Ode to SpaceX and Musk

Posted: November 24, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , ,

SPAC_Falcon_Family_lgThe media is enamored with Elon Musk. Why not? He’s building rockets and rockets are cool; he doesn’t discourage the many ‘genius’ tags thrown his way (maybe because there aren’t too many physics majors in journalism); he’s already made a fortune (PayPal) in the real world (and cashed out), and he’s a reliable political and social liberal.

But that won’t make a rocket fly, nor will it make SpaceX succeed, even if they are unencumbered by the cost-adding layers of bureaucracy the military, NRO, and NASA all create. Less ‘oversight’ equals less cost, after all, but can a new start reliably reduce the cost to orbit by something approaching a half-order of magnitude? I don’t think so.

And at some point, the SpaceX ‘get real’ flag has to be thrown. For example:

Even if an engine [on the nine engine Falcon 9] explodes, says [SpaceX propulsion chief Tom] Mueller, the others will not be affected.

I’m not too sure about that; engine failures tend to be catastrophic and don’t much seem to gracefully degrade. And then there’s this:

Talking about a [8000 person] city on Mars by the middle of this century—even as SpaceX has yet to fly its first cargo mission to Earth orbit—is one of the reasons space professionals are skeptical about Musk’s claims.

SpaceX is for real and they are showing it with substantive and unprecedented accomplishments, but they are like everyone else in the space industry in one important way: they can only make money by selling the government a service. The competition is useful to the customer (that is, the government), but at some point this thing called reverting to the mean comes into play and space launch falls prey to regulatory capture, rent-seeking, and/or crony capitalism.

Will reverting to the mean affect SpaceX’s performance, cost, or schedule? History suggests it is most likely to revert on cost and schedule, especially as the customer demands ever-increasing insight.

A wise man once said the government wants to pay a fair price and have the contractor make a fair profit. If we could only agree what we mean by fair.

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