Feb 06 2018

What’s My Issue With SpaceX? – The Complete Story

I don’t hide my opinions. Hell, that’s what this site is based upon heavily – my thoughts and opinions on a wide variety of subjects, both historic and topical. Something I have incredibly strong opinions about is the subject of space and rocketry, and of course a major player in the field, the company run by Elon Musk: SpaceX.

Contrary to what many may think, it was only in the past year and a half or so that I really changed my opinion on SpaceX. Before 2017, I was actually a massive fan of the company. While I’m in the process on my side blog of explaining what happened, the super short form of it was I discovered how absolutely cult-like elements of the fan base of the company were, and found myself growing to quickly dislike what I was realizing as time passed.

Let me just ask, before we continue, that if you are going to read this, which I wish you would, that you understand exactly where I’m coming from, and at least consider what is stated – this is a summary at best of something incredibly complex in a personal opinion. These opinions are the result of my experiences, not anyone else’s, so take it for what it is. I’m not you, and you’re not me, but my thoughts are just as valid as anyone else’s.

With that out of the way, let me begin.

The Launch of Apollo 10, on a Saturn V.

It’s not that I intrinsically dislike SpaceX as a company, nor do I dislike their employees or the machines they build. Hell, they are some damn fine rockets and while their rather boring in many ways (simple designs, white with a few colors, very bland really) they do a hell of a good job, and the engineers behind them have done amazing work.

What I don’t like is the way the company exists – the attitude that comes from it, and is amplified by its fans. I don’t like the culture it breeds, is another way to phrase it.

I have very mixed feelings about CEO Elon Musk. As crazy as many of the ideas are, some of them I’m certain simply won’t work (and have already been shown not to as he originally proposed them), but at the same rate what SpaceX has done is impressive – I’ll never deny that, but that’s just it – what has been done. What has yet to be done is another story, and I feel proposals are right to be commented on because that might well help shape them into things that can actually happen rather than something overreaching that has no hope of succeeding. The company has already changed numerous things through the years, some of which very recently – changes that the fans seem to not want to acknowledge as admitting that there were issues with the original proposal.

Still, I can’t ignore that he seems to care heavily for himself more so than others in his public image and social media presence. This holds true of the public media presence of SpaceX as well – it seems very focused on only themselves, rather than wanting to fit in with the industry as other companies do.

Neither Musk nor SpaceX seem to care about the outside world of space travel and history – the only history they care about is perpetually using the buzz term “Historic Launch Complex 39A” for the launch pad that was basically given to them (more on that later.)

When John Young died January 5th, 2018, not a peep was to be heard from SpaceX or Musk, the latter instead saying something about roller disco’s at charging stations for Tesla, or whatever. Whenever anyone else succeeds, they are silent, but when they have a launch, or have any success, it’s all photos, video, cute jokes, and buzz terms amass.

The Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-1

There is something to be said about the way SpaceX conducts itself in public relations too that’s quite different from the norm. SpaceX is, well, very trendy, let’s put it that way. They appeal to the more “casual” person, trying to be more high energy than the rather military-like nature of a company like United Launch Alliance. Not that ULA is boring by any means during a launch, far from it – they just keep things more clinical and to the point, while SpaceX has on their webcasts and discussions far more youthful energy which I for one, and I hate to sound old in this but I have to say it, don’t like.

I prefer cold countdowns, factual statements about what’s going on, and just the sounds of the rocket. I don’t like hearing the crowd at the company HQ cheer everything something that look cool happens (yet somehow ignore critical events like payload fairing separation). I don’t need to have 2 people who look like they could be models come up on the screen to explain the basics of rocketry to me. When you watch a Basketball game, do you have someone announcing the game explain every single rule to you as it happens? No! You learn about the game as you watch it, or read up on it on your own time.

