The Case For Commercial Spaceflight

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I was channel surfing last week and landed on a video clip of Elon Musk blubbering about how no less than certified American icons Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan were bad mouthing Musk's commercial space initiative. He was close to tears. Actually, in testimony before Congress, Armstrong and Cernan weren't so much exclusively dissing SpaceX, Musk's company, as they were the very idea that commercializing space operations is simply another indication that NASA has lost its way and has no vision. (I could have told them that, without need for committee hearing.)

Having said that, I was left with the impression that maybe it's Armstrong and Cernan who are even more lost; two old warhorses stuck in NASA's glory days when only the government could launch rockets and do space. It worked then, we should stick with it, they seemed to be saying.

Musk, in case you don't know, made a gazillion bucks with PayPal and setup SpaceX in 2002 to build boosters and spacecraft. He also founded Tesla Motors, an electric car company that he predicted would basically make extinct the internal combustion engine. Anyone in the energy business knows what vaporous eyewash that claim is, but Musk's achievements with SpaceX deserve serious consideration. Musk describes himself as a self-taught rocket scientist, having read a few books on the subject.

But in a mere 10 years, SpaceX has developed two successful launch systems (the Falcon 1 and 9) and has flown and recovered from orbit a spacecraft call Dragon. In the works is a heavy lifter booster with twice the payload of the shuttle. Under contract to NASA, it resupplied the International Space Station last month. Dragon doesn't yet dock directly, but does a capture-and-berth maneuver that still gets the mission done. SpaceX's contract is worth $1.6 billion for a dozen such resupply missions. To deliver on the contract, SpaceX built its own plant in California which is intensely vertically integrated. It builds its own engines, airframes, instrument packageseverything.

As far as that goes, that's hardly commercialized space. It's different only by degree. In the salad days of NASA, the agency still engaged the likes of Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Northrop and Grumman to build the hardware that NASA flew. Now it just pays companies like SpaceX to heave stuff up into low-earth orbit as a turnkey deal. That's NASA's current thing; to turn LEO over to commercial companies. And if it's cheaper to do that, why shouldn't we? (SpaceX has other contracts to launch satellites, having grubbed that business from Arianespace. And that is commercialized space.)

Lockheed, Boeing and other established aerospace giants, through surrogates, have claimed that SpaceX bids low then raises the price due to overruns. (Like Lockheed has never done that. And I seem to recall they're now charging the Air Force $19 million to fix the F-22's oxygen system.) SpaceX's competitors also seem to try to sell the impression that NASA is turning over all the launch business to this inexperienced upstart. But other companies are competing and winning contracts, too. Maybe because SpaceX is a brash upstart that hasn't been invited into the aerospace Gun Club, it's considered less worthy.

If SpaceX's claims hold true for its NASA launch contract, it will indeed be cheaper. Before it retired, the Shuttle was costing about $450 million per launch, for a pound-to-orbit total of $27,000, according to Futron Corp. But the shuttle carried twice as much as the Falcon 9, it was man-rated and reusable. A better comparison is with the Delta 2, whose orbital cost per pound is about $16,600. Depending on whose numbers you want to believe, SpaceX's costs for the Falcon 9 are between $1500 and $2600 per pound. Even if they're three times that amount, that's still a better deal than the boosters NASA has been using.

Understanding full well how contract prices with the government escalate and how the hapless taxpayer can hardly judge value given the details we're not aware of, I'm having trouble seeing what Armstrong and Cernan were on about. Cernan called it a "pledge to mediocrity," again implying that only governments can do spaceflight right. Really? I think if Musk and SpaceX have proven anything, it's that we're well beyond that sort of thinking. SpaceX wants to be the next contractor to launch American astronauts into orbit and although Dragon and Falcon 9 aren't man-rated yet, there's no reason to believe they can't be. True, SpaceX could still stub its toes, have a couple of launch failures and go under. But in the meantime, it seems to me Armstrong and Cernan ought to be cheering them on.

Comments (58)

There is a huge difference between a cost-plus contract (the kind Lockheed and Boeing usually get from NASA) and a performance-based one (which is what SpaceX and Orbital are getting). With cost-plus, the contractor gets our tax money no matter what, up to and including years of delay and billions of dollars of overruns.

With these contracts, SpaceX and Orbital get most of the money when they check off the milestones. They have no guarantee that they'll meet the next milestone, so they have no guarantee they'll get the next payment.

