Editor's Note: On Space welcomes our newest contributor.
There have been notable instances in the past where NASA has promised much more than it has delivered. The X-30 National Aerospace Plane and X-33/VentureStar never got off the ground. The ISS has yet to provide the revolutionary breakthroughs in medicine and materials that NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin promised before Congress. And the Shuttle, although it has proven to be an effective workhorse, never came close to the $100 per pound to LEO, even adjusted for inflation, promised as its primary justification.
Some of these casualties have been the results of politics: Clinton cancelled Reagan’s X-30. Bush cancelled Clinton’s X-33. And Obama continues trying to cancel Bush‘s Constellation. However, the main drivers of this disconnect have been the astronomical development costs of space hardware, the fundamental uncertainties of all new technologies, and the tenuous, meager financial returns resulting from most new space capabilities. Unrealistic promises have been made simply because in an honest evaluation the value of some of these programs would not have been obvious.
In recent years, a “NewSpace” movement has taken hold and made genuine efforts to advance space largely outside of NASA. By necessity, significant work has gone into reductions in development and operational costs, such as using simpler, less expensive components and materials, employing a much smaller workforce, vertical in-house manufacturing to eliminate middlemen, and the very beginning of attempts to achieve economical reuse of major spacecraft components.
However, not having direct, guaranteed access to the multi-billion dollar budgets accorded to NASA, some of these NewSpace pioneers have been even more egregious in making unrealistic promises and personal guarantees in attempts to snag private and taxpayer funding.
For instance, the 2005 SpaceX announcement of the Falcon 9 promised a “FULLY REUSABLE HEAVY LIFT LAUNCH VEHICLE”. It advertised an initial price of $27M per flight, including all range fees and insurance, with future, dramatic reductions in price resulting from reuse. It also claimed its use of 9 small rocket motors provided enhanced reliability. Using this logic, the 31-engine Soviet N-1 Moon rocket should not have blown up so many times.
Seven years later, although SpaceX has racked up an impressive number of commercial launch orders, the Falcon 9 is several years behind schedule, with only two test flights, and prices in excess of $54M. With the exception of the Dragon capsule, the only things that have been recoverable, post-launch, have been small bits of scrap metal.
More recently, Elon Musk, at a National Press Club announcement, and in a BBC Interview, has promised that SpaceX will provide round-trip transport to Mars and back, at a cost of $500,000 per person, within 10 years. All of this is based upon theoretical, untested designs and calculations, and assuming that there will be a thriving market demand for the several hundred flights per year needed to support the development and operational cost of such a system and the massive infrastructure in place on Mars required to support such a large population.
In his appendix to the Report of the PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, physicist Richard Feynman concluded:
NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.