I t seems that each passing week brings a new lesson for Elon Musk, founder and chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), on just how difficult it is to launch a satellite into space. The latest lesson was his harshest yet: the failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket in its maiden flight March 24.
Mr. Musk is taking appropriate solace in the fact that SpaceX’s experience is far from unique. Lots of rockets debut in similar fashion, and many — if not most — of those now considered among the world’s most reliable had problems in their early histories. And that doesn’t count the vast majority of planned rockets that never even make it close to a launch pad.
SpaceX’s supporters and customers, meanwhile, can take comfort in Mr. Musk’s assertion that he has not been frightened off by his first brush with spaceflight. “SpaceX is in this for the long haul, and come hell or high water, we will make this work,” Mr. Musk said in a statement posted on the company’s Web site following the failure.
But Mr. Musk is not without critics, at least some of whom took satisfaction in what happened. His detractors , who tend to work for established providers of rockets and launch services, resented taking flak from someone who had never tried to launch a rocket before.
Resentment is a predictable reaction to the arrival of a brash, unproven upstart in any industry, but especially in one as competitive and difficult as launching satellites. Mr. Musk came on the space scene claiming he was going to do what many veterans would regard as the impossible: build a rocket using his own funds that is capable of reliably launching small satellites at an almost unheard of cost of under $7 million.
Such claims were bound not to sit well with Orbital Sciences Corp., currently the dominant U.S. player in the small launcher market. When Orbital was developing its Pegasus launcher in the early 1990s, it also told customers that the price would be low. But after multiple Pegasus failures, and resulting modifications , the vehicle’s price climbed — much to the frustration of satellite builders faced with launch prices that often exceeded the cost of their satellites.
In recent years the price of a Pegasus has pushed into the neighborhood of $30 million .
If Mr. Musk is successful, Orbital Sciences can probably say goodbye to its Pegasus business, although it now seems clear that SpaceX still has a long way to go.
Mr. Musk also has incurred the wrath of Boeing and Lockheed Martin by challenging on anti-trust grounds the proposed merger of their government launch businesses. Lockheed Martin has been openly dismissive of Mr. Musk’s contention that SpaceX is a viable competitor to the aerospace giants by virtue of larger Falcon rockets now on the drawing board.
But few could reasonably argue that Mr. Musk and SpaceX have not already had a positive impact on the space industry, even if they now are at least another six months away from successfully demonstrating the Falcon 1. To date Mr. Musk has invested nearly $100 million of his own money in the Falcon 1 and related projects, in doing so generating jobs at SpaceX and elsewhere in the space supplier and support chain.
More importantly, if SpaceX can come anywhere near its cost targets for launches of the Falcon 1 and its planned larger cousins, Falcon 5 and Falcon 9, Mr. Musk could change the economics of the space business. This could create opportunities not only for hardware builders — including Orbital Sciences — but also for new kinds of services, both in government and the commercial sector.
At the moment, having seen numerous technical and bureaucratic delays and now a failure, Mr. Musk likely appreciates better than anyone the difficulty of what he is trying to do. The fact that he has this goal, and the determination and stomach to see it through, is something everybody in this industry, including his critics, should appreciate.