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NASA Space The Almighty Buck Science

SpaceX Falcon 9 Relatively Cheap Compared To NASA's New Pad 352

Posted by Soulskill
from the i'll-order-a-dozen dept.
An anonymous reader writes with this excerpt from Motherboard.tv: "As debate over the future of spaceflight rages on — and as the axe all but falls on NASA's mission back to the moon and beyond — the successful launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 two weeks ago proved at least one of the virtues of the private option: it's a heckuva lot cheaper than government-funded rides to space. In fact, the whole system was built for less than the cost of the service tower that was to be used for NASA's proposed future spaceflight vehicle (yup, the service tower is finished, but the rocket isn't, and the whole program may well be canceled anyway)." CEO Elon Musk spoke recently about some of the ways SpaceX finds to cut costs in the construction of their rockets.
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SpaceX Falcon 9 Relatively Cheap Compared To NASA's New Pad

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  • Cut costs, sure. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JorDan Clock (664877) <jordanclock@gmail.com> on Saturday June 19, 2010 @12:30PM (#32626230)
    It's great that they cut costs and all, but what about those pesky corners? I'm all for a private space industry, but NASA has a pretty darn good track record of performance to back up their expenditures. Will these cheaper options be more efficient, or just cheaper?
    • by AnonymousClown (1788472) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @12:43PM (#32626314)

      Will these cheaper options be more efficient, or just cheaper?

      More efficient.

      Between government salaries, the way they get contracts, how NASA's budget is dependent on pork barrel spending, NASA having to put some projects in certain states to get votes from Congressmen for a budget, price gouging by contractors, etc...

      Just eliminating Congress from the loop is going to save billions. Add in businessmen/engineers and you have a much more efficient space program.

      Safety? We'll see if it's reduced. But I have a feeling there won't be change in safety record.

      • by sznupi (719324)

        "Safe" is a large part of "efficient" and "cheap" - if only because cargo is usually quite valuable and time consuming to build.

        I still expect SpaceX to get there.

    • Re:Cut costs, sure. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by InsertWittyNameHere (1438813) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @12:44PM (#32626330)
      I think the fact that other countries (like India) can launch into space for a fraction of what it costs NASA shows that a private American company can as well.
      • Sure they can, after they find a bunch of engineers willing to work for $15K/year while disregarding all those pesky environmental and other regulations.
    • by dragisha (788) <dragisha&m3w,org> on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:02PM (#32626448)

      NASA sure did great things, but "track record"? As compared to? Which other venture is your baseline?

    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:02PM (#32626450) Homepage Journal

      It's great that they cut costs and all, but what about those pesky corners? I'm all for a private space industry, but NASA has a pretty darn good track record of performance to back up their expenditures. Will these cheaper options be more efficient, or just cheaper?

      Are we talking about the same NASA that proceeded with a shuttle launch when the temperature was too cold, when they knew that certain very highly engineered O-Rings were likely to fail, instead of scrubbing the launch because it's expensive to do it all over again? The same NASA that knew they'd be launching in cold weather but accepted specs for these parts that would fail under those conditions rather than spending more money to come up with parts that would operate under the actual operating conditions? Or is this some other NASA?

      • by hitmark (640295)

        so you want NASA to run efficiently, but at the same time spend money on parts. i would say that borders on a contradiction.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DragonDru (984185)
      I have heard, but do not have a reputable source, that the overhead on NASA projects is 500%.
      For those who do not know, budgets for academia and government work are calculated roughly as:
      Actual Costs * Overhead = Budget
      The Overhead goes to things like facilities, accounting, IT, etc.
      Actual Costs include salaries (possible benefits), parts and supplies.
      The Universities I have worked for have overheads around 50%.
      • by hitmark (640295)

        NASA is as much a economic life support for the south as it is about space exploration.

        Next to military gear, space gear is the perfect line of business. Much of it will either be blown up or sent to unrecoverable locations. This means that the customer will always be coming back for more.

    • How sharp do you really need the corners? Seriously NASA has a perfectionist syndrome, many times good enough is better than perfect because perfection can never be achieved.

