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Science

Opinion: SpaceX should reveal its reusable rocket technology for peer review

Elon Musk's "mind is blown." His company SpaceX has launched the first recycled rocket and returned it to Earth. DW's Zulfikar Abbany says it's time for SpaceX to share its technology for the good of humanity.

Dear Mr. Musk, you've done well. No doubt. Launching the first-ever recycled orbital-class rocket, one of your Falcon 9s, and achieving another return landing on an ocean platform is a true feat. You even put a communications satellite in orbit.

But being the churlish sort, I can't help but want to play devil's advocate. There are, you see, a few things I'd like you and the rest of the global space industry to consider.

First, let's put this "revolutionary" event into perspective:

In case other mere mortals, such as me, are wondering: reusable or recycled rockets are not the Holy Grail of space exploration. Sure, the technology will contribute to future missions, but it's a fraction of what we need to know.

This is the first successful launch of a recycled rocket. So you've completed step one. But as with every other scientific endeavor, this needs to be replicated. Repeated, and repeated again until proven beyond doubt.

You, your company, and your competitors, be they Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, Zero 2 Infinity and others, you are all commercial entities. A large part of your business is blowing your own trumpets.

SpaceX is backed in part through public-private partnerships, so you could say the public own a part of you. And your science as well.

The larger picture, as I've written before, is reducing the cost of rocket launches so companies can increase the rate at which they fire satellites, or things like space labs, into orbit - either for other commercial companies or government programs. One estimate suggests the industry wants to launch 4000 objects in the next few years. "Why?" is a question we can park for now - but, yes, there's enough space debris as it is. About 96 percent of what we've sent to space since 1957 is now pure junk.

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DW's Zulfikar Abbany

That said, SpaceX's success is significant. And for that very reason you should - in fact I'd suggest you are obliged - share your findings with the rest of the space science community. This reusable rocket technology needs to be replicated, preferably independently, reviewed and verified. It's what we expect of every other scientific endeavor. It's what we demand of the pharmaceutical industry. Space should be no different. After all, space entrepreneurs like you, Mr. Musk, keep saying we need to get "off-planet" for the good of humanity. If you truly believe it, open up your shop. The public needs to step up too, only we tend to be far too reverent toward entrepreneurs such as you.

Now you may say this is a preposterous notion, as SpaceX's technology is covered by commercial company secrecy. And you may be right. But so much of the space industry's research is facilitated by contracts with publicly-funded government bodies, like NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA should insist here, as ESA often does (but not often enough), on an open data policy. Admittedly, contracts to resupply the International Space Station, of which you have your share, are commercial, so it doesn't really matter who the parties are. But there is an unaddressed divergence of interests in space between the private sector and the public good. Both industry and governments need to wake up to this.

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So mine is an appeal to your humanity, Mr. Musk. As I understand it, most space exploration is still subject to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. True, it needs an update to incorporate commercial factors. But that document clearly states that exploration should be for "the benefit of all peoples." Not just for the richest few.

As for your mind, Mr. Musk, which you say is "blown," I do wish you the best of luck putting it back together again.

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