It is also worth remembering that Musk has put $100M of his own money into SpaceX, and other private investors and customers have added a few $100M. I believe NASA has paid SpaceX several $100M as well, but in the old way of doing business, they'd be paying the old guard 10 times that, with no launches in sight.

Oh wait, they ARE doing that--with Orion and the Space Launch System. Given the track record of predecessor projects, first launch will be sometime in the 2020s, after being funded, each year, with a chunk of change only slightly smaller than the ENTIRE SpaceX/Orbital resupply deal (which was $3.5B--$1.9B for 8 Orbital flights, and $1.6B for 12 SpaceX flights).

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 9, 2012 4:39 PM    Report this comment

Patrick, have you read that Time magazine article on this guy? He was talking about that stuff. I knew nothing much about Spacex beforehand and I came away quite impressed. They're getting a lot of NASA help but building everything, as you say, more like an off-the-shelf product that they only get paid for when it works as advertised. I'm a bit of a believer now actually. It looks like he's got the right attitude and the dollars.

I think what's happening is sad to the extent that I reckon this is the job of government - "to boldly go" etc. If that's part of those astronauts' beef, fair enough I think. The problem is that the process has become just as screwed up as the whole military acquisitions one though - ridiculously wasteful, unresponsive and slow. It's actually kind of corrupt. As it is, Musk is quick to praise NASA's input so maybe we'll get the best of both worlds here: NASA's hard (and expensively)-won knowledge with a commercial imperative and plenty of backing.

Posted by: John Hogan | June 10, 2012 4:13 AM    Report this comment

As much as I admire Armstrong and Cernan, they're off the mark here. Commercializng routine space operations is the logical next step. Didn't commercial aviation begin with mail delivery? I lament the loss of the Shuttle; I think it's shameful that the United States has to depend on Russia to move people into orbit, but maybe this will help return NASA to what its mission should be...pure research and exploration. NASA shouldn't be in the trucking business.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | June 10, 2012 9:43 AM    Report this comment

To hear Musk explain it, the next American astronaut will ride a Dragon into orbit and it could be as soon as 2014 or before. Without NASAs traditional plodding bureaucracy to deal with, SpaceX might move pretty quickly.

But if they have one or more bad launch failures, that could be the end of them. Unlike NASA, no government coffers to prop them up until the succeed. It's a true high wire act.

If they make it that far, they can sell the service to any country that wants and can afford a space program. It could get interesting.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 10, 2012 1:23 PM    Report this comment

Change comes hard sometimes, hope the old guard will eventually accept these exciting and bold directions we need to take for our future spaceflight and exploration. I've been folowing Musk's story since Tesla motors and he has the passion and perseverance to succeed. And mucho dinero doesn't hurt either. No need for mental blocks like shame or guilt about the US role now, let those things die with the past.

P.S. Wonderfully written piece on Airborne Rememberance, Paul. 'D-Day with..' is now on my list.

Posted by: David Miller | June 10, 2012 3:21 PM    Report this comment

Paul, Musk appears to be anticipating some failures. I'll start sounding like his publicist if I keep going much further but I got the impression that he'll absorb the cost of a few screw-ups. I want this to work though, so I would say that ...

Posted by: John Hogan | June 11, 2012 12:34 AM    Report this comment

Any system is better than one where solid fuel rockets with dodgy O rings were built about as far from the launch site as is possible to be in the US if you ignore Alaska. And were sent across the country, in winter, on open railway wagons.
Why was that?
Political graft.
The further the space program is out of government and political hands the better.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | June 11, 2012 5:14 AM    Report this comment

True, but even Musk said that after two consecutive failures of the Falcon 9, the company didn't have the resources to continue if they would have had a third failure.

The Falcon Heavy may be the ultimate challenge. Getting that one to work right will be difficult, I suspect. The Falcon Heavy has 27 engines and two strap-ons. Its lift capacity is about 117,000 to LEO. That's a big rocket, but still less than half the capacity of the Saturn 5.

I hope they make it work. But one has to be realistic.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2012 6:06 AM    Report this comment

"Musk describes himself as a self-taught rocket scientist, having read a few books on the subject. "

Of course Musk does have a degree in physics. I think physics is vaguely connected to 'rocket science'.

"Lockheed, Boeing and other established aerospace giants, through surrogates, have claimed that SpaceX bids low then raises the price due to overruns."

That's the first I've heard of SpaceX cost overruns. Is there any evidence that this has really happened?

