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NASA to SpaceX: the Space Race Privatized

Over the several decades that have passed since the Space Race there has been a dramatic decrease in federal support for the nation’s intergalactic sense of manifest destiny. However, it is not that the nation suffers from a lack of curiosity or a decrease in intellectual prowess. The ultimate factor lies within our infrastructure. Changes in the national political climate have made for a tumultuous history for large scale scientific projects. Our lunar touchdown was the product of an efficiently focused national effort during a time when our status as an ingenious and powerful nation was threatened. Today, the idea of space travel and research has become significantly less of a priority, illustrated through the cuts in the NASA budget over the past years. This year, the federal NASA budget is set at $17.7 billion, a decrease of approximately $50 million from the initial 2012 plan. While this budget is enough to sustain several major projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA has had to cut and reduce many promising programs, thus relying on partnerships with other countries, especially Russia and China, in transporting American crew and payload to work at the International Space Station.

Russian Soyuz spacecraft docking on International Space Station. (Image Credit: NASA)
Russian Soyuz spacecraft docking on International Space Station during Expedition 37. (Image Credit: NASA)

As a junior physics major hoping to pursue a career in astrophysics research, I have noticed an underlying theme in the variety of opinions on NASA’s current funding levels. That is the lack of full understanding of the organization’s contributions to immediate technological and medical problems. Much of the technology developed to break the earth’s atmosphere and operate properly in space, has led to several “spinoffs” on earth. For example, the technology used in the space shuttle fuels pumps inspired NASA and heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey to design the miniaturized ventricular assist pump, which is now undergoing European clinical trials and has been successfully implanted within 20 people . Furthermore, technology developed to test the effects of a Martian climate on wind power resulted in 200 NASA-derived Northern Power wind turbines and a decrease in annual carbon emissions by 50,000 tons. Also, much of the data used to monitor the earth’s climate, which is invaluable during emergency situations, originates from NASA. In fact, such geospatial data is now available via the Cloud, due to an agreement with StormCenter Communications. Within the past ten years, the work done by the space agency has resulted in approximately 18,000 jobs created, 444,000 lives saved, and $5.1 million in revenue.

NASA has a strong focus on inspiring and promoting wonder within the general public. Space naturally appeals to the innate childlike curiosity we possess when looking up at the stars. With one child enchanted by a spectacular image of the Milky Way Galaxy, a passionate scientist can evolve. Without this process, how could the nation maintain a strong footing in solving the difficult problems space exploration presents? Yet, last year the sequestration forced NASA to suspend all aspects of their outreach program, causing a ripple of anger amongst much of the public. Though a minute amount of funding is now available, it does not correlate to the realistic amount needed to reach the millions of students within the country, and certainly not to depths the agency is capable of.

My passion and situation in physics are ultimately due to an internship I had at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. During the summer of 2011, I worked in the heliophysics division studying the magnetic interactions between the sun’s interplanetary magnetic field and the earth’s magnetic field. The experience was humbling and slightly overwhelming, as one can imagine. Earlier that year President Obama cancelled the Orion and Antares projects meant to facilitate human low orbit shuttling with the assumption that private space companies would grow large enough to fulfill these needed rolls. The morning of the final mission launch, STS-135, my mentor picked me up at 4:00AM to view it live from campus. As a rising college freshman, it was easy to become fixated on the sadness and disappointment of the ending of something so iconic. Yet, the atmosphere within the auditorium was not mournful, rather, celebratory and hopeful. Every astronaut I met that summer emphasized how their passion began with something they experienced as a child. Now a junior, I often imagine the amazing feeling of fulfillment and excitement one has when achieving a dream so deeply seeded, which motivates me to withstand the trials of college.

Since the retirement of the shuttle program there have been several major changes within the environment of space exploration. First, NASA’s reliance on other countries, especially Russia, has grown. In order to reach the ISS, a join flight must be sent including Russian and American payloads. However, the current Ukrainian conflict and rising international tension with Russia has caused several figures, namely NASA director, Charles F. Bolden Jr., to emphasize the need to eliminate dependence on Russia. In fact, the agency recently declared that it plans to pause “the majority of its ongoing arrangements” but will continue to collaborate at the ISS.

In light of these political events impeding the advancement of space science and technology, it is difficult to envision a prolific future for NASA. This is where, I believe, the second change enters. In recent years, privatized space companies have risen to new heights in rocket development. However, the path to these promising developments is one not free of failure. In 1996 NASA funded Lockheed Martin to design, build, and fly the X-33 rocket with the intention of improving space travel. However, the failure of this program caused monetary losses of approximately $922 million and $357 million for NASA and Lockheed Martin, respectively. After more than a decade, the objective to produce successful privately funded space crafts was achieved. In 2008, NASA announced the results of the second round of their Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, thus signing agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, out of the more than twenty firms that applied, to fund their proposals focused on transporting crew and cargo to the ISS. With the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon, SpaceX became the first private organization to successfully launch a spacecraft to rendezvous with the ISS. While this was a major success for the state of human space exploration capabilities, the program also highlighted the heavily competitive environment of the market. In the past many firms have failed to develop innovative and successful designs, resulting in massive losses for the owners as well as their respective funders. It clear that the market for privatized space transportation is high risk but high reward.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has proven to be a major, if not the most important, player in the market now, with a history of efficiency and innovation. Though the Falcon 9 and Dragon were not able to transport a crew during the initial launch, the design of the rocket and spacecraft are exceptional. The two stage rocket is propelled by the 9 Merlin engine octaweb, which is capable of producing a power equal to more than five 747s at full power. In order to separate the two segments, Falcon 9 relies on a pneumatic system rather than the traditional pyrotechnic method, thus allowing for more control. During the second stage, only one engine is used; however, it includes the unique and innovative ability to restart periodically, making maneuvering Dragon from different orbits more manageable and efficient. SpaceX is currently working on the adjustments needed to make both suitable for transport of a crew per the NASA agreement.

Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom 6 at Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014. Image Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom 6 at Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014. (Image Credit: SpaceX)
International Space Station fastening onto Dragon. (Image Credit: SpaceX)
International Space Station fastening onto Dragon. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

Branching out from the initial Falcon 9 design, the Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket boasting a liftoff thrust equal to fifteen 747s at full power. This is achieved through three 9 Merlin engine octawebs, which also provide the ability to maintain proper flight even after one engine shutdown. It is capable of carrying a payload of 53,000 kg to low earth orbit, which is more than twice the amount a NASA space shuttle can transport. The regular use of this rocket will provide the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and others who can afford it with unprecedented cost efficient and reliable transportation.

The Falcon Heavy is the world's most powerful rocket, capable of carrying 53,000 kg. (Image Credit: SpaceX)
The Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of carrying 53,000 kg. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

During a visit to GSFC, I was able to meet with Nobel Laureate John Mather Ph.D and inquire as to how he felt about the rise of privatized space companies. His response emphasized a strong support for such firms, as ultimately, NASA spends an extraordinary amount of money on rockets, around $1.6 billion per flight. If SpaceX can develop a standard, cost efficient, design space exploration would only become easier. Per flight, the costs of Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy are $56.5 million and $77.1 million-$135 million (geostationary transfer orbit), respectively. Yet, the impressive company has already started work on designing a reusable rocket. The Grasshopper, the experimental 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing vehicle, reached its highest distance of 744m altitude on October 7th, 2013. Afterwards, it was able to hover and land successfully. Living in a community where reusing materials is the go to method of maintaining environmental consciousness, the development of reusable rockets is a major leap towards achieving a balance between advancing human knowledge and being proactively conscious of the state of our environment. It is an enormous challenge to produce rockets and spacecraft that are reliable, efficient, and dramatically cheaper than traditional costs; however, SpaceX has managed to operate well on that thin line of success. Perhaps the firm’s ultimate goal of providing humans with the ability to inhabit other planets will be achieved sooner than estimated.

Grasshopper during test flight. (Image Credit: SpaceX)
Grasshopper during test flight. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

With this I am reminded of the late Steve Jobs and his famous saying, “one last thing”. It is exciting and inspiring to see this same visionary outlook. As a college student I have noticed a strong need to constantly think ahead. Remaining with the pack is useless, but forcing ahead, taking risks with confidence and creativity is essential for success. The world and its environment are constantly changing and we must be prepared to adapt with them.

Before I end this rather long post, I would like to make a remark on another benefit of privatized space companies. While thousands of jobs have been lost as a result of the NASA budget cuts, communities surrounding the launch sites of SpaceX plan on greatly benefiting from these projects. The latter will create hundreds of jobs, provide internships for students, and attract other major, up and coming, companies. The potential Falcon 9 launch site, Brownsville, TX, is extremely excited but equally focused on confirming their selection. If you would like to read more on this, please refer to their local newspaper, the Valley Morning Star. In a previous post I highlighted the benefits of astrophysics research, beyond the romanticized visions of space. I hope that this post will provide clarity on the current standing of NASA both budget and research wise. The agency has been the pinnacle of human space exploration abilities and continues to conduct extraordinary work on the spatial objects. Its concentration on the earth’s dynamics have provided invaluable data as we learn to adapt our lifestyles. Due to recent political events, there is certainly a need for privatized space companies and it is clear many firms are meeting this challenge. The continued partnership between NASA and companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will lead to major advancements in space exploration. As an aspiring physicist, with research experience in astrophysics and nanotechnology, I look forward to combining both areas to develop technology that can build upon this powerful and incredible progression.


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  1. Fantastic job, Katrina! I especially appreciated the relevance of NASA work to current economy and politics. Keep the flame burning.

  2. Excellent article.

    I would only add that SpaceX has already started work on a family of super-heavy launchers and the advanced Raptor methane/LOX engine that will power them.

    Raptor is a full flow staged combustion engine capable of 1,000,000 lbf of thrust. The new 10 meter diameter launcher will use 9 Raptors in what is essentially a massively scaled up Falcon 9. There is also a much larger triple-core launcher based on this meter core.

    SpaceX starts testing Raptor components at NASA Stennis this year.

    And more info has leaked that makes it clear these will massively exceed Sarurn V and SLS in payload mass.

  3. DocM,

    Thank you for adding this important information! I apologize for not having included it within the post. It is amazing how far SpaceX is progressing in revolutionizing rocketry design.


  4. Great article, Katrina! Well researched and spot on – SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and others are the future. SpaceX alone has launch costs a little more than half of the Atlas V launcher, and does not depend on the RD-180 engines from Russia, which may become scarce in the current geopolitical climate.

    Private industry IS the key to lowering the cost of development and choosing projects that make sense.

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