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The Business Model of SpaceX is a Quintessentially American Fraud

I have been meaning to write this particular post for a few months now, but was not sure how to compress into something that can be comfortably read in one sitting. On the other hand, aiming for too much optimization and perfection is probably not helpful for getting things done and posted. So here it is..

The main point of this post, stripped down to its absolute minimum, is that the business model of SpaceX is a uniquely american-style fraud. Note, I am not saying that corporations like SpaceX are incapable of making a profit someday in the future. My issues with their business model concern the many claims made by them about their future prospects, especially about their advertised potential for future growth, profit and services.

To be fair, the business model of SpaceX is Elon Musk‘s second largest fraud- after Tesla Inc. FYI- My criticism of the business model of Tesla Inc is not based on whether electric cars are practical or viable (they are both). It has to do with the claims made by Musk about how electric cars will displace internal combustion because the former will become somehow cheaper or more functional than the later. But that issue is best left for another day.

It is an open secret that Tesla Inc market capitalization has no link to the number of cars it can sell. How else can you explain a corporation selling less than 80 thousand automobiles a year being considered more valuable than one that sells 10 million a year. As you will soon see, the public image of SpaceX’s future potential is also largely based on a combination of extremely wishful (ok.. highly delusional) thinking and silly valley-style optimism. Along the way you will also see why I say that it is a quintessentially american fraud.

So let me list the many ways that SpaceX’s business model is based on a public relations-led fraud.

1] Everything SpaceX has achieved to date is based on half-century old research funded by the american government. Yes, you heard that right! SpaceX’s launchers are based on technology and fundamental research done by the public sector decades ago. Furthermore, unlike the older corporations comprising United Launch Alliance (Boeing, Lockheed etc), it has not really invented or discovered anything more innovative than making the lower stages of their rockets land vertically and streaming HD videos from them.

SpaceX’s business model is based on PR promoting themselves as innovative while being dependent on decades old research as well as direct and indirect government largess. It certainly helps that there are enough idiots in the world who will buys flashy hype. In other words, the business model of SpaceX is very similar to Tesla Motors and pretty much every single corporation (startup or otherwise) in Silly Valley. As I will show you in the next couple of paragraphs, their claim of being the cheapest space launch system is based on a gross misrepresentation- on many levels.

2] Elon Musk’s is trying to sell the dream that it is possible to build a few dozen launchers and then simply refuel and fly them over and over again for say 10-20 times before building new ones. To put it another way, he wants you to believe that it is possible to make space launch systems that are more like commercial airliners than conventional space launch systems. There is just one problem with that idea.. it is based on what can be best described as optimistic bullshit.

Rocket engines, you see, are rather different from most other types of engines in that they work under conditions of extreme heat and pressure and with a very tiny margin of mechanical safety. They have to so because of the conditions necessary for their operations and the need to keep weight down. While it has been possible to build potentially reusable Kerosene-LOX engines of the type used by SpaceX for decades now, there haven’t been any takers. Even the ex-USSR, and Russia, preferred to use new engines rather than reuse engines even when they knew that the later would OK after refurbishment and testing.

But why? Why did countries like the ex-USSR which made them in tens of thousands prefer to use new engines than use ones they knew could be reused. Well.. it comes down to a cost and risk calculation. Rocket engines, even the most simplified and robust ones, are always one tiny defect away from blowing up. It is easier to be certain about the lack of tiny but fatal defects in a newly built engine than a refurbished one. Moreover the cost of a refurbished engine blowing up once in a while exceeds the cost of using freshly built engines. Also refurbishing and testing used engines can get almost as expensive as building new ones from scratch.

3] The launch costs of a spacecraft, especially a satellite or space probe, are often the smallest part of the program budget. Yes.. you heard that right, launch costs for satellites are often significant lower than costs of designing, building and testing them- not to mention ground support for the next 10-15 years. My point is that launch costs for a satellite or any spacecraft (which is not a disposable transport vessel) are usually less than 20% of the “Total Cost of Ownership” for that particular spacecraft program. In other words, launch costs are not a particularly big concern to organisations whose primary operations require reliable and long-lived spacecraft. And this brings us the next point..

