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SpaceX on Self Destruct

Elon Musk is the Wizard of Odd desperately telling the public to pay no attention to the SpaceX problems behind the curtain. Admittedly, the bad news at SpaceX is usually buried by Musk’s talent to distract attention by offering some new Tweet that causes his fan club and space mediaites to swoon, but even Musk is challenged by the train wreck in progress. 

SpaceX Starship Down – Image credit: Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

Image credit: Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

First, the Good News

SpaceX has successfully launched three rockets this year. The three bright spots of those launches are:

  • the 2 March the Dragon 2 capsule demo (no crew) flight to the International Space Station (ISS) and back
  • the 22 February, third launch of a reusable Falcon 9 (F9) Block 5 booster
  • three successful launches

Successful launches might seem to be a basic expectation but in the case of SpaceX, the lack of a launch failure is great news.

SpaceX Downsizing Nightmare

The most alarming news is that SpaceX has laid off about 10% of its employees. In an article in Business Insider, [21 Jan 2019] Dan Mosher reported the according to a notice required by California law, 93% of those jobs eliminated were front line workers and only 7% were managers or supervisors. This cuts into the core of SpaceX’s ability to put a product into space.

This also means that SpaceX’s effort to develop new technology will be impacted as experienced workers have now left the company taking their knowledge and skills with them.

2019 SpaceX Schedule in Retreat

In 2015, SpaceX had 7 attempted launches with one failure. In 2016, SpaceX had 8 attempted launches with no failures, but one rocket blew up on the pad during a static fire test. In 2017, they had 18 attempted launches and no failures. In 2018, they had 21 attempted launches and no failures. [Source:  Wikipedia – Launches]

This year SpaceX has only had three launches in the first quarter, and only 10 launches scheduled for the remainder of 2019. [Source:  Spaceflight Now 25 Mar 2019] This means that SpaceX will have no more than 13 launches this year which almost a 40% drop in launch attempts from last year. Another source lists 14 [See Wikipedia – Launches above] remaining launch attempts this year; however, SpaceX has some obvious launchpad [Source:  NASA Spaceflight.com 6 Mar 2019 – M. Baylor] and booster reuse conflicts that would make that schedule nearly impossible. 

Regardless, SpaceX 2019 launch schedule will be dramatically smaller than 2018. The reduction is because SpaceX doesn’t have the resources and/or customer orders to maintain or grow its business. Either way, SpaceX is in trouble. 

SpaceX Begging for Contracts?

The layoff notice came three months after it was reported [Source:  Space News 10 Oct 2018 – S. Erwin] that SpaceX was excluded from $2 billion worth of U.S. Air Force heavy-lift rocket contracts that went to three competitors. Within two weeks of that announcement, Eric Ralph of Musk’s fan site, Teslarati, [25 Oct 2018] reported that SpaceX had quickly landed two private satellite launches for the Falcon Heavy, but he didn’t report the value of the contracts.

Musk is known for offering below bargain prices and grand claims to his company’s customers to attract business and this sudden rebound of two heavy-lift private contracts of an undisclosed value had all the trappings of Musk offer-they-couldn’t-refuse. 

This was followed last month in a Forbes [20 Feb 2019] article by Elizabeth Howell, reporting that SpaceX and veteran military contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) each won a three rocket contract from the Air Force. The ULA contract was for $442 million, but the SpaceX contract was essentially a buy-two-get-one-free contract of $297 million.

SpaceX can’t afford to lose money and still launch rockets. If that is what has happened it is a strategy that will eventually destroy the company from the inside out.

The Falcon Heavy Gap

SpaceX’s spectacular Falcon Heavy debut last February has been followed by a year of silence. This behavior was characteristic of Musk’s tendency to rely more on grandiosity and less on substance in his business ventures. The Falcon Heavy test flight buoyed the company’s public image, but the lack of a follow-up test left the question of whether the first Falcon Heavy was luck or skill.

