How SpaceX in just ten years became the leader of the space industry

Only ten years ago, on September 28, 2008, SpaceX was the first to send a satellite into orbit using a Falcon 1 lightweight rocket. From this point on, the company developed the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy heavy carriers and captured half of the global market for commercial launches , builds a giant BFR rocket, and in another ten years it expects to have its own habitable base on Mars. Fantastic success of the company raises a lot of questions: how did it happen that the “private trader” managed to get around even some well-deserved cosmic powers in an insignificant time? And what is the price of the promises of Ilona Mask to get to the Moon and Mars? Revision N + 1 asked the experts – Director of the Institute of Space Policy Ivan Moiseyev and editor of the journal “News of Cosmonautics” Igor Afanasyev to explain the rapid development of SpaceX and evaluate its plans for the future.

“Maskofoby” explain the success of SpaceX that the company received funding and technology from NASA. Is that the point?

Ivan Moiseev : NASA paid for the Falcon 9 rocket, as they say, “in the bud.” This means that the rocket has not yet been built, and the US space agency has already begun to pay money to SpaceX – as part of contracts for the delivery of cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX managed to use this money effectively and expand its activities – to receive orders for satellite launches from other countries, from the US military and from telecommunications companies.

Of course, these successes would not have been possible without the technological capital that has been collected in the United States at the moment. And the task of NASA both then and now was precisely to introduce the intellectual property that is concentrated at the agency. It was a very big contribution to the success of SpaceX.

Igor Afanasyev : Undoubtedly, external funding from NASA and other government agencies (in particular, from DARPA) in the early (but not in the first) stages of development of launch vehicles and spacecraft greatly influenced the success of SpaceX.

However, one cannot disregard the fact that Musk began his work with the company’s money (it can be said, with his own) and / or with the funds that he was able to attract through external sources and venture capital funds. And these amounts were measured in six seven-figure figures and grew from stage to stage. In particular, when developing the Falcon 1 light missile, Musk realized that his own savings would barely be enough to create a small, relatively simple carrier, and from the very moment SpaceX began to establish good relations with government departments — NASA and the Pentagon — most and space exploration.

Having made the first rocket and demonstrated to potential customers the capabilities of his company, Musk secured state support and was able to build a powerful Falcon 9 at its base. Following this, SpaceX, armed with a new carrier, became not only another player in the launch services market, but also a powerful development driver rocket and space technology in the US and around the world. 

The same can be said about intellectual property. And here we are talking, rather, not about obtaining technologies belonging to NASA, but in specific people who have extensive experience in the rocket and space industry. Such people Musk sought to get by any means, it was they who formed the intellectual backbone of SpaceX.

However, there are also conspiracy points of view, for example, that Mask “nurtured and nourished” NASA (independently or with the support of the Pentagon) creating a competitor to the largest aerospace giants of today Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who, from the point of view of a number of experts, “zazhralis and bit off budget cake is too fatty pieces, inadequate benefits. “

What is the main technical achievement of the Falcon rocket developers?

Ivan Moiseev : I would mark out two main achievements, they are a bit diverse.

The first is that they are still at the stage of developing the future Falcon 9 rocket adapted it to the requirements of the market. In particular, they used simple engines with an open circuit . In them, the generator gas, which rotates the turbopumps, is simply discharged, and not fed into the combustion chamber, where it could create additional thrust.

Such engines are considered obsolete, they are less effective than with a closed circuit. But, since they were cheaper, simpler, SpaceX won on this.

Secondly, they developed a returnable step. This is SpaceX’s own initiative, this was not done at the expense of funds from contracts with NASA, but this allows the company to save on launching quite well – up to 20-25 percent.

Igor Afanasyev : There are several real achievements.

The first is the creation, mass production and operation of a two-stage medium / heavy class launch vehicle with the highest design efficiency indicators today without the use of oxygen-hydrogen fuel. In terms of the number of stages and the ratio of the mass of the payload to the starting mass, the Falcon 9 is more efficient than such launch vehicles of a similar class, such as Ariane-5, Changzheng-5, Zenit, Proton and the like.

Second, the development of the landing technology and the first stages of multiple use of the most expensive and usually lost element of the rocket-space transport system – a multi-engine first stage. In case of confirmation of the stated characteristics, this may become a trend in modern rocket and space technology.

Third: the exceptionally high launch rate (not typical of the American launch vehicles of the 2010s) and good cost indicators, which allowed to win a significant share of the launch market by squeezing it (or significantly reducing ardor) of traditional players with their launch vehicles created by technology 1960-1980-ies.

Will repeated use of the first stages of SpaceX rockets really be cost-effective?

Ivan Moiseev : The promises that the used first steps seem to be very dubious seem to me that after returning immediately, almost without preparation, they will again go into space. Serious checks, tests, preparation for a new launch will still be needed. SpaceX can, of course, reduce the cost of it, but there are fundamental things that can not be reduced.

But the fact is that reducing the launch cost by even 25 percent for the rocket industry is a lot, this is a very good indicator. If we succeed in, say, reducing the price by one percent, this is already serious money, because startups cost millions of dollars, and then 25 at once. And Ilon Musk made a revolution in a certain sense, because the inertia of the developers’ thinking made them make the most efficient engines and take care of the fate of the step. And he did the opposite and achieved the result.

Igor Afanasyev : Repeated use of the first steps was already established. True, so far this process is reduced to the double use of rocket blocks (but soon we will be promised something more, with the help of the most recent version of the Falcon 9 Block 5 carrier). Has this led to a real cost reduction? It is difficult to say – the company (like most launch providers) does not give specific “price tags”, you have to either believe the word for it, or “figure it on your fingers” using the proportions indicated earlier by SpaceX official representatives.

