Random Rants, by Thomas Andrew Olson

Monday, March 06, 2006

Elon: I want to believe - but please launch something first.

With Elon Musk, it's become an issue with me of suspension of disbelief.

Anyone who's been following the drama of private space entrepreneurs knows that Musk, founder of PayPal, has spent the last several years and tens of millions of his own money (earned from the sale of same), to build a new expendable-launch system that promises, via improved technologies and greater efficiency in overall business practice, to significantly lower launch costs. The Falcon 1 has been poised to lift off for many months now. There has been one delay and technical glitch after another, since last June, at least. It also didn't help that they were unceremoniously kicked off of Vandenberg last year, and had to move the operation to Kwajalein Atoll.

That being said, the success of Falcon 1 could herald a new direction in space launch capacity for US companies, and ultimately lead to greater market demand, as cheaper launch costs will encourage new players with smaller budgets to enter the comsat, resource imaging, and even planetary probe markets, previously the private domain of academics with access to government largesse.

However, SpaceX wants to keep the press release machine cranking, despite Falcon 1's setbacks. For over a year, now, a much larger model, the Falcon 5, has been under development, and has even attracted customers, despite the fact that "1" hasn't flown yet, which would seem to me to be the prerequisite proof of concept. But last September, SpaceX also announced its answer to the not-yet-a-problem of heavy lift, with a Falcon 9 vehicle, designed around Falcon 5 technology.

Again, I will repeat, Falcon 1 has not yet flown, nor proven itself to be cost-effective and reliable. Nevertheless, I've wanted so much for Elon to succeed that I just nodded "yeah, yeah, blah, blah" to these hyperbolic announcements and moved on. But now comes the final straw that cracked my suspension of disbelief wide open - the announcement today that SpaceX is also developing a manned spacecraft to go atop Falcon 9!

The issue I have with this is not so much the "hype vs. substance" issue which seems to plague the self-described "New Space" community, but the fact that Musk has publicly declared that after Falcon 1, he will be seeking expansion capital from institutional markets to develop the F-9 and the F-5. Overpromising great new products while not yet delivering a service to a single customer, to me, is placing the cart before the horse.

Earth To Elon: Enough already! If you had 10 successful Falcon 1 launches and one or two Falcon 5's under your belt, I might be willing to lend some credence to your latest press release. But the unvarnished pesky fact is that Falcon 1 has not flown even once, Falcon 5 is in development (but without the benefit of lessons learned from Falcon 1), Falcon 9 is in the same state as 5, and you're now hyping your own manned spacecraft to enter the COTS-funded/ISS Resupply derby. Since SpaceX is entirely funded out of your own pocket at this point, when does it become prudent to stop promoting new product lines and instead concentrate on proving to the world you can actually launch something?

You're beginning to sound like Microsoft, who has a long checkered history of hyping vaporware to keep competition at bay and customers aboard, then rushing products to market before they're really ready. Software bugs from insufficient development time can ruin a customer's day, but bugs in launcher design and deployment can cause frustrating customer delays at best, disaster at worst. You are already learning the painful lessons of vertical launch to orbit with chemical rockets, beginning from scratch the way you did. I support you 110% in your efforts, I really do, but before you start promising the stars (like so many other failed operations before you), will you kindly just fly something first?


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