Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
On March 31, SpaceX made the world's first reflight of an orbital-class rocket.
Enlarge / On March 31, SpaceX made the world’s first reflight of an orbital-class rocket.

About 10 days ago, one of SpaceX’s founders, Tom Mueller, made a Skype call with a group of “fans” of the company with the New York University Astronomy Society. The conversation was recorded and posted on Twitch.tv. It received little attention until Saturday, when a user on the SpaceX subreddit drew attention to it.

While the provenance of the 54-minute conversation is not entirely clear, there is no doubt that it is Mueller who is speaking, and he does so in a rare, unfiltered manner. The 15-year-old SpaceX employee, who is now the company’s Propulsion Chief Technology Officer, says things that many of the SpaceX employees probably feel, but are nonetheless rude. In other words, Mueller is throwing shade at just about everyone. For example, of the company’s closest rival, United Launch Alliance, Mueller has this to say: “The fees the government’s cost-plus programs charge for their rockets are just ridiculous.”

During a roughly 30-minute monologue, which was followed by a Q&A, Mueller elaborates on what it was like to work at a rocket startup company when the field was populated mostly by large aerospace companies and government agencies, and to eventually come out on top . “We really changed the industry,” he says. “The other guys are really scrambling. It’s kind of funny to watch.” The call comes about a month after SpaceX’s historic flight on a repurposed rocket.

Now, Mueller says, SpaceX has the last laugh. “We were ridiculed by the other big companies in the launch vehicle business,” he says. “First they ignored us, and then they fought us, and then they found out that they really couldn’t win in a fair fight because we were successful and had factors of two, three or even five lower costs 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 have to do what you do.”

Russian efforts “entertaining”

The SpaceX engineer then goes on to list the ways that its competitors – except Blue Origin, which he also credits for working on a fully reusable rocket – are unlikely to catch up.

“There is a lot of talk by these other companies about how they are going to make reusable [rockets]- fix the engines, fix the stages, come up with a much cheaper rocket so they can compete. It is impossible that ULA [United Launch Alliance] would have considered buying engines from Blue Origin except for the pressure SpaceX put on them. There is no way that the French would have quickly abandoned the Ariane 5 and switched to the Ariane 6 design, except for the pressure we put on them… The Russians now say they are going to come up with a rocket that can beat SpaceX, which is entertaining because they have been working on their Angara for 22 years and launched it once. Suddenly they come up with a cheap one.”

In his remarks, Mueller largely spares NASA from criticism, though he suggests the agency should do much more to explore Mars with robotic spacecraft and accelerate the search for life. He does make a critical remark about a rocket costing a billion dollars, but 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 run. So we started building low-cost rockets from scratch.”

This call is reminiscent of comments made just over a year ago by a senior employee of SpaceX’s competitor, United Launch Alliance. During candid remarks at a University of Colorado-Boulder seminar that Brett Tobey didn’t know were being taped, the vice president of engineering said United Launch Alliance couldn’t compete with SpaceX on price. He was fired by the company almost immediately.

During his visit to 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’s mood can fluctuate wildly from day to day, depending on the success of SpaceX and its Tesla car company. Mueller echoes his boss regarding concerns (or relative lack thereof) about planetary protection, NASA’s effort to protect other planets and moons in the solar system from Earth-based microbes. “NASA has protocols for what we follow — initially,” Mueller said.

By akfire1

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