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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Musk’s Space X: Down But Not Out

Elon Musk

On September 1, 2016, an anomaly during the fueling of a SpaceX rocket caused the vehicle to explode on the launch pad. While thankfully no one was killed, the event was still a major setback for SpaceX and entrepreneur Elon Musk in his effort to change the cloistered world of rocketry. Now the company appears to finally be poised to move past that event and regain its place at the head of the emerging private space industry.

On December 7th, the company announced “We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight, now in early January with the launch of Iridium-1.” This is a critical step in returning SpaceX to its place as one of the most exciting and dynamic start-ups in the world right now. It’s also important for investors interested in the future of energy and the global economy.

In short, based on the information available right now it appears that the SpaceX anomaly was due to a problem with the interaction of super cooled oxygen used as part of the rocket fuel, and carbon fiber tanks aboard the vessel. Musk indicated that the issue is very complex in part because it has never before been encountered in the history of rocketry.

Related: The End Of The Downturn? BP Steps Up Spending As Oil Prices Rise

It’s important that SpaceX be able to move past this issue both for the future of the company and for the future of mankind. Until SpaceX came along to shake things up, the space industry had been largely government dominated with a few prime contractors acting as suppliers to governments around the world. Musk’s SpaceX along with a handful of competitors such as Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin has completely shaken up that status quo.

The space industry had mostly stayed stagnant for 40 years after the U.S. moon landing – credit is due to Musk and his peers for changing the conversation. Today there are multiple companies talking about space tourism, mining asteroids, and evening taking private citizens to Mars to colonize the planet. That’s important because space exploration is arguably the biggest single potential boost to the global economy that’s on the horizon right now.

Take the colonization of Mars for instance; SpaceX is putting significant R&D dollars into developing vehicles that would actually take people to the red planet. Musk’s team has put real thought and effort into the project and it does not appear to be a PR stunt. Certainly the prototype components for Mars vehicles are impressive if nothing else.

Related: Rosneft To Ramp Up Global Expansion Under Trump

If Musk can successfully colonize Mars it would completely change the global economy, eventually creating a much larger inter-planetary economy. One of the world’s big problems that is limiting economic growth is a low birth rate among advanced economies. The same issue afflicted Europe in the years prior to the settlement of North America – after North America was settled, birthrate on the continent skyrocketed in part due to significant opportunities in the new world. The same thing might happen on Mars.

Equally importantly, SpaceX is the embodiment of bold out of the box thinking. There have been many articles written by many economists and commentators in recent years about the slowdown in technology growth and resulting slowdown in economic growth. Part of this may be due to investor apprehension about taking big risks on new tech – certainly there has been plenty of apprehension about economic and environmental risks about new tech in the energy space. If SpaceX can get back to its old pattern of success, it is one step forward in giving investors the confidence to bet on new ideas in the energy sector and beyond.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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  • Concerned Citizen on December 20 2016 said:
    "...the slowdown in technology growth and resulting slowdown in economic growth." No accounting for the effects of Google and friends' decade-long war on patents that has absolutely chilled innovation by actual inventors, in the U.S.?

    No thought for the monopolization of economic opportunities; as has occurred in the auto industry, elevator industry and the petroleum industry alike; at a point in time, when their respective "titans" realized they could strangle the competition by influencing the legislature?

    Conservative economic thought has long been wary of the potential excesses of a democracy in a Republic, if the citizens should begin to vote themselves undue benefits (modern "welfare handouts", etc.) from the national treasury or its equivalent.

    However, today's corporatists masquerading as so-called "Conservatives" have turned a blind eye to the 'Big Business' version of exactly the same moral and economic hazard; as their sycophants infest the halls of power with its lines through 'K Street' lobbyists.

    In 2011 an new law was passed by the Congress that upended some 200 years of superior U.S. jurisprudence in patent law worldwide. The net effect of this radical change, has been and continues to be, that patents now protect only the inventions and intellectual property of billionaires. Non-"1%ers", are now shut out, their Constitutionally specified property now having been rendered free for the stealing by said billionaire interests. This is a recognized business strategy called "efficient infringement".

    Classical, true genius inventors need not apply; and, if they do, will be summarily stripped of their hard earned supposedly Constitutionally protected property by a Star Chamber court of judges selected for their hatred and envy of inventors (you think I exaggerate? Try reading one of Judge Mayer's contorted opinions:
    http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2016/10/06/judge-mayer-step-down-federal-circuit/id=73567/)

    To push these new Bills sold to U.S. Senators and Congressmen as 'being good for small business and innovation' and to counter the fatuous, manufactured bogeyman of so-called "patent trolls" (a term arising from the PR department of Intel, yet another "Big Tech" behemoth) over the opposition, to passage into U.S. law; it was necessary for 'Big Pharma' to join in the fray, and their inclusion to this sordid cabal provided the lobbyist "heavy lifting" that finally got the Bills passed as the Orwellian-named "America Invents Act".

    The results were nearly immediate; and extreme in their severity: where U..S. Patent applications from individual inventors and small business entities once comprised some 55% of the annual total; that proportion has now shrunk down to a mere 8%.

    Furthermore, there was established a bureaucratic facility to invalidate Patents already granted, with no presumption of their validity, in direct contravention against established U.S. law (USC 35), with has now engendered sheer economic destruction to the point where desperate pharmaceutical companies are begging legislators for a 'carve-out' of only their patents, from the fallout of what took their legalistic 'heavy lifting', to enact.