      • I think one reason NASA is stuck in a rut is the unwillingness to take risks. There is a great talk by Burt Rutan on that subject on TED. The other reason of course is that people are never as careful or as efficient when spending other people's money as when they are spending their own.
        • by hitmark (640295)

          manned space was about political one-ups. once the moon landing was no longer politically potent, they killed them (at exactly the same time NASA started sending scientist rather then fighter pilots).

          and NASA got badly burned when their first launch of a "civilian" ended up in disaster.

          then there is the question of what to use space for. There is right now no political, military or economic incentive to send anything more then automated devices into space. Heck, corporation have killed of all kinds of blue

    • Re:Cut costs, sure. (Score:5, Informative)

      by rijrunner (263757) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:58PM (#32626870)

            They have a fair track record, They also have failures. With a competitive fully commercial program, we can actually begin to answer these questions. Mainly, the current safety record is more dominated by the fact that the Delta and Atlas are mature technologies as far as launch vehicles are concerned and have had time to fix errors in the design. Advances in model design were based off upgrading the previous model rather than new designs from scratch. The major telling difference between SpaceX and the Ares rocket is that SpaceX, as a company, was founded in 2002 and has, to date, developed 2 working launch vehicles. NASA selected the Ares design in 2005-2006, awarded contracts in 2007 and estimates first launch in 2014 (although the Augustine Commission thinks 2017 is more likely). Will it be cheaper and more efficient? Barring systemic flaws, which are unlikely, they should have several design generations to apply engineering fixes for problems prior to Ares ever launching.SpaceX is designed for lower operating costs and is fairly conservative in most of its design selection. Theoretically, that should be more efficient in the long run. The specific engineering choices will determine the real answer and only by flying hardware do you get to actually see. For the design path SpaceX has chosen, higher launch failures at the leading edge of the life of the vehicle is not really a bad thing.

            Orbital Sciences has the Pegasus lunch vehicle, which they built on their own funding. It has 40 launches. 3 of those were failures and 2 were partial successes. The failures were all at the beginning of their development line, where you would expect them. To date, they have had over 500 launch missions of various types. Their Taurus rocket is still in its initial development path and has the expected launch failures for that.

            The thing most people have to realize now is that NASA does not really own or control most aspects of the launches now. They contract out to private companies. Those expenditures come from locked in contracts. It is hard to get competitive bidding if your only provider is ULA.

    • by pushing-robot (1037830) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @02:10PM (#32626954)

      NASA researches space with experimental hardware.

      Companies want to commercialize space with commoditized hardware.

      Experimental hardware is great for solving problems and learning new things, but it will never be as cheap or reliable as commoditized hardware.

    • by Sir_Lewk (967686)

      Think of it this way. Unlike NASA, SpaceX has been building the majority of everything in-house. That means unlike NASA spacecrafts, SpaceX crafts are not build by the lowest bidder [brainyquote.com].

      Of course NASA has had a pretty good track record in recent years, but I think we will find that SpaceX will as well.

    • by Nyeerrmm (940927)
      What track record? NASA hasn't managed to develop a new manned spacecraft in 30 years.
    • Re:Cut costs, sure. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ConfusedVorlon (657247) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @03:45PM (#32627516) Homepage

      too much safety can be a bad thing

      e.g. payload worth 100mil
      you can pick:
      a) rocket for 50 mil with 5% chance of failure
      b) rocket for 60 mil with 1% chance of failure

      cost for option A, plus 5% chance of having to rebuild and relaunch: $157.5 mil
      cost for option B, plus 1% chance of having to rebuild and relaunch: $161.6 mil

      this ignores double failure - but the point is that your cheaper 'riskier' launch makes more sense.

      or with people:

      imagine, for 10 billion, we can get 10 astronauts to mars with a probable 2 deaths, or for the same amount of cash we can get two astronauts to the moon with only a 2% chance of any deaths.

      perhaps less obvious which is better, but I'm certain we would have no problem getting volunteers for the mars mission.

      • by hitmark (640295)

        maybe not if all of them are military personnel with short turn around to train replacements. Tho i wonder if the same is true for someone thats spent most of their life studying for a highly specialized topic.

  • As simple as that.

    While I agree that often cost of private enterprise is much lower than a government one, one needs to compare apples to apples to be fair.

    • by ae1294 (1547521)

      Ares = manrated, Falcon = cargo. As simple as that.

      It's not if people are willing to sign a wavier and climb on-board the "cargo" version....

