No Minister

Not Iron Man Yet

For NASA the first half of each year is always sad in terms of history, with a series of disasters to remember.

Jan 27, 1967 – Apollo 1 fire, killing three astronauts.
Jan 28, 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger destroyed after launch, killing all seven astronauts.
Feb 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.
If you work at NASA you might start to look at late January/early February the way financial traders look at September/October.
But that’s NASA history. SpaceX and other private sector companies are the future.


Earlier this year I discussed SpaceX’s abort testing on its new Crew Dragon spacecraft, using its own Falcon 9 rocket to fly two NASA astronauts to the ISS. After one weather-driven abort, that launch and docking went without a hitch the other day and while re-entry will be a month or more away there’s no reason to think that won’t be successful as well.

This will lead to certification of Dragon by NASA and the start of regular flights from the USA to the ISS and LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Hopefully joining SpaceX later this year will be the Boeing ST-100 Starliner, flying to the ISS on commercial Atlas V rockets, although Boeing has been having a very bad couple of years.

Elon Musk with Mind Expanding Device

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a South African-born businessman and entrepreneur. At age 30, Musk made his initial fortune by selling his two successful companies: Zip2, for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, for $1.5 billion in 2002. He then announced that he was going to invest some of the money into a privately funded, startup space company, a sum reported to be $100 million.

People thought he was insane. At the time the biggest concern of the space industry was how America was going to compete with the European Space Agency (ESA), China and Russia in the launch game, all of whom seemed to be producing better, cheaper services. There was much talk of the US government providing more support to the behemoths of the industry to help them survive: Boeing, Lockheed, United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between the two), and others

For SpaceX it’s been a long, slow road for a company that likes to move fast.

Falcon 1 launches from Kwajalein Atoll, 2008

In 2006 NASA provided them with a small contract of $278 million as part of the COTS program (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services). That was a mark of respect for a company that had only existed since 2004. Other such firms fell away but the people who had pushed COTS figured that would be the case.

One interesting aspect is that early on, SpaceX asked NASA to run their expert rulers across its plans for the worlds first fully private-sector, liquid-fueled rocket – the Falcon 1.

NASA bluntly told Musk that it was just not possible to build such a rocket in the proposed timeframe for their proposed cost. They said it would take twice as long and cost several times more than SpaceX’s plan and budget allowed. Still, NASA also effectively said, “Hey, knock yourself out, this is what these little seed contracts are for“.

SpaceX thanked NASA for its advice – and then ignored it. Falcon 1 had three test failures before a success in 2008. As Musk told his staff at the time of the fourth test, they had no more parts or money for another.

With the Falcon 1 success SpaceX began to make money by launching small satellites (670kg). But those profits allowed them move on to their real, medium-term objective – building a rocket big enough to lift heavy cargo and passenger spaceships to the ISS as NASA wanted.

More years and failures followed with the Falcon 9 rocket series, which they’d already been working on in parallel with the Falcon 1, the result of Musk’s overall development approach:

  • Parallel development of vehicles, leveraging knowledge from one to the other.
  • In-house build with minimal out-sourcing.
  • Fast turn-around through design, build and test; an interative process lifted from his experience in the software industry.
  • Emphasis on reusability of rockets and spacecraft to reduce spaceflight costs, again with fast turnaround like commercial planes.

As such the Falcon 9 was expected to fly in 2008/09 but did not until 2010, and it had problems. But it could put 13 tonnes into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) amd in 2012 it finally lifted a Dragon cargo ship to the ISS. It should be noted that when the space station was developed in the 1980s and ’90s private spaceflight hadn’t even been considered.

Falcon 9 Launch

Within just a couple more years Falcon 9 had established records for successful flights, while also undercutting the price of every other rocket launch system in the world. Every competitor, including nation-states like China, is now scrambling to just match what SpaceX is doing now.

They charge $62 million per flight: the nearest US competitor is $73 million for a smaller payload. The Falcon 9 has also been steadily upgraded and can now push 23 tonnes to LEO and even 4 tonnes to Mars if called upon.

But SpaceX did not stand still and started going much further than they needed to for the NASA contract. In short-order they did the following:

  • Began building a version of the Dragon spacecraft that could carry humans and pitched for the NASA contract to fly people to and from the ISS. Since NASA became entirely dependent on Russia to do that job it was costing them $75 million per astronaut – briefly touching $82 million in 2015. SpaceX will do the job for $58 million.
  • Made the Falcon 9 even more reusable by landing it back at its launch site on land or at a mobile platform at sea. The response to this was eye-rolling and scoffing. The Shuttle SRB’s (Shuttle Rocket Booster) was reusable but had splashed down in the Atlantic, from where it was recovered followed by months of refurbishment.
  • Started development on a larger rocket called the Falcon Heavy that could loft 64 tonnes into space and be fully reusable. As yet another example of SpaceX learning, the first test flight was almost a total success, with only the centre stage failing to land back on earth. The two booster rockets – basically Falcon 9’s – landed together in Florida in what truly looked like a scene from a Science Fiction movie.
Space Tesla: Falcon Heavy’s test flight cargo
As of writing the Falcon 9 has flown 85 rockets, with 46 landings, and 31 of the rockets being used multiple times.


