The attention that the SpaceX Dragon capsule’s visit to the International Space Station is, in some ways, a bit of a surprise. As a technical achievement, there’s nothing really new here; spacecraft have been docking with each other since Gemini.
SpaceX also makes lots of claims about being the first “private spaceflight”. It’s sort-of true, but it also ignores two salient points – Uncle Sam is paying the bills for the current mission, and private contractors have been an intimate part of NASA’s spaceflight projects since NASA first existed. Boeing, Grumman, North American Aviation, IBM, and a host of smaller companies have been building spacecrafts, or parts of them, since the 1950s. So what makes SpaceX’s flights different?
The key difference between SpaceX and NASA’s previous ventures, when it comes down to it, is the contractual relationships. In the past, NASA designed the overall architecture of its launch vehicles, and contracted with individual companies to build the various bits. For instance, the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions was built by four different companies: Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, and IBM (who built the two-tonne Instrument Unit that acted as a guidance computer).
Furthermore, the contracts were cost-plus contracts. While there were incentives for timely completion, essentially, the Apollo-era contractors (and the Shuttle is not materially different AFAICT) were paid whatever it cost to build, plus a profit margin.
Now, given the Apollo project (and, arguably, the Shuttle project) were pushing the absolute limits of the engineering of their time to achieve something that had never been done before as quickly as possible, this wasn’t a completely unreasonable approach to Apollo. But if you’re trying to provide incentives to minimize the cost of delivering a routine service, it’s hardly the most efficient way to go about it.
By contrast, NASA is paying SpaceX to deliver specified amounts of cargo to and from the ISS. They don’t own the rocket or the capsule. They don’t own the IP in the capsule. Instead of paying for the engine, body, and wheels of a taxi, screwing them together, and driving them to their destination, they’re paying a fixed price for a taxi service. And, therefore, SpaceX – and their future competitors – have every incentive to deliver that service at a low cost to maximise their profit.
And what have SpaceX chosen to do to meet this challenge? They have designed perhaps the world’s most boring rocket.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Falcon rocket, and the Dragon capsule, were cheap knock-offs of Gemini or Apollo. And, in many senses, that’s what they are. Rather than trying anything radical, they’ve chosen a very boring basic design that has been shown to work for 50 years, and implemented it in the simplest, most straightforward way they can. They appear to have designed for simplicity, modularity, cost of manufacture (they only have one basic engine type), and ease of launch, taking advantage of the past 50 years of IT to replace a lot of the launch crew with automated systems.
Their next-generation craft currently being planned is a lot more radical, but SpaceX’s current achievements are a testament to the power of looking around, keeping the good bits of existing ideas, and implementing new things only where they have something to add.
I imagine that SpaceX’s employees must have as many wacky ideas for building better rockets as there are SpaceX employees. Somebody at SpaceX, be it Elon Musk or his key managers, must be damned good at imposing discipline.