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Because of the answers to Why has a rocket system like Starship never been proposed before? , now I need to ask something I'd always taken for granted.

If Falcon 9 wasn't revolutionary for technical reasons,surely it still has to be more than a matter of the money being there when needed. I mean, we were all shocked, weren't we? I cried the first time they stuck the landing of the first stage. No really, I did, kinda like a baby.

I know a lot of drama surrounds SpaceX and it's not that I'd like to add to that. I think the use of the term 'revolution' for the effect of the Falcon 9 on the industry is easily deserved, and I'd really like to know what causes something like that to happen when it wasn't because of a major technical achievement. There's a rather long list out there of companies that tried and failed to do what they did. The Space Shuttle fell far short of the dream of cheap quick space access it also chased.

There have already been a lot of insightful comments and a good answer here. I'm editing now to get this reopened (hopefully), and because it just would really be great to get more perspective on this. I already know there were a bunch of factors, money being an important one, but an achievement so disruptive has to come from a lot more than that. How did they succeed?

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  • $\begingroup$ Btw I tried to search for a duplicate. It isn't easy to figure out how best to do that. I don't recall this being asked before and the searches I could think of went nowhere. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Mar 25 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ I would argue that one key revolution is vertical landing of the booster. Back in 2012, someone at a conference said it was the main driver for cheap re-usability. Him and I discussed our disagreement at the time, and I'm glad to say that I've been proven wrong, and him right! $\endgroup$ – ChrisR Mar 25 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisR Vertical landing isn't revolutionary in 2012. It was in '96 when the DC-X demonstrated it. As I said, Falcon 9 is more evolutionary than revolutionary. $\endgroup$ – Polygnome Mar 25 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Mar 29 at 13:17
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Most aspects of the Falcon 9 had been used elsewhere or had at least been discussed, but making rockets reusable was a bit of an anathema for manufacturers up till then. NASA had tried it with the shuttle, but it wasn’t fully reusable and it cost a fortune. DCX had tried it but it didn’t come to anything. The generally accepted view was that reusability was not worth it or at least no one was interested in paying for its development. If you can only squeeze a few percent of a rockets mass out as payload then adding extra propellants, legs, parachutes and similar is not an obviously good idea.

Perhaps the revolutionary ingredients were a combination of SpaceX’s mission and Elon Musk’s drive to go back to first principles and question everything. And going back to first principles also involved the financial practicalities

In order to make humanity a multi-planet species huge amounts of space transport will be required. In order for that to be practical, costs have to be reduced drastically and the biggest cost is the rocket so that needs to be reused (as all other normal transportation is).

Then go back to first principles and do the math with an eye to the finances. Do all rockets always use all of their payload capacity? No. Can we design a high performance reusable rocket that has a good enough payload capacity? – Yes. Can we make money by reusing rockets? Yes. And the rest is history.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is really insightful and probably the right answer; going back to first principles backed (in the beginning at least) by existing own money in pocket. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 25 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ "making rockets reusable was a bit of an anathema for manufacturers up till then. NASA had tried it with the shuttle, but it wasn’t fully reusable and it cost a fortune." Falcon 9 isn't fully reusable either. The cost per flight for shuttle was about US$525M in 2021 money. If you don't count the orbiter and crew as payload, it works out to \$20M/ton of payload to LEO. If you do count the orbiter, it's \$5.5M/ton. F9 gets it down to \$3.3M/ton to LEO. That's cheaper, but not revolutionarily cheaper IMO. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 25 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ Is that price or cost? $\endgroup$ – Slarty Mar 25 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ Price (i.e. cost to a regular commercial customer) for Falcon -- NASA might get a contract discount, but I didn't bother to look it up since I'm just running an order-of-magnitude comparison here. For shuttle, the accounting is complicated; the only numbers we have to work with are the costs of the entire shuttle program -- training, logistics, paperwork, facilities, etc. -- amortized over the number of launches. So the costs are actually a lot closer than my figures would suggest. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 26 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ Yes it is very difficult to get any accurate cost figures. However SpaceX seems to be doing very nicely. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Mar 27 at 9:00

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