In response to Elon Musk’s announcement of a new transportation concept , R. D. Brewer wrote a post at Ace of Spades which cited this bit of ignorant, snarky, bravo sierra by Craig Pirrong, which itself cites some two-year-old lies by bought-and-paid-for Lockheed Martin lobbyist Loren Thompson:
…consider SpaceX. This venture provides evidence of Musk’s love for Occupy: he has promised that this private space venture will go to Mars, and wears an Occupy Mars shirt to make the point.
It is also touted as a privately capitalized space venture, which it is, I guess, but it is also almost completely dependent on government contracts. The private money is attracted by the scent of public money. Sorry, but a company that is dependent on NASA’s IV for support is not truly a private company: the company is basically a cutout between the investors and the taxpayers.
The company has not exactly covered itself in glory. It had serious trouble with its initial launches, including an embarrassing episode in which the ashes of Star Trek’s Scotty, James Doohan, were on a SpaceX craft that didn’t make it into space: it crashed instead somewhere in the South Pacific. Which I guess would have been great if James Doohan had starred in South Pacific. Don’t worry, though. As a precaution, some of Mr. Doohan’s ashes were retained, and that part of the beloved actor’s remains did make it into space as he desired.
And speaking of Broadway and movie classics, Musk is auditioning for a role in a summer stock Music Man with his boosterism of SpaceX:
You don’t have to be a believer in conspiracy theories to wonder why senior government officials are so committed to going the commercial route in space. Even a cursory review of SpaceX programs and plans reveals reasons for doubt. The questions begin with a business strategy that isn’t just disruptive, but downright incredible. Mr. Musk says that he can offer launch prices far below those quoted by any traditional provider — including the Chinese — by running a lean, vertically integrated enterprise with minimal government oversight that achieves sizable economies of scale. The economies of scale are possible, he contends, because there is huge pent-up demand for space travel in the marketplace that cannot be met within the prevailing pricing structure. By dropping prices substantially, this latent demand can then be unlocked, greatly increasing the rate of rocket production and launches. When combined with other features of the SpaceX business model, the increased pace of production and launches results in revolutionary price reductions.
There isn’t much serious research to demonstrate that the pent-up demand Musk postulates really exists, nor that the price reductions he foresees are feasible. He has suggested in some interviews that launch costs could decline to a small fraction of current levels if all the assumptions in his business plan come true, and he has posted a commentary on his web-site explaining how SpaceX is already able to offer the lowest prices in the business. It’s hard to look inside the operations of a private company, but SpaceX does seem to be doing all the things necessary to minimize costs such as using proven technology, building as many items as possible in-house, and hiring a young workforce willing to work long hours. And to his credit, Musk has committed over $100 million of his own money to the venture. However, his rockets have major performance limitations compared with other launch vehicles in the market, and they are not yet rated as safe for carrying people. Becoming “man-rated” will necessarily increase the role of federal officials in monitoring SpaceX operations, which is not good news for a business model grounded in minimal government oversight (traditional launch providers say government regulations and overhead charges are a key driver in their own pricing policies).
Downright incredible sounds about right. It sounds like a con to me. Especially the whole “economy of scale” thing. That’s the kind of thing defense contractors say to get the government to buy more units of a plane or ship. It’s not good economics.
And Musk’s winning personality was on display when questioned about SpaceX’s launch failures:
Mr. Musk recently responded to a question from Space News reporter Amy Svitak about the two-year delay in accomplishing that second Falcon 9 launch by observing, “In the space business that’s on time.” Perhaps he was irritated by the reporter’s implied criticism, but it goes without saying that if astronauts on board the space station are awaiting supplies, a prolonged launch delay could spell big trouble.
What a guy. Takes your money, and then gets peevish when you accuse him he’s blowing it.