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OPINION: Thoughts on SpaceX after the AMOS-6 incident

Animation of the booster from CRS-8 landing on a drone ship. This is cool, but more effort needs to be expended on making operations more reliable. Landings come later. Much later. Credit: SpaceX

Animated GIF of the booster from CRS-8 landing on a drone ship. This is cool, but more effort needs to be expended on making operations more reliable. Landings come later. Much later. Credit: SpaceX

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ve no doubt heard that SpaceX had a rocket explode on the pad while in the midst of preparing for a brief static fire of the Falcon 9’s (F9) first stage engines. The incident, which occurred on September 1, 2016, is still in the early stages of being investigated and — as of this posting — the company has made no mention of a cause, suspected or otherwise. Regardless of how learned or informed the analysis may be, one must understand that unless and until a statement is made by SpaceX and/or an investigatory panel, all other analysis is conjecture.

I don’t intend to discuss my thoughts on what caused this particular event as I’m not qualified to do so, nor am I privy to any information not otherwise publicly available. That said, I have been following SpaceX since their early days and have some definite thoughts about the company. As stated in the title, this is strictly an opinion piece, though I will be backing up those opinions with facts wherever possible.

I believe that SpaceX has achieved things that many, myself included, thought would be supremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull off. Being able to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage, be it on land or on one of the ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships’ (ASDS), is a remarkable achievement. Combine that with them being the first private company to launch and recover a LEO-capable spacecraft…and ferry supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS), one would be disingenuous if they didn’t respect SpaceX’s accomplishments.

But this innovation comes at what cost? Certainly, ‘price-per-pound’ to orbit can be a huge barrier to furthering our planet’s spaceflight endeavors, and SpaceX’s goal of significantly reducing this metric is laudable and ultimately necessary. However, now is not that time.

Though many people like to equate spaceflight as a ‘SpaceX vs NASA’, or ‘SpaceX vs ULA’, or ‘SpaceX vs whoever you want to put here’, it cannot be overstated how much SpaceX relies on NASA for their well-being. Contrary to what many SpaceX supporters may believe, the company might not exist if not for the space agency they’re so quick to mock for its “Senate Launch System”, or perceived snail’s pace at which things get accomplished.

It has been reported that as much as 85 percent of the company’s financial intake is directly due to NASA, yet SpaceX continues to devote significant resources on projects of their choosing rather than fully addressing their largest customer’s needs. And while SpaceX may have a manifest of more than 70 customers waiting for the company to get their payload to space, totaling more than $10 billion, they won’t wait forever…and SpaceX has consistently missed nearly every publicly-stated milestone.

Indeed, Inmarsat had to book an option to use a Russian Proton rocket for one of their satellites as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (FH) has met with repeated delays. Initially projected to launch in 2012, the company’s super heavy lift vehicle has yet to see a launch pad, much less loft a paying customer’s payload. The AMOS-6 incident will most certainly further delay the rocket’s debut as the company investigates the cause of the failure and works to combine F9 and FH launches at their Launch Pad 39A facility.

The Falcon Heavy is not the only glaring example of the company over-promising and under-delivering. In an interview with Space.com in March 2006, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that the company had been working on their Dragon capsule since late 2004, and barring a heat shield and maneuvering system, it was crew capable. “As part of a top secret project, we’ve already built a prototype flight crew capsule, including a thoroughly tested 30-man-day-life-support system, which is sitting on our factory floor right now. It doesn’t meet all the NASA requirements, so it will probably not see flight, but it has served as a valuable learning experience,” Musk is quoted as saying in the article. Nearly twelve years have passed, and the company is still at least a year away from launching a crew-capable spacecraft.

I understand that Musk is the CEO and founder of SpaceX, and he’s the driving force behind a lot of what the company does. However, his grandiose statements have yet to bear fruit in most instances…and, even when they do — such as with first stage recovery — they’re generally late and address no real business case. Yes, reducing the cost to get to space is a good thing, but it’s not necessary from the outset. Commercial and governmental entities weren’t holding back deploying assets due to launch costs, so SpaceX’s goal to reduce launch costs was not a need of any of their potential customers…at least not in the short term.

To those who may be thinking that SpaceX’s comparatively inexpensive launch services will help them be self-sufficient, consider this: India (ISRO) can potentially launch payloads at a price that makes them competitive with SpaceX. If SpaceX can’t differentiate themselves in any meaningful way, why would customers choose them over someone like ISRO? Since SpaceX has had two costly failures in just a little more than a year, they’re not making themselves out to be the reliable choice.

SpaceX needs to focus on reliability. That comes before reusability. That comes before Red Dragon and any Mars plans. That comes before conducting a static test fire on a fully-integrated launch vehicle so that they can save a day of processing. That comes before constructing a launch facility in Texas. That even comes before Falcon Heavy. After becoming as reliable as possible, they then need to focus on the additional needs of their paying customers. After doing those things, then — and only then — should they work on ways to upend the launch industry.

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