The same, to me, has always been true of rocketry and space, which has traditionally been quite the nerdy or geeky endevaour. Now, as many people say, SpaceX is getting more people into space, but there’s a problem with that – SpaceX is all they care about. They don’t want to learn anything else. They don’t care about any other company. These are the same people who think “Obama ended NASA in 2011” for fucks sake, they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground in some cases, but because SpaceX is seen as “cool” they are all over it. Add in a nice dose of buzz words that mean nothing to me like “flight proven” and you get yourself a nice load of fans armed with enough buzz terms to fill urban dictionary.

John Glenn’s launch into orbit on an Atlas Missile – a converted ICBM!

The media doesn’t help this, either. They too speak highly of SpaceX without seeming to really know all that much about rocketry or space. That, or they just don’t care. Not just that, of course, but you have outlet after outlet that seems oddly biased against United Launch Alliance, Russian launch services, ArianeSpace, NASA, or anything else you can think of that isn’t SpaceX. This continues to perpetuate in the gullible masses this perception that SpaceX is the only acceptable option and that everyone else is somehow inferior by default – even though often these same outlets tout SpaceX’s very existence as a good thing because “competition is good” according to them, which is something I actually wholeheartedly disagree with when it comes to this particular industry and how things currently are being done.

To touch on that element briefly, let me go back to how I mentioned NASA basically gave SpaceX Launch Complex 39A. That’s basically what happened – it was leased to them to use. They got more than that, though, through the years. SpaceX over the years has, according to what I’ve read, had pretty much free reign of data NASA had acquired throughout its history, and support from the agency beyond pad 39A, as well as money from the U.S. Government to assist them in their development of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, as well as Dragon – money that could well have been given a certain other national agency that could use a bit more funding. Whatever case, the point here is that SpaceX has been given benefits that I don’t believe have been given to rival companies like Blue Origin – Blue Origin being a company with propsals similar to SpaceX that I, for one, feel actually has slightly better refined ideas, and is a company that actually contributes beyond it’s own interests – their BE-4 engine, for example, will power the United Launch Alliance Vulcan booster, in a union of efforts that I feel we need more of.

Speaking more of launch locations, the company has access right now to 3 pads. If you notice, they always schedule launches in groups, within usually a week of one another from one coast, then the other – they then spend the next month or so getting the next launch ready, while the media talks about how many launches they conduct rapidly, ignoring that they are all timed within days of one another intentionally.

They aren’t launching within 4 days of each other from the exact same pad, like NASA did back in 1965 with Gemini 7 and Gemini 6 – that was rapid launching. What SpaceX does in that regard is just clever scheduling and more media bias.

A Titan II GLV launching a Gemini spacecraft to orbit.

Back to manufacturing and shared production, SpaceX does everything itself. It makes it’s own engines, designs it’s own systems, you name it, they do it in house. This one factor is the key reason their systems are so cheap – they don’t have the overhead of paying someone else for this, that, or the other.  That too is fine, but I have to ask – how much does it actually cost for them to make one of their rockets? What is the actual flyaway cost – that is, the final cost to actually get a launch to happen – for the Falcon 9? What are the actual costs to refurbish and re-fly a booster? They won’t say. They don’t say. You simply can’t find this information.

Well, that is, unless you want to take the word of people making random tweets, random reddit discussions, and the like, all information scattered across areas of the internet with what feels like an intent to hide said information – let alone some way to verify it. I don’t totally trust the values given, and by that I don’t mean the prices charged customers, but I mean the actual money the company spends to do what they do. I feel it’s entirely possible that they sell the launches below cost to build up contracts and dependence, and could under such a case once trust is gained raise prices, possibly under such a situation as them having a monopoly, which seems to be what many, and I mean many fans want.

Speaking of fans, if you’re one and still reading this I’m quite certain the above has ticked you off and you’re getting ready to give me hell over it. Don’t bother, I don’t want to hear it, – I’ve already read everything you have to type to me dozens of times over from dozens of different people. I don’t hide this is pure speculation on my end, but how can you blame me? As I stated, I can’t actually find reliable, independent information! It’s all hidden in one way or another, either outright or via the bias of the fans. With other companies, their interactions with various suppliers creates a verifiable transparency that SpaceX simply doesn’t have. I’m fully within reason to speculate, especially given the nature of capitalism and big business.

