Space-X, Henry Ford, Buggy Whips, and What’s at Stake
The recent Space-X Falcon 9 launch failure provides new ammunition to the critics of the new space launch commercial industry. These detractors point to the United Launch Alliance’s perfect launch record and shake their heads sadly at the entrepreneurial upstarts like Space-X. “See,” they say, “we warned you. You can’t take shortcuts.” Of course, those ULA launches cost two or three times more than a Falcon launch, and are using proven rocket technology, much of which has been in place for decades.
The space industry, which includes space launch, is no stranger to failures, many of them quite spectacular and public. It comes with the territory. Some failures occur because a technology is new and you don’t know what you don’t know. People forget about Vanguard and its early failures in its attempts to launch a satellite. Sometimes rockets fail due to a hidden design flaw that may not reveal itself for many missions, e.g., the shuttle Columbia. Often design flaws result from compromises driven by outside forces such as budget. One can argue the shortcomings of the shuttle program were due to budget cuts early on. Another type of failure can be attributed to a process breakdown, The NASA Mars Climate Observer is an example of this sort, where the ground-based software used English units for the force of gravity instead of SI (Metric) units.
For Space-X, a failure at this juncture of their program is worrying because their launch history is relatively short compared to their older competition. Coming on the heels of Orbital’s Antares launch failure and the Russian Progress failure, there are additional pressures to deal with in relation to the space station resupply.
My hope is this is something Space-X will learn from and move on, but it may not be that easy. Recent interviews with Elon Musk, Space-X’s founder, indicate the cause wasn’t something simple and straightforward. Sometimes in a root cause failure investigation you get lucky, the answer pops right out, and it turns about to be something simple. Other times it takes much more digging and painful probing. Those are the ones from which you really learn something about your product or your processes. Occasionally, you may even uncover a new fundamental aspect of engineering. I find we often learn more from our failures than from our successes. And, sometimes, the deep probing reveals something basically wrong with your approach.
Not the First
There’s much at stake here beyond just resupplying the space station, or even Space-X’s future. The space launch industry is at a cusp. The industry spent the first five or six decades of its life as a government entity or at least dependent on and controlled by government agencies. Now we have a true nascent industry, one approaching the business as a commercial enterprise where the aim is to make money. Of course, the prime contractors building the vehicles and conducting the launches in the past were in business to make money, but they were doing it under the control and dependency on of government agencies such as NASA and DoD. Now the new space entrepreneurs are trying to do it on a commercial basis, in a competitive market.
This isn’t the first attempt to reduce the cost of space projects. NASA in the 1990s under Daniel Goldin attempted a “faster, better, and cheaper” approach. Sixteen projects were conducted under this umbrella. Ten successes, some spectacular (e. g., the small rovers Opportunity and Curiosity designed for a 90- day life that ran for more than a decade, and one is still operating). Six failures, all spectacular in the sense of riveting news stories. Six out of sixteen missions failures. The same detractors as those criticizing Space-X pointed to those six failures with an “aha!” and things returned to the way they were always done: near 100% success but at higher cost. However, what those detractors often ignore is that those sixteen projects under Daniel Goldin cost less than one traditional NASA project. It’s just that we live in a society where public failure is unacceptable and those with the best PR and who scream the loudest win.
History May Repeat
Reducing launch costs is one key to democratize access to space beyond a few governments and large multinational corporations. In some ways, I liken the space industry’s current status to the early years of the automobile industry or even the personal computer industry. By the early 1900s there were almost 200 automobile companies in the world, each catering to the wealthy, providing them with a new play toy: the automobile. Then along came Henry Ford and the Model-T, and things changed. Suddenly the middle class, and, later, the lower class, could afford a car. The rest, as they say, is history. Only a few of the early automobile makers survived the churn Ford caused, but the automobile became a mainstay of American life.
The computer industry has a similar history. In the early 1980’s, the personal computers made by Atari and Commodore were viewed as little more than game consoles, until Steve Jobs with the Mac and Bill Gates with MS-DOS arrived on the scene. Then computers became capable of doing office work, and, once again, the rest is history. You can point to a similar path in the development of railroads and aviation. Someone had to step up and take the risk to open up the technology to everyone.
Space Industry at a Cusp
That’s exactly where we are in the space launch industry. I’m not saying that Space-X’s Dragon capsule or Virgin Galactic’s Spaceplane 2 are today’s Model T (as much as Richard Branson might like us to believe). After all, a flight in Spaceplane 2 will run a quarter of a million dollars. Not exactly the stuff for everyman. I liken these vehicles more to Oldsmobile’s “Curved Dash”. Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford did not discover the assembly line. That was done by Ransom Olds building his Curved Dash Oldsmobile in 1901. Ford took Olds’ concept one step further with interchangeable parts and created a vehicle better priced for the average person (as well as his attitude toward paying workers a living wage so they could afford to buy the Model T.) The Model T spelled the death knell to many industry stalwarts like the buggy whip makers who had spent so much time belittling the automobile. Economists and historians call this creative destruction. (See Danny DeVito’s rant in “Other People’s Money).
Where Do We Go From Here?
The findings on the Falcon 9 failure may prove to be critical in this evolution of our access to space. I believe Space-X is making the leap forward in launch cost reduction mainly through process change and through a less top heavy organization. Yes, Space-X has made advances in thrust-to-weight ratios of their engines but those advances are hardly revolutionary. They’re using decades-old liquid rocket engine technology that they’ve updated. They’re relying on process changes and a leaner organization for the big step in dropping costs. They’ve pulled as much fabrication and assembly as is feasible in-house so they have better control of the processes and the cost. They’re treating space launch as a business, not like the launch of the next space probe to Mars. If the cause of the failure is discovered to be something basic to their processes then the march toward everyman’s space may be diverted for the time being.
Virgin Galactic, another startup company that is focusing on space tourism, doesn’t have the final answer, either, to low-cost access to space. While their “fares” for their suborbital flights are predicted to cost $200K or more, they may still eventually commercialize suborbital flight and move it toward a more democratic availability. That will provide some commercialization success to space access but will not address the 800 pound gorilla in the room: low cost access to earth orbit which is the key to a true commercial space industry. There is a factor of sixty or more difference in the energy required to achieve orbital velocity of a sustainable orbit as compared to Spaceship 2’s Mach 2 or so. That is still the challenge everyone faces.
Still, Space-X’s attempt to bring down launch costs and to commercialize space is the next required step in the evolution of the access to space. In the commercial world perception is everything. If the cause of Space-X’s failure is proven to be intrinsic to Space-X’s commercial approach, then we’re back to the old way of doing things and space access for everyman is a long way off. We may find ourselves waiting for a truly revolutionary technology to achieve low cost space access – something like antigravity – that may never come along, or at least not for decades. On the other hand, if Space-X can find the cause of the failure and move on, then the process of creative destruction will continue. Without a revolutionary technology we may never achieve the $1-$5 per pound cost of the current airline industry (Falcon 9’s estimated launch cost are in the $1800-2500/lb range), but the launch costs still may come down enough to mimic the aviation industry of the mid-1950’s where inflation-corrected airfares were about five time higher than now. The average person flew less frequently but they still flew. So I’m watching the outcome of this failure investigation with interest.