A few weeks ago I got an email from a NASA manager about the whole Space Launch System vs. commercial space controversy. The market to support these commercial players just isn’t there yet, he told me, adding that their only hope is to let NASA blaze a trail and create new assets in space that will need servicing by private companies. As for the notion that a commercial vehicle might achieve routine spaceflight in the foreseeable future, this manager seemed to rule that out. We have reached the limit of what is possible with existing technology, he said; launching people into space will always be risky, and therefore costly.
I don’t question his sincerity, but I can’t buy the premise. I’ve seen too much evidence lately that things could change, and change dramatically. The evidence is coming from companies like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which for nearly a decade has been rethinking spaceflight from a blank sheet of paper, optimizing for simplicity, reliability and low costs.
The opponents of commercial space at NASA and in Congress say the huge and vastly expensive Space Launch System (SLS) is our only hope of getting beyond low Earth orbit. They say, basically, that we have to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them — ignoring the fact that in today’s economy we simply cannot afford to.
To them, space will always be about monster rockets with monster price tags. In NASA’s own artwork the SLS even sports the same black-and-white paint scheme as the Saturn 5 Moon rocket, as if all that is needed to get us into deep space is to invoke the legacy of Apollo.
But the legacy of Apollo, at its core, isn’t about big rockets; it’s the boldness of new, game-changing ideas. It’s John Houbolt’s proposal for lunar orbit rendezvous in 1962, an idea that flew so wildly in the face of accepted wisdom that NASA’s uber-engineer Max Faget protested, “Your figures lie!” —before realizing it was the right way to go.
It’s Office of Manned Space Flight chief George Mueller pushing for all-up testing of the Saturn 5, because he knew testing one stage at a time would require too much hardware and too much time, and most important, wouldn’t reduce the risk of failure. All-up testing so horrified members of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team that Mueller basically had to tell them they had no choice.
And it’s George Low’s summer of ’68 realization that with the lunar module seriously delayed, the only chance of staying on schedule was to fly Apollo 8 around the Moon, without a lander. Once again, some resisted; NASA Administrator Jim Webb yelled at his deputy over a transatlantic phone line, “Are you out of your mind?” But once again, the wisdom of the idea won out. Like all of Apollo’s bold moves, it looked from the outside like a Hail Mary pass, but in reality it was a stroke of genius.
Four decades later the challenge is not just to follow Apollo’s trail into deep space, but to do it affordably and sustainably. That’s not going to happen if NASA continues to be run as a jobs program as much as a space program.
These are the things I think about when I hear people like my manager friend say that commercial companies should be patient and wait for the fruits of NASA’s experience to spin off to the private sector. They apparently don’t see that this spinoff has already happened, that companies like SpaceX have digested the collected wisdom of NASA’s first half-century and are building on it. And they are doing so with a boldness that could be game-changing — even for heavy-lift launchers. The spirit of Apollo is alive and well, if only NASA and Congress would allow it to flourish.
Andrew Chaikin is a science journalist, space historian and the author of several books on space, including “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.” His article on SpaceX appears in the December/January issue of Air & Space Smithsonian magazine.