I’m not saying that’s what’s going on, I’m just saying it could be the case.

An Atlas V, a booster which has never had a major failure, launching with a military payload.

Speaking of costs, that’s where things get interesting. As I said, I have no real issues with the idea of recovering and re-flying rockets – it’s cool, sure, but their constant obsession with the idea that  it will be more affordable, I have my doubts. I have doubts that Blue Origin will make it affordable either, but damnit I want them to try and if it is the case, we will see just who provides the more cost effective booster. Whatever case, cheap re-usability simply has not been proven yet, and I honestly don’t think given the nature of the stresses that rockets go through during launch that they will need far more work in the long term than is estimated.  While I think it can be done cheaper than using fully expendable systems, I have strong doubts it will actually be as cheap as is claimed.

Speaking of the Falcon 9 re-usability and it’s ability to land itself, as cool as this is, it really isn’t all that impressive. As always, let me explain:

The Falcon 9 1st stage does a hell of a lot during it’s 2 minutes or so of business, but honestly it still does only so much – it heads into the higher atmosphere and the very edge of space, sure, but it doesn’t go into orbit. The upper stage handles that, as well as getting the payload into orbit – that second stage itself not being recovered, although there are talks of trying to do that (yeah, good luck, sacrificing more weight to add a heat shield to the upper stage which would cut down even more on the available payload mass sent to orbit.)

The Earth, a planet that we all should be working together to protect, learn about, and eventually, leave to learn more about the universe as best we can.

The Falcon 9 1st stage really just does a hop – a 100 kilometer or so high hop – and then comes back down to a nice landing. Yeah, that’s awesome, but when you consider the tech and what’s being done, well, you’d kind of expect it to happen.

You see, the original rocket systems, especially the original orbital rocket systems, were designed to deliver an atomic weapon to an exact point on Earth. Sure, “exact point” in 1960 might have meant a 10 mile range, but with a hydrogen bomb you just have to be close. In whatever case, flinging something literally thousands of kilometers into space and then stopping thrust and releasing it at just the right time at just the right trajectory to land where it was intended to. That was in the 60’s. I’d be hard pressed to think that even in the 80’s, had we designed a rocket to do what the Falcon 9 does that we coudln’t have actually done it. Hell, the Space Shuttle came in from orbit and glided to a landing at it’s target location successfully.

The Falcon 9 1st stage hopping itself back, and landing upright? I’m sorry that doesn’t impress me as much as it might everyone else. Sure, it was cool the first few times but it’s boring now because,  that’s what the damned thing is supposed to do! Those people excited by it doing what does are often the same people bored by the Space Shuttle landing, something I think still was infinitely more challenging and yet somehow was successful every single time it was attempted (Columbia not withstanding in that it didn’t actually get a chance to land in STS-107).

Compared to sending a nuclear warhead to it’s target, or gliding in from the other side of the planet to a landing on a runway, the Falcon 9 1st stage doing what it does is more like going back to your house from the corner store because you realize you forgot your bank card and need to pick up gas. It’s not that impressive.

That brings me to the final subject that is really key to all this, and if you can’t tell, is what this entire essay has revolved around.

Delta IV, a very expensive, but quite powerful and historically reliable booster, that’s on its way out.

The fans.

The SpaceX fanbase is one of the most, to use modern parlance, the single most toxic group I’ve ever seen with regards to space and rocketry. Even the political nut jobs who whine about “Obama killing the Space Shuttle: (when that was Bush, anyway) or who whine about “Russian engines” being used on the Atlas V (when they clearly work perfectly fine) take a back seat to SpaceX fans and their ability to constantly, never endingly shove their opinions on everything and everyone else.

Every. Single. Time. United Launch Alliance or other companies upload anything, someone, somewhere, has to chime in about how great SpaceX is. They just have to insult, in some way, be it direct or passively, the efforts of other companies.

