Changing The Way We Explore Space

NASA cuts funds for Mars landing technology work, SpaceNews

"In September Elon Musk is going to reveal his plans for colonizing Mars. "NASA is cutting funding for a Mars landing technology demonstration project by about 85 percent in response to budget reductions to its space technology program and the need to set aside funding within that program for a satellite servicing effort. In a presentation to a joint meeting of the National Academies' Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board here April 26, James Reuter, NASA deputy associate administrator for space technology, said the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project would get only a small fraction of its originally planned budget of $20 million for 2016."

Modified NASA/SpaceX Space Act Agreement

"The purpose of this Amendment No. 1 to Space Act Agreement No. SAA-QA-14-18883 between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ("NASA") and Space Explorations Technologies Corp. ("Partner" or "SpaceX"), effective December 18,2014 (the "Agreement"), is to (1) further define areas of insight and assistance to SpaceX under the Agreement, (2) further define areas in which NASA will have access to and use of SpaceX data and technology to advance NASA's understanding of the development of SpaceX's propulsive descent capabilities and enable NASA's own Mission to Mars, and (3) extend the period of performance under the Agreement."

Keith's note: Wow, how odd that this all happened at exactly the same time. It is probably just a coincidence, right? With near-perfect simultaneity we learn that NASA has decided to cut funding for new technology needed to develop systems to land large payloads (you know, human-related stuff) on Mars. As this news was making the rounds, SpaceX announced that it is sending its own mission to the surface of Mars. If you read the opening section of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX (signed 25/26 April, announced 27 April 2016) it is clear that NASA will be obtaining information from SpaceX while (maybe) providing some sort of unspecified assistance. To be certain, NASA has the world's pre-eminent expertise in landing things - big things - on Mars. But in the end, the bulk of the data flow is going to be from SpaceX to NASA - and SpaceX will be doing the vast bulk of the technology trailblazing - and all of the funding.

Did NASA cut the funding for its own Mars entry research knowing that SpaceX was going to go off and do this research? I can't say. I get answers all over the spectrum when I ask around. I do know that there were a lot of people at NASA - all the way to the top - who did not like this. But others see this as a vindication of various policies that NASA has been pursuing.

This would not be the first time that two announcements about a cancellation and a new project would happen simultaneously. Recall this episode from 2015: "NASA Cancels B612 Sentinel Agreement and Then Picks JPL NEOCam": "Isn't it a litte odd that the decision to cancel the Space Act Agreement with B612 for its "Sentinel" asteroid hunting mission suddenly came to light on the eve of Discovery mission finalists being announced -- and that JPL's asteroid hunting "NEOCam" mission is among those selected for further work?. These spacecraft even look a lot alike. JPL folks clearly saw Sentinel as competition - even if it was Sentinel team that first pushed the envelope on this whole idea. JPLers were pushing Lindley Johnson and others at NASA HQ to end the Sentinel agreement." NASA HQ staff would often try to end or avoid discussions about NEO searches from its planetary science community by Saying "B612's Sentinel will do that". And then they changed their mind.

In the case of B612 there were some valid (but overblown) concerns by NASA as to whether the B612 Foundation had generated enough financial resources to do what was spelled out in their Space Act Agreement. Of course, NASA was getting the lion's share of the value from this project while B612 was going to do all of the heavy lifting. But NASA got cold feet and pulled the plug - only after B612 had shown that such a concept was credible and then surprise, surprise, NASA approved its own version of the B612 concept.

In the case of SpaceX sending a mission to Mars, well, its markedly different. SpaceX has their own vertically integrated launch and spacecraft company that can produce absolutely everything needed to do this mission. And they have enough money to do missions on their own. More importantly they have a leader who is compelled to explore Mars and he owns the company. They do not need NASA to do this mission.

A lot of the SpaceX haters (starting with Neil Tyson) whine about there being "no business case" for deep space exploration by the private sector. These people (e.g. Tyson) are usually not business people, and they are certainly not billionaires - yet they seem to be business experts. Elon Musk and SpaceX can do what they want with their own funds, yes? End of discussion. There does not really have to be a business case any more than there is for What Bill and Melinda Gates do with their billions in developing countries or Jeff Bezos does with Blue Origin. If the people who put up the money - their own money - think this is a great idea then that's the end of that.

But wait: there is a business case here. Assume it is a given that NASA's #JourneyToMars, an effort that will take 2 decades to complete at some huge but utterly unknown cost using hardware that is over-priced and behind schedule - a mission that could be (and has been) hampered by simple congressional or presidential decisions. If SpaceX pulls this first mission off, would not critics of NASA's approach - who still want to send humans to Mars - take notice and ask why it would not be more prudent to pursue other (less expensive and faster) means to get to Mars? In other words, the investment of a hundred million or so in this 2018 mission could turn into billions in possible business for SpaceX. Not an unusual investment for a large business to make especially if you have something that a certain customer might really, really want.

Just the other day Charlie Bolden was asked why NASA was developing SLS when SpaceX had a Falcon 9. Say what you will about Congress - some of its members do pay attention to things such as mounting costs and delayed schedules.

SpaceX has put a lot of their own money into things. Musk risked everything he owned - and a lot of people's jobs - more than once. Yes, NASA gave SpaceX a lot of money (as they gave to other companies) but the hardware and capabilities that resulted, at GAO's own appraisal, cost a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to produce. And now SpaceX is off doing things (landing stages and reusing them) that NASA itself is not capable of doing. SpaceX has an ever-growing backlog of launches worth a lot of future income. Real businesses take risks with their assets and their futures. If they take the right risks they get rewarded by the market. If they fail, they suffer financially or disappear. Governments do not have to worry about things like this. They risk other people's money and share little if any risk (certainly no personal risk) if things do not work out.

What you have seen this week is a paradigm shift hiding in plain sight. In September Elon Musk is going to reveal his plans for colonizing Mars. This announcement was just the opening note. A private sector company has committed to spend its own blood and treasure on a mission to another planet. They have not asked NASA for a penny for this mission and have offered to tell NASA what they have learned - for free. Meanwhile, NASA decided to cut its own research in an area of related technology that they deemed as being crucial for their own plans to send humans to Mars. In so doing they have taken a step back from Mars while SpaceX has taken a big step forward.

NASA could have made a big stink about this and made things difficult for SpaceX. They didn't. SpaceX could have just gone off and done this without NASA. They didn't. They both made the right decision.

The rules for exploring space have just changed folks.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on April 28, 2016 10:28 PM.

ULA Struggles With Old Engines and New Business Realities was the previous entry in this blog.

NASA Hypes Its Imaginary Plan for the #JourneyToMars is the next entry in this blog.

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