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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wait for Me, I'm your Space Commander!

© 2015 - Space-X public domain

Space X Gets Closer, NASA Gets More Uncomfortable

Oh, so very close!!  Hitting a tiny floating barge is asking a lot of what is pretty early stage experimental tech. You can see in the video, the booster having to make last minute adjustments for wind and the position of the barge that affect the angular momentum of the rocket. If they'd had a larger land-based pad to land on, I think that one would have been a success. I still get excited about all this stuff. I have ever since I watched Alan Shepherd ride the first Mercury capsule into space. I had pictures from magazines hanging all over the place. I had records and tapes and books about Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. I bought telescopes and model rockets with my paper route money. Space-X is doing some of the most exciting stuff in commercial space exploration, while most of the others are still talking about it.  There's a reason why landing a reusable booster is so important.

The moment that Space X lands it's first booster successfully, the cost of launching rockets will drop significantly. And the cheaper it is to launch, the more likely it will be that someone of moderate means will have the opportunity to go to space, to work in space and to see us do something wonderful with rockets that doesn't involve killing each other. Also, the less likely companies launching satellites and such are to want to pay 156 million per launch when Space-X will do it for 53 million (or less if the boosters are reusable. The numbers may have changed a bit, but Space-X really is launching almost double the weight of material for less than any of its competitors including NASA. The economy of space business is about to get a pretty radical boost.

Space-X's Dragon capsules are already reusable and are delivering more supplies for less to the ISS (International Space Station for you non-geeky types). Soon their capsules will be certified to deliver up to seven astronauts at a time to the station. The Dragon spacecraft will also soon be able to land on solid ground through a combination of parachutes and braking rockets which were built into the design from the very first. The cargo version was originally designed to be convertable into a crew carrying version. How economical is that?

And Space-X launches its cargo missions at less than half the cost of NASA's own multiply-blessed-with funding United Space Alliance.  And Space-X has been using American designed and built booster engines from the start instead relying on 30 year old Russian rocket engine designs that Boeing and Lockheed (the principle owners of United Space Alliance) are currently using.

I know some folks at NASA really are uncomfortable with the speed at which Space-X is pushing forward. NASA's development and contracting process is notoriously slow and expensive. That's why the Space Shuttle launched with computers so primitive onboard, that astronauts finally resorted to carrying laptops with them.  Space-X has been so good at development, that NASA is now having to run PR campaigns for ever little "success" their own spacecraft development program has had in order to build up their image as the leader in space. 

NASA is running along behind Space-X shouting, "Wait for me, I'm your leader!"  All the while they're pouring money into a mammoth booster that's pretty much recycled Apollo technology for a mission that doesn't even exist yet.

It's little wonder two mega-corporations, Google and Fidelity just put one billion dollars into Space-X. Google wants to launch a fleet of Internet satellites to bring down the cost of the Internet. That's very smart since the real money is not in providing Internet service, but in getting more customers onto the nets to do real business. I think Fidelity just wants to make money in space (and what kid who grew up in the 60s and 70s doesn't.

Not only that, but there are satellites, orbital hotels and commercial moon bases all waiting to be built. Without NASA's iron-handed control over the contracts and launch facilities, that's likely to happen far more quickly as aerospace companies try to get out front of the pack. NASA knows it doesn't have the control it once had over access to space. With private companies being heavily funded, launches can be done from any other country that would like to get into the space Texas where Space-X is building launch facilities along the Gulf Coast with solid support from Texans. I mean what other state did you expect to make a spaceport viable.

Companies are looking at developing other amazing technologies to get us to space, like space elevators and magnetic catapults that fling satellites into space. Countries along the equator with high mountains like Ecuador could find themselves with booming economies if such launch facilities were built in their countries and would likely make very attractive offers to anyone who cared to invest there. If NASA wants to stay in the game, they have to play ball with the private companies or the space agency may find itself left behind, spending it's time playing political games and trying to make Muslims feel good about their "contributions to science". President Obama really did tell NASA chief Charles Bolton that was to be a critical part of his job when he was appointed to the position. 

Fortunately, the free-market capitalist system has the capacity and energy to overwhelm ding-batted government policies, and, in doing so, has created a new private space race that may change everything. One hopes so.

© 2015 by Tom King

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