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Credits: SpaceX

 

 

 

Disruptive technology is a very bizarre (and scary) concept, but it is not a bizarre or scary idea. The concept was introduced by Clayton Christensen. In one of his books, The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, Christensen proves that, under certain circumstances, companies that do things right can lose their market share or even get out of business. He also presents a set of rules that can help companies capitalizing on disruptive innovation.

 

While I am not trying to give a lecture on economics, I would like to understand how to apply (if possible) the principles of disruptive technologies to the space industry. A very good example is quite at hand… SpaceX.

 

 

We can start by defining the key concepts: sustaining technology and disruptive technology. These are the textbook definitions: A sustaining technology is a new technology that improves the performance of established products, the performance being perceived along the dimensions that mainstream customers value. A disruptive technology is a new technology that brings to market a radical value proposition. They underperform products in mainstream markets, but they have features that are valued by some customers.

 

What is not obvious is that even though disruptive technologies may result in worse product performance in the short term, they can be fully competitive in the same market in the long run because technologies tend to progress faster than market demand.

 

Now let us see what are the 5 principles of disruptive technologies (as defined by Clayton Christensen):

Principle #1: Companies depend on customers and investors for resources (at the end of the day, the customers and the investors dictate how a company spends its money).

Principle #2: Small markets do not solve the growth needs of large companies (large companies wait until small markets become interesting and to enter a small market at the moment when it becomes interesting is often too late).

Principle #3: Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed (there are no established methods to study or to make predictions for emerging markets, as there is no data to infer from).

Principle #4: An organization’s capabilities define its disabilities (we all have our blind spots).

Principle #5: Technology supply may not equal market demand (as established companies move towards higher-margin markets, the vacuum created at lower price points is filled by companies employing disruptive technologies).

 

Why do you think established companies fail to adopt disruptive technologies? Established companies listen to their customers, invest aggressively only in new technologies that provide customers more and better products that they want, and they study their markets and allocate investment capital only to innovations that promise best return. Good management is sometimes the best reason why established companies fail to stay atop their industries.

 

And this is why technology startups can fill in the niche… Many of the good management principles widely accepted are only situationally appropriate. Sometimes it is right not to listen to your customers, right to invest in technology that promise lower margins, and right to pursue small markets. This can happen in a small company, a technology startup where big outside stakeholders are not vested, and where new technology development is the big drive.

 

Now that the lecture has been delivered, it is time to ask the questions. Why is SpaceX perceived as disruptive? Is SpaceX really disruptive? In what way?

 

The declared goal of SpaceX is to make space more accessible, that is to bring the kg-to-LEO prices down. If you have a basic knowledge of launch systems, you know that the propulsion technology employed today is pretty much the same used by Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs: liquid fuel rocket engines. The Russian Soyuz, for which the basic rocket engine design has not changed much since the Semyorka days, is a living proof that rocket engineers do not want to fix things that work well. While aerospike engines and nuclear rocket engines make the front page from time to time, the good old liquid fuel expansion nozzle rocket engines will be here to stay for a long time.

 

Given the circumstances, how to bring the manufacturing and launch costs down? As a software engineer who spent a number of years in a software startup, I can recognize a number of patterns… First, Musk knows how to motivate his engineers. Doing something cool is a big driver. I know that. And working on a space launch system than one day may put the first human colonists on Mars must be a hell of a motivator.

 

Modular design… software engineering principles are at work. Build reliable components and gradually increase the complexity of your design. Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, are built on a modular design that has at the core the Merlin 1D engine. And an important detail to mention here, SpaceX builds the hardware in-house. Obviously, outsourcing would increase the manufacturing costs.

 

If you are familiar with the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle, you will acknowledge that Musk has borrowed proven (and cheaper) technology for Falcon launch vehicles: LOX/RP-1 as fuel, vernier thrusters, and horizontal integration for the first stage, second stage, and the Dragon spacecraft. These choices simplify the overall design and bring the costs down substantially.

 

To put it the way SpaceX many times did: “simplicity, reliability, and low cost can go hand-in-hand.”

 

One thing to notice is that the most important innovation introduced by SpaceX is in the design and manufacturing process, which is in-house and as flat as possible. Rearranging the pieces of the puzzle can often give the competitive advantage. Lean and mean is the new way.

