The SpaceX launch: Who needs government backing?

September 30, 2008
By: Tim Heston

With all the dire news stories of the past few days, it"s nice to know something went right last weekend. Although it wasn"t on Page 1, the story got coverage, and it was quite significant.

The first private company, without government backing, successfully launched a rocket into orbit. On Sunday, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX for short) engineers successfully launched Falcon 1 into orbit from the Marshall Islands" Kwajalein Atoll in the Central Pacific.

The launch, a fourth attempt, was a testament to tenacity and, perhaps more important, a new way of doing things in the space business. According to sources, the company has a unique corporate structure that promotes collaboration and fast decision-making.

Since starting operation in 2002, the company over time has brought 90 percent of its manufacturing in-house, including almost all of its metal fabrication. For the propulsion systems, for instance, the company bends a lot of tube, including 3-in.-diameter INCONEL® bent over a 3-in. radius (1xD)no small feat. The company also joins the rockets" aluminum-lithium tanks with friction stir welding, and does its own rolling and press brake work. This complements a full machine shop and significant arc welding capability.

Having all the manufacturing in-house means SpaceX has more control over the process, and it also makes possible a free-flowing atmosphere between engineering and manufacturing. If a tube bending operator has a difficult time, he can just walk over to Robyn Ringuette"s cubicle.

As Ringuette, the director of propulsion, explained to me: The operator can suggest changes, we can walk 20 feet into the office, redesign it, and get it back out to him in 20 minutes. If it works, that becomes the design.

He added something else that drove home the point: Nothing is more complicated than it needs to be.

This most likely springs from the company"s unlikely CEO, Elon Musk, the Internet tycoon who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002 and used it to launch companies. He started SpaceX with the ambitious goal of launching satellites for about a quarter the price offered by the world"s government space agencies.

The Sept. 28 flight marked a major milestone in that achievement. It also proved that people with drive and passion can still make a difference in this economy, and they can do it by designing and fabricating real things, not pieces of paper tied to shady or complex financial deals.

Musk, rich from the Internet boom, didn"t use his money to retire comfortably. Instead, he used it to create jobs for more than 500 people, most of whom work at SpaceX"s half-million-square-foot facility in Hawthorne, Calif., near L.A.

Moreover, he"s doing something that has always had government backingand succeeding without it.
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
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