The SpaceX approach to space is unlike what any other company in the world is doing. While it’s debatable how effective this strategy will be and whether it will prove to be the dominant approach to expanding a human presence into deep space, the string of successes SpaceX has pulled off in recent years has reoriented a new space race into clear terms: SpaceX vs Everyone Else.
At least, that’s the impression you might get from people at the top of the company. Tom Mueller, the head of SpaceX’s propulsion team and a founder along with Elon Musk, spent an hour in a virtual talk with NYU’s Astronomy Club earlier this month and offered a deep look into the company’s vision and plans for space travel. The key takeaway was that SpaceX was out to dominate the industry by making things run for cheap.
“When I first started developing the Merlin engine [the family of rocket engines used in the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9], the conventional thinking was, ‘Only governments can develop rockets. Private companies could never have the resources,’” said Mueller. “So it was really kind of SpaceX that broke the ice on that. No, it doesn’t take a government to do it, it doesn’t take billions of dollars; it takes; it took us hundreds of millions […] but it didn’t take billions to do it.”
The other trend on which SpaceX is leading the charge is making rocket architecture reusable.
“Blue Origin is working on a fully-reusable rocket. But we’ve really changed this industry that the other guys are really scrambling for,” Mueller said.
“At first, they ignored us; and then they fought us”
“It’s pretty funny to watch this,” he said. “We were ridiculed by the other big companies in the launch vehicle business. At first, they ignored us; and then they fought us…they found out that they couldn’t really win in a fair fight because we were successful and we were, you know, factors of two or three or probably even five lower costs than what they can do…So then it becomes an unfair fight, where they, you know, try to destroy you politically, and use other means. And then at some point, they figure out that they’ve got to do what you’re doing. So there’s a lot of talk at these other companies about how they’ll make reusable rockets; recover the engines, recover the stages, come up with a much lower-cost rocket so that they can compete.”
Mueller referenced the ways in which SpaceX’s successes have effectively transformed the industry permanently.
“There’s no way ULA would have considered buying engines from Blue Origin except for the pressure that SpaceX is putting on them,” he said. “There’s no way that the French would have quickly abandoned the Ariane 5 and moved to the Ariane 6 design … except for the pressure we’re putting on … The Russians are saying they’re coming up with a rocket that can beat SpaceX, which is entertaining … because they’ve been working on their Angara rocket for 22 years, and launched it once. And suddenly they’re going to be coming up with a low-cost one.
“Anyway,” he said, “it’s great that we’re changing the paradigm and causing everybody else to think differently about how this is done.”
SpaceX was founded with a singular goal to help make human travel to Mars sustainable and affordable, in order to help foster the establishment of an extraterrestrial colony. The company’s entire purpose hinges on making the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) work.
“That rocket is going to be the real game-changer”
“The Mars rocket,” said Mueller, in reference to the ITS, “is meant to be completely reusable. Both stages, ship…That rocket is going to be the real game-changer…we want like a hundred or more reduction in costs; and that’s what the Mars rocket’s gonna do. That’s going to be the revolutionary rocket…So once we’re flying that, all other rockets will probably be obsolete.”
It greatly helps that the company is led by an independent mind like Elon Musk. SpaceX has basically eschewed the more conventional approach to Mars that other companies are exploring right now — which ties their work to NASA’s construction of the Deep Space Gateway, Deep Space Transport, and other architectures.
SpaceX, by contrast, is working on a direct route to Mars, and is doing it on its own. It’s extremely characteristic of Musk to pursue the problem like this, according to Mueller.
“We’ll have, you know, a group of people sitting in a room, making a key decision,” he said. “And everybody in that room will say, you know, basically, ‘We need to turn left,’ and Elon will say ‘No, we’re gonna turn right.’ You know, to put it in a metaphor. And that’s how he thinks. He’s like, ‘You guys are taking the easy way out; we need to take the hard way.’ I’ve seen that hurt us before, I’ve seen that fail, but I’ve also seen — where nobody thought it would work — it was the right decision.”