SpaceX’s Accomplishment

Space Shuttle Main Engines at the Cape -- reusable, but constant maintenance required. (NASA)

Space Shuttle Main Engines at the Cape — reusable, but constant maintenance required. (NASA)

The carnival sideshow that is our national manned space program continues apace. These past few months we’ve watched as the space “community” swooned over a movie depicting an astronaut forced by circumstance to innovate and survive alone on Mars. Nothing wrong with that, except for the reaction of a federal agency that imagines they are about to realize this future, a fantasy perhaps taken to heart after seeing their logo plastered all over the film’s stage equipment. Next, we were presented with a long interview with Elon Musk, who pontificated on his “plan” to create a sustainable human colony on Mars – in his lifetime. He was serious. And his remarks were taken seriously.

The latest entry in the parade of notable space “events,” is what some would have us believe heralds the advent of a new era in space transportation, one ushered in by the arrival of a “reusable launch vehicle system.” This comes after the first successful return and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage to its launch site. The space press, along with cable and network news, trumpeted this news with great fanfare. But does this event truly signal the beginning of a new paradigm for spaceflight? I submit that the real issue to address about reusable launch systems is not whether it can be done, but if it can be done and make economic sense. And that issue is not settled.

A launch system is much more than the rockets that we see leave from (or return to) the pad. A launch system embodies a design and operations concept, the necessary manufacturing infrastructure and supply chain to fabricate the vehicles, the facilities for launch preparation and operations, and the cost and difficulty of refurbishing and then reusing the vehicle. “Reusable” does not necessarily translate to “cheap” – the Space Shuttle was a reusable launch system. The reason Shuttle was expensive is that it took thousands of man-hours, work done by highly skilled (and highly paid) people, to refurbish and prepare the vehicle for each flight. These efforts involved more than repairing damage to the delicate thermal protection system (the famous tiles that covered the Shuttle body) and to the windows (actually more labor intensive than work on the thermal tiles). A great deal of time was spent servicing the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), which had to be removed from the vehicle, serviced (often with disassembly and complete replacement of major components, such as the nozzle or turbopump) and then re-assembled for the next flight.

SpaceX is taking the right approach to building a reusable launch system in that the first stage is the easiest part of an expendable vehicle to retrieve. It travels the least distance and is accelerated to slower speeds than any other part of the rocket. Bringing the first stage back to land is also a plus, in that it greatly simplifies vehicle retrieval and eliminates the corrosive effects of seawater on the engines. However, these benefits come with costs – a first stage capable of flying back to the launch site cannot lift as much payload as an expendable stage. This performance hit comes from the additional mass of the landing system (in the case of Falcon 9, retractable legs) along with propellant needed to decelerate the vehicle to a soft touchdown on its return to the launch site – fuel that cannot be used to push the payload into orbit.

Additionally, there is the cost of the design and testing of the retrieval system. Because SpaceX is a non-public company, we have no idea how much money was spent developing this first stage recovery system. But these costs, plus the others listed above, must be rolled into the price of any new Falcon 9 launch. We can’t know what savings are realized by this effort until the price that SpaceX charges for a Falcon 9 launch drops (and we know by how much). The largest new cost to SpaceX – the cost to operate a hypothetical reusable Falcon 9 launch system – is unknowable now because SpaceX doesn’t yet have one. Certainly the successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage booster is an accomplishment, but we do not know if such an event is routine or singular, what resources are needed to achieve it, and the impact such retrieval will have on the operating costs of the Falcon 9 system. It is not yet the revolution in space transportation being claimed by New Space cheerleaders and many in the space media, who are quick to circulate SpaceX press releases and throw-away interview comments, but slow to do any objective, in-depth technical research and analysis on what progress is being made and what it all means for the future of space travel and access.

The next step in developing a reusable Falcon 9 launch system is to refurbish a first stage and schedule it for another flight. That won’t happen immediately – apparently, this hardware will be kept on the ground, no doubt to be enshrined for posterity in a forthcoming museum. But this step is crucial – if it is found that preparing the recovered first stage for reuse costs more than building a new flight item, the system won’t pay for itself. To give but one example of a possible difficulty, it may turn out that at least some of the nine Merlin engines contained in the Falcon 9 first stage will need to be disassembled and extensively serviced after each flight. This was true for the SSMEs of the Shuttle, which underwent major servicing every 2-3 flights. While it is assumed that these costs will be less than the replacement cost of an expendable system, it won’t be known for certain until it has been done several dozen times. If a catastrophic failure is experienced during some future flight of a reused stage, launch insurance premiums will increase for the system (as they should) and these costs will need to be rolled into the price of space access. Look for the EPA to add a surcharge for something (or several somethings).

After the Space Shuttle’s first flight (1981), news stories were reporting on the advent of a “New Space Age,” of reusable rockets and routine access to orbit. As the program proceeded we realized that vehicle processing was a much more labor-intensive system than had been anticipated. Both expected and unexpected problems were identified and dealt with, at considerable cost. The determining factor as to whether this recent event is a genuine advancement or not, is if SpaceX can put a payload into orbit and charge significantly less than what they are currently getting – something we won’t know for a considerable time. After a single booster flies five or six times, and the price for launching a satellite comes down, then perhaps we can judge whether this is the great accomplishment its promoters claim it to be.

In the mean time, our inexorable “Journey to Mars” continues….

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66 Responses to SpaceX’s Accomplishment

  1. Yes the question is what will it cost to make it like new?

    • Vladislaw says:

      Does the second trip for cars, planes, ships, trains ,have to be made “like new” for each following trip?

      • Joe says:

        Cars, planes, ships, trains are not the first stages for an orbital launcher.

        Such an analogy does not hold.

  2. I was genuinely happy for the people at SpaceX and I wish them all the best of luck. No doubt it took a toll on them in more ways than one. I was impressed that Elon could re-energize the troops despite several kicks in the teeth.

