Thursday, February 22, 2018

Non-sarcastic praise for Elon Musk (no, really)

This is a big deal. Not as big as some of the hype would lead you to believe and not big in the way most people think, but it is a big deal.

The thing to focus on here is cost. I have seen various estimates and, while evaluating them is well beyond my expertise, if you're looking for a nice round number, 50% seems quite reasonable. We will have to see how reliable the system proves (when your payloads are valued in the billions of dollars, reliability is a major consideration) and will have to see how reusable the reusable boosters are, but at this point it certainly looks like Elon Musk has greatly reduced the cost of getting things into orbit.

This is an extraordinary advance, but it is more an accomplishment of determination then innovation. It is important to note just how mainstream the Falcon Heavy approach is. Most of the basic technology goes back to the Apollo program. This is not, in any way, meant to diminish the exceptional work done by the engineers of SpaceX. Getting this system to work on this scale is incredibly challenging, but it's the kind of challenge that probably could've been done by any number of other major players had they expanded the resources and maintained the focus. Musk does not seem to have shown any interest in radical approaches with even greater potential cost savings such as spaceplanes or railguns and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Both here and with Tesla, Musk has a history of making daring business bets but playing it relatively conservative with the technology. It's an approach with a lot to recommend it (though Tesla investors may not feel that way a year from now – – more on that later).

With so many people out to deify Elon Musk (in the case of the notorious Rolling Stone profile, almost literally), there is an enormous temptation to default to the iconoclastic, but it's important to remember that while Musk may not be the person (and certainly not the engineer) he and his accolades would like you to think he is, the man still has extraordinary gifts for promotion, organization, and motivation, and those gifts sometimes produce some worthwhile, even important benefits.

And, yes, watching those boosters land under their own power is really cool.


  1. The whole point of the Falcon Heavy is that it is completely conventional. When they built the Saturn V, they had to push rocket technology to the edge. The Falcon Heavy isn't quite commercial off the shelf technology, but it's a rocket built using conventional technologies combined with what we have learned about building rockets since the 1960s.

    A lot of gadgets are like this. Look at the personal computer. The whole PC revolution came about because one could buy a processor chip off the shelf and build a cheap computer around it. The Wright Brothers put wings and a bicycle frame on an automobile engine. It's like Isaac Newton said about his own physics, he got to stand on the shoulders of giants.

    (For example, the Saturn engines were tediously hand welded from numerous strips of metal to get the best shape for the combustion system. It took hundreds of hours of welding and welds are prone to failure. Modern rocket engines are fabricated by metal printing systems after advanced computer simulation.)

    1. Much if not most of the enormous technological advances of the late 19th/early 20th century traced back directly or indirectly to internal combustion and electricity. The former was the big enabling technology for airplanes.

      That said, I think you're probably underestimating the contribution of early airplane designers, particularly the Wright brothers. Lots of brilliant work went into the problem of stability, while the brothers work on propeller design was truly revolutionary.