The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Elon Musk
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk discusses his company’s status during a presentation at the ISDC on May 4. (credit: J. Foust)

“The rocket business is a tough business”

Over the last few years SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made a series of bold pronouncements, starting with plans to build a reliable, low-cost small launch vehicle, the Falcon 1, and then, while that vehicle was still under development, build larger versions—the Falcon 5 and, more recently, the Falcon 9—that would compete with the largest vehicles in service today. All this from a new company that, until earlier this year, had yet to perform a launch of any of its vehicles.

So, after the March 24 launch of the first Falcon 1 failed, when a fire shut down the main engine about half a minute after liftoff, there was, perhaps, a bit of schadenfreude among those in the traditional aerospace industry who are competing with SpaceX or otherwise skeptical of Musk’s claims. However, a little over a month after the launch failure, Musk and his company, while perhaps chastened by the failure, remain publicly as committed as ever to developing vehicles that will reduce the cost of space access for both satellites and humans.

Musk, speaking at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles on May 4, acknowledged that the launch industry is, well, rocket science. “The rocket business is a tough business,” he said to laughter from the several hundred people attending his presentation. “But there’s no rocket company or organization out there with a perfect track record. It’s kind of like baseball: nobody bats 1.000.”

“But there’s no rocket company or organization out there with a perfect track record,” Musk said. “It’s kind of like baseball: nobody bats 1.000.”

The company has been relatively open about the cause of the accident, stating since the day after the failure that a fuel leak within the engine caused a fire that cut into a pneumatic system, dropping its pressure to the point where it triggered an automated shutdown of the first stage engine, which in turn caused the booster to crash back to Earth within a few hundred meters of the launch site. Musk offered few new details about the failure, which is still under investigation by a government-chartered team, other than to say that the problem was traced back to “an on-pad processing error on the part of a couple technicians on the day before launch.”

Musk ascribed the error, which had never been seen in hundreds of engine tests prior to launch, as “really bad luck”, but useful nonetheless. “Having had some really back luck on our first launch attempt focuses people’s attention,” he said. “It’s a lesson that really sinks home.”

SpaceX is planning changes in three broad areas in response to the launch failure, Musk outlines. One is in people and processes by adding additional personnel to improve quality assurance, “triple-checking” any work done on the rocket immediately before launch. A second area is design improvements to the rocket “to make things as essentially as foolproof as possible.” He noted that the fuel leak took place at a location within the engine where technicians check for leaks. “How do you leak-check the leak-check port?” he asked. There is a way to do so with a check valve, he said, that the company plans to implement. Finally, he said, SpaceX will improve the health monitoring of the vehicle: on the first launch, only about 20 of 170 sensors on the vehicle were checked by software, looking for “high-probability” issues. Every sensor will now be monitored, even at the risk of triggering aborts because of faulty sensors rather than actual problems. “So when that vehicle takes off, ever single thing is working, even the tiniest feature,” he said.

Pending the results of the government investigation, SpaceX currently plans to conduct a demonstration launch in September. That launch, Musk said in comments after his talk, will not carry any operational payload, unlike the March launch, which carried FalconSat 2, a small satellite built by cadets at the Air Force Academy. “We got distracted by launching a satellite,” he said, noting that the DARPA contract for that March launch was primarily for collecting data on responsive launch, not to put a satellite into orbit. Instead, the September launch will carry an instrumented demonstration payload to return data on the launch itself, similar to such payloads carried on early flights of the Ariane 5 and Delta 4 Heavy. If that launch is a success, SpaceX plans to launch the TacSat 1 satellite for the military in December, followed by two more launches of the Falcon 1 in the first half of 2007; Musk added that the company is very close to closing a contract for another Falcon 1 launch later next year.

Despite the setback the company’s business has been doing well. Musk noted that the company was cash-flow positive in the fourth quarter of last year and expects to maintain that status for 2006. “That’s based on the tremendous customer demand we’ve had for our launch vehicle,” he said. SpaceX has sold nearly a dozen Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launches to date, including one for a Canadian company, MDA Corporation, that was closed after the launch failure. “I think that speaks to the faith our customers have in the product, and that we will deliver reliable transport to space,” he said.

Early in his ISDC presentation, Musk outlined the three goals he has for SpaceX. The first is to establish a “lead position” in the satellite launch market. “That gives us a beachhead of cash flow and allows us to test out the technology and make sure it works before we put anyone on board,” he said. That leads into the second goal, which is to “provide people-to-orbit services for the government and private sector” within the next five years. (The third, much longer range, goal is to send humans to the Moon and Mars.)

If SpaceX wins a NASA COTS contract, Musk said, “I think we can probably have a manned capability around 2009.”

Earlier this year, the company disclosed that it has already taken significant steps towards that second goal with the development of a manned capsule called Dragon. As part of a “back-burner” project SpaceX engineers have built prototypes of the capsule, designed to be launched into orbit atop a Falcon 9. The work on Dragon is so far along, Musk said in his talk, that “we stopped work on our prototype manned capsule a little over a year ago because it was way ahead of the booster.”

The schedule for Dragon depends on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative, a program to help fund the development of commercial systems that could carry cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station. “If we win the COTS program I think it happens sooner,” he said. “I think we can probably have a manned capability around 2009.” Otherwise, he said, SpaceX would proceed, but at a slower pace—around 2011—and with a scaled-down, less-capable version of what SpaceX would develop under COTS.

That’s still bold talk for a company that has yet to develop the vehicle that will launch that capsule, and has yet to successfully launch a rocket of any type. Despite this year’s setback, though, Musk insists his company is there for the long haul to achieve its three major goals.

“I think the ones that make it through to the finish line and beyond are the ones that have perseverance, that stick to it and figure out what the problems are, solve them, and end up with rockets that are the mainstay of launch today,” he said. “SpaceX intends to be one of those organizations.”