Slate published a polemic against commercial space on Tuesday that has the Internet buzzing, mainly with outrage. The premise of the article is that commercial space ventures such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are crass, ego driven enterprises that do not advance space exploration in any way. The article caused Space News reporter Jeff Foust to tweet, “After reading this ‘Billionaires’ Space Club’ piece, I can only assume Slate’s editors are taking this week off.”
The author, a science historian named Charles Seife, suggests there is no value in commercial space flight since it consists, in his view, of taking rich celebrities on joy rides. He failed to note SpaceX is a participant in NASA’s Commercial Crew program that will take astronauts, as well as a few paying private customers, to and from the International Space Station. Commercial crew may not be as “commercial” as its supporters maintain. However, having built spacecraft with government subsidies, SpaceX and Boeing, will use them to service commercial markets, such as space tourism and the planned Bigelow private space station.
Seife is equally dubious about the capacity of commercial space enterprises to lower the cost of space travel. While he cites a number of failed space companies, going back to the 1990s, he aims much of his fire against SpaceX. SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk with the purpose of lowering the cost of space flight. Seife disagrees.
“Accept, for the sake of argument, that they succeed. Imagine that Musk’s Falcon 9 spacecraft drives down the cost of launching payloads by 20 or 30 percent or even more in the near term. That’s nice, but it’s not really breaking new ground. Even if we believe Musk’s projected launch costs—which are likely optimistic—they are roughly the same as hitching a ride on Chinese rockets. (And I wouldn’t hold my breath for Musk to engineer a game-changing reduction in cost.)”
SpaceX is currently engaged in making the Falcon 9 reusable. Toward that end, Musk is planning to attempt to land the first stage of the launch vehicle on a floating landing pad. If and when SpaceX succeeds, it will be able to lower launch costs by orders of magnitude and not just by “20 or 30 percent.” Reusability plus increasing launch rates are the keys to lowering the cost of space travel.
Lest Seife can be accused of taking sides in the NASA vs. commercial controversy, it should be noted that he takes a dim view of the space agency as well. In a piece in the Huffington Post, he compared the NASA to a “panda.” He takes the view that NASA’s fascination with human spaceflight is misplaced and that robots can accomplish space exploration just as well, cheaper and safer. This view was thoroughly refuted in a study conducted by the British Royal Astronomical Society.