Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, August 14, 2008

For SpaceX, a Golden Opportunity

As I’ve noted in my last post, the United States faces an uncertain immediate future in space due to its reliance on Russia. The ISS and American use of Soyuz spacecraft were marriages of convenience to save the American and Russian space programs as they sought new relevance in the Cold War’s aftermath. Unfortunately, the current relationship leaves Russia in the driver’s seat. Which is all the bigger problem in light of Russia’s recent moves to intimidate America’s allies in eastern Europe.

On the flip side of the coin, one US-based company could potentially reap the profits from America’s growing mistrust of the Russians. That company is SpaceX.

In discussions of the gap between Shuttle and Orion, the idea of moving Orion to an Atlas V or Delta IV or DIRECT comes up. The problem in all of these scenarios is Orion itself. As currently designed, the spacecraft won’t be ready for flight until 2013-2014, regardless of whether it rides on Ares or an alternative launcher. It’s unlikely that the program schedule can be accelerated at this point, regardless of how much additional money it receives.

The solution to the gap is a simpler capsule that can beat Orion to the launch pad. Of the competing capsule designs, SpaceX’s Dragon is farthest ahead. Dragon is the basket into which the US should be placing its eggs.

There is hope that a cash infusion would be able to help accelerate the Dragon schedule. It’s unclear how much testing has been performed towards preparing Dragon for human spaceflight. SpaceX certainly hasn’t performed any tests of the Dragon escape tower, in either the pad abort or flight abort scenario. While more cash could help with Dragon, it’s unclear whether SpaceX’s current manpower levels, management structure, and facilities could support an accelerated timeline. If SpaceX was forced to team with an established aerospace contractor (akin to the LockMart-Boeing team responsible for the F-22 fighter jet,), it would help in a situation where the schedule was dramatically accelerated.

A less-discussed aspect of the Russia situation is the impact it will have on Atlas V launches. Among industry observers, it was perceived that the Defense Department was biased against Atlas V because of its Russian-supplied RD-180 engine. The problem reared its ugly head in early 2007 when United Launch Alliance took over Atlas operations, and the engine supplier used the contractual name change as justification to delay engine shipments. If relations with Russia deteriorate further, Atlas V could become a victim. It’s not like this sentence is totally undeserved, as Pratt & Whitney never lived up to their obligation to set up domestic production of RD-180’s. Domestic production would have been expensive to set up, and the engines would be more expensive than those made in Russia. But the alternative is being held hostage to the political battle between the US and Russia.

If Atlas V goes defunct as a result of sour US-Russian relations, SpaceX’s business case for Falcon IX gets much brighter. While Dragon launches were the main use for Falcon IX, it would be possible to augment those with two or three DoD missions every year. SpaceX would still have to compete with Delta IV from ULA, but it should be able to hold its ground if the cost and reliability estimates hold up.