The price that government programs “charge for their rockets is just ridiculous.”
Enlarge / On March 31 SpaceX made the world's first reflight of an orbital class rocket.
About 10 days ago, a founding employee of SpaceX, Tom Mueller, made a Skype call to a group of "fans" of the company with the New York University Astronomy Society. The call was recorded and posted to Twitch.tv. It garnered little attention until Saturday, when a user on the SpaceX subreddit called attention to it.
Although the provenance of the 54-minute call is not entirely clear, there is no question it is Mueller speaking, and he is doing so in a rare, unfiltered way. The 15-year employee of SpaceX, who is now the company's Propulsion Chief Technology Officer, says things that many of SpaceX's employees probably feel, but which are nonetheless impolitic. In other words, Mueller throws shade at just about everyone. For example, of the company's most immediate rival, United Launch Alliance, Mueller has this to say: "The cost that the government cost-plus programs charge for their rockets is just ridiculous."
During an approximately 30-minute monologue, which was followed by a Q&A, Mueller expands on what it was like to work at a start-up rocket company when the field was populated primarily by large aerospace companies and government entities, and to eventually come out on top. "We really changed the industry," he says. "The other guys are really scrambling. It's pretty funny to watch." The call originates about a month after SpaceX's historic flight of a reused rocket.
Now, Mueller says, SpaceX is having the last laugh. "We were ridiculed by the other big companies in the launch-vehicle business," he says. "At first they ignored us, and then they fought us, and then they found out they really couldn't win in a fair fight because we were successful and were factors of two, three, or even five lower cost than what they could do. So then it becomes an unfair fight where they try to destroy you politically or use other means. And then, at some point, they figure out that they’ve got to do what you’re doing."
Russian efforts “entertaining”
The SpaceX engineer then proceeds to list the ways in which his competitors—except for Blue Origin, which he also credits for working on a fully reusable rocket—are unlikely to catch up.
"There's a lot of talk from these other companies about how they're going to make reusable [rockets]—recover the engines, recover the stages, come up with a much lower-cost rocket so they can compete. There's no way that ULA [United Launch Alliance] would have considered buying engines from Blue Origin except for the pressure that SpaceX put on them. There's no way that the French would have quickly abandoned the Ariane 5 and moved to the Ariane 6 design except for the pressure we’re putting on them... The Russians are now saying that they're going to come up with a rocket that can beat SpaceX, which is entertaining because they've been working on their Angara for 22 years and have launched it once. Suddenly they're going to come up with a low-cost one."
During his remarks, Mueller largely spares NASA from criticism, although he suggests the agency should be doing much more to explore Mars with robotic spacecraft and to accelerate the search for life. He does make one critical comment about a rocket that costs a billion dollars, however, presumably a reference to NASA's Space Launch System, which will cost more than a billion dollars to fly and will not be reused. “If your rocket costs a billion dollars, even if you use it 100 times, it’s still going to be very expensive to use. So we set out to build low-cost rockets from the very beginning."
This call is reminiscent of remarks made a little more than a year ago by a senior-level employee of SpaceX's competitor, United Launch Alliance. During candid remarks at a University of Colorado-Boulder seminar, which Brett Tobey did not know were being recorded, the vice president of engineering said United Launch Alliance could not compete with SpaceX on price. He was terminated almost immediately by the company.
In his visit with the astronomy club, Mueller talks about more than rockets. He says he admires SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but finds him "trippy" to work for. He also said that the boss' mood can swing wildly from day to day depending upon the success of SpaceX and his car company, Tesla. Mueller echoes his boss in regard to concerns (or relative lack thereof) about planetary protection, the effort by NASA to preserve other planets and moons in the Solar System from Earth-based microbes. "NASA has protocols for that which we're following—initially," Mueller said.