Since the Amos-6 incident, there have been two pieces in particular that really ticked me off: Eric Berger’s op-ed for Ars Technica and Doug Messier’s post from last night. The prevailing theme is that SpaceX is iterating too fast, isn’t focused enough, and is woefully careless.
As I said the day of the incident, there is a big group of people who already believe the description above, and will use any event they can to reinforce their point, regardless of how it holds up in the light.
I’m not going to talk about Amos-6 specifically (or any fallout thereof) until the cause has been found and announced, but I do want to talk about the things that are said about SpaceX after an event like this.
First up, SpaceX’s focus. From Berger’s op-ed:
The Falcon 9 rocket lies at the core of everything SpaceX wants to do. It delivers commercial satellites and cargo. It will deliver astronauts into orbit. Three Falcon 9 boosters will power the Falcon Heavy. It is the basis of proving the reusability of orbital launch systems. So if there is no Falcon 9, there is no business. And now there have been two failures in 15 months. While the cause of the second failure is not known to outsiders, and it may have been caused by ground systems rather than the rocket itself, the company has nonetheless lost two of its rockets and associated payloads in 15 months. That is sobering.
His entire piece is filled with this sentiment. SpaceX should “focus on the here and now, and that is the Falcon 9 rocket,” and they aren’t. He also has a gripe that engineers are too cross-disciplinary at SpaceX. He sees that as a weakness, but in the mid-to-long-term, that’s a strength.
Pockets of specialized knowledge lead to the roadblocks NASA is experiencing now. NASA can’t consider artificial gravity projects because they have a big group of people who specialize in zero-gravity medicine on the ISS, and artificial gravity would be a disaster for that pocket of specialized knowledge.
Getting past the fact there is an entire team working every single day on the Falcon 9, there’s a bigger issue with this sentiment: if this team were to focus just a little bit harder, would that strut still have failed on CRS–7? Would the strut have failed if SpaceX was still flying the old version of Falcon 9, or would it have failed on any version of the launch vehicle?
The strut that failed and led to the breakup of Falcon 9 on CRS–7 didn’t fail because the team lacked focus, or because SpaceX iterated on Falcon 9 too quickly. A failure like the 2013 Proton-M failure can be attributed to lack of focus—sensors were installed in the wrong orientation altogether.
The other issue with the sentiment of Berger’s op-ed: should SpaceX stop all work not associated with Falcon 9 failures until it is deemed reliable? Who would deem Falcon 9 reliable, and by what criteria? Can work continue on Merlin engines? Are they considered part of the Falcon 9? The Merlins have been arguably the strongest, most reliable part of SpaceX in the last few years. What about construction efforts at Pad 39A? Boca Chica? Vandenberg? What about SpaceX’s communications department? No more tweets or blog posts until Falcon 9 is reliable?
The point I’m trying to make is this: where do you draw the line between work that can continue and work that must be stopped? SpaceX is a company of some 5,000 people. Not all 5,000 are working on things that must be stopped while the Amos–6 incident is investigated and fixed.
To that end, from Messier’s post:
Nobody is paying Musk to send people to Mars. Or to make the first stage of the Falcon 9 reusable. These are great programs, but one wonders why they seem to have the priority they do at SpaceX. Why not focus on the programs people are actually paying the company to do?
The US Air Force is paying SpaceX $33,660,254 to develop “a prototype of the Raptor engine for the upper stage of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.” Should SpaceX stop this team’s work until Falcon 9 is investigated? The team working on the engines has little to do with Amos–6. By all accounts, the Merlin engines were nowhere near the cause of Amos–6, and the team working on Raptor was probably spun off into its own team a long time ago.
Furthermore, the way that SpaceX thinks and operates is precisely why they are getting these contracts. If NASA wanted to go with old, trusty launch providers, they had their pick of the litter. ULA would be more than happy to fly the Atlas V and Delta IV as long as the US government will pay them for it. Instead, NASA chose to go with SpaceX for these types of programs specifically to develop a new generation of technology, and to bring about the cost savings and technological breakthroughs that SpaceX is working towards.
The same goes for commercial companies, like SES. SES is a big supporter of SpaceX because by doing so, they are putting their money into a company that will most likely bring down costs for SES itself in the future. SES isn’t paying SpaceX to work on reusability directly. Rather, SES is paying SpaceX because SpaecX is working on reusability.
Finally, on the topic of SpaceX’s upcoming Mars-related announcement, Messier says:
On the other hand, the optics of Musk talking about Mars while his rocket is grounded and his company is lagging on NASA’s multi-billion dollar Commercial Crew Program will not be pretty. There will be the suggestion that he is more focused on his dream of being the founder of a Mars colony than on fulfilling the contracts he has signed for far less exciting but vital activities. That would not be good for Musk’s image.
As I stated above, SpaceX has a contract from the US Air Force for the engines that will be used on their Mars vehicle. Additionally, Musk’s image is already damaged in the eyes of anyone who believes he shouldn’t go out there an announce their vision for Mars.
The sentiment expressed here by Berger, Messier, and others is expected. It’s what SpaceX has to deal with because they came into an established industry, pushed everyone’s stuff off the tables, and knocked over all the furniture.
One day, because of the natural lifecycle of companies, SpaceX will be old and boring. But for now, they’re young, exciting, and often misunderstood.