    Having said that, of course this is not different to any major endeavor and as such it would be exceedingly naive to think that when you’ve crossed the 900 mile point of a 1000 mile trek your 90% of the way there. I don’t think the people at SpaceX are that naive, certainly not by now. Moreover, since the original source of funding was not NASA, reality checks are probably undertaken quite frequently. Clearly, these are not morons.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      it would be exceedingly naive to think that when you’ve crossed the 900 mile point of a 1000 mile trek your 90% of the way there.

      I think your percentages are off — they’re more like 10% of the way there.

      • You make me think you’re kind of like the ‘tenth man’, i.e., the one every big challenge team should have and whose unenviable job it is to tell the guy leading the charge everything he doesn’t want to know but really needs to consider, and which the other nine on the team wont tell him for fear of upsetting him. In short, one of if not the most valuable member on the team.

    • Joe says:

      The fly back and landing of the Falcon 9 first stage is an impressive accomplishment and the launch/landing team deserves a victory lap.

      But, as the article, makes clear, there is a long way to go before reuse of the stage could be considered viable.

      First it has to be established that the fly back/landing can be performed reliably.

      Second, if the first is accomplished, the hard part begins. What is exactly involved in reusing the hardware.

      (1) It is not clear from what various SpaceX sources have said whether that means only the engines or the entire stage (tankage, etc.).
      (2) Engine refurbishment, as Shuttle experience showed, is not necessarily as easy as may be originally assumed.

      Just one example the kerosene based fuel used by the Merlin engines burns relatively “dirty” compared to the hydrogen used by the Shuttles engines.

      An interesting point to note is: Blue Origin (another “New Space” company) selected Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) as the fuel for their BE-4 engine (intended for use as a reusable first stage engine) which they are now working on jointly with the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

      LNG will be less efficient than a kerosene based propellant for a first stage (though somewhat better than hydrogen), but is cleaner burning than kerosene and should make BE-4 turnaround more practical.

      Any New Space supporters hoping to eventually have reusable launchers would be well advised to pay more attention to Blue Origin and perhaps develop a little skepticism towards SpaceX.

  3. Joe says:

    Great article.

    Every “space reporter” on/in TV , the internet and newspapers should read and comprehend it before doing any further “reporting.

    • Billgamesh says:

      Probably the best example of the stereotypical space reporter is the guy that asked the NASA scientist if “tidal heating” might be happening on Ceres during a press conference. The reporter is well known and in the top dozen of these “expert” journalists. Pathetic.

      None of them will say a single thing critical of Musk or NewSpace- they are terrified of payback.

  4. Michael Wright says:

    Good point of mentioning difference between technical accomplishment and if later it will make economic sense. I believe having the first stage return is a huge accomplishment. Some may say “oh it could have been done years ago.” Well maybe it could but it never happened*. Whatever the case may be this does provide options and they can also examine closely the engines and rest of booster.

    Regarding Shuttle, though it never made economic sense, it was something of unique capability of putting large structures into orbit and also bring stuff back. It gave this country a capability nobody else had, and with it gone that capability is gone. When 747 with Endeavour flying around California, cars literally stopped on freeway by Ames Research Center when this flew overhead. I looked at this marvel thinking that we no longer can build such a thing. Not that it doesn’t make economic sense, the infrastructure was dismantled years ago.

    *Reminds me just after STS-1 and much talk about the tiles falling off the OMS pods. Shortly after Japan announced a proposed spaceplane, one of their engineers said if they flew this the tiles would not fall off. Of course their TPS never had problems because their spaceplane never flew.

  5. dphuntsman says:

    While the main point of your writeup – that the two recent events (Bezos, and especially Musk landings) are one (important) step in the process, but just one= is true; as someone who has directly participated in lots of launches, methinks you’re trying too hard to cover this bright success with a dark cover. I doubt if anyone on the planet is more aware than Elon Musk that he’s got a lot left to do to drive down the cost of space launch even further than he has already started to do (both ULA’s Atlas V launches and Arianespace’s upper berth satellite launch costs have come down in direct response to SpaceX’s lower prices). Especially since his ultimate goal is an order of magnitude.

    apparently, this hardware will be kept on the ground, no doubt to be enshrined for posterity in a forthcoming museum.
    That’s not what I heard (indirectly) from the company today. After total teardown, inspection, and assessment, they are likely to put it back together again and fire it at least once in Texas, before they “enshrine” it anywhere else.
    And, by the way, that brings up another point: If a catastrophic failure is experienced during some future flight of a reused stage, launch insurance premiums will increase for the system (as they should) and these costs will need to be rolled into the price
    Possible; the opposite might also happen. Keep in mind that SpaceX this week is now the envy of rocket engineers around the world; because, in spite of the boasts of reliability from ULA and Arianespace, the fact is that those two have never gotten a stage back, and have no idea what their true engineering margins are. And every single rocket they launch is brand-new, never been proven. SpaceX will now know what its margins are; they will have greater insight into their design than any other company on Earth. There may come a time, assuming this reusability thing ends up being proven out technically and economically, when the premium goes down for an individual, proven vehicle; and the untested vehicle is the one considered more risky. (In fact, we see a hint of that this week; Space News reported that a big customer, SES, has informed its insurers that they intend on being SpaceX’s first users of a used stage – even if the insurers refuse to insure the first one).

