Will Congress Give SpaceX The Credit They’ve Earned?

Posted: December 9, 2010 in Uncategorized
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SpaceX is out there doing things commercial space endeavors just haven’t done before.

Yesterday, using their Falcon 9 launch vehicle, SpaceX successfully orbited the first commercial pressurized capsule, their Dragon capsule, and returned it uneventfully to earth.

It’s a big deal. It’s impressive.  It’s unprecedented.  It’s smokin’ hot. 

It should water Congress’ eyes.

Hopefully it will, but there are plenty who don’t think it will, including Rand Simberg.

Politically, there was a great deal riding on the success of this flight.

Fairly or not, SpaceX has become the poster child and sole representative of commercial spaceflight, despite the existence of the United Launch Alliance and plans by Boeing and others to build capsules of their own to go up on ULA vehicles.

Though SpaceX has facilities at Hawthorne airport in California in one of the largest hangars in the world, and a growing professional staff of more than a thousand people, it has been absurdly denigrated by people like Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and other defenders of the now-canceled NASA Constellation program, as "hobbyists in a garage," like the "Astronaut Farmer."

Had the flight failed, we can be sure Shelby would have been first with the I-told-you-so. When SpaceX succeeded in June, all Shelby could manage was a petty and churlish response: "Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program. … As a nation, we cannot place our future space flight on one fledgling company’s definition of success."

It isn’t called rocket science for no reason.  As Simberg observes:

While the June launch was to demonstrate the ability of the Falcon 9 launcher, today’s flight was to validate the design of the Dragon itself. The mission goals were to show its ability to maneuver in space; deploy a cluster of small satellites, called "cubesats"; orient itself for atmospheric entry; perform the deorbit burn; survive entry into the atmosphere at the designated g-levels (it has to eventually be capable of returning passengers from orbit); deploy parachutes; and hit the ocean at the specified speed to allow intact recovery.

None of this is to say SpaceX has exquisite technical solutions applied with eye-watering breakthrough designs. They don’t: they’ve taken a relatively low-tech rocket approach which was done for a reason—to demonstrate a capability that works and to do it quickly.  Now that they’ve been successful—there were early failures as there often are—they should be well on their way, right?

Not exactly.  While SpaceX isn’t exactly apolitical themselves, they’re late to the game.  Their political sponsorship isn’t working at the same level as the traditional U.S. space industrial base.  Basically, SpaceX lacks the same degree of regulatory capture the tradition players have.

Regulatory capture describes the fact that individuals (say, former astronauts) or organizations (say, ‘friends of NASA’ or traditional space providers) with a big interest in a policy outcome will pursue political solutions–instead of market solutions–that are intended to achieve their desired outcomes.  

Is it possible regulatory capture might explain why many of the comments following the successful test of another Falcon 9 flight earlier in the year—a less complex mission—ranged from lukewarm to hostile? 

Congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas praised the milestone but added the need for “a robust, NASA-led human spaceflight program” still existed.  Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said the Falcon 9’s milestone was “a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space capabilities are showing some promising signs.”

These comments were practically sugar-coated compared to those of Senator Richard Shelby who dismissed SpaceX’s success as something “NASA accomplished in 1964” and that “Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program.”  The much larger point that appears to have been missed by the critics is the fact that industry and not government has provided and will continue to provide the nation its space capabilities. 

So using telecommunications as a point of departure, which would you prefer as a customer: an iPhone, an Android, or Blackberry, or a U.S. government-overseen “equivalent”?

We’ve had government cheese and government motors.  How about a new model for government space?  And let’s call it commercial space.

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