You understate the boldness of SpaceX's long term vision. They are actively working on dramatically lowering the cost of boosters by flying them back to earth where they will land vertically, DC-X style.

They've submitted an environmental impact statement for a launch site near Brownsville Texas. By launching in south Texas their boosters could land in Florida. That will be a real revolution that will immediately make all other launch systems obsolete.

SpaceX and the other 'new space' start-ups are where the courage and vision are now. NASA should be applauded for embracing this new and better way of building spaceships.

NASA shouldn't just be an expensive jobs program for Alabama.

It's almost a miracle that we have these contracts with Orbital and SpaceX at all.

Let's recite the pilot's prayer that we continue with this new and better way of getting to space.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 11, 2012 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Oh, one other correction.

"...Musk said that after two consecutive failures of the Falcon 9."

Falcon 9 has never failed. It was Falcon 1 that had two failures. Those were SpaceX's first launches.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 11, 2012 10:02 AM    Report this comment

I can sum it up in a eleven word sentence. They are against Space-X because they are pissing on NASA's parade.

Posted by: FRED WILSON | June 11, 2012 10:32 AM    Report this comment

In a economic climate where our present government is borrowing 40 cents of each and every dollar it spends there may not be all that much public support for big adventurous NASA programs that may (either correctly or incorrectly) wasteful or boondoggles. I lament "toy cars to mars" for example. And after all of the data that was gathered by the Russian MIR I wonder what we are really "learning" with the space station (which really isn't in space...just low earth orbit). If the space station were in geosynchronous orbit, for example I might be a little more supportive of those costs.

Since we are bound by the limitations of what we have it only seems feasible, reasonable and cost conscious to at least attempt to service the space station as economically as can be safely and effectively done. For the prior big budget astronauts to sit around and carp and criticize the private sector's attempts at the private sector's attempts are at least counter productive and curious at best. The arguments I have heard to date are irrelevant.

Posted by: william laatsch | June 11, 2012 10:36 AM    Report this comment

Back when the early spsce program, which I grew up addicted to, was happening, this was ground-breaking science. Today it is old news, and letting commercial companies compete in that area is too - as anyone who knows how most of our existing sattelites got up there can attest to. The only thing that used to belong to NASA was beyond earth orbit, the space station and the now-retired shuttles, which means planetary or manned missions, and let's face it, we have been propping up the Russians by paying them exorbitant rates to stay in the game. Time to move on and let this work go to the commercial guys. NASA's days are numbered, until or unless our economics improve to the point that starship development is worth starting. The early space program is responsible for me becoming a techie, but we need to concentrate on other things in the near-term.

Posted by: Kerry Bedsworth | June 11, 2012 12:07 PM    Report this comment

Commercializing space travel is the way forward. It may seems things will take a backward step until the right setups are found and then we will see a massive explosion of innovated solutions to travelling in space that can only be possible when there is competition.

Experience has taught me that when someone does a war dance there is something being hidden and they wish to keep it secret. What does Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan want to keep secret? Their action makes me want to re-evaluate my thoughts of the moon shots. What is out there that is so secret that only NASA is capable of dealing with it? Time moves on and things turn around what was a big secret that I was forced to keep, years ago is slowly being found out.

And anyway I would have thought the astronauts were above all that so my money is on Musk

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 11, 2012 1:07 PM    Report this comment

Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell have been misled by politicians, is all I can come up with. They are also pretty old, and with age comes resistance to change (I should know).

Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, has been pushing commercial space for decades. No secrets out there. Just inertia and vested interests.

Amazingly, the most vocal opponents of commercial have been Republican lawmakers (Shelby, Hutchison, Hall, Wolf, etc.) who (rightly... er, so to speak) are all about smaller government and the free market--until it comes to entrenched interests in their districts. But with the success of COTS 2/3, they are slowly, grudgingly, starting to come round.

SpaceX has something like 30 or 40 private sat launches in the pipeline, in addition to the NASA flights. That company is way past the point of failing due to a single mishap.

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 11, 2012 1:25 PM    Report this comment

I'll add that it's no wonder Musk is praising NASA. For on thing, it's the politic thing to do. For another, it takes two to tango, and NASA learned a lot of new dance steps. The ISS crew were ecstatic about the Dragon, and Alan Lindenmoyer, the NASA representative who worked most closely with SpaceX, was in tears during press conferences. There are plenty of great people within NASA who understand the historic nature of this transition, and really, really want it to succeed.

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 11, 2012 1:37 PM    Report this comment

"That company is way past the point of failing due to a single mishap."

This strikes me as like saying GM couldn't fail because it's the biggest car maker. We don't have good optics into SpaceX's capital situation, its potential profitability, the directionality of its P&L. It's like any other business, I'm sure. It can fail for a variety of reasons. Elon Musk is smart, but he's not immune the laws of supply and demand and creeping costs. Not to mention unfavorable politics.

As for his boldness, some of his statements give me pause. The company has been quoted as saying it will lower the cost to LEO by 90 percent. Musk has said it will eventually be possible to send people to Mars for $500,000 a seat.

Parse the first statement. If someone came to you and said they had developed an airplane that sold for one-tenth the price of a new Cirrus, would you just automatically go doey eyed and accept this on face value? I wouldn't. I'd like to see a little more.

Same with SpaceX's successful Dragon flight. It's very impressive. In fact, it's astonishing. But let's see how they do going forward and if they can be profitable at what are claimed to be low launch costs. Bottom line: I don't believe they're 90 percent cheaper than previous options. I'd believe half or less than half.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2012 3:15 PM    Report this comment

"That's the first I've heard of SpaceX cost overruns. Is there any evidence that this has really happened?"

How can you tell? Without a look at the P&L, we don't know much about SpaceX's financials. Rare is the aerospace or aircraft company that hits its original projections. Cessna has in the past, but I can't think of any others offhand.

Loren Thompson, in a Forbes article, reported that a Falcon 1 launch was originally projected to cost $6M, but was nearly doubled to $11M by 2011. Falcon 9 launches went from $35M to $60M. They will probably climb higher, which is why I am skeptical of the 90 percent cost reduction claim. Thompson, by the way, is the COO of Lexington Institute, which has a relationship with Lockheed. (That's why I called him a surrogate.)

Musk has made other goofy statements with regard to Tesla projections. The new model X, for instance, is supposed to sell 35,000 units by 2014. I've been reading a lot about the electric car market and A and EV penetration and that number seems unrealistic to me.

The thing is, we are reading about Musk, the heroic, brilliant entrepreneur through the eyes of a star struck press. While I'm cheering for his success and I think he will endure, I want to cheer through eyes with scales removed.

It's hard to do this when you can't get reliably accurate information.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2012 3:38 PM    Report this comment

Actually it's like saying Ford can't fail because of an Edsel, or an exploding Pinto. Every launch provider in the world has failures. Orbital has had some doozies recently and they're still in business.

Paul, let me turn your question around. If someone sold you a Cirrus, they'd probably remark on the thousands of flights you could make in it over several decades. What if someone tried to sell you a Cirrus that was totalled after one landing? Then wanted you to buy more airplanes that were totalled after one landing each? That's our reality in space launch. Musk's numbers are predicated on complete reusability, something Lockheed or Boeing could have done decades ago but chose not to. (Re: DC-X).

If Musk could only lower launch costs by half? He'd turn the industry upside down. ULA's costs don't go down. They go UP. And they're still going up.

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 11, 2012 3:54 PM    Report this comment

Paul, I don't think 'cost overrun' means what you think it means.

The way that usually works is that the contractor goes back to the government and says, 'even though I bid $X for this project, I really need $1.5X or I just can't deliver'.

That's never happened with SpaceX. If you want to say that Lockheed surrogate doesn't think they made a profit on a launch then that's another thing entirely.

From the SpaceX web page:"SpaceX has been profitable every year since 2007, despite dramatic employee growth and major infrastructure and operations investments. We have over 40 flights on manifest representing over $3 billion in revenues."

Since SpaceX is going public in the foreseeable future that would be a dangerous thing to publish if it were not true.

Prices can go up, that's not what 'cost overrun' means. It may just mean that SpaceX can't control inflation.

China is on record as complaining that they can't match SpaceX's prices.

SpaceX is the only launch provider that posts its prices on its company web page. $54 million dollars for a Falcon 9 launch.

Also on their webpage there is the current very long launch manifest, including a Falcon Heavy demo flight in 2012 (which will probably really be in early 2013).

I think you ought to check the scales in your eye before you point out the mot in Musk's eye.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 11, 2012 3:57 PM    Report this comment

"Since SpaceX is going public in the foreseeable future that would be a dangerous thing to publish if it were not true."

