Much ink has been spilled about the recent launch of the SpaceX Starship -the largest rocket ever launched. The fact that it only survived about 4 minutes after leaving the launch tower led a lot of people to call it a failure. That misses the larger point. It was necessary.
The Financial Reality of Innovation in Manufacturing
It’s one thing when the government is footing the bill as it did during the Space Race of the 1960s. It’s something very different when a private company wants to dive head-first into a new field. When astronauts didn’t come back with evidence of diamonds, vast petroleum reserves, or even a good cheese on the moon, businesses saw no reason to go and innovation stopped. There was little financial incentive in space beyond communications satellites.
SpaceX’s original founders had a different view. They saw a future where space could be profitable. It just had to be done differently, and they couldn’t do it without help. Development costs were simply insurmountable.
Government’s Role in Bridging the Gap
Situations like this are why governments provide tax breaks. Here in Canada that program is the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program. SR&ED (pronounced “Shred”) pumps about $4 Billion per year into businesses that commit to R&D on topics that can advance our industrial capabilities.
Most SR&ED funding goes to small to midsized companies. Were SpaceX a Canadian company, though, it would qualify for SR&ED tax credits simply by virtue of how it has approached its goals. They began by questioning nearly everything we thought we knew about rockets. They started off developing new innovations in the manufacturing of carbon fiber for body sections. Then they determined the benefits of carbon fiber weren’t enough to make it worthwhile, so they had the audacity to try making rockets out of steel using stir welding. That’s ancient technology, but it works.
It’s generally accepted that NASA made it to the moon and the USSR didn’t largely because the Saturn V rocket relied on five main engines. The Soviets couldn’t engineer engines that large and relied on 30 smaller engines. Trying to coordinate and control all those engines meant out of four attempts at launching their N1 rocket, all four failed, dooming the program. But SpaceX took advantage of 50 years of industry development and computer advancement and put 33 raptor engines in their Super Heavy Booster. They have nearly perfected vertical landings. Most importantly, every aspect of a SpaceX rocket launch is designed to be reusable. Their goal is for a rocket system to be able to make several launches per day. That’s a far cry from the Space Shuttle making perhaps three in a year.
The Name of the Game is Innovation
The entire focus of SpaceX is a sustainable business model for an industry that is just beginning to exist. NASA showed us that launching rockets is hard. SpaceX just reminded us of that. It was inevitable at some point. That “failure” is exactly what innovation looks like to the outside world. Obviously, they would have been ecstatic had the craft made it to space, but regardless, SpaceX gathered invaluable data which will affect their craft and launch facilities going forward. That “rapid unscheduled disassembly” as it’s known in the industry will make future flights safer.
Innovation is the name of the game if mankind is going to take advantage of the benefits waiting for us outside this thin atmosphere. But innovation isn’t just the purview of companies looking to move massive payloads into outer space. It happens throughout the space, defence and aerospace industries, from the invention of new and better materials to the development of advanced manufacturing and critical CNC machining techniques and processes.
Ben Machine has engaged in significant SR&ED projects over the past few decades to advance precision CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication technology. We have pioneered capabilities that didn’t exist in the past so that complex assemblies for new advanced avionics could be manufactured. CNC machining companies like Ben Machine, working at the extreme of manufacturing capabilities, help keep Canada and companies like SpaceX on the leading edge in the final frontier.
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