The Falcon Heavy successfully launched in February 2018 and costs about $90 million per launch. 

One aspect that really surprised me about the Falcon Heavy was the number of rocket engines involved. The more you have the tougher it is to control them all in perfect synchronisation. That was the main reason the USSR’s Moon rocket, the N1, failed in 1969; its 1st stage had 30 engines. The Falcon Heavy has 27 of the company’s Merlin engines, but then computer and physical control technology has come a long way.
And that sophistication is going to be needed considering the plans Musk has made for the future of SpaceX, and humanity, which are far greater and possibly more insane than just starting a private-sector space company.


Written by Tom Hunter

June 11, 2020 at 11:00 pm

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I followed the US space program religiously when I was a kid, I hoarded every library book I could find on the subject. I can recall being about 5 when I headed outside one night with the old man watching for Skylab tracking across the night sky. A couple of years later we had the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 when I was 7. I recall having such high hopes for what the Shuttle was going to bring, what a huge technical achievement it was, but it never quite achieved its goals in terms of turnaround and cost effectiveness, and of course the two disasters. It was a sad moment when the Obama administration unilaterally retired the shuttle fleet, cancelled the Constellation program and directed NASA's focus towards horseshit issues of climate change and Muslim outreach.I haven't followed SpaceX anywhere as much as I should. I thought Musk was full of shit, yet another rich guy playing with little rockets, having seen Branson's Virgin Galactic fall by the wayside with nothing ever coming of it after all the promises and assurances. Kudos to the Donald too for encouraging private sector involvement and making all NASA facilities available to them.The successful SpaceX mission to the ISS was a wonderful break from the depressing sight of mal-educated, narcissistic hordes of Bolsheviks and thieves doing their darnedest to send us all back to the dark ages.

    Porky Roebuck

    June 11, 2020 at 9:35 pm

  2. My fave mission was Apollo 17, the final Lunar exploration of the program in December 1972. It was the perfect mesh of me finally being old enough to understand what was going on and the sharpest, clearest TV of all the missions.I did follow Skylab but since they were just going around the Earth it was a litlle \”meh\” compared to going to the Moon, and I can recall nothing of the Apollo-Soyuz mission since the geo-politics of it all passed me by and it also seemed \”meh\”.Bush 43 was the one who established the COTS program and to be fair to Obama he is the one who pushed it even further after he cancelled the hopeless Constellation program in 2011.Anyway, I'll have more on that in the next article where I look at SpaceX's plans for the future.

    Tom Hunter

    June 12, 2020 at 12:15 am

  3. Then there's Starlink, an ambitious disruptive internet and phone project to give 40 ms latency satellite connections to the massive world market who have poor latency. $70 per month. At 800 satellites it can go live. They are almost at 500. Aiming at 10,000. I don't understand why Telco's aren't stressing more. Aiming at 50% of some markets.


    June 12, 2020 at 8:58 am

  4. Yeah, the Starlink thing is yet another of his \”crazy\” ideas, following on from the likes of Bill Gates and his backing for the Iridium network years ago that never qute achieved what it hoped for.And I see that the next batch of Starlink's going up are going to be coated with non-reflective material because there have been complaints from amateur astronomers about earlier models interfering with their sky-photography.

    Tom Hunter

    June 12, 2020 at 11:19 pm

  5. Tom I found that their ability to change quickly and install solutions to solve the reflection issue amazing. Not the solution, I don't know much about that, but just the speed and willingness to adapt. Most corporations would still be organising the first round of meetings. The secrets of SpaceX is in the organisation. Vertical integration, not listed. Rocket lab has similarities, because they had to do everything, being based in NZ. Companies aren't allowed to export Rocket Tech. Bombs and stuff make customs nervous. But, SpaceX company organisation is what people will be studying to understand how they succeeded. They don't pay the best either, but they have got a great team. Don't bet against Elon.


    June 13, 2020 at 6:42 am

  6. Don't bet against Elon.Ha! I've used that exact same phrase in my nest article on SpaceX's future, which I'll put up tomorrow, Monday.

    Tom Hunter

    June 13, 2020 at 9:50 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: