How entrepreneurial and government rockets really compare

How entrepreneurial and government rockets really compare
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By 1986, the City of New York had been trying to renovate and reopen the beloved Wollman skating rink in Central Park for about six years with almost zero results. Frustrated with the slow pace of the city's bureaucratic approach to the project, a young businessman convinced the mayor to give him the contract.

Within four months, and for less than the amount he promised, the young entrepreneur presided over a triumphant reopening at Wollman. That business leader was Donald J. Trump.

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Today, the United States has been trying to design and launch a heavy-lift vehicle called the Space Launch System (SLS) for about six years. In an April 2017 report, NASA’s Plans for Exploration Beyond Low Earth Orbit, the NASA inspector general said the U.S. government will have spent $23 billion on SLS through Sept. 30, 2018 — without putting a single payload into space.



Unfortunately, Congress will have to appropriate several billion more to finance the first flight of the SLS “Block 1,” currently scheduled for 2020, after years of delay.

SLS Block 1 will be capable of carrying about 70 metric Tonnes (mT) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and no part of it can be reused.

Some estimates put its operational cost at about $1 billion per launch.

Contrast SLS’s $23 billion price tag with the $500 million or so of investment that SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimates it cost his company to develop the 63.8 mT to LEO Falcon Heavy rocket — which flew for the first time a few weeks ago.

This partially reusable rocket costs about $90 million to $150 million per launch, will fly again this year, and is scheduled to fly several more times before SLS can get off the ground.

When it comes to payload capacity, Falcon Heavy is impressive. The argument, made by some, that it can’t match SLS’s ultimate 130 mT lift capacity is a little disingenuous.

The version of the Space Launch System in 2020 won’t have 130 mT of capacity either — and it won’t have that much capacity until SLS “Block 2 Cargo” flies.

That vehicle is many years and billions of taxpayer dollars away.

By that time, SpaceX likely will be flying its proposed “Big Falcon Rocket” (BFR), which would far exceed the lift capacity and crew complement of even the largest planned SLS rocket. If past is prologue, BFR would cost the taxpayer a lot less as well.

As in New York 30 years ago, the difference in cost and results between government-run and privately-led projects is stark.

Instead of pouring more money into government-led efforts to develop and build heavy spacelift, it would be more cost-effective to adapt vehicles that industry has already committed to invest in (e.g., SpaceX’s BFR and Blue Origin’s New Glenn) to meet unique government needs.

That is precisely what we do with large aircraft. From Air Force One to our air refueling tankers and Airborne Warning and Control aircraft, the U.S. government does not build airliners — it works with aircraft manufacturers to modify commercial products for government use.

In the case of the Boeing 707 back in the early 1950s, the government worked closely with industry to make sure the jet airliner would be a good fit for the Air Force’s air refueling mission.

Similarly, NASA engineers should work with the private sector to ensure that the “rigorous engineering needed when human lives are at stake” is incorporated into commercial heavy lift rockets.

This is currently being done in the ongoing Commercial Crew Development program, scheduled to launch U.S. astronauts to LEO from American soil later this year. There is no reason it cannot be done for beyond LEO exploration as well.

With this joint public-private heavy launch vehicle development approach, there would be no need to make the false choice between a “rocket owned by Elon Musk” and a “rocket owned by the American people,” as Jeff Bingham wrote last week.

Instead, our country could have a fleet of world-leading and affordable reusable rockets, built by American companies, and owned by the American people.

As with Wollman Rink many years ago, the bold first flight of Falcon Heavy shows that the entrepreneurial approach delivers results — for less money and on dramatically shorter timelines than government.

It is time to leverage this proven approach in a way that gets American astronauts, scientific probes and commercial activities into deep space sooner, rather than later.

Bill Bruner is CEO of New Frontier Aerospace, a former assistant administrator for Legislative Affairs at NASA and a former Military Fellow in the Office of the Speaker of the House.