4] Even if we assume that SpaceX is actually cost competitive, who will use their launch services? Here is a hint- almost nobody outside the USA. Here is why.. Countries such as Russia, China, India and Japan are going to use their own launch systems for a number of reasons such as ensuring national security, keeping their own scientists and engineers employed and maintaining national pride. Also, vertical integration of spacecraft and launcher programs create far more cost savings than using somebody else to launch your spacecraft using slightly cheaper launchers.Even European countries are unlikely to use SpaceX over their own ESA launch systems- even if they are a bit more expensive because it is about technology, jobs and security. Furthermore, countries other than those listed above are also unlikely to use SpaceX since countries like China already offer very competitive packages covering everything from satellite design and launch to post-launch support.

5] Even in USA, the launch business for commercial and military satellites is an oligopoly- one long dominated by well-known players such as Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Thiokol. Did I mention that those corporations have much more money, and many paid lobbyists, than SpaceX? To make a long story short, Space X is unlikely to become the dominant player in the area of launching american spacecraft (at least in dollar terms) unless the other larger players screw up very badly. This is not to say that SpaceX cannot make a decent profit on launching some spacecraft for the american governments and USA-based corporations. SpaceX will run just fine as long as it is run as a conventional launch business.

My point is that SpaceX is bluffing and lying when it claims the ability to “disrupt” the space launch business or become the dominant global player in that sector. What is especially sad to see is the number of otherwise intelligent people who are willing to treat the press releases of that company as holy gospel. Then again the USA is full of self-delusional types who are confident of becoming multi-millionaires within the next decade. To summarize, the long-term (and even medium-term) business model of SpaceX is a confidence scam based on rosy and polished presentations combined with exhortations to positive thinking. And that is why I called it a quintessentially american fraud.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. June 6, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    We really haven’t seen any new technology in a long time. Just marginal improvements on what we have-smaller computers/cell phones.

    It’s surprising, most work “could” be done from home but not many employers allow that. For example, anyone with an internet connection and a phone could do a sales job from home and occasionally video conference or go to the work location.

    If more people worked from home “driverless cars” wouldn’t even be an issue. probably 70-80 of traffic is from commuting to “work.”

    Yes, I agree and have been saying that for some years now.

  2. June 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    just think, the fastest airspeed record for a manned aircraft is over 30 years old…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_airspeed_record

    Almost everything from cars, houses, buildings, appliances, aircraft, space launch systems to pharmaceuticals have seen very marginal (if any) improvement over last 20 years.

  3. hoipolloi
    June 6, 2017 at 11:58 pm

    Talking about American fraud companies. Many new technology based companies were presented as fraud by market analysts but turned out to be not the case. At one time all the biotech companies were considered “fraud” compared to the traditional pharma companies. Examples: Genentech, Biogen as evidenced by the fact they were penny stocks at one time.

    Except that they had products which worked and were unlike anything before them. SpaceX is warmed over two deacde old leftovers made to look good through deceptive advertising.

    Computer companies like Apple was one. Internet companies like Amazon were considered a concept company with no profit potential for a long time. People who shorted Amazon stock based on that continue to lose their shirts. Most recent example was Facebook. After its initial public offering a section of the analysts swore it was fraud and the stock took a plunge and average joe/hoi polloi could not wait to unload their stock at the bottom which they bought high. The assurance was that Facebook is not selling any product, just vapor ware.

    —-
    Bad examples! Apple produced a very novel and popular product from Day 1. While some parts of Amazon took time to become profitable, the corporation as a whole was always profitable. FaceBook is basically a targeted advertising (and spying) platform which had no shortage of non-governmental and quasi-governmental finance. Having said that, all three examples have market caps way above what they can make in the future.

    When India started launching rockets, well meaning people thought it was a fraud perpetrated on the starving millions of its citizens. Now it is considered one among the best space faring countries.

