The successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon powerful new rocket Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was a tremendous step toward reasserting American leadership in space.
The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket launched in the U.S. since the Apollo missions – and the most powerful commercial rocket ever made. It can carry nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds) into orbit. This is more than double the payload of the next-biggest rocket currently in operation.
For perspective, SpaceX says this is, “a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel.”
SpaceX owner Elon Musk also said the rocket system could launch payloads “direct to Pluto and beyond” without the help of a gravity assist.
This successful test flight should serve as a serious motivator for the National Space Council to jumpstart the nation’s focus on manned space flight.
When President Trump reinstated the Space Council on June 30, he challenged its members to “think big” in space again. The day before the new Space Council met for its first meeting on Oct. 5, Vice President Mike Pence wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the council “will refocus America’s space program toward human exploration and discovery.”
The council must redouble its efforts to meet these challenges.
Specifically, the Space Council should heed Vice President Pence’s charge: "To achieve these goals, the National Space Council will look beyond the halls of government for insight and expertise.”
The vice president is absolutely right, and SpaceX’s success on Tuesday proves it.
The private sector has shown that the conventional wisdom of the slow-moving, risk-averse space bureaucracy is wrong.
As Dr. Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the Mars Society, wrote after the launch: “Seven years ago, the Augustine commission said that NASA's Moon program had to be cancelled because the development of the necessary heavy lift booster would take 12 years and 36 billion dollars. SpaceX has now done that, on its own dime, in half the time and a twentieth of the cost. And not only that, but the launch vehicle is three quarters reusable.”
In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported in an article its print edition Wednesday titled “For SpaceX, New Rocket Marks Coup” that, the “Falcon Heavy underscores the demise of what used to be the aerospace industry’s reliance on federal dollars for technological breakthroughs.”
The Space Council must see the new reality. It must recognize that companies like SpaceX are out-competing government rocket programs. This trend is likely to continue. Instead of focusing our tax dollars on duplicative efforts, the federal government’s interaction with the space industry must change. We should help these companies achieve more.
The Space Council should aggressively develop systems for public-private partnerships with innovative companies such as SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and others, where the government takes on the role of an investor – an investor that would be paid back.
Additionally, The Wall Street Journal article noted that the successful test flight could mean the Falcon Heavy could start making paid missions to space within months. The National Space Council should nurture this possibility and quickly create a system that could help support as many U.S.-led launches into space as possible. Only this will create the environment necessary to establish a thriving U.S.-led business ecosystem.
If the U.S. does not do this, our competitors will. A future where China or Russia dominates in space is not a safe, secure or prosperous future for America.
The Space Council must also encourage a culture across all federal space programs that allows for failure and quick recovery.
One of the keys to SpaceX’s success has been its ability to fail – and move on.
The company’s Falcon 1 rocket failed three times before it was successful. The company has also had two failed Falcon 9 launches. Despite setbacks, SpaceX was able to quickly learn from its mistakes, make adjustments, and try again.
As a result, within 16 years SpaceX has gone from conceptualizing privately-funded, reusable rockets to launching the most powerful rocket we have seen in nearly half a century. Along the way, the company has achieved 47 successful missions with Falcon 9, five with Falcon 1 – and Tuesday’s success with Falcon Heavy.
This work has helped discover and drive American technological innovations at a rate that the bureaucratic, risk averse, old-space system could never have achieved.
Some of those innovations include the ability to bring rockets back to Earth after launch for reuse – as SpaceX did with the two booster rockets from the Falcon Heavy launch. This creates a tremendous savings and makes getting to space much less expensive.
A final important piece of this launch was SpaceX’s decision to put “Starman” into space. This is the mannequin that was dressed in a spacesuit and put behind the wheel of a red Tesla Roadster, which was launched into orbit.
While some might be quick to assume this was merely a publicity stunt for Tesla, one of Musk’s other companies, it was much more than that.
Young Americans everywhere can go to YouTube and watch more than four hours of video recorded of “Starman” as he drifted through space looking down at our planet.
The extraordinary video from this car orbiting Earth makes clear to every young person in America that having a career in the space industry – even actually going to space – is as real, tangible, and achievable as becoming a dentist, a lawyer, a civil engineer, or any other job that requires focus and hard work.
In this way, this so-called stunt could help inspire young Americans across the country to pursue math, engineering, aeronautics, and astronomy the same way the Apollo program inspired a generation of Americans in the 1960s.
As the Tesla passes Mars in its elliptical orbit between Earth and the red planet, there may be more images and footage to come.
This is perhaps the most important aspect of SpaceX’s successful launch. After the Apollo missions, as a country, we slowly lost our excitement over the wonder of space travel. Now landing on the moon has become ancient history. If we fail to continuously inspire, teach, and excite America’s youth, this regressive cycle could repeat itself.
The National Space Council – and all Americans – should consider what President Trump said when he reinstated the National Space Council: “We will inspire millions of children to carry on this proud tradition of American space leadership … and to never stop wondering, hoping, and dreaming about what lies beyond the stars."
The National Space Council must build on the excitement of the Falcon Heavy launch – and help make sure America wins this new space race.