Is SpaceX changing the rocket equation?
1 visionary + 3 launchers + 1,500 employees = ?
- By Andrew Chaikin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2012
(Page 3 of 4)
In a few cases, SpaceX has even been able to advance the state of the art. For the Dragon’s heat shield, the company chose a material called PICA (phenolic impregnated carbon ablator), first developed for NASA’s Stardust comet-sample-return spacecraft. Rejecting the prices they were getting from the manufacturer, they took advantage of help from NASA’s Ames Research Center to make it themselves. According to Mueller, SpaceX’s material, called PICA-X, is 10 times less expensive than the original, “and the stuff we made actually was better.” In fact, says Musk, a single PICA-X heat shield could withstand hundreds of returns from low Earth orbit; it can also handle the much higher energy reentries from the moon or Mars.
Musk, who is SpaceX’s chief designer as well as its CEO, is involved in virtually every technical decision. “I know my rocket inside out and backward,” he says. “I can tell you the heat treating temper of the skin material, where it changes, why we chose that material, the welding technique…down to the gnat’s ass.” And he pushes his people to do more than they think is possible. “There were times when I thought he was off his rocker,” Mueller confesses. “When I first met him, he said, ‘How much do you think we can get the cost of an engine down, compared to what you were predicting they’d cost at TRW?’ I said, ‘Oh, probably a factor of three.’ He said, ‘We need a factor of 10.’ I thought, ‘That’s kind of crazy.’ But in the end, we’re closer to his number!”
Musk’s relentless pushing has paid off. A recent study by NASA and the Air Force finds that it cost about $440 million for SpaceX to get from a blank sheet of paper to the first Falcon 9 launch (a figure, Musk says, which also includes most of the Falcon 1 development). If NASA had done the same thing, with its management structure and traditional use of aerospace contractors, the study finds, it would have spent three times that much.
If SpaceX’s progress sometimes seems like a 21st century replay of NASA’s early history, that’s partly because the company has greatly benefited from the space agency’s vast technical archive. “We’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” Mueller says. “With the Apollo program they learned so much. And we can get access to all that. We use that tremendously. A private company in a vacuum could not do what we did.”
But as for SpaceX’s organizational style, it’s Silicon Valley, not NASA, that had the most influence. In Hawthorne, where everyone including Musk works in cubicles instead of offices to encourage communication, the buzzwords of the business culture—lean manufacturing, vertical integration, flat management—are real and fundamental. Says former SpaceX business development director Max Vozoff, “This really is the greatest innovation of SpaceX: It’s bringing the standard practices of every other industry to space.” Having almost all of SpaceX’s engineers under one roof means the process of designing, testing, and improving is greatly streamlined. One NASA manager who visited SpaceX quips that when there is a new problem to solve, “it looks like a flash mob” in the hallway.
Some observers have questioned whether SpaceX’s smaller workforce can build and operate a vehicle safe enough for astronauts to fly (see “Is It Safe?” April/May 2009). But former astronaut Ken Bowersox, who joined SpaceX in 2009 as vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance, says safety stems mostly from a vehicle’s design. Bowersox, who flew four space shuttle missions as well as the Russian Soyuz, says that at NASA the shuttle’s complexity required a large organization to manage the risks. “People started to think that that’s the only way you can operate. And I have to say that I would’ve been in that boat if I hadn’t been sent off to train in Russia,” where the workforce is much smaller. Because the Soyuz is far simpler than the shuttle and includes an escape system, he says, it is safer despite the inevitable human errors. Dragon follows the same design philosophy.
Human-rating the Dragon will require development and flight tests of a launch abort system, which could cost nearly a billion dollars. Before astronauts are allowed to fly it, NASA will subject the craft to an intensive review. Lindenmoyer, the commercial crew program manager, thinks Musk and his team can meet the agency’s standards. “Everybody has a perception of SpaceX, what they must not be doing,” he says. “But when you get in there and you’re shoulder to shoulder with them, you quickly learn that that is not the case. Believe me, I was skeptical at first. Do they follow all those standards for quality and safety? Yes, they do. They absolutely do.”
Many of Lindenmoyer’s NASA colleagues remain skeptical—even some who have visited SpaceX. “There’s quality control in development, and then there’s quality control in production,” says one agency senior manager who asked not to be named. “The history of launch vehicle development suggests that design issues might crop up in the first or second launch, but it’s the process problems that start to show up on the sixth, the seventh, and the eighth launch.” Noting that so far Musk’s team has launched only two Falcon 9s, this skeptic asks, “How does he ever get to a rate—you know, he’s talking about flying a dozen, two dozen times a year? And as they fly their vehicle, how long before they have a major accident? And are they able to sustain a major accident and still be a viable company?”
Musk appears undaunted by these worries, maybe because he’s already thinking ahead to bigger ones. He says he is committed to turning Falcon 9 into “the first fully and rapidly reusable rocket” because, he says, that accomplishment is key to making spaceflight affordable and routine. To cut the cost of getting to orbit to just $100 per pound, Musk says, “you need to be able to launch multiple times a day, just like an airplane. And it’s got to be complete, so you can’t be throwing away a million dollars of expendable hardware every flight either.” Musk has targeted reusability from the start. Merlin engines, for example, are designed to fly tens of missions—provided you can get them back. An animation on SpaceX’s Web site shows how that might happen: Cast-off Falcon 9 stages reenter the atmosphere at between 17 and 25 times the speed of sound, then use their own guidance systems and engines to fly back to the launch site, where they land upright on deployable legs. A test program called Grasshopper is already in the works at SpaceX’s Texas facility. No one can predict how many years it might take to achieve full and rapid reusability, but Musk says, “it’s absolutely crucial. It’s fundamental. I would consider SpaceX to have failed if we do not succeed in that.”