    That has to do with racism, as I have said in the past. Also there are not many well meaning white (or any other color) people who care about what happens in some other country. ISRO has done a remarkable good job with resources available to them, especially given the lackluster support by consecutive governments

    Exceptions are like Enron that ultimately fulfilled the fraud label. I did enjoy reading this post as it is all fact based and I wanted to add some perspective. I absolve AD of any “fraud” in the description of Space-x or Tesla as I believe he has no hidden agenda and his interest is human and academic. Cheers!

    Most tech companies, especially of the venture capital variety, fail because they do not have a product that is actually useful. Most of the remaining ones are heavily hyped and ultimately fail because of being unable to meet expectations.

    • webej
      June 8, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      Amazon is only marginally profitable; it grows but volume can never make up for lack of a profit margin. Netflix is a cash furnace. Facebook’s revenue is largely based on fraudulent likes and questionable advertisement effectiveness — it could suffer large setbacks.

  4. Silly Goose
    June 7, 2017 at 5:15 am

    Sounds like someone had their resume thrown in the trash by SpaceX. 😥

    Can’t wait to check back on this post in 5 years. Many lulz to be had.

    FYI: I do not work in that sector. Sorry to disappoint you.LOL

  5. Steve
    June 7, 2017 at 8:38 am

    No such thing as space. It is a huge deception and distraction to hide God and the truth about where we are and who we are.
    Steve

  6. June 7, 2017 at 10:22 am

    I think you are dead on right about Tesla, but the perspective on SpaceX has a bias towards berating their technology vs. looking at them as a transportation company, as well as weighing their achievements against their claims. Can you point out more modern technology used by their competitors? How old is the Russina RD-180 design used by ULA? How old were the Russian NK-33’s used by OATK’s Antares launcher that exploded over it’s pad? How is the RS-68 a better main propulsion technology choice than RP-1/LOX? Ariane V & Atlas V also rely heavily on SRM’s, that technology goes back to Chinese fireworks thousands of years ago. How about comparing the materials used in the airframe? Who else uses Al-Li? What about avionics?

    Since you have taken the time to read my post carefully, I will answer your questions. Firstly, chemical engine technology has not improved since the 1970s. The main engine of the space shuttle, designed in the late 1970s, still hold the record for best specific impulse Isp = 452. In other words, the whole technology part of rocket engines has not improved since Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were selling handmade Apple Is.

    Consequently, all commercial rocket engines (solid, hypergolic, KeroLoX and HLox) are graded by a combination of performance simplicity and reliability. That is why the engines designed in the almost pre-computer age like RL-10, RD-117/118, RD-180s etc are still used today. That is also why the Soyuz and Proton rocket family have had such longevity. Subsequent engines have been usually a bit lighter, cheaper to build and perhaps simpler. But not by much.

    You also misrepresent the overall market and are hypocritical for calling out SpaceX reliance on government money by leaving out that their domestic competitors ( ULA & OATK) are much more reliant on government largess. Indeed ULA has been the recipient of billions per year just to give the “assurance” of capability to launch, vs. actually launching a payload.

    ULA is an extortion scheme and everybody knows that. Having said that Elon Musk often pretends that he is paying it out of his own pocket- which he is most certainly not. Has he taken some risk.. sure. Is he getting tons of government money and help.. you are damn right, he is.

    The overall goal of SpaceX is to reduce the cost of transportation to orbit. ( & beyond) They have been successful at that goal. Do they hype their accomplishments? Sure, but so what. Does Boeing, LM, OATK do the same? Yep, & they are better at it. SpaceX has been proven correct in their market assessment of launch services. They are gaining share from ULA, as well as from the Europeans, Russians, & Chinese. You claim they are not disruptive, but the facts are in, and they have already disrupted the launch business. Re-use is a big part of that disruption.

    He has “disrupted” the commercial launch market only to the extent that they had to speed up the development of Ariane 6. The Chinese are already building their large KeroLox engined rockets and so is India. Russia has two very proven launcher families and can take its own sweet time to develop Angara 5 as a commercial launch system.

