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Thu Nov 15, 2012, 05:17 PM

Can Elon Musk and SpaceX change the rocket equation and make spaceflight routine?

From the Smithsonian Institute's Air & Space mag online: Is SpaceX changing the rocket equation?

The saga of entrepreneur Elon Musk's attempt to bring down the cost of putting stuff into space actually started with his long-term ambition: Making human beings a multi-planet species. Musk wanted to put a small greenhouse with some seeds and plant-food gel on the surface of Mars. He found contractors who would build a lander for a reasonable cost; but, the cost of launching it to the red planet was prohibitive, whether he was talking to US rocket companies or the Russians.

So, in 2002: "....... enlisting a handful of veteran space engineers, Musk formed Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with two staggeringly ambitious goals: To make spaceflight routine and affordable, and to make humans a multi-planet species." The key to all this is holding down the cost of launches:

But what really sets SpaceX apart, and has made it a magnet for controversy, are its prices: As advertised on the company’s Web site, a Falcon 9 launch costs an average of $57 million, which works out to less than $2,500 per pound to orbit. That’s significantly less than what other U.S. launch companies typically charge, and even the manufacturer of China’s low-cost Long March rocket (which the U.S. has banned importing) says it cannot beat SpaceX’s pricing. By 2014, the company’s next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, aims to lower the cost to $1,000 per pound. And Musk insists that’s just the beginning. “Our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time,” he writes on SpaceX’s Web site, “as is the case with every other technology.”

Bringing down the cost required a departure from the usual big aerospace way of doing things:

......prices are expected to rise significantly in the next few years, according to defense department officials. Why? Musk says a lot of the answer is in the government’s traditional “cost-plus” contracting system, which ensures that manufacturers make a profit even if they exceed their advertised prices. “If you were sitting at an executive meeting at Boeing and Lockheed and you came up with some brilliant idea to reduce the cost of Atlas or Delta, you’d be fired,” he says. “Because you’ve got to go report to your shareholders why you made less money. So their incentive is to maximize the cost of a vehicle, right up to the threshold of cancellation.”

SpaceX's design philosophy emphasized both innovation and simplicity in design, like the decision to use the same low-cost Merlin engines in all stages of their vehicles. Another secret is an organizational style at odds with traditional aerospace:

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.

I got a look inside the traditional NASA/big aerospace way of doing things on a field trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, AL during an International Space Development Conference back in the 90s. One of our guides talked about problems with getting International Space Station contractors together for a meeting. You see, to build support for the ISS, congressional supporters had to provide contracts, and therefore jobs, in the home districts of as many supporters as possible. Which meant that NASA had to rent a large auditorium or even a stadium, for a meeting of contractors.

Add in the fact that decisions on design were often made to provide contracts to companies with powerful supporters in Congress, rather than for engineering reasons. Why do you think solid rockets were chosen for the space shuttle boosters despite their safety hazards? Some NASA engineers resigned when they learned that solids were to be used on a crew-carrying vehicle. Read Richard Feynman's comments in the appendix of the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Disaster, especially the paragraphs on solid rockets. Supporters of the solid-fuel rocket company Morton-Thiokol (now ATK Launch System Group) were able to influence NASA to use solids in return for their support for the space shuttle, which was in danger of cancellation several times during the 1970s.

Morton-Thiokol/ATK's supporters were able to successfully resist attempts to replace the SRB's with liquid-fuel boosters after the Challenger tragedy. That same group of powerful congressmen are the major reason that every launcher concept proposed by NASA has used or even been based on a variant of the shuttle's SRB's. That includes the cancelled Ares rocket based on a 'single-stick' version of the shuttle SRB's. A number of aerospace commentators have said that, if the Ares was carrying a crewed Orion space capsule, the crew would have little chance of survival, even with an Apollo-style launch escape system.

All the above, and more, are why a number of space program supporters, including progressives like myself, were happy when President Obama decided to rely on private launch companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation for International Space Station resupply. I would also like to see SpaceX and Orbital Sciences be allowed to bid on contracts for launchers and capsules for future deep-space missions to the lunar L2 point, asteroids and eventually Mars.

NASA does many things very well, as demonstrated by the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, the Kepler planet-finding space telescope and other missions; but, in developing vehicles it's been handicapped by having to work with big aerospace as well as being micro-managed by Congress.

For more information, go to SpaceX's webpage and its Facebook page.

BTW this post is partly in response to a (hopefully) friendly debate with DU colleague Bananas on why I don't support the proposed Space Launch System, and why I'm a supporter of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy. SpaceX has proposed follow-on heavy-lift launchers in the Saturn V class.

Also BTW, we may not necessarily need Saturn-class heavy lift to do manned deep space exploration; but, that's another post.

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Reply Can Elon Musk and SpaceX change the rocket equation and make spaceflight routine? (Original post)
LongTomH Nov 2012 OP
ROBROX Nov 2012 #1
bananas Nov 2012 #2
daleo Nov 2012 #3
caraher Nov 2012 #4
daleo Nov 2012 #5
Johonny Nov 2012 #6

Response to LongTomH (Original post)

Fri Nov 16, 2012, 02:26 PM

1. STINKING POLITICS ARE STOPPING PROGRESS

 

I think the GOP would love to see this country focused on WAR versus SPACE.

We were suppose to be on the moon in 2001.

Only something very evil could stop our progress of space travel.

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Response to LongTomH (Original post)

Fri Nov 16, 2012, 05:05 PM

2. I agree, I'll post some thoughts on this later. nt

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Response to LongTomH (Original post)

Sun Nov 18, 2012, 12:34 AM

3. None of this has anything to do with the rocket equation

Which is about payload to fuel relationships, as I recall. While some cost savings are no doubt possible, the physics behind the rocket equation won't change.

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Response to daleo (Reply #3)

Sun Nov 18, 2012, 12:38 AM

4. This "rocket equation" is more metaphorical

something like "viable orbit-and-beyond launch system" = "ultra-expensive, complicated and risky"

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Response to caraher (Reply #4)

Sun Nov 18, 2012, 09:31 PM

5. I think a lot of people believe the private sector can somehow perform miracles

When it comes to space technology and engineering. But most of the hard constraints are very hard indeed. Furthermore it is difficult to build a business case for space much beyond low earth orbit communications satellites.

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Response to daleo (Reply #5)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 03:37 PM

6. pretty much

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