How SpaceX Reached Orbit, Turning Aerospace on Its Head
This is the account of how an entrepreneur made a success of a company everyone told him would fail. From successfully launching (then also landing) its first commercial rockets into space, to making future plans to colonize Mars.
Throughout the story, the company’s approach is an iterative, agile one. And in a sector wedded to trusted old methods, this actually led to a series of industry-firsts. Ultimately, a willingness to fail, take risks and quickly learn from those failures would spell fast progress and commercial returns.
“I want to die on Mars, just not on landing.” — Elon Musk, SpaceX Founder
Until quite recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking space travel was the final frontier for business. High risk, huge costs, and lacking obvious return — it had all the hallmarks of bad investment. Is it any accident that “moonshot” should become the industry term describing high risk, low yield projects? However, against all the odds, business leaders from Virgin, to Amazon, to Microsoft and Google would still ultimately end up investing in space.
Why the need for private investment in the first place? What had changed in the 45 plus years since Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men on the Moon? Fast forward to the present, and their “giant leap for mankind” seems awfully distant, both in time and spirit. Public funding, as well as the Cold War government’s sense of urgency are both in short supply.
In a sign of the times, in late 2015, a US presidential candidate courted public opinion by saying he would “fix potholes” instead of sending people into space. Then in June 2016, Congress effectively told NASA to limit its ambitions — launch satellites, forget about Mars. Perhaps the National Space Agency is paying the price of failing to move with the times? Or for some high profile shuttered projects? Who would be brave (or foolish) enough to step into the breach?
Step forward to Elon Musk — serial entrepreneur, and founder of both Tesla Motors and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. One of the most idolized technologists on the planet, and certainly the only one rumoured to have inspired the portrayal of a superhero, in the shape of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.
Making his fortune from the $1.5 billion sale of PayPal, Musk founded the business in 2002, two years even before he would launch Tesla. And SpaceX has since built a formidable reputation. Achieving a series of industry firsts, it claims to be profitable, having accrued more than $10 billion in launch contracts. In the following lines, we’ll look at how it got there, and how it turned conventional thinking in the space industry on its head.
“The First Real Tech Start-up in Space”
From the start, SpaceX’s aim was bold in the extreme: “to revolutionize space travel, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”
Friends advised Musk against what they deemed an impossible — or even worse — a vanity project, that could easily turn into an embarrassment. But he was not to be swayed. And his timing would prove to be opportune. Much of NASA’s focus and budget at the time was on the Constellation project, intended to replace the Space Shuttle program. It would also be dealing with the chilling effect of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, which claimed the lives of its seven crew members. Subsequent launches were suspended for more than two years.
Against this background, “private public” contracts started to look a lot more attractive. And through a loophole in its constitution, NASA was able to start looking to outsource, on the assumption that companies like SpaceX could cut costs, making space travel more efficient than it had ever managed itself.
As this Quartz piece outlines, many of SpaceX’s cost savings would be achieved through owning the entire production chain — effectively building rockets itself from scratch in its California factory. As early employee Scott Nolan puts it: “SpaceX was the first real tech start-up” in aerospace, creating “from the ground up, questioning everything.”
And what the piece explains as a “generational” difference in SpaceX’s approach versus NASA, could also be viewed as the meeting of an Agile versus Waterfall mind-set:
“SpaceX followed an iterative design process, continually improving prototypes in response to testing. Traditional product management calls for a robust plan executed to completion, a recipe for cost overruns.”
On the one side, we see the resulting impact of Nasa’s $9 billion Constellation project, which was ultimately scrapped completely, seen as ‘lacking innovation’ before it was even completed. With SpaceX, we see a willingness to fail, learning along the way. This would mean unprecedented innovation, lowered costs and rapid development. On the downside, in an area unused to agile thinking, a series of failures could seriously damage customer trust.
From 2006 to August 2008, with pressure building and time running short, all three of the company’s initial launches failed. Though SpaceX seemed to be getting closer with each attempt, margin (and cost) of error were extremely tight: calculations suggested SpaceX had just two more chances to prove itself before its funding (including $100 million from Musk himself) would be depleted.
Changing only one detail — the time between the use of its first and second engine, after separation — Falcon 1 reached orbit at the fourth attempt in September 2008. Despite still seeming like a risky upstart to some of the competition, NASA would sign a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX soon after. And more new customers would follow — especially around the delivery of satellites.
Resupplying The International Space Station
Taking a rocket into orbit was one thing, but delivering on the NASA contract successfully would present an unprecedented challenge. It would also mark the next stage in SpaceX’s evolution. The mission would be to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). And a failed mission would not just mean a lost rocket, but potentially the destruction of human life, as well as a multi-billion dollar structure.
By 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon craft would successfully dock with ISS, becoming the first commercially run ship to deliver cargo to the station. In fact, SpaceX had successfully combined two critical missions into one with this flight — testing its approach, then docking with the station in one go. This ruthless focus on efficiency would initially make NASA nervous, but would still ultimately prove a success — and the first of several SpaceX missions to resupply the ISS.
In September 2014, NASA would next award SpaceX a lucrative $2.6 billion contract for up to six expeditions to bring astronauts to the ISS. However, in an indication of the space agency hedging its bets, it also awarded a noticeably higher $4.2 billion contract to Boeing, with the exact same goal in mind. With both parties aiming for a 2017 launch date, it’s clear which side NASA considers the safer hands — and which is still seen as the start-up. It’s interesting to note however that Boeing will be reliant on another recent start-up, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to build a rocket.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” — Elon Musk
A key aim, perhaps even an obsession for Musk from the start has been reducing the cost of space flight. Only if he could reduce it by a factor of ten, supposedly, would travel to Mars ever become feasible.
