Space Commerce

Changing The Way We Explore Space

By Keith Cowing
April 28, 2016
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Changing The Way We Explore Space
Red Dragon on Mars

Earlier this week SpaceX announced that it was going to start sending its own missions to Mars. Many people were overjoyed. Others were less than enthusiastic.
Not everyone thinks that SpaceX can pull this off. A lot of the SpaceX haters (starting with Neil Tyson) whine about there being “no business case” for deep space exploration by the private sector. These people (e.g. Tyson) are usually not business people, and they are certainly not billionaires – yet they seem to be business experts. Elon Musk and SpaceX can do what they want with their own funds, yes? End of discussion. There does not really have to be a business case any more than there is for What Bill and Melinda Gates do with their billions in developing countries or Jeff Bezos does with Blue Origin. If the people who put up the money – their own money – think this is a great idea then that’s the end of that.

But wait: there is a business case here. Assume it is a given that NASA’s #JourneyToMars, an effort that will take 2 decades to complete at some huge but utterly unknown cost using hardware that is over-priced and behind schedule – a mission that could be (and has been) hampered by simple congressional or presidential decisions. If SpaceX pulls this first mission off, would not critics of NASA’s approach – who still want to send humans to Mars – take notice and ask why it would not be more prudent to pursue other (less expensive and faster) means to get to Mars? Just the other day Charlie Bolden was asked why NASA was developing SLS when SpaceX had a Falcon 9. Say what you will about Congress – some of its members do pay attention to things such as mounting costs and delayed schedules.

SpaceX has put a lot of their own money into things. Musk risked everything he owned – and a lot of people’s jobs – more than once. Yes, NASA gave SpaceX a lot of money (as they gave to other companies) but the hardware and capabilities that resulted, at GAO’s own appraisal, cost a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to produce. And now SpaceX is off doing things (landing stages and reusing them) that NASA itself is not capable of doing. SpaceX has an ever-growing backlog of launches worth a lot of future income. Real businesses take risks with their assets and their futures. If they take the right risks they get rewarded by the market. If they fail, they suffer financially or disappear. Governments do not have to worry about things like this. They risk other people’s money and share little if any risk (certainly no personal risk) if things do not work out.

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SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.