Von Braun And Elon Musk

Is Elon Wernher’s heir?

Regardless of what NASA envisioned for COTS—indeed, regardless of what it had ever envisioned or accomplished under any program—the sum total of Congressional interest in NASA was always just ensuring a maximum of federal money goes into their district or state (and thereby, into their own campaign funds). So to their ears, COTS was simply another revenue stream that could go to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or other established players under a slightly different operating scheme.

But a program that meant barely anything to Congress was taken up with enthusiasm by NASA as a way to modestly reduce the costs of one aspect of its program, and then “hijacked” by Elon Musk to radically and fundamentally alter the economics and pace of spaceflight. Every synergy he could find between NASA’s modest objectives and his own radical ones was exploited, driving the evolution of SpaceX technology and the rapid buildup of its infrastructure. No one saw him coming.

SpaceX’s conspicuous achievements only fed energy back into the system, driving NASA to become more ambitious, and the Congressional advocates of COTS to push forward with the commercial crew program. Only now were establishment forces in Congress beginning to raise eyebrows at SpaceX, but still did not yet see it as a threat. After all, transporting cargo was one thing, but surely crew flight was still over their weight class. This program, they assured themselves, would be a gimme for Boeing and/or Lockheed, and SpaceX would perhaps rise to a junior partner role in the system.

That confidence, however, quickly bled away as SpaceX continued to march forward with ever more drastic advances, offering prices far below a merely competitive advantage, and steadily developed hardware not even on the drawing board among the big prime contractors. Before these politicians knew it, and with the large-scale financial and technical assistance of NASA, a company they had barely heard of a few years ago was beginning to threaten the viability of long-established, multi-billion-dollar corporations with rock-solid Congressional relationships.

In a panic, the more powerful among them have repeatedly tried to scale back funding for commercial programs that would feed SpaceX, and sought to convince government agencies to throw roadblocks in its way in seeking additional contracts. But SpaceX’s popularity and political weight have grown even more quickly than its technical capabilities, and appears to be within a few years (at most) of transitioning from being an upstart to becoming simply the Program of Record.

Just as von Braun had originally hijacked a cruel, cynical weapon to pursue a dream of wonder and peace; as Korolev redirected the same dumb, unimaginative weapons program for his own people into achievements that will live in memory long after the name of the Soviet Union is long forgotten; and just as von Braun awakened a timid and pragmatic power to shoot for the Moon “because it is hard”; so it seems that soon — knock on wood — Elon Musk may have grown an afterthought commercial cargo-delivery program, one that sought merely to deliver junk to a space station at a slightly lower cost than before, into a revolution with no end, opening up the cosmos to humankind.

A very interesting, and I think insightful historical and political analysis.

18 thoughts on “Von Braun And Elon Musk”

    1. I remember seeing the enthusiasm for SpaceX from you and a few others long ago (and I congratulate you on being right). I have to admit I didn’t share it, and couldn’t understand it; to me, SpaceX was just one more outfit with big plans and no hardware. I recall calling it vaporware once or twice.

      I realized that I was wrong when the first F9 launched successfully. Until then, I’d been highly dubious of SpaceX.

      1. If you go back to my initial posts about SpaceX, when it was first founded, I was actually quite skeptical. I viewed it as simply another expendable-vehicle company, when I didn’t think the world needed one.

      2. Thanks. I’m not always right, but I do seem to have knack. I have an uncle in NY that tells everyone he knows that he’d be rich if he listened to me when I was a kid. It probably had something to do with the Microsoft IPO I told him about? I’m also good at picking losers the press is gaga over… remember the all-in-one Coleco Adam? Nobody else does either.

        1. I actually do remember the Coleco Adam. Would’ve probably bought one except I already had an Intellivision and two original Colecos. All of them now collecting tons of dust. Know any good museums?

          (I imagine your uncle’s still kicking himself 🙂

  1. It’s Elon’s -future- plans that are boggling. The portion already accomplished is boggling. But … if they remain even vaguely on track, the gnashing of teeth will become deafening.

  2. That was very nice.

    On a side note, I was watching a talk on cleaning up toxic waste (primarily hexavalent chromium) from tanneries, as it’s a problem my home town faced, and I ran across a very good lecture on the horrendous tannery problems in Bangladesh, a country that has taken over most of the world’s tanning business due to its cheap labor and complete lack of sense. The lecture was by Margrit von Braun. 🙂

  3. I remember 15 years ago looking at the internet and telling myself if I could turn that into a fortune, I would use it to conquer space.

    Fortunately, Elon Musk and to a lesser extent Jeff Bezos are doing it for me. Apparently, my idea was more widespread than to just myself. Three men of similar age and backgrounds sharing a similar dream derived from similar inputs and inspirations. Only like Langley and the Wrights, two of them had the resources to make their a physical reality(and one worked!). It seems that as an idea, manned spaceflight is finally ripe.

    And to add, what is almost as interesting is how they are now co-opting and dragging the old school along for the ride. Witness Bezos and the ULA in response to Musk. Now, they are feeding off of one another and causing a catalytic effect in excess of their own organic resource base.

    It’s almost like a race of some kind or something!

  4. That is an outstanding article. I will be linking it everywhere I can.

    I didn’t pay attention to SpaceX until the first Falcon 9 launch, which I didn’t watch. What made me sit up and take notice was the fact that they had an ignition abort and went ahead and launched successfully the same day. I had never heard of that happening before. I remembered Gemini 6 and a few Shuttle ignition aborts, and that usually meant a delay to find and fix the problem.

  5. Musk is the confluence of three important attributes needed to start any business; competence, money, and ideas. Rarely do these things align in any one person and this is especially true in the space industry where the barriers to entry are so much higher than any other industry.

    1. I would add in determination. I’m not much into touchy-feely inspirational stuff, but I did like that quote from (probably the late) Robert Schuller:

      “Extraordinary people are ordinary people with an extraordinary amount of dee-ter-min-a-tion”

  6. Agreed. I think one man (in this case three men) CAN make a difference. Have done so and are still doing so.

  7. Getting back to the original topic, I think Musk can very much be seen as von Braun’s heir. They both have space dreams and to implement them they both go where ever the money is. Von B started out as an amateur (a member of the Verein fuer Raumfahrt) when that was the only game in town. When the German Army offered serious cash, he moved there. At the end of WW2, a major factor in his choosing to surrender to the US rather than another country was the expectation of funding (read Fred Ordway’s book “Rocket Team”). He was initially reluctant to leave the US Army for NASA in significant part because he thought a civilian agency would never get a significant budget. After leaving NASA, he presaged Musk by moving from government funding to private by participating (along with Kurt Debus) in OTRAG.

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