As Jon Stewart from the Daily Show noted (although not quite correctly), four entities have launched rockets into space: the US, China, the Soviet Union (Russia) and Elon Musk. “Well, it wasn’t just me,” Musk replied humbly. Watch the entire interview here of Elon Musk on the Daily Show, where he discusses SpaceX’s upcoming test flight of their unmanned Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, sending humans to Mars, energy problems, and whether he is one of the X-Men.
“Whenever someone proposes to do something that has never been done before, there will always be skeptics,” says SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. He distributed an email today, setting the record straight on SpaceX’s actual launch costs and prices, and he also outlines why he believes American innovation will trump countries like China in space –even though that country has the fastest growing economy in the world and lower labor rates than the US. Read Musk’s article below:
Whenever someone proposes to do something that has never been done before, there will always be skeptics. So when I started SpaceX, it was not surprising when people said we wouldn’t succeed. But now that we’ve successfully proven Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon, there’s been a steady stream of misinformation and doubt expressed about SpaceX’s actual launch costs and prices.
As noted last month by a Chinese government official, SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and they don’t believe they can beat them. This is a clear case of American innovation trumping lower overseas labor rates.
I recognize that our prices shatter the historical cost models of government-led developments, but these prices are not arbitrary, premised on capturing a dominant share of the market, or “teaser” rates meant to lure in an eager market only to be increased later. These prices are based on known costs and a demonstrated track record, and they exemplify the potential of America’s commercial space industry.
Here are the facts:
The price of a standard flight on a Falcon 9 rocket is $54 million. We are the only launch company that publicly posts this information on our website (www.spacex.com). We have signed many legally binding contracts with both government and commercial customers for this price (or less). Because SpaceX is so vertically integrated, we know and can control the overwhelming majority of our costs. This is why I am so confident that our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time, as is the case with every other technology.
The average price of a full-up NASA Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station is $133 million including inflation, or roughly $115m in today’s dollars, and we have a firm, fixed price contract with NASA for 12 missions. This price includes the costs of the Falcon 9 launch, the Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance and overhead, and all of the work required to integrate with the Space Station. If there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference. (This concept may be foreign to some traditional government space contractors that seem to believe that cost overruns should be the responsibility of the taxpayer.)
The total company expenditures since being founded in 2002 through the 2010 fiscal year were less than $800 million, which includes all the development costs for the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon. Included in this $800 million are the costs of building launch sites at Vandenberg, Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein, as well as the corporate manufacturing facility that can support up to 12 Falcon 9 and Dragon missions per year. This total also includes the cost of five flights of Falcon 1, two flights of Falcon 9, and one up and back flight of Dragon.
The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and half years for just over $300 million. The Falcon 9 is an EELV class vehicle that generates roughly one million pounds of thrust (four times the maximum thrust of a Boeing 747) and carries more payload to orbit than a Delta IV Medium.
The Dragon spacecraft was developed from a blank sheet to the first demonstration flight in just over four years for about $300 million. Last year, SpaceX became the first private company, in partnership with NASA, to successfully orbit and recover a spacecraft. The spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket that carried it were designed, manufactured and launched by American workers for an American company. The Falcon 9/Dragon system, with the addition of a launch escape system, seats and upgraded life support, can carry seven astronauts to orbit, more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat.
SpaceX has been profitable every year since 2007, despite dramatic employee growth and major infrastructure and operations investments. We have over 40 flights on manifest representing over $3 billion in revenues.
These are the objective facts, confirmed by external auditors. Moreover, SpaceX intends to make far more dramatic reductions in price in the long term when full launch vehicle reusability is achieved. We will not be satisfied with our progress until we have achieved this long sought goal of the space industry.
For the first time in more than three decades, America last year began taking back international market-share in commercial satellite launch. This remarkable turn-around was sparked by a small investment NASA made in SpaceX in 2006 as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. A unique public-private partnership, COTS has proven that under the right conditions, a properly incentivized contractor—even an all-American one—can develop extremely complex systems on rapid timelines and a fixed-price basis, significantly beating historical industry-standard costs.
China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.
For more information see the SpaceX website.
Elon Musk conceded that the space business world is an extraordinarily difficult place to make money. But that isn’t his main priority anyway.
“The reason I’m doing SpaceX,” Musk said during the Falcon 9/Dragon post-flight press conference, “is that I just happen to have a very strong passion for space and I want us to become true spacefaring civilization and even a multi-planetary civilization. That is my goal for SpaceX.”
“Other companies have profit goals and such, but for SpaceX it is really about furthering the cause of space,” Musk continued. “We must bring in more money that we spend, but maximizing profitability is not really what it is about.”
Musk said he has been upfront with investors in SpaceX that a high profit margin is not his priority, “and so they can’t be mad when that doesn’t happen.”
He added that he wants to make science fiction –“what you read about the future,” — to become reality.
The discussion of profit started when Musk revealed that the Falcon 9 second stage was restarted and flew to 11,000 km (6,800 miles) to release some secondary satellite payloads, including a U.S. Army nanosatellite. SpaceX was paid minimally for only some of those payloads, Musk said.
Wednesday’s test flight was the first of three financed by NASA under a $278 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement, the main cog of a program designed to encourage commercial space companies to develop rockets and spacecraft to deliver cargo – and later perhaps crew — to the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired next year.
After the Dragon’s initial success, Musk said he hopes NASA will consider allowing Dragon to go directly to the International Space Station on the next flight, estimated to take place in mid-2011. Since Dragon is capable of carrying 5987 kg (13,200 pounds) of cargo in pressurized and unpressurized cargo bays, it can bring more than twice as much cargo as Russian Progress resupply ships.
Musk also thinks Dragon can compete with Lockheed’s Orion capsule, the only part of the Constellation Program that NASA has maintained.
“What I’m hopeful for is that NASA may consider the Dragon as good as Orion,” Musk said. “It is good to have multiple companies doing something, so Lockheed has Orion and we have Dragon and we would certainly like to have Dragon considered for anything that Orion could do. Perhaps we could do more because our heat shield is significantly more advanced.”
While Musk said SpaceX could not have gotten where it is today without NASA’s support and path-making, Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, said with the success of this flight, the benefits might be going both ways.
“As much as SpaceX is learning from NASA, there are certainly things we can learn from SpaceX,” he said.
Hailed as a both a great day for commercial spaceflight as well as for NASA, SpaceX made history on Wednesday with a 100% successful test flight of its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. “This is a new way of doing business,” said Alan Lindenmoyer manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, “and I would say today this is an indication that this public/private partnership is working and has proven to be successful. Thanks to SpaceX for the early Christmas present – this is a great way to start the holidays.”
At the press conference following the flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at first appeared to be speechless: “Really, this has been better than I expected,” he said. “It all went right. I am sort of in semi shock—I wish I could be more articulate in moments like this, bit it’s hard to be articulate with a blown mind!”
But Musk soon found his words – and lots of them (with many great quotes, so keep reading…)
Lindenmoyer said SpaceX’s accomplishments are quite an achievement, since over the last 20 years, for new launch vehicles only about 50% of them are success are successful on their first or second flights, and only 1 out of 3 new vehicles have two successful flights in a row, which SpaceX has achieved.
Musk said the success really shouldn’t be a surprise since the Dragon spacecraft has so many redundancies: 18 thruster engines instead of 9, 3 parachutes when they really could land with one, extra thermal protection, and a very advanced heat shield. But in the end, SpaceX didn’t need to use any of the backup systems.
Preliminary data said the Dragon reentered the atmosphere spot on at a 12% angle of attack, with 2% dispersion. “This is a testament to the incredible work of the people at SpaceX,” he said. “Everyone did their jobs so well.”
Musk also emphasize that his company couldn’t have gotten to where they are without NASA, in not only monetary support ($278 million for the COTS program), but in leading the way in spaceflight.
“The core concepts of Falcon 9 and Dragon were demonstrated decades ago by NASA, and its an old saying, but we are only here because we stand on the shoulders of giants. So thank you,” he said.
Musk noted a few key things about the flight: The restart of Falcon 9’s second stage went perfectly; the second stage as restarted after the release of Dragon, and rose to an altitude of more than 11,000 km (6,800 miles), Musk said. Secondary satellite payloads of nanosatellites were released during the flight. And, Musk added, that altitude was with the trimmed, repaired nozzle. Reaching an altitude that high was not part of SpaceX’s primary objectives, but nice to have, Musk said.
Dragon went to an altitude of 300 km.
Musk also stressed that the difference between this Dragon capsule and one that could carry people isn’t that different.