    Your comment that Look for the EPA to add a surcharge for something (or several somethings). seems gratuitous, by the way. The link you attach has nothing to do with SpaceX or the type of rockets he uses. Also gratuitous, but less so, was Elon Musk, who pontificated on his “plan” to create a sustainable human colony on Mars – in his lifetime. He was serious. And his remarks were taken seriously.. After all, Elon is only in his 40s; and yet he’s arguably now done more for launch vehicles alone in the last 13 years than NASA, Europe, USAF/ULA/Boeing/Lockheed, combined. Assuming he has at least 3 decades left to live, this incredibly productive human might surprise all of us as to the challenges he can help lead the charge in overcoming.
    (Elon, in one way, kinda reminds me of Carl Sagan, by the way; in the sense that he tends to set his goals and his standards very high, to things that are at least theoretically “not impossible”, rather than just possible, or even likely. Probably one reason that he’s having a bigger impact on humanity than you or I).

    Merry Christmas!

    Dave Huntsman

    • Joe says:

      ” I doubt if anyone on the planet is more aware than Elon Musk that he’s got a lot left to do to drive down the cost of space launch even further than he has already started to do …”

      According to what Musk says in the interview linked to above, you might want to tell him that. He talks at length about using his BFR (which stands for Big Freaking Rocket – a loose quote) to begin to colonize Mars within 15 years.

    • Bachar says:

      Great comment! Cheers!

    • I think Mr. Huntsman has a quite valid point about engineering margins — SpaceX is going to gain a wealth of knowledge by doing a teardown of the once-used booster and its engines. They will have the opportunity, for example, to do an X-ray inspection of every weld in the propellant tanks — and what rocket scientist wouldn’t give his left arm for that information?

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Elon, in one way, kinda reminds me of Carl Sagan, by the way

      I agree — both flashy, overblown showmen with cult-like followers who eagerly pick up whatever dribblings they leave in their wake.

      • Joe says:

        Speaking of “cult-like followers who eagerly pick up whatever dribblings they leave in their wake”, Mr. Huntsman also said:

        “After all, Elon is only in his 40s; and yet he’s arguably now done more for launch vehicles alone in the last 13 years than NASA, Europe, USAF/ULA/Boeing/Lockheed, combined.”

        “Assuming he has at least 3 decades left to live, this incredibly productive human might surprise all of us as to the challenges he can help lead the charge in overcoming.”

        “(Elon, …tends to set his goals and his standards very high, to things that are at least theoretically “not impossible”, rather than just possible, or even likely. Probably one reason that he’s having a bigger impact on humanity than you or I).”

        I sometimes feel sorry for the writers at the satirical website the Onion, as satire gets harder and harder to distinguish from “reality”.

        • Billgamesh says:

          “Extra mass doesn’t matter for a reusable vehicle.”

          “If they have to add another 100 tons to the launch mass doesn’t matter.”

          It is amazing Joe.

          “The refueled MCT can reach the surface of Mars, drop off 100 mT of cargo, refuel, and then launch on a return trajectory that will allow it to return to the surface of Earth.”

          We are obviously in the grip of a force stronger than we can oppose Joe.

          • Joe says:

            Saw that movie on a television Saturday night late show when I was a kid. Seemed a lot cooler at the time.

            As for the quotes:

            The first two are from LocalFluff. Gave up trying to figure his reasoning out a long time ago.

            The third is from Nelson Bridwell. He was simply reporting what Musk (and Musk’s internet flying monkeys) are saying, not necessarily endorsing it.

            Note this from one of his other posts:

            “One can certainly fault Musk for being too overoptimistic too much of the time. However, I think the biggest fault lies with our press and blogosphere for blindly buying into sales pitches from SpaceX and some others that are even more unrealistic (Mars One!!!). If so many people were not so eager to be duped then I have a hunch that we would not be reading nearly as many absurd headlines…”

            That I agree with.

  6. Billgamesh says:

    “The carnival sideshow that is our national manned space program-”

    I have echoed that opinion on this forum and a couple others that allow me to….the rest have banned me and do not allow any criticism of the cult of Musk. The true situation is so opposite to what is being portrayed in popular culture it is….Orwellian.

    The NewSpace movement is about LEO hobby rockets and the fuel depot miracle.

    The NewSpace mob is in reality anti-space because the “vast new frontier” they have mythologized (LEO) is not really space. This is the basic order-of-magnitude-scam they begin with. Space actually begins about ten times farther from the surface of the Earth (GEO).

    The Ayn-Rand-in-Space cyberthugs have screamed bloody murder at any talk of a government sponsored Super Heavy Lift Vehicle for close to a decade. Why? Because their Tony Stark hero cannot build one and going directly to the Moon with a SHLV dumps the NewSpace business plan in the trashcan. Where it belongs.

    There is obviously a hard core of pragmatists hiding in plain sight who know what a joke NewSpace is because the SLS is still under construction. Unfortunately, each new hobby rocket triumph is another nail in the coffin of Human Space Flight.

    • Billgamesh says:

      I would add the original SHLV was just barely able to land a pair of astronauts on the Moon and only then using Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). It was actually too small to accomplish any serious infrastructure building in cislunar space. The present SLS is just a way to start- future iterations will need to be far more powerful.

      The critical piece of technology missing in my view is the pressure-fed booster of several million pounds of thrust- recovered at sea in the same manner as the shuttle SRB’s. Any space buff who has read much knows this was originally specified for the shuttle but was not pursued as a cost-cutting measure. There is no cheap.

      I would likely be Musk’s biggest fan if he had done his homework and started with a pressure-fed built in a shipyard. He failed the genius IQ test by pursuing a crummy little engine that would limit anything his company would be able to accomplish. He is no rocket scientist.

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/S-IC_engines_and_Von_Braun.jpg

  7. Nelson Bridwell says:

    Musk’s standard answer to the question of reuse is to report that SpaceX has conducted repeated test fires of individual boosters as many as a dozen times.

