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SpaceX executive talks rocket R&D: “Nobody paid us to make Falcon Heavy”

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Set to give a keynote speech on October 3rd at 2018’s International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Hans Koenigsmann – SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability – attended an impromptu talk one day prior, titled “From the University of Bremen to SpaceX”.

Speaking before a small audience, the University of Bremen graduate and fourth employee to join SpaceX discussed his opinions of Falcon Heavy, BFR, and more, frankly relating how SpaceX intentionally chose to build Falcon Heavy on its own, going so far as to turn down funding reportedly offered by one or more US government agencies.

Falcon Heavy’s first static fire, Feb. 2018. (SpaceX)

From Bremen to SpaceX (to Bremen)

Hopefully a sign of things to come for his 09:20 UTC, Oct. 3 keynote, titled “Reusability: The Key to Reliability and Affordability”, Hans’ precursor talk centered around the circuitous path that led him from University of Bremen to SpaceX, humorously describing how he “got bored of airplanes pretty quickly” after becoming an aerospace engineer. He quickly turned to space, hopping between a number of German smallsat projects that eventually led him to settle in the U.S. after flying there and back “at least 25 times”.

Once in the US, he wound up working at spaceflight startup Microcosm – alongside now-president and COO of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell – for several years before running into Elon Musk and almost immediately accepting the eccentric entrepreneur’s SpaceX job offer in 2002. He has worked for SpaceX ever since and now spends a majority of his time managing and overseeing its BFR, Block 5, and Crew Dragon programs with a focus on systematically ensuring reliability. He touched on the company’s BFR development program and pointed to the fabrication of massive composite structures as the single most pressing challenge facing SpaceX engineers and technicians.

Asked by an audience member about the apparent difficulty of developing the heat-shield segment of BFR’s spaceship upper stage (BFS), Koenigsmann was quite confident that it would be a relatively easy aspect of the craft’s development, making the argument that what really matters to the craft is overall heat transfer per unit of its shield. From a basic comparison of the area of a given heat shield and the spacecraft’s mass at reentry, his lack of concern is probably warranted – a BFR spaceship’s worst-case LEO reentry is likely to be less stressful than an average Space Shuttle reentry.

“Try [to not] get money from the government”

Perhaps most intriguing of all Koenigsmann’s comments was an almost unprovoked segue into the US government’s involvement in Falcon Heavy development. According to the SpaceX executive, the company was actually approached by “the government”, with the unknown agency or agencies stating – in Hans’ words – that they wanted to be a part of the rocket’s development. According to Hans, SpaceX responded in an extremely unorthodox fashion: “we said, ‘Nope! We just wanna build it, you can buy it when it’s ready and we’ll charge you for the service.’” He noted in the next sentence that funding was the primary lever on the table:

“It’s a great position to do this, you gotta find the money, you gotta know people that have money and are willing to invest in your company, and [SpaceX has] been lucky enough to know some of those people.” 

In other words, when given an opportunity to either rely on government funding or some other source of capital for a given R&D project, SpaceX – or at least Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Reliability – would apparently recommend the latter option in almost all cases. Again, without being prompted, he elaborated on his feelings about funding sources, culminating in a statement that is simply profound coming from an executive in the aerospace industry. The following quote is unabridged and straight from Hans himself:

“You need to [try to not] get money from the government, otherwise the government will tell you what to build and how to build it… they will tell you how to build this and that’s just not always – I mean for some things it’s the best to do, but in others it’s actually not.”

Coming from the SpaceX executive perhaps more familiar than anyone with the demanding NASA, USAF, and Department of Defense involvement in Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy, Hans’ sentiment serves, to some extent, as a damning appraisal of the US government’s preferred methods of engaging with commercial space companies, or at least with SpaceX.

More likely than not, his recommendation to generally avoid government funding is more a result of SpaceX’s relationship with NASA than with the Department of Defense, USAF, or others. NASA’s continual support of SpaceX with funding and expert advice has come with massive and glaring strings-attached, particularly the agency’s tendency to contractually withhold the right veto almost any decision relating to a given company’s design, engineering, organization, operations, and more. Almost without a doubt, the two or more years of delays SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program has suffered through are predominately a consequence of NASA’s highly disruptive and burdensome style of oversight and program micromanagement, a program Koenigsmann is intimately familiar with under the scope of his Build and Flight Reliability job title.

A mismatch between NASA and reliability?

More than any other program at SpaceX, the reliability of the company’s first crewed spacecraft is of tantamount importance not only to NASA and SpaceX’s image and their tasks at hand but to SpaceX’s overarching mission of making humanity multiplanetary. That latter goal will be made far more difficult if the average person comes to fear commercial spaceflight, far from unlikely if one imagines being submerged in manic press coverage of any hypothetical fatal failures, be it on a spacecraft made by SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, or some other company.

Koenigsmann wholeheartedly believes in the company’s goal of making humanity multiplanetary and is intimately involved with ensuring the reliability of all SpaceX rockets and spacecraft, and yet he almost spontaneously volunteered his opinion – after 16 years working for SpaceX – that one should go out of the way to avoid the need for government (or at least NASA) funding when building rockets or spacecraft.

According to Hans Koenigsmann, this vision may actually be incompatible if NASA and the US government are given too much control. (SpaceX)

This strongly suggests that SpaceX is going to do everything in its power to avoid giving NASA or any other US government agencies more than a token slice of control over the design, production, and operation of the company’s next-generation BFR rocket and spaceship. There is perhaps no one on Earth better qualified to come to that conclusion than Koenigsmann, and his scathing suggestions of the consequences of government involvement may well point to a turning point in SpaceX’s present and future development strategies.

Watch and listen to Hans Koenigsmann’s full presentation below.

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SpaceX executive talks rocket R&D: “Nobody paid us to make Falcon Heavy”

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