Elon Musk, SpaceX are the future of space exploration

Elon Musk's critics have come out of the woodwork because President Obama's NASA budget favors private rocket companies over traditional and expensive NASA space flight programs. Are Musk and SpaceX, the company he founded, qualified to hurl astronauts into space? I think so.
Written by John Dodge, Contributor

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk deserves a chance to put his money where his mouth is.

SpaceX's tenacious founder and CEO Elon Musk is emerging as a de facto lead spokesman for the commercial space industry in the latest war of words with politicians and former NASA poobahs. SpaceX's Falcon rockets are leading the way for private enterprise to take over what NASA has long done so expensively and unsafely at times, one could argue.

Elon Musk. credit: Wired.com

My sense is Musk's critics are looking the rear view mirror while he's peering straight into the future. Those same critics came out in droves earlier this month when it became clear  President Obama's NASA budget for fiscal 2011 favors private operators over hugely expensive government space flight programs.

SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion with NASA, but that could grow into a $6 billion pact under Obama's budget.

Musk claims SpaceX can safely deliver astronauts to the International Space Station for $20 million per seat and that he'll be able to do it within three years. That's mighty attractive compared to the $450 million cost for each space shuttle mission not to mention the $1.7 billion pricetag to build a Space Shuttle orbiter (those are NASA's numbers!).

So those with something to lose have circled the wagons. Change is hard, isn't it?  Consider the entrenched and vested interests:

-- Sen. Richard Shelby, reacting to NASA jobs that will lost in his home state of Alabama from cancellation of the Constellation program under President Obama's NASA budget:

"We cannot continue to coddle the dreams of rocket hobbyists and so-called `commercial' providers who claim the future of U.S. human space flight can be achieved faster and cheaper than Constellation," he said in a press statement.

What is space exploration if it isn't about dreams?

-- Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin on the cancellation of his baby, the Constellation moon and mars program:

Mike Griffin

"I'm one of the biggest proponents of commercial spaceflight, but it doesn't yet exist. I would like an enlightened government policy to help bring it about, but I don't believe you get there by destroying all your government capability so there's no option but for the government to do whatever necessary to get the - quote - commercial operators - unquote - to succeed. That's not the way to do it," he told CBS News.

Is that to say it has to cost $450 million every time we fire a Space Shuttle into orbit?

--The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel headed by Ret. Vice Admiral Joe Dyer concluded in January that private companies like SpaceX do not meet safety standards to carry crews.

No one is saying SpaceX should not be held to highest safety standards. And maybe the conclusions of Dyer's panel are correct, but that can change. Keeping NASA's budget flat required some tough decisions and budget-cutting.

The New York Times asked in a story on Feb. 15 whether Musk should run NASA's human flight program. And while the story objectively presented legitimate arguments on both sides, it never really answered its own question. Well, I will with a question of my own. Why not?

Perhaps, X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis put it best in a Discovery Channel story:

"We don't fly on U.S. Air Government. We fly on Southwest and JetBlue."

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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