Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?

The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)
The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)

Over the weekend, I discussed the pros and cons of a recent article written by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. In his discussion for a Washington D.C. political website, he outlined his thoughts on how to enrich the US economy. One of the points raised was the argument that a manned mission to Mars would have a huge economic impact on the USA; creating jobs, invigorating science education and boosting national well being. This is a worthy argument that, in principal, holds a lot of merit. After all, the Apollo Program in the 1960’s had a lasting effect on the US, creating jobs in the aerospace industry, bolstering the economy and creating a generation of highly skilled scientists and engineers.

So why not do Apollo 2.0? Send man to Mars as a measure to recreate the economic benefits generated by the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no modern government would sensibly invest in such a plan. There is no political incentive to do so (well, no acute incentive that requires the US to “beat” a competing superpower in the race to strategically dominate space).

But what if the recent economic $800+ billion stimulus package could be used to stimulate another, burgeoning sector of space flight, that has both political and financial merit?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is asking the same question. Could NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts get a boost in funding, accelerating a commercial answer to the looming 5-year gap in US manned spaceflight? This is where SpaceX needs your help…

The Falcon 9/Dragon COTS-C configuration intended for space station cargo delivery (SpaceX)
The Falcon 9/Dragon COTS-C configuration intended for space station cargo delivery (SpaceX)

Read the full SpaceX COTS-D Press Release »

In 2006, SpaceX won the NASA COTS competition by proving they were on track to provide a commercially viable space launch system to resupply the International Space Station. Since then, the company has come a long way. In September 2008, they made history by launching a dummy payload into orbit, using a rocket purely designed and built by the spaceflight company. In December 2008, SpaceX was awarded $1.6 billion by NASA to launch 12 cargo missions to the ISS after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. Although there appears to be some legal wrangling by the spaceflight consortium PlanetSpace over the Cargo Resupply Services contract, it is doubtful SpaceX will be targeted.

So what’s next? The Falcon 9 rocket system has been constructed and awaits its first launch at Cape Canaveral. By 2010, it is hoped that SpaceX will have demonstrated its ability to dock with the ISS, using the advanced Dragon system. Early on in the Dragon design phase, SpaceX ensured that the module would be human rated, even when fulfilling the COTS A-C phases of the program. COTS-D requires a human rated system, so the Dragon fulfils this requirement now.

The only significant missing element is the launch escape rocket, which carries the Dragon spacecraft to safety in the event of a launch vehicle failure. That can be developed within two years, which means F9/Dragon can be ready to transport astronauts by mid to late 2011. By that date, Falcon 9 will have flown a dozen times and Dragon will have done a round trip journey to the Space Station roughly half a dozen times with cargo, proving out reliability well in advance of carrying people.

What this would mean for taxpayers and high tech jobs in the United States is very significant. Let’s consider the default plan under way, which expects that our country will use the Russian Soyuz at the currently negotiated price of $47 million per seat for the period between Shuttle retirement (2010) and Ares/Orion reaching Space Station (2016). Even assuming that we drop the number of US astronauts going to Station from the current 30 per year with Shuttle down to 14 per year, the cost will be approximately $3.3 billion. However, there is also a human cost in the thousands of jobs that the money could have supported back home.

— Elon Musk

View the SpaceX animation of crew launch and ISS docking (COTS-D)
View the SpaceX animation of crew launch and ISS docking (COTS-D)

SpaceX makes business sense as much as it makes political sense. The company will be able to launch astronauts to the ISS at less than half the price of outsourcing crew launches to Russia. This fulfils many of Robert Zubrin’s thoughts about mounting a huge Mars effort in the aim of boosting the US economy, but SpaceX isn’t going to Mars, it is building the foundations of a commercially viable space infrastructure.

Although this is a “small step” for mankind (when compared with the technological leapfrogging achieved by the pioneers of the Mercury and Apollo missions), it will have huge implications for US business and politics. Rather than using the Russian Soyuz, NASA may have a viable alternative by investing in US business; creating jobs and (you guessed it) stimulating the economy.

Can we help? Yes

OTS Capability D [launching astronauts to the space station] can be completed within two years from date of funds receipt. In fact, with a little extra money and some modifications to the plan, it can be accelerated even further.

Since COTS Capability D is an existing option in an already competed contract, NASA could exercise it right away, resulting in immediate job creation. It is also worth noting that COTS D, like the COTS A-C funding, is a fixed price agreement and is only awarded as each milestone is achieved. If SpaceX is unable to pass the milestones, no taxpayer money is spent.

If you think this makes sense, please contact your representatives in the House and Senate, as well as Rep. Mollohan and Senator Mikulski who lead the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittees. Please encourage them to fund NASA Exploration in the Stimulus Bill and provide the $300M in funding necessary to begin COTS Capability D.

Phone calls are best, but email is great too. The information for your support options are below. Thanks in advance for supporting our efforts to supply an American solution to astronaut transportation.

–Elon Musk

Source: SpaceX


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