Think big on space travel, but think twice about tax dollars for SpaceX rocket

Think big on space travel, but think twice about tax dollars for SpaceX rocket
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President Donald J. Trump has signed Space Policy Directive 1, redirecting NASA and America’s space program to a new mission of exploration and discovery. The mission will start with a return trip by American astronauts to the moon — the first stop on the way to Mars.

With America still plagued by runaway federal spending, deficits and debt, this is not the best time for the federal government to be planning new missions to the stars. But with NASA’s annual budget of $18.4 billion, about one-half of 1 percent of federal spending, America’s space program is not the center of the budget problem.

Nor is NASA’s spending slated for a major boost. That is because Trump’s mission has the right focus on public-private partnerships, fostering private commercial alternatives to NASA, which can ultimately privatize the whole agency. With this focus, spending for Trump’s mission is a small burden for the international leadership, research and development and national defense implications it involves.


Trump’s vision on this issue is better for America than President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: Fox News viewers 'perceive a different reality' than other Americans Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide Ending the same-sex marriage wars MORE’s stand-down and withdrawal, under which America is paying Russia for U.S. space launches, including commercial and national-defense satellites. President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE is phasing out that policy.

However, if President Trump wants to lead America back to the moon again for the first time in nearly 50 years, he must do so in the most fiscally responsible way possible.

SpaceX, a private-investor venture, has been developing the new "Falcon Heavy" rocket, which was explicitly designed for long-term, deep-space missions such as trips to the moon and repeat flights to Mars. The rocket looks great on paper, but there are some problems that the Trump administration should consider before devoting taxpayer funds to its growth.


Even visionary SpaceX CEO Elon Musk cautions publicly that there is a “real good chance that vehicle does not make it to orbit.” In 2018, SpaceX is planning to commence a Falcon Heavy technology mission with a full, live crew and two space tourists riding the company’s Dragon 2 spacecraft into the first lunar orbit in half a century.

That’s tight scheduling if Musk has doubts about the Falcon Heavy getting off the ground. SpaceX publicly plans for the Falcon Heavy to debut in weeks, but it has been delayed multiple times from the original promised debuts in 2013-2017.

Indeed, SpaceX is already distracted from completing the Falcon Heavy, with development starting on another new venture called the BFR. Scheduled for a 2022 launch date, the BFR is supposed to be capable of the repeated, heavy trips necessary to plant a colony on Mars. Musk is saying the BFR will make the Falcon Heavy obsolete.

SpaceX took much of 2015 and 2016 just learning how to successfully land its Falcon 9 rocket. This is why Trump’s NASA should be careful about contractual financial support for the Falcon Heavy. The government may not gain anything from financing this rocket’s trial-and-error period if the company plans to replace it soon.

This is not to say that the Falcon Heavy should not be utilized. In some cases, perhaps it should. That’s why federal appropriators need to gain a better understanding of what is feasible on SpaceX’s end and what the company’s long-term goals are for the rocket.

President Trump believes his administration’s space policy will make “America think BIG once again.” Thinking big means granting contracts to the most practical, fiscally responsible innovators, not simply handing them to those who present the biggest, boldest ideas.

I hope the White House is up for the task.

Peter Ferrara served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Ronald Reagan and as associate deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. He is a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a conservative-libertarian public policy think tank, a senior policy adviser to the National Tax Limitation Foundation, and principal and general counsel to the Raddington Group, an international economics consulting firm.