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Editorial: SpaceX and the Future of Astronautical Engineering

USC Viterbi astronautics chair on the the first privately owned company to visit the International Space Station
Dan Erwin
June 06, 2012 —

HERE BE DRAGON: Space Exploration Technologies Corporation was the first privately owned company in history to visit the International Space Station and return safely. The Dragon capsule, above, made a triumphant return last Thursday.
Two weeks ago, a 10-year-old company made history. For the first time, a private company has developed and successfully demonstrated a re-supply capsule for the International Space Station.

In the 1960s, NASA drew the attention of the world and the aspirations of students with its march to the Moon and with a series of unmanned visits to other planets. The goals of the space agency were clear: it was easy to believe that, after the Apollo moon missions, we would prepare to send astronauts further from Earth and eventually to Mars and other planets.

After Apollo, came the space shuttle. Americans were enthusiastic about this at first, especially after great successes, such as the on-orbit repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. Later, however, it became clear that manned space was no longer about exploration. The numbers of children who wanted to grow up and become astronauts plummeted.

NASA has continued to have glorious successes in unmanned planetary exploration, and its websites draw more visitors than do those of any other government agency. But space exploration is mostly not the headline news it once was, and NASA no longer has a compelling vision for its future.

Most Americans do not understand that NASA is not the big player in space any more. From the 1960s through much of the 1990s, the U.S. space industry was dominated by NASA and the military. Since that time, however, the private space industry has grown, primarily to provide space-based communications. Private industry now accounts for well over half of the space business.

In this country, space is becoming more and more important in our daily lives, with GPS and satellite television as the most obvious examples. In other parts of the world, however, space is not just a convenience. For instance, vast regions of Africa have no land-based communications, and the great distances make installation of copper or fiber phone lines impractical. Satellite telephones make it possible to carry out business, small or large, and enable the economies in these areas to grow.

All this space activity requires rockets to lift the satellites to Earth orbit. Historically, large rocket vehicles were developed in response to the needs of one or more government agencies, with many of them descending from rockets used for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The companies that build them are, for the most part, large corporations that derive much of their income from government contracting.

It is very expensive to put a satellite in orbit; the typically seen figure is $10,000 per pound, and a large satellite weighs thousands of pounds. Part of this cost comes from purely technical reasons, but a substantial part comes from the way large space companies do business. Government contractors who build large systems such as warplanes typically work on a “cost-plus” basis, which means that their profit is proportional to the cost of a system. For consumer companies, on the other hand, profit is the difference between market price and the company's cost, so there is a strong incentive to work efficiently.

Enter Space Exploration Technologies. Its founder, Elon Musk, believes that the majority of launch cost is due to bureaucracy and expects SpaceX to reduce the cost by a factor of ten. Most space companies are very conservative due to their size, history and culture, but SpaceX has no history and is inventing its own culture. It is more Silicon Valley startup than large government contractor. The average age is low, and the work hours are long.

Looking forward, we can expect more “new space” companies to appear. The space business in 2012 is something like the electronics business in 1972. Electronics were transformed by large-scale integration and automation of production. Spacecraft today are typically designed and built one at a time, by hand, just as electronics were decades ago. Automation and the use of common components and subsystems will increase the capability and lower the cost of spacecraft.

SpaceX is a model for a new kind of space company. This has made the field of astronautical engineering a much more exciting area for students to major in. A job at SpaceX is now a “dream job” for astronautics students just as Google is for computer science majors.

USC is the only university in America that offers degrees at all levels (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral) in astronautical engineering. The students in these programs have typically been enthusiastic about space for most of their lives. Graduates of USC’s astronautics program have gone on to careers at space companies — including SpaceX — and NASA centers and to further studies at top universities.

The USC astronautics program also provides hands-on student projects. Students build and launch rockets as well as orbiting spacecraft, the first of which was sent to orbit on the same SpaceX Falcon launch that first demonstrated the Dragon capsule. Not only do these projects provide great enjoyment and motivation for students, they provide valuable experience that makes graduates of the projects extremely employable.

— Daniel Erwin is a professor of astronautical engineering and chair of the Department of Astronautical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.