It may seem a bit early to be writing the history of the beginnings of commercial spaceflight, but Erik Seedhouse at least has the advantage of being the first out the door with his new book SpaceX Making Commercial Spaceflight a Reality.


Seedhouse himself is a fascinating personality. A long-time extreme athlete, Seedhouse supported his education by winning 100 km ultraraces, Double Ironman championships, and in 1995 the world’s longest triathalon including a 38 km swim, 1800 km bicycle, and 422 km run. In 1999 he achieved his PhD in space medicine from DLR’s Institute of Space Medicine. A former paratrooper, he went on to earn his pilot’s license and take up skydiving. Each step took him closer to his true dream: becoming an astronaut. In addition to being a prolific writer, Seedhouse is an astronaut and spaceflight trainer with Astronauts4Hire. And it is quite clear from his writing that he’s rooting for commercial space. At the very end of the book, Seedhouse makes this view clear, quoting a comparative study of artic exploration expeditions with conclusions drawn for space development: “Public expeditions were better funded than their private counterparts yet lost more ships, experienced poorer crew health, and had more men die.”

If you’ve been following SpaceX all along, you’re not going to find much in the way of new insights or backstory here. Seedhouse apparently did not conduct original interviews for this piece, instead opting to compile news reports, previously published analyses and interviews, and many, many technical specifications to form his current work. Even if you have been paying attention, Seedhouse is quite thorough, and may have captured a nugget or two you missed on the way. But there are times that a little insight from the book’s subject organization would have been nice, as in when Seedhouse hypothesizes about the origins of some of SpaceX’s creative rocket names. Or when he ponders the reasons behind SpaceX’s decision to take Falcon 1 off the market, just when it had been proven as a viable launch vehicle. Instead we are left with musings from another outsider looking in.

There is a bit of a dichotomy to the book, which reminds the reader now and again that Seedhouse is a true commercial space acolyte himself. Clearly a SpaceX fan, Seedhouse will sometimes start off enthusing about the company and its accomplishments before digging in to provide a reasonably objective evaluation of its place in the pantheon of space endeavours, commercial and otherwise. Seedhouse doesn’t narrowly focus on SpaceX’s accomplishments either: he provides a broad overview of other commercial players as well, particularly those currently or formerly involved in NASA’s commercial development agreements and funding initiatives. While he gives NASA’s way of doing business a good hard poke, Seedhouse is also pretty honest about how necessary NASA’s support has been to SpaceX’s success. For example, after the successful launch of the Malaysian RazakSAT aboard SpaceX’s fifth Falcon 1, Seedhouse notes: “Because it hadn’t been encumbered by government red tape, Musk had been able to develop his company as he wanted – as long as the money was there, which it was thanks in part to NASA and its COTS program.”

While not particularly novel, Seedhouse has managed to document the early years, successes and failures, of a promising – perhaps even revolutionary – organization. It may not lend insight to those of us who lived through it, but it will no doubt prove a valuable resource to researchers of the future and those who ignored the early years, doubting they would ever come to fruition.

Tags

About the author

Merryl Azriel

Twitter Email Website

Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.

2 Responses

  1. John Gardi

    Merryl:

    Thanks for the review. As a ‘follower’ of Spacex from the beginning I agree that we probably won’t learn much from this book but ‘new comers’ could learn a lot from it.

    It certainly doesn’t hurt to have an enthusiastic (and well informed) voice put everything together in one place. It doesn’t help that Spacex is beholding to no one (public shareholders, voters) and we should be thankful that they’ve given us as much as we’ve got. Just look at Jeff Bezos Blue Origins (Who?). Not a peep from them yet they’ve had some serious successes (and failures).

    Don’t knock the author’s lack of opinion too much. Like you say, he’s careful and organized. I, on the other hand, am less so on both counts. I have a pretty good ‘guess’ that the Falcon 1 was dropped for the simple reason that it’s half-ton maximum cargo could be easily handled by flying secondary payloads of that weight on the Falcon 9. Spacex has already demonstrated that they can fly substantial secondary payloads and their business model is geared to multiple costumers for every flight.

    Just speculation on my part from observable data (I think that sort of stuff belongs right here in the comments section).

    What I think we need on the other end of the spectrum is some serious speculation about the implications of Spacex’s drive to make rocket’s reusable. Even though they’ve publicly stated that it’s Spacex’s primary goal, we haven’t heard from aerospace competitors or space agencies around the world about how they plan to counter this move.

    Are they waiting for Spacex to succeed? If Spacex tows an intact booster into harbor after this next flight, that wait won’t last much longer!

    tinker (John Gardi)

    Reply
    • Merryl Azriel

      Thanks for the comments and observations, John. I think you are likely right regarding Falcon 1, although the move runs counter to current development trends. But then, SpaceX hasn’t done so well by following the common wisdom!

      As to how competitors will counter this success…I don’t believe they need to counter it, as long as they can mimic it. There is certainly room for more than one global launcher. I would put my money on Arianespace being the ones to catch up, if they weren’t bureaucratically hampered; at least they’ve been paying attention.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *