Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dr. Zubrin On The SpaceX Success

"On October 4, 1957, Soviet engineers amazed the world by placing Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit around the Earth. Sputnik was a huge embarrassment for U.S. technological leaders, but in the end, the medicine was good for them. Shocked out of complacency, they got to work, and twelve years later Americans were walking on the Moon.

On Wednesday, Sputnik flew again. Once again the technological establishment was shown up, this time not by uppity “Russkies”, but by uppity “Yanks”. With the orbital flight and landing of its Falcon 9/Dragon combination, the SpaceX team, led by Elon Musk, accomplished a feat previously reserved for major governments. They did it on a budget one-tenth the size and a schedule one-quarter the length of that assumed as necessary by conventional bureaucratic planners in America.

The Falcon-9 medium-lift booster (capable of launching 10 tons to orbit) and Dragon capsule (potentially capable of upgrade to transporting up to 7 astronauts) system was created on a combined budget on the order of two hundred million dollars. Last year, Elon Musk told the Augustine Commission that he could develop a heavy lift vehicle (HLV) for $2.5 billion. The Commission chose to ignore him, instead insisting that HLV development would cost $36 billion, and therefore both it, and any human Moon or Mars exploration programs that might require it, are beyond the nation’s means for the coming decade. But yesterday’s flight put the lie to such counsels of despair.

They say it can’t be done, but SpaceX shows that it can. If a ten ton to orbit system can be developed for $200 million, then 100 tons for $2 billion is definitely in the cards. Those embarrassed by SpaceX should take up its challenge and resolve to raise their mettle to meet its test. A new standard has been set.

Hear the call. Beep, beep. Sputnik flies again."

Dr. Robert Zubrin is President of the Mars Society.
From The Mars Society Newsletter (December 2010)


James said...

I believe the overall cost of developing Falcon 9 and Dragon is closer to $600 million, but that does not make your point any less telling. What I hope we are seeing is a paradigm shift away from heavily bureaucratized development, supported by a standing army of personnel, to a lean, tightly knit development and production organization capable of high quality and high performance at very low cost.
The high cost structure has largely been supported by inefficient government procurement -- e.g., cost-plus contracts. But, if Congress can stop viewing NASA as a jobs program, the rapid development of the inner system could become possible soon.
More power to SpaceX

James said...

While the drive-out cost of Falcon 9 and Dragon total something closer to $600 million, the difference is so great that your argument still holds. This (hopefully) is the beginning of a paradigm shift away from bureaucratic, bloated development programs and toward the lean, efficient model used by SpaceX. Now if we can just stop Congress from thinking of NASA as a jobs program, we could begin to exploit the inner solar system much sooner than forecast. But that's a tall order.