NASA's Bridenstine gives SpaceX a reality check

NASA's Bridenstine gives SpaceX a reality check
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SpaceX CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference NASA targeting early 2020 for first manned SpaceX mission Hillicon Valley: Senate Intel report urges action to prevent 2020 Russian meddling | Republicans warn Microsoft of 'urgent' Huawei threat | Court rules FBI surveillance violated Americans' rights MORE is a lot of things, mad genius, entrepreneur and visionary. He is also a master showman, as exemplified by his recent presentation of his plan to open up the moon, Mars and beyond to human settlement. The event took place in Boca Chica, Texas, close to where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Musk, among other people, has given that talk before, along with viewgraphs and animated videos. However, rhetoric about the high frontier of space takes on an extra resonance when the backdrop is an actual rocket ship.

And, what a rocket ship! The Starship MK 1 stood beneath the Texas sky, made of gleaming stainless steel and heady dreams about a future better than the present, like something from a 1950s science fiction movie.

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The stainless-steel rocket will fly to a height of 12 miles before, hopefully, landing again in the next two months. Later versions will fly to orbit and, according to Musk, to the moon and Mars. The envisioned schedule is breathtaking in its ambition which, if achieved with even some delays, will make the decade of the 2020s into a turning point in human history.

One-part dose of reality and one-part casting of shade came from NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineTrump speaks with NASA astronauts on all-female spacewalk NASA makes historic all-female spacewalk NASA reveals new spacesuits for next moon mission MORE. He offered an admonishment in the form of a tweet the day before Musk’s presentation.

“I am looking forward to SpaceX announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It is time to deliver.”

Bridenstine is referring to a project assigned to both SpaceX and Boeing to create crewed spacecraft that will take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Both spacecraft have faced delays, which tends to show that Musk, for all of his talents, is not a magician. The problems facing Commercial Crew provide a reality check on SpaceX’s breakneck schedule to make Starship a functioning space vehicle.

Social media exploded with a lot of snark referring to NASA’s rocket to the moon and Mars, the Space Launch System, which has cost over $10 billion, has taken about 10 years to develop so far, and is years away from its first flight. The criticism is fair, though it should be pointed out that the decisions about the SLS and the attending problems surrounding the project predate Bridenstine’s tenure as NASA administrator. He is moving as expeditiously as possible to get the SLS back on schedule.

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The dichotomy between the Starship’s rapid development and the plodding Space Launch System points to how differently the two projects get their funding. Elon Musk is answerable only to his investors for how much and when he spends money. NASA has to answer to Congress, which, as Ars Technica points out, is not always sensible about how it doles out money.

Congress presents a problem in how NASA conducts space exploration because of how the two legislative branches have chosen to deal with the Trump administration’s request for extra money, including $1.6 billion in the new fiscal year, to accelerate the next human moon landing to 2024. So far, the House has provided zero funding and the Senate less than requested.

Of the billion or so dollars requested to get a crewed lunar lander started, the Senate has offered $744 million which, according to Space News, would impact the scale and number of awards NASA can dole out to various companies to get the project started. Ironically, the same Senate bill grants $300 million to get an Exploration Upper Stage for the SLS started, which NASA says it doesn’t need right now.

One way Bridenstine can make up for the shortfall is to have commercial partners invest more money in the lunar landers they propose. SpaceX has already done so, with the stainless-steel Starship, which could become, in one form, a way to get NASA astronauts to the lunar surface. SpaceX’s main rival, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out Amazon dumps million into Seattle elections Washington Post publisher: 'Corrosive' to liken unfavorable news to 'fake news' MORE’ Blue Origin, has also poured money into its lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon.

Congress, by playing games with NASA’s lunar lander funding, may have ironically enabled the early development of commercial moon ships. That means that the stainless-steel Starship, which Bridenstine fears is a distraction from the Commercial Crew project, may prove to be the salvation of NASA’s aspirations to return to the moon by 2024. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”