Space Cheese and Other Breakthroughs

Good news from SpaceX as NASA struggles to make room for private space companies.

If you had been onboard the Dragon capsule last week as it was launched into orbit and then quickly retrieved after a Pacific Ocean splashdown, you would have enjoyed “a very nice ride” according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk. But the occupants of this test flight—the first successful launch and recovery of a pressurized capsule by a commercial space company—were limited to some ballast weights, souvenirs for the crew, and this wheel of Le Brouère cheese. The cheese was sent along as a Monty Python joke. NASA took cheese into space long ago, of course. It looks like this now.

The success of SpaceX’s venture comes just after the conclusion of a debate within government about how to handle the future of space. With the final flight of the U.S. shuttle fleet set for 2011, a new way of doing business in low earth orbit is evolving.

But Congress—and congressional Republicans in particular—have caused some serious launch delays in getting government out of this area of space business. President Barack Obama’s administration proposed a significant shift of funding for day-to-day work toward the private sector last fall, keeping NASA focused on more pie-in-the-sky exploratory missions (so to speak).

Congress resisted the idea. Patriotism and the nobility of the ongoing American commitment to space were much discussed on the floor and in the press. But much of the opposition to scaling back certain parts of the Bush-era Constellation program, which aimed to send astronauts back to the moon and otherwise recapture faded glory, came from members who just happened to have facilities manufacturing or researching those parts in their districts. Members from Utah, in particular, have been keen to make sure that their carefully-crafted bargains to keep heavy-lift rocket building capacity in their state alive are enforced by NASA and the Obama administration.

Space journalist Rand Simberg writes that “any rational analysis, based on SpaceX’s costs to date, would indicate that they are less than a billion dollars away” from a capsule that will carry humans into orbit and back. A billion dollars is still a lot of money to you and me, but it’s nothing in space dollars.

As the U.K.-based Rocketeer blog points out: “The total cost to the US taxpayer for the entire Falcon-9/Dragon development programme to date is in the region of $260 million, or approximately one quarter of the cost of one shuttle flight.” In other words, SpaceX is the cost of one shuttle flight away from being able to provide commercial space services to anyone who wants them. A big customer will be NASA of course, but there are quite a few others out there who want to get to space for fun or for business, including the folks at Bigelow Aerospace who are building a space hotel/space station.

In a few months, the Dragon will be back in space, kitted out with some sharp new solar panels and a more ambitious agenda. Congressmen may be defending their funding turf, but that doesn’t mean views on the role of private providers of space services aren’t changing. “The legislation was being worked out and refined before the SpaceX launch,” says NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Change is hard, and what happened was a pretty big deal for the first year of this being proposed.” She notes that areas with existing NASA-funded facilities stand to gain the most from increased private commercial activity and that existing BigSpace contractors are warming to the idea of more private sector funding—two thoughts that should soothe anxious congressmen. The “private sector makes decisions for smart reasons,” she says, noting that new entrants to the field will seek out places with expertise and workers familiar with the industry.

After much bipartisan and administration celebration of the SpaceX launch, Space Frontier Foundation Executive Director Will Watson said: "NASA is right to celebrate this achievement, as it further proves that their bet on commercial industry as their new partners is going to pay off. American companies can do amazing things when government offers them the chance to perform, rather than trying to compete with them."

But at least for now, government hasn’t bowed out of the competition. Despite the administration's best efforts, Congress chose to continue efforts to build a competitor to SpaceX’s Dragon, restoring funding for a multipurpose crew vehicle into the legislation. Garver says the vehicles are complementary, but also notes that the legislation positions the Orion—which is supposed to be capable of longer-range missions than capsules like the Dragon and will perhaps use some of those Utah rockets—as a “backup.” The vehicle isn’t as far along as SpaceX, and has already cost over an order of magnitude more than the total cost of developing the Dragon.

If there was a single flaw in the Dragon launch, it was that everyone involved seemed shocked by how well it went. Pessimism and skepticism are admirable traits in engineers, for the most part. But Musk, one of the biggest personalities in the commercial space universe, said he was in a state of “semi-shock” after the mission. “I wish I was more articulate,” he said, “but it’s hard to be articulate when your mind’s blown.”

It’s an old saw that an extravagant touchdown dance implies to your opponents you are surprised to find yourself in the endzone. Granted, what SpaceX did last week was an important first. But NASA and other customers will only be ready to load their people into SpaceX’s capsules when no one declares themselves semi-shocked by success anymore.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Satisfied now, ProL?

