The flight of Falcon 9/Dragon: Doing it right


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For those that want to relive the experience of success, SpaceX has posted a short highlight video of last week’s successful test flight of Falcon 9/Dragon capsule.

It is difficult to overstate the importance or magnifience of this achievement, accomplished not by a government but by a private company. As SpaceX rightly brags on its website:

This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from Earth orbit. It is a feat previously performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.

What I find even more telling is how quickly SpaceX got this done. The first launch attempt of their first rocket, Falcon 1, took place in March of 2006. About that same time they began work on Falcon 9, and were able to successfully fly its first mission only four years later. Contrast that with NASA. President Bush proposed building a replacement for the shuttle in 2004, and six years later all NASA could do was fly a mockup of Ares I/Orion, not the actual article. And that leaves out NASA’S numerous previous attempts to build a shuttle replacement that spent billions, and never did more than produce pretty powerpoint presentations.

SpaceX’s speed of operation (a sure sign of efficiency) is reminiscent of the early days of the space age. Then, NASA might have laid out the overall plan, but everything was built by private companies, all used to fighting for profits and market share. None could afford a leisurely pace, nor could they afford to do things badly. If they did either, their business would suffer. As a result, the United States was able to go from having no ability to put anything in orbit to putting its first man in space in less than three years, and was able to follow that up with the first manned lunar mission only seven years later.

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8 comments

  • Kelly Starks

    I’m not sure why you are so impressed by SpaceX’s success or its speed? Commercial firms have designed and built all the vehicles NASA or the DOD have launched, and in NASA’s case did al the maintenance and pre launch training and preparation, launching, and the operation of the flight launch and control centers?

    The lack of NASA management and political “oversight” as expected dramatically reduced the cost and time of the development and operation of their craft – though given most all of their launch contracts are with NASA, that’s likely to change.

    The fact their craft were originally developed completely with non governmental funds for a commercial market is unique, though sadly that market doesn’t seem to have materialized as projected.

  • People keep saying that there is no commercial market beyond NASA, but those people seem to ignore the Bigelow space stations. Robert Bigelow is just waiting for viable commercial transportation to become available before putting up his space stations. He already has 6 goverments interested in them. His first space station will require monthly flights. He plans on putting up more than one space station after the first one is successful.

    His space stations will require a lot more flights than NASA per year. There is a big commercial market just waiting to take off.

    Stefan

  • Coastal Ron

    Kelly Stark said “The fact their craft were originally developed completely with non governmental funds for a commercial market is unique, though sadly that market doesn’t seem to have materialized as projected.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “that market doesn’t seem to have materialized”. They won the largest ever commercial space launch contract (US$492 million) to launch Iridium satellites, and they have other commercial payloads on their manifest. Not bad for a company that is still testing their most popular launcher.

    They also have the $1.6B COTS/CRS contract, which though it is for a government customer, is still essentially commercial launch work. I say that because COTS/CRS is mainly focused on the payload delivery system, and not on the launch vehicle. For instance, they received $6M for the Draco Initial Hot-Fire COTS milestone, $5M for this recent Dragon test, and nothing for the 1st Falcon 9 test back in July. NASA is not paying them to develop Falcon 9.

    Getting back to the authors topic, besides operational speed, one can’t overlook the advantages of their vertical integration. I can’t tell you how many times government programs I’ve worked on have had to wait for vendors, either because they are late or are having problems that we needed to help fix. The time lag for fixing those problems can be horrendous and expensive, whereas having the production in-house can really speed things up. Also, every time you outsource something, you still have to dedicate a team of people to manage them, and your vendor is going to charge you their cost plus some level of profit too. By keeping their design fairly basic, they can hire the needed expertise, and save lots of money and time by doing it in-house. That’s innovative management.

  • Heh, they cut out the “Dragon deploy verified.. yeeeeehawwww” at Dragon separation. see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-ci9xIgNZM#t=10m30s

  • Kelly Starks

    > People keep saying that there is no commercial market beyond NASA, but those people seem to ignore the
    > Bigelow space stations.

    Bigelow is the big “?” of commercial space. If he can find a lot of would be tenants, requiring several dozen folks launched per year he could be a major boost to commercial space dwarfing the efforts of anyone else. But as of yet he’s made no claims as to having a sizable number of tenants lined up waiting. Also where previously he was referring to a big commercial research market – now he’s talking mainly about other governments wanting to be able to boast at having astronauts in space. Which is a much smaller total potential market.

    Also, as of yet hes not been able to show enough proof of market to allow the major firms to justify building for it. Especially disturbing when those firms are listing the VERY small ISS crew deliver contracts being talked about as being big enough to justify their going ahead.

  • Kelly Starks

    > Kelly Stark said ….
    Starks, Kelly Starks said.

