Mogul Wars in Mojave? SpaceX Invades Virgin Territory….

Home of SpaceShipOne? Not really. Not anymore, at least. The  actual space plane is hanging in the Smithsonian. There is a full-scale model at the spaceport which you can view. If you know where to look for it. Which most people don’t. Which sort of defeats the purpose of the sign. But, I digress….in a photo caption, of all places. What’s up with that?

At noontime on Monday, workers from the Mojave Air and Space Port who ventured into town to frequent Stoken’ Donuts and other popular lunch spots saw quite a startling sight. A truck was driving through downtown pulling a large billboard advertising jobs at SpaceX, which is located about 100 miles to the south in Hawthorne.

Elon Musk’s rocket company took it to the streets — literally — in an effort to lure away workers from the bustling desert spaceport, which is home to such companies as Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, XCOR, Masten Space Systems and Firestar Engineering. Apparently heeding some friendly advice, the driver reportedly stayed in town and did not enter the grounds of the airport.

The mobile recruitment campaign has Mojave buzzing. The simplest — and most logical — explanation is that SpaceX is growing rapidly and needs to recruit qualified workers. And Mojave is certainly a good place to accomplish that task.

Another school of thought is that SpaceX is striking back at Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which has hired a number of former SpaceX employees. (I like this theory a whole lot better. Mogul vs. Mogul. Clash of the egos. Battle of the billionauts. I mean, the headlines alone are just….priceless.)

Whatever the case, I’ll keep my eyes open and my camera phone at the ready in case the rolling billboard shows up again. Who knows, maybe SpaceX will send a plane towing a banner next time. That would be a lot more appropriate for Mojave. And more interesting to see.

  • There is no war going on here. SpaceX and Elon Musk have definitively won and they are merely executing a much needed ‘Marshall Plan’ for the surviving combatants.

  • Anon

    It may indicate that their potential lawsuit against Virgin is not going well.

  • Coastal Ron

    Do any of the large aerospace companies still have a presence around Mojave? I have a friend who used to work on the F-117 during their secret production, and he had some colleagues that were working in Mojave on other secret programs. I would imagine big aerospace company workers would also be of interest to SpaceX.

  • Northrop Grumman operates in Mojave. They also own Scaled Composites, which operates as an independent company within Northrop.

  • Their lawsuit over….?

  • Anon

    Poaching a whole department from SpaceX’s top propulsion and structures engineers.

  • Jimbo

    Huh, given the droves of SpaceX original engineers walking out of the door for better pastures (you know, the engineers that actually got it to where it’s now), and feeding its rapid growth with whatever it can get, it seems that SpaceX is starting to substitute quality with quantity.

    Expect SpaceX speed to drop and costs to rise in the near future…

    I suppose they don’t need as much creative skill now that they’re focusing on cranking up the F9 factory line…

  • Coastal Ron

    Poaching is nothing new – I’ve been poached by a company that wasn’t a business competitor, but one that was competing for common job categories.

    As to “droves of SpaceX original engineers walking out of the door for better pastures”, if true (I have no way of knowing), that too wouldn’t be unusual, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the type of people that are drawn to startups aren’t necessarily the types of people that love working for mature companies, which is what SpaceX is becoming.

    Also, the types of people needed early the in development phase aren’t necessarily the same people you need for sustaining manufacturing. The design engineering folks become more specialized, there is less need for jack-all-trades types, and the factory floor becomes more organized and populated with industrial and manufacturing engineers. There is no way they are going to be able to pop out 12 rockets a year without this type of specialization and organization, and startup folks don’t always like to stick around for that type of “normal” work.

  • SpaceX has a reputation of engaging with potential suppliers and subcontractors, identifying their best people, and hiring them away. It’s caused a considerable amount of hard feeling within the industry. And, I imagine, by now that’s much harder to do because most companies know about it.

    I conducted a search on PACER last night, but could find no filings of lawsuits by SpaceX against the Spaceship Company or Virgin Galactic on poaching. So, unless I missed something, I can’t confirm the veracity of this claim.

    It’s also fairly well known that SpaceX works their people pretty hard. It’s a company that takes pride in the fact that there are cars in the parking lot at night. Elon Musk is a very demanding boss. Those factors can lead to early burnout.

    The interesting question is what happens after SpaceX goes public. Will it face an exodus of people who are suddenly rich and burned out?

    The company is making the transition to mass production. Its manifest is long and moving ever to the right, and with nine engines per rocket (27 for Falcon Heavy) it’s got to turn out a lot of product. It’s also beginning production on a new engine (Merlin 1D) which has significant changes from its predecessor and has yet to perform in flight. In order to keep per unit costs down (rockets for the low, low price of $56 million), it needs to get production and launch rates much higher than they are now.

    They also need to get the launch rate up in order to bring in money to pay the ever increasing staff. It’s getting funding from NASA for commercial cargo, but it hasn’t launched a single commercial satellite yet. That situation can’t continue indefinitely.

    All those matters present considerable challenges, especially in terms of quality control. For mass production, you need people skilled in doing the same things day in and day out for years on end. That’s different from the development engineers who got SpaceX to this point.

    However, there is still plenty of development work to do, including Grasshopper and a new engine that Musk has hinted about. And there’s also commercial crew. So, if development folks are leaving in large numbers, that’s not a good sign.

  • Coastal Ron

    There are plenty of companies I know of that “burn the midnight oil” on a regular basis, and that’s the culture in Silicon Valley. I worked for a hardware company back in the late 90’s that was growing at a tremendous rate, and had the feel of a startup – and I was in manufacturing. It can be done, and what SpaceX is doing is not unusual for any of the things you mentioned Doug.

    However you are right that lots of things could go wrong, both from what they control and what they don’t. Only time will tell if they are able to successfully transition from a startup company to a well executing sustaining business, and next year (Falcon 9 v1.1 first flight, Falcon Heavy progress, Grasshopper testing, etc.) should provide some indication if they have.