If we assume that the first stage costs 60-80 percent of the entire two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, then if it is used twice (excluding inter-flight service), launch costs are 60-70 percent of the cost of a similar one-time missile, and three-fold – 47-60 percent. The goal of Mask engineers is to reduce costs by orders of magnitude. It will be extremely difficult to do this in view of the inevitable appearance during repeated start-ups of interstitial operations mentioned above, including repair of worn out mechanisms, restoration of sections of thermal protection lost during the entry into the atmosphere, cleaning of soot installations from propulsion, etc. By the way, during the operation of the Space Shuttle system, these costs were significantly higher than the developers assumed …

How realistic is the project of a BFR rocket with a carrying capacity of 150 tons?

Ivan Moiseev : This rocket will remain on paper, like the previous project – the Martian transporter. The fact is that there is no customer for it. The development of a rocket of this class, a class of super-heavy lunar rocket Saturn V, costs tens of billions of dollars even if it is very cost-saving. The creation of its counterpart, the SLS rocket, has already been spent 30 billion dollars.

SpaceX has no such money, and there is no other customer for this rocket, because NASA in its interplanetary projects is focused on using its own SLS rocket. No customer – no rocket.

Igor Afanasyev : The BFR project is not more than half a century old Saturn V in size, but in terms of launch mass it is lighter than the Soviet carrier Vulcan that was supposed to be created on the basis of Energy. For BFR, the Raptor oxygen-methane engine is close in size to the Kuznetsovskiy NK-33 stationed on the Soviet N-1 lunar rocket. Analysts say that the financial side of the project is no longer as hopeless as it used to be and does not cause a steady rejection of potential investors. It is possible that in a certain situation NASA will be interested in the project, because one of the goals of BFR is to replace the Dragon spacecraft serving the ISS.

Leaving aside the economics of the project, we can say that, in general, there are no particular doubts about the feasibility of the BFR (as practice shows, almost any engineering problem can be solved that does not contradict the laws of mechanics). But many questions remain, both to the whole concept in general, and to details in particular. It is still difficult to achieve the established indicators of the excellence of the steps. It is not known how to deal with acoustic loads, which for the first stage of the BFR is almost twice as high as it was on the “Saturn”. Increased acoustics makes reinforce the structure, heavily weighting it. Skeptics point out the utopian idea of ​​“a universal system capable of landing on Earth, the Moon and Mars, as well as on all other celestial bodies,” as Musk declares.

Many questions are caused by the planned operation of the system, which provides for a minimum of repair and restoration work after the BFR flights, or a complete rejection of them and even maintenance. Meanwhile, still maintenance-free equipment (we do not consider sledgehammers, axes and other equipment) was not realized by anyone – even cars (not to mention airplanes) undergo regular maintenance. It is absolutely incomprehensible how to create an unrepairable rocket aircraft, subject to much higher loads?

It is unclear how the issue of emergency rescue of the crew and passengers of the BFR is solved during an abnormal launch. Musk reduces everything to the analogy with passenger aircraft, where neither the crew nor the passengers have the means of salvation in emergency and catastrophic situations. If you wish, you can find a rational grain in these arguments, but you have to take into account that “the history of aviation written in blood” has more than 100 years, while not a single interplanetary passenger flight has been performed yet (the professionals flew to the Moon and phenomenon), therefore, the spread of aviation experience and criteria for long-distance space flight seems to be ill-founded.

Experts note the sluggishness of the SpaceX calculation “for the explosive growth of the space economy.” Yes, reducing the cost of access to space may lead to some increase in the Earth-to-space-to-Earth cargo traffic. Some people think that in this case private orbital stations will become profitable, and tourist flights will be available to a wide audience. But now there is absolutely no sign that the growth of cargo or passenger traffic will increase exponentially, as is required for the operation of BFR (not counting, of course, the case with plans to colonize Mars).

Will SpaceX be able to send people to Mars in the mid-2020s and build an inhabited base there?

Ivan Moiseev : This is pure fiction. First, who will be the customer of this project? This customer should have money not only for a super-heavy rocket, but also for the ship, and the entire infrastructure, for the constant supply of this base. In order to land only two astronauts on Mars and return them back (and Musk, I remind you, he plans to send hundreds of people), it is necessary, according to some estimates, $ 500 billion. The largest customer in this area is NASA, its budget is 20 billion dollars a year. That is, if NASA will be engaged only in Mars and nothing more, then it takes 25 years to carry out this project.

Therefore, all this talk about Mars talk will remain. As soon as they start to count money and ask “who will pay?”, It immediately becomes clear that there is no one to pay. In addition, the machines work quite well, transmit a lot of information from Mars, so the manned expedition is not justified scientifically. What is the point in the habitable base, if a rover can drive and gather information for years?

Igor Afanasyev : There are too many “ifs” here … If the BFR project is “tied up”, if Musk finds the necessary money, if the flight tests of the rocket go at the intended pace, and so on. But, judging by the extent to which the implementation of the extensive SpaceX program is delayed compared to previously published plans, most likely it is not.

But this is natural: in the space program, each subsequent step is much more difficult than the previous one, as if climbing the stairs with an ever-increasing steepness. Creating a giant BFR-sized rocket is a big step, sending people to Mars is a big step, and building a base, and even towards the end of the next decade, seems utopian. In addition, all the main successes of SpaceX over the past ten years are in one way or another connected with solving problems in the interests of state institutions. But NASA plans to land people on Mars (at least, at present) independently, although it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of connecting “private owners” (consider SpaceX and, possibly, Blue Origin) at some stage of the program’s implementation. Most of the technical aspects of the problem seem feasible, although the scale of the development is astounding.

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