In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement
“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program. Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely. “These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer. Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year. Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout. Full text here
While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.
In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.
SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.
Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017. There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.
In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS. They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.
Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS. In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.
Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9. Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.
To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.
The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion. This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled. In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.
Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.
Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket. In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.
The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.
While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once. The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.
Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.
In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.
In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system. Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.