Thursday, May 22, 2014

In The Arena

SpaceX launches its cargo Dragon demonstration flight to the International Space Station on May 22, 2012. Video source: NASA.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” 1910

The SpaceX boobirds have been out in force in recent weeks, most recently due to a Falcon 9 helium leak that postponed a launch. It was the second consecutive Falcon 9 troubled by a helium leak.

Anomalies have plagued SpaceX missions, ranging from the failure of a Merlin engine during an October 2012 cargo flight to a Dragon thruster problem during the March 2013 delivery.

Slow-motion replay of the Merlin engine failure on October 8, 2012. Contrary to the title card, the engine did not explode as initial reports claimed. Video source:

The CRS-3 Dragon returned to Earth on May 18, but sea water seeped inside the capsule. No samples were damaged.

United Launch Alliance, meanwhile, launched today a satellite payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. In a press release, ULA touted its reliability.

With more than a century of combined heritage, United Launch Alliance is the nation’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider. ULA has successfully delivered more than 80 satellites to orbit that provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, enable personal device-based GPS navigation and unlock the mysteries of our solar system. Reliable launch, real-world benefits.

On April 25, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced his company would appeal a 36-launch block buy awarded by the Defense Department to ULA. Musk said he wants to compete for launches that SpaceX is capable of handling.

ULA responded with a press release which stated, “ULA is the only government certified launch provider that meets all of the unique Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) requirements that are critical to supporting our troops and keeping our country safe. That is the case today, when the acquisition process started in 2012 and at the time of the contract award in December 2013.”

The recent five-year block buy contract was the result of a best practice acquisition process that enabled the government to negotiate a block of launches in advance that enabled significant operations efficiency and created the needed stability and predictability in the supplier and industrial base, while meeting national security space requirements.

This disciplined approach saved the government and taxpayers approximately $4 billion while keeping our nation’s assured access to deliver critical national security assets safely to space.

Space launch is one of the most risk-intolerant and technologically advanced components of our national security. That is why new entrants must meet rigorous certification criteria of vehicle design, reliability, process maturity and safety systems in order to compete, similar to the process that ULA’s Atlas and Delta products and processes have met.

The Lockheed Martin Atlas V launches the NROL-33 mission today for the National Reconnaissance Office. Video source: YouTube channel.

A couple days later, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin chipped in by joking that NASA should use a trampoline to reach the International Space Station. Two weeks later, Rogozin threatened to end RD-180 engine deliveries to Lockheed Martin; the engines are used on the Atlas V such as the one that today launched the NRO satellite.

Choosing to take the low road, ULA blamed SpaceX for Rogozin's threat:

ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions. However, if recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX's irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.

The block buy issue will be settled by the judicial process, as it has been over the decades with many similar claims — many filed by ULA partners Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

I would like to raise a more fundamental question.

Is it fair to compare ULA reliability with SpaceX?

The two companies exist for very different reasons.

United Launch Alliance was formed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2005 to provide the federal government with an assured launch capability. Both companies claimed there was insufficient demand for them to continue to compete. The federal government granted ULA a legal monopoly in October 2006 despite fears of higher prices and lower quality.

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002. He had vague notions about lowering space transportation costs towards the eventual goal of Mars colonization. Musk was approached in 2005 by then-NASA administrator Michael Griffin to participate in a program that came to be known as the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project.

As I wrote in March 2013, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program had its origins in the Bush administration's Vision for Space Exploration. Although VSE was best known for the ill-fated Constellation program, it also intended to grow a robust commercial space industry, which was given little notice at the time.

So while ULA was born to avoid risk, SpaceX entered the “NewSpace” program guaranteed that it could take risks with some government financial backing.

In an October 2006 speech, Griffin said:

My hope is that with the seed money we are putting into the COTS program, we can demonstrate the possibility of commercial cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station, and that subsequently NASA will be able to meet its ISS logistics needs by purchasing these demonstrated services. If we can do this, we will be able to change the paradigm for transportation services to be more in line with the air mail service of the 1920s, meeting the logistics needs of the ISS, some 7,000 to 10,000 kilograms per year, after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. In the process, we may be able to spur innovation for low-cost access to space. This is a carefully-considered investment with known risks that we can all see and appreciate, but with a potentially huge upside that makes it well worth the risks.

