Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Flight of the Dragon"

The Falcon 9 launch vehicle [SpaceX/Chris Thompson].
Paul D. Spudis
The Once and Future Moon
Smithsonian Air & Space

If things go according to plan Tuesday, the world will witness SpaceX launch its first Dragon cargo supply mission to the International Space Station.  As this flight has been heralded as the dawn of a new age in spaceflight – a paradigm shift in the way the spaceflight is approached – it is appropriate to step back for some reflection and perspective on what this flight may or may not represent.  As noted by many, this particular cargo flight has a lot riding on it – with overarching concern for success (even if a bit unfair), created in part both by vociferous advocacy and excessive public pronouncements.

1.  A successful or unsuccessful result from this flight neither confirms nor negates the value and/or viability of commercial spaceflight.

This proposition should be obvious.  Launch to orbit is an inherently difficult and risky endeavor.  Even launch vehicles with long histories of reliable flight fail, sometimes with distressing frequency.  We tend to think that space access should be routine but that appearance is deceiving; spaceflight is never routine, simply because orbital flight is possible only on the very edge of our capability.  Think of it as carrying a heavy load of luggage while ice skating – you may know how to do it and you may even pull it off successfully a number of times, but if you start taking it for granted, a fall on the posterior is quite likely (with this eventuality more probable in the early stages of the endeavor).

Looked at in another way, a successful mission does not “prove” the case for commercial human spaceflight (the case for commercial unmanned space launch has long since been proven) nor does it negate its feasibility.  The real issue with commercial human spaceflight is the existence of a market.  Right now, such a market does not exist.  New Space advocates have unlimited faith that one will emerge, but hope is not a business plan.  It will take years of successful commercial launches (and safe returns) for the creation of a genuine commercial market.  The uncertainties in the future legal status of commercial human spaceflight is enough to give one pause – contemplate the likely consequences following the first fatal accident in a commercial human spaceflight, after the ambulance chasers get their teeth into the flesh of every company who ever had anything whatsoever to do with the flight.

2.  The creation of SpaceX capability is not “commercial” in the sense that we in the capitalist United States of America understand it.  Likewise, a government space program is not “socialism.”

The word commercial has been re-branded.  Previously, in most entrepreneurs’ way of thinking, “commercial” enterprise meant that a person or group drew up a business plan, raised private capital and shouldered the financial risk in an attempt to make a profit by providing a product or service.  The understanding of the term “commercial space” has been stretched to encompass a business plan where a start-up company requests (and expects) government subsidies on their promise of future delivery of a product and/or service.  Because it’s not “run” by the government, this form of government-sponsored crony capitalism is now deemed “commercial.”   Financial tweaking is not how most would understand or define a new paradigm in space travel.

Typically during the last 50 years of our federal civil space program, we were working toward some clearly articulated, reachable (that adjective is important) goal on some kind of timetable.  Because spaceflight, particularly the manned variety, was considered to be dangerous and technically cutting edge, the program was more of an engineering research program than the deployment of an operational transportation system.  Such R&D has important national security and economic ramifications and as such, fits perfectly under the constitutional requirement for the federal government to provide for the common defense and promote economic development.  If that’s “socialism,” then America has been a socialist country from its founding.

3. True commercial space firms exist, but they are pursing their goals quietly and generally without excessive hype.  They do not rely on government money to support their R&D costs.

Burt Rutan developed Space Ship One for Paul Allen in order to win the Ansari X-Prize (and did) and is currently developing a new spacecraft for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic suborbital spacelineRobert Bigelow’s company took a discarded NASA design for inflatable spacecraft and is developing a future commercial space station, available for sale of lease (it’s the transportation problem to and from his station that’s holding him back.)  None of these efforts are taking the King’s shilling – they are developing hardware and capability themselves.  It’s interesting that unlike some New Space firms, they tend to make fewer public pronouncements and the ones they do make are both substantive and realistic (you tend to operate that way when you’re risking your own nickel).

4.  The process of contracting with “commercial” firms to carry payloads into orbit is not a space policy.

This last item is obvious, but only if you’re not getting your news exclusively from the space media.  Even if SpaceX is completely successful, all we will have done is to add another player to the existing roster of supply vehicles that enable the occupation and use of the ISS.  Since discarding the Vision for Space Exploration over two years ago, we have no long-term goal or strategic direction for our civil space program.  The pre-existing Commercial Crew and Cargo Program has been billed as a “new direction” but it is simply a utilitarian effort to keep an existing program going, not a new path or direction to follow.  Mirages of human missions to asteroids and following a “flexible path” will produce pointless viewgraph engineering – and no missions getting off the ground.  At least with the VSE, the nation knew where, when and why we were going.

Even as we hope for a successful SpaceX launch and return, it is vital that America recognize that our government has no space policy or strategic direction – commercial or otherwise.  From both a security and an economic perspective, this is a dangerous situation for our nation.

Originally published at his Smithsonian Air & Space blog The Once and Future Moon, Dr. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are better informed than average.

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