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SpaceX – Product or Project Success?

South Africa’s very own, Pretoria born, Elon Musk is known for creating innovative solutions such as the PayPal internet payment system, as well as Tesla, the first line of fully electric cars. SpaceX, founded in 2002, is undoubtedly his most ambitious project so far. Following ProjectPro’s exploration of the success theme, let’s investigate if SpaceX is delivering successful products, successful projects, or both.

As project managers we have come to learn that the most successful projects and products are the ones that solve a real problem. If this problem isn’t your ‘why’, then what exactly are you building for? 1

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Elon Musk: The Case For Mars ©SpaceX

Musk started out with a vision of making life multi-planetary, as he believes that for humans to survive, we must become a multi-planet species. To solve this problem, he created SpaceX. According to the Telegraph, “SpaceX is a company that aims to reduce the cost of space transportation with the long-term goal of creating a colony on Mars.” This is the ‘why’ behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

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This is SpaceX ©SpaceX

Before SpaceX, Musk started off by exploring ways to send a greenhouse to Mars. To do this, Musk attempted to elicit cheap rockets, for his “Mars Oasis” project, from NASA. His attempt was unsuccessful, and so he initiated a low-cost purchasing mission in Russia, which also turned out to be unsuccessful. However, these failures would not alter his vision of turning Mars into an Earth-like planet. As a result, Musk decided to create his own rockets. Rockets that could significantly lower the cost of space travel. Subsequently, he proposed reusable rockets that could also be used to deliver satellites into orbit as well as service the International Space Station. And so, SpaceX was born.2

Recoverable, reusable rocket stages that touch down on dry land or ocean platforms have been a hot topic for decades as a way to keep costs down and improve turnaround times, but no one has been able to do it – until SpaceX came along.

Infographic – How the reusable rocket works ©

Along the way SpaceX experienced its fair share of project and product failures. As stated in the below embedded video: “That’s not an explosion, it’s just a rapid unscheduled ‘disassembly”.

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 How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster ©SpaceX

But staying true to Musk’s vision, SpaceX also experienced successes along the way which included many firsts. Some of the SpaceX landmark achievements and successes include:

  • The first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit (Falcon 1 flight 4 on September 28, 2008)
  • The first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to put a commercial satellite in orbit (RazakSAT on Falcon 1 flight 5 on July 14, 2009)
  • The first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (SpaceX Dragon on COTS Demo Flight 1 on December 9, 2010)
  • The first private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (SES-8 on Falcon 9 flight 7 on December 3, 2013)
  • The first landing of an orbital rocket’s first stage on an ocean platform (Falcon 9 flight 23 on April 8, 2016)
  • The first private company to send an object into heliocentric orbit (Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on Falcon Heavy test flight on February 6, 2018)
  • The first use of a full flow staged combustion cycle engine (Raptor) in a free flying vehicle (Starhopper, multiple tests in 2019).
  • The first private company to send humans into orbit and have them dock with the International Space Station (Crew Dragon Demo-2 on May 31, 2020)

The Crew Dragon launch in May this year (which many of us watched live on YouTube) with 2 astronauts on board, and the subsequent docking with the ISS, is the latest milestone in the SpaceX story towards achieving their long-term goal and vision.

Progress! Apollo 11 cockpit vs. Crew Dragon cockpit.

The Crew Dragon program however did not come without its own headaches. SpaceX ran 5.5 years behind schedule on a critical Crew Dragon abort test, and three years behind schedule on the crucial crewed flight test to the International Space Station. There were a variety of reasons for the delays, including under funding by the US Congress, delays by NASA in reviewing documentation, the need to meet strict certification standards, and technical problems discovered during testing – which is why we test. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed frustration that SpaceX wasn’t more focused on the Crew Dragon program, but did not, nor has he ever, blamed SpaceX or Musk for all of the schedule slips.3

So, despite the need for additional funding and experiencing numerous delays on their various projects and programs, SpaceX soldiers on with their goal and vision of sending flights to Mars.

SpaceX Mars timeline – Image courtesy of

So has SpaceX achieved project and/or product success?

Program and project management entails meeting stated scope requirements on schedule and within budget. Whether these requirements are met usually determines whether a program/project is successful or not. In most cases, effective program/project management will usually lead to successful delivery of that program or project. Product success on the other hand can be defined by whether the product has achieved the impact that its creators intended, and if the product is fit for purpose.

Trajectory of SpaceX rocket launch.

Whether SpaceX is a project success and/or a product success is for each of us to decide and there are arguments for both sides. One thing is certain, and that is that life on Mars is now not so far away, and we may still see it in our lifetime. Despite the many setbacks that SpaceX has faced (and milestones reached along the way) SpaceX has held true to its vision and long-term goal, and perhaps there is wisdom in that when it comes to effective project management.

Product Success – 1

Project Success – 2

Program Delays – 3

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