Elon Musk is one of the gutsiest entrepreneurs in the world. After making a pile from his share of PayPal -- which he co-founded -- Elon decided he wanted to do something no new company has done, build a new launch vehicle from scratch and then sell it.
A dogged and gifted salesman, he sold the Air Force on the idea. They were being pushed hard by Congress to come up with a cheaper and simpler rocket to lift small- and medium-sized satellites into orbit, and Elon had a workable solution -- risky, but workable.
But the third try -- which analysis of past launch programs indicate was crucial since programs that don't have a successful launch in the first three rarely succeed -- was pretty much an unmitigated failure, no matter how adeptly Elon tries to spin it. The launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific went well but the second stage did not separate correctly.
Even Jim Armor, former head of the National Security Space Office and a devout supporter of Operationally Responsive Space, now says he would not approve launch of any national security payload atop a Falcon launch system unless Elon gets two successful and successive launches under his belt.
Armor, now an independent consultant, confessed to being disheartened by the latest SpaceX failure. "What a heartbreaker," he said when I reached him on the phone. He said Elon must accept that his company's systems engineering skills are just not up to the task of putting together several rocket stages and getting them to work. "As far as bringing it together in a stack Elon has been humbled by rocket science," Armor said. "If I were him I would stop trying to do it by myself and would seek some outside expertise.
Most of the congressional aides dealing with this issue are on vacation or travelling for work. The only one we heard from didn't have an answer to the question of whether the Air Force should stick with Musk. But the aide did not voice unequivocal support for the entrepreneur as happened after the last two launch failures. Instead, the aide said the question of whether the Air Force should continue to work with him or tighten his leash was "an excellent question."
For his part, Musk is pushing on. In an Aug. 2 message to employees he said, "the most important message I'd like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six. Falcon 9 development will also continue unabated, taking into account the lessons learned with Falcon 1."
Falcon 9 is the heavy version of Elon's product line. But in a pretty clear indicator that he knows time is running out, he noted that the company recently accepted a significant investment, one "that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon.' Ever bold, Elon said "there should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never."
In the past, Elon had said he would consider quitting if the third rocket launch failed. Of course, that was when everyone was very excited and supportive of his brash effort.