  • ||

    Beat me to it.

  • ||

    I'm surprised this post isn't dedicated to me. I suppose they're still upset about that blink tag thingee.

  • Pip||

    I'm surprised they didn't dedicate it to Anal Vannenman.

  • ||

    He's quite popular among the help.

  • ||

    As both a Libertarian and a space exploration buff I have commented from time to time that NASA needs to be privatized and free from shaky government funding and interference. It's the only practical way for America to stay on top in this field.

  • omg||


  • Brett L||

    Somalia in space!!1!!

  • Matt||

    Exactly. Not only that, there's nothing in the constitution about NASA.

  • ||

    Or the Coast Guard.
    Fuck them Coast Guard motherfuckers!

  • Matrix||

    Well, the Coast Guard falls under the Dept of the Navy in times of war. So, in essence, it is constitutional. But the Air Force, as a completely independent mil branch is not since it's separation from the Dept of Army in 1947

  • I for one welcome||

    Behold the awesome power of space cheese! Take that, happy cows!

  • alan||

    It's here!

    Hey, Epi, any sign of your troll today? It is 'bout that time!

  • ||

    I'm sure the stalker is very busy cutting the eyes out of photographs and torturing squirrels.

  • EJM||

    The cheese was sent along as a Monty Python joke.

    Next time, for those who prefer SCTV, there should be a copy of "Murder in the Cathedral"--or perhaps something Merv-related.

  • ||

    I don't know if any H&R readers have posted this news yet, but Don Van Vleit, aka Captain Beefheart has died.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Mr. DNA, if you haven't already, refresh the main blog page.

  • ||

    Hey, I heard about this somewhere.

    I can't wait for the upcoming Dragon tests (including an unmanned docking with the ISS), and the first manned flight will be a major milestone, but the real exciting moment will be when some private actor--maybe Bigelow--commissions a Dragon launch for purely private reasons. Better yet, I hope that some of the other New Space outfits jump in with their alternative methods for getting into orbit. Heavy lift, small rockets, space elevators, whatever.

    About time we got off this rock and got down--or up--to business.

  • ||

    Launch Loop, baby.

  • ||

    Rail gun.

  • Atanarjuat||

    heavy lift propellant depot


  • ||

    Excellent choice.

  • Atanarjuat||

    I'd love to leaf through Bigelow's and Musk's files of long term ideas given that both have mentioned Mars as a goal.

  • Horny for Space||

    I wasn't semi-shocked, but I certainly got a semi.

  • El Duderino||

    Rocket Humor. . . Nice

  • Old Mexican||

    But... but... but space is public!

    And... and... and government builds roads! Roads, I tell you, roads!

  • ||

    Just wait until access to orbit gets cheap. Things are going to get really weird for governments. Internet weird.

  • ||

    Say you trade a product internationally. By launching from your home country, and landing in the customers country, you could avoid trade barriers. Until your gov't sets up shop outside your launchpad, at least.

  • ||

    Governments are going to be screwed when people start picking up and relocating to other worlds. Unless the government can either get you on the way back or get your assets, I don't think they'll have an easy time bossing us around in space.

    Not to suggest that evil space governments won't screw things up.

  • El Duderino||

    Maybe I will finally have a GPS that knows where the fuck I am...

  • || space!

    (cue Pigs in Space music)

  • ||


    The first man to step on Mars will jump off the lander, turn to the camera, and say, "I may be on Mars, but I'd rather have a Mars Bar." Or something like that. His lander will be belogoed like a NASCAR car. And he'll be there to scout a location for Mars Disney.

  • ||

    Because if corporate sponsorship will be involved in any way, we might as well just not do it? I'm not following how private space flight and sponsorship don't automatically go hand in hand. In a good way.

    I say put as many logos on as you can fit, without impairing the functionality of the vehicle. Hell, bring along a mascot suit and make the 1st step onto Mars as Mickey fucking Mouse.

    Whatever it takes to get the job done.

  • ||

    If you think for one moment that I was mocking the idea of sponsored and/or commercial flights, think again. Personally, I think commercial interests in space will blow the whole solar system wide open.

    I don't care if they go to Mars just to film a commercial for Bud Light. In fact, that might be a good thing, because Miller would then feel compelled to shoot a beer commercial on Europa.

  • BakedPenguin||

    They need to figure out some way to counter act the bone loss from low / zero gravity environments. I don't know if Sally Field can help.

