Friday, May 2, 2014

Crimea River: Love Letter To SpaceX ~ Part 2

This article in Popular Mechanics is the third one I've seen that refers to SpaceX as "scrappy" in the aftermath of ULA having to face their business model's clash with ugly geopolitical realities. This time I'm not letting it go.

Sure, ULA has enough Russian-built engines in stock that current sanctions against Russia won't affect ULA launch capability for a couple of years. But then what? It will cost ULA about a billion bucks and a couple of years to develop their own engine to replace the Russian imports - while SpaceX has already developed their own models and is using them successfully, right now. 

Since September 2013, SpaceX has launched payloads into orbit four times, including the recent Dragon CRS-3 delivery to the ISS. More launches are planned this year. In the process, the company has hit several major milestones in the development of reusable upper stages that will return to the pad after launch. This technological leap alone is enough to leave ULA in the dust. ULA's business model doesn't even include re-usability. With $70-billion contracts at stake, it's no wonder that the Air Force and Congress are taking notice when SpaceX can offer significantly cheaper launch services without a limit of 10 per year that ULA works with.

While I was writing this post, SpaceX performed a 1,000-meter-reusability test flight in McGregor, TX, today, quadrupling the height of the previous test. Watch this video and get a glimpse of the future of space flight:

I wonder why the media reaction is so much one of surprise, even shock that this could happen. "But ULA worked so well and kept U.S. unmanned launch capability intact after the shuttle retirement in 2011!" Yes and yes, all that is true and a significant accomplishment, but also irrelevant in 2014. It's not like SpaceX just showed up on the scene yesterday. The company was founded in 2002 and has been on the fast track to reaching all of its goals and then some, ever since.    

So why did it take a federal injunction for ULA and Congress - along with most of the country's space writers, it seems - to take notice that SpaceX is not only successful but completely redefining the bars for cost, reliability, technological innovation and launch frequency? When space writers start talking about how only a SpaceX launch failure can save ULA, it's time for a reality check!    

That sort of thing is childish, offensive and it's a slap in the face of Elon Musk and all the people at SpaceX whose hard work and dedication came before all the recent successes. Outside of academia and the self-employed, I have never met people who work as hard and hours as long as SpaceX employees do - while loving their work and their employer! This is part of the formula behind SpaceX's success and it's time to acknowledge it!   SpaceX really is making it cheaper and easier to get into space more often! The company is targeting its first manned flight within three years, restoring U.S. manned launch capability. This is fantastic news and a huge cause for celebration!   How can you call a company like that "scrappy"?    

Part of the resistance to acknowledging SpaceX's success is likely rooted in the fact that from the outset, the private company deliberately did everything the way NASA most definitely did not. Love for the government space agency in this country runs deep and it is deserved. A business plan based on not doing things the NASA way, deliberately and consistently, is probably not the best way to win over NASA enthusiasts. Not that that is necessary for SpaceX's success. But it really would be nice, not to mention gracious, after 12 years of innovative technological and engineering feats.    

One of the things that SpaceX definitely does not handle the way NASA does is access. While I had been aware of SpaceX's local HQ for years, I never considered the possibility that I can get a tour just for the asking. Nicely, of course, and it helps to know an employee who offers. But really, if you want to go behind the scenes at SpaceX, all you need to do is ask.     

I visited a year ago and anyone who ever has would never put "scrappy" in the same sentence as "SpaceX". There are some rules, of course, (no photos) and some areas are off-limits but you can get up close and personal with rows of gleaming Merlin engines in different stages of assembly, Dragon capsules being assembled and prepped for launch, the first Dragon that's been to space on display, and the rocket assembly areas, which is exactly what it sounds like: Falcon 9 stages completed and under assembly.   And, of course, SpaceX's in-house 3D printer. It was the first time I'd ever been near one. Since then, the company has added tech that allows engineers to use hand gestures to design in 3D, and then immediately print the pieces in materials of their choice.     

A few 3D-printed pieces of titanium were on display. Most looked impressively intricate with impossibly tiny detail. The piece that drove home for me what I really was looking at, the true power inherent in this tech, came in the form of an innocuous-looking cylinder about 5 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. "What's this?", I asked, as it looked like an unremarkable piece of metal. "Hold it up to the light and look through the cylinder length-wise." I did. That was the third or fourth time I picked my jaw off the floor that day. I had lost count. The cylinder appeared semi-permeable: it had hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny shafts running the length of it, evenly spaced, fractions of a millimeter in diameter. Almost impossible to see with the naked eye until you hold the piece up to the light. 

I will never forget the moment when I realized what I was holding - a piece so finely machined that no machine could actually have done the job, except a 3D printer.   I call that impressive, awesome, inspirational - any number of adjectives nowhere near the meaning of "scrappy". So the next space or science writer I catch using the word in reference to SpaceX, or who invokes a SpaceX launch failure as a way to "save" ULA, is going to receive this tweet. It's not one of mine, but it does say it all:


Read my first Love Letter To Space X from May 2012.  I have a feeling this one won't be the last.