Better Late Than Never

SpaceX scores their <a href="“>12th launch this year, putting them on track for 20 by January. If they can do that and finally get Falcon Heavy up this fall, that ought to (but probably won’t) settle any doubts about their business model, even if this one cost them.

Oh, and they introduced this spiffy little number too:

About time somebody acted like we’re living in the 21st century.

I’m anxious to see what changes are coming for their Mars architecture next month. Last year’s Big Reveal was, at least to my untrained eye, too big too soon. There’s got to be some intermediate step between Dragon and the massive Love Boat to Mars that is the ITV.


Being a privately-held company, SpaceX’s finances have been notoriously opaque. No doubt Elon Musk prefers it that way, because he can’t be too pleased with last month’s Wall Street Journal “expose” of their account books.  The story is still behind the WSJ paywall so we’ll have to take The Motley Fool‘s word for it:

In an expose compiled from “exclusive … internal documents” — probably obtained from the “former SpaceX employees” that it interviewed — theJournal confirms that SpaceX has in fact been losing money since at least the beginning of 2015. Says the Journal, not only did SpaceX rack up losses of $260 million in 2015, but it actually incurred “an operating loss every quarter, and also negative cash flow of roughly $15 million.”

For the record, this means SpaceX was losing money nearly one year before the company removed the famous “profitable and cash-flow positive” assertion from its website.

Not too surprising, considering that their launch rate was still well below target even before losing two boosters to “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”

No Kerbals were harmed during this simulation.
Not SpaceX, but you get the idea. No Kerbonauts were harmed in production of this graphic.

Continue reading “SpaceXpensive”

Here Be Dragons

SpaceX finally unveiled DragonRider last night, otherwise known as Dragon V.2:

Credit: SpaceX

Love the fins (though I’ve no idea what they’re for) and that the solar panels wrap around the trunk. And being a bizjet guy, I particularly like the Gulfstream-style oval windows. There’s lots of them, too, which seems entirely appropriate for a 21st century commercial spaceship. I freaking love saying that.

Beyond the awkward humility Mr. Musk displays in the video (the guy’s a real-life Tony Stark after all), what strikes me most is the pure beauty of the thing. Admit it, a lot of perfectly fine air and space vehicles are kind of funny looking if not butt-ugly. Think of the A-10 or the Apollo LM.

But this…this is what a brand-new spaceship ought to look like. They clearly didn’t throw out their aesthetic sensibilities while also building in features like propulsive landing and reusable heat shields. And check out the front office:

Credit: SpaceX

The pull-down flat screen control panel is a pretty slick way to save room and weight; making all the essential emergency controls hard-wired buttons is likewise a very smart touch.

Much more here, plus a nice roundup from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log.


Stuff Rich People Do

Falcon 9, on the way to GTO.

In sharp (and welcome) contrast to my last post, witness the power of this fully armed and operational free market:

Today, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully completed its first geostationary transfer mission, delivering the SES-8 satellite to its targeted 295 x 80,000 km orbit. Falcon 9 executed a picture-perfect flight, meeting 100% of mission objectives.

Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at 5:41 PM Eastern Time. Approximately 185 seconds into flight, Falcon 9’s second stage’s single Merlin vacuum engine ignited to begin a five minute, 20 second burn that delivered the SES-8 satellite into its parking orbit. Eighteen minutes after injection into the parking orbit, the second stage engine relit for just over one minute to carry the SES-8 satellite to its final geostationary transfer orbit. The restart of the Falcon 9 second stage is a requirement for all geostationary transfer missions.

As one might expect, the Wall Street Journal had a bit more coverage of the business angle. Here’s the (literal) money bit:

Before the mission, SpaceX said by 2015 it planned to double rocket production to about 24 annually.

If SpaceX achieves its goals, it will vindicate a host of satellite manufacturers, operators and space agencies that have revised business plans based on the availability of the Falcon 9. In some cases, SpaceX foresees competing head-to-head with Europe’s Arianespace, which often launches dual satellites aboard its heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA rocket.

SpaceX emphasizes that it developed the original Falcon 9 for under $300 million—or roughly half of the Pentagon’s overall cost to launch a single spy satellite on the heavy-lift version of the Delta IV rocket initially developed by Boeing.

Industry officials estimate SES got a discount from the roughly $60 million SpaceX officials have talked about as the typical price tag for such a launch. Many industry officials, though, predict SpaceX’s prices eventually will climb to about $100 million per launch.

Keep in mind these “industry officials” are almost certainly just spouting the company line while hoping it comes true, particularly if SpaceX pulls off a successful recovery and reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage next year. If that happens, that crashing sound you hear will be the Borg Collective Boeing/LockMart/USAF/NASA launch business model collapsing.

No power in the ‘verse can stop it.

Super Sunday

While the rest of us were laying around on our butts watching football, the geeks were busy inheriting the Earth…or rather the sky above us.