 

SpaceX is not just trying to bring down the launch prices, it is actually trying to disrupt the status quo… and this makes the battle harder. SpaceX dixit: “SpaceX’s goal is to renew a sense of excellence in the space industry by disrupting the current paradigm of complacency and replacing it with innovation and commercialized price points; laying the foundation for a truly space-faring human civilization.”

 

When developing the theory around disruptive technologies, Clayton Christensen has studied the hard disk drive and the mechanical excavator industries. The US space industry is a different ecosystem. Do the 5 principles presented above need adjustment?

 

Not really. Principle #1 is valid and applies in this case as well. Self-funded SpaceX followed a market strategy not dictated by customers or investors. The small payload launcher market, targeted by SpaceX with Falcon 1 and Falcon 1e, was an area neglected by established space companies as Principle #2 states. Principle #3 explains why established companies have neglected the small payload market.

 

Does mastering the small payload launcher technology qualifies one to enter the heavy launcher market? SpaceX managed to overcome Principle #4. Will SpaceX retire its Falcon 1 launch vehicles and leave the small launcher market for good? In this case, I would see Principle #5 as a warning. While the heavy launchers offer better profit margins, would it be a smart move to leave an emerging market (currently) offering low profit margins? This remains to be seen.

 

 

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12-10-10

Houston, The Cheese Has Landed!

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Credits: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O’Connell

 

 

… or to be more exact, the cheese re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and performed a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean onboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on December 8, 2010. The same day, roughly three and a half hours earlier, the Dragon spacecraft was placed into low Earth orbit by a Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 on COTS Demo Flight 1.

 

On this flight, several key components of the Dragon spacecraft were tested: the Draco thrusters, which control the spacecraft throughout flight and reentry; the PICA-X heat shield, which is the SpaceX variant of NASA’s phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) heat shield; avionics; telemetry; and the drogue and main parachutes used for stabilization and landing.

 

 

The Dragon spacecraft is capable of fully autonomous rendezvous and docking, can carry over three metric tons in each of the pressurized and unpressurized sections, and it supports five to seven passengers in crew configuration. SpaceX’s primary goal for this demo flight was to collect as much data as possible.

 

Before the launch, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and CTO, made the following statement:

“When Dragon returns, whether on this mission or a future one, it will herald the dawn of an incredibly exciting new era in space travel. This will be the first new American human capable spacecraft to travel to orbit and back since the Space Shuttle took flight three decades ago. The success of the NASA COTS/CRS program shows that it is possible to return to the fast pace of progress that took place during the Apollo era, but using only a tiny fraction of the resources. If COTS/CRS continues to achieve the milestones that many considered impossible, thanks in large part to the skill of the program management team at NASA, it should be recognized as one of the most effective public-private partnerships in history.”

 

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06-3-10

Best of Luck, SpaceX!

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Credits: SpaceX

 

 

 

The first test launch attempt for the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is set for Friday, June 4, 2010. A second launch may be attempted on Saturday, June 5, 2010.

 

From the SpaceX press release:
“It’s important to note that since this is a test launch, our primary goal is to collect as much data as possible, with success being measured as a percentage of how many flight milestones we are able to complete in this first attempt. It would be a great day if we reach orbital velocity, but still a good day if the first stage functions correctly, even if the second stage malfunctions. It would be a bad day if something happens on the launch pad itself and we’re not able to gain any flight data.”

 

Rocket science is hard.

 

 

A webcast of the event will be available starting 20 minutes prior to the opening of the launch window, which is at 11:00 AM Eastern. A user guide of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is available here.

 

I wish you the best of luck, SpaceX! I will keep my fingers crossed…

 

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Credits: SpaceX

 

The Draco thruster and the Draco propulsion tank completed qualification tests at the SpaceX Test Facility in McGregor, Texas.

 

The certification test included 42 firings with over 4,600 pulses of varying lengths. The tests are performed in a vacuum test chamber in order to simulate the space environment. The total firing time on a single thruster was over 50 minutes.

 

“The Draco thrusters allow Dragon to maneuver in close proximity to the ISS in preparation for berthing or docking,” said Tom Mueller VP Propulsion, SpaceX. “Maximum control during these procedures is critical for the safety of the station and its inhabitants.”

 

The Dragon spacecraft utilizes 18 Draco thrusters for maneuvering, attitude control, and to initiate the return to Earth. One important characteristic of the thrusters is that they are powered by storable propellants with long on-orbit lifetimes. This will allow the Dragon spacecraft to remain berthed at the International Space Station for up to a year.

