SpaceX could save NASA and the future of space exploration

SpaceX could save NASA and the future of space exploration
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The successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is a game-changer that could actually save NASA and the future of space exploration. 

The much delayed, much maligned rocket is just what the space agency needs to escape from the governmental bureaucracy that has bound her to Low Earth Orbit for the past 45 years.  

Unfortunately, the traditionalists at NASA — and their beltway bandit allies — don't share this view and have feared this moment since the day the Falcon Heavy program was announced seven years ago.

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The question to be answered in Washington now is why would Congress continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars a year on a government-made rocket that is unnecessary and obsolete now that the private sector has shown they can do it for a fraction of the cost?

 

If lawmakers continue on this path, it will siphon-off even more funds that NASA could otherwise use for science missions, transfer vehicles or landers that will further advance our understanding of the universe — and actually get us somewhere. 

NASA has spent more than $15 billion to try and develop their own heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), with a first flight planned in roughly two years — assuming all goes according to plan. 

Once operational, SLS will cost NASA over $1 billion per launch. The Falcon Heavy, developed at zero cost to the taxpayer, would charge NASA approximately $100M per launch. In other words, NASA could buy 10 Falcon Heavy launches for the coat of one SLS launch — and invest the remainder in truly revolutionary and meaningful missions that advance science and exploration.

It is understandable that government employees, contractors and their elected officials want to keep this expensive rocket development program going.  A large share of NASA’s roughly $19billion budget has been spent on this constituency, and in turn is protected by them. We have come to accept this “tax” on the agency, but It is time for the nation to decide if we want a space program — or a jobs program.

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NASA's marketing of how many elephants, locomotives and airplanes could be launched by various versions of SLS is a perfect example of the frivolity of developing, building and operating their own rocket. NASA advertises that it will be able to launch 12.5 elephants to LEO on Block I SLS, or 2.8 more elephants than the Falcon Heavy could launch. But if we are counting elephants — the planned Block II version of SLS could launch 30 elephants, while SpaceX's BFR could launch 34. Talk about significant.

The government should be focusing on their unique, longer-term goals and partnering with the private sector to help incentivize the success of this commercial U.S. enterprise.

SpaceX offered NASA the opportunity to get a free ride on this first launch. But the space agency viewed commercial development of this rocket as "competition" and refused their offer. Instead, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk put his own Tesla Roadster onboard, turning the event into a brilliant cross-marketing event.

Both SpaceX and NASA have missions to Mars as their goals, but only one can actually get there at a sustainable cost. 

The wise investments made in commercial space by both the Bush and Obama administrations helped lead to SpaceX’s history making moment today. The plan worked: provide early government seed money into the private space market, let companies compete, lower costs and allow the government to develop new technologies that will expand our reach — and save taxpayer money.

Lori Garver is general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, International and the former deputy administrator of NASA.