    However, these test systems have not experienced the hypersonic thermal and mechanical stresses of atmospheric reentry, so even if the returned engines are fully functional, there is the potential for damage elsewhere. For instance, I noticed what looked like a very large surface crack on the outer body of the booster near the left landing leg in this video that Musk posted of the returned booster.
    https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/679145544673923072

    Based upon recent experience, I am inclined to believe that SpaceX will get all of these problems ironed out, but it will take twice as long as most people anticipate, just as it has taken ~6 tries to recover a first stage.

    As far as cost, although Musk frequently points to the potential for 100x reductions, for the next 5 years (until Blue Origin is able to compete in LEO) I suspect that SpaceX will take advantage of reusability to significantly improve their profit margin by lowering their internal cost to put customer payloads in orbit and possibly even use these economies to make their proposed internet satellite constellation more profitable.

    Rumor has it that SpaceX is about to announce the design of a future launch system with a 400 foot tall, 50 foot diameter reusable lower stage booster (“BFR”) and a reusable 200 foot tall upper stage spacecraft (“MCT”) that can reach LEO, where it’s empty tanks can be refilled by 3 or more subsequent MCT tanker launches. The refueled MCT can reach the surface of Mars, drop off 100 mT of cargo, refuel, and then launch on a return trajectory that will allow it to return to the surface of Earth.
    http://i.imgur.com/MBMZDaj.jpg

    All of this is going to be much more expensive than optimists would like to think because the number of times that you can refly an MCT will be limited by the 2 year interval between optimal launch windows and the 1-2 year round trip time. (Not a problem for a lunar base, where a 1 week round trip would be possible.) On top of that, the support costs for each human on Mars is going to be very expensive because of the transport expenses for the infrastructure needed to keep them alive (air, water, waste, power, shelter, transportation, food, …)

    So a decade from now, if this launch system become operational, I expect that the only customers will be NASA and other government-funded space agencies. And I have a hunch that most of the exploration market for such a launch system will be for lunar destinations.

  8. Musk recently revealed that it costs $16 million to built a Falcon 9R. (SpaceX efforts to reduce the cost of rocket production are of comparable importance to reusability.) Even if it costs several million to refurbish the vehicle (assuming that extensive refurbishment is needed), this will still lead to an eventual drop in prices. Customers will initially be suspicious that a used rocket will not be as reliable as a brand new rocket. If this was true, however, why are insurance rates for launches on those “safe” un-flown rockets so high, as much as 30% of the cost of the payload. Would you want to fly on an untested airplane?

    I assume that when SpaceX has accumulated several used stages, it will offer them, initially at a lower price. Eventually executives will use common sense and the new rockets will be priced higher instead. Note that the Falcon 9R is now a big rocket, with liftoff thrust equivalent to a Saturn V’s F1 engine or about 1.5 Million lbs. of thrust.

    Significantly lower launch prices will allow cheaper access to L1/L2 and the lunar surface. Other companies are starting to think in modern terms (reusable space craft and propellant depots). All of this will enable the establishment of a cis-lunar transport system, initially to the lunar surface, probably at a pole, but eventually to any point on the Moon and then to Mars.

    Credit clearly goes to SpaceX and Elon Musk for leading the way toward privately built and operated reusable rockets. NASA’s bureaucratically generated Mars Hype has little effect on SpaceX and other companies since they are already doing it the right way.

    John Strickland

  9. DougSpace says:

    I tried to track down the total mass sent to LEO on this launch but was unable to find that. So, the OG2 satellites are listed as being 172 kg each. 11 of them plus (an eyeball estimate) the equivalent of three of those satellite masses for the bus gives about a total of 2,400 kg. That comes to only 18% of the 13,150 kg which the non-reusable F9 is listed at. At $61.2 M per launch, this come to $25,500/kg which means that the cost for the use of a reusable would need to come way down or more likely that the performance of the reusable would need to go way up. It is possible that this particular launch retained large propellant margins and that future launches won’t be so conservative. I think the jury’s still out. Larger rockets do get economies of scale so it will be interesting to see if reusable F9s end up as cost-effective as cross-fed, non-reusable Falcon Heavies. If FH cargo payloads used clustered ion propulsion departing from LEO then it would have capability to LLO or an EML staging point comparable with HLVs.

    • Nelson Bridwell says:

      SpaceX has decided to drop cross feed on the Falcon Heavy, just as it has dropped reusability on the Falcon 9 second stage, and just as the current Raptor engine design now uses Methane instead of RP-1. Their plans continue to evolve, so future products and feature that they announce are not cast in stone.

    • Nelson Bridwell says:

      One can certainly fault Musk for being too overoptimistic too much of the time. However, I think the biggest fault lies with our press and blogosphere for blindly buying into sales pitches from SpaceX and some others that are even more unrealistic (Mars One!!!). If so many people were not so eager to be duped then I have a hunch that we would not be reading nearly as many absurd headlines…

      And to be fair, Musk’s efforts have had some positive results:
      1. For the first time in a long time commercial satellites are being placed into orbit by American rockets.
      2. Musk has helped to make it cool to be an engineer, which is an improvement over the sad way that Hollywood tries to pin a stereotype on us.
      3. To an extent, some of the outlandish promises from Musk have helped to reduce public apathy towards space exploration.

      Which does not justify or excuse misleading promises.

      • Joe says:

        1. Actually the Delta IV has continued to launch satellites, even if you refuse to count the Atlas V because of the RD-180’s.
        2. Don’t know about you but my social life has not picked up appreciably.
        3. That may be true but the problem with it is when those outlandish promises are never made good on it will cause greater cynicism concerning space activity

    • Vladislaw says:

      The sats were not acting as the primary cargo. This was a discounted flight I would imagine sold to them for probably close to cost. Just to pay for the rocket and the test.

      “For that flight the rocket was equipped with two stacked EELV Secondary Payload Adaptors (ESPAs), each able to accommodate four spacecraft, with two empty slots on the lower ESPA being filled by mass simulators.

