When SpaceX’s pioneering Falcon 9 rocket exploded into a roiling fireball and billowing black smoke at Cape Canaveral earlier this month, the gut-wrenching failure was broadcast across the world as it happened.
It was only the Hawthorne-based company’s second disaster in about 30 flights — a respectable record for rocket makers. But the loss stunned those watching the 15-story spacecraft break apart like Legos and melt into the launch pad, badly damaging the complex SpaceX leases from the U.S. Air Force.
“The SpaceX failure is darn near a national tragedy,” said Vector Space Systems CEO Jim Cantrell, a founding member of SpaceX who now heads up the microsatellite space launch company in Huntington Beach.
“Statistically, unmanned launch vehicles average about 95 percent reliability. Every 23rd launch, you’re going to have a failure. But when you have stuff fail like this, it’s a big deal.”
Like Apollo 1 nearly 50 years ago, the Falcon 9 erupted during a test launch. While the Apollo 1 disaster killed three pilots on board, SpaceX’s rocket carried only equipment — hundreds of millions of dollars worth of satellites destined to expand internet access to remote regions worldwide. The company is still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong as the craft was gassing up with liquid oxygen and kerosene, but hopes to resume its backed-up commercial launch schedule as early as November. It has about 70 missions worth more than $10 billion waiting for launch.
Like so much of aerospace’s history, the Apollo space program and SpaceX share a home in the Southern California region. Apollo crafts were designed and manufactured at the NASA Industrial Plant in Downey, which has since been developed into a shopping center, hospital, park and the Columbia Memorial Space Center.
But SpaceX is fast expanding at its 1 Rocket Road headquarters next door to the Hawthorne Municipal Airport. Its home was vacated by legacy aerospace giant Northrop Corp. after Cold War defense spending dried up in the 1990s, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the region.
Many of those high-paying aerospace manufacturing jobs are now returning with a second technology-driven wave of the space race that is building a commercial economy above the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The (SpaceX headquarters) building was constructed in 1966 to build 747 fuselages and had a great skeleton that we could renovate into a facility to build rockets,” said SpaceX spokesman Dex Torricke-Barton. “The aerospace legacy of the area was also valuable since it gave us easy access to a nearby community of aerospace companies and suppliers.”
SpaceX and a handful of other new-generation private spacecraft startups — including space tourism pioneer Virgin Galactic in Long Beach — are reviving a stalled aerospace industry and developing an economy aimed at making space travel as ubiquitous as airplane flight. Behind them, a fast-growing sector of suppliers and smaller rocket companies are quickly filling out the new economy.
Southern California jobs for workers making guided missiles, spacecraft and parts have increased 64 percent since 2004, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
“We don’t have the outright number of jobs we used to have, but we’re well-positioned to build an industry,” said Mike Quindazzi, co-chair of LAEDC’s Southern California Aerospace Council. “We have suppliers, people doing machine and engineering work, artificial intelligence, building autonomous systems, robotics parts, new drone solutions. We can build off the platforms already here.”
The highly innovative new industrial sector incorporates emerging technologies and operates alongside — and increasingly hand in hand with — corporate aerospace giants and NASA. It is bringing the science fiction imagining of the past to life in new ways, said David Barnhart, USC research professor and entrepreneur who helped found Millennium Space Systems in El Segundo, among other ventures.
“I think we are currently in an awakening of what I consider the second space ecosystem,” Barnhart said. “Technology itself is actually creating fact from fiction.
“Contemporary science-fiction authors are now thinking about the real future. And there’s actually technology being worked on that is going to solve some of these problems. We’re going to potentially see tractor beams (energy fields that can power objects like spaceships) as well as spacesuits that are form fitting but can still protect you wherever you go. These are things they’re working on today at small companies.”
SpaceX, the first private space company to deliver cargo to NASA’s International Space Station, thrived by building relationships with both government and commercial clients.
It earns much of its revenue delivering satellites for telecommunications companies, navigation services and weather-monitoring agencies, as well as government and corporate clients.
The Boeing Co., which has more than 15,000 employees in California, operates satellites that power 4 billion GPS-enabled devices worldwide and has the majority of GPS satellites now in space. It’s also building rockets, and trying to keep up with SpaceX’s goal of sending manned missions to space by 2018.
Virgin Galactic, which opened Long Beach manufacturing and design offices last year, also hopes to capitalize on the booming small-satellite business while selling tickets for brief tourist trips to outer space. The company tests and launches its rockets from a fixed-wing plane in the Mojave Desert.
