While the recent feat of SpaceX flying a Falcon 9 with a reused first stage has been rightly lauded as pointing a way toward an era of commercial space flight, former #NASA official Scott Pace, currently director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington offers something of a #Reality Check. Pace suggests, in the pages of Space News, that a commercial market for space launches, independent of government, does not yet exist. The suggestion is proving to be hard for commercial space advocates to hear, but it has some truth in it.
A large part of the article is a defense of the Space Launch System, the super-heavy-lift rocket that NASA is building for deep #space exploration and many commercial space enthusiasts would like to see scrapped.
Pace offers three points in defense of the SLS.
First, he points out, correctly, that the SLS will have far more capability than any commercial rocket that happens to have, 130 tons to low Earth orbit as opposed to 53 tons to LEO offered by the Falcon Heavy. SLS remains likely more expensive to launch than the Falcon Heavy.
Second, Pace suggests that economic analysis that the development of the SLS eats up far more NASA overhead than commercial rockets is misleading. He points out that the commercial crew plan encompassed a lot of NASA support, including access to expertise and facilities, which was not counted as overhead. How much all of that would be if included in the cost of commercial crew is open to question.
That point will likely be disputed by a number of private companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Moon Express, and Planetary Resources that are striving to develop commercial markets beyond low Earth orbit.
Pace has a point that the solution to space exploration is not all government or all commercial. However, he is also right that a great argument exists over what the proper roles are for the two approaches and how they will evolve going forward.