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SpaceX Boldly Looks to Blast ‘Millions of People to Mars’

May 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With the space shuttle era now over and U.S. space flight on the verge of going private for the near future, the company behind the so-called SpaceX project has ambitious plans to make space flight cheaper for cargo and for humans, with a bold idea to send millions of people to Mars. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: With the shuttle era over, American spaceflight is on the verge of going private for the immediate future. This week, the company behind the so-called SpaceX project announced another delay in its planned launch of a commercial cargo capsule. Liftoff was tentatively scheduled for this coming Monday, and the project is months behind its original schedule.

But its creator and engineers remain undaunted about their plans and their ambitions.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has our report.

MILES O’BRIEN: At the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California, they are going boldly where no small company has ever gone before, building spacecraft that are meant to open up the final frontier in ways that are hard to fathom, unless you are Elon Musk.

ELON MUSK, CEO, SpaceX: I’m talking about sending ultimately tens of thousands, eventually millions of people to Mars and then going out there and exploring the stars.

MILES O’BRIEN: Musk is the CEO and chief technology officer of 10-year-old Space Exploration Technologies, as it is more formally known.

He has staked $100 million of the fortune he made founding PayPal to pursue a lofty goal: to make access to space an order of magnitude cheaper than it is right now.

Is there any doubt in your mind that this is the way NASA and the country should go as it looks towards the future in space?

ELON MUSK: No, not all. This is — it’s not — this is not a path; it’s the only path that will succeed. If this doesn’t succeed, nothing will.

MILES O’BRIEN: The path to Musk’s bold vision is now taking him to the International Space Station. This Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral is slated to launch a Dragon capsule to the station, where SpaceX hopes it can safely orbit in close formation and then, if all goes well, berth, delivering a load of food, water and clothing, and then about two weeks later return to Earth.

It sounds pretty routine, but this is a mission like no other in the history of space exploration. SpaceX is building rockets for NASA like Boeing would build an airplane for an airline. The space agency is not directly involved in the process. It is an arms-length/fixed-price contract.

But why make this change?

LORI GARVER, deputy administrator, NASA: There isn’t that much new or unknown about launching to low-Earth orbit anymore. We have been doing it for 50 years, and NASA wants to do those cutting-edge things that are all about pushing the envelope farther. So it’s only natural that those things we have done for 50 years should be taken over by the private sector.

MILES O’BRIEN: Lori Garver is NASA’s deputy administrator, and its most vocal advocate for changing the way the agency does business in low-Earth orbit now that the space shuttles are prized museum pieces.

A lot of people view it as a retreat. What do you say to them?

LORI GARVER: The opposite is true. This is not a retreat. In fact, this is acknowledging this is something that we have been doing forever, and we need to push that boundary farther. A retreat would be doing the same thing over and over.

MILES O’BRIEN: SpaceX is one of a handful of companies with contracts to fly missions to the space station under NASA’s $1 billion Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

All right. So, what do we have here?

GWYNNE SHOTWELL, SpaceX: So, what were looking at here, Miles, is mission control. This is where we operate Dragon from.

MILES O’BRIEN: Gwynne Shotwell, the president at SpaceX, walked me through the factory. Here, they are aiming for the Holy Grail, a fully and rapidly reusable rocket. It would revolutionize access to space.

GWYNNE SHOTWELL: These engines actually are reusable.

MILES O’BRIEN: They are? How many flights can you get?

GWYNNE SHOTWELL: I know we have tested to 20.

MILES O’BRIEN: Those engines are built here from scratch, and that is typical. More than two-thirds of Falcon and Dragon parts are milled, made and mated right here.

ELON MUSK: We’re trying to push the state-of-the-art technology. So, if we use suppliers that are just producing the old technology, then we’re not going to have a revolutionary rocket.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Falcon/Dragon combination is obviously much simpler than a space shuttle, no wings, wheels, or cargo compartments.

MAN: Liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis.

MILES O’BRIEN: The cost of launching anything into space on a shuttle was about $10,000 a pound. Musk believes he can drive that number down below a $1,000.

Veteran space journalist Steven Young believes Musk can do it.

STEVEN YOUNG, Spaceflight Now: I think going back to something a little more basic, sort of capsule that SpaceX is going to fly, will reduce costs dramatically and open up a lot more opportunities for research in orbit.

MILES O’BRIEN: But hauling underwear and food to the space station is one thing; flying astronauts is another, and SpaceX wants to start doing that by 2015. Turns out they have been thinking about flying humans from the outset.

GWYNNE SHOTWELL: That’s why the Falcon 9 was designed with much higher factors of safety, more than the standard expendable launch vehicle.

MILES O’BRIEN: Unlike the shuttle, the man-rated Dragon will be equipped with a crew escape system. And the capsule sits on top of the stack, upstream of any falling debris, the cause of the loss of Columbia and her crew in 2003.

