Tuesday, 28 February 2017

SpaceX Mission to the Moon

Private company SpaceX plans to send people on a fly-by trip around the Moon in 2018! This is very big news - no one has been anywhere near the Moon in more than 40 years. Can SpaceX do it? Personally I doubt that it will happen next year but the fact that they're pushing for this is great news.

As much as I'm loving it, I do have a few concerns. Nothing serious - mostly just related to the ambitious timeline - but here they are...

(1) They're planning to use the Falcon Heavy rocket to launch this mission. This new rocket has never flown, it's quite a different beast to SpaceX's existing Falcon 9 and it will need a lot of testing before putting people on it. You could argue that as long as the launch abort system works well it's an acceptable risk to use a new rocket but I'd still be worried about climbing on top of that thing.

(2) The spacecraft that will go all the way to the Moon is also a new design. Called Crew Dragon, it's a new version of their existing uncrewed capsule. Again, I'm worried about putting people in a new spacecraft that won't have had many test flights.

(3) Do they have a launch license for this mission? I haven't seen any reference to that yet. They'll need one, which may be difficult given the newness of the vehicles and light testing schedule.

(4) SpaceX has a launch success rate of about 94%. Statistically they will have several more failures before launching the Moon mission - maybe more with the new Falcon Heavy. Each failure causes a delay to the whole programme. I really can't see them launching for the Moon in 2018.

Those are my concerns about the mission timeline. I also have a greater concern for the future of NASA...

If the SpaceX mission is successful it will make NASA look bad. That's because the SpaceX mission will be very similar to NASA's upcoming mission to the lunar vicinity. In fact NASA's mission probably won't even have a crew - just a test capsule - so SpaceX's mission will make NASA's look very weak in comparison. I'm not criticising NASA and I actually think their approach is safer and more reasonable but the issue is public perception.

On top of this, NASA's human spaceflight system, SLS  & Orion, is plagued by controversy and huge cost. Estimates vary but a staggering $2 - 5 billion per launch is a common assessment. If true, this is a scandal.

If a private company is perceived to be doing NASA's job better, faster and much cheaper, NASA's reputation will take a big hit. It could easily spell the death of NASA's entire in-house human spacecraft development programme. This would give NASA an unbroken history lasting more than a decade of aborted human spaceflight programs (Constellation and SLS).

Let's be clear: This is not NASA's fault. Their situation has been created by the unrealistic demands and inadequate funding from politicians. If NASA was left to make their own decisions I believe they could have an efficient, cost-effective programme.

So I'm actually a little bit ambivalent about all this. Of course I want SpaceX to succeed and I want to see people back to the Moon. I just hope they can do it without hurting NASA in the process. Alternatively, maybe this will give the politicians the push they need to sort out the disparity between their expectations and funding for NASA. Maybe they might even give NASA the resources they need to do what they're being asked to do. Miracles are possible.