“People sometimes think the different between cargo and crew required enormous amount of magical pixie dust,” he said “This is not the case. If there would have been people sitting in Dragon today, they would have had a nice ride, feeling about 4-5 G’s, which is about what an amusement park ride is like,” with an 8 meter per second descent speed which is quite comfortable from a landing perspective.
The only differences, Musk said, would be the addition of a launch escape system. And, he revealed, what SpaceX really hopes to do with future spacecraft is not a splashdown in the ocean but a propulsive landing on the ground.
“The architecture you saw today was similar to what was employed in Apollo era, but we are aiming for propulsive landing with gear, kind of like the Eagle landing on the moon, and being able to take off again” he said. “Full reusability of Dragon and Falcon 9 is important as well, and something we want to figure out over time.”
Musk also said this mission didn’t have many significant differences in one that would send the Dragon the ISS. “In our discussions with NASA they said if this flight went well they would strongly consider letting us go to the space station on next mission,” he said. “I hope that is what NASA will allow us to do, we need to still examine the data from this mission first, but I’m highly optimistic. There are additional elements to be added to Dragon such as solar panels and redundancy on flight computers and electronics, but feel highly confident we could make it to the ISS on our next flight by middle of next year.”
Today’s flight tested the fundamentals of a heat shield and precision landing. Musk said the performance of heat shield was spectacular, and projected that is could not only handle Earth reentry, but also lunar and Mars reentry.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell noted some other technical details, of how Dragon was able to maintain attitude and thermal control, as well as maintain communications with ground stations and TEDRIS satellites, which requires specific directional pointing.
The entire launch and two orbit flight took 3 hours 19 min 52 seconds, and initial data said they landed within 10 km of their target, and a communiqué from the Air force said Dragon came within 800 meters.
Asked about the flame flare that came about 2 seconds after launch, Musk said the first look by engineers said it was a check valve on the second stage umbilical that came off and caught fire as the spacecraft engines passed by — not an explosion but a just little fire.
Musk said the point in the flight where he felt the most jubilation and great relief was when the parachutes deployed. “Drogue and main chute deploy were riskiest parts, so when that happened, it was done deal. Just mind-blowingly awesome.”
Asked if the success today would silence any of SpaceX’s critics, Musk said, “I think if there really are people who are going still find a way to cast aversions on what we’ve done today, I pity them. It just wouldn’t make any sense.”
He said politicians who initially wanted to cut commercial crew funds from NASA’s budget soon learned that such a move would not decrease but increase the deficit and also meant increased time with no American access to space. “I think some politicians were initially mislead, but then they realized the value of commercial crew, which is why it the cuts didn’t make it into the final report.”
Asked about the differences in Dragon and NASA’s Orion spacecraft, Musk said that Space X would probably be the most rapid path to an American crew transport system. “If we would have had people on this flight we would have taken them to orbit and returned them safely,” he said. “Going to a crew system is just adding some additional safety systems for highly off nominal activities. Even for cargo missions we will be carrying plants and animals so I think we are in a very strong position to be one of the winners of the commercial crew contract.”
Musk added that competition is good, however, and NASA shouldn’t be too dependent on one company,” so hopefully there will be two or maybe three commercial crew providers and hopefully we are one of them.”
Musk agreed with Lindenmoyer on how this appears to vindicate the public/private model of space flight and shows that the commercial model works just as well in space flight as in air flight, or other arenas.
“The air mail program was a huge boost when the Post Office went commercial,” he said “and that resulted in explosion of innovation and improvement in technology. It really was the dawn of aviation in American where it went from joy rides that rich people could do, to today where aviation is accessible to almost everyone. I think historically COTS program will be seen in that light.”
On board Dragon was a few small satellites, and look for Musk to reveal tomorrow the nature of a humorous item that was on board. “I’m not going to reveal it today, as I don’t want some of the editors to use it in the first headlines,” he said. “It is kind of funny and if you like Monty Python you’ll like this one.”
Spam in a can?
Universe Today extends their congratulations to SpaceX. The future appears to be now.
SpaceX founder, CEO and CTO Elon Musk sat down with the Spacevidcast team for about 20 minutes to talk about space and SpaceX. This is the 10 minute SpacePod edition which has a little under 1/2 the interview available. We chat about the Falcon X, the future of space and why he built SpaceX.