      This latest launch used three stacked ESPAs, presumably with a further mass simulator to make the number of attachments up to twelve.

      Orbcomm’s OG2 spacecraft were manufactured by Sierra Nevada Corporation and MicroSat Systems, around the SN-100A satellite bus. Argon ST, which is owned by Boeing, produced the satellites’ communication payloads. Each spacecraft has a mass of 172 kilograms (379 lb) and is designed to provide at least five years’ service.”

      http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2015/12/spacex-rtf-core-return-attempt-og2/

      The sats were in loaded in secondary payload adaptors.

    • Billgamesh says:

      “If FH cargo payloads used clustered ion propulsion departing from LEO then it would have capability to LLO or an EML staging point comparable with HLVs.”

      Really? “Clustered ion propulsion”? Falcon faux heavy comparable to the SLS you mean?

      Not a chance- not even close.
      So transparent.

  10. LocalFluff says:

    Extra mass doesn’t matter for a reusable vehicle. F9 v1.1 weighed 500 tons on the launch pad compared with 300 tons for the non-reusable F9 v1.0, but only the fuel for about $0.2 million is consumed, all the tons of equipment are returned. Now that they can soft land the first stage they will learn what needs to be re-enforced to become reusable without refurbishing. If they have to add another 100 tons to the launch mass doesn’t matter. NASA is now developing a non-reusable version of the SSME for its 1960s retro style shuttle-without-a-shuttle launcher. That is to go in the wrong direction. Each SLS launch will cost as much as all the research and development of the Falcon 9 system.

    Elon Musk seems serious. All his businesses are focused on settling Mars (solar power, batteries, electric vehicles, com sats, near-vacuum trains). He’s now maturing those technologies in order to in a decade or so more specifically create Mars applications out of them.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Elon Musk seems serious. All his businesses are focused on settling Mars (solar power, batteries, electric vehicles, com sats, near-vacuum trains).

      Ever notice how all of his businesses fall into the categories that get massive federal subsidies, of which his companies have harvested a significant amount?.

      He’s now maturing those technologies in order to in a decade or so more specifically create Mars applications out of them.

      From what I read in his interviews (especially the recent GQ interview), Musk doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know — and how much WE don’t know about Mars and its suitability for human settlement. Mars is a cold, dry, near-vacuum, radiation-rich desert, with chemically toxic soil. Solar power is 50% less efficient there than in the Earth-Moon system — to achieve self-sufficiency, nuclear power will be needed (even Zubrin acknowledges this). Musk’s statements on terraforming the planet are naive and simple-minded in the extreme. So far, he’s gotten stuff to LEO, so if you want to make an analogy, he’s as far from a single human on Mars as we were in the 1960s (or we are now, for that matter).

      • Billgamesh says:

        “-Mars is a cold, dry, near-vacuum, radiation-rich desert, with chemically toxic soil. Solar power is 50% less efficient there than in the Earth-Moon system-”

        The real show stoppers are radiation exposure (on the trip there) and not enough gravity to stay healthy. The first can be solved- but since SpaceX has no “Moon people” then that is not likely. The second cannot be solved. Mars is a dead end.

        The NewSpace popular culture version of space travel the public currently seems to embrace (it is all they have been told) is, as I stated, Orwellian. NASA can take credit for this mass delusion by not educating the public over the last half a century. They have never made an attempt to inform the citizenry of the realities of space exploration- out of fear.

        Fear that Human Space Flight would be considered too expensive and impossible and funding cut-off. As is often the case cowardice has made a situation toxic and confused almost beyond repair.

        A dog and pony show has been substituted for a rational and realistic program. The NewSpace infomercial plays on.

        • Michael Wright says:

          “They have never made an attempt to inform the citizenry of the realities of space exploration- out of fear.”

          That’s an interesting observation. I always wondered why it is difficult to get consistent answers but not over generalized from government officials. Many NASA people seem to give more straightforward answers after they leave the agency. Example are several presentations made by key people of Shuttle program (Dale Myers, Tom Moser, and others) in the 2005 MIT OpenCourseWare videos. However, note these presentations are long and probably cannot summarize in a elevator speech without becoming over generalized.

          “A dog and pony show has been substituted for a rational and realistic program. The NewSpace infomercial plays on.”

          SpaceX has developed capability nobody else has like a capsule that can return cargo to earth. Question I have is can all this be scaled up with multiple launches i.e. routine like the airlines. Big question is there a need? Put up several satellites per week (adding more stuff in orbit)? Then can there be an easy way to put into orbit large structures or payload (i.e. fuel depots)? So far lofting a few tons into orbit once a month seems inadequate. There is SLS but that vehicle will not be a frequent flyer.

          None of us know what are the actual plans of the NewSpace companies. We only get pieces whenever Musk holds a press conference. Though he loves to talk about Mars but transit time is very long and need a huge habitat module with lots of food plus parts, machine shops like a large ship at sea to fix things when they break. Plus lots of shielding as one big solar flare will kill the crew.

          And what is this obsession with Mars? I believe everyone loves to talk about Mars, avoid the Moon (except Spudis and Wingo). As I’ve gripped before nobody talks about the Moon because someone will have to come up with some real money and starting building a transit stage, lander, and other necessary hardware. But put Mars as goal then can defer all that to some other smucks 20 years into the future.

          • Paul Spudis says:

            And what is this obsession with Mars?

            Simple — it’s easier and cheaper to “talk” about going to Mars in 20 years than it is to actually accomplish a lunar return within a few years. There’s no accountability for the former whereas in the latter, you must make substantial progress and will be held responsible for not fulfilling the mission.

            All part of the smoke-and-mirror scam that is our national space program.

      • Billgamesh says:

        “But does this event truly signal the beginning of a new paradigm for spaceflight?”

        It may signal the end of any hope of starting a real space program for the next quarter century or longer.

