The Challenge of Nine

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Congratulations go to SpaceX for a successful unmanned freight delivery to an orbiting space station, a capability that the Soviets/Russians have possessed since 1978, and which has also been successfully demonstrated by both the Japanese and European space agencies over the past few years.

What makes this genuinely significant is that SpaceX has a viable strategy for lowering launch costs enough to be able to capture a significant fraction of the commercial launch market away from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, Russia and China, provided that future customers can tolerate major launch schedule delays, and China does not employ the same dumping tactics that put Solyndra into receivership.

Only time will tell how reliable the more complex Falcon 9 rocket will prove to be, compared to simpler designs from established competitors. Taking into account catastrophic failure modes, the bad news is that each rocket motor will need to be nine times more reliable than a single motor design. The good news is that with each launch SpaceX will be in a position to climb the operational learning curve nine times faster than a single motor design.

We wish all of them the very best of luck, although thus far the long delays suggest that this recent success has been more the result of preparation rather than chance.

Space is a very unforgiving environment.

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