Sorry guys that I haven’t been phenominally talkative the last couple of days. I did have some more thoughts I wanted to interject regarding the L-1 and Aerobraking discussions, but I’ve been swamped at work. If Clark Lindsey, Alan Boyle, and the others I’ve heard from are right, the Centennial Challenges office will be announcing the rules on their Lunar Lander Analog competition that they want to do at the X-Prize Expo this year, and I’ve been trying to both get my stuff done for XA-0.1, while at the same time figuring out how to scale up the vehicle depending on how high they set the bar for this competition. We won’t know for sure any sooner than the rest of you, but if the number looks like something we can pull-off by October, my life is going to get even more busy than it’s been.
With that aside…I just wanted to briefly comment on a recent SpaceX related blog post over at Ambivalent Engineer: Why Merlin 2? While Iain didn’t make the exact point I wanted to make, he did come pretty close. I’m a huge fan of SpaceX (in case this is the first post of mine about them that you’ve read), that said, I’ve had a hard time figuring out why on earth they would want to try and build a commercial Saturn V class vehicle. Seriously, where is the market for that? Do they really think they’ll be able to convince NASA fire off all of those welfare case…erm…shuttle engineers, and buy from them when instead NASA could keep bribing dozens of congresscritters with jobs in their districts? More importantly, with how costly the rest of their infrastructure is looking like it will be, does he really think he’ll get enough of a flight rate out of his BFR to justify the added infrastructure and development costs he’s going to run into?
I honestly think that Elon, his current and future investors, and the rest of the industry would be better served if SpaceX actually decided to focus more on what it’s name claims it should be focusing on: Space Exploration Technologies. LEO access is an important part of such things, and I think that fully reusable (not just refurbishable) LEO access is going to be critical if we ever want to do more than just putz around in space, but mere access to LEO is only part of the equation. There are other technologies out there that if they were able to develop would greatly increase the value of their earlier investments.
How much more valuable would the Falcon series be if they also had the IP (and flight hardware) for doing rendezvous and docking, on-orbit propellant transfer and storage, precision partial aerobraking, etc? If they focused a little bit of their effort on continually improving the reusability and flight rate potential of their Falcon vehicles, while at the same time adding those other capabilities, I think they’d be far better off than if they spent hundreds of millions chasing Ultra Heavy Lift. Incremental improvements like going to regen cooled Merlins, upping their thrust a little, maybe eventually going for powered landing (either flyback booster style, or with a powered VL trick-out kit), figuring out how to reuse their upper stages, etc.
Merlin 2 and the BFR just really don’t seem to make a lot of business sense to me. Though I don’t know, Elon does have a couple hundred million more pieces of evidence to back up his claim to good business sense than I do to back up my own. Maybe I’m just missing something, or just being a Cassandra, but I really feel that SpaceX’s love afair with the BFR may be their undoing.