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Waffle Iron (339739)

      And the operational history of the Shuttle program shows that "manrated" = meaningless.

      • What? being the rocket with the best safety record of any launch vehicle (with over 50 launches) is now bad??? NASA fucked up a lot of things w/ the shuttle but safety was pretty damn good. It just was stupidly expensive and had shitty launch capability.
        • by 0123456 (636235)

          NASA fucked up a lot of things w/ the shuttle but safety was pretty damn good.

          In which universe does killing the entire crew one time in fifty count as 'pretty damn good' safety?

          If the Falcon merely has to kill the crew one time in fifty to be 'man-rated' then it's pretty much trivial.

    • by Ethanol (176321) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:05PM (#32626478)

      Actually, the Falcon 9, unlike most reusable boosters, was designed in advance to carry humans. It meets all of NASA's requirements for a human-rated vehicle except for an escape system. SpaceX has stated their intention to dot that final i within a couple of years. The Dragon spacecraft they're designing for the Falcon 9 will support a crew of 7.

      • by Ethanol (176321)

        Whoops, I meant "nonreusable", sorry. (Though I believe they're also planning to make the Falcon recoverable and reusable eventually.)

        • by tibit (1762298)

          Not eventually. That was their plan from day one. The recovery system failed on Falcon 9 flight 1, but it was there. They'll try to recover flight 2, and so on.

      • by FleaPlus (6935) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:54PM (#32626842) Journal

        Actually, the Falcon 9, unlike most reusable boosters, was designed in advance to carry humans. It meets all of NASA's requirements for a human-rated vehicle except for an escape system. SpaceX has stated their intention to dot that final i within a couple of years. The Dragon spacecraft they're designing for the Falcon 9 will support a crew of 7.

        A few additional points:

        * As you allude to, Falcon 9 is designed and built to NASA's human-rating standards. With Ares I on the other hand, NASA had to lower the human-rating standards when it turned out Ares was unable to adequately meet them.

        * Falcon 9 is an all-liquid rocket, meaning it isn't prone to catastrophic solid propellant explosions like the Ares I is. The Ares I design uses a gigantic solid rocket as its first stage, and a USAF analysis [spaceref.com] showed that an explosion of that stage would create a giant cloud of solid propellant debris which would melt parachutes on the escaping capsule, with 100% chance of killing the crew.

        * The sort of PRA analysis used to show that Ares I was the "safest rocket ever" with a supposedly "1 in 3145" chance of losing crew tend to have a fairly loose correlation with how safe a rocket actually ends up being, as the types of failures accounted for in a PRA (probabilistic risk assessment) end up being only a fairly small fraction of all launch failures. Most launch failures are caused by unexpected failure modes in a design, which are completely unaccounted for in a PRA.

        * The best way to determine rocket reliability is through its track record. By the time humans are first launched on the Falcon 9, it will have had at least a dozen or so unmanned flights to prove itself. The Ares I, on the other hand, plans on carrying crew on its -second- flight ever.

        • by DragonHawk (21256) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @06:32PM (#32628662) Homepage Journal

          "Falcon 9 is an all-liquid rocket, meaning it isn't prone to catastrophic solid propellant explosions like the Ares I is."

          Right, it's "prone" to catastrophic liquid propellant explosions instead.

          Historically, solid rockets are more reliable when it comes to them not exploding. They're much simpler designs, and much more robust. Heck, parts of the SRBs on STS-51-L (the one that killed Challenger) survived the initial explosion and kept flying. They had to detonate the range safety charges to stop them. If it hadn't been for the giant liquid fuel tank next to the SRBs, the O-ring leak wouldn't have been a problem. (Obviously, since there was a giant liquid fuel tank, that's a huge problem, but the point of discussion is the reliability and robustness of solid rockets, not the STS as a whole.)

          Solid rockets are cheaper, simpler, more robust, and have a higher thrust-to-weight ratio. But control options are limited. You can't vary thrust from plan, and once lit they will consume their entire fuel supply. No stop-and-restart.

          Liquid rockets are more controllable, restartable, and have better propellant efficiency. But they are more costly, more complex, and more fragile. To quote a rocket scientist I was conversing with, "There are plenty of examples of liquid rockets going BOOM and everyone being surprised."