    I do somewhat agree with you that re-use, while now being technically proven, has not proven to be economical. That will take more time, but at least they are trying to lower cost, consistent with the corporate goals and values. Your take on re-use is overly pessimistic & uninformed on the technical side. The best people in a position to make judgements on the technical feasibility are the launch insurers & customers, ( specifically the USAF) Those players are proceeding to opt for reused rockets. The USAF is the most cautious, as they should be with the valuable payloads they fly.

    We will see how things go once more than a few of his rockets blow up or malfunction. He is pushing for high launch numbers which is a recipe for disaster- as we have seen twice so far. Also, people might be impressed by the shiny new thing until it starts being less than reliable. That is why I think reusing engines will be the Achilles heel of SpaceX

    What is ULA doing right now? They can’t wait to obsolete the Delta IV line, & fly out the Atlas V with the remaining Russian made RD-180’s before trying to start over with their Vulcan rocket. And what about OATK? They blew up their only launch pad ( Russian engine RUD) and are now using Atlas V to launch Cygnus while they try to re-engine the uncompetitive Antares with newer Russian engines. Why didn’t OATK mine the vast treasure trove of US government funded research to make their Antares launcher? Arianespace is obsoleting the Ariane V, the most successful commercial & reliable rocket ever made, in order to be more cost competitive against SpaceX. Russian is truly in a pickle, they don’t have the budget to update Proton & Soyuz, and Angara is stuck in development. I agree SpaceX needs to watch out for ISRO.

    For the last 20 odd years, all companies which now make up ULA have been extortionists and OATK’s design is crap. Ariane 5 is a very good launcher, but it is overbuilt and that is why ESA is developing Ariane 6. Russia does not need to develop Angara 5 in a hurry largely because it is making tons of money with Soyuz and Proton system. Also, they will be quite happy to undercut SpaceX by using government subsidies. Remember that France, Germany and Russia have far deeper pockets than SpaceX.

    To achieve the goal of lowering cost to orbit, SpaceX made trades for cost vs. performance. The highest cost item, & overall gate for rocket performance is the main propulsion. SpaceX has developed the lower technology Merlin RP-1/LOX as being reliable & cheap, not a ultimate high performer like the RD-180. SpaceX broke with the industry paradigm of using a minimum number of engines, and opted to cluster the engines. So far that has paid off for the F9 rocket. Furthermore, what is your beef with SpaceX using government developed technology?

    I have no beef with them using whatever engines and technology they use. My beef is with them trying to sell them as the product of private innovation- which they are is not!

    What exactly was NASA or the USAF doing with the Fastrac engine, on which the Merlin 1-A was based? NOTHING! SpaceX took that design and it was good enough to get them going. The existing Merlin 1-D has evolved far beyond the Fastrac baseline in both thrust, chamber pressure, & ISP. ( & cost) I think the current Merlin is a superior engine to the Aerojet RS-27 used on Delta II. ( same class RP-1/LOX) The US taxpayer benefits from government investment in programs like Fastrac when SpaceX uses that technology, & then passes on lower launch costs to the US government.

    Yes, I am aware that parts of NASA (especially the decision making and admin parts) are run by self important idiots without any ability to think strategically.

    You also are overly focused on the space launch market being driven by government launches vs. commercial players like Inmarsat, SES, JSAT, Orbcomm & others. Just look at their manifest. ==> http://www.spacex.com/missions NASA may be their biggest single customer due to the CRS contract, however they have many more customers than NASA. By the way, why is Bulgaria launching a sattelite on a SpaceX rocket vs. their own government funded rocket next week? Oh…Bulgaria doesn’t have a rocket that can get to space? Too bad for them, I guess they will have to save some money and fly on SpaceX vs. Proton, Ariane V, Long March, etc. Same with the Thaicom payloads. Not all governments need to prop up a national rocket company.

    More than a few of the older generation in some east-european countries will eat a turd if it is wrapped in an american flag. Also remember that , ESA, China or Russia will subsidize their launch programs to screw with SpaceX.

