back to article Elon Musk vs NASA and the US rocket industry - ding ding!

The bell has gone for Round One in the epic bare-knuckle battle over the future of US manned space exploration, which is set to run for years and to devolve into a dirty fight indeed. SpaceX plans for future launcher development. Credit: SpaceX Recycled Apollo ... or something new? Could be more than a NASA job's worth. …


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  1. Disco-Legend-Zeke
    Thumb Up

    Except For A Few...

    ...crew members, all the dollars, yuan, rubles, etc. spent on space flight create jobs for workers right here on Earth.

    Further, medical, electronic, and other technological discoveries benefit almost everyone.

    Thinking of Rocketry Dollars as "throwing money into space" is simply myopic.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why would the American not want to go to the moon...?

    ... because by the time they get there it will be overpopulated by the Chinese

    1. Mountford D

      Like the Russian Space Pen?

      Apparently the Americans spent a wad of dosh developing a pen that could write in zero-G that had a miniature pressurised gas canister to push a controlled flow of ink out through the nib while the Soviet astronauts simply brought along a pencil.

      1. Andrew Newstead

        This is rumour control...

        This is story of the Americans blowing a huge wedge of cash on a space pen is mostly an urban myth.

        The "Space Pen" was actually invented by Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company as a private venture in 1965. NASA never actually issued a requirement for it and used pencils like the Russians.

        Fisher then lobbied NASA to try the pen when NASA had discovered that broken points and bits of graphite presented problems in the zero g environment. Issues with flamability also emerged after the Apollo 1 fire. NASA essentially bought the pen of the shelf. The Russian space programme also came to this conclusion and ordered a batch of the pens fron Fisher in 1969.

      2. Western Spaceport

        Like the Russian Space Pen?

        @Mountford D -- Really? Really? That old chestnut of an urban legend that's been debunked time and time again is the best you can do? Really?

        Let's get the story straight, once and for all:

      3. Mike Flugennock

        "Space Pen": urban legend

        I don't recall all the details, but the "space pen" was aleady made for use on Earth, and adopted by NASA, and wasn't your stereotypical "gold-plated toilet" kind of design.

        Also, iirc, NASA types were concerned that pencils ran the risk of breaking and leaving little chunks and flakes of graphite floating around the spacecraft cabin shorting out and otherwise mucking up delicate, important equipment.

        Besides, don't they all use Sharpies now?

  3. David Evans

    The current NASA has to go.

    So long as the American space program is about job protection and pork for the aerospace sector, a serious manned program has no chance. NASA has failed, and failed consistently, for nearly 40 years, would any private sector organisation get away with that? And the stupid thing is, that in order to protect existing jobs, they are strangling the potentially MUCH larger job opportunities that a real program with proper competition would provide. I actually the only way NASA will finally get pushed aside is if the Chinese actually park some Taikonauts on the Moon. If common sense won't reignite the American space program, maybe pride will.

    1. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

      Deception Point

      Having only just finished reading Deception Point last night, I find the appearance of this article today rather a coincidence...

      (by the way, fantastic book, well worth the read)

    2. Robert Hill

      NASA - failed how??

      Let's see in the past 40 years:

      1) Conceived and built the only re-usable, heavy-lift to low/medium orbit spaceplane in the world

      2) Designed and assembled in orbit (with partners) a decade-old, fully functioning space platform in earth orbit, and kept it supplied and ever-expanding

      3) Launched, rescued, repaired, and re-launched the US's premier visible light observatory

      4) Launched and operated several highly successful Martian probes

      5) et al...including development work into hypersonic travel, ion drives, and long-term human endurance in space for Martian missions.

      Huh...such failures. Time to dismantle the entire organisation, because it's obvious they are incompetent.

