30 thoughts on “Solid-Rocket City”

  1. I don’t think solid rocket boosters should be used in launching humans. Once a solid rocket booster is started, it can’t be stopped. Elon Musk is doing the right thing, when it comes to getting to space.

    1. Does that matter with a good launch escape system? The ability to stop a liquid fuel rocket is only there for a short period of time during a launch.

      1. To generalize you can’t close the loop on solid rocket thrust control, and therefore they can’t be for propulsive landing. To be clear, you can install a grain structure that prescribes a thrust program (Wikipedia has great plots of SRB thrust v. time), but this isn’t what I’m talking about.

  2. Do you suppose Elon Musk is doing one thing wrong?

    SpaceX is private capital whereas the Tesla car company has public stock. The car company Tesla may have nothing to do with the rocket company SpaceX apart from this one thing. I have read that Mr. Musk has taken out loans for the private-capital SpaceX venture that use his vast stock holdings in Tesla as collateral.

    This point is arguable, and the fine people at Seeking Alpha are arguing this point over and over again, but Tesla looks like it has serious financial obstacles. Its stock has been volatile — large price swings. If it swings too low, it is claimed that Mr. Musk’s lenders could “call” those loans — demand they be repaid, demand additional collateral or other measures.

    Elon Musk’s stated business plan for Tesla is that the Roadster sports car would finance a high end sedan (Model S) that in turn would finance a mass-market sedan (Model 3). Furthermore, his “green” car company Tesla is one element of his financial empire to get him and other colonists to Mars.

    The car side of the empire may not have worked out quite that way as it is argued that the Tesla car has never made a profit. Instead, successive generations of the car attracted equity in Tesla through large purchases of its stock by both “retail” as well as “institutional” investors.

    The bullish case on Seeking Alpha is that the car industry inevitably will transition to electric cars on account of resource and environmental constraints, so we will “get there” in the next decade or two regardless of whatever glitches Tesla encounters getting each generation of electric car to market. Because of this Big Picture, there will be investors who understand this, who will give Tesla whatever money Tesla needs to do what they are doing. Furthermore, investors have done this in the past, and everyone from the The Truth About Cars and their defunct Tesla Death Watch articles to people over the last dozen years yelling “Tesla is broke! Tesla is broke!” have been proved wrong.

    The bear case is that what is different this time is that in the last go-around, Tesla switched from equity to debt financing, which was a good idea when interest rates were effectively near zero during what is billed The Late Obama Age Collapse, but with economic recovery, interest rates are only headed up and Tesla is in a squeeze just to cover the interest payments.

    Furthermore, Tesla has “bet the company” on the affordable mass-market Model 3, and that project, depending on what color eyeglasses you are wearing, is a Charlie Foxtrot.

    The deeper issue is that like a lot of other “green”, “sustainable” or “renewable” tech, it is not really implausible but it is not-quite-there-yet as viable economically. The president Obama’s DOE Secretary Steve Chu model, which we have seen, is that by whatever means you build up and build out this tech long before it is economically workable, by a combination of subsidies, mandates or, in the case of Tesla, wishful investor thinking. You do this because Moore’s Law applies to everything technological, and forcing adoption in this manner will make something happen.

    Well, history is littered with such Failures of Socialism or Central Planning or Governmental Edict. Tesla may be headed for such a failure, and the fortunes of SpaceX are tied into it.

    1. Wow nice analysis. Being just an engineer, I’ve never paid too much attention to how SX gets their money. I do notice that he only hires young engineers and works them like dogs. That doesn’t seem to be a good long term solution.

      1. I would agree with you on the works them like dogs part. But there are some older folks at hand there as well like Muratore. So it ain’t just new folks.

      2. Of course, NASA worked its 20-something engineers like dogs in 1962-72, too.

        NASA gave that up because the money ran out and Apollo ended. We’ll see how SpaceX fares long term. So far there seems to be a steady pool to replace the turnover.

    2. In the case with cars, I think Musk should have made flex fuel vehicles. Make the cars so that they can run on gasoline, and methanol. Electric vehicles are still kind of iffy. One possibility would be to make a flex fuel SUV that is also electric. It could run on gasoline, methanol, or electric. Also, don’t build any car factories. Only build dealerships. In the back of each dealership, place large 3-D printers. One 3-D printer prints the doors, another one prints the hoods, then another prints the fuel tanks. The largest printer would print the cars body. Some parts would come from a factory.
      It might not be possible to print a car right now. But we are getting there. And once we do, we can then print spaceships.

      1. Tesla was started by EEs from the Valley. They couldn’t build such a fuel engine to save their life.

    3. SpaceX’s earnings from operations have proven sufficient to keep the company modestly in the black even while supporting a great deal of R&D and capex over the last several years. It has also raised about $1.45 billion in private placements during that time. This cash has provided a cushion to allow SpaceX to weather the financial bumps of the CRS-7 and Amos-6 accidents.