          Now, I believe the mechanics of launch to orbit dictate that you pretty much need at least one liquid fuel stage. SpaceX reasons that you're better off using the same technology everywhere, to reduce overall design, manufacturing, and support costs. I suspect they are correct. If you have to build a good liquid rocket engine, you might as well use it everywhere. Using two different technologies means twice as many problems.

    • Ares = manrated, Falcon = cargo

      Better comparison: Ares = nonexistent, Falcon = flying.

      Not much point in comparing Ares to Falcon till there is an Ares out there to compare. Because the Falcon isn't going into stasis - there's the Heavy Lift version in the pipe, the planned man-rated version (Dragon is intended to have both a cargo and a manned version), etc.

      Just where Falcon's development plan is going to be when (if) the first Area flies isn't terribly clear just yet.

  • by melted (227442) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @12:49PM (#32626364) Homepage

    If it's only about the cost, give the money to Russians. If you pay a little more, they'll even let you have the blueprints for stuff. They've been launching stuff into space on the cheap for decades now.

    • by Narishma (822073)

      The problem with relying on the Russians is that they keep increasing prices every few years.

  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:03PM (#32626454)
    Read it as "SpaceX Falcon 9 Relatively Cheap Compared To NASA's New iPad"
  • by Yergle143 (848772) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:11PM (#32626530)

    I read that the Falcon cost about 700 million to develop, the government was having to put out one billion just to cancel the Constellation program.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/science/space/11nasa.html?hpw [nytimes.com]

  • by maillemaker (924053) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:21PM (#32626608)

    What Elon Musk is doing is similar to the assembly line process Henry Ford brought to the automotive industry.

    Instead of each item being lovingly hand-crafted by thousands of pork-fueled constituents, SpaceX is making a rocket factory. It's fantastic.

  • by elwinc (663074) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @01:32PM (#32626678)
    Bush announced Moon-Mars and provided about a billion dollars of funding to "study" Moon Mars. No one ever said where the remaining hundreds of billions of dollars would come from. Moon Mars never had a chance because no one could fund it. However, NASA took billions from unmanned space science to continue to "study" Moon Mars. It's too bad, but since we're not going to pay for a Moon Mars mission, space science is better off spending those billions on robotic probes than on never-to-be-implemented "studies."
  • by clyde_cadiddlehopper (1052112) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @02:36PM (#32627140)
    The transcript in the third link mis-quotes Musk as saying "The tanks are friction steel welding". He actually said "friction stir welding" [wikipedia.org]. The articles fail to mention that this technology is used in aerospace " including welding the seams of the aluminum main Space Shuttle external tank, Orion Crew Vehicle test article, Boeing Delta II and Delta IV Expendable Launch Vehicles." Very Light Jet (VLJ) maker Eclipse Aviation uses the technology to produce a passenger-certified fuselage with far fewer labor-intensive rivets.
  • Have we forgotten about Pegasus from Orbital?

    http://www.orbital.com/SpaceLaunch/ [orbital.com]

    It's important to note the existing, efficient commercial solutions out there. The government-supplied rockets can be replaced with commercial versions.

  • by damburger (981828)
    A completely bullshit comparison used to push some idiotic market-fundamentalist position. What these comparisons never take into account is the different standards of accountability faced by government and big corporations. The government has to be far more transparent, and can rarely externalise. The corporations lies its arse off and passes costs onto others (normally the general public). In this instance, the development of Falcon 9 was so cheap because they simply used existing techniques and systems d
  • You know we had some really good memories. [youtube.com] Why did it have to end this way?

    I guess you really don't understand. [youtube.com]

    It's not about sitting on my @** and discovering the universe, it's going into the universe to discover it. [youtube.com]

    Lets just part as friends [youtube.com].
  • inventors (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tom (822) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @04:51PM (#32628010) Homepage Journal

    Not having to reinvent everything from scratch certainly helps the budget. Never forget that when NASA started out, there was no such thing as space travel.

    Going into orbit after someone else figured out how to put people on the moon and robots on Mars and Venus is a lot less of a challenge then going into orbit when nobody quite knows how to do it.

    It's still a great feat, but don't forget that a lot of the cost savings are also because someone else invested a lot of money into figuring it all out.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wiredlogic (135348)

      Also take note that much of SpaceX's engineering staff is drawn from existing players in the industry and collectively they have a lot more experience in developing spacecraft than their 8 year history would suggest.