      I remember watching Apollo 11 land, and the coolest book on my bookshelf is the Hayes Apollo 11 inner-workings manual I bought last year. I also have both volumes of the NASA Apollo 11 debriefs in book form. But the Moon is a dead end. It's a gravity well, and requires quite a bit of fuel to get to and back, up and down. It isn't even a good launch point for a Mars mission - orbit would probably be better. To say that NASA is a failure because they have chosen not to go back is really stretching it - in large part because that simply wasn't their mission for most of the past 40 years. Remember - we CANCELLED the last block of Apollo flights because we had concerns about the safety of the Apollo program after 13, AND because we just couldn't justify the results returned. That led to Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab, which frankly was probably a better use of that gear, as it led to the ISS...

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        @Robert Hill

        NASA has indeed a great future behind it.

        You might however consider one of it's *most* amazing feats.

        The consolidation (after over 40 years) of a single accounts system across the 11 centres (12 if you count JPL in) threw up a few figures that did not add up, representing unexplained problems in their accounts.

        The total

        $576Bn. There are *no* decimal points in that figure.

        That's over 1/2 a *trillion* dollars

        I too could work wonders if I could *loose* that kind of money.

        Mine's the one with the print off of CFO magazine online. BTW NASA went with SAPf or their accounts.

        1. Mike Flugennock

          A great future _behind_ it?

          Robert Hill sez:

          "NASA has indeed a great future behind it."

          MER Rovers launched 2003, landed 2004, functioned for at least six -- count 'em -- six years past their intended mission life. The unfortunate Spirit, though hopelessly stuck in deep dirt, might still be useable as a stationary science platform if JPL is able to raise a signal come Martian spring. Opportunity, however, is still chugging on, heading for Endeavour crater.

          Phoenix Mars Lander, mission accomplished, 2008. ceased functioning as expected due to Martian arctic conditions.

          Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, arrived 2006, still returning science data and seriously gob-smacking images.

          Deep Impact, successfully launched impactor probe and returned best images yet of an active comet, 2005. Still-functioning mothership repurposed for EPOXI mission successfully encountered and photographed comet Hartley 2, 2010.

          Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, returned highest-ever resolution images of the Moon, including Apollo landing sites, 2009-2010; still going strong.

          New Horizons, launched 2006; at last report, halfway to its destination, Pluto, all still "go".

      2. David Stever

        Abandoning the outpost on the way to the solar system

        Bypassing the moon now? We've not been out of orbit (with a human) for 40 years, so using the Moon to test out our hardware concepts, in a place where folks can be rescued when the crap hits the fan is a great idea. Losing a crew that is anywhere from 39 days to 6 months away is just a horrific way to watch people die on television. I'd rather that we land on the moon's lesser gravity well, and figure what the hell we're doing with our technology before we push on to Mars.

        Apollo 18-20 were canceled because Nixon thought he was saving money. Monet that has already been spent for hardware that was sitting in a warehouse. Apollo was a damn sight safer than the shuttle, looking at the death tools of both programs. If we'd pressed on with the moon back then, I think we'd have infastructure in Earth Orbit, Lunar Orbit, and the Lunar surface by now, rather than what we have now. We've canceled at least two versions of us going beyond LEO (Bush I, Bush II), plus various new launchers and programs. NASA at this point is very gun shy, and having our space efforts in the hands of anyone but them is good to me.

  4. Torben Mogensen

    Known technology

    There is not much you can improve on current rocket technology: It is all about throwing mass out the bottom end as fast as possible. With chemical rockets, we are pretty much at the limit already.

    What can be improved is reliability and price. This might actually involve reduced fuel efficiency: If you don't need maximum exhaust velocity, you can simplify the design, which makes it cheaper and more reliable. You need bigger rockets and more fuel, but fuel is not (at the moment) a deciding factor in the price of sending mass to orbit, especially if you avoid the more exotic fuels. You can make pretty good rockets using LOX and alcohol, both of which are (relatively) cheap and environmentally friendly.

    In the longer term, space flight needs an alternative to chemical rockets, but there is no obvious contender in the short run.

