Two years ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX received a $2.6 billion contract from NASA to develop commercial spaceflight and manned launch capabilities. After the 2011 conclusion of its Shuttle program, NASA looked to SpaceX and Boeing, two private companies, to return manned launches to American soil. This public-private partnership signaled the beginning of an exciting new time in space innovation and exploration.
After several years of decline, it seems that private companies like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins are now successfully reinvigorating the American space industry. As an aerospace enthusiast and industry consultant, these developments are tremendously exciting. As an entrepreneur and startup coach, they prompt me to consider the lessons that innovators can learn and apply from an examination of SpaceX’s success.
Founded in 2002 by visionary innovator and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk (of Tesla fame), SpaceX’s initial aim was to build a simpler, less expensive, reusable rocket to carry cargo and eventually passengers into space. Musk’s ultimate goal and long-term vision is to enable human colonization of other planets. With his sights set on Mars, Musk established a team of innovative scientists, engineers, and builders to lay the groundwork for a future of sustainable, accessible space travel.
In 2010, the Falcon 9 rocket made its first successful trip into Earth’s orbit carrying a Dragon spacecraft, and in 2012 SpaceX made history as the first commercial company to dock a craft at the International Space Station. Since then, Falcon 9 rockets have been delivering to and returning cargo from the space station on NASA’s behalf. Late last year, after several unsuccessful attempts, a Falcon 9 rocket launched with 11 satellites in tow and then successfully landed back on Earth.
Under the current agreement with NASA, SpaceX intends to send human passengers to the International Space Station in 2017.
Lessons for Innovators
How did a private company become NASA’s ally in the quest to develop safe and sustainable space travel? Of course there are a great many factors at play, but I would like to examine a few areas in which SpaceX’s success can inspire and inform innovators and entrepreneurs.
Iterative Design – Testing, Testing, Testing
The aerospace industry tackles seemingly impossible tasks frequently, and just as in any industry, many products fail to perform. When that product is a rocket launching spacecraft into orbit, those failures can be incredibly costly. Organizations as immense and deep-pocketed as NASA have suffered from the costs of these inevitable tests and failures.
To overcome this obstacle, as self-proclaimed space business-obsessed writer Tim Fernholz writes in Quartz, “SpaceX followed an iterative design process, continually improving prototypes in response to testing. Traditional product management calls for a robust plan executed to completion, a recipe for cost overruns.”
By rigorously testing each component at every stage of its development, SpaceX was able to continually refine and advance its processes while mitigating the losses resulting from enormous failures. This isn’t to say that the company hasn’t had its share of costly mishaps, but their commitment to iterative design and testing has kept those costs comparatively low for the industry. Through the iterative process, innovators are able to scrap aspects of a product which don’t hold up to testing while building on those aspects that do, ultimately creating a strong product while conserving resources.
Cost Consciousness – Running Lean
Cost consciousness is built into SpaceX’s DNA, as Musk’s long-term goals are only possible if the company can make space travel affordable. So far, they’ve been incredibly successful. As Fernholz notes, “SpaceX currently charges $61.2 million per launch… Other providers often charge $250 to $400 million.” That’s a truly massive differential.
How does the space startup achieve this? Through in-house, integrated manufacturing with cutting-edge components. By opting out of the layers on layers of contractors and supply chains that often bog down NASA’s efforts and inflate their bottom line, SpaceX is able to operate with remarkable leanness for an aerospace company.
While the vast majority of startups and small businesses don’t have Musk’s resources to make this happen, the lesson here is to rethink processes with an eye towards streamlining wherever possible. By avoiding the bureaucracy that keeps large conglomerates from responding quickly to change, smaller companies can remain lean and nimble.
Building from the Ground Up – Questioning Everything
With goals as lofty as Elon Musk’s colonization of Mars, where did SpaceX even begin? By questioning every assumption that their competitors and detractors had made about the aerospace industry. Single-use rockets? Think again. Components from disparate suppliers? Think again. $250 million per launch? Think again.
Here is where the true inspiration lies: By taking a step back and forgetting everything we think we know about how to solve a particular problem, innovators are able to free ourselves from imaginary constraints and create truly revolutionary solutions. This has always been Musk’s strong suit, and with SpaceX he has set his sights higher than ever before.
Reaching for the Stars
Thanks to visionary innovators like Elon Musk, American eyes are once more turning towards space. We’ll want to keep them there – Musk recently announced that we should expect the Falcon 9 rocket to fly again in mid-December. In the meantime, earth-bound innovators everywhere should be looking to SpaceX for inspiration.