Reality always wins


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Elon Musk’s talk yesterday at the National Press Club revealed several interesting things, about SpaceX’s rocket effort, about the state of the American commercial space industry, and about Elon Musk himself.

First, the company’s rocket design effort. Musk centered his talk on SpaceX’s new effort to make its Falcon 9 rocket completely reusable. Though he produced little specific details, and the moderator at the event asked no questions about it, it seems the engineering centers around these three concepts:


  • The first stage: They will add thrusters and landing legs so that after separation it could guide itself back to Earth and then land vertically, using those rockets to slow itself down.

  • The second stage: Thrusters and landing legs would also be added, as well as a heat shield at the bow. During descent the shield would protect the stage. Then the thrusters and landing legs would allow it to land vertically.

  • The Dragon capsule: They hope to use the launch abort thrusters, being designed now to make Dragon man-rated, as retro rockets to allow the capsule to land softly on land.

All three of these concepts are very smart and cost effective. Rather than completely redesign the first and second stages, Musk is proposing the simplest and easiest engineering fixes to make it possible to recover the first and second stages and reuse them. His idea to incorporate the launch abort thrusters into Dragon so they can be used for landing is also very smart, as this will improve the vehicles performance while also making it safer for humans.

At the same time, these are concepts only. None of the hard engineering design work has obviously been done to prove whether they can work or not. You could see this by looking at the video animation SpaceX created to illustrate the concepts. Not only did it leave out entirely the use for parachutes on both stages and Dragon — which will certainly be required even with landing thrusters — the animation incorrectly showed Dragon docking itself to ISS, when in truth the capsule only maneuvers itself close enough so that the station’s robot arm can reach out, grab it, and berth it.

What I took from this announcement by Musk is his recognition at last that the first stage of his rockets cannot be recovered and reused as presently designed. From the beginning Musk has claimed that they had designed their lower stages to parachute back to Earth so they could be recovered, refurbished, and reused. For example, there’s this quote from a September 8, 2006 press release:

The Falcon 9 first stage, Falcon 9 second stage and Dragon are all designed to land via parachute in water, although we could always add airbags later for a land landing, if that turned out to be lower cost. If the recovery and reuse is successful, the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle will be the world’s first fully reusable system (the Shuttle system loses the large orange tank every flight, so is considered partially reusable).

Yesterday Musk essentially admitted that this hasn’t worked, and probably never will. More aggressive engineering is required to bring those stages back to Earth safely. And this work has not yet been done, as Musk himself noted, “Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don’t reality wins.”

Second, Musk revealed two things about the aerospace industry that are not generally discussed.


  • Musk noted how the military wants to maintain its launch capability, but is doing so, not by opening up its bidding process to as many bidders as possible, but freezing out companies like SpaceX and maintaining the launch monopoly presently owned by Boeing and Lockheed. And as he commented, “If this decision is made based on lobbying power, we are screwed.”
  • When asked about foreign competition, he discounted Russia as irrelevant in the long run, saying that their space industry has shown little innovation in decades. Meanwhile, its space engineering workforce is aging. Instead, he considers China his number one competitor.

Finally, Musk gave us his view of the world and why he got into the space industry. When he was a teenager in South Africa, he wanted to do things that would help improve and change the world, and saw three commercial areas where he believed he would be able to do this in his lifetime: the internet, sustainable and recyclable industries, and space exploration.

In his mind, creating sustainable products (such as solar power and electric cars) will help make the Earth a more liveable place, while also reducing the risk of damage to the Earth by lowering the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Building rockets, meanwhile, will provide humanity with an interplanetary “insurance policy.” On the chance that the Earth might be destroyed, either by human action or natural disaster, Musk wants to make the human race “multi-planetary.” That way, we will no longer be dependent on only one world, but instead live on many.

Fortunately for him, and us, his success in the internet gave him the capital to enter the other two areas.

To me, Musk’s talk showed him to be an very realistic and well-grounded visionary. Though he is always willing and able to think outside the box, he also doesn’t attempt to build castles in the air. All of his businesses are aimed at making a profit, and all of them appear to be doing so, to a greater or lesser degree.

The more visionaries like this we can get, the better off all of us will be.

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22 comments

  • Joe2

    “- The first stage: They will add thrusters and landing legs so that after separation it could guide itself back to Earth and then land vertically, using those rockets to slow itself down.

    – The second stage: Thrusters and landing legs would also be added, as well as a heat shield at the bow. During descent the shield would protect the stage. Then the thrusters and landing legs would allow it to land vertically.

    – The Dragon capsule: They hope to use the launch abort thrusters, being designed now to make Dragon man-rated, as retro rockets to allow the capsule to land softly on land.”

    All three of these concepts are very smart and cost effective. Rather than completely redesign the first and second stages, Musk is proposing the simplest and easiest engineering fixes to make it possible to recover the first and second stages and reuse them. His idea to incorporate the launch abort thrusters into Dragon so they can be used for landing is also very smart, as this will improve the vehicles performance while also making it safer for humans.”

    Making those kinds of changes to existing vehicles, especially ones that have only flown an extremely limited number of test flights, is anything but simple and assured. Therefore whether this approach is “smart and cost effective” (much less “very smart and cost effective”) is questionable at best.

    No doubt Space X’s PR department could produce convincing looking CGI animation of the Falcon 9/Dragon skateboarding down the PCH toward San Diego. That does not mean it could actually do it.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Nicely summarized and presented, Bob. I found Elon’s views on climate change and the recent Solyndra debacle a bit cloying, but he’s certainly not alone in his misguidedness. And you’re right — he’s come up with some solid concepts. I’ll be pulling for him to succeed, even if he minimizes the value of lunar exploration.

  • the animation incorrectly showed Dragon docking itself to ISS, when in truth the capsule only maneuvers itself close enough so that the station’s robot arm can reach out, grab it, and berth it.

    The animation correctly shows the proposed docking procedure for the crewed Dragon, which will have a smaller docking port. You are thinking of the cargo Dragon, which is berthed by the robot arm.

  • Joe2

    Intersting assertion.

    Do you have a source for it?

  • Kelly Starks

    ???
    His design concepts for reusing Falcon is still very kludge, and the reverse burn of the first stage to get back to a launch point is a old (and highly performance killing) concept. The basic ICBM like design he used for the Falcon’s is optimized for expendable operations, and he keeps trying to refit that to be a RLV. Something like taking a dragster, and refitting it into a pick-up truck.

    Given both the Falcons and Tesla cars both are known for extremely high failure rates compared to competing systems. I’m not impressed by Musks great contribution, or his complaining that hes locked out of competitons.

    …come to think of it given SpaceX reps are still saying they would never agree to participate in a competition using full FAR like gov contracting rules (even given half his paying launchs are gov contracts), his complaining about being locked out of gov contracts is a bit rich — likely just playing for the crowd.

  • Joe2

    Agreed, except I think are being too mild with the ‘kludge’ comment.

    How much would the Falcon 9 have to be over designed (in terms of payload capability) to accept all that extra hardware (landing engines/fuel tanks/struts and still be able to launch the intended Dragon payload?

    With the obvious changes to Center of Mass caused by the addition of the extra hardware how much change is required to its attitude control system to maintain control during launch?

    Etc.

    This approaching the point of parody.

  • Everyone is ignoring the obvious that Elon Musk announced this reusable rocket due to competition from Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin.

    The Blue Origin reusable orbital rocket and human orbital capsule are identical in performance and function to Elon Musk and SpaceX. Bezos has more experience with propulsive landings, and Musk has more experience with making it to orbit.

    Bezos has $18-Billion of his own money that he can spend, and he is slowly spending only $50-Million per year. Bezos and Musk are doing the exact same thing, but Bezos has a lot more money.

  • Joe2

    Interesting point.

    Bezos also has (as a consultant) Dr. Bill Gaubatz who was the project manager for the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper Project.

    Blue Origin seems to be trying to develop a VTVL TSTO vehicle and I wish them luck. But they are working on that goal from the beginning. Not trying to take a booster originally not intended for powered landing and claiming they can retrofit it.

    That encapsulates my problem with Musk/Space X. He will say and do anything to try and undercut what he thinks is his competition and do it to the point of absurdity.

    (1) Want to take over ISS Crew transport? No problem Space X has that covered.
    (2) Want to take over the Delta 4 Heavy Military market? No problem Space X has the Falcon 9 heavy.
    (3) Want to undercut Blue Origin? No problem Space X will ‘just perform the simple task’ of making the Falcon 9 reusable?
    (4) Just ignore the fact that they are shutting down Falcon 1 production (move along folks nothing to see here).

    But the question is can they do any of that (except number 4)? In the era of the New Space Valhalla, some seem to be determined to ‘bet the farm’ on it.

  • maybe bezos and musk should team up . great post ^ nice comments

  • the ship sailed and you are all still standing on the dock. ALL of the proposed programs including NASA Liberty are never intended to fly. it is to stall the public while tax dollars are spent in secret for something Else.

  • libs0n

    I don’t think you quite understand commerce. If a market exists or may exist, then a company in that field may try to win and compete for business. “undercutting your competitors” by competing in their line of business is the point of business.

    1. NASA’s ISS crew resupply is a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Just ask Russia. SpaceX is a company that wants to be in this domain and they intend to compete for servicing it. Are Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada out of line for proposing crew resupply systems to meet NASA’s needs?

    2. Launch services are the basic field of service for SpaceX. Is SpaceX supposed to not compete for contracts in this field?

    3. What god given right does Blue Origin have for someone not to pursue the same thing they are? “Undercutting”? What does that even mean in this context?

    4. That market isnt lucrative enough to support a business strategy and they need to adjust their strategy. Real world comparison: HP making the business decision to discontinue their tablet line.

    I want to make another consumer electronics comparison. Apple sells iphone, ipods, and ipads. Samsung, and other companies, have similar products in an attempt to win money away from Apple and put it into their products instead. This is how business generally works. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with the notion of competition and companies acting in a manner to expand and thrive.

    What do you expect, for SpaceX to shut everything down, ignore all markets but Falcon 1, and not try to compete with any existing companies and thereby expand their company?

    “some seem to be determined to ‘bet the farm’ on it.”

    I think you would find, if you were willing to even consider other people’s reasoning on their own merits, is that what “some” people want is open competitive servicing of NASA’s needs, in which SpaceX is but one possible contender amongst other eligible contenders for meeting those needs.

  • Joe2

    Thanks for worrying about my lack of understanding of commerce, but (skipping returning the juvenile insults) the point is not whether Space X has the right to undercut it’s competition.

    The point is that this is currently a limited market. The original COTS competitors have dwindled to two (both more than two years behind schedule). All the while Space X makes increasingly grandiose claims.

    They will simultaneously:
    – Produce the ISS Cargo Service they have been promising (but have yet to deliver on).
    – Produce ISS Crew Service.
    – Fly (in two years) the Falcon Heavy (which seems to be aimed at the Military EELV market).
    – And now convert the multistage Falcon 9 into a fully reusable vehicle.

    They have the right to claim all that. The point is that if the customer (in this case this country) buys all of that and shuts down its existing capability (which in terms of ISS access it already has) and Space X claims turn out to be ‘Snake Oil’, then the customer has no one to blame but themselves.

    I trust this clarifies my statements for you.

  • libs0n

    The Shuttle wasn’t shut down because of SpaceX. The plan to shut it down was made in 2004, and it would have been shut down under Constellation and a non-existent capability, Ares 1 and Orion, developed during a period with no domestic access. Same thing as what was proposed and what’s happening now, a non-existent capability is being developed, ISS commercial crew access, during a period of no domestic access.

    Except the plans for the ISS commercial crew program never intended to bet the farm on SpaceX. It intended to bet the farm on more than one access option, of which SpaceX is but one contender for these slots. Some of these access options include greatly experienced companies like ULA and Boeing.

  • Joe2

    libs0n says:Posted October 3, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    “Except the plans for the ISS commercial crew program never intended to bet the farm on SpaceX. It intended to bet the farm on more than one access option, of which SpaceX is but one contender for these slots. Some of these access options include greatly experienced companies like ULA and Boeing.”

    When you add ULA and Boeing I assume you mean to reference Commercial Crew. However, that was the plan for COTS as well. Except now all that is left of CVOTs is Space X and Orbital Sciences, both behind schedule (by at least two years). Why do you think Commercial Crew will fare any better?

  • libs0n

    You’re misinformed. COTS only had 2 awardees, Kistler and SpaceX. Kistler did not meet financial milestones and their award was terminated and the funds recompeted which Orbital Science won. COTS didn’t “dwindle down” to two, only 2 slots were funded.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, Orbital isn’t SpaceX and is an experienced company in their own right, in spacecraft systems and a spattering of smaller launch vehicles. My criticism of the COTS program is that it should have focused on spacecraft systems and not new launch and spacecraft systems. I speculate that funding a Delta 2 class replacement rocket was a driving subfactor in award selection, given that the Delta 2 was to be retired after the Air Force moved on from it, and the scuttlebutt generally is that Griffin was hostile to EELVs and thus entries that used EELV launch systems were disfavoured. But nothing succeeds like success, and despite your hostility, the outlook on COTS/CRS is good. Time marches on, you know.

    It may not fare better. Commercial crew funding has been slashed from requested levels. bucks = buck rogers, remember? I’m optimistic about SpaceX delivering their system within the general timeframe assuming the consistent present funding levels, as the amount that NASA sends to Russia every year is more than the purchase cost of their yearly Falcon 9 fleet, and that is a guaranteed captive market for them as soon as they get a domestic system online. Reduced funding levels would lengthen the time SpaceX has that market to themselves as their competitors are more sensitive to it. I would find it ironic if adequately funding commercial crew was now more about funding a competitor to SpaceX, given the line of argument you and people like you have taken against it. Of course, if Commercial Crew downselects to one slot, then I expect Boeing to be the favourite for it.

  • Kelly Starks

    Joe2
    The weight of the extra gear would be dwarfed by the weight of the extra fuel adn LOx to do all those high energy maneuvers! But yes then you have to ballence the craft when its boosting forward, or decelerating on shields backwards? Neat trick!

    He took a wrong turn adopting a RLV ICBM design layout, adn now hes trying to duct tape on patch’s to make it a RLV. He REALLY should pul the systems from the Falcons and Dragon, adn reconfig it into a RLV friendly layout.

  • Kelly Starks

    Blue origins having problems, they are a few years behind their schedule, several versions into development, and still not getting very far. Might be they skiped steps (like requirements analysis) they felt weren’t nessisary or what, I don’t know; but they are not getting very far in their “…reusable orbital rocket and human orbital capsule…” program.

  • Kelly Starks

    One big surprize for Congress was that COTS isn’t projecting to even be cost competitive (much less cheaper) then Shuttle or the Russian progress. And that’s with COTS contenders getting a big cost advantage from NASA as far as the paperwork and bureaucratic oversight costs.

  • libs0n

    Starks,

    You’re wrong. COTS/CRS has a lower programmatic cost ceiling than the Space Shuttle. If you tried to run the Space Shuttle at the funds COTS/CRS receives, the system wouldn’t even function. When you try to compare a well funded Shuttle program vs a much lesser funded COTS/CRS system, then you are not being honest in your comparison.

  • Kelly Starks

    It has a lower cost ceiling, but the costs per ton to the ISS were higher given all the overhead costs and “grants” to bankrool the dev of the launchers for COTS – ironic given COTS means Commercial Off The Shelf.

  • libs0n

    There are other aspects as well.

    COTS is two cargo systems to provide redundancy. A two string supply line is part of the desired mandate. This splits up the cargo amount and reduces the efficiency in order to achieve that qualitative benefit of redundancy. If it was one system servicing the same amount of cargo, then its numbers would be better.

    It’s per pound numbers are based upon the amount of cargo procured, not fantasy demand fixed around Shuttle capacity. If they wanted to buy more cargo service they could, but they bought the amount they did. If the COTS systems were servicing the same amount of as the Shuttle is depicted, then its per pound numbers would drop. And if the Shuttle were servicing the smaller amount the COTS vehicles are servicing, then its numbers would be higher.

    COTS/CRS is being procured over a length of time. That means it has to incorporate things like paying a person’s salary over 5 years instead of 1. If all of its demand were delivered over a single year’s time, it would have better numbers. However, ISS requires a constant supply and thus it is procured over a length of time. Invariably, the comparisons to the Shuttle compare to a single year of large amount Shuttle delivery. If the Shuttle had to be stretched out to deliver the same amount of cargo over time as COTS, then its costs would be higher.

  • Kelly Starks

    COTS is servicing about its max capacity. The twin providers, adn the overhead and upfrount costs associated, drives costs up — but the point of COtS was to provide reduced costs. At least that was the sales pitch, its arguable NASA wanted to “disprove” the concept of commercialization — which COTS could be used to do if spun right on DC.

    ..and yes the redundancy has merit – but given were dealing with high risk providers, the overall relyability isn’t going to be higher.

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