SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s rocket roadmap just got much bigger than Mars. Now the question is, who else will follow the map?
The first answers to that question may well start emerging next week, when government officials and space industry leaders — almost certainly including a SpaceX representative — come together for the first meeting of the White House’s National Space Council.
Vice President Mike Pence will be heading up Thursday’s meeting at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. The theme? “Leading the Next Frontier.” (Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, will be sending the company’s recently named CEO, Bob Smith, to participate on a panel.)
At this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk updated his vision for the next frontier. Or frontiers. In his view, the latest version of the rocket he’s developing for Mars, nicknamed the BFR (which stands for “Big F—ing Rocket”), could be used for pretty much any aerospace frontier you can think of.
That would include missions to the moon and its surroundings, known as cislunar space, which is thought to be a favorite frontier for the Trump administration. It’d also include satellite deployment on a mass scale, such as the constellation for global internet access that SpaceX is working on at its facilities in Redmond, Wash.
Musk says the fully reusable BFR would be the most economical way to send payloads and people to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. According to Musk’s calculations, it could even come into play for passenger service between spaceports on Earth — shuttling folks from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes, for about as much money as the cost of a full-fare economy-class airplane ticket.
The idea of creating the aerospace equivalent of a Swiss army knife cries out for a reality check. Will everyone get on board with a “one-size-fits-all” approach to flight? In an interview with CNBC, space policy expert John Logsdon said Musk’s vision was a “beacon of hope that there is a better space future ahead of us,” but added that turning that vision into reality would almost certainly take longer than what Musk had in mind.
In particular, the idea of rocket-powered point-to-point travel on Earth sounded like “a very attractive prospect, but I think extremely unrealistic in any relevant time frame,” Logsdon said.
Rocket scientist Robert Zubrin, president of the nonprofit Mars Society, said the grand plan seemed more realistic than the initial blueprint for Red Planet settlement that Musk laid out at last year’s IAC meeting in Mexico. “He is scaling this thing down to a level where it’s going to be practical,” Zubrin told CNN.
Musk didn’t delve as deeply into the economics behind his latest vision as he did last year, but he indicated that SpaceX would pay for Mars mission development with the revenue it receives from customers for other types of launches. Unless Musk is willing to throw in a big chunk of his estimated net worth of $20.5 billion — much of which is tied up in SpaceX — he’ll have to follow the rule of spaceflight financing attributed to pioneering NASA astronaut Gus Grissom: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Today’s response from NASA, one of SpaceX’s biggest sources of bucks, was lukewarm.
In a statement, NASA Headquarters gave a nod to Musk’s ingenuity — but made clear that, at least for now, it would stay the course for deep exploration with its heavy-lift Space Launch System, currently under development, and its Orion crew capsule. It also gave a shout-out to the Deep Space Gateway concept it’s currently studying, which got nary a mention in Musk’s remarks:
“NASA is excited to see continued global interest in moving human exploration farther into the solar system, including Mars. A sustainable crew presence in deep space will require the best of NASA, our international partners and the private sector. Therefore, the agency is studying the deep space gateway concept with U.S. industry and space station partners for potential future collaborations.
“At NASA, we will use our heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft in the vicinity of the moon, where we will build the gateway, and prepare for human Mars exploration. Using the most powerful rocket in the world, we would launch a power and propulsion element, habitation module for crew, and logistics module for the gateway in the early missions of SLS and Orion. Later, on a single SLS mission, we would launch a proposed deep space transport to the gateway, which would be used for crewed missions to Mars.”
Could NASA change its course? It’s happened before, when the Obama administration canceled the Constellation back-to-the-moon program in 2010. But SpaceX has changed course as well, scotching plans for Red Dragon missions to Mars when NASA balked.
The likeliest scenario is that NASA, the White House, congressional leaders, SpaceX and other space companies will be engaged for months if not years in a behind-the-scenes wrestling match over the future shape of the space program.
Phil Larson has been on both sides of the policy fence, first as a White House space policy adviser and then as a SpaceX spokesman. Now he’s an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. In an email, he told GeekWire that next week’s National Space Council meeting could provide as an initial indication of what’s ahead for SpaceX and America’s space program:
“SpaceX is in the business of making the impossible, possible. Using the same principles, and diverse funding approach, that have taken them from their first launch nine years ago to where they are today, it makes this seem possible.
“With the upcoming first meeting of the National Space Council chaired by VP Pence, will be interesting to watch if the policies being discussed there will accelerate or stagnate ambitious private-sector ideas like this that could lead to new jobs and industries of the future.”