        “-the real issue to address about reusable launch systems is not whether it can be done, but if it can be done and make economic sense.”

        As with almost everything concerning space, the prerequisite to such a discussion is defining the terms being used. There is an over-the-top ambiguity and misuse of analogy that seems to inevitably accompany any discussion of spaceflight. The first rule is that to troubleshoot a problem you have to understand how the system works.

        “Economic sense” in space directly relates to GEO satellites. A major criticism of the shuttle was that it carried satellites and humans and did not actually travel to GEO. At around 200 billion dollars a year in revenues these satellites (and their launchers) are the only significant factor in the space industry.

        “Economic sense” means Human Space Flight does not make sense.

        The profit motive quickly becomes confused with the survival imperative because of the military. Most people understand the Cold War was the father of the space industry. The survival imperative that keeps the weapons coming ultimately connects with space in terms of natural or human-caused catastrophes that may threaten our species with extinction.

        The survival imperative means Human Space Flight does make sense.

        I submit to Dr. Spudis the real issue to address about space is not primarily economic. However, to achieve any success absolutely and undeniably involves the profit motive. There is no denying money is the god of this world. The trick, as Gerard K. O’Neill understood, is to combine both economics and species survival. That is going to take a public works project on the scale of the Hoover dam and the Panama canal. NewSpace is the anti-thesis of this.

        “The market” as the only thing that matters is a sure path to extinction. If “entrepreneurship” was the solution I would be the first to embrace it. It is in this case, the main obstacle. For this reason I thoroughly despise the NewSpace mob and consider them……I can’t use accurate terms to describe them without resorting to their own language.

        I don’t believe any meaningful “discussion” can be undertaken without first defining exactly what space, space travel, space stations, and spaceships actually are. I would suggest “space” begins at GEO. “Space travel” properly means leaving Earth’s magnetosphere. A “space station” provides a Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BLEO) near-sea-level radiation environment and one Earth gravity. A “spaceship” also provides an Earth environment while capable of interplanetary travel.

        Using these definitions any “discussion” of space leads straight to the ice on the Moon as the critical enabling resource. It also relegates NewSpace to the hobbyist category.

      • gbaikie says:

        –Solar power is 50% less efficient there than in the Earth-Moon system — to achieve self-sufficiency, nuclear power will be needed (even Zubrin acknowledges this). —

        Solar power is less than 50% comparing high earth to high Mars orbits.
        For most of lunar surface one gets about 50% of solar energy as high earth orbits and lunar poles having peak of eternal light getting as much 80% or more of high earth orbit.

        It is arguable that most peaks of eternal light on the moon are better than Mars high orbit-
        At these peaks one gets more solar power, and high mars gets less but as more constant source of power. But in terms of most places on the Moon, high orbit on Mars is better, though still less total solar energy but doesn’t have the 2 weeks of night.
        Mars surface is about 50% of Mars high orbit and on average 12 hours of night. And the 1/2 of Mars year of sunlight and night of Mars arctic circle has disadvantages and advantages.
        One could say storing electrical power for 2 weeks on the Moon is problematic, whereas with the Mars polar region of 1/2 mars year of night is far more than merely problematic- or one should abandon such an idea.
        But the long period of daylight in polar regions of mars can be advantage, because during that time one has near constant source solar power. So 687 /2 is 343 days. So during those 343 days one has solar power similar to the solar power in Mars high orbit.
        One can have a long growing season or one have two growing seasons roughly equal to one growing season per year in Alaska. Or the two growing seasons per year as you have in southern US states.
        So roughly the average Mars surface the solar has almost as good or better than average Moon, because Mars has both a shorter night and a longer night [which also has longer daylight].

        Though Moon could be vastly superior with polar regional solar power grid- more electrical power and constant supply of power without long distances involved in the transmission of this network.
        Or in terms of infrastructure, a lunar polar network gives the Moon something like Earth SPS could deliver to Earth surface at lower cost- could get it quicker than Earth surface could get SPS.
        So because Mars has 25 degree tilt and it’s a bigger body and it’s further from the sun, it’s very poor relation to the Moon in terms of a polar region grid network, but it could be done, unlike being done on Earth, or solar energy above 60 degree latitude [or even above 45 degree] on Earth is horrible- worse than Mars in terms total amount solar energy one can per average day.

        • Billgamesh says:

          “- solar energy above 60 degree latitude [or even above 45 degree] on Earth is horrible- worse than Mars-”

          Not if it is being beamed down from space. The beam is the dream. Merry Christmas gb.

  11. Billgamesh says:

    “Elon is only in his 40s; and yet he’s arguably now done more for launch vehicles alone in the last 13 years than NASA, Europe, USAF/ULA/Boeing/Lockheed, combined. Assuming he has at least 3 decades left to live, this incredibly productive human might surprise all of us as to the challenges he can help lead the charge in overcoming.”

    “Note that the Falcon 9R is now a big rocket, with liftoff thrust equivalent to a Saturn V’s F1 engine or about 1.5 Million lbs. of thrust.”

    “Significantly lower launch prices will allow cheaper access to L1/L2 and the lunar surface. Other companies are starting to think in modern terms (reusable space craft and propellant depots). All of this will enable the establishment of a cis-lunar transport system,-”

    “Each SLS launch will cost as much as all the research and development of the Falcon 9 system.”

    There is really no point in arguing with hero-worshiping sycophants regurgitating propaganda.

    He is a hobbyist and it is a hobby rocket- that will keep humankind trapped in LEO for decades to come. The Spruce Goose landing event, the funky falcon faux heavy, the toxic dragon, space clown tourist stations and the Mars boondoggle; all of it will go down in history as a dead end. This cheaper nastier version of the do-everything-pay-for-itself-cargo-bay-of-dreams is history repeating itself. The lesson unlearned: there is no cheap.

