SpaceX and “new space” up against traditionalists for future of NASA

Speculation about the direction of NASA under the Trump Administration has been circling for weeks, and although there are still no definite answers, there’s finally some news about the process being executed.

According to internal White House advisory documents obtained by Politico, there’s a huge push from many advisors for NASA to be used as a driver for privatized space technology; however, that push is bringing the rift between traditional NASA contractors and the “new space” companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin to a head. NASA’s $19 billion dollar budget is simply not large enough to accommodate both commercially-driven and traditional visions for the agency. The struggle is real, apparently, and it isn’t just affecting inner White House circles, either.

Earlier this week, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) surprised its audience by endorsing NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the heavy lift rocket being built to launch future NASA missions. In his remarks at the FAA’s Commercial Space Conference, CSF chairman Alan Stern characterized the SLS as a “resource” that could be complimentary to commercial space activity.

The surprise at this announcement comes in part from the fact that Boeing, a traditional NASA contractor and one-half of the government-customer-only launch service United Launch Alliance (ULA), is the prime contractor for the SLS. The cost comparison between private and government contracted technology is the issue.

Cost Effectiveness is Key

The billions of dollars it will take to fully develop SLS plus the high cost of launch missions is hard to justify when, for example, SpaceX estimates under $100 million dollars per flight on its upcoming heavy launch vehicle, Falcon Heavy.

SLS is estimated to be capable of carrying many times the payload weight of SpaceX’s vehicle, but it would still cost much less to use multiple SpaceX vehicles for a multi-part payload rather than justify the huge cost for a single launch. That, or one could argue that the cost of a SpaceX or Blue Origin developed vehicle in line with the SLS’s capabilities would be much more cost effective given the pricing record thus far. It also should be noted that such vehicles are, in fact, being designed by these companies already, albeit mostly still in non-tangible state. SpaceX has its Mars-bound Interplanetary Transport System (or “BFR” if you like), and Blue Origin has its “New Armstrong” in the works.

What about Congress?

The push from White House advisers will face obstacles in Congress as well. Space subcommittee members in both the House and Senate have discussed some of the details included in a draft 2017 NASA Authorization Act, the legislation which will define NASA’s priorities, and considering their comments alongside prior legislative drafts, “stay the course” looks to be the general direction. Concern over NASA’s need for “constancy of purpose” is a big driver, as missions requiring long-term development suffer when directives vary too widely from one presidential administration to another.

While prior presentations of NASA Authorization Acts have been lengthy and mostly inviting little to no controversy, they all still contain a requirement to use the SLS and Orion, NASA’s crew capsule under development, for deep space activity and anywhere else suitable. Such emphasis would likely clash with those advocating for transforming NASA’s role to one supporting commercial launch vehicles, especially those promoting the elimination of the SLS entirely.

Also, with thousands of NASA-dependent jobs on the line in the districts hosting SLS development facilities, the stakes are high for any congressional representatives thinking of supporting major shifts for NASA. The lines seem to have been drawn in the proverbial sand.

What about Mars?

News of commercial space supporters advocating for a NASA transition inside the White House may sound hopeful to those rooting for more privatized space technology; however, for colonization dreamers, Mars looks to be a carrot teased at the end of a “Moon first” road. The internal White House documents call for Moon development to begin by 2020, Mars falling under the “and beyond” category of capabilities that could be possible with an overhauled NASA.

In that light, the proposed NASA bills might sound like a Cinderella story for Mars enthusiasts: In order to go to the Prince’s ball (Mars), a whole host of lengthy chores (cis-lunar activity, Moon base, use the SLS, etc.) must be completed first.

If “Moon first” becomes the winner in the end, it still wouldn’t likely interfere with Elon Musk’s Mars plans but rather help them along with all the new space infrastructure launch income for SpaceX. And to continue with the Cinderella bit, we know there’s no way Musk would make it home by midnight anyway, although he does seem to have an affinity for mice.

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