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Seconds out for the space fight of the century

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What carries more political clout - boots on Mars or jobs on Earth?

SpaceX already has a slice of the commercial-cargo deal, and is preparing its "Dragon" capsule to try for more business lifting astronauts to the ISS - and unrelated work for other global customers. After some initial hiccups with the small Falcon 1 rocket, the subsequent and bigger Falcon 9 (which uses the same proprietary "Merlin" engine and could carry the Dragon) flew successfully to orbit on the first try.

Setting aside arguments over whether SpaceX's rockets are genuinely reliable and safe enough to lift people, there can't be much doubt that they could do so far more cheaply than ones made using older tech by the much bigger (and so more expensive) workforces of Boeing, Lockheed, their joint ventures United Launch Alliance and United Space Alliance etc.

Had Obama pressed ahead with a new heavy-lift NASA rocket straight away, SpaceX could never have been a contender. But five years down the road, with experience flying the Falcon 9, the Dragon and perhaps the bigger Falcon 9 Heavy under its belt, NASA might be forced to accept SpaceX as a genuine rival to its established providers.

In April, Obama said:

In developing this new vehicle [in 2015] we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies.

At the time, there were no known hundred-tonne-plus heavy designs based on new technology, though we on the Reg rocket desk did note that Obama had lately been spending time chatting to Elon Musk - much to the chagrin of Boeing, to name just one of Musk's rivals. Subsequently it turned out that SpaceX actually has more than just the 30-tonne Falcon 9 Heavy on its drawing board: the upstart firm is working on a new "Raptor" engine - still using economical rocketgrade kerosene rather than Shuttle style cryogenic hydrogen - to power mighty Saturn V-sized "Falcon X" rockets.

For now, such grandiose plans are effectively dreams. But in 2015, with SpaceX potentially able to point to a successful few years lifting stuff and people to the ISS - plus a Raptor engine good to go - the Falcon X or XX might well look better to the US taxpayers and the new President than comparatively pricey offerings from the established players. It might, if Musk and his team can deliver on their gutsy promises, mean that politically realistic levels of funding could indeed send Americans to the asteroids and then on to Mars.

But the Falcon X or XX - designed from the outset to be operated by smaller numbers of people - might not look quite so good to NASA employees: the more so after a few years of "commercial crew" operations, which would cut a lot of NASA job slots out of the launching process. Falcon X/XX wouldn't look good to the massive US rocket industry of today, either. The extra reach into space would effectively be paid for by job losses at NASA and the rocket titans.

That in turn would mean heavy opposition on Capitol Hill as well as at NASA headquarters. President Obama has shown some willingness to face such opposition down, though he will no doubt have found the prospect of postponing serious spending attractive also.

But there's no guarantee that Obama will even be in the White House in 2015. Whether it's him or someone else, that future President would surely have a massive fight on his hands should he or she choose to gut the existing NASA launch infrastructure and rocket industry in favour of a 1,000-employee Californian company deploying almost brand-new technology.

So it would seem that even if Musk can build his rockets, he may have trouble getting NASA to buy them. SpaceX's battle against NASA, Boeing, Lockheed and the rest over the next few years looks set to be a fight worth watching. ®

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