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Crux of a challenge

When Musk started SpaceX in 2002, he created focused, coherent policies. SpaceX rockets would be complete redesigns and done in a low-cost, spare manner. They would not be adapted intercontinental ballistic missiles. SpaceX would not be one of thousands of contractors. Its vehicles would not try to satisfy the US Air Force by flying around the globe. There would be no complex of scientists wanting to explore the universe. No fancy R&D (research and development) labs. Musk saw the challenge as engineering, not high science. Unlike NASA, SpaceX would not be charged with the mission to inspire children to study science and math. The first step on the quest would be an intense single-minded focus on getting the cost down. Many people challenged Musk that a low-cost approach would sacrifice reliability. His answer was pure engineer:

We've been asked "if you reduce the cost, don't you reduce reliability?" This is completely ridiculous. A Ferrari is a very expensive car. It is not reliable. But I would bet you 1,000-to-1 that if you bought a Honda Civic that that sucker will not break down in the first year of operation. You can have a cheap car that's reliable, and the same applies to rockets.

To get costs down, Musk focused on simplicity in engineering and manufacturing and on limiting the number of subcontractors. The Falcon 9 used an Ethernet data bus rather than a custom design. The in-house machine shop fashioned special shapes for much less than the cost of an aerospace contractor. Working at big contractors was basically boring because most of the job was running subcontracts and dealing with the government. The engineers at SpaceX were stressed but not bored.

SpaceX's first commercial flight was in 2009, putting a Malaysian observation satellite into orbit. But the revolution began in 2015 with the Falcon 9 being the first rocket to ever gain orbit and then turn around and fire its engines for a slow reentry and a soft landing on its tail. By 2015 the Falcon 's cost per pound into low- Earth orbit was twenty-three times cheaper than the old space shuttle. Its bigger brother, the Falcon Heavy, cut the Falcon's cost per pound in half.

On May 30, 2020. SpaceX carried two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. In early June, NASA approved SpaceX's plan to reuse its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and its Dragon crew capsule on future missions.

NASA had estimated it would cost $200 billion to go to Mars, Musk estimated $9 billion. The key to such advantage would be more of the same-coherent policies aimed at simplicity, reusability, and cost. If Congress or bureaucrats design the mission, costs will explode, as hundreds of different agendas and payoffs will be tacked on to the project.

I cannot tell you that SpaceX will be a great success in the future. Going into space is risky, and rockets are risky. The current media climate would turn any fatal accident into a circus. Under current norms, there would have never been the development of aircraft during the twentieth century-someone might get hurt. I can tell you that the key to SpaceX's advantage in rocketry arose from Elon Musk's grasp of the crux of the problem and his insight into how to surmount it. Plus, advantage is created by the company's coherent policies, all directed reliably at putting mass into orbit at the lowest cost possible.

This tidbit is from the book The Crux by Richard Rumelt

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