It hopes to soon break open the space tourism market with its SpaceShip Two, taking six passengers at a time for 1.5-hour trips to space. Some 700 tickets already have been presold.
“You’ll pass the speed of sound about 10 seconds after ignition” and max out at about 2,500 mph, said William Pomerantz, vice president of Virgin Galactic’s special projects. “You will hear a loud engine. You will feel rumbling. You will be pushed back in your seat in a safe way, but in a way you can tell you’re accelerating very quickly.
“Mainly, you’ll have a chance to press your nose against the window and look out to the black skies of space and out onto our home planet from above. You’re going to see the kind of view only 555 people have ever seen before.”
Meanwhile, nearly 200 small satellites were launched last year, fueling the most lucrative year ever for venture capital investment in space.
“Space is our new economic frontier,” said Cantrell, whose Vector Space Systems plans to soon be able launch 100 nanosatellites a year on its small rockets. “People are so desperate to get to space that literally hundreds of satellites are just waiting to launch. If you go buy a rocket now, you have to schedule deliveries four years in advance. It’s like saying: ‘I’ve got a plumber coming in 2020.’ ”
Commercial space boom
Commercial spacecraft now account for one-third of sales in the aerospace industry.
“A really telling sign is that in 2012 there were no American commercial space satellite launches from anywhere in the world. Every commercial satellite was on a European, Russian, Chinese or other launch satellite,” said Greg Autry, a USC business professor who extensively researches the industry. “But, last year, SpaceX had half of the global market.”
Others leading the way in space are:
• Washington-based Blue Origin, which launched a rocket to space and returned it safely to Earth last year. The company announced last week, that it is developing heavy-lift rockets called New Glenn that will rival SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
• Rocket Lab in Westchester, which advertises nanosatellite launches for $4.9 million a pop.
• Interorbital Systems, which is sending small satellites to low-Earth orbit for $8,000 from the Mojave Air & Space Port.
• Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has Los Angeles regional operations in Vernon and makes rockets and missile propulsion systems at its Sacramento headquarters.
• AeroVironment, which is based in Monrovia and is building unmanned aircraft vehicles that link manned submarines with undersea drones, among other next-generation vehicles.
• Silicon Valley’s Made In Space, which recently delivered the first 3-D printer to the International Space Station. The milestone highlights a growing field of in-space manufacturing businesses.
• Vulcan Aerospace, which is backing new startups and developing the Stratolaunch air-launch project that will deliver payloads to space from the Mojave Air & Space Port.
The burgeoning class of small aerospace parts and rocket makers is a thriving field that’s creating new business offshoots as it works to integrate into the existing market. Business development companies like Starburst Accelerator, which opened an El Segundo office last year, specifically connect aerospace startups with established operations.
“When you meet Stanford and MIT graduates, they want to be a startup CEO. They like the idea of being self-employed,” said Van Espahbodi, a co-founder of Starburst Accelerator. “We’re a small global business that helps startups tap into the right buyers.”
Espahbodi and others are bridging the gap between the old vendor-contract sales model and the new innovative economy.
Return of aerospace
It remains to be seen whether the emerging spaceflight industry will breathe enough life into areas decimated by the loss of lucrative government-funded aerospace contracts to revitalize run-down areas.
Cold War defense spending cuts hit Los Angeles County hard in the early 1990s, as hundreds of thousands of jobs were cut, retailers shuttered businesses and apartments sprung up in place of single-family homes.
In 1987, 500,000 workers were employed in Los Angeles County’s aerospace industry; by the early 1990s, that number was cut in half.
In an 18-month period beginning Jan. 1, 1991, aerospace companies shed about 24,000 jobs in Torrance, Long Beach, Carson, Westchester, El Segundo, Hawthorne and other South Bay communities. The layoffs were quickly followed by shuttered storefronts from Westchester to Long Beach as declining incomes were reflected in the local retail market.
Smaller parts supply companies in Gardena, Inglewood, Carson, Torrance and El Segundo were also decimated, as demand dried up for aerospace parts.
But today, despite the two devastating explosions suffered by SpaceX, optimism abounds in the emerging commercial space industry.
“Every time you see a failure, there are going to be naysayers saying we need to return to the past and should just keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Autry said. “ I don’t think that’s a long-term viable solution given the reality of the budget constraints. And it doesn’t get us anywhere if we intend to be a nation of explorers.
“If you never try anything new, you’re less likely to ever fail. The commercial customers will make the decision economically based on launch records. Right now, the SpaceX launch manifest is packed.”