Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Tuesday, August 05, 2008

  SpaceX's burn rate

I've enjoyed reading the tea leaves as much as everyone else as to the probable cause of the falcon 1's 3rd failure to make orbit.

My take on matters is that separation occurred too soon after MECO, and a final burp of the new engine twisted up the staging. If true, a mere line of code - maybe even just a variable - is all that needs to be changed for the next launch (probably more than that to correct the roll in the first stage, if that was the problem, but still, not much to fix). I also believe that my opinion is worth exactly what you are paying for it right now.

I do hope that SpaceX one day soon releases the final 15 seconds of video from the flight. At one level it's bad PR, at another, any PR is good PR, and seeing the explosion would be a more satisfying end to trailblazer, and for James Doohan's son, than the current disappearance. Update: SpaceX just released the full video. No explosions, just a bump on staging....

What caught my eye, outside of the ongoing investigation, was that SpaceX recently accepted a 20 million dollar investment from the Founders Fund. SpaceX has 550 employees now. Assuming an average salary of 100k, that's a burn rate, on salaries alone, of 4.6 million dollars a month. The latest investment barely covers 4 months of salaries, let alone operational expenses.

Divide that salary estimate by two (unlikely for a business largely based in California) and that's sufficient capital to pay for only 8 months. Now, admittedly, SpaceX has some major contracts for other sources of revenue, but I'm willing to believe that the above investment was required in order to meet further delays in SpaceX's schedules.

Now, SpaceX has expended a lot of energy on building factories that could manufacture 30 merlin engines a year, and at least one Falcon 1 rocket a month.

I don't believe that creating the actual hardware, fuel, shipping, and launch can cost much more than a million dollars over fixed expenses, now that all that infrastructure has been built.

Those employees can stand idle, or be doing useful work.

As for the hanger queens - the satellites flying on the falcons thus far - it's cheaper to blew them up than store them.

This is an unmanned program, not a manned one. At this point it is better for SpaceX to fly a lot, and crash a lot, and learn a lot, than not. They can fly every month, if they need to. There seem to be a lot of unknown variables in the second stage left that can only be obtained the hard way.

Still, the size of Musk's standing army causes concern. He's got to fly a lot of rockets, soon, just to meet payroll.

Update: I was right about the staging problem.

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Comments:
What an amazing post. I occasionally debate my subscription to the RSS feed here, because the subject matter tends to be one I don't constantly follow (and can thus catch up on periodically), but a post like this reinforces the good/bad decision to follow your every paragraph.

And my interest in SpaceX is but fleeting at best. So you've not only done a great and plausible assessment of a situation with a number of unknowns, but you've also rendered it in a form that the reluctantly-interested can digest and become enthused about.

Well done; keep it up. Although the best writers don't write for the appreciation of the unwashed such as me, know that your post was well-appreciated here.
 
Personally, I think SpaceX is going to fail.

Fail to put stuff in orbit, and
fail financially.

However, I think they are going
to lower the bar to the point
that the key players will
reorganize either together or
as separate entities, with
new players, and fresh idealists to push this ball
across the goal.

There is a momentum here. Utilmately, I think it'll be
a major win. Maybe not for
SpaceX as it exists, but for
all involved, plus a lot more.

Just a thought.
 
Lunchbox: Thank you. I have been teetering on the verge of giving up the blog because it eats so much of my time and mental capacity that I would otherwise spend on coding or learning spanish.

Comments such as yours pull me back from the brink.

CPM: I have followed a lot of alt.space companies over the years. Most talked a good game, but when it came to execution, failed miserably, like Kistler - or, like Rotary Rocket, had a fundamentally flawed central idea.

SpaceX is the single most impressive alt.space company to arise since orbital, perhaps ever. They have:

0) great levels of funding, with a successful and determined CEO
1) developed an excellent motor, from scratch
2) built the facilities to manufacture it and the spacecraft
3) Thoroughly automated mission control. I find "mission control" consisting of 8 laptops truly amazing
4) Been able to do extensive testing on what can be tested, on the ground
5) got 3 rockets off the ground into a regime where testing was nearly impossible.

I believe that they can succeed. I am hazy on them being able to succeed at their price point - (and it's ok if they don't) and hazier still on missions for the falcon 1 that are in the queue. I have spent a lot of spare time thinking up possible missions for what is basically 1/3 of a delta II replacement...

I'd love for spaceX to open source their avionics code and let the community take a good hard look at it. There are still big questions in guidance control and satellite deployment left after the second stage fires.
 
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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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