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posted by cmn32480 on Sunday July 16, @07:47AM   Printer-friendly
from the rockets-are-expensive dept.

Commercial space companies want NASA to expand the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. SpaceX's senior vice president for global business and government affairs called for the COTS program to be extended to deep space activities:

Commercial space companies today (July 13) urged legislators to extend NASA's successful public-private partnerships for International Space Station transportation to future programs, including human missions to Mars.

NASA already is working with six firms to develop prototype habitats that would augment the agency's multibillion-dollar Orion capsule and Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. NASA has said it intends to use the system to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

[...] Technologies that SpaceX would be interested in developing in partnership with NASA include heavy-cargo missions to Mars, deep-space communications systems, and demonstrations of vertical takeoff and landing on the moon, Hughes said.

Getting spacecraft like the Interplanetary Spaceship to Mars will probably require SpaceX to dip into the NASA coffers yet again:

This proposal was foreshadowed last year in Guadalajara, Mexico. At the International Astronautical Congress there, Musk presented a sketch of the architecture needed to lower the cost of transit to Mars enough to make colonization feasible. His top-line cost of $10 billion, however, is likely out of reach for SpaceX in the near term—without the help of a big-pocketed government. "There's a lot of people in the private sector who are interested in helping fund a base on Mars, and perhaps there will be interest on the government sector side to do that," Musk said last fall.

Also at Ars Technica and LA Times (broader article about the economics of heavy launch capabilities).

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @01:15PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @01:15PM (#539884)

    Private enterprise sucking on the public handout tit. Why should I pay for your fun?

    • (Score: 2) by Gaaark on Sunday July 16, @04:23PM (1 child)

      by Gaaark (41) Subscriber Badge on Sunday July 16, @04:23PM (#539927) Homepage Journal

      Yeah, who owns the patents on discoveries made while using public funds: the public? Free use to non-profit initiatives of the public/government?

      Don't tax us, SHIT! MAN!, but can we use some of the money we don't pay the government to take the risk?...oh, and any patents we file are owned by us, reeet? Reet??

      We don' wanna pay no taxes,but we want the taxes to pay for our risk, so we can earn mega profits we don' wanna pay any taxes on........

      "You can't have everything... where would you put it? -- Steven Wright"

      --- That's not flying: that's... falling... with more luck than I have. ---
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @04:35PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @04:35PM (#539929)

        Man oh man, imagine how great SoylentNews could be if instead of paying any tax to any government, every Soylentik paid all that revenue into SoylentNews donations instead.

  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by gman003 on Sunday July 16, @02:41PM (2 children)

    by gman003 (4155) on Sunday July 16, @02:41PM (#539897)

    The basic idea seems to be that NASA would step out of launch vehicles, and focus wholly on payloads and operations. This makes some amount of sense, because it isn't really NASA doing launch vehicles now, anyways.

    Ever since Saturn I, the pattern has been that NASA sets basic requirements, then selects private companies to work with to actually build it. The precise amount of design work done at NASA has varied, with the Shuttle probably being the most NASA-involved. Private companies build the separate stages (or sometimes large components like engines), and then NASA does the assembly and integration.

    That way of working was always expensive, because NASA was helping to foot the entire operation from start to finish, including lots of R+D. It was worth it for Saturn because at the time, no single company *could* have built an entire lunar-class launch vehicle. NASA had to have each stage built by a separate company - Boeing, North American, and Douglas - just to avoid overloading any company. NASA was also able to control costs pretty effectively back then.

    Nowadays, it doesn't work. Part of that is the mergers that have consolidated the "old space" companies down to Boeing and Lockheed Martin, plus a few specialists like Aerojet. With no competition, costs are dictated by how much they think they can get away with charging the government, rather than how much they think their competition can offer. But the costs of integration are higher as a fraction of total development cost, now, because there's less low-level research needed. Rocket scientists know pretty well how to make an open-cycle kerolox engine. Just look at SLS - they're strapping together existing parts from a few different rockets, and it's taking a full decade. There's not a single new engine on the initial flights, but it's still seven years in and we're just beginning to build the first one.

    Moving to put the entire onus for design of the lift system onto the private industry makes sense. Lift systems don't really care what they're lifting; it could be a lead dummy model or a satellite or a crewed spacecraft. If one rocket is handling both commercial and government work, it ends up being a lot cheaper, due to economies of scale. It's not like Boeing can take SLS and use it to launch satellites - not when they don't have the facilities themselves to do full assembly.

    Right now, private companies don't launch stuff beyond about 25 tons to LEO, compared to 70 tons for SLS Block I and 130 tons for SLS Block II. Musk's basically arguing that they can handle the really heavy stuff, too - Falcon Heavy, which they're planning to launch this year, is specced at 60+ tons, enough to send a 17-ton payload to Mars, which is enough to do a sample-return mission.

    As for funding... have you seen the price tag for SLS? We've already spent $10B and all we have to show for it is a stack of blueprints, some stand tests, and a couple prop tanks. It'll be another $10B before it starts doing actual mission flights. If we could have spent half as much money to develop a rocket five times as powerful... you'd have to be a fool, or paid by a Boeing contract, to not think we should have done that.

    PS: I'm pretty sure SpaceX is going to fund ITS even without NASA involvement. Musk is a big-picture dreamer who explicitly wants to build colonies on other planets, and started SpaceX with that goal in mind. But it'll go faster if NASA buys in, and in return, NASA would get a very powerful rocket. Isn't that how capitalism is supposed to work? You pay for something, you get something of value to you.

    • (Score: 1, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @10:28PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @10:28PM (#540057)

      Just look at SLS ... There's not a single new engine on the initial flights

      Sorry, only SpaceX launches with "quality preowned engines" -- the SLS will most definitely use new engines for the first and all subsequent flights.

      • (Score: 2) by gman003 on Tuesday July 18, @02:01AM

        by gman003 (4155) on Tuesday July 18, @02:01AM (#540695)

        The info I have says legacy, pre-flown RS-25Ds will be used on initial flights, with new RS-25Es once the supply is exhausted. I'd love to hear they'd changed that decision - I think those engines belong in a museum, not burned up on reentry for the sake of some overpriced make-work program.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @03:24PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @03:24PM (#539907)

    The rich don't say "We want more money". They say "This increased taxation is reducing personal incentive."

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @04:22PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @04:22PM (#539926)

      Have we done a poll of how much money Soylentils earn? Chances are very good that You are The Rich.

      Here's an exercise for you. Go to Wikipedia and look up the median income for the area in which you live. Do you earn more than median? I bet you do.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @05:55PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 16, @05:55PM (#539952)

        Rich != not poor