  • ||

    From her commercials, I believe that she can. Clearly, space porn will only be a distant dream until this problem is solved.

  • alan||

    Reminds me, Greg Bear's All The Beer On Mars where the discovery of life on Mars just turned out to be yeast from a failed brewing experiment.

  • Brett L||

    Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" featured putting someone's logo on the moon.

  • ||

    I think he just used the threat to get money.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Miller would then feel compelled to shoot a beer commercial on Europa

    lol nice.

  • El Duderino||

    That just means more money to explore Mars with.

  • GroundTruth||

    Let's remember why Chris wanted to go west to the Indies.... to get rich. Same for Lief.... land and a warmer climate!

  • ||

    It would have been funnier if they had sent up a wheel of Venezuelan Beaver Cheese...

  • El Duderino||

    Or a brick of government cheese...

  • El Duderino||

    I used to like Star Trek until I came to the realization that the Federation was essentially the future version of the UN. There are enough subtle clues in Star Trek, especially Next Generation that hint of quasi socialistic and authoritarian systems being the only real way to explore space. Here is a hint: All of the privately owned ships in Star Trek are crappy heaps or Ferengi, which is Star Trek for "capitalist pig". All the good starships are from the Federation.

    Still, I like to watch Star Trek... Just wanted to put that out there lest I should be bombarded by blast of pure geek hate energy.

  • Realist||

  • El Duderino||

    Jonathan Hoenig rules.

  • Realist||

    But he does look like a Ferengi.

  • El Duderino||

    Oh absolutely.

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    Maybe I will finally have a GPS that knows where the fuck I am

    Check out CDGPS. Accurate to the centimeter and will be demonstrated in-orbit on our satellites between next October and December.

    Pro lib, what is your connection to the private space industry, or are you just a space buff? As of yesterday, I'm halfway through my master's in aerospace engineering.

  • ||

    I was born a poor space child.

    My dad worked on Apollo, so I got he bug about the same time I could speak. Ever since then, I've been a space junkie and a victim of my government's War on Space. But I think they may actually be decriminalizing manned spaceflight.

  • Chad||

    Your cheering because the private sector is only six decades behind the government?

    Get back to me when SpaceX is something more than cheese in the sky.

  • ||

    Yes, let's start the clock now and see how long before the fiendish private sector has a permanent presence on other bodies in the solar system. Here's betting it's something much shorter than half a century.

    Besides, who do you think built and builds all of the equipment?

  • El Duderino||

    Besides, who do you think built and builds all of the equipment?

    Exactly, and now that there is a profit motive, it might actually be possible to get into space without having to blow the entire GDP of the Republic Guinea-Bissau on every pop.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    By that time, you'll be dead of envy.

  • Off Topic||

    My favorite of the week. "Harry Pulls It".

  • Bob||

    To boldly go..... nowhere.

    In the 60's, we knew, without a doubt, that we could go anywhere, do anything.

    Last year 39% of the Federal budget went to entitlement programs while NASA got 0.026%. The 39% did not inspire children or contribute to any advances in science/technology while significant advances were made by the 0.026% investment in NASA.

    Thanks to Obama, by the end of this year, there will be no Shuttle, no Constellation spacecraft no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We're not talking about Mars or the moon here. We're talking about low-Earth orbit, which the United States has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.

    Obama's NASA budget perfectly captures the difference in spirit between Kennedy's liberalism and Obama's.

    Kennedy's was an expansive, bold, outward-looking summons. Obama's is a constricted, inward-looking call to retreat.

    Fifty years ago, Kennedy opened the New Frontier. Obama has just shut it.

  • Mike E||

    Do you know what website you are commenting on?

  • stewart||

    The phase-out of shuttle, without an existing replacement or way for the U.S. to put humans in space, was a deliberate plan set up by the Bush administration; Obama is to blame for many things, but this is not one of them. It has been obvious that an alternative to shuttle was needed since Jan.1986. No administration of either party has cared enough to make it happen, though they all talked pretty for the PR value. Decades wasted, and now we must hope the economy holds up long enough for Musk,, to put us firmly on the path.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    NASA is a sclerotic bureaucracy. Once the private sector takes over the research and development, I would consider shrinking it to 1/10 of the current size. On the other hand, money so saved would be probably spent on entitlements anyway.

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    How about mbt kisumu sandals this one: there are X driving deaths a year- what % of driving deaths (or serious injuries) involve alcohol, or other intoxicating substances? kisumu 2 People are pretty darn good drivers when they are not impaired.

  • jiusuan||



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