Monday, December 22, 2014

Can't we all just get along?

July 21, 2011 - the beginning of a pause in the capability of NASA to get astronauts to orbit from US soil. Since Atlantis's touchdown, we have had to rely on Russia's ability to do the job for us...and the price they charge per seat is indicative of the lack of meaningful competition. This was never meant to be a permanent solution, which is why NASA awarded the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing earlier in 2014. Both companies were awarded the full amount of their respective proposals to develop a ship capable of carrying astronauts to LEO (low Earth orbit), dock with ISS, act as a space lifeboat in the event of emergencies, and return crew safely to Earth.

While Boeing is considered to represent the "old guard" in US spaceflight, SpaceX is most definitely the young upstart. As with most newcomers, SpaceX feels they can do things better, faster, and cheaper than the old guys. And you know what? Maybe they can. SpaceX currently charges significantly less to get hardware to orbit, and with their cargo flights to ISS, they continue to strengthen their credibility. They've yet to have a significant launch failure since the early days of the Falcon 1 tests, and their launch manifest is getting decidedly crowded as more customers line up to use SpaceX's services. Elon Musk has certainly created a capable and innovative company.

SpaceX's final launch of 2014 slipped to early 2015
However, all is not perfect in Hawthorne. Though SpaceX doubled the number of launches from the previous year (six Falcon 9's launched in 2014, compared to three in 2013), they only completed half their manifest. In fact, their final launch of 2014 ended up being delayed until early January 2015. The company is notoriously tightlipped about their operations, only disseminating information in minuscule bits as they see fit. Moreover, there are grumblings of overworked employees, and a high turnover rate.

But, to borrow a quote (modified though it may be) from Shakespeare: "I have come here to praise SpaceX, not to bury it." I admit it - I like the company. I like that they bring a much-needed competitive aspect to the space industry, and I'm thrilled at the renewed public interest in spaceflight. Many non-enthusiasts I speak with have at least have heard of SpaceX, which contrasts sharply with the "brand recognition" of their main competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA). Unfortunately, though the marketing prowess of SpaceX has garnered a lot of mindshare, it has had the negative consequence of opening a rift among some that follow the industry.

Public engagement done right.
Over the past few months, I have had the honor of being invited by NASA to participate in several of their NASA Social events (be sure to search the hashtag #NASASocial on Twitter to see some excellent posts from these events). Among the topics covered, SLS and Orion received the greatest amount of engagement from fans...and detractors. The naysayers state that ULA overcharges NASA...and that NASA is a rudderless and bloated governmental agency: "SpaceX could accomplish so much more if the old guys would just get out of the way!"

OK, maybe there is a bit of truth in there somewhere. Does ULA charge too much? I can see how that might be the case. However, success isn't cheap...and if one wants the highest degree of a successful outcome, I can't fathom too many other places that would warrant such a consideration than with a rocket launch. Is NASA a rudderless and bloated government agency? No...well, not in the classic sense. They might be misdirected at times...but that's the fault of our elected leaders, not of the fine people running the agency. NASA has accomplished mighty things...and I do NOT think its best days are in the past.

EDIT: A friend made mention that SpaceX is very supportive of NASA, and that any contention is generally from the company's I've amended the section below.

To SpaceX: I love you guys...really, I do. You may hold the the future of our spacefaring species in the drive and determination of your CEO and talented engineers. I want nothing more than for you to succeed. Your success is our success. Your innovations push others to compete with, and try to outshine, you. But never forget - you stand on the shoulders of giants. The men and women that came before you have blazed a trail that has given you a boost (pun intended), and I dare say you wouldn't be half as successful as you are without NASA. 

To SpaceX's supporters: Let's stop the petty feuding and support any of the companies that are working on the important task of making us a multi-planet species.

To ULA: My goodness, you guys are good. You have some of the most capable launch vehicles on the planet. Your record is exemplary, and your name is tied to some of the most iconic missions in our nation's history. But you're losing the PR battle. The 'everyman' knows nothing about you, and in today's media-centric culture, this isn't a battle you can long afford to lose. Though you probably don't need the approval and acceptance from the average American, I think it would behoove you to step it up a bit.

I'd love to know what you think. Please join the discussion in the comments below.