Monday, November 21, 2011

The Case Against SpaceX

As an advocate of commercial spaceflight I can understand why many find it difficult to write objectively about SpaceX - which is arguably the poster child of this nascent industry. As a result, the majority of negative commentary about our darling comes from a horrible "journalist" like Andy Pasztor at The Wall Street Journal or a traditional aerospace mouth-piece like Loren Thompson at Forbes. An occasional coherent comment on a blog or space forum may be accepted by the space community as containing a nugget of truth, but these are easily filed in the don't-think-too-hard-about basket and forgotten. I've taken to thinking about the criticism I have heard, and after some long and rather arduous discussion with these critics I've processed it through what I hope are reasonable and constructive filtering. Here's the finished package.

The Circuitous Route To Reuse

Since SpaceX first announced the Falcon 9 they have claimed it is designed to be reusable, but they've yet to demonstrate how. For a number of years the answer has, apparently, been parachutes. Both the successful flights of the Falcon 9 have carried them and for a while we were told they had been deployed. Gwynne Shotwell, speaking at the Space Access conference this year was quoted "We have recovered pieces of the first stages." They were breaking up during re-entry, not giving the parachutes time to deploy.

Most recently, SpaceX has announced with fanfare the new overall approach with pretty graphics and a funky soundtrack. Clearly, they are still a long way away from a working vehicle. I asked Gary Hudson on The Space Show to provide us an educated guess at how fast the Falcon 9 may be going at first stage separation, and at what altitude - the kind of trivial information required to even visualize how such a vehicle could function. He declined.

While it is certainly true that SpaceX's engineers have a lot more information and no doubt have some idea how it is supposed to work, I find it more than a little disconcerting that arguably one of the most seasoned RLV veterans around today isn't able to speculate. At the same time, a new test program dubbed Grasshopper was announced to test vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) which is a critical part of the new non-parachute approach to reuse.

If that sounds familiar, it should. A subscale VTVL demonstrator has been considered the starting point for this kind of RLV ever since the DC-X program back in the early 1990s. More recently, Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems have been following this path, with considerably less money to play with. It's 2011 and it seems like SpaceX is starting all over again with reuse.

The Funding Crunch

There's another pathway to reuse: put wings on it. So far, we haven't seen any indication that SpaceX is pursuing that route but, then again, we saw no indication they were pursing VTVL a year ago either. A regularly advocated way to maintain revenue while pursing this route is to woo suborbital markets such as scientific research and tourism. This approach is best exemplified by XCOR and, to a lesser extent Virgin Galactic (as they still seem to have no orbital aspirations). So far, there is no indication that SpaceX is doing that either, but who knows what the future might bring. If the current suborbital providers are successful it may boost investor confidence so much that SpaceX begins to take an interest.

Instead, SpaceX intends to fund their RLV development by selling launch services on the expendable configuration of the Falcon 9. This is good in a number of ways, most notably that it gets into the orbital launch business early, establishing a record of success (hopefully), and has given SpaceX the rocket engine and other components necessary to even start thinking about making a reusable vehicle.

The alternative to both of these paths is to simply have enough up-front funding to buy rocket engines and components from existing providers. For example, the RL-10 from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is considered one of the most reliable rocket engine families available with variants that have been tested rigorously for reuse. Many single-stage to orbit (SSTO) designs of the 1990s just assumed this engine, and the cost, most likely because it was used in the DC-X. SpaceX didn't have this option because their funding was meager by aerospace standards.

The Mars Dream

Elon Musk's plans to send humans to Mars are simply not realistic. Or, at least, that's what I'd say if I had any idea of the details. From all the times I've heard the dream I've managed to garner that basically he's adherent of Bob Zubrin's vision of men braving the perils of space to explore the red planet, with families of immigrants following close behind. This is complete with the heavy lift fetish.

Despite decades of examples that heavy lift can never be cheap, SpaceX has redefined the idea by claiming their upcoming Falcon Heavy launch vehicle will break the $1000/lb barrier and usher in a new age of cheap access to space. The aspirations for even bigger launch vehicles (presumably with even cheaper prices per lb) run deep.

Advocates of staging propellant in orbit, assembling and refueling deep space exploration vehicles which are launched on more modest sized rockets should not be surprised if they find heavy lift advocates counting SpaceX in their camp - but they often are. This defiles the traditional battle lines, with RLV advocates more commonly coming down on the side of propellant depot advocates, if not simply because one of the best uses for an RLV is filling propellant depots with propellants.

As such, it seems that the dream of Mars at SpaceX is essentially Mars Direct with a single heavy lift launch vehicle throwing a Dragon-sized capsule, with stir-crazy explorers, directly to Mars escape velocity. Zubrin has written of such a plan, claiming a Mars landing by 2016 is possible using the Falcon Heavy. It looks good on a cocktail napkin but the same old hand waving is required to shoo away the issues with those pesky human factors like radiation protection and artificial gravity generation.

NASA Assimilation

Practical and profitable space activities are much more effective for exciting public support than dreams of Mars exploration, but it is clear NASA is not going to industrialize space - it threatens the status quo - and today NASA remains SpaceX's greatest customer.

The goal of SpaceX is human spaceflight, and the greatest repository of knowledge about human spaceflight is NASA. As such, it would appear obvious that getting NASA to help you to fly humans safely is a good idea. The way to do that is with Space Act Agreements. This is what SpaceX did under the COTS program, and later under the CCDev program.. and they got paid for the privilege. As a result, the Dragon spacecraft will soon be fully qualified as safe for human habitation on orbit as it will be berthed to the ISS and have astronauts inside it.

The problem is that NASA is a precocious customer. They know what they want, they think they know even better than you do how to make it, and they feel no guilt about changing their mind halfway through the project. As such, Space Act Agreements just totally grind NASA's gears. They don't have enough control.

NASA money is like heroin.. once they start taking it, most people find it very hard to stop. There's a dependence that has grown between NASA and SpaceX, and although it is obviously a love-hate relationship, it's going to be very hard for SpaceX to let go.. but, inevitably, they must. The current needs of NASA are very different to the long term goals of SpaceX.

Promises, Promises, and Delays

SpaceX promises a lot more than they deliver. Over time those promises have changed, with the old promises being forgotten, and new promises being made with more showmanship. Failure is to be expected, with plans changing in response to the lessons learned, but doing so requires clear acknowledgement that there was a failure.

In September this year it was revealed that the second flight of the Falcon 9 had experienced an engine anomaly. While it later became apparent that the issue was minor and not unexpected, the immediate response by the space media was to pounce on what could be a hot story. Quite a number of people I talk to have expressed dismay at the way SpaceX handled the situation, including the lawsuit against Joseph Fragola earlier in the year. While I certainly don't subscribe to the view that SpaceX should be anywhere near as open as NASA with their proprietary information, I do agree that it is indicative of a deeper problem with their engineering culture.

Oh, and we're still waiting for a Falcon 9 flight in 2011.. seems it isn't going to happen.

The Business Case

Now I'd like to talk about the elephant in the room. Fundamentally, SpaceX has a shoddy business case which is best described as a house of cards.. that they're still trying to play poker with.. and there's dogs at the table, and they're smoking cigars! Yeah, metaphor.

The launch business is about volume. If you can get your launch rate up then you can charge less for each launch because the fixed costs will be spread over more launches. SpaceX hasn't done that yet, but they're already charging less than anyone else in the business. This is a common criticism of SpaceX, which most of us in the advocate community love to retort by saying something like: Elon says SpaceX has been profitable every year since 2007!

Okay, that's great. How? There's really only two possible answers: NASA's money, or booking fees. If it is just the former then SpaceX is destined to become just another NASA lackey. So we prefer to think it is the latter - but that means they're living on their seed corn. Eventually they're going to have to actually fly these payloads or give back the deposits. So the acid test will come when SpaceX is called upon to launch and turn a profit in the same year. At that time we will discover if SpaceX is getting the launch rate they require to amortize the fixed costs such that their revenues exceed their expenses. Only then will we know if their prices were realistic.

Suppose they're not. What options does SpaceX have then? Obviously, they can't rise their prices much - that will put them in the same market as the existing providers which have a much better track record (and much better ties to the biggest customers in the government). SpaceX is competing on price, so they will have no choice but to reduce their expenses or increase their flight rate. Reuse is their strategy for doing both of these approaches simultaneously.

There's only one problem: the inherent assumption that there is a market for cheap lift, and that this market can come online fast enough to provide the demand to both amortize their fixed costs and fund their reuse development. In the space community we have a name for this kind of faith: if you build it they will come [no really, watch it!].

If you ask Elon Musk why he is building something which is totally illogical, he will give you the story about the Mars dream. While I don't fully subscribe to the space-based solar power vision, preferring the human tended maintenance of geostationary orbital satellites variety of industrializing space, at least they have some practical idea of what might be economically valuable activities to do in space.

SpaceX is, unquestionably, a bold faced shot in the dark. It is going all-in on the boat hoping that the river will give you a straight flush. It's ballsy madness, and that's why we love them.