Some Thoughts on the SpaceX Complaint

There’s been a lot of coverage on various space blogs recently about SpaceX’s antitrust lawsuit versus Boeing and Lockheed Martin. I may take some time later to discuss some of my thoughts about the case itself, I just wanted to comment on a common complaint I’ve been hearing in the community about the lawsuit. In its basic form the complaint goes something like “why is SpaceX wasting so much time and money on a lawsuit when they haven’t even flown their first vehicle yet”, usually followed up or accompanying a statement about how they should “stick to rocket development”. Maybe by rebutting this argument I’m really just knocking down a strawman, but I think there’s an important point to be made here.

The problem with this complaint is that in my opinion, it shows a lot of ignorance about business. Trying to just focus on the technical development, without taking care of the marketting side of the business is a recipe for business failure. The EELV launch business is a decent sized potential market, especially for a company with low overhead like SpaceX. Letting Boeing and Lockheed strongarm them out of that market for the next 6+ years would be rather asinine. What good would it do SpaceX to develop the Falcon IX only to find that one of the main existing customers has been locked into an exclusive contract with their competitor? And taking the case up now, before the merger has been consumated will be substantially easier than trying to break through the monopoly once it is truly a monopoly.

The other silly thing about this argument is thinking that SpaceX isn’t focusing on getting Falcon I flying. It’s not like the ~120 engineers at SpaceX have all abandoned Omelek Island and McGregor Ranch to don wingtips, three-piece suits, and briefcases to take on the big boys. They aren’ the ones doing the legal footwork. They’re still working away testing engines, and getting the Falcon I ready for flight (as well as getting the Falcon IX first stage ready for hold-down testing early next year). Elon hired one of the top lawfirms in the nation to handle the legal issues, explicitly so the engineers could focus on engineering. That’s one of the nice things about being a multimillionaire–you can afford to pay for enough people to work on multiple parts of a project at the same time.

So to me, I really can’t see any good reason why Elon shouldn’t be doing this. He has a lot to lose by not pursuing the case, quite a bit to gain if he wins, and not much to lose for trying. While I’m not sure how I feel about how they’re going about the actual legal approach to this problem (I’m an engineer, not a lawyer), I can at least say that it is probably wise for SpaceX to ignore the peanut gallery and focus on both the vehicle and the market for it.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on the SpaceX Complaint

  1. Anonymous says:

    I heartily agree with this post, but note that there is some possibility that too much *management* time is devoted to legal processes. For instance, management must review and provide input on many of the legal briefs, prepare for discovery, depositions, and trial. Some clients are more hands-on than others.

    In the case of SpaceX, the management is flat, and indeed the lead engineer is none other than Elon Musk, the CEO and president of the firm. There is some possibility that legal processes could take time away from engineering.

    However, Musk seems to get around just fine to conferences and the like that don’t seem strictly mission-critical. So there appears to be some time buffer in Musk’s 24-hour day.

    Overall, like you, I think it’s advantageous to be aggressive. He’s only spending in the small millions on legal fees right now. Nothing that will break the bank.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    It is true that Elon is both the CEO and the CTO for SpaceX. So you’re right, *he* might find himself a bit thinly stretched. But a lot of the key engineering work is being done by their propulsion group and their operations group. Chris Thompson and Tom Mueller are really sharp (as I imagine are their others, but I’ve met Chris in person, and know a lot of people who know Tom).

    But as you say, the cost and risk of this lawsuit are far outweighed by the benefit if it’s succesful.

  3. Michael Antoniewicz II says:

    And, for anyone in or interested in, having someone/company with the legal/marketing funds to do this is a Good Thing.

    This, to me after reading over the complant, is the same stance that SpaceX’s took when it objected to NASA giving Kistler Aerospace Corp. that $227M sole source contract. But with more depth and teeth.

    The aim or one of them to me is to knock down the entry barriers to ANY new company to space launch by fighting for a Level Playing Field for everyone that wants in on this market, not just SpaceX itself.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Musk is the Chief Engineer?? Is that true? Does he have an engineering degree? Even if Boeing and Lockmart launch all the NRO and USAF stuff, SpaceX will be busy with Bigelow’s 15 flights, and if NASA has any gumption at all now, and I think they do, they will use SpaceX as much as possible and forget about the HLLV.
    -Tony Rusi

  5. Ben Reytblat says:

    As Groklaw
    has amply demonstrated, civil litigation is a sssslllloooowwwww process. Good chances are that Elon & Co will do many launches before all is settled.

    My only hope is that it won’t take so long that he’ll have to come down from orbit to testify 🙂

  6. Tom Cuddihy says:

    I’m coming into this discussion late, so I’m sure this is preaching to the wall, but the other important reason for SpaceX to do this now, even though odds are they will not have a tested, working, EELV-matching vehicle until the time near the contract is up, is laying the groundwork for the future. Unless SpaceX has a stunningly quick Falcon 9 development, they will lose most of this case. But even a tactical loss will be a strategic win, by raising the company’s legal profile, and more importantly, raising their identity in the consciousness of Congressional staffers (especially DOD contract mavens like McCain, who hates both Boeing and Lockmart) and Pentagon lawyers.

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