Sort of like Facebook, eh? Just because SpaceX posts something on its web site doesn't make it the truth. It may or may not be.

And if China is complaining about not being able to match Space X prices, doesn't that make you wonder what's going on? Or do you accept all corporate claims at face value? I certainly don't. How do you know the $54M isn't a loss leader with add on costs? Thompson claimed $65M real launch costs. Which is correct? How can you tell? Or do you accept $54M because...well, it's on their web must be right.

Perhaps escalation is the better term. Lexington claimed that SpaceX low-balled the original estimate, then renegotiated it.
I don't know if this is true or not.

By the way, do you seek information on SpaceX other than what's on its web site? When Eclipse came along promising to cut the cost of jets to a fraction of the cost they had been selling for because they were the smartest guys in the room, I figured 60/40 they would succeed. I was over optimistic by a wide margin.

They had a bunch of cool stuff on their web site, too.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2012 4:29 PM    Report this comment

Are not these two critics men who were exclusively trained by public funding. Whether or not they are heroes, (which they are) theirs is a mentality borne of a post WWII mindset that believes that big things can only be accomplished by big government. They are absolutely wrong.

Posted by: Michael Russell | June 11, 2012 4:46 PM    Report this comment

Paul if SpaceX claims on their web page to be profitable, yet after the IPO it comes out they were lying, then Musk just committed a felony.

There is no comparison between SpaceX and Eclipse. If you paid attention to Space in the days and weeks prior to this Dragon mission you'd known that Musk was constantly trying to damp down expectations. Not at all like the typical aviation vaporware prompter.

Musk is delivering real hardware to real customers that satisfies each and every performance specification ordered by the customer.

The fact that you would even mention Eclipse in the same breath as SpaceX show that you ought to do a little first hand investigation rather than relying on Lockheed.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 11, 2012 5:00 PM    Report this comment

Paul, Musk has admitted that he knew rocketry was hard, but didn't know HOW hard until after the real work began.

First, multiply SpaceX's cost figures by a factor of three (at least). Then add in the fact that taxpayers don't pay for part of the development, they pay for all of it. Then add in the fact that the prices are not published--in fact, no one really knows what the costs actually are. There you have SpaceX's old-school competitors.

Where's Constellation? Where's Orion? Have those spacecraft flown yet? Where's Ares I? Has it flown yet? Ares V? Has it flown? SLS? Where is it?

We've collectively spent over $10B for them. Where's the flying hardware?

Where's the X-33? X-34? National Aerospace Plane? X-38? Shuttle-C? We collectively spent BILLIONS of dollars on those projects. Somebody made some money, but didn't actually give us a product.

Stagnation and failure have been the status quo in the launcher business for decades. And here we are, sniping about a startup's launch pricing going from bargain-basement to slightly less bargain-basement. Okay.

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 11, 2012 5:15 PM    Report this comment

Bruce, I know you're very open to devious possibilities, but I don't think it's so much about keeping a secret as it is that everything these guys did was for country, for the first-there first-to-do-it nationalism mentality. The US flag on the Moon, etc. With commercial companies now getting in the act, the first flag on Mars could very well be Mars Candy and Space Company - the countries of old being replaced by corporations of today, blurring the lines to new definitions. Not to mention the re-defining of pride and patriotism by the younger generations taking place. They don't like borders so much. Could we even see a Freak flag flying one day in space? :0 History does tend to repeat itself..

Posted by: David Miller | June 11, 2012 5:41 PM    Report this comment

Here's a good one--the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor. Post-Challenger, NASA spent $2.2B (about twice SpaceX's total capitalization) on an SRB replacement that never flew.

$2.2B for zip/nada.

Did I mention X-37? Or the National Launch System?

Elon's a bit of a showman, true. I'll take a showman who hits a grand-slam out-of-town like COTS-2/3, over stand-up citizens who've built entire divisions around taxpayer-funded corporate welfare, any day of the week, thank you.

Yeah, I'm partisan. Guess you noticed. :)

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 11, 2012 7:16 PM    Report this comment

Hi Dave thanks for your comment. Don't get me wrong I believe that Armstrong and Cernan are patriotic but does that mean that Russia, China, India should give up their space exploration? I think they will quickly tell you where to go. China has a good chance of planting a flag on the moon and to be the first to plant one on Mars. I do believe that as they progress they will find why NASA and Russia are falling back (prohibitive costs and a pending collapse of international finance) and will be forced to open the arena to Joe public and commercialism.