The ability to successfully land rockets on re-entry would become a key part of this strategy. While traditional thinking might simply accept that they would break-up with every flight, Musk described the process as throwing away ‘pallets of cash’. If each rocket represents a $60 million outlay versus $200k on fuel, successfully touching down on future missions and reusing rockets could be key to building SpaceX’s differentiator on cost.
Here once again, we see the space start-up’s iterative, agile focus come to the fore: solving a problem few in the aerospace industry even considered worth trying. Achieving it would take time, and continuous testing and improvements.
Its first successful ground landing came in December 2015. This marked the first time a rocket delivering a payload into orbit had landed on re-entry. However, this was only the first stage of the project passed. In the awareness that future missions would involve longer distances, higher speeds and hence greater risk on landing, SpaceX knew it had to perfect landing at sea rather than back at base.
Or more precisely, landing on a drone-powered landing vessel, which became SpaceX’s next major goal. With the accompanying trickier conditions, moving target and smaller margin for error, this would prove an awesome technical challenge.
In another sign of the company’s constant iteration, testing and improvement, a sea landing was achieved in April 2016, on the fifth attempt. In true SpaceX style, the drone ship would be named “Of Course I Still Love You”, a reference to a novel by author Iain M. Banks. With yet another industry first, science fiction and fact looked ever harder to separate.
In the case of NASA’s Space Shuttle program for one, the costs of repair and renewal were arguably not justified. However, for the Falcon, one expert suggests repair costs could be as low as half a million dollars. Compared to the $60 million cost per new rocket, this would more than justify the effort in perfecting its sea landing. And Musk would argue that any significant cost improvements could have an impact not just on its short-term business, but its loftier, “multi-planetary” future plans.
The Undiscovered Country
In a sign of how far the business has since matured, Musk announced at the recent Recode Event, that just a quarter of SpaceX’s business is now with NASA, another three-quarters from a global list of clients — including delivering commercial satellites, and other science missions. It is now launching on average once every 2 to 4 weeks, more than any other commercial aerospace business — and next year, its launch rate will overtake even China.
If all goes to plan, then next year the Dragon v2 will take up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station. Though the company has experienced delays in the past, Musk claims space flight to Mars should follow in 2018, with people making the journey possibly as early as 2025:
And we will know more about his wider plans for Mars sooner than you may think. At the space industry’s big annual conference, the IAC in September, he will present the “architecture” for Mars colonization. This could include details on how SpaceX plans to be able to transport the number of people and millions of tonnes of cargo that will be needed to create a feasible colony.
Life on Mars
“Having civilization and life as we know it extend beyond Earth to the rest of the solar system, and ultimately to other star systems — that’s the future that’s exciting and ultimately… You need things like that to be glad to wake up in the morning.” — Elon Musk
Though Mars transport may still seem like science fiction, if the recent history of the company has taught us anything, it is not to underestimate the pace of SpaceX’s progress. Its rapid evolution, from launching a rocket into orbit, to docking with and supplying the ISS, to landing rockets back on earth and sea within just a few years should give us pause for thought.
All at once, SpaceX’s unlikely success is a tribute to Musk’s ingenuity and commitment to achieve the impossible, as well as the long-sightedness of his backers (an East Coast competitor, Rocketplane Kistler, which also won a NASA contract, would see funding dry up and file for bankruptcy in 2011). SpaceX’s speedy progress may also be a vindication of an agile approach to developing major products and projects. As a university paper on agile and aerospace states:
“SpaceX works diligently to eliminate this possible complication by having both software teams not only work (and code) in close coordination, but also simulate and ‘fly’ together to understand each other’s needs. It is highly worth noting that this critical aspect of the SpaceX development methodology extends beyond tools, technologies, and standard documented development processes. SpaceX’s methodology also reaches into the cultural objectives and process areas within the organization which focus on the working environment and need for cooperation among the people –the scientists, technicians, and programmers themselves.”
Whereas arguably NASA had grown slow and inefficient through a more traditional “waterfall” methodology, being prescribed by government almost down to its exact approach. Notably, it now seems almost a foregone conclusion that private companies like SpaceX will lead the next wave of space innovation.
That said, we should not forget completely the risk this space upstart has been associated with in some quarters. Though multiple Falcon ISS supply missions have passed without hitch, there was the incident of CSR-7 in 2015, which broke up two minutes after launch.
Some might also question Musk’s fixation with colonizing Mars — why not focus on the “potholes” — practical problems in the here and now, rather than such fantasies? However, what to some might seem like folly is far more practical according to the man himself. Musk is a strong believer that being a “multi-planetary” race is a critical step to protecting the future of human life. And that colonizing other planets is the only practical answer to the threat of potentially catastrophic events like nuclear war. That said, it’s also worth noting that the space travel part of Mars colonization is only a small part of the challenge. As Aeon explains, on a planet where walking on its surface:
“Your blood would turn to steam, killing you within 30 seconds… even in a suit you’d be vulnerable to cosmic radiation, and… clouds of skin burning particulates, small enough to penetrate the tightest of seams.”
In a word, putting human life on Mars is an incredible long shot. But as Musk’s colleagues would seem to agree, it’s this type of lofty vision that gives the business a greater sense of purpose, and even gets them up in the morning. Added to that, who would have bet 14 years ago that today we’d have a profitable, private firm like SpaceX, building its own rockets from scratch in a local factory?
It seems like a massive long shot too. But don’t call it a moonshot — it’s on a completely different planet.
This article is part of The Paragon of Innovation series by Amdocs Delivery exploring some of the most exciting achievements and developments in technology and engineering. In each case, we look for the innovation at the heart of all such great achievements.
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