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Elon Musk vs Nasa: What the Artemis programme tells us about the public/private sector split

Elon Musk vs Nasa: What the Artemis programme tells us about the public/private sector split
The SLS rocket with an Orion capsule for the Artemis 1 mission, at the Kennedy Space Center in Merrit Island Florida, US, 29 August 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich)

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.

Musk’s Starship

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

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Anyone that thinks the ANC is pushing so hard for NHI and BIG for any other reason but to gather votes after a catastrophic 25 year rule, is deluding themselves. There is literally no reason not to fix hospital infrastructure and heavy corruption before implementing the NHI, except of course access to huge amounts of money to steal and retain votes to stay at the trough. And no I not being unreasonable. The moment Ramaphosa started fighting Zondos recommendations on cadre deployment we knew that he cannot be serious about this country. It’s ANC ueber alles the rest of us be damned.

  • Jim Cochrane says:

    This might be more convincing were it at all accurate to Mazuccato’s (spelt wrongly 2nd last para) actual argument about ‘mission-driven’ state programmes — it is NOT, as stated, primarily about the economy being state-led and ‘secondarily the private sector where necessary’, a completely misleading claim (deliberate? ideological?). Both the book you cite, and her book on The Value of Everything (worth a read for everyone), make clear that state investment in what so commonly and widely appears to be private innovation and initiative (but isn’t) seldom if ever carries any cost to the private beneficiary, who pays nothing back to the state on the products that emerge (hence, nothing back to the public who paid for it in taxes) and who, equally widely and commonly, also seeks to avoid contributing anything to the public via taxes (Musk being a wonderful example, not to mention Apple, Amazon, etc. who use all the technologies that came from the space programme). Mazuccato’s argument is simple, actually: the state=the public should get a return on its investment–as any private corporation or person would insist. It’s not that the economy should be state-led a priori with the private sector secondary. That you put it that way is seriously misleading.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Seems like crazy duplication and yet another proof that the private sector will outperform governments every time

  • Dave Reynell says:

    Excellent and accurate article. NASA has already expressed doubts about the viability of the Artemis program. They (NASA and the ESA) should stick to what they are good at: The Mars Rovers and orbiters and deep space probes.

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