Just so you fully understand my feelings: There are always secrets (see CIA, MI6, KGB etc.) and space is no exception. I believe that we are not the only intelligent life in the universe. Unfortunately the USA does not do it self any favours with the deluge of movies and TV drama programmes that are produced daily and exported worldwide where deceit, secrecy and corruption are the order of the day.

Why can we not treat the moon the same as Antarctica. America were not the first there but they are a full partner in the international scientific establishment in that area. The flag only serves as a historic reminder that an event took place and allows that country to have it's name in the history books as the first to arrive.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 12, 2012 4:14 AM    Report this comment

"Yeah, I'm partisan. Guess you noticed. :)"

You don't say?

While I agree that SpaceX's achievements are impressive, I think one can be both supportive of the idea but restrained from going overboard. In other words, distinctly non-partisan.
At least that's where I am on it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 12, 2012 6:38 AM    Report this comment

Musk strikes me as a true believer with a fair bit of cash. My kind of guy. But so was Vern Raburn and look how that turned out. (Raburn is on the board of Icon Aircraft by the way - bet he's on a short leash) My sense of it is that he's got a fair chance. They've come a long way very quickly with start-up money and speaking of Raburn, Musk crucially appears to be careful with that money.

The headline 90% reduction in launch costs requires a bunch of steps to succeed down the track - I guess we'll believe that if it happens. If that's the goal though and they get much past half-way there, they've got a gold-plated business. Good luck to them. I haven't given up on getting into orbit :-)

Posted by: John Hogan | June 12, 2012 7:22 AM    Report this comment

Awwwww sorry Paul I did promise to keep things light. Did I wake you up ;-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 12, 2012 7:50 AM    Report this comment

"I think one can be both supportive of the idea but restrained from going overboard. In other words, distinctly non-partisan. At least that's where I am on it."

That's an appropriate attitude. Just don't don't lump a company that is delivering complex hardware on time, on spec, and on budget to a typical aviation vaporware promoter.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 12, 2012 9:54 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you responded to my "partisan" admission, but didn't respond to the extremely long list of failed NASA/old-guard launch initiatives that fizzled over the last three decades. Seriously, how do you stack them up against a private company that spends a tiny fraction of their costs to create, from scratch, two new rockets and a spacecraft that are now flight-proven?

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 12, 2012 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I didn't respond because my sentiments are expressed in the original blog. Succinctly, I think. You seem to view this as a zero-sum game with private business good, government bad. I don't see it that way. I see partnerships and opportunities.

If space exploration and the satellite business were left to private enterprise, it wouldn't have happened when it did because there was no profit in it. NACA/NASA pushed the technical boundaries out to the point where we are today and private companies can make money launching satellites. Government made a huge investments. Now it's paying off.

I know it's fashionable to bash the government and cheer the entrepreneur in some circles, but the fact is these very same businesses stand on the broad shoulders of Wernher von Braun, Max Faget, Bob Gilruth, Hugh Dryden, George Lowe, Jim Webb and hundreds of others.

These bold new ventures have a good chance to succeed because NASA put them there, paving the path with blood and treasure. Musk, at least, freely acknowledges this, since his engineers rely heavily on basic flight data developed decades ago.

When you strip the issue of ideology, that's where the facts take you.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 12, 2012 11:38 AM    Report this comment

Question for the SpaceX fanboys:

What is the revenue stream that generates their profits?

My understanding is that NASA has provided seed money and milestone payments for tasks accomplished.

BTW, a website posting has no relevance in a public offering. The true document is the formal 'prospectus'.

In my opinion, SpaceX is doing well now because it is a 'new' organization. NASA, as well as most large organizations become ossified and risk averse.

I was involved in the start-up and growth of two successful companies. When everything is fresh and new, things are great. Inevitably things slow down as layers of mid-level management, committies, procedures and guidelines are added. There were times I contemplated closing a company, moving it down the street and having people re-apply for their jobs. Kind of a reset.

Does anyone believe today's NASA would give a 'GO' for the first full-up launch of the Saturn and Appollo capsule to orbit the Moon.

Things we don't do anymore....

Posted by: Edd Weninger | June 12, 2012 12:11 PM    Report this comment

"What is the revenue stream that generates their profits? "

They sell launch services, mostly to the private sector. Their current manifest is on their web site.

"Inevitably things slow down as layers of mid-level management, committies, procedures and guidelines are added."

