Some uncomfortable but valid thoughts about SpaceX

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In the heat of competition: Doug Messier has written an excellent essay today raising some serious questions about SpaceX and its methods of operation.

The issues he raises go the heart of the company’s future. Moreover, he notes the unusual nature of the September 1 launchpad explosion that, unless explained, threatens the company business model.

The rarity of a satellite launch vehicle exploding during fueling had people racking their brains and scouring the Internet to find out the last time something like this happened. At least in the United States, that turned out to be more than 50 years ago when rocketry was in its infancy and accidents were much more frequent.

The lack of any modern precedents and the speed of the accident — Musk tweeted that engineers were reviewing around 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data that cover only 35-55 milliseconds — are making the investigation challenging. Musk has said it is the most difficult of the six failure investigations the company has conducted since it was founded in 2002.

Messier also takes a close look at SpaceX’s overall approach to innovation and development, and notes its unusual and somewhat risky nature.

Read it all. It provides valuable information for anyone who wants to understand honestly the state of the American launch industry.


  • wayne

    [“It’s better to burn out, than it is to rust.”]

    Extremely interesting info! The rocket-science is not my bailiwick, but very nicely compiled.

    Personally, I’m intrigued by Musk’s financing of his ventures;
    Tesla burns through money as-if it were rocket-fuel, and his purchase of Solar City [which has its own unique business-model] from his cousin, hasn’t exactly been the easiest deal in his life.

    Hopefully, Musk’s remark about the– “35-55 milliseconds,” will dampen the speculation concerning the USLaunchReport video.

  • Joe

    If Elon Musk wants to send people to colonize Mars, I propose that he sends politicians first, when England put its first colony here in America, it did not last very long before it disappeared, sending people to colonize a much less freindly environment with current technology would end in a disaster. Despite the two catastrophic accidents, Space X moves along at a much faster clip than NASA could, NASA had some pretty big failures too, so far Space X has had only capital loses, it seems as though they do learn, I think Space X has put a lot of pressure on not only NASA, but everyone else building launch and support craft for the space industry.

  • ken anthony

    the Crew Dragon program seems to be suffering from the company’s tendency to focus on many projects at once.

    While SpaceX does work on many projects at once, this statement is pure assertion with zero evidence that any program is suffering because of it. On the contrary, they have demonstrated success after success without any unusual failure rate.

    Other supposed more focused projects have had greater failures without anything close to their success which must include the fact that they lit a fire under the entire industry.

    They’ve made mistakes, but mostly of the kind that were not predictable. For example, perhaps they could have had a number of high speed film cameras recording the fuel loading, but if no incident like this had occurred in 50 years would anybody have suggested it? Does anybody even use film anymore?

    SpaceX is on track to leave the entire industry behind in the next decade, even with further failures. Amazon money, not failures, is about the only thing that will keep them honest as the rest of the industry tries to increase its innovation to catch up.

    If SpaceX is persuaded to freeze a design to satisfy some customers, that doesn’t require them to change their innovative practices that got them to this dance. All this talk of focus is just sour grapes.

  • Mitch S

    Interesting piece but ultimately unless some whistleblower comes out, we can only judge Space X’s engineering/quality practices on the failures.

    I find last year’s in flight explosion a particularly interesting case.
    Was the failure due to the second stage tank being over pressurized or due to a defective support strut?
    And if it was due to a supplier that supplied a strut with ” material flaws due to casting defects, ‘out of specification’ materials, and improper heat treatment” who was this supplier, and was the supplier sued for damages? Surely Space X would have the supplier under contract to make the parts to specification.
    And has Space X beefed up it’s quality control procedures?
    It’s not only inquiring minds that would like to know, insurers, future customers and taxpayers (the ones that paid for the Dragon cargo) would like to know too.

  • Frank

    One of the HR directors left my company for Spacex in 2015, only to return a few months later. She said it wasn’t at all what she expected and described them as a “5000 employee start up.”

