How Elon Musk’s SpaceX is creating a new, viable space industry, and how women are well-placed to participate fully in this new field.

By Lynne Greer Jolitz (Technology Manager & Startup Founder)

Several weeks ago on a gorgeous Sunday morning at Vandenberg Air Force Base, I stood with a group of young SpaceX engineers and technicians and watched a rocket the size of a 22-story building soar up into the sky with a blinding flash towards the Pacific ocean. It wasn’t an Air Force rocket. It wasn’t a NASA rocket. It wasn’t owned by any national or international space agency or DOD-industrial consortium. It was designed and built by a private company based right here in California. It was the newly redesigned Falcon 9 from SpaceX.

While this wasn’t the first test launch of a Falcon 9 (it was the sixth), it certainly was the most pivotal both technically and strategically. Its success opens new opportunities for Silicon Valley scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs and investment – and women can and should play a prominent role.

In the game of rocketry, there is nothing but high stakes poker. And you can’t play a role if you don’t know the risks and the hand you’re dealt.

What had SpaceX achieved before three weeks ago? Quite a lot, actually. They were the first space startup company to build an orbital liquid fuel rocket, the Falcon 1 (one engine on the first stage) from scratch. It took SpaceX four times to get it right, and they almost lost the company in the process. Other space startups up to this point failed in this goal – only Orbital Sciences even got close decades earlier using ICBM solid fuel parts from treaty discard nuclear weapons to make orbital launches.

SpaceX developed a vertical business model where everything is built in-house, from rocket engines and tanks to avionics (including software) and turbopumps. Elon Musk had to do this because he discovered it was cheaper to build an entire company and industry than buy rocket engine parts, even from Russia – “old space” is an old boys club, and there’s rarely a second source for parts if your vendor gets annoyed with you.

After the demonstrated success of the Falcon 1, SpaceX found they still could not get any good deals for parts to accelerate their business. Think of this as the space startup “Glass Ceiling”. Hard work was written off mockingly as lucky or a fluke and too small to be taken seriously. Sound familiar?

SpaceX used the same components and larger tanks and built a new rocket called the Falcon 9 (nine engines). All the old space naysayers gleefully predicted disaster, because the chance of any one of the engines failing increased the launch risk. The gamble for SpaceX was they could reuse the parts if the rocket survived, leading to a tremendous cost advantage over all other competitors.

The Falcon 9 is a serious rocket competitive with Boeing and Lockheed. Boeing and Lockheed required multibillion dollar government subsidies just to build their rockets, the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 respectively, capsules not included. The Lockheed Orion capsule alone is exceeding $16.5B and it hasn’t even flown.

SpaceX, in contrast, received a half-billion dollar contract for developing and demonstrating a capability to support the ISS for cargo (COTS) – essentially for designing and building the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule and two successful demonstrations (launch, recovery, tests) and cargo service to the ISS.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule demonstrated ISS cargo delivery and cargo return to Earth in May 2012. SpaceX hence demonstrated a competitive business that is viable, displacing the Russian Progress cargo ship that the USA presently pays to use. Unlike the Progress (which burns up), the Dragon capsule returns, like the Space Shuttle, intact from orbit.

Why didn’t Musk stop in 2012? After all, he built a modern rocket with modern components which are economic and had developed a viable business model which he could steadily ramp up for better performance and flight history. None of this work was revolutionary in design – execution was what mattered.

It has been a basic premise of the space industry that all rockets (except for the Space Shuttle) have been one-time use. The economics, investment structure, and business ecosystem are all wrapped around that concept. It distorts every business deal and every technical advance in the space industry. It is pernicious.

Imagine what our aviation industry would be like if all airliners were one-time use? Would we be able to fly from NYC to SFO on a lark? Nope, because it would be tremendously expensive, risky and rare. Aviation would be the sole domain of nations or military-industrial consortiums.

There would be no airports everywhere, no aviation parts industry, no fuel industry, no development in avionics and navigation. A huge workforce of engineers, programmers, technicians and business men and women would not exist. There would be no Expedia or Kayak because no one would book a flight. No service industries like meals for airplanes or cleaning of planes.

And the inability to travel rapidly would push our economy back to the 1930s when we traveled by train. LA meetings in the morning and NYC in the afternoon? Not likely. Need to travel to DC to meet with your Senator? That might take days of travel. Fresh grapes from Chile to your local market? Just not possible.

The space industry is premised on the absurd economics of one-time use. And that is what changed a few weeks ago.

The Falcon 9 version 1.1 was a total redesign of the earlier successful Falcon 9 version 1.0. What did we see at Vandenberg AFB that day? After the first stage burned out and the second stage separated, the first stage “flipped”, stabilized itself going backwards, and then its engines reignited a second time, all at Mach 6.

Now this may not sound like much, but this maneuver has never been attempted before with an actual launch vehicle. It has only been tried in wind tunnel experiments.

What does this mean? It is now practical to do supersonic retropropulsion – firing backwards when you’re traveling supersonically. This is revolutionary because we now can slow down a supersonic craft so that when it reenters a denser atmosphere the craft won’t be torn apart. And that means we have a reusable first stage liquid fueled rocket – something the Space Shuttle never achieved. NB: the SS had salvageable first stage solid fuel boosters that were remanufactured, but ironically the remanufacturing process cost more than the original manufacturing. Such are the peculiar economics of the old space industry.

SpaceX is well on the way to creating a space industry that runs more like how we run our aviation industry – fuel, launch, flight, return, reuse. And it doesn’t take a “rocket scientist” to look at our existing aviation industry and see new opportunities in space.

SpaceX has been circumspect since this launch, but the smart money is talking and rivals are gearing up. Orbital Sciences’ Antares uses an American spacecraft “bus” (a tested core) with an Italian cargo container (the Cygnus) sitting atop a Russian engine and Ukrainian tanks/structure, all put together in the US. But their horizontal business model (outsourced parts) runs into the very problem SpaceX walked away from – a high-cost solution dependent on vendors creating one-offs. Even the Russians are rumored to be copying SpaceX designs and talking about no longer selling their old Russian engines (hey, Orbital Sciences, are you OK?) to protect their business interests.

SpaceX has demonstrated that the old space economics can be changed – it is only a question of by how much. If the bet is successful, than we’re looking at a 1,000 times change that will result in frequent access to space, so the return will justify the investment even with the risk. Speculation in mining and other space-related ventures are moving in this direction right now. And Silicon Valley interests are involved because the high revenue portion of space is not in the launch business – it’s in the spacecraft business.

Recently phonesats (satellites based on cellphone cores) have been orbited and made viable as a platform for nanosats. With a new platform for spacecraft and a new means to orbit them, conceivably a new industry in communications, earth sensing and even space exploration is born. Ion-powered cubesats are capable of lunar and beyond range.

Just this weekend, the NASA LADEE spacecraft demonstrated laser communication in lunar orbit for a fraction of the power and volume and an order-of-magnitude greater bandwidth bidirectionally. Such communications can be miniaturized and made low power with high bandwidth. DragonLab, a free- flying Dragon, might allow for biomedical research, microgravity manufacturing and even human- access exploration.

We are witnesses the birth of a viable industry. While I doubt we will be renaming “Silicon Valley” to “Space Valley” anytime soon, there will be exciting opportunities in hardware, software and systems design and project management, and yes, entrepreneurial endeavors.

Women are well-trained and well-placed to participate fully in this new field. The old boy space network’s space startup “Glass Ceiling” has been shattered. Now we just have to walk through it as full partners in design, development and space entrepreneurship. After all, hinc itur ad astra – from here the way leads to the stars.

32dbbcfAbout the guest blogger: Lynne Greer Jolitz is a long-time Silicon Valley inventor, entrepreneur and open source pioneer. She has co-founded several funded companies. Lynne was co-inventor of 386BSD, the progenitor of all open source operating systems. 
Photo credit: Phil Plait via Flickr.