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Hyperloop, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Usual Elon Musk-Bashing Nonsense

Resurrecting criticisms of the entrepreneur that have already been debunked.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

August 14, 2013 - 2:01 am
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Phew. Well, first, Thompson’s libelous, deceitful nonsense was ably responded to at the time by Bobby Block.

Whether or not Mr. Pirrong finds it credible or not, the fact is that Elon Musk has developed an entire company, two launch vehicles and a manufacturing facility for them, test facilities, launch pads and its own mission control for about the cost of a single Space Shuttle launch. He has broken the NASA/Air-Force Cost Model (NAFCOM) which would have predicted his system development to cost from three to ten times more than it actually ended up being.

The other fact is that the company is not on a “NASA IV,” or “completely dependent on government contracts” (though that’s certainly true of, e.g., Lockheed Martin). It has a solid order book, with many commercial launches on the manifest, the most recent of which was from the Canadian company MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates a couple weeks ago to launch their new radar satellites. It is taking back the foreign satellite launch sales that American industry had abandoned to foreign competition in the nineties because Atlas and Delta had been priced out of the market by Europe, Russia and China. Now, the company even has the Chinese running scared, because they can’t compete against it, even with a taxpayer-subsidized system.

And speaking of taxpayer subsidies, the only taxpayer money the company has ever taken was not (unlike Tesla) in the form of guaranteed loans, but simply as fee for payment for fixed-price milestones, in order to accelerate the development of the Dragon cargo (and soon, crew) capsule. This will enable it to resupply the ISS, and reduce (and eventually, hopefully eliminate) our reliance on the Russians for its support. That is to say, NASA needs SpaceX much more than SpaceX needs NASA’s money. Without the NASA contracts, the company would simply be doing commercial launches, and developing the Dragon at a more leisurely pace. The ultimate and much larger market for the system is to support private space facilities, such as those being developed by Bigelow Aerospace, in the latter part of the decade. And yes, launch delays are in fact entirely normal for this industry, as are failures of early test flights, from which the company has obviously learned lessons, since it has never suffered a significant failure of the Falcon 9. No one at the ISS was going hungry waiting for the Dragon delivery, because the Russians have been delivering cargo.

As for the other nonsense, I’m aware of no evidence that Elon is supportive of the Occumorons, and I certainly saw none presented here. From what I know of him (and we’ve spoken a few times), I find that highly improbable. If he ever did wear an “Occupy Mars” shirt (again, I await evidence), it would be much less indicative of any sympathy for the police-car poopers than as an expression of his oft-stated goal of sending thousands there, and retiring there himself.

As for Tesla, which is a completely different business model than SpaceX, I don’t think that taxpayers should subsidize loans for anything, but if the government is handing out money for a business in which you’re engaged, it would be just as foolish to turn it down as to not take advantage of every tax break when you do your personal return. And unlike Solyndra, which went mammaries up with taxpayers holding the bag, Tesla has repaid its loans in full ahead of schedule. I don’t know whether the company will be successful or not, or whether it could survive absent idiotic subsidies from California, but at this point it doesn’t really matter to the taxpayers.

Now, I don’t think that Elon is a saint, and there are certainly some things for which to criticize him. I think he’s working very hard to build a company, but not hard enough to build an industry, and he’s reportedly pretty hard on both his people and his vendors, with a lot of churn in his growing company. But that’s not atypical of Silicon Valley, which is the model for all his companies, rather than the traditional hierarchical aerospace industry model. It seems to be working, at least in terms of revolutionary reductions in the cost of space access — with a promise of much more if he can get the reusability for which he’s ultimately aimed. I don’t know whether or not the hyperloop makes any economic sense (though I suspect that it’s certainly technically feasible), but if you’re going to criticize him, as many who love to hate on him seem determined to do at every opportunity, it would be nice if, just once in a while, the criticism would have some basis in reality.

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Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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