    Please compare SpaceX’s manifest to ULA or Orbital ATK? Who is more reliant on Uncle Sugar, i.e our government? The high cost of ULA’s rockets from Boeing & LM resulted in the near complete loss of the commercial market to the Russians & Europeans rockets ( Ariane V, Proton, Soyuz) It is a fact that SpaceX is winning back a very substantial part of that market for the USA that ULA & OATK simply cannot compete in. ULA is trying, but they still a small player in commercial launches.

    As I said before, ULA is a well placed extortionist and OATK is a joke. UlLA is also not interested in the commercial market because it can charge obscene amounts of money to launch american military satellites. If you read my post carefully, you might have seen that I never said that SpaceX was not a viable business. In fact, I pointed out on at least two occasions that SpaceX could be a nice and profitable business. My issue with SpaceX is the ludicrous promises made by Elon Musk and those who work in that company.

  7. Garth
    June 7, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Who is being scammed? Where is the fraud? Who is the victim of this fraud? NASA and the Pentagon? All the other people buying cheap launches? A launch with SpaceX saves each customer millions, in NASA’s case its billions and for the US military it will also be billions, this article is bizarre.

    Those who believe that SpaceX is going to reduce launch prices to sub-1k $/per kg to GTO.

    As I have said before, there is nothing wrong with a company launching spacecraft for less than the extortionists at ULA charge. My point is that this is not some great “disruption” and certainly not revolutionary- except perhaps for the american satellite launch market.

    • Garth
      June 7, 2017 at 1:08 pm

      But you say its fraud! What is the fraud? Who are the victims of this fraud?

      Let me repeat what I said in that post. Launching spacecraft at a competitive price is a sound and viable business. However, making outrageous promises and projections to obtain more money from the public or government is the definition of a scam or confidence fraud.

      Here is an example: Apple sells lots of iPhones and makes very good money doing so. That is a sound and viable business. Now imagine Apple raising money from shareholders and public by promising them a real star-trek level tricorder- when they kinda know they cannot deliver such a product.

      The problem with SpaceX is that their basic business is actually OK. However, everything they are implicitly promising those who fund and pay them for their future growth is moonshine.

      • June 16, 2017 at 9:52 am

        “The problem with SpaceX is that their basic business is actually OK. However, everything they are implicitly promising those who fund and pay them for their future growth is moonshine.”

        This is the sort bizarre sophistry that gives headaches to anyone who tries to make sense of it.

        Spacex gets paid for launching rockets into orbit.

        Spacex is a privately held corporation, so we don’t know what promises were made to their few investors. Their so-called promises to the public about future growth mean nothing, because the public can’t even buy their stock.

  8. Yusef
    June 7, 2017 at 10:51 am

    I have a question about this, perhaps a little off topic. Back when Houston and Florida were the top states in aerospace (Houston, Texas leading largely due to the enormous influence and power of LBJohnson) I’d often heard it asserted the best places for launching in the western hemisphere were in S.America. Was that true? Are any of these private companies launching there or do they have any plans to do so?

    Nearer to equator = more load into orbit. The ESA has one or two facilities which satisfy that requirement.

    • Garth
      June 7, 2017 at 11:38 am

      The best place to launch a rocket from a planet is as close to the planets equator as you can get, its literally a free energy boost as the planet spins. At the north and south poles this boost is zero, at the equator the boost is about 465 metres per second (1040 mph), Florida is about 410 m/s (916 mph), a bit of a loss but more than made up for by all the infrastructure you dont have to move to an equatorial country.

  9. A.B. Prosper
    June 7, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Appreciate the article A.D. , I’ve been thinking on these lines, that Space X in bunko but I hadn’t figured a way to express it

    Aside from satellites which are earners , space is a vanity project for healthy rich civilizations. Its a huge cash sink, accomplishes little to nothing of any worth other than feed the myth of “progress” and the “frontier” There will never be space colonies, asteroid mining is just stupid and there is no reason to lift people into space. With a lower total fertility rate like we have we don’t need more resources and if our TFR was higher, we’d be busy starving

    And to any space fans that might be here, no the EM drive isn’t a thing. The odds of it working or being real aren’t zero but they are astronomical .