    ;)

    >> .. “The fact their craft were originally developed completely with non
    >> governmental funds for a commercial market is unique, though sadly
    >> that market doesn’t seem to have materialized as projected.”

    > I’m not sure what you mean by “that market doesn’t seem to have materialized”.
    > They won the largest ever commercial space launch contract (US$492 million)
    > to launch Iridium satellites, and they have other commercial payloads on their
    > manifest. Not bad for a company that is still testing their most popular launcher.

    Its my understanding that the Iridium contracts only the largest because of inflation, and SpaceX is not showing the scale of none government market demand they were talking about before.
    > They also have the $1.6B COTS/CRS contract, which though it is for a government
    > customer, is still essentially commercial launch work. I say that because
    > COTS/CRS is mainly focused on the payload delivery system, and not on the
    > launch vehicle. ===

    I’ld disagree, and certainly it wasn’t what Musk was talking about.
    (NASA has contracted for a launch service rather then a vehicle development, just not on a high profile project.)

    > == For instance, they received $6M for the Draco Initial Hot-Fire COTS milestone,
    > $5M for this recent Dragon test, ==

    Thats a vehicle dev milestone – not a launch service award. You’re undercutting your argument?

    > Getting back to the authors topic, besides operational speed, one can’t overlook
    > the advantages of their vertical integration.==

    It has pluses and minuses in any business model. Everything’s in house so you have direct control, but it ups your capital costs, and you cut yourself off from more qualified suppliers.

    Its not innovative Ron. Its been done before by the older firms. They went away from it for a lot of good reasons (capital, expertice, potentially better cost and quality buying as part of a industry wide pool, etc) Some are going back to that to keep work in house (or as the suplier base dies) — though it does cripple you in most government contracts since you can’t contract out to suppliers in all the important congressional districts to win bids. Given that’s pretty much the prime purpose and interest in NASA as far as voters and hence Congress is (or at least was) concerned – its limiting.

    >== I can’t tell you how many times government programs I’ve worked on
    > have had to wait for vendors, either because they are late or are having
    > problems that we needed to help fix. ==

    Been there – course more often I’d had to wait for gov personnel to get a clue or make a choice!

    [Literally: It took most of the year to get gov subject mater experts to approve a new copy of the 3 view drawing of the outside of the helicopter spec I was working no. No arguing over what was ni or out – just not getting back. Naturally substantive questions …. lets just say the gov admits they blew their delivery date from us. ]

  • Robert Horning

    “Bigelow is the big “?” of commercial space. If he can find a lot of would be tenants, requiring several dozen folks launched per year he could be a major boost to commercial space dwarfing the efforts of anyone else. But as of yet he’s made no claims as to having a sizable number of tenants lined up waiting.”

    That isn’t true. Bigelow already has a memorandum of understanding signed with several future tenants and users of his space stations, and is trying to work out the details to turn those agreements into formal contracts with paid deposits and more. The list of customers is fairly large, and once more concrete things like having a real vehicle that can be used for sending those customers up has been one of the sticking points all along.

    The one issue Robert Bigelow has been worried about, justly so I might add, is that he doesn’t want to have any sort of vendor lock-in and desires a genuinely competitive commercial spaceflight market. This is one of the reasons he has been pushing for the CST-100 as it provides a “second source” for flights into space. If the FAA-AST pulls the flight worthiness certificate on either the CST-100 or the Dragon, all isn’t lost because there is always the backup available. Relying just on the Dragon is a bad move, and something I completely understand as well. NASA should realize this too as the downtimes from having the shuttle go through a “return to flight” process from both the Challenger and Columbia accidents more than demonstrates why depending on a single mode of transport is a bad thing.

    It is a chicken or egg situation here, where until the vehicles capable of going into space with people on board are built that the practical application of those vehicles for commercial purposes can’t really be done either. Both the Dragon and the CST-100 are far enough along that at least a memorandum of understand can be signed at this point, but more needs to happen before a formal contract is signed, even for those potential customers.

    I do think that Robert Bigelow will have paying customers inside of his orbital modules before the Chinese get their space station put together.

  • Kelly Starks

    > …. Bigelow already has a memorandum of understanding signed with several future tenants and
    > users of his space stations, ==

    The problem is how many is “several”? How many flights? if its only a few like the ISS – it won’t be anywhere near enough.

    >== The one issue Robert Bigelow has been worried about, justly so I might add, is that he doesn’t
    > want to have any sort of vendor lock-in and desires a genuinely competitive commercial spaceflight
    > market. This is one of the reasons he has been pushing for the CST-100 as it provides a “second
    > source” for flights into space. ==

    True – but if he doesn’t have enough business to keep both – or one – busy, the costs will go up to keep them both going, until one or both drop out of the business.

    A chronic problem if the costs to be in a market are to high.

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