Last Monday was a notable day in the space industry — one that featured lavish flamboyance but just a modicum of practicality.
In the wee hours of the morning, SpaceX launched a rocket for its brow-raising broadband internet project that featured some reused parts — a carrot that CEO Elon Musk often dangles in the faces of conservative policymakers to win more government contracts. They should not take his refurbished bait.
Why not, you ask? Hasn't Musk said that the use of reused parts can potentially suppress space launch costs by a factor greater than 100? Am I merely a creature of the past? Do I hate cost savings and innovation?
The truth is that Musk's promises many times don't meet up with reality. The investment world is finally learning this the hard way with Tesla, which still isn't making a profit and is now Wall Street's top short position, and SpaceX is also having difficulty delivering on promises.
For example, after already giving one set of prices to the federal government, the aerospace company will now hike its average price per kilogram by a staggering 50 percent for NASA and other government space flight missions. This is while other commercial space flight companies’ prices are going down. If the federal government lets SpaceX's reusable ambitions continue to fly (no pun intended) off the public's back, further cost increases will likely ensue. Here's why.
Due to the massive research and development and refurbishment costs associated with reusable rockets, as well as their lower payload capabilities, SpaceX’s reusable launch vehicles must receive a significant amount of re-use just to break even. While this frequency of use may become a possibility if private space tourism becomes a reality, there is not likely to be enough demand just from government spaces launches alone. So SpaceX will ultimately have to pass these increased costs on to taxpayers instead.
SpaceX isn't the first company attempt to reuse rocket parts — it has been tried on multiple occasions, including with the Space Shuttle. Although some policymakers seem intent on looking the other way when someone recites any of the lessons we learned over the course of its 135 important flights, there's a relatable one here too: ideas like rocket reusability always seem simple until theoretical drawing boards meet reality.
The Space Shuttle's engines were supposed to be re-used on 55 flights with a cost per mission estimated at just over $10 million. However, when push came to shove, engineers had to remove and rebuild the engines for each flight, which raised the cost per mission to $450 million to $1.5 billion — at least 4,000 percent more than originally estimated.
As former Space Shuttle engineer Dan Dumbacher explained, "We tried to make the engines reusable for 55 flights. Look how long and how much money it took for us to do that, and we still weren't successful for all parts.” What initially seemed like a simple enough concept ended up turning into both a cost and logistical nightmare, with ground turnaround times clocking in at over 80 days rather than 160 hours and workers frantically purchasing hard-to-find parts on eBay of all places. For all these reasons and more, NASA did not get anywhere near their original reusability estimate. It just didn't make sense from a financial standpoint to continue the project.
The history of SpaceX's Falcon 9 indicates that it is likely to follow this same pattern. The company frequently overestimates its capabilities and has previously faced rocket delays and quality control issues. With the regular temperature changes and atmospheric pressure the Falcon 9 experiences, SpaceX's reusable features will likely take many beatings and require a whole lot of repairs and refurbishments that will eliminate most prospects of cost savings.
This is not to say that reusable rockets will never succeed to the extent that Musk hopes they will; it merely means that the infrequency, lack of budget, and intolerance for failure with respect to public launches makes them a poor fit to meet current needs.
Federal rocket missions are not like regular airplane flights. Since there are fewer launches, there are fewer chances to fail and climb the steep learning curve associated with running government expeditions. And unlike the predictability of airline travel, most space flights are unique and complex. This often creates many problems that tack onto the original cost estimates, which can easily make refurbishment no cheaper than building from scratch.
Perhaps reusability will become a staple of the space industry if the private space tourism ambitions of companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic finally take off. This could potentially provide the industry with the increased flight rates it needs to make reusable rockets more reliable and cost-effective.
Until that time though, entrepreneurs like Musk, who has already hiked his projected federal launch costs by large margins and has over-promised and under-delivered with more frequency than any former member of the Space Shuttle team, should not conduct their refurbishment experiments on the public's dime.
NASA has already failed at this idea before and should not resurrect it until a private company demonstrates a successful track record on its own dime. Taxpayers don't want any new $1 billion surprises and they shouldn't receive them when the party of fiscal restraint is in full control of Washington.
Travis Korson is a veteran of politics with years of experience in campaigns, communications, and public policy. He previously served in the Bush White House and has also spent time at various conservative organizations and government institutions including the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. He is a graduate of the George Washington University where he studied International Affairs with a focus on International Economics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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