The accident triggered then President George Bush to announce the shuttles would be retired after the space station was complete. Mr. Bush proposed a new program called Constellation that would aim for a return to the moon. But the Bush White House never delivered the promised funding, so President Obama canceled stillborn Constellation, and now all that remains of the program is this, a capsule called Orion being built and tested by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

JOHN KARAS, Lockheed Martin: So these would be where propellant tanks would go. So you have the actual attach points on the vehicle, but these would simulate the mass and the position of a propellant tank.

MILES O’BRIEN: John Karas is vice president and general manager of human spaceflight here. Lockheed Martin and NASA are building Orion the old-fashioned way, meaning the government pays for all the costs, and all the changes, plus a guaranteed fee to the contractor.

The testing is exhaustive to what engineers call the corners of the flight envelope, meaning the absolute edge of a vehicle’s capability.

JOHN KARAS: You can rest assured that, on a NASA-driven human spaceflight exploration program, we will test in all the corners. Right?

MILES O’BRIEN: So it’s — this is what cost-plus is all about, isn’t it, doing — when you have to do all this, right?

JOHN KARAS: Exactly right.

MILES O’BRIEN: Everyone agrees sending humans to space will never get cheaper if this remains the approach.

MAN: That went like clockwork, from what I could see.

MILES O’BRIEN: But the old guard is leery of retooling. Having a commercial player just build a rocket and you use it or not, like it or not, you don’t see that as inherently more risky?

JOHN KARAS: So, I think it is inherently more risky. Now, the question is, what risk tolerance are you willing to take? And I don’t think that question has been answered yet, and I think it’s going to take a while, and it’s going to be some trial and error, just like in the airline industry, where what’s your level of tolerance to go build the airplanes, and how much — what do you think the revenues are?

MILES O’BRIEN: Orion is designed to take up seven astronauts to low-Earth orbit and beyond, but where? The destination has changed repeatedly.

It was going to be a lifeboat for the space station. It was going to take crew to the station. It was going to go to the moon at one point. Then it was going to go to Mars, and now it might go to an asteroid. Is this really the way to build a space program?

JOHN KARAS: Well, no.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN KARAS: No. Is it any way to run a railroad? No. Okay.

MILES O’BRIEN: And the political and budgetary winds keep shifting. When the Obama administration canceled the family of rockets that would have lofted Orion into space under the Constellation scheme, Congress got into the act.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on Columbia in 1986 with current NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden, insisted the agency build a heavy-lift rocket that uses shuttle-derived components, again, with no clear destination in mind.

Is it a rocket to nowhere?

SEN. BILL NELSON, D-Fla.: It’s a rocket to Mars. That’s the goal. The president has said that’s the goal, and that’s where we’re going.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, maybe one day. The president did say that when he announced the cancellation of Constellation, but NASA doesn’t have the money for a Mars program. Still, Nelson says the space agency is doing relatively well.

SEN. BILL NELSON: First of all, look at NASA compared to other agencies of the federal government. NASA is being treated very well. NASA is basically being flatlined.

MILES O’BRIEN: So the agency is left with Orion and an underfunded idea for a big rocket that could take humans to Mars, but no concrete plans to do so. When or if it will ever fly is anyone’s guess.

What is NASA’s goal right now? Do we know?

STEVEN YOUNG: That’s a very good question. I think that’s the fundamental problem. I think, for the first time in the space agency’s history, its mission is very uncertain. There is no clear direction.

MILES O’BRIEN: Which brings us back to SpaceX, and the launchpad right next to the place where the shuttles left Earth for three decades. It is a lean, clean operation, filled with a lot of people like launch engineer Mike Sheehan, the boss at the tender age of 28.

This whole first part, first stage, is this all reusable?

MIKE SHEEHAN, launch engineer, SpaceX: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: So that will be — this will be fished out of the Atlantic?

MIKE SHEEHAN: This one won’t, no.

MILES O’BRIEN: This one — but in the future, it will? Is that the — is that the plan or. . .

MIKE SHEEHAN: Yes, yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Okay.

It’s not unlike NASA in the 1960s. Could this be a changing of the old guard?

Are we at an inflection point where that’s changing?

ELON MUSK: Yes, I think we really are at an inflection point where space is increasingly driven by the private sector. Government still has a very important role to play, but it’s going to be a greater and greater percentage of private enterprise.

MILES O’BRIEN: SpaceX has flown Falcon 9 to orbit twice before with great success, but this will be the maiden voyage for a fully equipped Dragon capsule and the first attempt to reach the space station. The SpaceX team is dotting I’s and crossing T’s, but in this case, the goal is not to ensure success at all costs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s Science Thursday on our website. There, you can take a test to see if you know more than a 10th grader about climate change. That’s on our Science page.