SpaceX benefited from several things:
- No legacy cruft. They started with a blank sheet. Not just in rocket design, but in corporate structure. The other big rocket companies evolved in the era of cost-plus contracting, which is slow and inefficient. They’ve had a hard time adapting to a more cost-conscious and rapidly evolving environment.
In the case of NASA, they have been crippled by politics. They are forced to use incredibly expensive and old equipment such as the RS-25 from the Space Shuttle and the solid boosters. Fluctuating funding and changing political requirements with each administration have made coherent, efficient engineering very difficult.
Vertical integration. SpaceX relies very little on an external supply chain for major components. Given that the supply chain has been distorted by cost-plus government contrcting, that has saved them a bundle.
Iterative development. SpaceX blows up rockets. Lots of them. They are willing to try things, make the minimum viable rocket that moves their test program ahead, and if it blows up, learn from that and try again. In contrast, the big contractors would work on the design phase of a rocket for years, then build the finished design, This can be a very slow process because you can’t afford mistakes.
SpaceX has benefited from a lot of synergy that comes from their, “build fast, break things, try again” mentality. It can only work if the rocket can be built quickly and cheaply, so SpaceX focused on iteration speed, manufacturing, and low cost.
For example, the shift from composite to stainless steel in Starship allows them to knock out prototypes very quickly. And instead of needing carbon fiber specialists, they hired welders from a water tower company and worked with them to learn how to put together a rocket with steel. And now they knock gigantic rockets out regularly - they’ve already build seven Superheavy booster prototypes and 26 Starship prototypes.
The Raptor assembly process is amazing. Raptor is one of the most complex engines you can build - a full flow, staged combustion engine. SpaceX is now building two Raptors every day. The Raptors cost under $1 million each, and Musk thinks they can get the cost down to $250,000.
In comparison, Rocketdyne/Aerojet just got a contract to make RS-25’s,a similar class of engine. They will be making only four per year, at a cost to NASA of $100 million per engine. SpaceX will make 500-600 Raptors in that same period, for not much more money.
My favorite Musk quote came when he was asked, “What’s one piece of advice you’d give an engineer working on rockets?” His answer was, “Never accept the constraints you were given if you can see a better way. Push back.”
That’s what happened with the switch to stainless steel. One of his engineers was working on part of the rocket which was then composite, and he realized that Stainless would be better in this application for a bunch of reasons. He took his idea to Musk, and Musk agreed and with a phone call scrapped $20 million in carbon fiber tooling and switched production to stainless. A whole lot of good secondary outcomes flowed from that, such as the rapid prototyping ability.
This sounds like elementary advice, but as someone who worked for a huge corporation, I can tell you that it can be almost impossible in practice. If you are a lower level engineer, by the time you get a problem to solve the constraints are baked in, and if you see a better way well, that ship has sailed. Try to push your idea, and you will get stomped on somewhere along the bureaucratic chain.
SpaceX makes it work because there is one guy who can call the shots, and he’s willing to listen to anyone. If SpaceX had been structured as a typical public company with professional managers and a board with fiduciary responsibility, risk aversion and a large bureaucracy will force a very methodological, careful design process with toll gates, requirements docs that can not be questioned by engineering, etc. Blowing up a rocket means pressure from shareholders and executives, and maybe your job. No person has the authority to do something radical like scrap $20 million in tooling because a low-level engineer had a better idea, and a board level decision is often a compromise.
For another example, look at why Lockheed-Martin spun off its ‘skunkworks’. They recognized that their management structure could not deal woth rapid, high-risk development. So they gave an engineer, Kelly Johnson, complete free reign to do whatever he wanted with minimal management oversight and they were shocked by how fast his group was able to develop new aircraft.
So in short, the established aerospace companies grew fat and inefficient on government cost-plus contracting. NASA was crippled by inconsistent funding and a set of requirements they didn’t even want that were driven by politics rather than engineer8ng, and SpaceX was free to innovate and try anything at all due to its unique funding source, vision, flat management, and a Silicon Valley ‘move fast and break things’ mindset.
How not to land a rocket booster:
How many of those crashes would have been allowed at NASA before heads rolled and politicians started pontificating? NASA was ahead of SpaceX in vertically landing a rocket. But they crashed the DC-X ONCE after multiple successful flights, and that was used as an excuse to kill the program.