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Romance and Reality for SpaceX

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

November 22, 2011

Romance and Reality for SpaceX

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Like someone running for prom queen, upstart rocket maker SpaceX (News - Alert) has won over some significant fans. The company has won a Popular Science "Best of What's New" in 2011, and editorial endorsements from former NASA engineer and writer Homer Hickam and Apollo historian Andrew Chaikin. And, like any sweetheart running for prom queen, there are those who envy the attention the young company is getting -- and wish it would stumble and break its neck before it gets too successful.    Between those extremes of love and hate, there are some realities to consider.

Why do people love SpaceX? First, there's the whole backstory of successful immigrant does good -- South African PayPal (News - Alert) founder Elon Musk shops around for a rocket to send a payload to Mars, realizes the established aerospace industry is too expensive, and decides to build his own rockets to create a multi-planetary civilization. It's a romantic vision, tapping into the core beliefs that people can still do great things in America if they dream big and work hard.

Starting from scratch nearly a decade ago, Musk how has a company of over 1500 employees. On a rough budget of $800 million dollars, SpaceX has gone farther than any other aerospace startup in the past thirty years.   The company has successfully built and demonstrated a light rocket (Falcon 1), a medium-sized rocket (Falcon 9), and a space capsule (Dragon).   It is also building a heavy rocket (Falcon Heavy) to go toe-to-toe against ULA's monopoly for U.S. military launches and is working on evolving Dragon into a manned spacecraft.

Today, SpaceX is now cranking up its production line to produce Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules for a mixture of commercial satellite and NASA missions over the next four years, including 12 International Space Station (ISS) supply flights and eight Iridium (News - Alert) launches. And it is offering launch pricing cheaper than the Chinese.

So what's not to like? Detractors are easy to spot -- they just can't stop themselves with one or two gratuitous digs at SpaceX, they start going through a complex and lengthy litany of reasons why the company is a sham and a fraud and is A) hiding technical problems with rockets and engines B) hiding development costs which they plan to make up by raising launch prices down the road C) has a perverted business model because they don't outsource much and could never be successful because all the big aerospace companies outsource, and D) Because it has tapped into government contract money, it's not REALLY a commercial company -- unlike long-standing publically traded firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin (News - Alert).

And that's just the simplified litany of "SpaceX is evil, evil, e-v-i-l, EVIL!"

However, once you get clear of the vitriol of SpaceX haters, there are some blemishes on the prom queen. SpaceX tends to be overly optimistic rather than cautiously conservative -- maybe this is a bad habit from hanging out with the software guys back in the PayPal days. But it doesn't reflect well upon representations made in the 2011 l manifest and the ISS COTS/CRS resupply flights are a couple years behind schedule.  Musk basically says this is okay because practically everyone has blown schedule overruns and when you take into account NASA overhead, there's some sympathy there. 

Other blemishes circulate around the company needs to polish up its ability to share; there's been some continued grumbling about an apparently light-handedness when it comes to providing information and documentation, especially around the Falcon 9 second flight engine glitch.

 When it comes to media presentations, SpaceX loves its short sexy animations, but I'd really prefer some real-world interior cabin pictures of Dragon -- preferably with couches and seated astronauts -- over some "What if" video of a Mars landing.

Finally, the company's mainline Falcon 9 rocket has flown all of twice, and it has yet to make a commercial customer flight. SpaceX needs to clock some more (successful) Falcon 9 flights in order to, in the euphemistic phrasing of NASA, "retire risk" -- and quiet down its critics.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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