Splashdown for SpaceX

John Stossel:

2 Americans just landed safely after spending 2 months in space.

11 years ago, an Obama committee concluded that would take 12 years and cost $26 billion. Elon Musk did it in 6 years– for less than $1 billion.

Private competition is always better.

On the other hand, says the LA Times:

Elon Musk’s growing empire is fueled by $4.9 billion in government subsidies

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he’s built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

“He definitely goes where there is government money,” said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. “That’s a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day.”

Like the government is liable to cut Boeing off. Because now, it can.

I’m guessing Musk reckons he could find other customers, if the government stopped paying. But I’m guessing further that a chunk of all that money goes to schmoozing the government to keep on paying. In a decade or two, Musk could be no better than Boeing.

This is “privatisation”, and privatisation isn’t the same as a real market, hence the sneer quotes. Private competition is always better. So are lots of customers spending their own money, instead of just the one, getting its money at gunpoint. Let’s hope that in this case it will turn out to be a step in the right direction. As big as it now feels.

4 thoughts on “Splashdown for SpaceX”

  1. SpaceX has other customers already booked for crewed flights. Two companies – Axiom Space and Space Adventures – have booked crewed flights with the same SpaceX Falcon/Dragon setup that was used for this mission. Space Adventures are purely space tourism (and have also booked flights from both Boeing and the Russian Soyuz). Axiom Space are a mixture of tourism and other objectives, and intend to also build a module for the International Space Station, amongst other things. (The proposed Philippe Stark designed interior of said module is probably your thing).

    As for uncrewed flights, SpaceX have 70% of the world launch market. They have had a contract with NASA which has had them taking cargo to the ISS since 2012 which certainly did help them get established, but NASA is now only a small portion of their launch business. A large portion of their customers are still government in some sense (US government agencies, US military forces, foreign government agencies, foreign militaries), but I am not sure these really count as “subsidy”. If SpaceX were not there, these customers would be paying someone else (more money) to launch their satellites.

  2. Also, NASA chose two winners from thee finalists in 2014 for the commercial crew program: Boeing and SpaceX. The third finalist was another “new space” company called Sierra Nevada corporation. It was probably inevitable that NASA was going to chooise Boeing as the “safe” option, and only one of the new space options, and SpaceX got the second place as they had a record of doing cargo deliveries for NASA.

    But, the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser is a spaceplane that lands on a runway rather than a capsule that parachutes down like the Dragon or the Boeing Starliner, and it is very cool looking. NASA has subsequently given Sierra Nevada a cargo contract, so we will hopefully see this vehicle flying to the ISS from next year without humans on board.

    However, Sierra Nevada have always stated that it is their intential to fly a crewed version – they just don’t have any customers yet. If the Boeing thing really went bad, NASA might be able to get crewed flights from Sierra Nevada before too long.

    And on that: the Commercial Crew contracts were for each of SpaceX and Boeing to fly one test flight and then six “operational flights”, and that Boeing and SpaceX would ideally alternate the operational flights. If you look into flight assignments now, it seems that the first four operational flights are now assigned to SpaceX, so they will have completed 4 out of six flights of their contract before Boeing have complete any of theirs. Read into that what you will.

  3. Michael
    As usual, thanks for all that.
    Aside from space tourism, are there any other purely free enterprise customers for such services as these? Communications satellites? Satellites for such things as crop observation, weather observation for big agriculture, and so on. I’m guessing yes, quite a few but nothing like all those government agencies you mentioned.

  4. Yes, that is about right. There are purely commercial launches, but they are at present outnumbered by government launches of one sort or another. (Good browse here). Launches of communications satellites for telecommunications and even television companies are a bit hard to classify, as these companies are often government owned or government controlled. Purely government satellites for things like weather forecasting and even GPS often provide services with mostly private customers.

    All the missions listed as “Starlink”, the customer is SpaceX themselves. the plan is to launch a huge constellation of low orbit communications satellites and then use these to offer reasonably priced high speed internet service to people all over the world who presently can’t get that from existing infrastructure. The plan is then to make so much money doing this that SpaceX can fund its own missions to Mars, approximately. I wish them luck with that. (I do, but it is a high risk strategy. On the other hand, Elon Musk has pulled of some high risk strategies in his time).

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