    Musk continues to use the appeal to greed- something for nothing- that always ends with nothing. Considering the payload and performance, and impracticality of propellant depots, the confidence game in play is transparent.

    • Since you included my comment about the Falcon 9 being a big rocket, I am honored to be included in your list of “hero-worshiping sycophants regurgitating propaganda”. However, most such sycophants do not provide hard numbers to back up their points, and they do not have a good track record of previous positions. If you go back 10 years in my series of articles in the Space Review and other venues, you will see I was arguing for space tugs, propellant depots and reusable spacecraft. Now everyone seems to be in favor of these things and real companies (plural now that two companies have recovered rockets) are making some of it real.

      John Strickland

      • Billgamesh says:

        “-most such sycophants do not provide hard numbers-”

        They may be hard for you but they are easy to see through.

        “If you go back 10 years in my series of articles in the Space Review-”

        The SpaceX Review and the SpaceX News will not allow me to comment, let alone contribute “my series of articles.” No thanks.

        “Now everyone seems to be in favor of these things-”

        Not everyone. Merry Christmas John.

  12. Another excellent article Dr. Spudis. I posted a similar view on my blog a few days ago.

    I do, however, applaud Space X for attempting to reduce cost through a reusable first stage. The space industry needs private space organizations willing to due things their own way, IMO.

    However, even if Space X eventually achieves their goal, of partial reusability (first stage), I’m extremely skeptical that it would have any significant economic advantage.

    It should be noted that NASA’s cancelled Ares I was also supposed to have a reusable first stage, an SRB derived from the Space Shuttle legacy.

    NASA, of course, operated a partially reusable space vehicle (the Space Shuttle) for more than 30 years. So the jury is still out as to whether partially reusable vehicles can be cheaper than expendable vehicles.

    The core of the economic problem with space launches, IMO, is that there are still too many types of launch vehicles operating in the world– for too little launch demand. The poor economics of space travel is still a supply and demand problem (too much launcher supply for too little launch demand).

    However, space tourism for the super wealthy and space lotto winners could change that paradigm especially if tourist had some place to go like a private space station or a private lunar outpost– specifically designed for them. Not hostile territory like the cramped ISS! (still, ten wealthy tourist have gone there).

    There are currently more than 50,000 super wealthy people in the world rich enough to be able to easily afford at least one flight into space. So even if a mere one percent of the super wealthy decided to travel to orbital facilities every year, that could more than double current launch demand. That doesn’t include the possibility of even more launch demand through a space lotto system.

    Also, since there will probably be only about four man-rated launch vehicles in the world by the end of the decade (assuming that Russia and China also participate in transporting space tourist), those four launch vehicles could have a launch demand of 100 launches per year to accommodate 500 tourist every year. Such a high demand could dramatically lower launch cost for man-rated vehicles which could further increase demand while further decreasing cost!

    Marcel

    • Billgamesh says:

      “-space tourism for the super wealthy and space lotto winners could change that paradigm especially if tourist had some place to go like a private space station or a private lunar outpost– specifically designed for them.”

      No. It will not change any paradigm. The novelty of paying millions to vomit in zero g will not last very long; there are more satisfying ways for the uber-rich to display obscene spending. The amount of money it will take to maintain a tourist space station means nobody is going to invest a nickel in it because there is no possibility of a return. Musk and Bezos are pursuing their hobbies just to see what happens- that is what bored billionaires do. It is a game to them and space exploration (and the future of humankind) is the loser. Consider why we should be in space:

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151222082339.htm

      That thousands are guzzling the NewSpace kool-aid is a huge red flag. How far the mighty have fallen and how low can we go?

      • You never know what sort of folly can turn into a social and economic driver. Tourism is a trillion a year global industry. Traveling into space though the magic of a movie and television screens is a multi-billion dollar industry.

        American colonization and even the institution of slavery was partially driven by the folly of tobacco use in Europe– a product that has no nutritive value and still cost Americans more than $300 billion a year in health related illnesses.

        Marcel

        • Billgamesh says:

          “American colonization and even the institution of slavery was partially driven by the folly of tobacco use in Europe-”

          Space is not colonial America and vomiting in LEO is not comparable to nicotine addiction. You can fill up the page all day with whatever contrived examples you fancy but paying millions to float around in a radiation bath and look out a window is not going to open the solar system to colonization. There is simply nothing else to market as a money-maker except doing nothing. It’s a scam. Merry Christmas Marcel.

    • Vladislaw says:

      And all the cargo runs needed to keep them happy in LEO. I can not imagine that as the number of “tourists” increases the number of service personal will be increasing with them and that means even more cargo runs.

  13. Technical feasibility – Proven
    Economic feasibility – TBD

    Value to engineering design – priceless

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Technical feasibility – Proven

      Indeed it was — back in 1981, with the first flight of the Space Shuttle.

      • Billgamesh says:

        Musk got it in his head to recreate 1950’s space ranger rockets and that is what he has done. His hobby project is now complete.

        The same games now as then- nothing has changed. The engineers or managers signing off on a design do what they are told- instead of throwing the B.S. flag on details that make a good idea a loser. That is how you keep your job. I personally saw it in my branch of the service several times in less notable programs (rescue helicopter acquisitions).

        Any one of several features of the Space Shuttle, had they not been decided on the basis of going cheap or military requirements, might have made the system a complete success.

        The same games now as then.

        http://graphics.latimes.com/missile-defense-satellite/

    • Joe says:

      (1) “Technical feasibility – Proven”
      (2) “Economic feasibility – TBD”
      (3) “Value to engineering design – priceless”

      (1) At least as a one off. Whether this process can be done reliably is still TBD.
      (2) Very much still TBD even if (1) proves to be reliable.
      (3) Not priceless. Depending on the resolution of (1) and (2) the price will either be high or zero.

