CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —Early this month, a private company called SpaceX launched an unmanned version of its Dragon capsule into orbit, took it for a few spins around Earth, and then brought it home with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The total cost — including design, manufacture, testing and launch of the company's Falcon 9 rocket and the capsule — was roughly $800 million.
In the world of government spaceflight, that's almost a rounding error. And the ability of SpaceX to do so much with so little money is raising some serious questions about NASA.
The agency that once stood for American technical wizardry is seriously starting to lose its luster. Already Brevard County high school students are talking in bowling alleys over orders of cheese fries about wanting to go work for SpaceX, not the agency that 40 years ago put Americans on the moon.
Inside NASA, some employees have taken to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the letters "WWED," which stands for "What Would Elon Do?" —a reference to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the Internet tycoon who invested his own fortune in pursuit of his dream of sending humans into space at affordable prices.
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It's that lack of affordability that is killing NASA, experts say.
Aerospace-industry executives, NASA contractors and employees all warn that unless the storied agency can become leaner and more efficient in an era of shrinking federal budgets, it could find itself becoming a historical footnote.
"NASA and industry need to partner together to change our approach," says Jim Maser, the president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which has designed virtually every rocket engine used by NASA since the dawn of the space program.
Over the past six years, NASA has spent nearly $10 billion on the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule — its own version more or less of what SpaceX has launched — and come up with little more than cost overruns and technical woes. In October, Congress scrapped the Constellation moon program and ordered the agency to start over to design a rocket and capsule capable of taking humans to explore the solar system.
Maser warns that, without reforms, NASA will simply repeat the Constellation experience.
"Given that we are not going to get the budget increase that was hoped for under Constellation, given that (the budget) is going to be relatively flat with a still-aggressive agenda, if NASA and industry continue to do business in the traditional manner, I don't think NASA's charter will be fulfilled," he said.
But until recently, Maser said, NASA has rejected his proposals of new efficiencies that would lower Pratt & Whitney's costs to the agency. Part of the reason, Maser and others said, is many agency officials know no other way, and part is because officials worry that change could introduce more risk into the already dangerous business of spaceflight.
But there are signs that NASA realizes that it must do things differently.
Perhaps the greatest test case is the Orion spacecraft. Unlike Dragon, which cost SpaceX a few hundred million dollars to design, build and fly, Orion has so far cost $4.8 billion and is not likely to fly for at least another three years — and an additional $1.2 billion.
Orion's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., has long complained that unnecessary levels of NASA oversight drive up costs and has pleaded with the agency to cut down on required paperwork.
Now, according to Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion program manager, the agency is relenting, scaling back layers of supervision and looking at other ways to cut costs.
Geyer said scaling back on layers of supervision has allowed NASA to cut Orion's overhead budget by 70 percent and allowed Lockheed to cut some of its costs by as much as 47 percent. The money saved, Geyer said, has been invested back into making electronics for Orion.
The question is whether that's enough to enable NASA to compete with Dragon and other commercial companies out on the horizon.