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I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in part because of SpaceX’s success with its Falcon Heavy (FH) launch. And, in part because of the inevitable responses to that success from the expected originators of those responses.
Responses were predictable.
A certain, seemingly interminable, government rocket-building program put shields up, throwing out all sorts of reasons why the FH just won’t compete (the reaction and attitude seemed like the Black Knight’s reaction to getting his legs and arms chopped off (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eMkth8FWno)). Many people came to the program’s rescue as well, writing op-eds, histories, and comparisons. Similarly, a SpaceX company rival coaxed industry writers to show the genius of another rocket on the CAD screen. The ‘genius’ as quoted by one writer, was parachuting the rocket’s engine cluster back to be snatched out of the air with a helicopter. That was funny!
Look–I get it. A company that incumbent launch service providers never expected to make it off the launch pad seems to be eating their lunch. It’s making them look like they’re all standing still. Ditto for the government human launch program. The fact the company has created three different rockets–Falcon 1, Falcon 9 (plus iterations), and the Falcon Heavy–within 16 years of its founding, might have something to do with that. The same company is working on a fourth rocket.
The company did not just design and create three different rockets, but it also constructed its own engines, its own landing system, its own cargo spacecraft, and more. Each action was likely viewed by some as an encroachment on territory and expertise of incumbents across the board. Never mind that territories and expertise in those organizations seemed to be encompassing necrotic programs and business models fully dependent on taxpayer funding. The kind of changes SpaceX pushed were too much–too successful. Competitors’ pride turned to envy, feelings were hurt, and the bottom-line looked a lot less certain. So, yes, defensive press releases and plans were to be expected.
Government and incumbent plans are for one kind of future, whereas SpaceX’s reusable rockets seem to be from the future. But which IS the future?
Certainly the immediate, short-sighted goals of maintaining contracts and jobs isn’t the future of the industry–although some companies seemed eminently poised for that future. The goal of maintaining a nation’s prestige through building the rocket equivalent of an Eiffel-tower to shoot into space (with ever-changing goals of WHERE to shoot into space) seems fairly old-fashioned. It certainly was done over fifty years ago and seems to be a step back towards that age. So maybe not the future, in spite of great marketing. What’s next, Ferris wheels in space? Wait a minute…
Whether we, or by proxy, congress, decide to go with those futures, or to allow some other to unfold, will it matter? The future will have its way with us, no matter what we think and do. We can try to stuff it back in its box. We can come up with protectionist laws. We can build systems that can only come from a Rube Goldberg (https://www.rubegoldberg.com/) fever dream. We can write up heartfelt and snarky, dare I say, trollish/tantrum responses to a company’s successes or failures. But the future comes, whether choices are made…or not. We can be a part of the future, work with it, or become irrelevant. The future doesn’t care.
There are indicators of a type of future coming to the space industry. Not just in the United States, but globally. SpaceX as the most active launch service provider and rocket developer seems to be the industry’s harbinger. It’s giving us glimpses of the future, but perhaps not the way we think. Since SpaceX is doing interesting things, let’s take a look at the company’s recent achievements:
- SpaceX’s Falcon 9 1st stage landing attempts were all successful during 2017.
- SpaceX uses “drone” ships to act as ocean landing pads for a few of these returning stages. And they work.
- SpaceX is aiming for quick-turnaround times–as little as an hour–between rocket landings and launches (not necessarily with the Falcon 9).
- SpaceX launched two broadband test satellites, the TinTins. The company plans to orbit thousands around the Earth, and a few around Mars, too ( http://shitelonsays.com/transcript/spacex-seattle-2015-2015-01-15).
- SpaceX automated the flight termination system for its rockets during launch.
These actions of just one company highlight possible trends towards a likely future. These are trends already embraced by the public in other areas, and growing by the year, rapidly. More on that in the next post.
P.S.: The next post will be a little while. Next week is a bit full. If I have time to write, well, it will be a miracle.