SpaceX: They’re Not the First Ones to Try This

Image hosted on Pat Dollard’s website. There are some videos of the Falcon 9 Reusable’s untimely demise on that site, too.

It seems I hear this refrain a lot in reference to SpaceX and its rocket reusability attempts, “They’re not the first ones to try this.”  It gets a little tiresome because it sounds like an informed opinion, but really isn’t.   It also seems that SpaceX itself is dealing with the same kind of sentimen–but I can only imagine it’s on a larger scale.  At least that’s what this Aviation Week article, which was posted in May 2014, hints at.

The post talks about the optimistic assessment SpaceX naturally has about its own engines and about how many times they can be used (SpaceX say about 40 in the article).  And it contrasts this optimism with the experience and cautions of people who worked with the space shuttle and the French-run attempts at building a reusable Ariane 5 rocket.  Sure, such people should be listened to, because there probably are very few people in the reusable rocket area with hands-on expertise.  But just because the way they attempted to make reusability a reality didn’t work, doesn’t mean that SpaceX will not be successful.  What it does mean is that making reusable rockets that can deliver payloads into space is very hard.

So, okay–it’s been attempted before.  But it was attempted by different people in a different time in different programs with older technology.  As humans, some of us tend to learn from all of those variables.  SpaceX tends to hire some smart humans who are definitely capable of learning lessons from those.  They might even recognize certain lessons might not apply.  Does it matter if they aren’t the first ones to do it?  Probably not.  Just look at Microsoft and smartphones, or Microsoft and tablet computers.  That company tried very hard to push either computing platform into the mainstream–with very little success.  Then along comes Apple…

I’m not saying SpaceX is Apple.  But they might just be the rocket company that pushes cheap launch services, because of reusability, towards the mainstream more than any other company.  It just depends on how they do it, and not who attempted to do it before.  If they don’t initially succeed, there’s always the people who come out of the woodwork and, with a perverse glee, talk about how wrong it was for SpaceX to try their hand at this sort of thing.  But SpaceX will probably ignore those comments, thankfully, and try again.  And if they succeed, is that really such a terrible thing?  As for the post, it might be worth reading, if only to understand some of the arguments and history for the “It’s been tried before sentiment.”


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