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David C. Neal

I have never understood why SpaceX did not
go the route of flying the Falcon 1 with a dummy upper stage, just to gain experience
with flight ops and to have a chance to
perfect the stage 1 recovery. Of course, there
are monetary concerns to this approach, but
customer confidence has a high potential
value as well. I wish them success, and I hope eventually they can operate more by
demonstrated ability than luck.

Jason Gerend

I agree that a more incremental testing approach yields a more thoroughly tested vehicle. However, I think that in SpaceX’s case there may not have been a lot of added value in flying the first stage repeatedly on its own. If the second stage development delayed testing of the first stage, then perhaps, but I’m not sure that it did. If the goal is to demonstrate how reliable your vehicle is, then flying a bunch of dummy full-up missions would be a solution, but I think that SpaceX is acquiring enough demand without spending excess capital on test missions. From a business perspective, they should do as few unpaid flight tests as possible while still getting enough reliability to retain their customers. It might not yield as fast a development plan as if you tested a lot, but it’ll use up your capital slower…

Robert Horning

From what I understand about SpaceX, the reason they had actual payloads for flights 1-3 of the Falcon 1 was due to some huge discounts to the customers, on the presumption that it was going to be an early test flight that did at least have the potential of making it into space.

The Air Force Academy satellite was one of those project where paying for a full-priced proven launch was just a little bit high, but paying half price (I don't know the exact SpaceX figure, but it was a reduced rate) for something that had a 50% chance of success was considered a reasonable gamble.

SpaceX didn't bother with a paying customer on flight #4 due to the short period of time between flights #3 and #4. SpaceX also needed desperately to prove that they could actually get something "up there", so Elon Musk wasn't going to take any other chances with an extra payload. Even in this case, SpaceX had to manufacture a "simulated" payload at the last minute... and what better "simulated" payload could there be than a real life project that would have some value in space.

In this, I don't fault SpaceX for at least trying, and it wasn't like there was anybody harmed with a failure... where the customers involved in the earlier tests knew full well that a failure was not only possible but likely.

Daniel Schmelzer

I think that SpaceX didn't do launch testing of the lower stage for strictly business reasons. Musk saw a window of opportunity from a marketing standpoint and was willing to sacrifice some failures in the future to hit the window now.

Looking at his launch manifest, it's tough to gainsay his judgment. But it doesn't mean that those failures in the future will go away.

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