The Space Race: Ground Control to Elon Musk

When Elon Musk divested of his interest in Paypal in 2002, he was fantastically wealthy but obsessed with technological projects. (Part two of a two-part series. Read part one.)

Musk turned to the development of Tesla, an electric vehicle. Contrary to popular opinion, electric vehicles are not new technology. Thomas Edison, who understood the advantages of electric automobiles now evident in Tesla vehicles, had worked furiously to conquer the range and recharge problems that dog Tesla vehicles today. Edison conceded to his young employee, Henry Ford, that the combustion engine was the more robust platform. A triumph of “engineering over design,” the combustion engine ruled the automotive world almost exclusively for more than 100 years.

To achieve success in the development of the electric automobile, Musk needed to co-opt the progressive state to receive extensive subsidies and to co-opt the opinions of a narrowing progressive elite interested in virtue-signaling their environmental commitment while consuming luxuries.

While one might recoil from the “crony capitalism” of Musk’s Tesla, these managerial and political skills have fed into another venture, SpaceX. Like Korolev and von Braun before him, Musk has ingeniously manipulated a state actor interested in other priorities into funding the development of an enterprise the sole purpose of which is the expansion of the human horizon. Musk is precisely the talent needed for human space exploration.

What’s Old Is New

SpaceX is superficially billed as lowering the cost of delivering payloads to orbit by means of a reusable first stage, which returns to earth landing vertically on a pad. But this is not a new idea.

The Space Shuttle, too, was a reusable rocket. The Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters parachuted to earth to be recovered, disassembled, and repacked with solid fuel, and the three massive (and expensive) shuttle main engines—Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25s—glided back to earth attached to the orbiter. Only the massive liquid oxygen/hydrogen tank would be lost to reentry. The shuttle’s design failure was that it required extensive inspection of and repair to the underside tiles for every flight. A failure of these tiles caused the loss of Columbia, and the inability of the NASA—stymied by conservatism—to find a solution destroyed the intended cost-effectiveness of the program (although not its ability to inspire).

Musk’s reusable system is the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9, burning liquid oxygen and kerosene, is capable of placing 50,000 pounds of payload in low-earth orbit (LEO). The Falcon 9 gets its name from the nine Merlin engines that provide the thrust needed to launch the payloads and to arrest the descent of the booster. According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 can complete its mission with the failure of two of the nine engines. This compares favorably to von Braun’s much larger Saturn V, which could complete its mission with the shut down of one of five of its Rocketdyne F-1 engines.

In February, Musk’s SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon Heavy rocket. Falcon Heavy, capable of delivering 140,000 pounds to LEO, has, according to SpaceX, the largest payload to LEO other than Saturn V. If, however, you count the orbiter itself (which weighed 150,000 pounds) as payload delivered to LEO, the Space Shuttle actually had significantly more heavy lift capacity (approximately 220,000 lbs).

Three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together in a lateral plane comprise the Falcon Heavy, with the center rocket core topped with a payload. For the recent February 6 test launch, Musk used as a dummy payload a Telsa convertible, which Falcon Heavy sent on a trajectory to Mars—a brilliant marketing ploy. In our democratic-republic, you win public opinion or you lose. This showcases Musk’s power to manage, inspire, and manipulate, which makes him a potential heir to the genius of Korolev and von Braun.

Questions of Design

Nonetheless, there is a question mark over the Falcon Heavy. As three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, Falcon Heavy has no less than 27 engines firing at launch.

This raises a serious question of design. When Korolev tried to build a rocket to compete with Saturn V, he lacked a technology that von Braun possessed. The Russians had been unable to develop a large engine like the supermassive F-1 which powered Saturn V. Korolev was forced to include 30 rocket engines in the first stage of his giant N-1 rocket. More engines and turbopumps mean a higher chance of failure. A rocket engine with a failure rate of 1 percent when multiplied by 30 results in a 26 percent chance of failure of one engine of the cluster. Korolev’s complex N-1 never got far off the ground.

The Falcon 9 can fly with two of nine engines shut down. But that does not translate into a successful mission with six of 27 engines shut down on the Falcon Heavy because the failure would depend on the distribution of the failures across all three cores. The lack of development of a large motor with fewer moving parts suggests a high risk that Falcon Heavy will not be able to demonstrate the reliability needed to fulfill its mission of human space exploration and that a new design may be needed, making Falcon Heavy a concept demonstrator, but not the real deal for a manned mission to Mars or even to the Moon.

Falcon 9 has a 95 percent reliability, too low for human payload. Saturn V flew 13 times without a loss, not counting the deaths of Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire. The Space Shuttle flew 135 times, with only two losses—and only one on launch—a record of 98.5 percent reliability. The R-7 family of rockets has flown 1,700 times with a 96 percent success rate. R-7 family Suyoz manned missions have a 98 percent success rate overall and a near 100 percent success rate for three decades.

Assuming that the added complexity of Falcon Heavy does not increase risks (a counterfactual assumption because complexity increases risk), a 95 percent success rate multiplied by three produces an appalling 85 percent projected success rate. When Musk himself said of the launch of Falcon Heavy that he gave it a 50 percent chance of succeeding, he was likely thinking of these factors.

SpaceX still has a long way to go if Musk is to fill for this generation the shoes of a Korolev or von Braun. He has mastered the managerial and political art of corralling sponsors into the profitless enterprise of human space exploration. All that is left is for the master engineer to master the technology.

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