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posted by cmn32480 on Monday July 25 2016, @11:47PM   Printer-friendly
from the cheaper-is-not-better dept.

From the (Kansas City) Daily Star Albany :

Recent moves in Congress to restrict the use of Russian rocket engines on national security missions sparked a revolution in the U.S. commercial space program. Private businesses such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as Aerojet Rocketdyne, are lining up to offer homegrown rocket engines to NASA. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin just abolished his country's own Federal Space Agency, replacing 'Roscosmos' with a new corporation that "will design new spacecraft and implement new projects by itself."

But before you assume that Russia has been bitten by the Capitalism bug - don't. In contrast to SpaceX, which is a private venture, Russia's new-and-improved Roscosmos will be wholly owned by the Russian state.

Asserting complete control over the space effort is, to Putin's mind, a way to control costs and prevent corruption, such as when certain persons at Roscosmos famously embezzled or wasted as much as $1.8 billion in 2014. Whether the restructuring will also make space travel "cheaper," as [deputy prime minister] Rogozin hopes, remains to be seen.

SpaceX publishes a price of $61.2M USD for a Falcon 9 launch. Can Roscosmos compete with that? The Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture ULA finds that price hard to beat. So do the French and Chinese. From the article:

[...] California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez described a conversation she had with France's Arianespace a few years ago: "They were telling me that their launch costs about $200 million equivalent. They said they weren't worried about UAL [sic] but could I get rid of SpaceX? Because they were going to drive them out of business!"

And over in China, officials interviewed by Aviation Week recently lamented that "published prices on the SpaceX website [are] very low." So low, in fact, that with China's own Long March rockets costing $70 million per launch, "they could not match them."


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  • (Score: 1) by fraxinus-tree on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:11AM

    by fraxinus-tree (5590) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:11AM (#380109)

    SpaceX is new and cheap. Others lag big time, being government-operated and/or government-tied. Russia can never get their pricing right - mainly because of the way Russian military industry operates. They have a complex mesh of subsidies, cross-subsidies and political pricing for everything even remotely related to military. (And even in non-soviet Russia everything is somehow related to military.)

  • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:30AM

    by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:30AM (#380114)

    Boeing and friends will just make sure that The Good People of DC ensure that the crazy newcomer from a Blue State doesn't get the juiciest classified contracts. Once the profit margin is made on these, they can compete at the low end and point out to SpaceX that slim margins are a dangerous way to operate a low-volume business.

    • (Score: 2) by Kell on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:36AM

      by Kell (292) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:36AM (#380116)

      The danger here is that SpaceX has had a long history of conspicuous success. The more successful they are, the harder it becomes to choose favourites like that. In the short term SpaceX is stealing oxygen in the commercial space launch business, which lets them grow much faster than their competitors. Being low-volume, rockets let you go parallel very quickly.

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      • (Score: 1) by Ethanol-fueled on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:13AM

        by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:13AM (#380127) Homepage

        Indeed, they already lit a fire under the ULA's [wikipedia.org] ass. SpaceX are the AMD to Russia/ULA's Intel.

        • (Score: 3, Touché) by takyon on Tuesday July 26 2016, @04:51AM

          by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {soylentnews.org}> on Tuesday July 26 2016, @04:51AM (#380189) Journal

          SpaceX are the AMD to Russia/ULA's Intel.

          Does that comparison also mean that SpaceX will suck ass and limp along financially for several years?

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          • (Score: 2) by tibman on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:59PM

            by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:59PM (#380289)

            If by "suck ass and limp along financially" you mean provide cheap rockets that get supplies/satellites to orbit, then yes.

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  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by physicsmajor on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:33AM

    by physicsmajor (1471) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @12:33AM (#380115)

    I'd argue it's more than that. SpaceX has clearly stated their goals, which are far beyond LEO, and are acting appropriately to realize that future. In order to have giant rockets transporting bulk materials to Mars, they realized from the start the existing paradigms weren't going to work.

    Essentially every other country and corporation/alliance is (or... was) fighting over the LEO market, because that's where the money was. So long as they were similar in price and 'good enough', there wasn't much incentive to innovate. Enter SpaceX, which doesn't even really care about LEO except as a stepping stone to larger things. They are making an entirely new market. But, as a side effect, SpaceX is obliterating all competition. Of note, the huge price disparities listed in the article are real, and before SpaceX's relaunch discounts. In the longer term, I wish someone would actually truly compete with SpaceX. Monopolies aren't ever virtuous, even when they look great to start.

    What worries me the most is the comment by France/Arianespace. For anyone who read Atlas Shrugged, the real takeaway is that when sleazy corporations realize they're on a losing path, they start to play dirty - competing not on the market, but through bribery and biased legislation. I sincerely hope SpaceX can dodge or crush any of these efforts, because it seems like that's about the only thing which could stand in their way. Tesla has done OK so far standing up to big auto, so at least they have some experience.

    • (Score: 2) by morpheus on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:23AM

      by morpheus (1989) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:23AM (#380130)

      the real takeaway is that when sleazy corporations realize they're on a losing path, they start to play dirty - competing not on the market, but through bribery and biased legislation. I sincerely hope SpaceX can dodge or crush any of these efforts, because it seems like that's about the only thing which could stand in their way. Tesla has done OK so far standing up to big auto, so at least they have some experience.

      Not to be a stick in the mud here but what in Musk's corporate history makes him so different from those evil corporations? The profitability of Tesla and SpaceX is by no means assured, whether short or long term. SpaceX, while private, took pretty large infusions of cash from 'government bureaucrats' in the beginning, not to mention hiring a lot of TRW/NASA engineers for their team (people gotta eat, I know but their experience did not come free and I am sure the government does not bother with NCCs in their contracts). I would not even mention fantasies like the Hyperloop and his generous 'giving away Tesla's charger patents' which upon closer review turned out to be little more than reviled 'design patents' (remember how everybody put down Apple's square corners?) with negligible technical content. Musk definitely knows how to play the PR card and while not exactly a negative in itself, what is the 'secret juice' that supposedly makes SpaceX 'tick'? It is a bit juvenile to dismiss the concerns of very experienced engineers at ESA, Roskosmos (or whatever it is called now), Boeing, and others as mere jealousy. It is more likely that SpaceX is an important player on the market that will spur some new development but it is unlikely that it will eliminate all other players (be it private or government). What is so special about, say, the Merlins? It is a low pressure engine whose technology is well understood, and is not particularly advanced (say, the Russian RD-180, designed in the 60's is quite a bit more sophisticated). Cheaper manufacturing? Reuse? How long will this advantage last?

      Finally, I have always wanted to understand why it is an axiom that a government (in any country, not just the US) is always so inefficient compared to a private business? What, there is no corruption in a private business? Before you start mentioning competition, market forces and other abstractions, why is the government bureaucracy any worse than the bureaucracy of a huge multinational like GE?

      Again, kudos to SpaceX for making it this far but it starts sounding more and more like a miracle and I am too old to believe in miracles or sheer genius of Elon Musk.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by khallow on Tuesday July 26 2016, @02:51AM

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday July 26 2016, @02:51AM (#380151) Journal

        Not to be a stick in the mud here but what in Musk's corporate history makes him so different from those evil corporations?

        Intent. There were about half a dozen or more US businesses that had the technical chops and funding to do what SpaceX did in 1960 (minus the modern control systems and some of the manufacturing techniques). But playing ball with the US military and NASA was much more profitable than building your own (especially in an environment where there was no commercial launch market). So it didn't happen. I imagine there would have been a bunch of dead-end development (SpaceX is also unusual in having a lot of engineering talent even for an aerospace company). It's a huge might-have-been that we can only see now in hindsight when SpaceX is doing these things that were deemed impossible for more than half a century.

