Elon Musk’s promises on reusable rockets need to be met with more scepticism

Elon Musk’s rise to fame through SpaceX, his Tesla car brand, and his extravagant personality as a whole, comes with questions about his efficacy vis-a-vis his promises. SpaceX itself published a video in September last year mocking its regular failures in landing rocket boosters. Those spectacular “fails” might be amusing to viewers, but it becomes more nuanced when we realize that American taxpayers have been largely involved in funding this operation.

To that end, the recently-approved John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for the coming fiscal year contains the following section:

“Beginning March 1, 2019, if the Secretary proposes to issue a solicitation for a contract for space launch services for which the use of reusable launch vehicles is not eligible for the award of the contract, the Secretary shall notify in writing the appropriate congressional committees of such proposed solicitation, including justifications for such ineligibility, by not later than 10 days after issuing such solicitation.”
The question now is whether reusable rockets are indeed the more sensible alternative. While the videos of the last successful booster landings have gone around the world, it needs to be pointed out that every failure brings billions of dollars in additional costs. So, what do we really know about the efficiency of reusable rockets?

For one thing, Musk’s competitors don’t seem particularly thrilled by the idea of investing into reusable rocket technology. Ben Goldberg from Orbital ATK said during a panel in Salt Lake City: “We ran a study, and a whole bunch of interesting things jumped out of this study. One really interesting thing is the best you’re going to get is suborbital.” He doesn’t believe in Musk’s claim that you could reduce the cost of launching rockets by a factor of 100. If Goldberg were of the conviction the the business model could be profitable, he’d probably have invested in it himself.

But let’s not take the word of a SpaceX competitor alone. More important for decisionmakers should be data from SpaceX itself.

Instead of blindly following the promises of SpaceX, lawmakers should require hard data from the company in order to back up its claims. If cost reductions can indeed be made in the time frame that is being dreamed of, then there shouldn’t be an issue. But given the current track record of Musk’s endeavors, we have reasons to be skeptical.

Take the phenomenal increase in costs for the space shuttle engines used in missions: While the initial cost per mission was estimated at $10 million, rebuilding of engines after each mission raised the actual cost to $1.5 billion. If your partner asks you to pick up a few groceries for $30, and you come back with those groceries, yet you paid $1,200 for them, your partner might have some questions. And rightfully so.

The Block 4 rocket boosters could be reused between two and three times, yet in order to break even, the reuse rate would have to be between five and ten. Musk claims that the Block 5 will be reused ten times, but expectations should be dim once one crunches the numbers on SpaceX costs. The company recently raised prices by a full 50 percent, after “having a better understanding” of the costs involved. When NASA first awarded SpaceX with a contract in 2016, it did so because the company performed well in the past and was competitive on price. Two years later, it is questionable whether that is still the case. NASA is already paying $400 million more than expected for its 2020-2024 delivery contracts, despite moving less cargo.

Both NASA and lawmakers in Washington need to reassess the performance and suitability of reusable rockets, and it needs to do so by obtaining reliable data. If Elon Musk then proves all the critics wrong, then so be it — but in government there shouldn’t be blind trust with third parties that have proven unreliable in the past.

This article was first published by the Washington Examiner.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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