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Thumb Down


      Actually, there are big improvements that can be made on the launch capability of the US rockets. The best proof of this is that Arianespace (the launch company who officially launch the European Ariane 5 series rockets) dominates the commercial sector of Space. 90% of commercial geostaionary satellites are launched by Ariane 5 rockets, and the percentage for smaller LEO satellites is well over 50% as well.

      They have done this by upgrading there tech consistently. Ariane 1,2, and 3 were actually based on the old tech that most american launches are still based on, Ariane 4 was a redevelopment of Ariane 3 which is the level of the current american launch capability. Ariane 5 however, was a redesign from the base up and has proven to be the most complete launcher out there.

      Theres a lot that can be done, but requiring political will to initiate a change is always going to lead to failure...

      1. You're all dinosaurs
        Thumb Down

        Don't forget Proton and Soyuz

        Actually, because most satellite launches are mid-sized payloads under 7,000kg, Russia's Proton and Soyuz put the most mass into orbit, partly because they're so cheap and reliable, even if they're pretty old fashioned. They're so popular, in fact, that ILS is building a Soyuz launch pad next to the Ariane pad at Kourou.

        But if you're talking heavy lift, then Ariane 5 is the only player, although Falcon 9 Heavy might be a serious rival.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


        "Actually, there are big improvements that can be made on the launch capability of the US rockets. "


        "They have done this by upgrading there tech consistently."

        That should read "ESA have consistently handed CNES a big bag of cash to upgrade to the next generation of Ariane before handing it to Arianespace to sell."

        " Ariane 1,2, and 3 were actually based on the old tech that most american launches are still based on, Ariane 4 was a redevelopment of Ariane 3 which is the level of the current american launch capability. "

        Absolutely incorrect. The core propellant combo for *all* of these vehicles was a hypergolic storable that was phased out in 2005. The titan series were the *only* US launch design to use it. The others used the much safer or much higher performance LOX/liquid hydrocarbon or Lox/LH2, with the exception of the Scout all solid design.

        I'd say that's a major underestimation of the US state of practice through Delta IV and Atlas V

        Arianes tech is not exactly leading edge. It took 4 generations for CNES to weed out the very nasty hypergolic propellant combo. The core is a common bulkhead LOX/LH2 stage with an engine in the J2 class. It's basically a Saturn SIVb with 2 large segmented SRBs (have they gone to the fibre reinforced single piece design yet)?

        The expander cycle De Vinci, modelled on the RL10 (first flown about 1961) has not flown yet. Its machined cooling channel laser welded nozzle is probably the most advanced piece of tech on the design (no surprise that P&W wanted it for some of their engine designs, but as a sub contractor from Volvo in Sweden)

        The Ariane 5 would not have been that good if it was not meant to carry the French Hermes space plane, making it effectively man rated (insofar as that means anything). AFAIK *the* key CNES design principle was "Let's only do what NASA have done for at least 20 years." I'm not sure if they don't read AIAA reports or are forbidden from using anything they find in them.

        At the very *least* composite cased SRB's should have been flying at least 20 years ago. In terms of low(ish) cost tweaks a shift in the mixture ratio on the Saturn 5 gained it a 2.5% payload increase. While Europe had no experience of pumped LH2 engines before Volcain they should have moved tot he J2S gas tapoff cycle. This would have given a lighter weight (LOX/LH2 engines have the *worst* T/W of any engine type specifically designed for an ELV), simpler (but possibly trickier to test) design.

        Arianspaces *real* achievement is to treat it more as a *business* and to *substantially* reduce the "Standing army" compared to *nearly* all current US launches (Only Sealaunch seemed to have seriously cut down the support team needed. I'd like to hope they make it out of Chp11.

        "Theres a lot that can be done,"

        Quite true.

        " but requiring political will to initiate a change is always going to lead to failure..."

