SpaceX and The Bureaucracy of the Space Industry

“NASA wasn’t used to this,” Kevin Watson recalled. “If something went wrong with the shuttle, everyone was just resigned to waiting three weeks before they could try and launch again.”

Watson was referring to NASA’s ability to fix problems that came up during shuttle launches. He compares NASA’s lethargic response time to SpaceX’s in a biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance.

Thanks to SpaceX’s startup mentality, they have built systems into their launch process that allowed them to fix problems hours before launches. If an error was spotted in a software file, they could go in, fix it, check it, and upload the file. All in the span of 30 minutes. No fuss. No sending requests up the bureaucratic chain. No month long delays.

This is just one example of SpaceX’s amazing ability to innovate a bloated space industry, one that’s been stuck in the past for decades with no real accomplishments, and a mountain of expenses.

How Bad is the Expenses & Waste?

Gosh, it’s hard to find a decent starting point to tell you about all the waste. There’s just that much. And it’s depressing when you realize what our space program accomplished back in the heyday of space exploration.

Now…the US’s space accomplishments are a mix of paying Russia to send our astronauts up, and funding superficial studies.

Here’s a rundown of what I found:

  • It costs $70 million per ride to get US astronauts up in space using Russian made Soyuz rockets. The US is literally paying Russia to send our astronauts to the International Space Station.
  • NASA spent $125,000 to build a 3D pizza printer (and I don’t think they even got it to work).
  • A rocket & capsule that NASA has proposed in which to fly astronauts back to the moon is expected to cost $38 billion. It’ll only be able to fly twice, and it won’t be ready until 2021 (at best).
  • NASA built a launch pad tower for $350 million
  • NASA has been suffering a lack of experienced and passionate workers, blamed on its complex bureaucracy, “risk-adverse approach,” and change of can-do attitude to civil-service culture.
  • NASA also experiences numerous cost overruns on its projects.

These examples and others add up to a monotonous and abysmal US space program.

The Space Industry’s Lack of Innovation

The Russians are a great example of the space industry’s stagnation.

“The Russians, who dominate much of the business of sending things and people to space, do so with decades-old equipment. The cramped Soyuz capsule that takes people to the space station has mechanical knobs and computer screens that appear unchanged from its inaugural 1966 flight.” (source)

Russia has suffered numerous accidents with their rockets, the blame resting on “the space and rocket industry’s outdated production, technological and testing base.” The sad part is that countries entering the space industry mimic Russia and the US’s antiquated systems, thus creating a never ending standard of stagnation. Throw in enormous government and corporate bureaucracies and you can see why this stagnation is so entrenched.

SpaceX: Doing it Cheaper, Better & Faster
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX’s goal was to be the Southwest Airlines of the space industry, and they’ve done a good job getting there. SpaceX spends $60 million per launch with its Falcon 9 rocket. With its Dragon capsule, it can send astronauts up to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has done so well that NASA actually awarded SpaceX a contract to deliver astronauts to the space station in 2017. But here’s where SpaceX’s innovation gets crazy. For the cost of one NASA shuttle, you could pay for 29 SpaceX launches and have $34 million to spare. Insane, right?

SpaceX spent $300 million to develop and build the Falcon 9 rocket in four years. And they’re hoping to make it one tenth the price of their competitors in the coming years.

The private space company has done this by doing as much as possible in house. They don’t buy their rockets from Russia. They design and make them, cutting costs wherever possible, while keeping a standard of safety that surpasses NASA’s.

Conclusion: Leaving Progress to Bureaucracies is a Mistake

SpaceX’s emergence and success in the space industry is the poster-child for why burgeoning bureaucracies are the enemy of progress. NASA has tried and failed to come up with plans to send astronauts to the moon, much less Mars. They’ve outsourced to massive corporations like Boeing, who suck money and time.

However, instead of relying on the status quo, SpaceX has taken Silicon Valley’s propensity for innovation and startup culture to make a successful rocket company. SpaceX was started in 2002; now, they’re regularly launching rockets and designing bigger ones, all for a fraction of NASA’s cost.

Bureaucracies are great for keeping things in order. But if you want change, if you want innovation, they’ll always disappoint. Innovation comes from individuals willing to run headlong into a problem, and solve it at any cost. Bureaucracies keep individuals from running headlong into a problem. Order is preferred over independence. In the end, the success of SpaceX is due to its independent “go get ‘em” attitude.


One thought on “SpaceX and The Bureaucracy of the Space Industry

  1. This is a good article and is very informative. I really liked how you did a comparison between NASA and SpaceX. As a child I was so excited about space travel but these last few decades have seen no innovation nor excitement from NASA. That is why when Musk started SpaceX, I was excited. I thought that he would be able to accomplish some amazing things there and I was right. I knew when he was named Space X CEO that great things were going to happen for the company.


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