SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently celebrated his Starship rocket prototype’s high-altitude flight, stating it was “an awesome test,” and his team gathered useful data toward their attempt to lead humanity to Mars. His claim of victory may seem surprising to casual observers since the test ended in a gargantuan fireball.
After the explosion, Musk tweeted, “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”
As a taxpayer watchdog, this is a big head-scratcher for me.
Starship isn’t a play toy for the world’s second-richest person. It’s very much a part of NASA’s plans for manned exploration of the solar system. It has even received public funding, including a $53 million testing contract in October.
This May, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the prototype would receive public funding despite facing some setbacks. Space Flight Now reported at the time that Starship “violently exploded in South Texas moments after a test-firing of its Raptor engine.”
In response to that May Starship explosion, Bridenstine said, “People are going to look at this and say, ‘My goodness, we just saw Starship blow up again. Why are you giving them a contract?’ The answer is because SpaceX is really good at iteratively testing and fixing.”
Given that an updated version of Starship is now strewn across the Gulf of Mexico in millions of pieces, SpaceX doesn’t appear to have gotten a whole lot better in the testing and fixing department.
Bridenstine has changed his tune and now appears disillusioned with Musk, SpaceX, and the questionable use of tax dollars, as well.
In advance of Musk revealing his latest plans for his next-generation Starship, the NASA administrator insinuated via Twitter that SpaceX should instead correct the operational shortfalls of its other NASA-funded ventures that are “years behind schedule.” He went on to write that “NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investment of the American taxpayer” and that “it’s time to deliver.”
SpaceX continues to receive additional public funding. All that money has seemingly led to complacency in the company when it comes to product reliability.
That’s not to say that the company shouldn’t be able to compete for government contracts in the public sector-heavy space industry. NASA needs to welcome every competitor to the marketplace, but it also needs to recognize the flaws and limitations of contractors and consider that when doling out millions of Americans’ hard-earned dollars.
Bridenstine’s September 2019 comments demonstrate that NASA knows SpaceX often bites off more than it can chew. There’s nothing wrong with a corporation being ambitious and seeking to achieve greatness. However, it’s NASA’s job to play the role of the adult, imposing government funding limitations on those ambitions so the taxpayers don’t continue to receive big explosions and worthless rubble for their investments.
Musk has a net worth of more than $153 billion. He doesn’t need struggling taxpayers to fund his side projects. If NASA will tell him “no” once in a while, Musk will fund his aspirations privately – spending money more responsibly in the process. The country and the future of human space exploration will be better off as a result.
Drew Johnson is a taxpayer watchdog who serves as a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.