billionaire, they argued. Others, particularly scientists, saw the launch as a missed opportunity to launch satellites, experiments or other technology demonstration payloads.

In an op-ed published after the launch, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who attended the launch, said that SpaceX had offered a free ride on this inaugural launch to NASA, who turned it down. The agency countered that it did not ask for payload space on the launch nor was offered any by SpaceX, but will have payloads on one of the next Falcon Heavy launches, the Space Test Program 2 mission for the U.S. Air Force.

In any case, it’s unlikely NASA or another organization would have flown anything of high value on the first launch of a new rocket, particularly one where Musk himself was downplaying the chances of success. However, flying something low risk, like some cubesats, might have been in the realm of possibility: for example, three NASA “PhoneSat” cubesats flew on the first Orbital Sciences Antares launch in 2013.

This wasn’t the first time that a launch company’s plans generated a backlash, even this year. On Jan. 20, Rocket Lab launched its Electron small launch vehicle on its first successful mission, carrying three cubesats for two companies. A few days later, the company announced the rocket carried a fourth satellite, Humanity Star, a sphere about a meter across covered in highly reflective panels.

Rocket Lab intended Humanity Star to inspire people to look up in the night sky and see it brightly twinkling as it crossed overhead. However, many astronomers criticized it for being “space graffiti” whose presence was “abusive” to their observations. That controversy soon faded, perhaps in part because Humanity Star has not turned out to be as brilliant as predicted, and in any event will reenter in less than a year.

Both events, though, illustrate the tensions that exist as NewSpace companies, with not just new technologies but also new business approaches and even new marketing and publicity ideas, interact with government agencies, scientists and the public. Those groups should be ready to take advantage of the opportunities those companies offer, while those companies should think about how their test flights can help those groups — and, in the process, perhaps turn skeptics into advocates.

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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.