SpaceX: Can Elon Musk Win the Second Space Race?

 SpaceXElon Musk May Be Finding Space Travel More Crowded

Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX will serve supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) from 2019 until 2024 as part of NASA’s “Commercial Resupply Services 2” (CRS-2). As part of the CRS-2 program, the suppliers will provide cargo flights to the ISS using private capsules, as NASA announced on January 14, ending a longstanding tender contest. (Source: “Nasa’s Big Announcement: Sierra Nevada Will Begin Space Station Deliveries,” PopSci January 14, 2016.)

Compared to CRS-1, the current program, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, have been reconfirmed in the roster, but Sierra Nevada is now included with its “Dream Chaser” spaceplane, a former but previously unsuccessful candidate for human missions. The value of the three contracts is said to be worth some $14.0 billion. (Source: “Musk’s SpaceX, Orbital ATK Split $14 Billion Pact with Newcomer,” Bloomberg, January 14, 2016.)

These companies will have to make a minimum of six flights between late 2019 and 2024 under the terms of this contract. Most rockets will be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida for SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, while Orbital ATK will lift off from the Wallops Island Space Center on Wallops Island, Virginia. (Source: Ibid.)

NASA’s decision to award contracts to multiple entrants in the private space exploration industry reflects the rocket technology’s expense and persistent reliability risks. By keeping various contractors on the roster gives NASA more choice and flexibility, managing risk through a variety of launch options and mission types, said Kirk Shireman, head of the ISS program. This suggests that no single manufacturer from the current pool of private space travel technology companies can expect to gain a monopoly anytime soon. (Source: “NASA Picks Dream Chaser Shuttle for Space Station Resupply,” The Spectrum, January 18, 2016.)

The ISS must be kept operational so that the crew can fully exploit its potential as a laboratory. The ISS remained several months without being replenished because of Orbital ATK’s accident in October 2014, when its “Antares” launcher exploded seconds after takeoff. In June 2015, SpaceX lost a “Falcon 9” rocket after launch. Russia, meanwhile, lost its “Progress” cargo spacecraft last year.

Orbital resumed flights of its “Cygnus” capsule to the ISS in December 2015, using an “Atlas V” rocket made by United Launch Alliance. A new version of SpaceX’s Falcon launched successfully in December 2015, deploying its satellite cargo and landing safely back to Earth, demonstrating the viability of Elon Musk’s ambition to deploy reusable rockets, which don’t require a runway.

The new rocket is capable of delivering 30% higher output than the previous model and also has improvements aimed at the controlled landing feature. That’s the aspect that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin showed off a few weeks ago after a sub-orbital flight with its own reusable “Blue Shepard,” leading the race for space tourism—if not for more substantial space exploration.

SpaceX Still Aims to Develop Reusable Rockets

SpaceX rockets are capable of fulfilling multiple missions in order to reduce costs and to fill in the hefty gap left after NASA mothballed the Space Shuttle program. In November, SpaceX also scored a major deal with NASA, as the agency confirmed that Elon Musk’s company will deploy its first manned space mission, ferrying astronauts to the ISS by 2017. (Source: “SpaceX Gets Huge Contract for its First Manned Space Flight,” Fortune, November 20, 2015.)

SpaceX and Orbital had already been selected for the first installment of freight contracts awarded as part of a partnership of NASA with the private sector. However, NASA’s selection of Sierra Nevada has validated the small space shuttle offered by this company, the Dream Chaser, expanding the pool of suppliers. The Dream Chaser is launched by a rocket and then returns to earth, landing on a runway.

The main challenge and litmus test for private space travel will come in 2017. Whereas the development of privately made rockets and spaceships has been rather quick, allowing for some 16 tons of equipment to be transported to the ISS thanks to SpaceX and ULA (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) missions, manned missions rely exclusively on the Russian Soyuz program.

The big loser in the race is Lockheed Martin with the Jupiter/Exoliners and Boeing, which pulled out last November. SpaceX offered two versions of its “Dragon,” which can be grasped by the ISS’s robotic arm. Upon its return to earth, the Dragon can land and then move on to be used in another mission. Nevertheless, on January 17, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that powers the Dragon spaceship, failed at the very end, just as everything seemed to be going smoothly.

Is the Next Phase of Space Exploration Too Ambitious?

The stage worked properly and was traveling at the right speed and trajectory until it settled on the marine platform designed to recover the reusable carrier. The Falcon took a misstep at the end—literally, as one of its four paws did not work properly, leaning on one side and then crashing, producing a spectacular explosion, despite the fact it saw the successful return of another rocket Falcon on December 22, 2015. While SpaceX will certainly remain a contender in the commercial space race, NASA’s policy of risk diversification will only strengthen because of the latest mishap.