Oh, but never, and I mean, never dare say an unkind word about Elon Musk, SpaceX, or anything of the sort, lest you be condemned to the fires of hell!

I sound like I’m joking, but I’m not. If you hunt, you will find on Facebook, YouTube, everywhere, someone making some snide comment about how great SpaceX is. About how they are “the future” (a phrase that means nothing to me) , how they are “changing the game” (since when was space a game?) or  how they are just somehow better (when really, no, they aren’t. Not from a reliability standpoint, that’s for damn sure.)

It’s a tribal, elitist attitude that I absolutely can’t stand, and honestly, not only was this the key thing that made me begin to take a second look at SpaceX on a whole, and discover all the above little things about them, but this is also the biggest problem I have with the company – the culture it breeds in its fans.

They hang on Musk’s every word. Whatever he said is going to happen and when he changes plans? Oh, the old stuff doesn’t matter, now the new stuff is absolutely going to happen. Nope, no acknowledgement that they realized their old proposition was a little too much and needed to be refined. Nope.

They care nothing for other companies amazing work, the reliability of ULA, the alternate approach that Blue Origin has to their booster designs, the great history of NASA, nothing. While a SpaceX video, for example gets millions of views (thanks to media hype) a video by ULA may get thousands, and most of the comments would be people who just want to leave snide comments.

Something else I’ve noticed is that many SpaceX videos have comments of people who have no clue, by their own admittance, what’s going on – this was especially true on their “technical” webcasts, as opposed to their hosted ones which have commentary, the technical were very basic, with just simple flight call outs and no commentary. People didn’t have a clue what was going on and commented as such, proving that they don’t actually care about space and rocketry enough to even begin to study what goes on, they are just there because it’s trendy right now. The hype machine keeps em coming, but is done in such a way to keep them only wanting SpaceX and nothing else.

The hilarious thing that almost makes me sick is the times before I realized it was a fools errand to try to carry on sane discussion with these people – getting virtually crucified over daring to say maybe something might fail on the September 2016 “ITS” booster idea isn’t exactly fun.

What’s also not fun is to find that the plans for the system in question were actually changed, and that, regarding the Falcon Heavy, Elon Musk said the exact same thing regarding the risk of an engine exploding as you did regarding the ITS.

So, it’s not okay for me to have said something, but when Musk says the exact same thing, it’s fine? Fuck that, I was right to begin with because the idea was right, not because of who I am or who Musk is. This story would take it’s own essay to explain, but basically I got the 3rd degree from people because I proposed that very fact – that an engine could fail. People didn’t want to hear it, at all, and were as hostile and insulting as you can imagine about it. Not a healthy reaction to a valid point at all, I’d say…

In conclusion, I find the culture that SpaceX breeds in the space and rocketry community to be incredibly hostile and quite undesirable. The “trendy” nature they run with has attracted people who otherwise wouldn’t care about space, and generally don’t understand it, to a point where they care for companies as if they were sports teams for a game they don’t understand. Even those who do understand space travel and rocketry are caught up in this, to some degree, to a point where conversation and in some ways general enjoyment of the subject of space has become difficult, if not impossible in some regards, thanks to individuals behaviours.

The company itself chooses to do things differently from what has been the norm for decades, and this puts them in a unique position in the eye of the people, one that seems to hide the actual scale of what they do, and what they don’t do. They have the media adoring them, feeding the people information that is generally biased for them and against other options, helping to promote what I, for the sake of analogy, call a “Cult of SpaceX” mentality. Focus is paid solely on them, with other companies being regarded as unacceptable, undesirable, or otherwise simply “bad” and worth ridicule, rather than an equal level of respect and following for their own, often equal or greater successes compared to that of SpaceX

This simply is not what the exploration of space should be – a fucking competition like a sports game. It should be a unified effort of humanity, and SpaceX, as a part of the broader commercialization of space, has well done it’s part to push us further from this goal than ever before.

I, for one, hate it.

There. Now I never have to explain any of this ever again.

Please, Have a wonderful day.

~Chris

flordia,

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