Six years ago, SpaceX had launched its Falcon 9 rocket only twice, fishing up pieces from the ocean after each mission. Nevertheless, company founder Elon Musk decided it was time for a big public reveal of his plans: a fully reusable launch system to significantly reduce the cost of accessing space.
“Now we could fail,” he said at a September 2011 event at the National Press Club, transcribed at the time by CollectSPACE. “I’m not saying we’re sure of success here, but we’re going to try. We have a design that on paper, does the calculations, does the simulations, it works. Now we have to make sure those simulations and the reality are it agree, because generally reality wins when they don’t.”
Last week, SpaceX won by making reusability a reality when the company first launched a previously recovered orbital rocket. We had largely forgotten about a video that Musk shared during the 2011 press conference, but in hindsight it’s rather remarkable to watch today. The company’s depictions of how it would repurpose the Falcon 9 rocket felt a bit like science fiction at the time, but now SpaceX has made significant strides on several aspects of reusability shown.
SpaceX managed to land and fly the rocket’s first stage again. In addition, SpaceX has also landed rockets at sea, something the video does not show. The company hasn’t landed its Dragon spacecraft on the ground yet (it’s restoring the spacecraft to the ocean), but it’s been doing extensive work developing the SuperDraco thrusters shown in the video. A return to land could come in 2019.
Perhaps most notable in the video is the attempt to return the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which uses its single Merlin engine and landing legs to achieve a soft landing on the ground. SpaceX has yet to try, but Musk has suggested that the first attempt to return to a higher stage could come later this year, at the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Finally, the company has also started repairing the rocket’s fairing, which is not seen in the video.
Add all this up and you’ve recovered almost 100 percent of a rocket after launch. With just the first stage booster, SpaceX is already 70 percent underway. In that sense, the video is prophetic. It is also provocative in the choice of music soundtrack, Revolt by Muse.
To understand the context of this choice of music (which one source said was fully conscious), look at the state of space travel in 2011. The space shuttle had just retired. NASA had just begun a plan to replace the space shuttle with the commercial crew program, of which SpaceX was one of the contenders. Meanwhile, Congress had directed NASA to build the massive Space Launch System rocket with the help of its traditional aerospace contractors. Some of those in Congress didn’t appreciate an upstart new aerospace company trying to wedge itself into the mix.
As an example of the kind of pushback SpaceX received from members of Congress, consider this from Alabama Senator Richard Shelby in 2010, who said that SpaceX was not even able to bring trash back from the space station, much less get people to to transport there. At a hearing on commercial crew financing, Shelby said, “Instead of demanding accountability from these companies, the president’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.”
So in 2011 Musk and his “failed” company come up with this video and soundtrack. Perhaps the most notable line comes at the very end of the video as the SpaceX logo lights up and the song reaches a chorus crescendo.e will prevail. But there are also some other notable lines in the song:
Stand up and take back power, it’s time
The fat cats had a heart attack, you know that
Their time is running out
We must unite and see our flag rise
You don’t need to speculate too hard on who might be the “fat cats” in Musk’s mind and whose time of dominance in the aerospace industry is coming to an end. In addition, the rule about ascending flags could easily represent the US flag painted on a Falcon 9 rocket. Finally, the chorus clearly seems to drive home SpaceX’s novice ethos:
They will not force us
They will stop demoting us
They will not control us
We will prevail
So this now largely forgotten video gives a little perspective on Elon Musk’s mindset six years ago, as he took on the big players in the aerospace industry. It’s still not 100 percent clear that SpaceX will prevail, but the company is moving closer to dominating the global launch market. The uprising seems almost complete.
Frame image by SpaceX