Everyone’s worried but SpaceX

SpaceX Surfing

This particular article highlights some interesting differences in philosophy about success and risk (and there is a link) between established players and SpaceX.  For opinion, sadly not about space operations, but rather the future of them, read further.

The scenario:  SpaceX has decided to upgrade their rocket engines to more powerful ones, and update the configuration in which they’ll be used.  And that just seems to be a risky move to everyone noted (every established pie-holder) in the article except for SpaceX (who is the real loser, money-wise, if it doesn’t work–this time).  Not to say these upgrades will be a slam-dunk, but I think SpaceX is really trying not to just change the business of space launch, but also space launch and operations philosophy.

If you’ll remember, Mr. Musk is from a background of internet entrepreneur-ship, building little-known companies like X.com and Paypal.  He’s used to driving quick iterations of his product.  This is SpaceX attempting to do the same thing.  I also believe they are trying to get their customers not to worry about the changes on their launch platforms, because ultimately, they will succeed with launches.  So maybe this is a case of SpaceX just saying to the world “Tell us what you want in space and where, and we’ll do the rest.”

This is so different from what has come before.

The Air Force and government, ironically, foster a much more risk-averse atmosphere for launch operations and space.  It’s a system of micro-management, of what-ifs, and worse, of people who think they understand the “risks” of space.  They have to take things slowly, have to examine the risks and make sure they will not be associated with failures (which will occasionally happen).  There are rules and laws encouraging and guiding this behavior, all with aim of minimizing risk and being conscientious stewards of the taxpayers’ money.

So, more money is spent on re-examining, re-briefing, and re-designing–and failures still happen.

Understand, please, these comments of mine are broad brush strokes.  There are very smart, very good people on all sides of this problem–I’ve had the privilege to work with many.  But it takes a special, very dedicated, very stubborn person to keep pushing against the very core of a very destructive philosophy:  avoid risk.

This destructive philosophy pervades the the space industry.  It starts at the top, the customer (in this case, government).  And if the customer demands every little detail to be scrutinized, then okay, it’s not breaking the law–but it will need more money.  If there’s an extra reaction wheel or gyro needed to minimize risk, well, that’s not breaking the law–but it will need more time and money.  Maybe a payload needs an extra doo-dad or who-haw—okay, it’s not illegal, but it will need more money.

Risk and business are obviously not the government’s business, but these companies are full of very smart people doing EXACTLY what the government wants to be successful (and they have been).  But what is success?  Is it really a program that was supposed be up and running in five years–and now it’s fifteen (or longer)?  Is it deploying a system with diminished capability?  And that’s just some of the problem Mr. Musk and SpaceX are pushing against.

To show the magnitude of Mr. Musk’s task, the problem and philosophy has impacted all companies in this business:  Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aerospace, etc.  These companies not only have worked with the government to “understand” it, they hire people who have worked in the government to help.  And some of these people may be smart.  But some of them are also risk-averse (because they were the government–and they saw what was needed to succeed in their careers).  So, the top management eventually gets infiltrated and now you have people who see success as getting the contract, not producing a stellar product.

All will take offense to these statements (if they even read them).  The only real evidence I have for these statements are the GAO reports, and the obvious really long, drawn out, updated program schedules for each space program.

And all of them have agendas, I’m fairly certain, to make SpaceX an example of failure, not one of success.  There are probably whispers to the government, already prone to avoiding risk, by big and small space pie-holders of “I can’t believe they’re doing that without doing XXXX, or going through XXXX.  It’s so risky!  They really should get permission from you first.”  And they will probably be the first to point fingers when something from SpaceX goes awry.

SO, the upshot:  SpaceX is a pioneer, not just in space launch, but in having the audacity to have the confidence in its engineers, its mission operators, its designers–all those very smart people.  Each one of them is a part of the team, and each one probably taking pride in their part.  Is it perfect?  No.  Nothing with humans and space is.

But is it an acceptable risk?  Heck yeah!!

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