For those coming in from Instapundit, thank you for your patience! Yes, I’m as tired of this as you are, probably more. If people hit the tip jar in the upper right, will switch ASAP. Right now, just need the funds (app. $150) and I will get a new host. Cheerfully even.
This morning, I come not to bury Bezos and Blue Origin, nor to praise them. For that matter, I am not here to dance on the inevitable launch failure. Instead, I come here to tell them, and Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, a simple yet profound message: You are not fucking up enough.
In the process, you are not just hurting commercial launch development, you are deliberately ceding ground to those who want to see commercial launch hampered or eliminated. You are playing into those who are going to cite any form of launch or operational failure as a sign that commercial isn’t safe and we need to go back to the comfortable jobs in specific districts way of life that was/is NASA, who hasn’t developed and successfully launched a new system since the mid-70s (and what exactly do you think Artemis is in tech terms???).
There are days I wonder if the old concept of the Greeks that the seeds of downfall are planted in the great to keep them from becoming a threat to the gods isn’t a thing, and Elon’s ability to needlessly make enemies of those who should be his allies isn’t a manifestation of that. That aside, Elon stood things on their head in ways long needed, and pushed.
He tested to failure, then beyond failure, and out of that have come systems that have absolutely amazing reliability and safety records. Compare SpaceX not just to the early days of rocketry, but the early days of aviation. The net result in some ways makes the early days of aviation seem like a turtle’s pace rather than the blinding journey that took us from first flight, to the jet, and to the moon in well under a century.
Push/refine, push/refine, push-harder/refine-even-more is the mantra of people who want not just to get things done, but reach new levels of achievement as fast as possible. Today, as Glenn frequently notes at Instapundit, the real story oft buried is how routine the launch business has become.
Which is a danger on two different levels.
First, for all intents and purposes, commercial launch is SpaceX and Elon. ULA, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, any others out there are not up to the task. Yet.
ULA is the old crony space program of defense contractors, contracts that put jobs in the right districts, etc. It can’t match the frequency, reliability, and — most of all — the reusability of SpaceX which translates into lower cost per pound to orbit. It is a best a niche market at this point.
Blue Origin comes across as Bezos having innovated once but now looking to take part in a more business-as-usual approach with government contracts and eventually getting around to real production and maybe doing something beyond sub-orbital eventually. If he and his team were as good at producing schematics, parts, and engines contracted for since 2016 instead of lawsuits to try to slow Elon and others down, we’d have a real space race on our hands.
Branson and Virgin Galactic come across as him treating this as another airline venture. Airlines let others innovate and develop aircraft, then buy them for use. Having bought the aircraft maker, Branson finds himself in the unfamiliar position of needing to be an engineering, not business, innovator. Again, no real push to do anything yet beyond suborbital, let’s see what Bezos or someone else does first then add it to the destination/itinerary list.
Sadly, there are no other truly viable launch operations — yet. I do wish XCOR and some of the others had made it. Aleta, you are missed. There are rumors of some up-and-comers, and I hope they blow the doors off the original three just because.
Second, it is a danger because there are those who hate commercial launch with a passion. First, it means there is no longer a governmental monopoly on launch and operations in space. Second, it means that a number of carefully tilled and filled pots have been knocked over. Just as there is a core group that waits to jump on any aviation accident or tragedy to call for more regulation and control (despite the massive amounts already in place), there are those salivating over the prospect of something going wrong on a commercial launch.
Some are already “noting with alarm” what happened yesterday with Blue Origin. The perfect safety crowd is all over anything that gives them more control and lets them rake some off for themselves. Fact is, from what I can see, Blue Origin did well. The emergency systems not only engaged, but got the capsule away and safely back to ground. Yeah, it’s an oops but guess what: it’s early days yet and we still have a lot to learn. Hopefully, Blue Origin got enough data (hint, quality and quantity of data is a big reason to test extensively on the ground, say to failure) to figure out the issue and improve the system.
Because just like aviation, the idea is to continuously improve. The early days of aviation were nasty in terms of crashes and tragedies. Thing is, we learned, we innovated, and today aviation has a safety record to be envied. My hope is that we can and will avoid some of the worst of the early days of aviation, and jump-start things on a much, much higher level.
In short, there are going to be accidents and there are going to be special interests that try to exploit them. The thing we need to stress is that we need to learn from those and use that to make things even better and safer. Right now, on some levels, the public has an unrealistic idea of the reliability and safety of commercial spaceflight. Elon and the amazing team at SpaceX are, in some ways, making it look way too easy when it’s not.
That’s why Bezos and Branson need to get it together and fail a bit more in ground-based testing and development. They need to push and push hard, as success in space doesn’t come from being comfortable. It comes from leaving all comfort zones, from failures (even spectacular ones a la SpaceX), and yet more failures that eventually take you to real innovation, reliability, and smooth operations.
The choice is there. The one thing I will guarantee however, is that if you don’t do it, one day soon some upstart that is willing to fail is going to come blowing past you and give Elon a good run for his money. That’s what we need, as it will open the doors to space, and help send us to the stars.
If you would like to help me in my recovery efforts, feel free to hit the tip jar in the upper right or the fundraiser at A New Life on GiveSendGo. Getting hit by lightning is not fun, and it is thanks to your gifts and prayers that I am still going. Thank you.