SpaceX’s Musk Doesn’t Get It

A795E319-E000-486A-B26E-A70DC0B0B19F.jpgAs reported by the Huntsville Times’ Lee Roop in SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Sen. Richard Shelby spar over Obama space policy, Elon Musk got a bit defensive this weekend over comments made by Ranking Member Senator Richard Shelby during last week’s Senate Appropriations Science Subcommittee hearing.

In what can only be called odd commentary, Musk stated, “I don’t really understand why Sen. Shelby is so opposed to commercial crew.” We really don’t see what is so confusing to Mr. Musk in Senator Shelby’s comment, “[The President’s space plan is] a faith-based initiative” and “a welfare program for the commercial space industry … where the taxpayer subsidizes billionaires to build rockets that NASA hopes will one day allow millionaires, and our own astronauts, to travel in space.” How much clearer could Senator Shelby be?

So, why does the good Senator from Alabama refuse to support commercial crewed flight when his own state, home to the Delta IV, would likely be the early odd’s-on favorite to win those contracts? Could it be that Shelby has heard from ULA’s CEO Michael Gass in private what Gass has said in public,

“I think its important to note … that the consolidation to form ULA [from Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V and Boeing’s Delta IV] was done in part because the commercial market projected in the late 1990’s did not materialize as was originally expected and the remaining market was insufficient to sustain two healthy launch-service providers. Therefore, we believe the nation’s human access to space should not be dependent on the success of a future adjacent commercial market.” United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass

And perhaps Senator Shelby’s reluctance to support so-called commercial crewed flight is more philosophical. Senator Shelby is an Alabama Republican, which means he’s big on programs that promote America such as defense. Shelby is not big on government subsidizing start-up’s promising the Moon but seemingly failing to fulfill their promises. Both of Elon Musk’s companies, Tesla and SpaceX, survive on government subsidies to the tune of $465M for Tesla and $278M for SpaceX, for a grand total of $743M or nearly 3/4 of a billion in tax-payer money. Had Musk’s SpaceX taken the route that Burt Rutan did in funding his space efforts through investors, his voice might carry farther with Senator Shelby. With Mr. Musk’s background, track record, and connections, how could he not be able to line-up the hundreds of millions of dollars he will need to complete Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule? Could it be that the market deems his dreams too risky and unlikely to come true? Perhaps the market suspects that SpaceX’s 2-year delay in launching Falcon 9, eerily reminiscent of its Falcon 1 experience, presages other delays? And lest anyone forget, Mr. Musk is a billionaire–so why not fund SpaceX out of his own pocket?

We can understand why Musk may be feeling the heat from Senator Shelby’s comment that the President may have canceled the wrong program. SpaceX likely will not complete the three Falcon 9 flight tests this year needed to fulfill it’s COTS agreement. That could cost SpaceX money and give Senator Shelby and others an opening to pressure NASA to have SpaceX excused from the COTS program, just as Kistler was, for non-performance.

Update: Some SpaceX supporters have tried to make the case that the above post was wrong. So here’s the history of SpaceX’s program promises and actual delivery.

Program Expected Completion Actual Completion
Falcon 1 (TacSat–1) 01/2004 09/28/2008[1]
COTS 03/2010 08/23/2012[2]
CRS 12/2016 2017[3][4]
CCiCap 04/2014 03/2015[0][5]
SpaceX CCiCap Milestone Expected Completion Date Actual Completion Date
Milestone 11 Pad Abort Test 12/2013 ~12/2014
Milestone 13 Integrated CDR 03/2014 ~12/2014
Milestone 14 In-Flight Abort Test 04/2014 ?

Specific to CCiCap, NASA accepted SpaceX’s request in April 2014 to devide it’s Milestone 13,

Integrated CDR
SpaceX will hold an Integrated Critical Design Review (CDR) to demonstrate that the maturity of the CTS design is appropriate to support proceeding with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and test.

into 4 parts. The question of whether there will be an “integrated” critical design review of the crewed Dragon has yet to be answered.

Revised SpaceX CCiCap Milestone Name Milestone Description
Milestone 13A Qualification test for the primary structure of its Dragon spacecraft
Milestone 13B Grounds Systems and Mission Ops CDR
Milestone 13C Crew Vehicle Technical Integration Meetings (Originally part of Milestone 13A)
Milestone 13D Delta Crew Vehicle CDR (Originally part of Milestone 13A)

I could go on about the 2 year gap between SpaceX’s launch promises vs. delivery. Or that the cost of Falcon 9 launches went from $35M to $60M, an increase of just over 71%, before that launcher was retired. Today’s Falcon 9.1 launcher delivers 55% more payload than a Falcon 9 and costs 50% more at $90M.

The Falcon 9 Heavy first flight, promised in 2012, are now scheduled for sometime in 2015.

Or the whole Fragola affair.

  1. TacSat–1 was mothballed in 2007 after Orbital Sciences launched TacSat–2  ↩
  2. COTS Demo Mission 2 was scheduled for Sept. 2009 and Demo Mission 3 for March 2010. These two missions were combined into COTS Demo Mission C2+.  ↩
  3. NASA Awards Space Station Commercial Resupply Services Contracts, Dec. 23, 2008  ↩
  4. Because CRS launches began 2 years late on October 28, 2012, NASA has extended the date of CRS completion date. To date, SpaceX has completed 4 of the planned 12 flights.  ↩
  5. NASA stated on 06/10/2014 that the pad and in-flight abort tests were delayed because, “[r]ushing these tests would have compromised the results and potentially impacted safety. NASA (and SpaceX) want these tests to be of high quality with the results representative of real abort scenarios, thus NASA granted the SpaceX’s request for the new dates.” No mention was made that the tests had been planned since 2010.  ↩




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