Working draft/work in progress: I thought it preferable to post this as-is, and then hopefully get back to it over Christmas
"I love the smell of rocket exhaust in the morning. It smells of victory!"
Like many other NewSpace advocates, I have to say that I watched the picture-perfect SpaceX COTS-1 flight with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. It's now timely to consider the wider implications of this mission, the first in which a privately-developed human-capable spacecraft was successfully launched, orbited and recovered fully intact. The total cost to the US taxpayer for the entire Falcon-9/Dragon development programme to date is in the region of $260 million, or approximately one quarter of the cost of one shuttle flight.
The developments in suborbital spaceflight to date have earned a foot in the door for NewSpace, with both NASA (under the auspices of the CRUSR programme) and ESA (under their recent RFI) looking to work with commercial spaceflight groups on unmanned and manned missions. With the successful execution of the COTS-1 Dragon orbital flight, SpaceX kicked the door off its hinges.
NewSpace is now rightfully front and centre in any analysis of international civil space policy, where it belongs. By rights there should now be an atmosphere of outright fear in the executive boardrooms of certain major aerospace companies. Uncomfortable comparisons will be made, and thoroughly awkward questions about competence and cost-effectiveness will be asked, including in the halls of Congress. If they can do this, why can't you?
Why Orion? The Lockheed-Martin Orion spacecraft is the manned capsule portion of Project Constellation, originally intended to return humans to the moon. Constellation is effectively cancelled, but "Block I" Orion survives, as an LEO spacecraft for ISS servicing, and a basis for future developments for deep space missions. To date, Block-I Orion development has cost $4.5 BILLION and has launched… nothing. The earliest that an unmanned prototype is likely to fly is 2013, if then. Why do we need Orion at all, when Dragon, or systems derived from it, can do pretty much everything that Orion could, at very much less cost?
In astounding comments that caused online observers to spit coffee into their keyboards, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explicitly said as much in the post-flight NASA press conference, publicly questioning the need for Orion. He pointed out that Dragon is quite capable of deep-space missions, including surviving off-nominal re-entries from the Moon and Mars. Was it impolitic of him to say so? Quite possibly. Was it justified? Certainly.
Why ATV? The unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle is the ESA contribution to ISS servicing. Development of the ATV cost 1.3 billion euro, in comparison to ~$200 million for the Dragon spacecraft. The ATV is a somewhat larger vehicle with capabilities such as fully automated docking and ISS reboost, but it is not at all clear that these capabilities justify the vastly greater cost. Also, ATV has no downmass capability, and each 600 million euro ATV spacecraft is used as a trash disposal unit and destroyed at the end of its nominal mission. This is insane. A rational way to deal with disposal of ISS trash would be an inexpensive folding crate plus a dragsail or electrodynamic tether -- perhaps using a fully-reusable prox-ops drone to give an initial orbital separation… not throwing away a fully functional 20-ton 600 million euro pressurised spacecraft in the process. If the argument is that the ATV is being discarded because it has reached the end of its design life at that point, then frankly, EADS has designed it wrong.
EADS Astrium has submitted proposals to modify the ATV into an Advanced Re-entry Vehicle (ARV) with cargo downmass capabilities, with the eventual intention of carrying crew. (Dragon effectively already has demonstrated crew capability). An 18-month ARV design study started in summer 2009. I would suggest that ESA look long and hard at the cost-effectiveness of those proposals in the context of the demonstrated success of the Dragon programme. If they don't, European legislators should.
Why Arianespace? The essentially perfect performance of the Falcon-9 launch vehicle on its second flight will doubtless have set abacuses clicking at launch insurance providers. Demonstrated reliability translates into lower payload insurance premiums, which make's SpaceX's offerings even more attractive for on the commercial market. Right now, at least half of SpaceX's launch manifest is commercial satellite payloads (including a half-billion dollar order from Iridium Next, the largest single commercial launch deal ever signed). Six months ago, ESA director general Jacques Dordain said Falcon 9 gave his organisation 'cause to reflect'. I wonder what he's thinking now?
It's true that Ariane 5 does have more payload capacity than the Falcon-9, but SpaceX has plans for a medium-heavy launcher (the F9 Heavy) which will compete directly against the Ariane 5 for heavier geosynchronous comsat payloads, providing SpaceX sees sufficient market demand to build it.
Arianespace clearly needs to learn some elementary lessons in free-market economics, and fast. If the market is worth having, SpaceX will take it from you. If they let you keep it, it's not worth having.