The Newnan Times-Herald

Opinion

Sometimes saving money is rocket science


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Apr. 19, 2017 - 12:57 AM

It's ironic Elon Musk, one of America's premier subsidy farmers, is also a perfect example of the difference between the private sector and the government when it comes to cost. Musk differs from earlier entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford who became wealthy by building a better mousetrap. Musk became wealthy by harvesting government subsidies.

The LA Times ran the numbers and Musk's Tesla Motors, SolarCity Corp and SpaceX "have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support."

The one company that isn't a subsidy vacuum is where Musk wields a sharp pencil. SpaceX has received a paltry $15 million in subsidies and much of that came from Texas when it built a launch pad. Sure Musk has $5.5 billion in government contracts with NASA and the Air Force, but he has to perform to get the money.

Musk's lesson is his approach to recycling. When NASA was king, boosters were fire and forget. That works fine with a mortar, but applied to sending men to the moon, costs add up fast.

Reusing boosters would have saved money, but the suggestion was viewed as crazy talk. For the bureaucrat, reusing boosters is all cost and no benefit. There are no awards in the federal service for saving money. Someone looking to spend less is not a team player, since leftover money in the budget means Congress won't give the agency as much next year.

That's why SpaceX's March 30 launch was such a milestone. It successfully launched a communication satellite into Earth orbit perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket with a first stage that had already been launched once and recovered.

Ray Lugo, who directed NASA science missions, told Florida Today, "It's potentially a big cost-saver, and it will make a difference, provided you can re-fly multiple times. If this works, over the long term it will be difficult for anyone that throws boosters away to compete."

At least as far as SpaceX is concerned, Musk is now a money-saving fool. That launch also saw a first-time recovery of the nose cone. Musk evidently had to fight NASA thinking. According to the Daily Mail, Musk ordered his engineering team to make the attempt, "Imagine you had $6 million in cash on a pallet flying through the air that's just going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, you would."

This is what competition does. Musk launches now have a cost advantage over those of Jeff Bezos, who has yet to recover a booster. Another former NASA administrator estimates SpaceX can cut 75 percent of the cost of a rocket by reusing boosters.

Musk is already offering launch discounts to customers who opt for recycled boosters.

His goal is for each booster to be used between 10 and 100 times, with an additional goal of being ready to launch after a one-day turn around. That's three times better than the turnaround time of an F-35, which under Pentagon management requires three days between sorties.

The case against privatization is always put in terms of there are just some things that only government can do, like space flight. Only, our government isn't doing space flight anymore, because it priced itself out of the market.

It's not rocket science to conclude if the market can bring down the cost of space travel, it can certainly bring down the cost of health insurance.

(Michael Shannon is the author of "A Conservative Christian's Guidebook for Living in Secular Times." He can be reached at mandate.mmpr@gmail.com )