lon Musk and SpaceX had one hell of a weekend. While much of the country celebrated the summer weekend at the beach or enjoying time with friends, SpaceX was hard at work launching two rockets for customers, one from the East Coast and one from the West Coast. One of those rockets had previously been flown. And despite dangerous returns due to high-energy missions and inclement weather, the company recovered both of the first stage boosters.
SpaceX garners a lot of acclaim for its achievements, and it has legions of admirers within the aerospace community and the public at large. But it also has critics, primarily competitors who look at SpaceX and see a company that gets a lot of hype but doesn’t always deliver. What is perhaps most striking about this weekend’s back-to-back launches is that the company’s successes drove a stake into some of the most credible criticisms that have been levied against SpaceX in recent years.
Back during the summer of 2014, during the heat of the competition between SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to win large contracts from NASA to become providers of commercial crew services, I spoke with John Elbon, who led Boeing’s space program. After discussing the company’s CST-100 spacecraft (which NASA would select later that year, along with SpaceX’s Dragon, to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station), our discussion turned toward SpaceX.
He urged me to not look at the rhetoric coming from Musk and the company and instead to look at the substance. “It’s a bit frustrating for us, to be frank,” Elbon said at the time. “I think there’s data to be mined, and he gets a bit of a pass on the performance. If you look at the beginning of the year, his manifest showed 14 or 15 flights this year and 14 or 15 next year. I think he’s had two.”
SpaceX continued to struggle with this launch manifest in 2015 (six successful flights, one accident) and in 2016 (eight successful flights, one accident). However, at the same time, SpaceX was innovating almost continuously, refining its rocket to improve its lift capacity and ability to land the first stage booster.
By now we can begin to see how SpaceX will build enough rockets and have the capacity to fly out its manifest. Later this summer, SpaceX will have three operational launch pads, and a fourth one—in Brownsville, Texas—may come online in late 2018. It has plenty of rockets in the pipeline when factoring in the company’s recovery of more than a dozen first stage boosters—and the successful re-flight of two of them. So far in 2017, SpaceX has successfully launched more rockets this year (nine) than in any previous year. And we’re not even to the end of June.
In retrospect, instead of running SpaceX down for failing to deliver on its launch manifest, perhaps Elbon, whose Boeing co-owns SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance, should have been asking why customers were flocking to the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.
In 2016, I spoke with another source, who works for NASA and prefers that I not use his name. His chief criticism of SpaceX is that the company subsisted largely on revenues from the US government, and he told me at the time that the company derived about 70 percent of its funding from NASA, NOAA, and other government agencies. “They’re not really a commercial space company,” he said. “Go look at what they’re launching.”
Again, at the time, this source was more or less correct. Through April 2016, SpaceX had launched its Falcon 9 rocket a total of 22 times for paying customers, and 12 of those launches were for NASA and a handful of other government agencies. Factoring in the multibillion dollar awards SpaceX had received for commercial cargo and crew services from NASA, it was entirely reasonable to suggest that SpaceX had derived a significant majority of its revenues from the US government.
In addition to honest criticisms, there have also been a raft of wholly dishonest aspersions cast at Musk and the company. This undercurrent of anti-Musk sentiment alleges that SpaceX exists solely to milk the government and that Elon Musk is a great “swindler.” The criticism has emerged on some right-wing websites. The reality is that SpaceX is now saving the government quite a bit of money, and we can have increasing confidence that it will do so in the future on an even grander scale.