A failed SpaceX Falcon 1 launch attempt on March 24, 2006. Video source: TheSystemsAlliance YouTube channel.

SpaceX failed repeatedly, and sometimes failed spectacularly.

The first three test launches of its Falcon 1 rocket (one single Merlin engine) failed to achieve orbit. The final attempt in September 2008 succeeded.

The COTS milestone payment scheme only awarded success, not failure. That's why an early COTS participant, Rocketplane Kistler, was booted from the program after it was unable to achieve early milestones.

SpaceX was allowed to fail. Risk was assumed in the program.

Think of ULA and SpaceX as an adult and an infant. ULA was paid to run a marathon. SpaceX was being taught how to walk.

Anyone who's raised a child knows it will fall down, sometimes spectacularly.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, ATK and other “OldSpace” companies could have applied to participate in COTS. They did not. Their company cultures do not accept risk. They make a profit by not taking a risk, by providing an assured service.

A test flight of SpaceX reusable first stage booster technology. Video source: SpaceXChannel on YouTube.

That's why you don't see OldSpace companies attempting to develop reusable boosters, an idea that until recently was considered impossible. SpaceX has proven it's possible. Now they have to prove it's financially viable.

While ULA worries that Russia may stop shipments of RD-180 engines, SpaceX is developing the Raptor engine that uses liquid oxygen and methane.

Even though it might have leaked a little, the robotic Dragon is the only vehicle on Planet Earth capable of returning significant amounts of samples, experiments, and broken parts from space. Russia doesn't have one, and won't for the foreseeable future. Nor will anyone else.

Elon Musk dreams of colonizing Mars, while OldSpace companies react only in response to government requests for bids.

As Michael Griffin said in October 2006, NewSpace has “a potentially huge upside that makes it well worth the risks.”

Is SpaceX ready to run the marathon?

History and the launch market will answer that question. But I won't criticize SpaceX for stumbling. They've learned how to walk. Let's see if they can run.


  1. An excellent overview of the differences in goals and approaches between SpaceX and the EELVs. ULA and USA were planning to run the EELV marathon for at least another 15-20 years. They consider the avoidance of any significant technical improvements as a feature, not a bug. As displayed in their response to the SpaceX arrival, the USAF is happy to keep launch costs extremely high to avoid even a single lost mission. Never mind that the savings from SpaceX could pay for many extra missions and more than make up for any lost one.

    I think it is important to emphasize that the EELVs were born with teething problems of their own. The ramp up to the current rate of 10 or so launches per year took a long, long time. There was no catastrophic explosive loss as happened in the early flights of the Ariane V, but the EELVs certainly had plenty of problems big and small that led to long delays.

    For the Atlas V, between the first launch in 2002 through 2009, the number of launches per year went as 1,2,1,2,2,4,2,4.

    For the Delta IV, it was 1,2,1,0,3,1,0,3.

    That compares to SpaceX for 2010-2014: 2,0,2,3 (2), (2+)
    where the F9 v1.1 flights are in parentheses. Unless there is a problem that leads to a long grounding, the F9 will ramp up this year to a number comparable to the current launch rate for the combined EELV rate.

    I think the SpaceX fly and fix problems as they arise approach is working extremely well. While the "boobirds" will try to make a big deal out of any imperfection, so far the problems haven't impacted the success of the primary missions. SpaceX will fix these issues and I expect the number of problems will fall much faster than it did for the EELVs.

    The F9 is still a young system and there could, of course, always be a loss of vehicle event due to some flaw that was overlooked. The boobirds will go berserk in that case, of course. However, SpaceX will simply fix that flaw as well and continue on until they have a launch system as reliable, if not more so, than any in operation today.

  2. Whoops, "ULA and USA were planning" should have been "ULA and USAF were planning"