Payload volume: A quarter section of the 5.2-meter Falcon 9 fairing at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA, headquarters.
TR: Is there a reason NASA has not started working with you for crew capabilities?
TR: So does NASA need more government funding to exercise some of these capabilities?
LW: To a certain extent yes, but it is also a question of priorities: they have been spending a lot of money on the Ares-Orion, which is the next government system that should allow us to go back to the moon and Mars, and that system has been over budget. So it has been a question of spending money on that system or on commercial ventures. We are trying to develop a system that is mostly funded by the private sector–our founder and CEO put up the majority of the money to develop our capability–and we would like the government to be a big customer, but they are not our only customer. The government is not managing and running our program like they are with the space shuttle and the Ares-Orion. It is a different approach, but historically it has been a more efficient approach.
TR: How is your rocket designed, and how does it compare to Ares?
LW: What NASA is developing is really a completely different system. They are developing a system that is designed to support missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond. We have developed a system that will only have a small fraction of the capabilities of the Ares-Orion program. Therefore, the Ares-Orion is far overdesigned to go just to the space station, and we are far underdesigned to go to the moon.
What we have designed is similar to the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, and what [NASA] has developed is similar to the shuttle, but without the same amount of cargo capability in terms of mass, and without the winged design.
We developed a booster called the Falcon 9. On top of that booster, you can put large satellites, up to a five-meter fairing, or you can replace that fairing with a capsule called the Dragon. The Dragon is like a Gemini or Apollo capsule design, so it is a proven system, but we also have a unique trunk section that allows us to carry unpressurized cargo outside of the pressurized capsule.
TR: How does your approach stand out from those of other commercial space companies?
LW: The difference between our approach and what everyone else is trying to do is that we are so vertically integrated. We manufacture most of the vehicle, the booster as well as the dragon, in house. We don’t have a large number of subcontracts, so we can do things much more efficiently, and we control the quality and cost of the manufacturing process.
TR: What is the next phase–more development?
LW: For the most part, that is the end of the development phase for the cargo version. We would like to be able to work on the crew development, which includes developing an escape tower, life-support systems, and all the additional capability needed. Like I said, it has been manufactured and designed from the beginning to evolve to crew, so it is not a whole new development. But we obviously need to develop some additional aspects of the system.