    Farther distances than say the solar system are functionally impossible even if we had anti-matter drives and all the requite tech required for the trip and the money and could avoid destroying ourselves , no society will last long enough to do it

    Frankly the West is dying, hell so is the entire industrialized world t some degree and and despite what rich shits think, there is no way out. No Elysium space colony for them or far off island to hide on. They are going down with the rest of us and I’m glad

    • June 8, 2017 at 6:26 pm

      I suspect that a well-organized civilization could build a functional space transport system with better energy efficiency than current rockets (using, I dunno, lightcraft or something) but no one has any clue how biology is going to work out there. The people who say we’re going to build an autonomous Mars colony in 15% gravity are purely handwaving on that point.

      Life overall has apparently adapted to harsher changes in the past, but it’s going to take some harsh selection to produce a breed of human that can survive in space long enough to even contemplate terraforming anything or stage up to interstellar travel. The resulting society is not going to be pretty either, more like Galactic Empire, Ancient Sparta, or the Nazis than some quintessentially American dream of homesteading:

      “In space there is no room for error and, therefore, no room for mercy.”

  10. June 8, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    The real question with the recent noise about increased American presence in space is: why is it so hard to build on past work and develop an up-to-date space transport system when Apollo supposedly flew multiple manned moon missions with laughably primitive equipment by modern standards. Did it never happen or did American engineering and mission planning just get that much more dysfunctional? Literally none of the possible answers make the space program (or America’s status as a technologically advanced country) look good, so there is in fact a need for someone like SpaceX to come in and launch a cloud of obscuring hype about how we’re *just about to go to Mars by 2022* or something.

    Compare: The Russians hit on a simple design with Soyuz, so absolutely nothing has stopped them from continuing to launch it year after year as other over-engineered launch designs come and go.

  11. Someone
    June 10, 2017 at 4:25 am

    As an America, I hate the billionaire welfare king Elon Musk as well. He is a smart guy no doubt, but his ideas depend upon looting the public trough. I certainly would not have the money to buy a Tesla or would even want an electric car. Talk about another area where technology is no better than a 100 years ago, the electric car is a winner in that category.

    “Also there are not many well meaning white (or any other color) people who care about what happens in some other country. ”

    I really don’t care most of the time. As an American and superior White European Male, there is a reason these other countries are usually bass ackwards or worse. Few white libtards with their alleged love other cultures and ‘duh-versity’ never move to Mexico, Ecuador, Liberia, or whatever. And ‘turd world’ peoples always want to move to a whiter country. Why is that?

    • hoipolloi
      June 10, 2017 at 8:05 am

      @Someone:”And ‘turd world’ peoples always want to move to a whiter country. Why is that?”

      The reason why there are third world countries in the world is largely due to the colonial misrule by Western countries for 500 years. For example, India 500 years ago was highly prosperous like U.S. today. People all over the world dreamt of migrating, looting the country. After 200 years of British rule/loot it is now a turd country.

      • J.M.
        July 13, 2017 at 8:50 am

        The reason why there are third world countries in the world is largely due to the colonial misrule by Western countries for 500 years. For example, India 500 years ago was highly prosperous like U.S. today. People all over the world dreamt of migrating, looting the country. After 200 years of British rule/loot it is now a turd country.

        India has never been richer, per capita than medieval western Europe. India was wealthier than Northern Barbarians, true, but it always has been a very disfunctional society, there is a reason science was never developed in India…


        There was no Europe or India before the 19th century. Perhaps you might want to spend some time reading a bit about people who lived in those eras saw themselves as. But doing so would destroy you delusions..

        Also, you can pay academic conmen and conwomen to create evidence for anything they are paid to do.

    • MiddleClassTwit
      June 12, 2017 at 1:41 am

      Hahahahha

      You’re a ‘superior white male’ yet can’t afford mid-size luxury (not even high end) car while any Asian professional could buy one.

      You ‘don’t care’ what happens outside ‘murrica but have strong (and oversimplified) views on immigration.

      You’re a part of a backward, decaying culture but still shit on other peoples.

      Oh, you poor schmuck. Poor, delusional schmuck.

  1. June 6, 2017 at 10:12 pm

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