        "Ariane as a system and a business is *entirely* a product of political will. Only the *slighlty* greater distancing from government seems to given it the improved economics that make it such a popular choice. And they *still* undercut by the Russians.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    By the time the ink has dried on the contracts and the first rockets delivered the Chinese and Ruussians will probably have working space elevators.

  6. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Somehow the name Elon Musk

    suggests a Bondesque super villain lurking in an underground bunker.

    I wish him luck in his SpaceX venture, we need more people with the combination of vision and deep pockets if we are to travel beyond our 3rd rock from the sun.

    Alien icon, obviously

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      "suggests a Bondesque super villain lurking in an underground bunker."

      Try as I might I his name conjurers the image of some mid 70's aftershave commercial

      "Elon, with a hint of musk. For men who don't have to try too hard."

      That said I deeply admire what his vision and his company have accomplished, both in the way they have done it and the budget they have used to do it.

  7. Beachrider

    NASA has failed?

    Wow, who is NASA taking 10th place behind? Oh, I'm sorry, 5th place. Ooops, 3rd place. Ouch, 2nd place.

    Senseless hyperbole.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Have they considered?

    Space planes launched from below balloons that do they major part of the lift.

    PARIS icon because I really can't think where I got the idea from.......

    1. Robert Hill

      Velocity, not height...

      The problem with achieving orbit is NOT height - both a balloon or a rocket plane can get you to the edge of space. The problem is that you need to be travelling at about Mach 25 to actually achieve orbit - or about 8 times faster than Virgin Galactic's craft. To achieve that speed requires that you burn A LOT of fuel - more than you can lift via a balloon, or even by a B-52 or White Knight. THAT is why ballistic rockets are not "old tech", because they burn most of that fuel right off the ground without having to lift it very far, and so are actually efficient ways of getting to Mach 25...

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "Space planes launched from below balloons that do they major part of the lift."

      Yes. IT *looks* very tempting.


      Airplane drops fine. Very big nozzles but no danger of over expansion as very high altitude.

      But. The balloon is now *massively* lighter. Its climb rate goes through the roof and the usual material they are made of will explode *very* soon afterward unless a)most of the gas vents *very* quickly. Not a good idea given how expensive Helium is (Hydrogen is common for high altitude telescope packages but if anything happens so what) or b) A support module sucks the gas out and compresses/liquifies it while the balloon is on a near vertical trajectory toward its burst height.

      Otherwise it's not really reusable.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Falcon X Heavy

    It actually looks like a giant...

    Dick! What the hell is that?

  10. Mike Moyle Silver badge

    Re: Space Pen

    As it happened, while it WASN'T a NASA requisite, the Fiisher Space Pen™ turned out to be of critical importance to Apollo 11.

    According to rumor, which writer Spider Robinson claims was confirmed to him by Lunarian #2, Buzz Aldrin: when he and Neil Armstrong were getting ready to leave the moon, one of the tasks was to remove their EVA packs and hook up to the LM life-support systems. While removing their bulky packs in the cramped cabin of the LM, one of them bumped into the control panel and broke a paddle-type switch off flush with the panel.

    Unfortunately, it turned out that the broken item was the main engine ignition switch -- causing them no small amount of consternation, as you might assume!

    Fortunately, Armstrong had his Fisher pen handy and, when it came time to lift off, managed to joggle the switch inside the panel with it and achieve ignition. It is questionable whether it could have been done with the tip of a pencil.

  11. Captain TickTock

    What would it take..

    .. to human-rate Ariane 5? The ATV has a manned version proposed.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Its being worked on already

      See the title... Probably wont be up and running for another 3-5 years though...

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Captain TickTock

      In *principle* nothing.


      Those with long memories will remember Ariane 5 was designed to carry the crewed French Hermes space plane (the stack looks a *lot* like a Titan/Dynasoar layout).

      When ESA turned out not to share the French's enthusiasm for old American spaceplane concepts it went back to being just a launch vehicle.

      In principle it should be in good shape. Depends if they left the safety factor at 1.4 (human) or back to 1.25 (cargo).