      Thus I see no reason to suppose Mr. Musk is pledging any part of his Tesla holdings as loan collateral. On the contrary, SpaceX has bought Tesla bonds. So, in terms of one Musk company helping another, the folks at Seeking Alpha seem to have matters backward.

      I read the beginning of one late 2017 SpaceX article over there – as far as I could get before being importuned to sign up in order to read the rest. No thanks. The author of said piece is majorly impressed by the size and “institutional knowledge” of the legacy aerospace majors and figures SpaceX will be lucky to avoid being squashed by same. He actually took seriously the Boeing CEO’s risible claims that Boeing would beat SpaceX to Mars with SLS.

      If I was looking for financial analysis/advice, I’d be giving Seeking Alpha a very wide berth. The place seems to be full of chuckleheads.

      1. Free thesis topic: The performance of a notional Opposite of ‘Seeking Alpha’ Portfolio since it began.

    4. I don’t know if SpaceX is debt financing but I wouldn’t be surprised if it made up a small portion of their finances. I do know that they have done a few rounds of raising capital. I think they just recently did another. From what I understand, the only way for regular people to get in on it is through getting in a couple specific funds through Fidelity.

      I don’t have the link handy but Kirk posted it a few months back. It was an SFGate article that laid out what funds Fidelity had with SpaceX stock. IIRC, there are something like 4 funds but only 2 were open to the general public.

      Tesla faces some major production challenges, which is why Musk has set up camp on the factory floor. By all reports, their cars are fun to drive, might have some maintenance issues, and have strong market demand. Whether or not electrics put the oil companies out of business or whether or not there are or not subsidies for them, there is a strong market demand for electric cars.

      Part of the demand does stem from the nature worshiping AGW we all gonna die crowd, some of it is from the Musk cult of personality crowd, and some of it is from people who think the cars are cool. I think the first two of those items cause Tesla stock to inflate but in the long run are any of those items going to disappear?

      The main problem Tesla has is with their production, they can’t produce enough cars to meet demand. Ordinarily, this is a great problem to have. Why this problem is so hard for them to solve, I don’t know but it is something that can be solved.

      1. Yes. Model 3 is like every other Tesla model in suffering teething problems with its production. With Model X there were actual problems with some aspects of the the vehicle’s engineering – the fancy doors. I don’t follow Tesla affairs much as I find the whole project mostly uninteresting, but my dibs-and-dabs of reading on the Model 3 makes it seem as though the main problem is just sheer production numbers. Going up by an order of magnitude or more in production volume for anything is likely to generate some snags along the way.

        In general, my tendency is to treat breathless reports of Tesla’s imminent demise with about the same level of respect I do similar reports of SpaceX’s imminent demise – i.e., none to speak of. In neither case do the serial pearl-clutchers have a track record that inspires much confidence in their seemingly perpetual Chicken Little-ist pronouncements.

  3. We need ATK and Aerojet. Every missile the US makes uses one of their products. However, we just don’t produce a lot of missiles. I would guess that one Shuttle SRB probably has more energetics than every Stinger we have made in the last 30 years. We lose the economy of scale if there is not large scale market. That said solid propellant is pretty stupid as a orbital work horse but great for weapons. Solids have a few pros: safe shelf life, simple design and reliable. But they also have a lot of drawbacks: inconsistent/uncontrollable trust profiles, large pressurized chamber, and lower ISP.

    1. We make more missiles than you may realize:
      Army and Marines: Stingers, Patriot (PAC Ii & III), THAAD, anti-tank missiles like the AT4 and Hellfire, and a variety of surface to surface missiles.
      Air Force and Navy: Sidewinders and AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, anti radiation missiles, plus Navy SAM like the SM-2, 3, & 6.

      Plus, tge Air Force is looking to replace the Minuteman ICBMs.

      1. One of the arguments for keeping SLS going is that it keeps up demand for ammonium perchlorate, which would become too expensive otherwise. In fact, it might no longer be produced domestically, which would be bad for the missile world. Each SLS launch would use about 2.1 million pounds of AP, and it is expected to fly once every two years. It would be much simpler and cheaper to just buy 1.05 million pounds of AP every year ($14 per pound + $17 per pound shipping on Amazon), and throw it away. $33 million a year versus $2.15 billion a year to “develop” the SLS just seems like a no-brainer.

        1. As “modest proposals” go, that has a lot to recommend it.

          But, as you note, a Minuteman replacement is finally in prospect. There are 400 deployed Minutemen. A Minuteman, all up, weighs about 1/20th what an SLS SRB does. So replacing all 400 Minutemen will use about the same mass of solid propellant as building 10 shipsets of SLS boosters.

          The USAF intends to acquire 642 actual missiles over the program’s estimated 50-year service life and to start deploying them about 9 years from now. That’s an average of 12.5 missiles per year or 5/8-ths of an SLS SRB. As with all military procurements, the vast bulk of production will be in the early period of the program falling to near zero in the out years.