Orbital Science’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, making it the second commercial launch provider to do so:

Cygnus berthing at the ISS

Meanwhile, the first commercial operator to reach the ISS flew their upgraded Falcon 9R launcher out of Vandenberg AFB in California. This was a number of firsts for SpaceX: first flight of the 9R, first all-commercial payload, and first relight of a booster in a controlled re-entry:

Falcon 9R

That last bit is by far the most significant — it’s the key to SpaceX’s plans for reusable rockets, which is the key to lower launch costs, which is the key to the rest of us being able to afford a trip to orbit (or even farther) some day.

The goal is to eventually return the first stage of an operational Falcon 9 (and later, when it flies, the three cores of the Falcon Heavy) to the launch site, and reuse them.

Sunday’s flight test on an ostensibly operational mission was less ambitious. The goals were to see if 1) they could get the vehicle back into the atmosphere in one piece with the first burn (all previous Falcon 9 uncontrolled first-stage entries have been destructive) and 2) if they could gently drop it into the ocean with the thrust of a single engine, and recover it. The company has emphasized repeatedly over the past several months that this was not part of the primary mission goal, and that they didn’t have high expectations of success.

As it turned out, they seem to have succeeded at their first test goal, but failed the second…

Despite the recovery failure, company founder and CEO Elon Musk seemed very optimistic about the results.

The above is clipped from Rand Simberg’s authoritative roundup at PJ Media. Interestingly, DARPA and McDonnell Douglas made some significant advancements along these lines 20 years ago with the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X). Made on the cheap with a good deal of off-the-shelf parts, they managed several successful flights until the project was transferred whole-hog to NASA:

DC-X, first hover landing

NASA agreed to take on the program after the last DC-X flight in 1995. In contrast to the original concept of the DC-X demonstrator, NASA applied a series of major upgrades to test new technologies…

The upgraded vehicle was called the DC-XA, renamed the Clipper Advanced/Clipper Graham, and resumed flight in 1996.

…Its next flight, on 7 July, proved to be its last. During testing, one of the LOX tanks had been cracked. When a landing strut failed to extend due to a disconnected hydraulic line, the DC-XA fell over and the tank leaked. Normally the structural damage from such a fall would constitute only a setback, but the LOX from the leaking tank fed a fire which severely burned the DC-XA, causing such extensive damage that repairs were impractical.

In a post-accident report, NASA’s Brand Commission blamed the accident on a burnt-out field crew who had been operating under on-again/off-again funding and constant threats of outright cancellation. The crew, many of them originally from the SDIO program, were also highly critical of NASA’s “chilling” effect on the program, and the masses of paperwork NASA demanded as part of the testing regimen.

NASA had taken on the project grudgingly after having been “shamed” by its very public success under the direction of the SDIO.

Read the whole entry at Wikipedia for a case study of what happens when a willingness to take risks is swallowed up by ass-covering bureaucratic inertia.  Surprising? Sadly, no…but at least the commercial camel’s nose is now all the way up in NASA’s government tent and sniffing at their junk.

What’s Old Is New Again

In the closing notes of Perigee, I mentioned that one of the biggest reasons spaceflight has been so stupendously expensive is the problem of reusability. A big rocket is every bit as expensive and complex as a new airliner, but it all gets thrown away after one flight.

Think you could afford a weekend jaunt to Vegas if Southwest ditched their 737s at the end of every trip? For that matter, could they even afford to do business like that?

The answer, obviously, is a big fat NO.

There are other things at work, namely a bureaucratic legacy that has made it overly complicated to build any launchers for NASA (especially “human rated” ones). Their own internal studies admitted that if SpaceX had developed the Falcon launcher family along the traditional guvmint model, it would’ve increased costs by a factor of 10 or so.

The Air Force’s “evolved expendable launch vehicle” (EELV) program didn’t bring those costs down very much. But they did result in some way-cool rockets than can be used for lots of stuff besides milsats. Here’s a Delta IV-Heavy, which will take NASA’s Orion capsule on its first unmanned test flight next year:

Delta IV Heavy NROL-15

Impressive. But now, check out this much smaller rocket – size doesn’t matter here, look at what it does:

Masten Xaero

Now for something that combines really big rockets with vertical landing, like something from a 50’s sci-fi movie. Given SpaceX’s success record, I have no doubt they’ll be able to make it happen:

SpaceX Reusable Falcon 9

Buckle up!

How To Train Your Dragon

Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has got it goin’ on, ya’ll. This is just the second orbital flight of their Dragon capsule, and darned if they didn’t berth with the Space Station!

As our illustrious Vice President Jar-Jar Biden might say: “This is a big #@$&%! deal”. Just another example of what private citizens can do when they’re allowed to make money and follow their passions.

Viva Capitalism!

UPDATE: Archive videos from NASA TV here.

UPDATED UPDATE: Really, really excited about this? You can take a class in space hotel design this summer. Beats Medieval French Poetry or Transgender Victim Studies…