We’re in a very interesting time in the history of spaceflight. I will venture to say that when we look back, the 2020s will be more interesting, exciting, and influential than the 1960s. The breadth of change we’re witnessing isn’t limited to just one aspect of spaceflight. Politics, technology, and economics are all being thrown into complete disarray by the trends taking place.
We’re not through the period of change yet, though. We’re stuck in the awkward teenage years of the new era. We look a lot like we will when we’re older and more mature, but we’ve still got to get through high school.
There are two debates going on that perfectly capture the struggle: DARPA vs. Orbital ATK with regards to satellite servicing, and SLS-Orion vs. commercial with regards to NASA’s human spaceflight and exploration plans.
DARPA’s Walker has maintained that budding commercial technologies like Orbital ATK’s MEV do not have the same functionality the agency is trying to achieve with RSGS.
“Current commercial solutions in development will address only the relocation function,” not the ability to install new payloads, conduct inspections and conduct repairs of mechanisms like solar arrays and apertures, he wrote in the letter to Kilmer.
Orbital ATK has disputed this. MEV-1 will be capable of relocating satellites and administer some inspections, but the company plans to upgrade later vehicles with modifications that will allow it to attach new payloads and remove stuck appendages, according to an industry source.
(Quick sidenote: the other half of the DARPA-Orbital ATK debate is about whether or not SSL should be able to use the hardware and intellectual property developed in cooperation with DARPA as a commercial product after the program’s end. That’s an absolutely valid debate to have, and it’s very similar to the debates over retired ICBM usage as commercial launch vehicles, and the EELV program.)
Theoretically, then, the United States could have three heavy lift rockets at its disposal in 2020. If the reusable Falcon Heavy costs $200 million per flight, and the reusable New Glenn costs $200 million, while an expendable SLS rocket costs $1.5 billion, the agency—and by extension Congress and the White House—will have an easy choice to make.
One could argue at that time that NASA should never have spent in excess of $10 billion developing the SLS. But the bottom line is that, six years ago, Congress did not believe in the capacity of SpaceX to build a heavy lift rocket, and Blue Origin’s intentions were not known at that time. So Congress bet on NASA and its traditional contractor Boeing, and the agency kept its large base of employees intact.
Both situations are similar in that they place an active, under-contract government program against the future plans of commercial companies who often hold information close to their vests. Their plans are not yet far enough along for government agencies to shape policy and programs around.
Once these plans are made real—once there’s hardware flying and services being offered to the market—governments can begin factoring them into their programs and policy.
It’s a messy transition for those of us looking on from the outside, sure, but it’s necessary pain to get where we need to be. And you can be sure that these two situations aren’t the last time we’ll have this debate. The capability of commercial companies is growing everyday and expanding into areas which have always been the domain of governments. Private companies are planning to land on the Moon and Mars within the next five years, and that’s just the beginning.
As commercial capability expands, government agencies will be forced to justify the uniqueness of their own programs. Naturally, duplicative programs will fade, and new ones will sprout up. In this way, the activity of commercial companies will push the government into new territory and sustain humanity’s collective momentum.
As someone who believes strongly in the abilities of commercial companies, I’ll go with the entrepreneurially-minded response to the apparent doubling of efforts: the market will decide in due time.
If and when Orbital ATK is able to create a viable satellite servicing business, the government can and will take advantage of that in the future. If and when SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are able to create a viable heavy-lift launch business, the government can and will take advantage of that in the future. If and when Moon Express, SpaceX and others are able to create a viable business transporting payloads to the surface of the Moon and Mars, the government can and will take advantage of that in the future.
If and when.
Thanks for reading the fourteenth issue of Main Engine Cut Off Weekly. Each week, I bring you what I find interesting and important in spaceflight, and you can get it however you like best—blog, podcast, or this here column. If you like what I’m doing, I’d really appreciate your support. Head over to Patreon and become a patron for as little as $1 per month. Everything I do is supported entirely by readers and listeners like you, and every little bit of support helps. Big thanks to those of you out there supporting!
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