The manufacturers are also diversifying their product range. Orbital ATK proposed three versions of its Cygnus. The newcomer Sierra Nevada has instead proposed two versions of its Dream Chaser: one able to hook up to the ISS, while the other is grabbed by the ISS’s arm.

As for the future and the much discussed colonization of Mars, SpaceX’s ambitious project to land a manned mission to the red planet by 2030 seems, well, too ambitious. Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson insists, “There’s a lot of delusional thinking when it comes to commercial space flight. Using history to draw his conclusions, Tyson doesn’t see a privatized flight being first—there’s too much risk and no reward.” (Source: “NASA, Mars One, or SpaceX: Who Has the Best Chance of Getting to Mars?” Bigthink, March 2015.)

Much of the argument in favor of Musk’s SpaceX’s chances of reaching Mars revolve around the company’s ability to deliver mission-worthy rockets and capsules at relatively low cost and short turnaround. However, Mary Lynne Dittmar, an aerospace consultant, notes that when it comes to Mars, “The distances that are involved and the complexities that are involved in going and staying there are really enormous.” Dittmar cites such problems as oxygen, food, cancerous radiation, dust, and landing on a planet with such a thin atmosphere. (Source: Ibid.)

The Ambition to Reach Mars Will Remain

Man is going to land on Mars one day, but it is unlikely to be the result of a private space contractor and not within the bold timelines envisaged by SpaceX or “Mars One.” Meanwhile, NASA, still a government agency, will likely remain indispensable.

“No commercial company without the support of NASA and government is going to get to Mars,” said Bolden, responding to the possibility that the agency, focused on too many side projects, can lose the race to the red planet. (Source: “NASA Says Nobody’s Getting to Mars without Its Help,” Gizmodo, April 18, 2015.)

NASA has not lost the capacity to dream big; it still wants to reach Mars, but in a series of stages that should lead to a manned mission to Mars by 2030. Certainly, the commercial space companies will contribute to the development of the technology needed to send humans to Mars.  To that end, new human missions on the lunar surface (the first since the end of the Apollo program in December 1972) are scheduled. They will serve as opportunities to develop and test new technologies to be used later for the conquest of Mars.

One of the main problems is cost. Many point to the Apollo program in the 1960s as proof that an ambitious space program can be deployed even though 1960s technology was hardly as effective as what is available now. Yet the situation was very different from a geopolitical and budgetary perspective.

President Kennedy outlined the United States’ commitment to landing a man on the moon by the end of the 60s. There was a strong incentive: the Soviet Union, which beat the United States both in sending a satellite into orbit (Sputnik) in 1957 and in sending the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin in April 1961), a month before Kennedy addressed Congress. The U.S. had to beat the USSR at any cost in the space race. As if in a war to the death, Americans willingly accepted the flood of money that the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations poured into NASA.

The investments in the design, development, construction, and operation of the “Saturn V” rockets that powered the Apollo missions cost some $6.41 billion between 1964 and 1973, which is the equivalent of $41.4 billion, adjusted for inflation today. The entire Apollo program cost American taxpayers something like $100 billion in today’s money. (Source: “The Artemis Project,” ASI, last accessed January 18, 2016.)

As a comparison, NASA’s current budget is $18.5 billion and it would cost at least $100 billion for even the cheapest of Mars missions. (Source: “How does NASA plan to pay for a Mars mission?Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2016.)

In addition, consider that the longest Apollo mission, the last one in 1972 and the only one to have a scientist aboard, had a duration of about 75 hours on the moon’s surface. That is a mere hit and run compared to the missions envisioned for Mars today. A prolonged mission to the moon, allowing for the kind of scientific research expected today, would take weeks and budgets too large for the public to ponder, bank bailout of 2008 notwithstanding.

We may see an unmanned mission to the moon shortly. In 2017, the first private mission on the moon may be completed as three teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which has even seen the participation of VW’s “Audi,” will attempt to take their landers on the surface of the Moon Brand. (Source: “Audi joins Google Lunar XPrize competition,” UPI, January 15, 2016.)

Then there is the “Indian Chandrayaan-2,” starting from the end of 2017 and early 2018, and Chinese Chang’e program, which landed successfully on the moon’s surface in December 2013. The next missions could reach the satellite by the end of the decade, the first to bring back samples of the moon’s surface since 1976. (Source: “China lands on moon, kicks off next lunar space race,” New Scientist, December 13, 2013.)