Ever since the administration's NASA budget proposal was announced in early February, some of the space community has been up in arms about its plan to cancel NASA's Constellation program (intended to redo Apollo with a return to the moon, including the horrifically high costs), and turn over to private enterprise the delivery of astronauts to low Earth orbit.
The goal is to refocus NASA's limited resources on the technologies needed to get beyond Earth orbit in an affordable manner, instead of sinking them all into a redundant and expensive NASA-owned-and-operated rocket.
Two of the most vocal critics of the new policy have been Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Richard Shelby, R-Ala. (aka the senator from Marshall Space Flight Center). Part of the war on the policy by them and others of similar mind has been to establish a straw-man argument -- that proposals for commercial human spaceflight consist solely of Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.
In reality, however, as Internet entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk himself has taken pains to point out, he is much less likely to get NASA's business than is United Launch Alliance, which has two proven launch systems in the Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles, with dozens of successful flights under their belts over the past almost two decades delivering satellites for the Defense Department costing up to $1 billion apiece.
In any event, Shelby and other critics have chosen to conveniently ignore the existence of United Launch Alliance, because it inconveniently knocks the props from under their ridiculous argument that commercial space is "unproven." Instead, they slander the professionals at SpaceX (many of them engineers and even former NASA astronauts with decades of aerospace industry experience) as "hobbyists" and "amateurs," operating out of a "garage."
We can be sure that the critics had a release prepared in the event of a hoped-for failure with the Falcon 9 launch. But they (no doubt disappointed) instead had to issue the faintest of praise when the launch was a full success, with payload delivered to intended orbit. Shelby moved the goalposts and continued the straw-man argument:
Hutchison (apparently ignoring the fact that SpaceX will hire several hundred people in Texas in the next couple of years) declared:Shelby ... further decried the launch as a display merely replicating what "NASA accomplished in 1964."
"Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation's human space flight program," Shelby said. "As a nation, we cannot place our future spaceflight on one fledgling company's definition of success."
It should be noted that there is a breathtaking double standard here. One of the reasons Constellation was canceled was that it was years behind schedule (likely not ready for several years), and in fact was slipping at least one year per year, steadily increasing the gap about which the senator expresses so much faux concern.... even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well. This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously canceled as the president proposes.
But the real issue was one of cost. Ares I plus Orion was projected to cost at least $50 billion to develop. SpaceX has, to date, including the purchase of its "garage" (one of the largest facilities in the world, previously used to assemble airliner wings), its engine development facilities in Texas and its launch-processing facilities in Florida, spent about 1 percent of that amount. In other words, we could have a hundred SpaceXs for what NASA proposed to spend on a redundant LEO launch vehicle and a capsule.
It would be impolitic, of course, but I would suggest that SpaceX send a nice bag of apples to the good senators and ask them how they like them. They might want to include a side of crow.
Rand Simberg is an aerospace engineer, space and business consultant and serial entrepreneur. He blogs at Transterrestrial Musings. His previous op-eds for AOL News include "A Space Program for the Rest of Us" and "NASA's Future Gets Murkier."
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