Is SpaceX Changing the Rocket Equation?

1 visionary + 3 launchers + 1,500 employees = ?

South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk, 40, ended up in the United States because, he says, it's where great things happen. Musk is gambling that his company, SpaceX, can change the world with its Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules by carrying cargo, and eventually people, to orbit. (Space X)
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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.”

The insistence on reusability “drives the engineers insane,” says Vozoff. “We could’ve had Falcon 1 in orbit two years earlier than we did if Elon had just given up on first stage reusability. The qualification for the Merlin engine was far outside of what was necessary, unless you plan to recover it and reuse it. And so the engineers are frustrated because this isn’t the quickest means to the end. But Elon has this bigger picture in mind. And he forces them to do what’s hard. And I admire that about him.”

Musk makes no secret of the end goal: Create a new civilization on Mars. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in September, he outlined the business plan—if that’s the right term for something that looks decades into the future. “If you can reduce the cost of moving to Mars to around the cost of a middle class home in California—maybe to around half a million dollars—then I think enough people would buy a ticket and move to Mars,” he said. “You obviously have to have quite an appetite for risk and adventure. But there are seven billion people on Earth now, and there’ll be probably eight billion by the midpoint of the century. So even if one in a million people decided to do that, that’s still eight thousand people. And I think probably more than one in a million people will decide to do that.” Talking about a city on Mars by the middle of this century—even as SpaceX has yet to fly its first cargo mission to Earth orbit—is one of the reasons space professionals are skeptical about Musk’s claims.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has the immediate hurdle of converting the doubters with a track record of low cost and reliability. Rivals know that success would hit the rocket business like a tsunami, and at least one aerospace engineer greets that prospect with a mix of hope and doubt. “Honestly, as an American, I want them to succeed,” says Mike Hughes, who works for a company (he asked that it not be named) planning a competing crew vehicle. “If I see SpaceX failing their launches and killing crew, I will be disheartened and weakened…. I want them to be our competition.” But Hughes predicts SpaceX will have to learn the same painful lessons that every other rocket builder has. “Over time, they will experience failure. The failure will teach them that they weren’t so smart when they laid out the numbers at the beginning. Just like us, just like NASA. And they’re going to have to redesign stuff. And they’re going to have to add new tests in. And their schedules will slip, and their customers will suffer. And all of this is because what we do is just freaking hard.”

About Andrew Chaikin

Andrew Chaikin ( is the author of A Man on the Moon, A Passion for Mars, and other books on space exploration. He has been an adviser to NASA on space policy.

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