PJ Media

A Giant Leap for Commercial Spaceflight

A small Malaysian satellite was delivered to orbit late Monday night from the tiny atoll of Kwajalein far off in the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland.

Forty years after the first moon landing and over half a century after Sputnik, the launch of small satellites has become routine. But this one was special — or rather, its launcher was. Launched two days before the fortieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo XI (the anniversary of the moon landing itself will be on Monday, July 20), it was the first satellite delivered by a privately funded liquid rocket.

The event may have been a significant nail in the coffin of what many view as NASA’s current flawed plans for a return to the moon in the coming decade.

It was delivered by a Falcon 1, the first rocket developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California. It was the fifth flight of the vehicle and the second successful one, the first three having failed with customer payloads aboard. The two most recent consecutive successes are a large boost for the prospects of not just the Falcon 1, which has a limited market and was more of a learning tool for the new company, but the much larger Falcon 9, planned to make its first flight out of Cape Canaveral late this year.

The two vehicles share many components, particularly the engine (also developed from scratch by SpaceX) which is used in both stages, so confidence in its own upcoming success will be increased considerably.

So what does this have to do with NASA’s planned Constellation program for a lunar return?

It is currently under fire as a result of serious technical issues for the planned new launchers, with exploding cost estimates and schedule slips. Accordingly, to provide information for Charles Bolden, the incoming NASA administrator, they are under review by a panel of experts led by space industry veteran Norman Augustine. The current plan is a new rocket called Ares 1, for launching the crew, and Ares V, a heavy-lift vehicle for delivering the other payloads needed for a lunar mission. Both vehicles are based on a new version of the Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster and an updated version of the J2-S  LOX-hydrogen engine that was used on the Saturn V for Apollo.

The Augustine panel will be reviewing alternatives to it and was already briefed on them in June.

Among those alternatives are using the existing or modified commercial Atlas and Delta rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin), a different Shuttle-derived concept developed by some renegade NASA employees called DIRECT, and a late entrant — a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter, presented to the panel by John Shannon, the current head of the Shuttle program.

The latter appears to be the official NASA fallback position should the current Constellation plans, which no longer have a NASA administrator to defend them (though he continues to do so from his new position on the faculty of the University of Alabama in Huntsville), be radically altered.

But one other option on the table — at least to close the “gap” caused by the fact that the Shuttle is planned to be retired in 2010, while the new rocket and crew capsule are now not expected before 2016 or 2017 — is the SpaceX Falcon 9 and SpaceX’s own crew capsule, named the Dragon.

Falcon 9 and Dragon were developed with SpaceX’s own money, though the company has received some NASA funds via the Commercial Space Transportation Services (COTS) program, designed to help with space station logistics after Shuttle retirement. COTS funds currently are only to support cargo missions, but there are plans, not currently funded, for a COTS “D” — a version designed to carry passengers for crew change-out.

It has to be particularly dismaying to supporters of NASA’s current plans to note that the SpaceX’s total expenditure to date on both launcher and capsule seems to be about one percent of the projected development cost for Ares 1 and Orion, its crew capsule. Defenders of the Orion point out that it is designed not just for low earth orbit, but to get crew all the way to lunar orbit and back, but this can’t account for the two orders of magnitude difference in estimated development cost.

One of the most vociferous and politically powerful defenders of the status quo is Senator Dick Shelby (R-AL), the “senator from Marshall Spaceflight Center” — the NASA center in Huntsville where the launch vehicles are being developed. On May 21, in a subcommittee hearing on the NASA 2010 budget request, he commented:

“I believe that manned spaceflight is something that is still in the realm of government, because despite their best efforts, some truly private enterprises have not yet been able to deliver on plans of launching vehicles,” he said in his opening testimony, specifically mentioning SpaceX. “The reality is that, out of four attempts, they’ve only delivered a single dummy payload to space, have never delivered any payload to the space station, much less a human.” He added: “However grandiose the claims of proponents” of COTS-D, “they cannot substitute for the painful truth of failed performance at present.”

“I ask, is this the hope we will hitch our dreams of the future of manned spaceflight to? Will unproven cargo capabilities close the manned spaceflight gap faster than the work NASA has done on Ares and Orion?” Shelby asked. “Are we to entertain the idea of placing people on a rocket that has yet to deliver a single real payload of any kind to space? I would have trouble, Madam Chairwoman,” — referring to Sen. Barbara Mikulski — “supporting a budget that is poised to eliminate a real, manned space program and instead maintains the fantasy of one.”

Some space advocates offered him a history lesson in response. The irony is that he was bashing SpaceX, which had a vehicle sitting on the launch pad in Florida planned to launch this year, while NASA’s plans are simply that, with their vehicle not even having successfully completed a preliminary design review.

There is also a decades-long history of Marshall failures to develop a vehicle since the Shuttle, from Advanced Launch System in the late eighties, to X-33 in the nineties, to the Space Launch Initiative early in this decade.

Though he is no longer in the majority party, with his seniority he retains a lot of clout on the relevant space committees, and he has been using it. NASA received $400M for “exploration” as part of the so-called stimulus bill in February, and acting administrator Chris Scolese allocated $150M of it to support commercial efforts like COTS.

Senator Shelby has been fighting both the White House and NASA to get the entire $400M diverted to what is increasingly seen as an ongoing Constellation rat hole (the contractors seem to be abandoning ship, and even NASA seems to be reading the handwriting on the wall), cutting off any funding for the much more cost-effective commercial activities. In early July, he seemed to have won at least a partial victory, clawing back $100M of the $150M by (among other things) threatening to put a hold on the Bolden/Garver NASA nominations.

But he was roundly scolded by a Waco, Texas, newspaper, and the congressional delegation from that state (where SpaceX does its engine testing) struck back last week and now the fate of the funding seems to be in limbo.

Senator Shelby seems to be fighting a rear-guard action at this point. But it would be fitting justice if, as some suggest, he were forced to watch the video of Monday night’s launch over and over.