I had a quick thought about SpaceX that I wanted to blog about instead of doing a bunch of tweets. Basically, I think that how you judge SpaceX’s probability of success probably should depend strongly on whether you’re thinking as a competitor or as a customer.
If you’re one of SpaceX’s other competitors, you should probably take your expectations of SpaceX’s probability of success or failure (for reusability, Falcon Heavy working, etc), and bias them a bit more towards the success side. Underestimating your competition is a great way to obsolete yourself. So, if you’re a SpaceX competitor, and you’re being wise, you should probably base your plans on SpaceX being at least moderately successful at reusability, and eventually getting Falcon Heavy flying. You probably don’t need to assume that every word that cometh out of the mouth of the Elon is the veritable word of God or anything, but you should be really careful about making sure you’re being conservative–which in this case means assuming that they’re going to be somewhat successful at continuing to disrupt the industry. Anything less is setting yourself up for failure.
On the other hand, if you’re either a potential SpaceX customer, or a fanboy whose dreams are impacted one way or another based on SpaceX’s successes, you should probably bias your expectations more towards the failure side. You should assume that reuse is going to be harder than it looks (because unless you’ve actually done anything with flight vehicles it probably is harder than you think), take longer to work out, and be not quite as amazingly awesome as it theoretically ought to be. You should probably assume that while FH will probably fly, it probably won’t have the full performance expected initially, will have its own set of teething pains, and won’t be as amazing as you hope–at least at first. Overestimating your suppliers is just as stupid as underestimating your competitors. I’m not saying you should be gloom and doom on SpaceX, just temper your enthusiasm enough that you end up pleasantly surprised occasionally instead of disappointed if things don’t go perfectly. I’ve been watching commercial space since I was 16, and us commercial space fans are almost never under-optimistic.
Do I think SpaceX is going to make a huge difference in the industry? Of course. Do I think they’ll make reusability work at least for their first stage? Of course. I think it’ll take longer than fanboys expect, and be faster than competitors are hoping. I’m not entirely convinced they’ve figured out a way to scale up to the kinds of flight rates they’d need to hit their more ambitious cost targets, but even if they only get down to $1000/lb with a semi-reusable F9R, that’ll be awesome enough.
So to recap: Never underestimate your competitors, and never over-estimate your suppliers.