Next month, SpaceX will be the second launch the Falcon Heavy, but this will be for a paying customer. Caleb Henry, reporting for Via Satellite, [18 Sep 2015] said that SpaceX won the contract for the Arabsat 6A satellite three and a half years ago. According to Spaceflight Now [25 Mar 2019], the launch was originally scheduled for the first half of 2018, then delayed multiple times to the 7 April 2019 date. Since this contract was agreed upon two and a half years before the first Falcon Heavy flew, the customer committed to SpaceX on blind trust. In business, you don’t do blind trust contracts unless you’re getting an exceptional deal.   

Sandra Erwin of Space News [25 Mar 2019] reports that the U.S. Air Force will be closely monitoring the second launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket to evaluate SpaceX’s ability to perform as promised. This indicates that customers are still not sold on the Falcon Heavy. 

Booster Hype

Emre Kelly of Florida Today [5 Aug 2018] wrote that Musk has boasted that the Falcon 9 Block 5 booster will be the ultimate in cost savings. He has said that SpaceX will be able to launch, land, and relaunch it quickly with minimal refurbishment and inspection. He also claims that each Block 5 booster will be reused a minimum of 10 times, and up to 100 with ‘moderate refurbishment.’

However, the reality of the Block 5 boosters seems to suggest they are not as reusable as stated. The next scheduled launch [7 April] will use two new Block 5 boosters and a new Block 5 core booster. After that, the launch currently scheduled for 25 April will use a new Block 5 booster. The subsequent scheduled 16 May launch will be a second-time use of a Block 5 booster first flown earlier this month. The reuse of the Block 5 boosters isn’t evident in the SpaceX schedule.

Three F9 Block boosters seem to be retired (1046, 1047, and 1049) after a handful of launches. One booster (1054) was intentionally destroyed, one booster is planned to be destroyed (1048), and another failed to reland (1050.) The question about cost savings from reuse and minimal refurbishment remain for a private space organization offering bargain prices and laying off workers.

F9 Block 5 Boosters History/Status [Source:  Wikipedia – Boosters]

      • 1046 – Successfully launched and recovered 3 times/not schedule for further service
      • 1047 – Successfully launched and recovered twice/not scheduled for further service
      • 1048 – Successfully launched and recovered 3 times/scheduled for June 2019 launch and destruction
      • 1049 – Successfully launched and recovered twice/not scheduled for further service
      • 1050 – Successfully launched once, failed to land
      • 1051 – Successfully launched and recovered once/planned for relaunch [May 2019]
      • 1052 – Planned for next two Falcon Heavy launches [April, June 2019]
      • 1053 – Planned for next two Falcon Heavy launches [April, June 2019]
      • 1054 – Successfully launched once, no recovery
      • 1055 – Planned as Falcon Heavy core launch [April 2019]
      • 1056 – Planned for launch [April 2019]
      • 1057 – Planned as Falcon Heavy core launch [June 2019]

Too Many Irons, Too Little Fire

SpaceX is a horse with many riders, each pulling in a different direction. Instead of focusing on innovative spacecraft engineering, or heavy-lift rockets, or human-rated capsules, or commercial and military satellites, or deep space exploration, SpaceX tries to have its hand in it all. The result is a chaotic mess of programs that wax and wane in priority to the management of the organization.

It is a rebirth of the Soviet-style space program of secrecy and public image stunts without the financial resources or management style that produces high quality, successful programs. Musk’s volatile leadership [Source:  Reuters 30 Oct 2018 – E. Johnson, J. Roulette] has led to a space organization coming apart at the seams.

Will SpaceX’s Implosion Cost Lives?

Elon Musk seems to follow a path of metaphorically pushing harder on the accelerator when the charge on his high tech lithium batteries are running low. Musk has a reputation of lashing out at employees, demanding long hours, and pushing for strict deadlines. [Source:  CNBC 18 Oct 2018 – R. Umoh] The problem is that Elon Musk doesn’t make the rockets, his workers do. Soviet Russia learned the hard way that high pressure in the space industry adds high risk for those depending on the workers on the ground.

After a two year delay, 2019 is the year that SpaceX is supposed to put humans in space. That is not a task for an organization in distress.