Who’ll Win This Next Space Race?

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch | Photo by New Scientist

I’ve already discussed the Chinese effort that landed a craft on the dark side of the moon. President Trump said we are going back to the moon soon. To my mind the only part of the story that is missing is who will actually accomplish this feat.  There are some known programs in the works now.

One of those programs is being run by the U.S. Government. NBC News.com published an article dated April 8, 2019 with the title “NASA’s $17-billion moon rocket may be doomed before it ever gets to the launch pad. Some stakeholders are asking if there are better alternatives to the Space Launch System [SLS], whose construction is behind schedule and billions over budget.” The article was written by Jason Davis.

Artists Rendering of the Space Launch System (SLS)| Image by NASA

The ambitious effort began 8 years ago to build and launch the largest space rocket ever made.  The project is not only 3 years behind schedule but also well over the original budget of $10.6 billion having already spent about $17 billion and it’s still not ready. Quoting the article “Experts say each SLS flight will cost at least $1 billion, or about 11 times more than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which made its debut last year.” Out of frustration Vice President Mike Pence was quoted as saying “We’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”

Jim Bridenstein
Jim Bridenstein NASA Administrator-right, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama-left | photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA through nbcnews.com

The article quotes Jim Bridenstein, NASA Administrator, who referred to the SLS program as “The best option for getting to the moon as soon as possible. There is nothing sacred here that is off the table.” The article’s author also explained that cancelling the contract may not be as easy as you think. The reason is politics.

Artist Rendering of SLS Launch | Image by NASA through nbcnews.com

The example given is a partial list of the locations of some of those contractors. “The SLS program is managed by NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The rocket’s prime contractor, Boeing, operates out of NASA’s Michoud Assembly facility 10 miles from New Orleans. SLS rocket engines are tested at Stennis Space Center 40 minutes away in a Mississippi swamp. ” The Representative from Alabama, picture above, naturally would tend to want the contracts to continue to benefit his district and I’m sure the representative from Louisiana would feel the same  way. The question is whether or not their clout can actually save the project.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch | Photo by New Scientist

Now we go back to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket project. In February of this year they launched the test flight for the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX launched their Falcon Heavy rocket Thursday April 11, 2019 on its first commercial mission. According to an article on CNBC.com published on Thursday 4/11/19 and written by Michael Sheetz and titled “SpaceX Launches Falcon Heavy and lands all three rocket boosters for the first time.” The vehicle was built by using three Falcon 9 rockets making a powerful a 27-engine vehicle.

Building Arabsat 6A | Photo by Satellitetoday.com

This particular flight was called Arabat 6A because of the satellite they were carrying up to orbit in space. The article quoted Lisa Callahan, Lockheed Vice President who described the satellite as one of “the most advanced communications satellites we’ve ever built. The future looks bright for SpaceX as they have 5 missions already contracted including one Government contract worth $130 million to launch the Air Force Space Command-52 satellite and three commercial missions.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk | Photo by Wired.com

The article quotes Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, when tweeting bout the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Block-5 version. Musk said that it adds ” some risk of failure between 5% and 10%, as “the changes are unproven” even with “many good design improvements.” The upgrade  gives a nearly 10% increase in the vehicle’s thrust capabilities.

There you have two entities in a race-of-sorts to make the biggest and strongest vehicle to return Americans to the moon safely. It is also possible that there are other companies and nations out there thinking they could be the one company that makes it back to the moon first. NASA and SpaceX seem to be the only players now, but how long will that last?

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].

Tim Chuey is a Member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association and has been Awarded Seals of Approval for television weathercasting from both organizations.

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