      The other big one is having a failure detection system and manual controls to allow the crew to do something about it (even if that is pushing the big Red switch to throw them clear).

      BTW that's the quick version of NASA's idea of man rating. Technically the Shuttle was not. I'd guess the French played follow the leader on this with NASA but I've never seen anything specific (but as I don't read French how would I).

  12. Doug Bostrom

    SpaceX is not really a standalone venture

    Musk and Crew would be nowhere without research performed over the course of decades at such locations as NASA Dryden, where commercial firms have traditionally applied for help with arcana beyond the reach of commercial R&D efforts. Take a brief look at the engines used by SpaceX and the vast pyramid of previous effort invested at taxpayer expense supporting Falcon is immediately obvious.

    Musk is simply in a good position and time to cherry-pick useful things created during the past 70 years and integrate them quickly and efficiently into the form of a working launch vehicle. There's nothing wrong with that, it's a natural progression, but to suggest that the successes of SpaceX reflect uniquely competent talent is oversimplification to the point of being simply wrong.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @doug Bostrom

      "Musk and Crew would be nowhere without research performed over the course of decades at such locations as NASA Dryden"


      "Take a brief look at the engines used by SpaceX and the vast pyramid of previous effort invested at taxpayer expense supporting Falcon is immediately obvious."

      Part of NASA's charter (probably a carryover from its history as NACA) is to publish it's development work and make it generally available to the US aerospace industry.

      As a US aerospace company SpaceX is *entitled* to that data. quite a lot of is even available through the NASA reports server website.

      BTW unlike *every* US rocket engine (most of which would incorporate NASA research) SpaceX's turbo pump is a rotary inflow turbine by Barber Nichols, which has *never* flow as the core of a NASA rocket engine (probably because Rocketdyne had little or no experience of them and NASA thought them "risky"). They have also gone with a semi pressure-stabilised tank design (NASA remains scared of such tanks despite them flying for decades up to the Atlas 3 and continues to fly on the Centaur stage.

      "Musk is simply in a good position and time to cherry-pick useful things created during the past 70 years and integrate them quickly and efficiently into the form of a working launch vehicle. "

      You make that sound simple. Building and maintaining a team to do this is *anything* but easy.

      "but to suggest that the successes of SpaceX reflect uniquely competent talent is oversimplification to the point of being simply wrong."

      Well that depends what you mean by unique.

      If you meant prioritising the hiring of people who had actually *built* stuff over those with a PhD (or int he case of the X33 a man who had a CV so "black" it was impossible to know if *any* of his projects had actually flown) and a willingness to fly without *every* single factor being known and operating on a scale large enough for *commercial* customers to be looking at them as a possible launch contender *despite* being based in the US (with US staffing costs and ITAR nonsense) then the answer is "Yes." I'd say that combination *is* unique in the US aerospace industry at this time.

      In particular note that *scale*. Other teams (in the US and elsewhere) *can* deliver projects to this speed, cost and price.But on that *scale*? I don't think so.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If NASA doesn't buy it

    I really hope that when 2015 rolls around, NASA goes with SpaceX. If they don't, I really hope Musk just hires some astronauts and launches them himself. Competition is almost always a good thing, and who says NASA is the only player?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "I really hope Musk just hires some astronauts and launches them himself. "

      probably not. But it might *sell* them to Biglow at a knockdown price (relative to the Boeing vehicle) and associate Dragon capsules for transport to Biglow's planned hotel.

      That's what *commercial* companies do to make a profit.

      "Competition is almost always a good thing, "

      Something *every* US Big Aerospace player will agree with, *until* someone actually *starts* competing with them.

      That noise you hear is not the engines on the executive jet spooling up it's their complaints about "We can't make a decent margin at what those foreigners pay their workers, we "assured access" subsidies ^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H payments to stop putting people on the streets boo hoo, I'm going to cry"

      "and who says NASA is the only player?"

