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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: 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.

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  • (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.