Senate Space and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz has promised to write and pass a new NASA authorization bill as well as new commercial space legislation. The NASA bill would allow Cruz to fix a huge problem facing NASA’s efforts to take Americans back to the moon as well as to take advantage of SpaceX’s latest project in South Texas.
The problem is that NASA’s moon program is dependent on a hugely expensive rocket called the Space Launch System and a similarly expensive Orion spacecraft. NASA has spent $30 billion on both vehicles and may well spend almost as much before human beings approach the moon about five years hence. Combined with the Lunar Gateway space station, the current return-to-the-moon program promises to be awesomely expensive.
Ironically, the uncrewed side of the return-to-the-moon program is being run lean and mean, using commercial partners. NASA is pushing its commercial partners to start landing on the moon this year and certainly by 2020. In effect, NASA has two return-to-the-moon programs: the nimble, commercial-heavy uncrewed one and the bloated, expensive one that is supposed to lead to the first footsteps on the lunar surface in 2028.
In the meantime, SpaceX is developing an interplanetary rocket ship at its space port near Boca Chica, Texas. The rocket, formerly known as the Big Falcon Rocket, consists of two stages, the “Super Heavy” and the “Starship.” The SpaceX rocket ship is envisioned to be capable of landing people and cargo on the moon or Mars as needed. It is, unlike the Space Launch System, totally reusable and therefore cheaper to operate. The development costs for the SpaceX rocket ship are unknown but are thought to be significantly less than the SLS. Unlike the NASA heavy rocket, which would launch only once a year, SpaceX’s rocket ship would launch many times per year.
If America’s space program were to be conducted solely on a technical and financial basis, NASA would quickly drop the SLS/Orion system and start putting resources into the SpaceX rocket and similar commercial systems. However, NASA is a political agency and has always been. The space agency is reported to be uninterested in the SpaceX rocket.
Some of the disinterest stems from the cutting edge and risky technology SpaceX is using. From a stainless-steel skin to a liquid heatshield, SpaceX is trying things that have never been attempted before. NASA would like to see if the SpaceX rocket will fly before exploring whether it would be useful for the space agency’s projects.
The overriding reason, though, is that the SLS/Orion system, despite its expense provides jobs in a host of states and congressional districts. If the SpaceX rocket ship supplants the NASA version, those jobs and contracts go away.
Cruz could help change things by using the NASA authorization bill as a vehicle. Cruz can mandate that NASA study how the SpaceX rocket could be used for joint missions. NASA engineers could be embedded at Boca Chica and at SpaceX’s headquarters in California. After an appropriate period, NASA could issue a report that would then be used to expand the space agency’s involvement in the SpaceX rocket ship.
It is likely too late to cancel the SLS/Orion project. Its supporters will argue that we’re in for $30 billion, so it is best we see it through for another $30 billion. But if Cruz writes the legislation well, and his friend NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine takes the hint, America will have an alternative method to return to the moon and on to Mars that will be ready sooner than 2028. The SpaceX rocket and whatever other commercial solutions arise from Elon Musk’s competitors, such as Blue Origin, will shortly be the preferred way for Americans to voyage into deep space. The SLS/Orion system will, in short order, wither on the vine and will be remembered as an example of how not to do big space technology development.
Cruz will have the satisfaction of helping SpaceX develop a thriving space port in South Texas. Perhaps the facility would be named after him. That wouldn’t be a bad legacy.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.