If nothing else, Elon Musk, the mastermind behind Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX, knows how to get attention. Recently, he made headlines when he revealed that next year SpaceX, the private space exploration company he founded in 2002, intends to fly two paying customers on a mission that would travel to the moon, orbit the moon without landing, and then return to land on Earth.
A private space company has never sent a manned mission into space. The main reason is obvious. No private space company has the history needed to guarantee the safety of the passengers, whether they are astronauts or, in the case of SpaceX’s proposed mission, mega-wealthy customers.
Indeed, SpaceX has a particularly troubling record, at least when it comes to mission failure. Consider SpaceX’s early attempts at flight. In 2006, with its very first mission, the rocket blew up 33 seconds after take off. The next year, the rocket lasted longer, but the flight failed when the engine shut down prematurely. And in 2008, a SpaceX rocket crashed into the ocean while carrying a NASA payload, the first the government had trusted with SpaceX.
After that, amid chronic scheduling delays, SpaceX did manage 20 successful launches into space. That’s not to say SpaceX didn’t encounter safety issues during this time. In April 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company for three safety violations, including one that stemmed from an incident on a SpaceX facility in Texas where an employee transporting material fell to his death from a moving truck.
Then, on June 28, 2015, SpaceX launched a rocket bound for the International Space Station that included as part of its payload 4,000 pounds of supplies badly needed by the astronauts living there and a docking station that, once installed, would allow “space taxis” to visit the station. But two minutes into this vitally important mission, the rocket exploded, destroying everything.
It was some weeks before SpaceX resumed flights, but in December it successfully shot a rocket into space and returned it to land intact on Earth for the first time. It was not the first time SpaceX had attempted the feat. Earlier, in January, the first attempt to launch and land a Falcon 9 rocket ended in a crash landing. In April, another attempt, another failure. However, there was no denying that the successful execution of the launch-and-land in December bode well for reusing rockets. That accomplishment was achieved last week with another launch-and-land, this one using a recycled rocket for the first time.
But before that, back in 2016, there was more failure. The year had seen eight successful launches; then, on the morning of September 1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, while it sat on the launch pad undergoing preflight testing for a mission scheduled for that weekend, the Falcon 9 blew up. The explosion destroyed its entire payload, including a $100 million Facebook satellite intended to be launched into orbit.
While SpaceX chalked up a checkered history, its competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), charted a different course. ULA was formed in December 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, after NASA advised the two major defense contractors that, at least on space projects, it would be in their best interest to work with, not against, each other. So far, that’s proven to be true. To date, while enjoying lucrative funding from the government, ULA has executed more than 100 launches, flying missions for NASA as well as the U.S. military. Throughout all of these missions, ULA has maintained a flawless safety record. It has never suffered a single mishap.
However, problems have emerged. Because ULA’s main rocket, the Atlas, uses a Russian RD 180 engine and sanctions prevent U.S. companies from doing business with Russia, some members of Congress have started to second-guess funding projects submitted by ULA. Moreover, SpaceX is much cheaper than ULA. While the lowest cost of a rocket made by ULA is $125 million, SpaceX charges about half that for its Falcon 9 — $61.2 million. But ULA is attempting to address both of these concerns with the development of a new rocket named Vulcan, ready in 2019, which will feature a dramatically lower price than the Atlas and an American-made engine.
That will return the focus to safety. “The bottom line on SpaceX’s track record,” Forbes has observed, “is that it’s simply too soon to say if the company can be a safe and reliable provider of launch services in the way that traditional providers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are… Thus for all its achievements, SpaceX is an unproven supplier with a risky business strategy.”
One thing is for sure. The company is not ready to undertake manned missions. Or as one space expert recently said: “I think the chances of the SpaceX mission around the moon [happening are] tiny, but I would not fly on that mission if you paid me a billion dollars.”