That doesn't seem to be happening at SpaceX, probably because Musk is adamant about NOT going down that road. There is a lot in the public domain out there about how different the SpaceX management style is from conventional Aerospace companies. Read up on it.

I think some commentators here just don't understand that SpaceX is not another company with a big tent at AirVenture and some nice animations, booth babes, and pretty pictures.

They are really delivering real products that meet or exceed customer requirements. They have a proven track record and are rapidly adding new customers. Their customers are large well established commercial and governmental entities, not mythical start ups.

Rocket science is really hard, and they'll probably stumble along the way at some point.

But don't discount the very real commercial success that SpaceX is having.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 12, 2012 12:35 PM    Report this comment

"I think some commentators here just don't understand that SpaceX is not another company with a big tent at AirVenture and some nice animations, booth babes, and pretty pictures."


I'll usually sip a demitasse of Kool-Aid in the name of polite social convention, but do you have to chug the whole gallon yourself? :)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 12, 2012 12:49 PM    Report this comment

SpaceX has not yet launched a paying customer's satellite.

Regardless the CEOs position, growing organizations do what they do. I'm older than Musk, seen it happen with my companies, and others as a BoD member.

Rocket science is not hard. It is applied engineering based on proven principles known for more than 50 years.

SpaceX has delivered a successful payload to the ISS. Tell me about any other real product they delivered that was not paid for by NASA.

If SpaceX did an IPO next month, I wouldn't buy in.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | June 12, 2012 1:24 PM    Report this comment

deal with 'patriotism' too much on a daily basis to offer a concise definition, Bruce, suffice it to say I loathe the concept and would prefer society could mature into greater ideas of purpose and place. Nonetheless, Wikepedia lists 26 private companies worldwide who are under developement or testing parameters for space flight in the future. Maybe one like SpaceX will actually succeed, or not, we'll see.

And I could care less about secrets and conspiracies with governments, but I will say it is quite the challenge to get these types to accept things they cannot crudely prove- my and hundreds of others' sightings of the Phoenix Lights recently and in years past is proof of that. Those were definitely aviation/space related, maybe we'll see a blog one day on these types of 'flying' and really see where the intelligent life is ...and no, I'm not sipping any Kool-aid. :)

'Unfortunately the USA does not do it self any favours with the deluge of movies and TV drama programmes that are produced daily and exported worldwide where deceit, secrecy and corruption are the order of the day.'

Some are inspired from true events, some are explorations in imagination. Let's not restrict any opportunity to teach or learn how to discriminate individually, eh? Take them as you will, but let's hold creativity higher than cynicism. After all, we can't claim a real, reigning queen other than Latifa. Cheers

Posted by: David Miller | June 12, 2012 1:47 PM    Report this comment

"You seem to view this as a zero-sum game with private business good, government bad."

Well, no, I don't. I and other "fanboys" (thanks Edd, for introducing that ugly term to this locality) just get a little exercised at the guys who seem to favor the Goliaths over the Davids.

My company works for Lockmart, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Orbital, SpaceX, DoD, NASA, and lots of agencies you've never heard of. I'm proud to be a part of it. But the fact remains that SpaceX is not just a little Lockheed. Musk is doing things, and seriously proposes to do bigger things, that we "fanboys" have been dreaming about for decades. He just proved his upstart bunch of hipsters can deliver.

You can be cynical about "blubbering" Musk, and I'll be cynical about the guys who deserve my cynicism.

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | June 12, 2012 3:37 PM    Report this comment

"SpaceX has not yet launched a paying customer's satellite. "

That is incorrect.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 12, 2012 3:48 PM    Report this comment

Ed, it's pretty clear that you have a totally closed mind on this subject. Just because your companies devolved into bureaucratic stagnation doesn't mean that nobody else can do a better job. Frankly, I doubt if you are even close to being in the same league as a CEO as Musk

If you are interested in SpaceX then I suggest you do at least a bit of homework. Google is your friend. You might learn something about how to manage.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 12, 2012 4:04 PM    Report this comment

Touch^e Dave give yourself ten points and a marie biscuit (if you know what that is, not known here in UK).

Paul you do write very eloquently which I find just goes right over my head keep up the good work.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 12, 2012 4:08 PM    Report this comment

Not to downplay NASA, they produced some good science. But could things have been better if the government had just offered a couple hundred billion to the first person to the moon and back? I think it is possible.

