Copyright 2012 Robert Clark
SpaceX deserves major kudos in successfully launching the Dragon spacecraft, docking with the ISS, and recovering the capsule on Earth. However, it is important to note there is nothing especial innovative of the SpaceX designs. Their engines are no more efficient than the engines on the original Atlas rocket of the 1960's that first lofted John Glenn to orbit. And their stages use the same lightweighting techniques known since the 1970's. SpaceX has said they don't want to patent their designs because it would give their competitors, such as China, an easy route to copying their designs. But I wonder if the real reason is that they are the same techniques known for decades. Their important innovation is that they used good business practices in privately developing their launchers and spacecraft to cut the development costs by 90%(!)
SpaceX Might Be Able To Teach NASA A Lesson.
May 23, 2011
By Frank Morring, Jr.
“I think one would want to understand in some detail . . . why would it be between four and 10 times more expensive for NASA to do this, especially at a time when one of the issues facing NASA is how to develop the heavy-lift launch vehicle within the budget profile that the committee has given it,” Chyba says.
He cites an analysis contained in NASA’s report to Congress on the market for commercial crew and cargo services to LEO that found it would cost NASA between $1.7 billion and $4 billion to do the same Falcon-9 development that cost SpaceX $390 million. In its analysis, which contained no estimates for the future cost of commercial transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS) beyond those already under contract, NASA says it had “verified” those SpaceX cost figures.
For comparison, agency experts used the NASA-Air Force Cost Model—“a parametric cost-estimating tool with a historical database of over 130 NASA and Air Force spaceflight hardware projects”—to generate estimates of what it would cost the civil space agency to match the SpaceX accomplishment. Using the “traditional NASA approach,” the agency analysts found the cost would be $4 billion. That would drop to $1.7 billion with different assumptions representative of “a more commercial development approach,” NASA says.
Space travel can become world-wide once the implications of what SpaceX has done are fully realized: development of a manned spaceflight capability can be accomplished, as privately developed, at a cost of a few hundred million dollars, not the several billion dollars long thought.
That is an overwhelmingly important fact. It means that all the large aerospace companies in the world can afford to privately develop their own manned launchers and/or spacecraft and expect to make a profit on it. It means nearly every country in the world can afford to have their own manned spaceflight capability.
Example, here's a British manned spacecraft that was studied in the 1980's:
Multi-Role Recovery Capsule.
British manned spacecraft. Study 1987. Britain was the only European Space Agency member opposed to ESA's ambitious man-in-space plan, and the British conservative government refused to approve the November 1987 plan.The important fact is SpaceX has shown with its Dragon capsule and NASA has confirmed with its CCDEV program that privately developed spacecraft, perhaps with governmental seed money, can be developed for costs in the few hundred million dollars range. So the BAe could develop this spacecraft, not for $2 billion, but for an amount comparable to that spent on the Dragon, ca. $300 million.
However, the British aerospace industry did propose some interesting alternatives, such as the $2-billion 'Multi-Role Recovery Capsule'.
Likewise, the individual nations of the ESA could develop their own indigenous manned spaceflight capability by following this approach. The result? Manned spaceflight becomes routine world-wide.
That is the lasting importance of what SpaceX has accomplished.
Note: the original version of this post said Alan Shepard was lofted to suborbit on the Atlas. That was actually on the Mercury-Redstone. John Glenn was launched to orbit on the Mercury-Atlas. - B.C.