Last week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk teased that there would be an announcement in the next month regarding his Big Falcon Rocket. The rocket, which he hopes to send to Mars, will be fully reusable so that the cost of rocket launches dramatically decreases.
“SpaceX is working on a next generation of fully reusable launch vehicles that will be the most powerful ever built,” SpaceX boasts on its website, “capable of carrying humans to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.”
Musk and SpaceX believe they have found the golden ticket to space exploration’s high costs. But have they really?
According to Jim Cantrell, the CEO and Founder of Vector Space Systems, “the opportunity costs (in terms of fuel used for return and the lost revenue opportunity for more payload to orbit) of returning the launcher to the first stage, and the costs of refurbishment between flights, generally accepted practice shows that you have to re-use the booster or launch the vehicle 5–10 times before you make your money back if you account for all the costs.”
Which is to say that reusable rockets are cost effective only if used many, many times. SpaceX, however, is decreasing its number of rocket launches in the coming year, with its projections revealing a “nearly 40% drop in launches next year from as many as 28 anticipated for 2018.”
Hypothetically, let’s assume in the year 2025 that SpaceX increases its number of rocket launches to turn a profit and make reusable rockets a worthwhile endeavor. Surely this would bolster SpaceX’s balance sheet, but how would it affect the balance sheet of the U.S. taxpayers funding many of these launches?
It will likely not change.
An argument in favor of government-subsidized space exploration is also that innovative technologies oftentimes come out of these sorts of ambitious projects. But if SpaceX increases its number of reusable rocket launches in order to turn a substantial profit, won’t the SpaceX team be too focused on rebuilding the same technologies rather than propelling forward?
Rebuilding issues have already occurred. During SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launch last February, one of the reusable boosters did not return. “The Falcon Heavy rocket has three boosters,” BGR explained, “including two outer cores that landed successfully at Cape Canaveral, after breaking away from the middle center some two and a half minutes after liftoff, and the central core which failed to return safely to Earth.”
These sorts of issues with reusable rockets aren’t new, either. NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Dan Dumbacher explained back in 2014 that, as a Space Shuttle engineer, he witnessed all sorts of reusability issues. “We’d pick them out of the ocean,” Dumbacher said, “but we spent a lot of time cleaning those things up when we got them back, inspecting the hardware to make sure that it was still good to go.”
Musk’s reusable rockets might be beneficial for the environment and the space industry, but it is silly to advocate for reusability based on cost-effectiveness. The number of government-subsidized rocket launches needed for the U.S. taxpayer to be positively impacted is extremely unlikely. What is likely is that the U.S. taxpayer will continue to lose money.
Austin R. Yack is the CEO of Ascendyn Strategies, and a conservative commentator and writer.
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