YHABFT: Perspective and Probability Estimation (SpaceX Edition)

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.

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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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7 Responses to YHABFT: Perspective and Probability Estimation (SpaceX Edition)

  1. Paul451 says:

    Agree with this, with one pedantic exception:

    “FH will probably fly, it probably won’t have the full performance expected initially”

    While Musk always over-promised on schedule, so far his record is pretty good on performance. If you’re a customer, any numbers they give you for the initial (presumably non-crossfeed) version of FH should be pretty bankable.

  2. ken anthony says:

    Also, it’s not uniform across all products and changes with unfolding market conditions. Elon adapts.

  3. DougSpace says:

    It seems to me that one can look at a situation and have some reasonable guess as to whether a statement is based upon things which are solid versus fuzzy. The former are more likely to come true and the later have a wider error bar and it’s mean is probably lower than advertised. As per the previous example, the engines on the Falcon Heavy are probably going to be functioning very much like they do in their F9 config. Strap three together and the performance ought to be calculable with relatively narrow error bars. Crossfeed is probably a known science and so the predictions won’t be too far off the mark. But schedule is impacted by so many known and unknown unknowns that it is prudent to assume a negative fudge factor there.

  4. Tracy the Troll says:

    I am curious …won’t the real competion to SpaceX come from Lockheed Martin when they dust off the X-33 and then the VentureStar …Seems like LM has had this tech on the shelf..and just waiting for when the competition made a move …

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Ignoring for the second the likelihood that you may just be trolling… LM never got their X-33/Venturestar tech anywhere near ready to fly, let alone provide SpaceX with competition. I think ULA’s reusability efforts (primarily first stage engine recovery) are more likely to be the avenue they go to compete with SpaceX.


  6. Tracy the Troll says:

    I got the troll label from Jason at AmericaSpace…LM completed the areospike engines and the heat shielding…The composite LOX & H were the problem. Grumann made a breakrthrough on the process in 2004…All the pieces are there…

  7. john hare says:

    To Jason, anyone that didn’t agree with his party line was a troll, which put me on his list as well. AmericaSpace is far more balanced with him gone. Welcome to our world, Tracy.

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