Decades of cost-plus contracts had made aerospace flabby

Monday, April 29th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonThe Falcon 1’s successor was supposed to have five more powerful engines, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), and thus be called the Falcon 5:

But Tom Mueller worried that it would take too long to build a new engine, and he persuaded Musk to accept a revised idea: a rocket with nine of the original Merlin engines. Thus was born the Falcon 9, a rocket that would become the workhorse of SpaceX for more than a decade. At 157 feet, it was more than twice as tall as the Falcon 1, ten times more powerful, and twelve times heavier.

The new rocket would also need a more convenient launch pad that the one on Kwajalein:

SpaceX made a deal to use part of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, which has close to seven hundred buildings, pads, and launch complexes spread out over 144,000 acres on Florida’s Atlantic coast. SpaceX leased Launchpad 40, which since the 1960s had been used for the Air Force’s Titan rocket launches.


Regularly prodded by Musk, Mosdell rebuilt the area in SpaceX’s typical scrappy way, literally. He and his boss, Tim Buzza, scavenged for components that could be cheaply repurposed. Buzza was driving down a road at Cape Canaveral and saw an old liquid oxygen tank. “I asked the general if we could buy it,” he says, “and we got a $1.5 million pressure vessel for scrap. It’s still at Pad 40.”

Musk also saved money by questioning requirements. When he asked his team why it would cost $2 million to build a pair of cranes to lift the Falcon 9, he was shown all the safety regulations imposed by the Air Force. Most were obsolete, and Mosdell was able to convince the military to revise them. The cranes ended up costing $300,000.

Decades of cost-plus contracts had made aerospace flabby. A valve in a rocket would cost thirty times more than a similar valve in a car, so Musk constantly pressed his team to source components from non-aerospace companies. The latches used by NASA in the Space Station cost $1,500 each. A SpaceX engineer was able to modify a latch used in a bathroom stall and create a locking mechanism that cost $30. When an engineer came to Musk’s cubicle and told him that the air-cooling system for the payload bay of the Falcon 9 would cost more than $3 million, he shouted over to Gwynne Shotwell in her adjacent cubicle to ask what an air-conditioning system for a house cost. About $6,000, she said. So the SpaceX team bought some commercial air-conditioning units and modified their pumps so they could work atop the rocket.

When Mosdell worked for Lockheed and Boeing, he rebuilt a launchpad complex at the Cape for the Delta IV rocket. The similar one he built for the Falcon 9 cost one-tenth as much.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Which is why Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have hypersonic missiles, and we don’t. Not even one successful test.

    Kunstler is pessimistic:

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