No more slack for SpaceX

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Millions are still rooting for SpaceX and Elon Musk, even after Sunday’s launch explosion of the Falcon 9.1, and are willing to cut them some slack. But not everyone will think that way. Yesterday, one of my friends took me to task for pointing out on a Facebook post that the SpaceX launcher had fallen from 2nd most reliable launch platform to 7th, with a 93% success rate:

“That he [Elon] got this far in such little time at a fraction of the cost is reason enough to cut SpaceX some slack.”

In the world of social media, or even traditional media coverage, Mr. Musk has slack coming out of his ears. Coverage and conversations online have been wildly positive and supportive. The story of the successful outsider who shakes things up and disrupts a stagnant and bureaucratic industry is a compelling narrative. It isn’t just Iron Man and Tony Stark; this kind of story has had Americans cheering for the ‘underdog’ for a century now.

But for SpaceX, everything changed yesterday. This isn’t like having trouble recovering the first stage of the launcher by landing it tail first on a barge: although SpaceX kept failing to achieve that goal, it didn’t really affect customers. If SpaceX can re-use first stages then their business model looks better, but if they don’t, the folks who pay Musk and company millions of dollars don’t care. The only thing that matters to those customers is getting stuff into orbit.

There may be things about building or launching rockets that a relatively new entrant like SpaceX can do much faster and leaner than the old guard. But launch failure investigations aren’t one of them.

Take a look at the video from yesterday. There’s no fibre optic cable running back terabytes of usable information: the telemetry from a rocket under boost is not much to go on. No black box would survive that explosion. There will be some debris recovered, but after blowing up at 50 km altitude, there may not be much.

It will likely take days to weeks to determine the cause of the explosion. Not because of bureaucracy, but because it is hard! Depending on the results, it will likely take weeks to months for SpaceX to come up with compelling fix. They may even need to have trial launches with no payloads to demonstrate the fix. By the way, that isn’t my skeptical timeline: SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the Falcon booster will be grounded for “a number of months or so” in a press conference on Sunday. Shotwell added that the delay wouldn’t be as long as a year, but there’s no way to actually know that. The Russian Proton M (pictured below, in full explosion mode) rocket had a failure back in 1988…and it took them 27 years before they finally figured out what the problem was!

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Next, something that has been a big tailwind for SpaceX is about to become a headwind. For years now they have been winning launch contracts by being cheaper – under $1,000 per pound to orbit. SpaceX has said that they were able to achieve those lower costs by a combination of manufacturing efficiency, lower operational costs, and high efficiency performance in flight. All of which has been accepted and accounts for much of SpaceX’s success. But after a rocket blows up, questions will be raised about whether some of the cost savings has forced compromises around safety or reliability. That may not be the case…but SpaceX now needs to prove that to what will certainly be a more-sceptical customer base.

Just to repeat that point. They don’t just need to ASSERT that safety has not been compromised to save money, they need to PROVE it. Which is much harder and will take more time than many think.

“Hey! That’s not fair! Elon is trying to ‘disrupt’ the space industry. Why can’t we just cut him some slack?”

Because the paying customers say so.  Here’s the money quote:

“I’m not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don’t know is going to work.”

Until SpaceX knows what went wrong, has proposed and implemented a fix, and shown to people that the fix works, neither customers nor insurance companies are going to be comfortable entrusting their cargo to the company. The space business is bad that way – a single failure after tens of successful missions is enough to derail a program for months or years. The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 1986 occurred after twice as many successes as the Dragon 9.1 had achieved until yesterday.

But I want to close by discussing why I really don’t want to cut SpaceX some slack:

They got lucky.

Yesterday’s loss of cargo was annoying and expensive, but not the end of the world. The International Space Station is down to four months of supplies, instead of the six months they normally maintain. But another rocket is on its way July 3.

What if they were down to less than a month and this had happened? What if something BAD had happened to the ISS on Thursday and the global space industry had worked for 48 hours straight to get a critical component ready for the Sunday launch to save lives? Could the sighs of relief that the Falcon was already scheduled for a timely launch have turned into tragedy and tears following a failure?

Any launch can fail, and I am not suggesting that SpaceX should be held to some higher standard or perfection. But I am comfortable in saying that they need to be held to the same standard as everyone else who tries to put a critical payload on top of thousands of kilos of fireworks, and lights a match.

No slack in space.

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