One of the most common questions I get from people I meet who find out I am retired from NASA is “What do you think about the commercial space companies?” I think that many expect me to speak negatively of them, since I spent a career flying government space ships. But the truth is (and I tell them this) that I am a big supporter of the privatization of space travel. After all, when I need to go across the country in a big aluminum mailing tube, I don’t get aboard “US Government Airlines” – I get on Southwest, or Delta, or one of the other commercial air carriers. The government helped the nascent airline industry become a major, viable business – and sooner or later, the same thing has to happen if we want space travel to be available to the masses.
The commercial crew program was just getting really rolling as I was finishing up my NASA years, and I stayed away from it mostly because it needed the attention of the younger folks who would be dealing with it. Make no mistake – when it comes to launching humans into orbit, the biggest “customer” for launch services is still the US government. So, my colleagues have been deeply involved in working with the companies developing such capabilities – and funding a great deal of that development. But I never really had a chance to get involved, and never visited any of the companies working on such spacecraft – until recently.
I was pleased to be offered a tour of the SpaceX facilities in Hawthorne, California, just before Christmas, and I have to say – it energized me. This is a busy place, with lots of young people working passionately to turn out rockets and spacecraft as quickly as they can. Proud of what they are doing, when I asked “What’s the percentage of first stages have you recovered this year,” the answer was a smile and “sixteen of seventeen – with one more launch to come before the end for the year!” And I think the one that wasn’t recovered was intended to be expended.
The tall rocket standing in front of the factory is not a full-sized mock-up, but the actual first vehicle that successfully landed after boosting its payload into orbit. Inside, there are engines galore, composite payload fairings, and miles of wiring and tubing – all headed in the same direction – the final assembly bays, right by the doors through which the finished rockets roll. I have always said that the key to cutting launch costs is volume production – just like any vehicle – and SpaceX is making good on that concept.
While eating lunch in the SpaceX cafeteria, I just had to ask “So, is Elon REALLY going to launch a Tesla in the payload fairing of the heavy lift vehicle headed to Mars next month?” The response? “You bet – in fact, it’s already at the Cape, and has passed vibro-acoustic testing!” Hey, its Elon’s rocket, Elon’s money – and his Tesla….so why not? The needed ballast, and there was no space probe ready and waiting for a trip to Mars….so why not have a little fun with the test flight of the new large booster?
It’s this kind of spirit that made me leave SpaceX with a smile and a feeling that maybe there’s a bright future ahead for commercial space travel. We did a lot of cool things at NASA – almost every day – but we never did anything just BECAUSE it was cool – we needed a reasonable explanation, because we were spending taxpayer’s money, and couldn’t be seen as doing things just because they were neat. But, the commercial companies are beholden to different “investors” – and they are free to be creative. I’m going to keep an eye on these guys – they’ve got the spirit!