Posted by: Stephen Phoenix | June 12, 2012 6:47 PM    Report this comment

Nobody mentioned these factoids yet:

Secrets? NASA (the org) is chartered as handmaiden to the DoD (look it up). e.g., zillions of images from the Clementine (Navy) moon satellite continue classifiedthe ones with the real details. Except for civilian photo-futzing of published Apollo pics and leaks from ex-Apollo staff (Johnson via Hoagland), most of us know (visually) really few actual details of what's on most of the lunar surface. By design???

The Buzz? Aldrens been selling us on going to Phobos, then Mars. And using scheduled trips arriving/departing from a moon/Earth LaGrange Point. To hell with the moon, sez Armstrongs co-driver.

Monster plane? One of Musks devices for lowering LOA launch $$ is a twist on single-stage-to-orbit, a la Rutans White Knight. Paul Allen bux and Scaled Composites re-engineering are now working some run-out 747s into a joined-wing, twin-fuselage, 6-engine monster able to hang a Falcon 9 under the mid-point. Maybe that and the reusable idea are how Musk hopes to cut costs so drastically.

Just saying

Posted by: Wash Phillips | June 13, 2012 2:54 PM    Report this comment

I find it very interesting that there are so many experts on space flight out there. Have any of you ever built a space craft? Have any of you had to design a sub system? Take it from those of us who have, it is not easy. Space is the most unforgiving environment.
Elon alone has not been responsible for the success of this company. In fact big egos usually result in big failures. If he is smart enough to listen to the scientific and technical staff that he has assembled then his company will be successful. If he listens to the bean counters and PR folks, there will be some great fireworks for the .net.
NASA was sort of a dichotomous organization, lots of very smart techno geeks and an equal number of totally incompetent bureaucrats. When the bureaucrats won, the mission failed. NASA should be there to guide, experiment and direct; just as private industry should be there to make it all work. It is too bad that NASA is presently loaded with political hacks.
I wish all of the participants well in the quest to go where no man has gone before. Im just sorry that my time in the space business has ended. It was a fun career and we did some great things.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | June 13, 2012 5:41 PM    Report this comment


Elon is effusive in his praise and gratitude for all the mentoring and help he has received from NASA.

As someone mentioned above, he has said words to the effect of 'I knew rocket science was hard, but I didn't know how hard it really is'.

I'd guess Elon would violently agree with your comment.

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Paul said: "I'll usually sip a demitasse of Kool-Aid in the name of polite social convention, but do you have to chug the whole gallon yourself? :)"

Paul I'll say this just as gently as I can. ANYONE who mentions SpaceX in same breath as the first Eclipse company simply is either deliberately lying or just unable to see reality when it orbits over their house! Name ONE actual similarity!

Instead of of looking at this as government/defense contractor good/private sector bad, why approach this interesting situation from the point of view of an aviation reporter?

Here's something you could look into. How long does it typically take for a General Aviation company to go from nothing to a full performance vehicle that attracts real customers? The most common answer is 'never'.

And we already have the long list of total failures of the NASA/Defense contractor model.

How was SpaceX able to go from nothing to successfully flying a space vehicle capable of carrying a wheel of cheese or 7 people in only 8 years?

What's different about SpaceX? How are they able to do so much with not much more money than it takes to develop a successful high performance homebuilt?

How did they do so much more at a fraction of what the government/defense contractor teams can do?

If you see weakness in the SpaceX approach, then report on these weaknesses! Dragon isn't a BD-5!

PS: Please ask your webmaster to clean out the spam.

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 26, 2012 4:03 PM    Report this comment

If ur bored YouTube the 2001 docking sequence... not a bad way to spend a few minutes :-) i forgot that that the SSTO concept was around back then. A British mob is looking at it currently I believe and their design is very similar to 2001.

Posted by: John Hogan | June 28, 2012 3:37 PM    Report this comment

@Bruce, I think you have me confused with Paul. I'm the one swimming in SpaceX koolaid.

Paul B is the one who seems to think that SpaceX is all hat and no cattle, even though their spaceships are eclipsing the sun over his house. ;)

Posted by: Jim Howard | June 28, 2012 4:14 PM    Report this comment

If ur bored YouTube the 2001 docking sequence... not a bad way to spend a few minutes :-) i forgot that that the SSTO concept was around back then. A British mob is looking at it currently I believe and their design is very similar to 2001.

Posted by: John Hogan | June 28, 2012 6:06 PM    Report this comment

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