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Musk's Space Age Enterprises

Elon Musk's innovation is making history.

By Thomas Anderson  |  February 28, 2018

The news for today is that Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, launched on February 6, is on its way to Saturn and beyond - or maybe it is on a collision course with Earth (stay tuned!)

In a rather spectacular move, Musk’s Tesla’s departure was punctuated with an even more radical event. Musk and company have devised an astounding feat shown by video clips of the return to earth of the boosters, which landed in a controlled drop at Cape Canaveral. The Space X Falcon Heavy rocket uses three boosters, two of which touched the receiving pad perfectly - “Two out of three ain’t bad” as that scion of philosophy, Meatloaf, explained in his 1970s hit.

This was a continuation of SpaceX boosters being recovered under their own power. Musk, sensibly, does not want to pay for new boosters when the old ones work just fine. His business-like view of the problem is sorely needed for space transportation. Ever since the beginning of the US (and every other) space program, the boosters, which cost millions, have been effectively a throw-away cost of doing business – even the old Space Shuttle boosters that were retrieved from the ocean cost nearly as much to refurbish as to buy brand new.

But, no more. Although the boosters contain no super-sophisticated electronics or other mission-required technology, they are still highly machined and very expensive pieces of hardware. Recovering them is an essential step to making space travel affordable.

The fact that we are able to recover boosters is jaw-dropping in its genius. Heretofore, when you fire a rocket, you build another booster for the next one; now, you fire a rocket, and simply refurbish its used boosters for the next one. How many times this can be done to old boosters will be determined soon, but airplanes can be re-used for years on end.

Mr. Musk’s dream is making space travel into a utility like a commuter aircraft ride from Philadelphia to New York, where the essential reason for the trip is moving passengers and freight instead of the high accomplishment of merely having made the trip at all.

Probably the best indication of the havoc SpaceX has wrought among its launch competitors is when they're asked for the reason for their new rockets. They invariably state it's to compete with SpaceX!

 - SpaceX website

Musk and company have just narrowed the competition to zero. A company which can reuse the most expensive part of a space launch does not face competition of any kind based on cost. Every business is based on cost, and this is the trump card in business competition. Only governments have the luxury of zero competition in space because they don’t care how much taxpayer money they burn through.

Making the trip is what all our space travel has been about in the past. As space travel has evolved – moon landings to Space Shuttle and development of the Space Station – there has been little available payload room for anything but essentials for survival and a few urgent experiments.

There were high-value scientific procedures accomplished during the life of the space station, and these will probably continue, but with reusable rockets, the visits to the space station will increase geometrically.

There is no reason, now, to have only one space station.  Zero gravity offers great advantages to the manufacture and assembly of sophisticated components, and these will be taken advantage of as soon industry can begin to use orbiting factories.

That pioneering effort begins now. SpaceX has told us so.

The news, TV shows, and other ‘analysis’ pieces for the networks have completely overshadowed this most mission-changing advance. The reusable booster itself has been reported, but the momentousness of that accomplishment has yet to be fully appreciated.

This is a landmark - there is no other way to put it – and we are at an inflection point in the development of space technology if not mankind. Elon Musk knows this, and he has tried to make it clear to everyone else, but no one seems to see the import of his accomplishment.

Perhaps the timeframe in which this technology has gone from nascent to mature has been too short for the concept to be understood by many; perhaps the potential change is too great for the import to be realized; perhaps the length of time (decades) that the space program has lain in neglect reduced expectations. Whatever the cause, this move forward has not followed the usual path of the uphill trudge.

This was a leap as great as any other single one made during the entire history of the space program. Historians will look back upon 2018 as the year that space-travel turned the corner.

Musk has two other large-scale enterprises, Tesla Motors and SolarCity, which are running wide open. He has employed a much different developmental model from the usual in the United States; his model fits better with Japanese business thought, with the interlocking nature of corporations there, than it does with the US type.

The business models of his three enterprises are designed to work together in many ways, although they are disparate in their position in the marketplace. SpaceX has no product to sell – theirs is a service, while Tesla makes cars, and SolarCity makes solar panel/battery setups as an alternative energy source for homes and other applications.

The Tesla car enterprise has received a good bit of publicity in the recent past, but the new emphasis on Solar City was only hinted at in our earlier article about the ‘world’s largest battery’. The battery was built in Australia, largely as a demonstration project. But the components were all available from his battery/solar enterprise, and now have been put into action at locations across the West, the Northeast, and Florida.

There is a commonality to Musk’s three largest companies: traditionally, they are all losers at the paymaster’s window. Musk owns between 25 and 30% of each, personally, and is the largest stockholder in them.  All three are actually financially healthy, with other large investors and the US government in their stables.

Private enterprise is now in charge of advanced technology in the United States. It has been wrested from the clutches of government, which served the necessary role in the early stages when the ROI (Return on Investment) was a concept that did not apply.

Now that the idea of business and space travel being thought of in the same sentence has become a reasonable idea, we can begin to explore ways to put space travel to work, as Musk saw from the beginning. He has charged forward with this as his goal; having proved the soundness of his thinking, he will reap the rewards as they begin to flow.

At least, that is the optimistic view.

The pessimistic view is that all this innovation is just too soon, and is happening too fast. Our society, as tech-heavy as it has become, cannot absorb this much revolution so quickly. There are people who are still using desktop computers, for instance, such as this writer.

But there are always people at the cutting-edge of technology, others at the fat part of the blade, and there are some who are in the middle. We are all riding on the blade somewhere as it zooms through space, and have been ever since the first caveman discovered fire or the wheel.

We have our technological advances to thank for our place in the world; we have our deep well of long-developed resources to thank for the time that they will give us to develop; we have our still-somewhat-free system of economics to thank for our possibilities of a future.

While our politics has strayed from the no-nonsense workaday emphasis that our economy used to impose upon our behavior, we can only hope that there is enough left of our heritage of hard work to be able to continue on a path to success.