Reusability, Waste, and Leverage



While the rivalry among industry competitors is entertaining to watch, some episodes during a competition can get downright cringe-worthy--such as when Elon Musk openly took his latest jab at the United Launch Alliance (ULA) last week. Musk opined (it is Twitter after all) that ULA is “a waste of taxpayer money” since it doesn’t offer reusable rockets. The opinion might be the nerd version of trash-talking.


But, talking trash is intended to encourage a competitor to become emotional, and because of that emotion, make mistakes. It’s doubtful ULA will respond in-kind to Musk. ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, has displayed adult-level emotional intelligence--even on Twitter.


Some readers may wonder why it’s worth talking about a single opinion, especially when posted on Twitter. In this case, Musk is the leader of a very successful space company and his statement can give insight into his company’s activities. Musk is a Twitter addict and can’t seem to control his comments on the social media platform. Plus, he is proud of his company’s accomplishments and wants his fans and other followers to know about them. Which highlights an underlying Twitter and media characteristic--the messages delivered on them can be deliberately manipulative.


In the case of the opinion, why did Musk publicly state this sentiment, and who is it for? Is it even applicable? While parsing this outburst, let’s acknowledge his opinion was on Twitter, a platform better known for unfiltered substance-instigated ramblings and uninformed opinions. It’s not an excellent platform for in-depth discussions.


Customers’ Wants and Broad Brush


Ultimately, to state that reusability must be on every launch vehicle from here on out is silly. I understand the benefits of reusability and agree there should be more companies trying to implement that capability. However, it comes down to their customers’ focus, which doesn’t include getting to Mars. Most customers want an inexpensive, reliable, and reasonably quick way to get a satellite in orbit. While reusability positively impacts all those desires in some form, it is an unlikely reason for a satellite operator to launch with SpaceX.


Even if reusability helps with increased reliability while cutting launch costs, especially for Mars colonization, there are customers, such as those in the DoD and NASA. They don’t care about cost or reusability at all. All they want is something to transport their satellites to orbit, quickly and reliably. And they want a backup company in case the first choice has issues. This keeps them from having to deal with too many congressional inquiries. They have the taxpayer money and, sadly, they aren’t afraid to use it.


Using Musk’s particular logic--if his opinion is considered a valid jab against ULA, then it applies to pretty much any launch service provider around the world. No one but SpaceX operates a rocket with a reusable first stage. His opinion would apply to new companies like Rocket Lab (although that’s changing soon) and Virgin Orbit. It applies to Arianespace and Mitsubishi. There are, of course, the Russian and Chinese rocket fleets, too. Since these companies and countries appear pretty much happy with the kinds of rockets they are using (non-reusable), they probably don’t care about Musk’s opinion.


Based on recent contract awards alone, the USAF and the Space Force don’t believe ULA is a waste of money. Both are giving a heck of a lot of funding to ULA for a rocket that isn’t flight-proven, but that’s the DoD’s fault, not ULA’s. If there is an organization renowned for wasting taxpayer money, then the DoD pretty close to the top of the list. But all ULA ever did throughout its existence was say “pay us this price for our rockets and service”--and the USAF did. When ULA increased launch prices, the USAF still paid for the company’s rockets and services--as it’s doing now.


Unhappy Contract Camper Seeking Capital


The opinion could be a shot across the DoD’s bow, with SpaceX pre-emptively seeking leverage.


According to this Quartz post, SpaceX may be just waiting to see the government’s rationale for an NSSL decision. It’s probably interested as to why ULA received the more substantial amount of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) contract. The company might sue for a larger share.


There’s also a possibility that SpaceX is waiting for a final decision from a suit it pursued against the DoD in 2018 when the company wasn’t selected to develop a new launch vehicle (ULA was). What the Quartz post suggests are very likely reasons as to why Musk would float this opinion. Except, the DoD and its processes are so hidebound that it could stick to its guns despite the threat.


Maybe, instead of being aimed at other launch services and customers, Musk’s opinion is aimed at possible SpaceX investors? This may be the more likely reason for the opinion’s posting. SpaceX is attempting to raise $1 billion, so perhaps Musk believes making the competition look bad. Conversely, his opinion might make his company look good in the eyes of potential investors. It’s a cheap shot, to be sure, but investors don’t care.


**Probably not the above. At least not anymore. SpaceNews.com just broke a story noting that SpaceX has managed to raise ~$2 billion. That's a fantastic amount that nixes my conjecture in the paragraph above.


It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between Musk’s more caustic comments and SpaceX’s investment rounds. In the meantime, while this isn’t said often, perhaps Musk and SpaceX could apply some lessons from Tory Bruno, who has been a class act.


As for the NSSL contract and whether ULA’s rocket is a waste--it’s the customer’s (DoD’s) call. For the DoD, ULA and SpaceX fulfill the same purpose (even if they pay one company more for launches and development). That’s probably more irksome to Musk than anything else.

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