  • Edward

    Mitch S asked: “who was this supplier, and was the supplier sued for damages?”

    It turns out that sometimes you have to take the hit for a vendor’s problem or bad judgment.

    NASA recently had to delay a probe at a cost of $150 million.
    They can’t collect that kind of damages from the vendor. Plus who would ever do work for them again if they did? There is always a risk when developing new hardware, and some of that risk is taken on by the buyer, in this case: NASA. NASA usually is vigilant with its vendors, especially ones they haven’t worked with before, but for political reasons, they chose to go with this one, and for reasons I do not know, they chose not to closely supervise their work. (I have the impression that this company was less closely supervised by NASA than my work was, when I was working on various instruments that went up on their satellites, and I was working for a company that NASA had a long, good relationship with.)

    I worked for a company that bought some antistatic foam, advertised as being non-corrosive to electronic part, which then corroded our expensive electronic parts. No lawsuit for damages.

    Many or most contracts limit damages to the cost of the item purchased, eliminating all liability for other losses due to the use of the item. The software you are running on your computer has end-user license agreements, preventing you from collecting damages from harm the software may cause you (e.g. lost treasured photographs, lost business, or even burned down house).

    Even SpaceX’s contract with NASA does not allow NASA to collect for damages from SpaceX resulting from the loss of CRS-7.

    Just as you may someday have to do with your software, SpaceX and NASA have to suck it up and write off the losses. NASA will get another CRS launch, and SpaceX likely was reimbursed for the price of the struts.

    This is not to say that any of these vendors or suppliers has an attitude of carelessness. They do not. But buyers take on a certain amount of risk, which means that they have to be vigilant in choosing their suppliers, and suppliers have to be vigilant in delivering quality goods and services — and not making poor judgment decisions when developing new hardware or software.

    Anther problem with a lawsuit for the struts can be seen in the article. There is some doubt as to whether the struts, as manufactured, were the cause of the accident. Some, most, or all were made below specification, due to casting defects, but, according to the article, there were indications that the struts may have been improperly installed or mistreated by SpaceX workers (“LSP pointed to manufacturing damage or improper installation of the assembly into the rocket as possible initiators of the failure. LSP also highlighted improper material selection and such practices as individuals standing on flight hardware during the assembly process, as possible contributing factors“). A defense attorney could do a lot with such statements.

  • Bob: Thank you for the praise on the article and for linking to it. I really appreciate it.

    Ken: I quoted from and linked to an article by Eric Berger in which he quoted a NASA official as saying that SpaceX lacks focus. Eric is an excellent journalist, and I believe this report. The evidence was that Boeing had a dedicated team of engineers on commercial crew whereas the people he meets with at SpaceX are inevitably working on other programs in addition to their crew duties.

    The source found that unacceptable. And with good reason. NASA is paying billions of dollars to SpaceX for this program, which is vital to the agency’s human spaceflight program. SpaceX must achieve safety margins with this program far in excess of what it has demonstrated so far. With the company determined to send people all the way out to Mars, you’d think they’d be focused on crew as a stepping stone.

    The original plan was to fly an unmanned Dragon to ISS in March 2016. A crew flight would have followed in October, with commercial flights in 2017. The latest schedule according to is the unmanned flight to occur in July 2017 — 16 months behind schedule. It was two years ago on Friday — yesterday — that the contract for the final phase of commercial crew was awarded. So, 16 month slip in the past 24 months. While NASA marked that anniversary, Musk was on Twitter debating what to rename his Mars Colonial Transporter.

    The IG audit released earlier this month predicts first commercial flights in late 2018 instead of early 2017. Not all of that is SpaceX’s faults; NASA has had delays on its side. Boeing has also slipped on Starliner. With Falcon 9 grounded, Falcon Heavy running four years behind schedule, and commercial crew slipping constantly, SpaceX really needs to focus.

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