It would be a bad start for most companies: After logging six years of work and tens of millions of dollars in costs, all there is to show is scorched and twisted aluminum.
But for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a Hawthorne-based company bankrolled by a billionaire who wants to revolutionize the rocket industry, that's just the entry to the road toward stratospheric success.
The company may show promise, but its efforts have so far been littered with shrapnel. Known as SpaceX, the startup founded in 2002 has tried three times to send its satellite-launching Falcon 1 rocket into orbit. Each attempt has failed, most recently in early August when two stages of the rocket collided in midflight.
The company is approaching a potentially crucial juncture. It's scheduled to launch its fourth Falcon 1 within the next few weeks. At the same time, it's preparing the larger Falcon 9 rocket for its maiden voyage next year.
Much rides on the Falcon 9, which could someday carry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX is relying on the heavy rocket to compete for a multimillion-dollar NASA contract to resupply the space station by 2010.
SpaceX's competitor for that contract is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, an established firm with decades of experience and a track record of successful launches in other words, the opposite of SpaceX.
None of this has deterred the sky-high ambitions of company founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk. Though he has no past experience with rockets, Musk, who made his fortune when he sold PayPal to eBay Inc., is SpaceX's chief engineer and is lead designer on the Falcon rockets.
Musk has also talked about sending a man into space in a capsule called Dragon by 2011. If successful, that could effectively make SpaceX NASA's de facto outsourcing launch contractor when NASA retires the space shuttle in 2010.
Since he founded SpaceX, Musk's public musings have led to a perception among some in the aerospace industry that he is at best na & #271;ve, at worst arrogant.
"He's been trying to claim success by saying we did 80 percent or 90 percent or 95 percent of the flight plan" on the previous Falcon 1 flights, said Frank Sietzen, an author and space industry consultant in Virginia who worked as one of SpaceX's first lobbyists in Washington, D.C. "Well, that's like saying you're taking a jet from L.A. to New York City and having the jet crash before it gets there and you say the flight was 99 percent successful."
Despite repeated requests, the company did not make Musk available to discuss the upcoming launch and the company's prospects.
On the clock
The company is playing for significant stakes. With NASA scheduled to abandon the space shuttle, the federal government will be shopping for an alternative means to travel into orbit.
"Whoever is the first one to provide reliable services to NASA, they'll be on the ground floor of a whole new market area," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for Virginia-based research firm Teal Group Inc.
"If that happens, assuming NASA still wants to go to the moon, that same company will be at the top of the list."
Company executives point out that clients, including Canada-based MDA Corp. and Swedish Space Corp., have already booked SpaceX flights through 2011, evidence of faith in the company's potential.
"They know we'll make it eventually," said Diane Murphy, SpaceX's vice president of marketing and communications. "If you look at the history of every single rocket company, there's nobody who made it the first couple times. It took eight to 10 times for all of them."
The last unsuccessful Falcon 1 was carrying three small experimental government satellites, so the financial losses weren't ruinous. But it's still tough to watch your rocket crash.
"We really thought we'd make it the last time," Murphy said.
Sietzen praised Musk's rocket design and predicted SpaceX would eventually have a successful launch. But the clock is ticking.
"He's got maybe a year, maybe two more attempts to show the vehicle will work, before the market will start to turn against him," Sietzen said.
SpaceX is a private company, funded with an ongoing budget of $280 million from NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and about $100 million from Musk's own pocket. In early August, SpaceX announced it had received an additional $20 million in venture capital from San Francisco-based Founder's Fund.
As a private company, SpaceX doesn't have the pressure of shareholders clamoring for results. That has allowed risks, like pricing its launches far below those of the competition.
For example, launching a satellite on the Falcon 1 costs about $8 million, less than half the cost of a payload on Pegasus, Orbital Science's closest comparable rocket.
Pricing launches that low means SpaceX could get new business from companies and governments that can't afford current price tags.
But pending a successful launch, analysts said ongoing overhead costs could raise the company's expenses and force it to hike its rates. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's vice president of business development, said that wasn't going to happen if at all possible.
"We are doing everything we can to keep our prices at what they are now or reduce them over time," she said.
SpaceX has kept costs down by building its rockets at a three-story warehouse headquarters and factory outside the Hawthorne Municipal Airport. Inside, robots carve components and workers weld together the giant aluminum hoops that will form the fuselage of the Falcon 9.
SpaceX moved to the Hawthorne plant in October 2007 when it outgrew its old facility in El Segundo. The company now has 460 employees in Hawthorne. It also has about 60 at an engine testing facility in McGregor, Texas, and 20 in Florida preparing the Cape Canaveral launch of Falcon 9.
Sietzen recalled how people in Washington, D.C., wouldn't take Musk seriously when he was talking up his new rocket company in the early days. His solution: He built a mock-up of a Falcon rocket and parked it in front of the National Air and Space Museum.
It got NASA's attention, and eventually, the funding. But that was then.
"Now," Sietzen said, "he's going to have to show the thing they took him seriously for actually works."
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