How exactly is it that SpaceX can do everything so cheaply? Well, it would seem from this recent interview with Elon Musk that there are a couple of reasons in particular. The first being that there’s a tendency for big aerospace companies to outsource everything to subcontractors who then, bizarrely, outsource work to other subcontractors who subsequently - in what seems to be little more than an utter bureaucratic shambles by this point - outsource to other subcontractors and so on and so forth... ad nauseum. As one commenter aptly points out at the foot of this Wired article: "One reason for all that expensively administered subcontracting is that it pleases exactly those committees [who control NASA's funding]. The large projects they favor can subcontract in many different districts, whose congressmen then have a good reason to vote for NASA's budget. This means the committee members need not trade away any more of their political capital to get the projects that support contractors in their districts."
In short, SpaceX don't engage in this subcontracting farce but do it all themselves from the bottom up.
The other reason SpaceX can manufacture rockets so cheaply is to use an advanced welding technology called "stir welding" which can create as strong a structure as is currently manufactured using more conventional construction methods - but without the material wastage of machining thick aluminium plate. How can Elon tell us about this without generating competition from rival companies?
"The reason I can talk about it is that nobody else knows how to build a rocket this way," he laughs.
I have high hopes for Elon Musk and Space X despite some of his seemingly more outlandish pipe dreams like making a privately funded human trip to Mars possible. Is Elon Musk's head in the clouds? Hopefully, because that's the only sensible place to have it when talking about making humanity a multiplanetary species.
'When a man tells you about the time he planned to put a vegetable garden on Mars, you worry about his mental state. But if that same man has since launched multiple rockets that are actually capable of reaching Mars - sending them into orbit, Bond-style, from a tiny island in the Pacific - you need to find another diagnosis. That’s the thing about extreme entrepreneurialism: There’s a fine line between madness and genius, and you need a little bit of both to really change the world.
'All entrepreneurs have an aptitude for risk, but more important than that is their capacity for self-delusion. Indeed, psychological investigations have found that entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-tolerant than non-entrepreneurs. They just have an extraordinary ability to believe in their own visions, so much so that they think what they’re embarking on isn’t really that risky. They’re wrong, of course, but without the ability to be so wrong - to willfully ignore all those naysayers and all that evidence to the contrary - no one would possess the necessary audacity to start something radically new.' (Wired Science article).