 

The inaugural flight of Falcon 9 is scheduled for late 2009 from SpaceX’s launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

 

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Credits: SpaceX

 

SpaceX recently reached two major milestones towards the goal of servicing the International Space Station (ISS) after the retirement of the Space Shuttle in September 2010.

 

The milestones are the successful testing of the heat shield material used for the thermal protective system of the Dragon spacecraft, and a mission-length firing of the Merlin Vacuum engine that powers the second stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

 

 

On February 23, 2009, SpaceX announced that the PICA-X high performance heat shield material passed an arc jet testing. During the test that recreates the conditions experienced during an atmospheric reentry, the material was subjected to temperatures as high as 1850 degrees Celsius.

 

PICA is short for Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator. It is a material used for thermal protection, which was initially developed by NASA. PICA-X is an improved variation of the original PICA and was developed by SpaceX with the assistance of NASA. SpaceX becomes the second commercial source for this high-performance carbon-based material.

 

“We tested three different variants developed by SpaceX,” said Tom Mueller, VP of Propulsion, SpaceX. “Compared to the PICA heat shield flown successfully on NASA’s Stardust sample return capsule, our SpaceX versions equaled or improved the performance of the heritage material in all cases.”

 

Credits: SpaceX

 

The arc jet tests were performed at the Arc Jet Complex at NASA Ames Research Center, as the test center is capable of creating the reentry conditions. The Arc Jet Complex has a long history in the development of thermal protective systems.

 

PICA-X will protect the Dragon spacecraft and the crew during the reentry in the atmosphere from low Earth orbit (LEO).

 

 

One remarkable detail that I discovered when reading the press release is that PICA-X will also be used to coat the second stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, as SpaceX plans to reuse the second stage of the launch vehicle as well.

 

On March 7, 2009, the Merlin Vacuum engine completed a full mission duration firing at the SpaceX Test Facility in McGregor, Texas. During the test that lasted 6 minutes, the engine consumed more than 100,000 pounds of liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene.

 

The Merlin Vacuum engine is a variation of the Merlin 1C engine that powers the Falcon 1 launch vehicle, and it accommodates changes that make it more efficient to fire in the vacuum of space (most notably the shape of the nozzle).

 

Credits: SpaceX

 

“Specific impulse, or Isp, indicates how efficiently a rocket engine converts propellant into thrust,” said Tom Mueller. “With a vacuum Isp of 342 seconds, the new Merlin Vacuum engine has exceeded our requirements, setting a new standard for American hydrocarbon engine performance in space.”

 

The engine uses a regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, which means that the propellant is injected into the walls of the combustion chamber and prevents them from melting.

 

 

The nozzle is radiatively cooled and much larger, and also has a larger exhaust section than the Merlin 1C. This results in an improved performance of the engine. The engine is capable of multiple restarts and can operate at reduced thrust, which will enable the upper stage to deliver payloads matching a broad range of orbital profiles.

 

“Falcon 9 was designed from the ground up to provide our customers with breakthrough advances in reliability,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. “In successfully adapting our flight tested first stage engine for use on the second stage, this recent test further validates the architecture of Falcon 9, designed to provide customers with high reliability at a fraction of traditional costs.”

 

The first flight of the Falcon 9 /Dragon launch system is scheduled for late 2009 from Launch Pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. For more information about SpaceX and the Falcon 9 /Dragon launch system, you can visit the SpaceX website.

 

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Credits: SpaceX

 

 

SpaceX has announced that the Falcon 9 launch vehicle was raised to vertical on its launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

 

SpaceX was awarded a Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) contract in December 2008. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft will be used as the primary means of transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) after the Space Shuttle is retired by NASA.

 

The Falcon 9 launch vehicle will provide the lowest cost per kilogram to orbit. The 54.9 m long and 3.6 m wide launcher will be able to lift payloads with a mass of 12,500 kg to a low Earth orbit (LEO) for only $36.75 million. For more details on the pricing of the Falcon 9 missions, you can check out the page dedicated to Falcon 9 on SpaceX’s web site.

 

 

“This entire process has helped us validate key interfaces and operations prior to executing our launch campaign with the vehicle in its final flight configuration,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. “We encountered no show-stoppers or significant delays. I am highly confident that we will achieve our goal of being able to go from hangar to liftoff in under 60 minutes, which would be a big leap forward in capability compared with the days to weeks required of other launch vehicles.”

 

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