Elon Musk, Alan Stern and the future of space

Elon Musk and Alan Stern teamed up for a public event sponsored by University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) 10 days ago (April 29). With the caveat that I’m not as versed in New Space as I am “old space” (what do you call the space program as we know it today?), it was a pretty enlightening show. If you’ve got two hours to spare, it’s online here.

Very quick bios: Musk is CTO and CEO of SpaceX (as well as CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity); Stern founded and led the Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder, Colo., during which time he finally sold NASA on a mission to Pluto, which he now leads (New Horizons). He then led NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (~$5 billion annual budget) for a couple of years, and now consults widely as he leads New Horizons and prepares to take scientific payloads on commercial suborbital missions (via Xcor and Virgin Galactic).


In addition to being at the the top of their business and scientific fields, both are top-drawer communicators. I took a lot of notes.

One of the most interesting bits was from the Q&A, when someone asked how commercial space outfits like SpaceX can manage to launch satellites (or, in the future, people) for a third the price of existing players. (I wrote a bit on the topic of space budgets, focusing on satellites and instruments, here).

Musk said part of it is a lack of choice for government buyers, who are forced to work with a handful of cost-plus contractors. “They will underbid the project, then once they’re in they will raise the prices to the maximum amount, just short what would bring about program cancellation.” Stern elaborated that the incentive of such programs is to add people to them. That costs money and makes communications worse, which leads to problems, which they then hire still more people to fix. “It’s a bad closed-loop feedback,” Stern said. “and the government system likes more jobs, even though it doesn’t say so explicitly — more jobs particularly in the zip codes of people on the approriations committee.”

Because of the lack of appetite for cancellations, money is then pillaged from good-performing projects to shore up ones that are over budget, providing yet another bad feedback. In sum, he said, “They’re all pumping the system towards something disastrous happening.” In contrast, Stern said, private commercial companies are largely led by people with training in the Internet or elsewhere. “And now they’re porting all that over to aerospace and it is the rise of the mammals against the dinosaurs,” he said.

The rest in bullets (Stern, then Musk).

From Stern’s talk:

  • If the distance from the Earth to the moon were a 100-yard football field, the space shuttle (and space station) orbits at the equivalent of 2 inches from the goal line.
  • The space shuttle program has cost us about $200 billion; the International Space Station $100 billion.
  • “Really we have had, for 40 years since the era of Apollo, a very politically driven, centrally managed, really Soviet style approach to space flight.”
  • SpaceX conceived, designed and flew the first Falcon rocket for less money than was spent on the launch tower for the (cancelled) Ares I test firing.
  • The entry of players like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, Xcor, and Virgin Galactic offer, for the first time, the potential of multiple competitors to carry people into space (in the U.S., it has always been a single option — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle program). Stern said he expects four separate suborbital lines to reach markets in the next two years.
  • Paying $250,000 for a scientist to carry an instrument into space on Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two might seem steep, but it’s a deal compared to the $2.5 million needed to loft an instrument on a Black Brandt sounding rocket, the next-cheapest option. Stern called it “an access revolution, where spaceflight goes from rare to routine,” and likened it to the transition from big, expensive centralized mainframes to PCs. In terms of aviation history, commercial space is today where commercial aviation was in the 1920s, Stern said. “I think this is the beginning of a real revolution,” Stern said. “This is the best time to be alive in space exploration.

From Musk’s talk: (Musk, for the record, had just flown in, and his jazzy SpaceX videos, e-mailed prior, for some reason couldn’t be coaxed to work. So he went a capella. Where Stern is straight-talking, go-getting American in his delivery, Musk’s South African background lends a British sensibility; soft spoken; very wry wit also).

  • The lessons of history, Musk said, are important in setting one’s own priorities, or that of a business. Looking back, the less important stuff falls away. Musk is talking big, big picture here, citing the emergence of single-celled life, the evolution of creatures with differentiated cells, and the transition of life from oceans to land being “important.” Where does SpaceX come in? He views life becoming multiplanetary as a similarly important moment — perhaps more important than the oceans-to-land transition, “because you have to travel hundreds of millions of miles across irradiated space to do it.” Musk says he’s happy to take payloads to the moon, but he’s most interested in Mars. “Mars is a real planet. There’s water almost everywhere, the red is iron oxide.” To get there, launch costs need to be at most $100 a pound, he believes (they’re at $1,000 a pound now).
  • “That’s why I’m into space. To advance the technology of space travel and set us on a path to make that happen.”
  • As far as what we should spend on going multiplanetary, Musk said maybe a quarter of a percent on GDP per year — less than what we spend on health care, but more than we spend on lipstick.
  • Despite his leading Solar City and running a rocket company, Musk is dismissive the idea of space based solar power. “If anybody should be interested in it, it should be me,” Musk said. “But it totally doesn’t work.” The sun’s intensity in orbit is only about double that on a good spot on Earth, and you’d need to orbit equipment to convert photons to electrons and beam it down via microwave radiation, and then convert back to electrons on the ground. “Even if launch costs were free and you could teleport the equipment to Earth orbit–which would be awesome–it still doesn’t work. So we shouldn’t be thinking about it.”
  • The Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX recently announced, can lift 53 metric tons orbit, more than a Boeing 737 with passenger, luggage, fully loaded with fuel. “That’s double the capacity of the space shuttle, the Delta 4 heavy or any other rocket on Earth.” First flight is slated for 2013, he said.
  • The dream of truly inexpensive access to space depends on the creation of what Musk described as “a fully and rapidly reusable” orbit-class rocket. That is, the rocket becomes like the jet plane or the bicycle, which you don’t write off each time you ride it. If it can be done, one can amortize capital costs across “tens of thousands of trips,” making those costs “quite small.” So if a Falcon 9 launch costs $50 million and could fly 1,000 times, you’ve got a capital cost of $50,000 per flight, Musk said, plus propellant (propellant for a Falcon 9 costs about $150,000, equivalent of loading up a Boeing 757, he said).
  • SpaceX hopes to unveil something by the end of this year, Musk said. “But it’s quite tricky, because Earth’s gravity is quite strong.” No rocket has ever carried even 4 percent of its weight to orbit (I’ve described space-bound payloads as the equivalents cats in sedans). Usually it’s 2-3 percent of the total rocket-plus-payload weight that ends up in orbit, Musk explained. And if the rocket’s rapidly reusable, you’ll need to add reentry shielding on the upper stage, hardware for a deorbit burn, final velocity attenuation. . . “In all prior attempts, you come up with negative results. You get negative payload to orbit. Not very helpful,” Musk said.