          This also assumes the Minuteman replacement weighs no more, per unit, than the incumbent missile. The biggest solid-fuel ICBM the U.S. ever produced, Peacekeeper, was 2.5 times the mass of a Minuteman. Perhaps the new missile design will weigh more than a Minuteman but less than a Peacekeeper. To exactly replace notional SLS SRB demand, a Minuteman replacement that weighed 60% more than its predecessor would do the trick.

          Given that a comparable program to replace the Trident D-5 in naval service is likely to be ginned up also in the relatively near future, there would seem to be adequate new work in prospect to replace that which would notionally be required for SLS. And unlike SLS, of course, new strategic weapons systems would actually constitute useful expenditure of the public’s money.

          1. That’s an average of 12.5 missiles per year or 5/8-ths of an SLS SRB.

            Interesting. That means my idea for launch on demand MEV’s wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket.

            From what you and Richard M are saying, it looks like the government will keep Orbital ATK in business as long as they need solid rockets. They will make a profit but not have much room to expand, with expansion coming from areas other than solids. Their long term business strategy puts more focus on payloads than playing catch up on rocket design or trying to fit square pegs into round holes, so it could be they have a bright future ahead while still providing an important capability to the DoD.

        2. If DoD wants to keep up an industry of ammonium perchlorate, they have vastly more funding with which to make sure it happens. NASA’s funds are far more limited.

      2. IMO, we need more missiles. We ought to convert cargo ships into launcher platforms with some modularity to accommodate different missions.

        A few of our rivals have taken the approach of building out missile capabilities to counter our air power and to get a good first strike capability against our allies. Now that at least one of them is trying to project power, we should return the favor.

        All of our ships don’t need to be state of the art and if we want to reach number of ships the navy needs, we should look at some cheaper alternatives that have a lot of capability, even if not as much survivability.

        1. Ah yes, the so-called “arsenal ship” idea. But making these modern versions of the WW2-era Victory ship-based “jeep carriers” would be a poor idea if the goal was to provide striking forces with extra missile armament unless each was at least as capable of self-defense as any other naval unit and also able to keep up with carrier task forces – something no current-generation merchant hull can do. Building gratuitous targets for the enemy is no way to beat him.

          The only way a converted merchant hull arsenal ship makes sense when up against a peer or near-peer power is as a dedicated convoy escort – the job of jeep carriers during WW2. That is something that should be given serious consideration by the USN. But providing a large increase in missile firepower to carrier battlegroups is going to need an explicitly naval purpose-built solution.

          1. The answer, at least for now, appears to be to make every attack sub a mini-SSGN, with ~40 21″ VLS tubes.

            However, the only solid fuel used in those tubes will be short boosters used to get a small jet engine into the air; little profit for ATK.

            Things may change with the introduction of hypersonics–which favor solid fuel to get the vehicle up to speed–but, that might also require something larger than 21″ (which a VA can support, since their VLS tubes will be Trident-diameter with 21″ inserts that can be replaced). Surface ships (other than, believe it or not, Zumwalts) have no such options.

            As far as IRBMs go, I suspect that if we chose to retaliate against the multiple breaches of the INF Treaty, we would most likely go with stealthy cruise missiles (probably stealing whatever the Navy goes with, like GL-TLAM-N in the ’80s) over fast solid-fueled guided ballistics, so there’s not much hope for ATK there. GMLRS and the ATACMS replacement may hold out some hope, though.

            All in all, I just don’t see a bright future for solid propellant manufacturing. EM launchers are slowly advancing, the HVP project pushes conventional artillery into GMLRS territory, and even solid fuel itself is about to go through a sea change in the next decade or two now that China Lake has developed air-breathing solids (which could bifurcate development between endoatmospheric and exoatmospheric motors).

            And then, there are the freakin’ lasers.

          2. Surface ships (other than, believe it or not, Zumwalts) have no such options.

            I’ve read some things about turning them into missile boats.

          3. Yes, it depends on how the arsenal ship is used. Not every mission will be one against a peer or near peer navy. There are a lot of resources that can be put on a ship like this that would be useful in certain areas and that would allow for our more robust ships to be where their capabilities are most needed.

            The concept is part of a high/low mix of vessels to maximize the reach of the Navy but you are exactly right in your assessment of their ability to fit in with the regular fleet. IMO, the biggest problem with the idea is not survivability but cost. I doubt our government could do something like this without spending as much money as just building new ships to whatever specifications.

  4. Orbital ATK should be selling the DoD on launch on demand assets like their MEV family. That might not be as much business as they would like to get with NGL but it is something the country needs. They could even pull a SpaceX and sell the DoD on NGL missions acting as testing and demonstrating effectiveness for a new launch on demand space defense system.

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