Friday, June 1, 2012

On the lasting importance of the SpaceX accomplishment.

Copyright 2012 Robert Clark

Credit: NASA

 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.
However, the British aerospace industry did propose some interesting alternatives, such as the $2-billion 'Multi-Role Recovery Capsule'.
 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.

 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.

     Bob Clark

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.


  1. Fascinating post -- I hope you are right that manned spaceflight will flourish!

    1. The brilliant success of Spacex shows the big govt agency NASA has no clothes....
      Spacex access is not nearly as difficult, expensive as big govt NASA Monopoly has made it look....

  2. Bob -- I dig your column, but - just a correction. Alan Shepard never flew on an Atlas.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I have edited the post to show John Glenn was orbited by the Atlas.

      Bob Clark

  3. Saw your article on Instapundit. Good stuff. Though, I'll point out that just because SpaceX was able to develop a launcher at 10% of the normal estimate does not mean that anyone can do it.

    SpaceX made a lot of decisions along the development path for the Falcon series of rockets. They did a great job building their own rocket engines, but crucially, in other areas, they did not innovate at all, and that also kept costs down. They chose aluminum alloys for their tankage, for instance, instead of high-tech composites. They also chose a fairly conservative initial design, instead of going for flyback boosters or other exotica right out of the gate.

    One last thing: SpaceX's success will hopefully make it easier for other companies to get funding, now that the task is shown to be possible.

  4. If you include all the investment SpaceX has made in developing its family of engines and vehicles I think you come out closer to $800M. Still at least a factor of 2-5 cheaper. Falcon 1 is a bit like Saturn 1: an early flight test vehicle supporting the development of the bigger rocket so it's probably fair to include it.

  5. While big govt Federal Agency NASA blew $20 billion on it's failed/canceled Constellation, private enterprise SpaceX developed/ flew far superior/ advanced boosters/capsules for only $300 million.
    Yet now SpaceX gets a pittance! While bloated, pork driven NASA blows $60+ billion more earmarked pork SLS/Orion.... Shameful