  • by trout007 (975317) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @05:56PM (#32628442)
    The reason things move slow and are expensive at NASA is because there are a lot of reviews. It isn't a government vs commercial thing at all. There are very few actual NASA employees. Most are contractors. NASA employees are there to write the contracts and provide a unbroken link of institutional knowledge. For example 3 employees of Scaled Composites died during a test where an engine exploded. If that test was going to be done at a NASA facility someone in NASA safety would have calculated the potential energy in the rocket test and established a radius where spectators had to be behind. Why? Because many years ago someone was either hurt, killed or had a close call. That institutional knowledge is passed on and maintained which causes development to go slow because there is someone that did something similar that has a warning for you. Some call that the bureaucracy that slows down innovation. SpaceX right now I'm sure has very little of this. So far their luck has held and I hope it continues. But someday they will have a close call or an accident. Then they will have to slow down and grow their own bureaucracy. Or most likely come ask the greybeards at NASA what went wrong and someone will have a story about the same thing happening in 1964.

    It is very similar to the BP disaster. I'm sure all of the oil companies operate this way BP's luck just ran out. So they will most likely go bankrupt eventually paying for this because they will have so many eyes on them that they won't be competitive. Then their competitors with a little more luck and maybe a bit smarted will continue until the next accident.
  • To Be Fair... (Score:3, Informative)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @08:10PM (#32629132) Journal

    SpaceX's main cost-cut compared to NASA is they're building it for themselves, by themselves. NASA doesn't build any spacecraft, they hire contractors. They have to pay their own people to operate the project plus the contractors to make the vehicle.

    To be honest as well as fair, this is where things should expand into the BigAero Sucking NASA'a Corporate Welfare Teat Dry, but everybody knows that one already and the punchline sucks. Or used to. Looks like the new punchline just might be 'SpaceX', which, to quote Spock, "thrills me no end."

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DaveV1.0 (203135)

      You forgot the part where SpaceX didn't do any R&D. Instead, they used old technologies developed by... wait for it... NASA.

      And, SpaceX didn't build a launch facility, instead they used.... NASA's.

      No wonder SpaceX didn't spend much, they didn't do anything new.

  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Saturday June 19, 2010 @08:42PM (#32629292) Journal

    Not sure what they're doing for test sites now, but early on SpaceX tested (sometimes destructively though probably not intentionally) firing chambers and other hotloud technology on a cattle ranch a mile or so east of their McGregor TX site. I've seen (as well as not seen but tripped over) rusty pieces of kaboomage while hunting down my own far more modest but adequately errant rockets during Dallas Area Rocket Society high-power launches. It's obviously not a top dollar test range. I'm thinking they probably had to move elsewhere when stuff got big and bad enough that the vehicles and/or pieces could travel 5 miles downrange before doing some high speed post hole digging. It's 5 miles to Bush's ranch at Crawford.

    Not to be out-cheaped, DARS flies smaller stuff at a site that's loaned free, near Rockwall TX. On the land there's a cement pad that used to be a garage floor. On the pad there's marks that used to be some of early Armadillo's H2O2 exhaust. Of the source of the exhaust, I found no traces. Found plenty of my own though.

    Maybe that's why they and Blue Origins favor Texas. There's so much land that you can always find some cheap.

  • by prefec2 (875483) on Sunday June 20, 2010 @04:54AM (#32630872)

    The article compares tomatoes with apples. This rocket is designed as a cargo transportation system. Like Ariane 5 which is also a very low cost space transportation system. That's why they have a 50% market share in commercial space flight. However, the Ares I launch system is for people. Therefore the launch tower needs a way to deliver people to the top of the system. The rocket itself has also to be much more reliable than a cargo system.

    And by the way, while looking at the missile photos it has 9 engines. This is like one of those ancient Russian designs, based on the fact that they cannot build a bigger engine. This is normally more expensive in testing and you get a higher possibility of failure. however they claim to be cheaper than Arianespace on launch basis. Ariane 5 approx USD 120 while Falcon 9 approx. USD 50.

FORTRAN is a good example of a language which is easier to parse using ad hoc techniques. -- D. Gries [What's good about it? Ed.]

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