America is losing the space race. Within two years or less, Russia and China will become the only nations capable of launching their citizens into space. The decisions made by this Congress and U.S. President BarackObama’s administration will determine whether this situation is temporary, or if, like so many other industries, human space launch is outsourced to more eager, forward-thinking countries.
With the stakes so high, I felt compelled to respond to Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-Ala.) comments made at a May 21 Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee hearing to review the 2010 budget for NASA. After expressing his support for the Ares/Orion architecture, Sen. Shelby slammed the agency’s funding for commercial crew and cargo transport, singling out Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () for criticism, and concluding by referring to commercial programs as a “fantasy.” I could not disagree more.
First and foremost, before the senator dismisses commercial transport, I would recommend that he take a hard look at the program he supports. Specifically, Constellation appears to have become an unmitigated disaster from nearly every perspective – technical, financial and chronological.
Like everyone else in
, NASA is facing a new economic reality, and the days of budget busting program overruns must come to an end. Unfortunately, Constellation appears to be yet another ill-conceived NASA boondoggle suffering from all too familiar runaway costs. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) there are so many technological “unknowns” surrounding the Constellation effort that it would literally be impossible for NASA to provide a credible cost estimate. All the GAO could say for certain is that Ares/Orion is estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers $230 billion over the course of the next two decades. Such expenses are unsustainable and unwarranted. To put these figures in perspective, even at
‘s outrageous price of $51 million per seat on Soyuz, NASA could fly 4,509 astronauts – 225 astronauts per year for the next 20 years – in lieu of Constellation.
Moreover, spending such outrageous sums of money presupposes that Ares/Orion can function at all, which is anything but a forgone conclusion. The system has been suffering from well-documented mass issues as well as deadly vibration problems, and liftoff drift. Confidentially, many NASA engineers have expressed to various media outlets that they question if these fatal flaws can ever be sufficiently addressed, and have warned that, even if they can, the cost of the system would become even more extraordinary. Just as important is the issue of
‘s spaceflight gap, and, again, due to the aforementioned technical challenges, ongoing budget shortfalls and inherent schedule creep, it is highly unlikely that Ares/Orion will go into operation any earlier than seven or eight years from now – and even those estimates may be overly optimistic.
However, most damning of all is the number of seats provided by Orion. Because of the Ares mass issues and other challenges, Orion will now only be capable of carrying four astronauts. This represents half of the seats the shuttle could provide, and only one more than the ancient Russian Soyuz. A mere four-seat capability would be unacceptable to the private sector and should be unacceptable to NASA as well.
When placed in this context, it is readily apparent why supporting a commercial alternative – and SpaceX in particular – is so important. In six short years, from nothing, SpaceX has built world-class facilities, hired an experienced and talented staff (which now numbers over seven hundred), designed two iterations of its rocket (Falcon 1 and Falcon 9) as well as a capsule (the Dragon), and conducted four launches, one of which was a fully successful mission. By any standard, this represents outstanding progress, but particularly so in the unforgiving field of space launch. Add to this the fact that SpaceX has been funded primarily, and at first entirely, by private sector investment, and for an overall cost that is a mere fraction of the expense of a single shuttle launch, and SpaceX’s success and value becomes obvious.
work on the Merlin engine represents the first new
rocket engine development program in nearly three decades, making SpaceX’s work and technologies nothing short of a national asset. It is true that SpaceX has had one successful launch out of its first four, but such results are an inherent part of rocket development, and an expected aspect of any new program. I defy Sen. Shelby to point out any new rocket development effort, foreign or domestic, that did not suffer similar losses or worse when it first began.
Additionally, from a pricing perspective, SpaceX promises to be revolutionary. If SpaceX can come close to its current price estimates, it will change the launch industry as we know it and restore America’s lost leadership in the field of international commercial space launch. While carrying astronauts represents a more significant challenge than cargo, given another five years, SpaceX may develop this capability as well, potentially even before Ares/Orion (again, at a fraction of the cost), which is perhaps why SpaceX and commercial crew transportation has been so vociferously attacked by Constellation supporters.
Finally, it is vital to note that when Sen. Shelby condemns commercial space transport, and limits his comments to SpaceX alone, that he is creating a false dichotomy. This omission is particularly inexcusable since the Atlas
leading commercial transport contender, is produced in his home state of Alabama. Bigelow Aerospace has studied human-rating the Atlas 5 and found the concept to be both viable and economically attractive. The Atlas quickly defeats many of the senator’s criticisms since the system has enjoyed 86 consecutive successful launches, and, with the addition of a crew abort system, a human-rated Atlas 5 could offer greater than 99.9 percent crew ascent survival probability, a figure that far surpasses both that of the shuttle and Soyuz.
Commercial crew transport, as demonstrated by SpaceX’s dramatic progress and the existing Atlas 5 launcher, represents a viable, affordable and robust path forward. Due to the disturbing questions and potentially fatal problems surrounding the floundering Ares/Orion program, as well as more than two decades worth of similar failed NASA-driven human spaceflight initiatives (e.g., Venturestar/X-33, Crew Transportation Vehicle, Orbital Space Plane, etc.), Senate appropriators ignore the commercial option at their peril. Moreover, to hear a Republican senator espouse the virtues of a bloated, costly government program over innovative commercial concepts is so paradoxical that it requires no further comment from me.
We have a great deal of respect for Sen. Shelby, and simply hope that he will re-evaluate his thinking on this matter and recognize the danger in entrusting America’s human spaceflight future entirely to a deeply flawed government quagmire. Commercial crew and cargo transport is a real and viable option, and for a relatively minor amount of funds NASA could support both SpaceX and an Atlas 5-based system. If America focuses on developing these commercial, entrepreneurial options, I am confident that we can not only get back into the space race, but stand a good chance of winning it.
Robert T. Bigelow is the founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace LLC, which has successfully launched two pathfinder spacecraft, Genesis 1 and Genesis
2006 and 2007, respectively.