AFTER THE BELL
Elon Musk vs Nasa: What the Artemis programme tells us about the public/private sector split
Elon Musk's Starship is bigger, taller, much more powerful, carries more — and the whole thing is reusable. Nasa will spend about $95-billion on the Artemis programme, and each launch will cost about $4-billion.
Last year, Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato published another book in her series on restructuring capitalism and defending state-led economics titled ‘Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism’. Mazzucato is a tour de force in economic thinking and drew high praise and quizzical retorts on her central thesis.
That central thesis in Mariana Mazzucato’s latest book is expressed succinctly in the idea that the world needs to collectively transform its political economy to create an outcome that is fair. Well, hard to argue with that. Personally, when I read her many public commentaries, I vacillate between passionate support and near revulsion; she is that kind of polarising powerhouse thinker.
And she is also no stranger to SA. She is currently on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Presidential Economic Advisory Council, although I can’t shake the fear that the political bigwigs think she is a wholesale endorser of the ANC’s idea of a state-led economic system — and I’m not sure she actually is.
Anyway, the point is that in her book, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, she uses the Apollo moon mission as her central analogy for why the world needs to think in terms of grand undertakings led by the state, involving, secondarily, the private sector where necessary.
She cites former US president John F Kennedy as saying the moon mission was “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked”.
Kennedy was speaking in 1962, and it took seven years to get a man on the moon. It cost about $28-billion, which is something like $300-billion in 2020 terms. This was an enormous amount of money, but, Mazzucato argues, it paid off. It wasn’t just the ultimate success of the mission; there were hundreds of spillover effects.
The list is really extraordinary; the spaceship’s computer stimulated the development of modern software, the material used to keep the astronauts warm is now used as a home insulator, and there were innovations in management systems to coordinate the 400,000 people involved in the project. Camera phones, CAT scans, LEDs, memory foam and baby formula were among products that emanated from the effort.
The Nasa SLS rocket
So now the world has decided to get to the moon again, and thus began the construction of the SLS rocket for the Artemis programme, which is currently sitting on launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. (The name Artemis was chosen, my editor-in-chief somewhat triumphantly informs me, because Artemis is the moon goddess and sister to Apollo.)
The launch pad is relevant here because, to quote a phrase, Houston, we have a problem. Launch pad 39A, the pad from which the Apollo missions were originally launched, is currently occupied by SpaceX, the private sector vehicle of entrepreneur Elon Musk. And that pad is in pretty heavy use; a dozen or so launches of Falcon 9s have been taking place every year for the past three years. So there was no using that one.
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And there is something else. The SLS rocket is, well, a bit of a dud, by modern standards. There, I said it. I know it’s an absolutely fabulous engineering effort, but just look at the stats, and you will see what I mean.
In its Block 2 version, the SLS will have more thrust than the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo mission, but only just — 39.1 kiloNewtons in the Block 1 format, compared to 35.1 for Saturn V. But its Low-Earth Orbit and Trans-Lunar Injection capabilities are both much less powerful than Saturn V, built half a century ago. Crucially, almost nothing is reusable.
Compare that to Musk’s Starship, and it’s just mind boggling.
Starship is bigger, taller, much more powerful, carries more — and the whole thing is reusable. Nasa will spend about $95-billion on the Artemis programme, and each launch will cost about $4-billion. Starship is still in development, so we don’t actually know how much it will cost per launch, but the figure pencilled in is between $100-million and $250-million per launch. That is just a shocker.
The whole Artemis programme looks massively dated and ludicrously expensive by modern standards.
NHI and BIG
So now let’s take that back to the grand theory as expounded by Mazzucato. She celebrates putting the mission first, and letting the costs sort themselves out, because, after all, these are absolutely crucial missions. Doesn’t that just remind you so much of the ANC’s modus operandi? And the organisation is about to do it again with the National Health Insurance (NHI) and a Basic Income Grant (BIG).
But because there is no perceived limit on the expenditure required — surprise! — they spend an absolute fortune. There is really no quantifiable accountability system. And the spending is completely unnecessary on a scale which we are beginning to see now. And there is more, too: the Apollo missions were motivated at least in part by Soviet-era competition. Can you reproduce that sense of urgency in a different era?
It’s great to hear full-throated support for big national projects led by the state. God knows we will always need functional and efficient governments. But, even though it was huge, the Apollo mission cost was less than 2.5% of US GDP per year at the time.
The missions Muzzucato is thinking of, like global warming, and the missions the ANC is thinking of, like BIG and NHI, are going to end up costing much, much more than that.
The rocketry comparison — ironically the very one used to demonstrate the utility of a state-led, mission-oriented project — turns out to be much less convincing than it is portrayed. And it should make us suspicious about other grand schemes of governments. BM/DM