      Well *they* do. And their ability to set safety standards and influence *any* technical evaluation of *any* competing design has so far ensured that in the US they have *remained* that way.

      Your a venture capitalist. Bright guy comes to you with a space launch plan. Who do *you* go to for an "unbiased" evaluation? Exactly.

      That's what Barclays Capital and others did with the Kistler proposal. After all it was being developed by *senior* Ex NASA people. what could go wrong. $900m later felt like a thanksgiving turkey just before coming out of the oven. Hopefully other in the VC industry will look a bit further afield for their next "unbiased" evaluation.

      However the times seem to be changing. Civilian sub orbital flights come under the FAA. Taking the trip does *not* qualify you as an astronaut but a "Spaceflight participant"

      Time will tell.

  14. dave74737

    Raptor is an LH2 / LOX Upper Stage

    Raptor is not an engine - its a LH2 / LOX upper stage: See here:

    LH2 / LOX offers better ISP (essentially efficiency) than RP-1 (Kerosene) / LOX, but is costly to handle and degrades mass fraction because of its lack of density, which results in very large first stages.

    Using RP-1/LOX for the first stage, and LH2 / LOX for the second stage makes a lot of sense - the second stage needs to carry less propellant and the density issue of LH2 is less of a problem as a consequence, and the efficiency of the second stage matters the most in terms of overall vehicle performance. Meanwhile the first stage can be less efficient, denser and more cost effective. Its a good combination - exactly why Wernher von Braun used it 45 years ago on the Saturn 5.


    1. lglethal Silver badge

      The problem with LH2/LOx second stages

      Is that they have a habit of not firing in low pressure environments. Its extremely difficult to get them to ignite every time in the vacuum of space or even at the very top of the atmosphere as you need from a 2nd or 3rd stage.

      Thats why the Ariane 5 went with a LH2/LOx mainstage, although as it was described to me by one of the Ariane 5's designers - their LH2/LOx stage is really theyre second stage - they just light it on the ground!

  15. Mike Flugennock

    What carries more political clout - boots on Mars or jobs on Earth?

    I know I may be oversimplifying a bit, here, but... if we do it right, won't boots on Mars result in more jobs on Earth? I mean, _sombody's_ got to design the boosters and spacecraft and associated gear, and test it, and build it, and maintain it, and launch it, and support it, etc.

    1. Zolko

      you're right: "if"

      "if we do it right"

      is the catch phrase. And job's on Earth is for now, boots on Mars in 20 years. So you can do it wrong, have jobs on Earth now, and no boots on Mars in 20 years. Or you can do it right, have less jobs on Earth now and boots on Mars in 20 years.

      Or forget about Mars all-together, and aim for the asteroid belt.

    2. kjmax


      @Mike, that's the point, NASA would require 30,000 people being paid for 15 years to send a bloke to Mars costing hundreds of billions of taxpayers dosh. SpaceX could probably do it with a tenth of that.

  16. Zolkó

    you forgot the Jupiter program

    You forgot to mention that some scientists and engineers from NASA propose an alternative to the Ares program, by re-using most Shuttle components, but removing the Shuttle itself and putting the payload on top of the main reservoir. See:

    Much like the Ariane V actually, but bigger. With proven and reliable technology. Obviously, not what space-megacorps would want, too obvious, not enough money in it.

    1. Mike Flugennock

      Huh. Good point...

      Y'know, I thought they were missing a bet by not repurposing the Shuttle heavy-lift booster hardware. They sorta kinda used _some_ of it for Ares, but they didn't really keep the entire configuration, only retooled and modded for unmanned payloads, a la the proposed-but-never-built "Shuttle C" variant:

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Valentine Michael Smith is waiting.

    Either for a ride home or a harsh mistress.

    1. David Stever
      Thumb Up

      MV Smith's ride home

      Yeah, and when we're done with him, he'll make some mighty fine soup stock

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