        • (Score: 5, Interesting) by physicsmajor on Tuesday July 26 2016, @04:59AM

          by physicsmajor (1471) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @04:59AM (#380192)

          Beyond intent - Musk doesn't try to legislate his competitors out of existence. I guarantee Musk doesn't have people on his payroll going around to legislation critters saying stuff like "if you could make Araine/ULA/Blue Origin go away, that would be great." He just builds a better mousetrap.

          As a thought experiment, what do you think Elon's reaction would be if Blue Origins suddenly could lift for 1/3 the price of SpaceX? It would probably go: can we figure out how they're doing that and do it better. Next: if we can't, well, fine - we'll just ride Blue Origin to Mars. SpaceX retools into a deep space operations company. See the difference here? Musk wins either way. He'd probably love for someone to beat him at his own game with SpaceX, so he could fully focus on the next problems.

          • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 26 2016, @09:30AM

            by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 26 2016, @09:30AM (#380243)

            When you rely on having means to do something else you deem more important, it is not necessary to do it yourself. It is if none else does it, but it is better if there are many others who do that and even better if there are other buyers beside you, who keep them alive and fed.

            If there is no real competition on the horizon, he should make it himself. Make key components outsource-able, create competition at each level of component supply. Churn out spin-offs of SpaceX and sell them on the stock market, let them compete with each other, evolve and push the prices even lower. Make space for growth, make many job makers involved, that's how you get political resilience against legislative manipulation. It would become unnecessary for his adversaries to eliminate him, because they could just buy on open market what he uses too, and lower their costs. A market is established, and all the players see the need for compatibility standards. That is recipe for global success and progress.

            Then cheap surface to LEO transit will become much harder to extinguish by incumbents' cartel. Industrial infrastructure for space operations development open to all who can afford it will be established, which is what he needs.

            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday July 26 2016, @03:57PM

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday July 26 2016, @03:57PM (#380330) Journal
              My understanding is that SpaceX used to have a lot more outside parts in its rockets last decade. But they found that several of their rocket failures came from these sourced parts. By making almost all of the supply chain internal, SpaceX improved the reliability of their rockets. While your approach would be a feasible way to break up SpaceX at some future point, it runs counter to the current needs of the company (namely, making the supply chain reliable and cheap enough so that SpaceX can outcompete the other cheapest orbital launch platforms in the world).
              • (Score: 2) by githaron on Tuesday July 26 2016, @06:58PM

                by githaron (581) on Tuesday July 26 2016, @06:58PM (#380399)

                From my understanding, they also had a problem with timescale. Everyone else in the space industry was used to operating on slow timescales for big money. SpaceX was simply moving too fast to wait for them and wanted to do it for cheaper.

  • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:04AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 26 2016, @01:04AM (#380125)

    I'll suggest that SpaceX is cheap because they have actually put a production line in place. Not ones & twos, but a real line. The Dragon 9 first stage uses 9 engines + one for the second stage. When I toured the Hawthorne plant (a mechE friend works there) in March they were on schedule to turn out 250 engines per year -- 25 launches. Each engine is built on a special pallet and is moved from one assembly station to the next every day. This kind of production takes production planning, to make sure that operations and supplies are all balanced and available when needed.

    Each engine is the same, with one set of options if it's going to be used for the upper stage. Otherwise, no "specials" to upset the production flow. These engines are also cleverly designed and are nearly self-contained with local computing for engine control, sensor monitoring, safety, etc (just one network connection to the flight computer), plus power & fuel/oxidizer connections of course. So assembly into the booster is simplified, minimal wiring, and if a problem occurs during preflight, another engine can be swapped in quickly.

    Similar production lines are also in place for the other major systems (but they were not included in my nickel tour).

    Some of this is covered in this article from Feb 2016, http://spacenews.com/spacex-seeks-to-accelerate-falcon-9-production-and-launch-rates-this-year/ [spacenews.com]