Elon Musk’s announcement that he will put two paying passengers in a loop-the-loop around the Moon in 2018 has implications that no one seems to see. It can cause an earthquake at NASA. On February 15, NASA announced that it was studying an idea designed to give publicity to the Trump administration. On the first flight of NASA’s Frankenrocket, the Space Launch System—the rocket that will cost $30 billion to develop and $2 billion for each launch—NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot proposed flying humans in another overpriced piece of new equipment, the Orion capsule. Americans would go to the Moon, loop around it once, and would come back to earth. They wouldn’t even land.
To make a splash for Trump, the promoters of this idea were willing to break a basic rule of space safety—always try a few launches of a new rocket to work out its kinks before you put humans on board. New, untested rockets have a tendency to explode. But the real motive behind NASA’S idea was pork. It was to justify the $30 billion Space Launch System and another overpriced, underperforming project, the Orion Capsule. Both of these are jobs programs disguised as technology.
Within twelve days of NASA’s announcement, Elon Musk made the space agency’s big idea seem silly. How? Musk announced that he would do precisely what NASA proposed. He would loop humans around the Moon and bring them back home in one piece. But Musk’s version of the stunt would be different than NASA’s.
- Musk would launch his passengers on a rocket that had been well tested—the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which is expected to have its first flight this year, 2017.
- Musk would do this not in 2019, NASA’s target date, but in 2018, one year earlier.
- Musk would make his moon-loop self-financing by carrying paying passengers.
- And Musk would do this at roughly one-twentieth of NASA’s cost. Yes, you’d be able to buy twenty moon-loop flights from SpaceX for what NASA proposed spending to achieve just one.
What is the message for NASA? The Space Launch System is obsolete. Musk’s Falcon rockets can do the same job for roughly one-twentieth the cost. And the Orion capsule is an idea left over from the 1970s. An idea that deserves to die. SpaceX Dragon 2 capsules can do things the Orion simply can’t. And Dragons can do these things, once again, for one-twentieth the cost.
In an op-ed for the Scientific American, Howard Bloom, founder and chair of the Space Development Steering Committee, urged NASA to get out of the rocket business. Bloom suggested that NASA leave rocket-making to folks like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and dive into an area that’s vitally needed but is not being covered—the development of a permanent space transport infrastructure, an Eisenhower-style highway in space.
Elon Musk has shown that this NASA transformation is a necessity. Kill the SLS and the Orion, and you save three billion dollars a year. With that three billion, you can develop the space gas stations (propellant depots), truck stops (logistics bases), and space housing (colonies) to make the passengers who travel on Jeff Bezos’ and Elon Musk’s reusable rockets, reusable capsules, and, eventually, Musk’s Mars cruise liners at home in the sky.