      • Vladislaw says:

        1) Has the conversation been changed on reusability?
        2) Have the capital markets been taking notice?
        3) Is there now more or less converstations, among the general population about space?

        • Joe says:

          None of that has anything to do with the physical practicality of reusing the Falcon 9.

          • Billgamesh says:

            “-the conversation-”

            “-the capital markets-”

            “-the general population-”

            Vlad is here to advertise his product for free Joe. It is not about space.

          • Joe says:

            Yes, I know.

            It is just that this particular advertisement was particularly off topic.

  14. Billgamesh says:

    “Next, we were presented with a long interview with Elon Musk, who pontificated on his “plan” to create a sustainable human colony on Mars – in his lifetime. He was serious. And his remarks were taken seriously.”

    I have not watched the interview. The last time I watched Musk he was calling a journalist a dirty name. That was enough. I do not take any of his schemes seriously. He has set space exploration back at least a decade and the damage continues to accumulate. That I take seriously. It would be for the best if SpaceX went out of business – and Blue Origin. Unfortunately for the future of space exploration the parlor tricks and P.R. continue to distract and divide.

    The future is not bright. Though I may wish individuals who support the NewSpace farce a Merry Christmas that is only Christian. As a group I wish them failure because it would be best for all. This utilitarianism is really the key feature that separates those who understand what is at stake and those who seek gratification by way of childish wish fulfillment.

    2016 will decide whether humankind will once again leave the gravity field of this planet and venture into deep space. The next administration of the most powerful nation in history will either continue down the dead end path of NewSpace or change direction- back toward that body I am looking out the window at right now.

    • Billgamesh says:

      Merry Christmas Dr. Spudis and a happy new year. I wish you and your family all the best and success in whatever enterprise you explore in the coming year. Thank you for your work and for your gift to me- the opportunity to express my views. I will never forget.
      Gary Church

    • Michael Wright says:

      “It would be for the best if SpaceX went out of business – and Blue Origin.”

      I see you post, and quite often, some very disparaging remarks of New Space folks. Not that is all bad, perhaps balance most of forum posts from many “All Hail Elon” folks. Come to think of it, you are the only one that writes critical remarks of the new space folks. I think it is a good thing Dr. Spudis has not banned you like all the other forums, gives rest of us a different perspective where nobody else dares to write. People like to post analogies, I wonder if back in the days when Howard Hughes was at his peak, everyone speaks of him highly, and maybe there were a few that were highly critical of him (i.e. none of his aircraft designs were made in quantities) but they were “run of of town” when publishing critical remarks about Hughes.

      I have not research as much as you have, I probably would not say these companies go out of business as I’m not sure if Old Space would have created a capsule with a big door for passing cargo to ISS and also have it earth return capable. I’m thinking New Space has accomplished new developments for LEO access and putting sats into GEO. Could this be downside is we will be really good at LEO/GEO at expense of cis-lunar capabilities? I do agree talking about humans on Mars is totally unrealistic (that will always be 20 years away).

      • Billgamesh says:

        “-you are the only one that writes critical remarks of the new space folks. I think it is a good thing Dr. Spudis has not banned you like all the other forums-”

        How kind. I think this kind of veiled insult is a bad thing. Of course you may actually be sincere, along with another commenters remarks about the “tenth man” -and some other personal asides. My long experience with NewSpace leads me to believe otherwise. None of us know what are the actual intentions of such comments.

        “I’m thinking New Space has accomplished new developments for LEO access and putting sats into GEO.”

        You are mistaken. They have accomplished new P.R. techniques and ways to influence peddle and scam tax dollars. They also have a legion of undercover groupies that try and get any word in edgewise to advertise for them. Pretty much a fifth column that always tries to spoil any conversation critical of SpaceX with favorable inferences.

        “None of us know what are the actual plans of the NewSpace companies.”

        It is obvious but of course it is much more entertaining to phrase mysterious.

        “-can all this be scaled up with multiple launches i.e. routine like the airlines.”

        No. If it could be it would have been done decades ago to bring the cost of satellite launches down. Physics and materials science have not changed. It’s the NewSpace scam.

        “-can there be an easy way to put into orbit large structures or payload (i.e. fuel depots)?”

        The Ehricke/von Braun wet workshop as applied to future iterations of the SLS. The hobby rocket is far too small to do this or go anywhere except the dead end of LEO.

        “There is SLS but that vehicle will not be a frequent flyer.”

        NewSpace dearly hopes so but there is no reason why it cannot fly with the same frequency as the shuttle for the same cost. We did it for 30 years and can keep on doing it. The SLS program has been hobbled by two-faced double agents within. All of “us” know this and there is nothing mysterious about it.

      • Billgamesh says:

        “I’m not sure if Old Space would have created a capsule with a big door for passing cargo to ISS-”

        I am sure.

        “Could this be downside is we will be really good at LEO/GEO at expense of cis-lunar capabilities?”

        GEO is cis-lunar while LEO is not even really space. Page 23, figure 10 tells the whole story. The infographic is the single best argument against NewSpace I have seen to date. The Moon is the place to go and we are not getting there from LEO with hobby rockets. There is no substitute for the Super Heavy Lift Vehicle with hydrogen upper stages. The ice on the Moon is the critical enabling resource and makes all things possible. Inferior lift vehicles and propellant depots are by comparison an impossible mess. Look at the energy required to travel between GEO (where the money is) and the surface of the Moon (where the resources are). Humans require massive shielding to survive for any length of time Beyond Low Earth Orbit. Lifting thousands of tons of tap water from the Earth’s gravity well is a non-starter. The NewSpace LEO business plan is a dead end.

        The lines on the graph do not lie and cannot be misinterpreted.

        http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~ucfbiac/Lunar_resources_review_preprint_accepted_manuscript.pdf

  15. Joe says:

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

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