    The whole mess amounts to a stinking sellout of an essential component of America's traditional economic resilience 'down the river', for the sake of a few already absurdly wealthy "Big Tech" corporations, at the expense of everyone in the United States.
  • Bill Simpson on December 27 2016 said:
    Mars, really?
    From the time of the first civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and China, until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, human life changed little. People generally lived much shorter lives due to epidemics, and no real medical care. Animals were the only force multiplier humans could use.
    Three things finally changed that, the scientific method, advancement of technology, and the ability to utilize ever more concentrated sources of energy. The steam engine made railroads possible, which burned and transported the coal to power factories. That greatly increased the amount of work a person could accomplish. Most people got somewhat richer.
    Then came electricity and the internal combustion engine. They increased productivity even more. Today we are living in the petroleum age. Cheap, abundant energy obtained from oil runs nearly all transportation, with electricity running the rest. A significant fraction of the electricity comes from the combustion of natural gas and oil.
    Nuclear energy never realized its full potential to revolutionize the generation of electricity because of the lack of standardization of the technology across the world. An ignorant public developed a fear of anything nuclear due to the creation of nuclear weapons, and an exaggerated fear of radiation, largely from the effects of fallout from early nuclear weapons testing. Other than fallout from bombs exploded in the atmosphere, radiation isn't a big potential problem. It always amuses me when people fight nuclear power plants, yet fail to protest nuclear weapons. One H-bomb on New York would do more damage that all the power plant accident you could ever imagine. The fear drove the cost of nuclear power plants through the roof. Poorly designed experiments in Chernobyl, and siting a nuclear plant in the path of tsunamis, didn't help a lot either. But even then, few people died as a result of clean nuclear power. Smart phones have killed many times more people, as have bee stings and falling TVs.
    Basically, we made progress by developing the technology to use ever more concentrated sources of energy to accomplish more work per time on the job. We went from wood, to coal, to crude oil and natural gas, to nuclear power. That advancement is now over, so the economy won't grow as fast as it did when those new sources of energy were first being utilized and spreading across the globe.
    In addition, the law of diminishing returns is starting to have a deleterious effect on production of most minerals and energy resources. We are using more and more energy to produce the same amount of usable product. Nothing can change that a lot. Going to a bigger mine truck has done all the cost reduction it can. We can get rid of the driver, but that won't put a higher grade of copper ore in the ground. Shale oil will always be more expensive than conventional oil. Fracking is a poor substitute for finding another Ghawar oil field.
    Mars has no fossil fuels, nor atmosphere, nor liquid water, nor uranium that wouldn't cost trillions of dollars to mine. Scientists will explore Mars for some limited amount of time, but a large number of people will never live there. It would consume an incredible amount of resources to keep even a hundred people permanently alive on Mars. The only thing that could change that would be the development of a new form of energy. If humans could ever find a way to make fusion work at a reasonable cost, a Mars colony might be possible. Absent that, it will always cost way too much, because the planet has too little energy resources and no atmosphere. Not to mention the radiation hazard. I'm amused when people say they want to move to Mars. They might want to stay in their bedroom for a few weeks to see what living on Mars would be like, before they volunteer to go live there.
    The only reason for mass space travel might be to exploit the resources of asteroids. If reusable rockets can be perfected, so as to lower the cost of getting off the Earth, asteroid mining might eventually be profitable, but only after the mineral resources of the Earth are sufficiently depleted. That day will arrive sooner than you think for some minerals.
    Before we can do asteroid mining, we need to find something to replace petroleum in transportation. They had better do a lot more than they are doing today, because we are fast approaching a time when it will be too late. Soon after oil output begins to decline, less work will be able to get done. That is called a recession. Since it will be a permanent condition due to the finite nature of the oil supply, it will likely turn into a depression. That depression will take down the banking system, and industrial civilization with it. After that, nobody will be leaving this planet, possibly ever.
  • JoseSantiago on December 28 2016 said:
    Interesting comments. Paradigm shifts are what is needed today and with monopolist he's em are less likely due to a segureis of biases and as has been stated laws which limit new development or atvleast discourage it and the related inventiveness and risk taking thatbis needed. However there is another factor atvplay, which is related to markets and opportunities. As markets and demand get closed up by the big players the segments are small or near invisible resulting in the perceived opportunity disappearing and this lack of opportunity stops invention from becoming more that thenactbof creation. A second factor is that we are as a planet making everyone as close to having the same needs as possible and socialising everyone to a very high degree resulting in behaviours becoming standardised... your recognise this, and resulting in less and less divergent thinking and space to be different and thus create and action the creation. Look at how gene technology and bio technisnrestricted, ditto the nuclear industry and solar or alternative energy. On the recession the idea of a service economy was to end recessions, of course humans are not pure rational thinkers so there will always be boom and bust and new tech has been the norm for us over the past 50-60 years, that is where we need a paradigm shift to break into new developments and neuroscience is on the verse of this along with nano tech and other incipient technology. I don't think we will suffer the gloom scenario but we need to be aware of a much more dangerous situation which is being genereallynignored, namely environmental collapse in the norms we have been used too, climate change, bio diversity collapse which we do not understand whatbit means or its short term implications let alone the long term ones. And we are the cause... we may not be around to have depressions or economic collapse, so going to Mars may appear non sustainable duentonthe high resource demand, but we have always been creative and inventive and solved problems, so why not on Mars and recolonise Earth should a climate collapse occur, oh and i think it is due, naturally and induced. by people, just my opinion, but think about he changes we already see, and what about the mass extinctions taking place at all levels in nature and GM crops may not be able to survive in future scenarios...

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