SpaceX Falcon 9 and the New Space Race

Since the dawn of the space age and throughout NASA’s manned spaced programs, most children have fantasized about going into space. Wresting away the grip of earth’s gravity and achieving low earth orbit requires an exquisite orchestration of many complex technologies such as gyroscopic control, radio telemetry, cryogenic turbo pumps, staged propulsion, supersonic aerodynamics, advanced materials science and many more. The fact that we have achieved success through the ingenious synchronization of so many technologies is remarkable.

In simple terms, a rocket launch in nothing more than a controlled explosion.  In the case of the Space Shuttle, this “explosion” is equivalent to a small nuclear bomb.   While a “controlled explosion” may sound simple enough, it is not when lives and the safeguard of multi-million dollar equipment depend of its perfect execution. Scientists and engineers working on how to get into space have had to overcome numerous roadblocks, almost one at a time, with great patience and incredible effort. Undertaking the goal of going into space from scratch could prove insurmountable and only countries that decided to dedicate significant national resources to this task have been able to achieve success.

In recent years, a few dreamers have decided to take on the challenge. Taking advantage of more than four decades of R&D and a growing knowledge base on space exploration, these deep pocket individuals have decided that wishing is not going to take them to the stars. The timing is right for private companies’ incursion into outer space.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has taken a clear lead in the growing arena of private space exploration. Musk, a self made billionaire who made his fortune from the sale of Paypal to Ebay, could have spent the rest of his time on this planet on his own private island in a gold tub filled with champagne.  Not this guy. Perhaps, he did fulfill the island part of this scenario since Musk found an island in the Pacific Ocean (Omelek island, administered by the US Army) from which to test and launch Falcon I, SpaceX’s first rocket.

Falcon I was in many ways what the Mercury program was for NASA, proving of all the basic technologies. The Falcon 1 rocket accomplished a successful demonstration after a couple of attempts. This ambitious program was immediately followed by a much heavier rocket, the Falcon 9, that can carry payload and astronauts into orbit.   Falcon 9 was impressively successful on its first demonstration flight.  Falcon 9’s success is significant because it epitomizes the benefit of opening up space exploration beyond government agencies.  The development of space technology will speed up and government space agencies such as NASA will be able to better focus their resources beyond low earth orbit.

With a few successful launches under SpaceX’s belt, the contracts have followed. In 2008, NASA signed a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX, a significant amount for a company formed in 2002 and little track record. This indicates that NASA is serious in trying to divest itself of the tedious and expensive task of re-supplying the Space Station and sees an opportunity to outsource the job to companies like SpaceX’s.  NASA has indicated that it wants to concentrate in more “important” tasks such as landing on an asteroid or going to Mars.  The Shuttle, the Swiss army knife of spacecrafts, will be retired next year and SpaceX could not be happier since they will become “indispensable” to NASA. With this unstoppable dispersal of technological development, the privatization of space has begun.

Arguably, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and several other private corporations have been working alongside NASA all along.  But now, the private companies are also calling the shots, not just NASA, and this is very telling of what’s to come in space exploration.  We have seen this scenario develop before in the air industry. Charles’ Lindberg transatlantic flight in 1927 helped to spur the ambitions of entrepreneurs who dreamed of routine flights between the United States and Europe.

In 1937, Pan American (Pan American enjoyed a monopoly on international routes helped by the US government who had chosen the airline for its foreign routes) awarded Boeing with a contract to build its legendary B-314 flying boat, the largest commercial plane to fly until the advent of the jumbo jets 30 years later. Each plane cost more than half a million dollars. In 1939, the Pan American B-314 Yankee Clipper made its first trial flight across the mid-Atlantic, from Baltimore, Maryland to Foynes, Ireland. The major turning point in transatlantic air service occurred in June 1945 when the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board granted permission to other two airlines (TWA, AOA) to operate service across the North Atlantic breaking Pan American’s monopoly over international air travel and contributing to the flourishing of air travel in the postwar era.

The history of commercial air travel underscores how both political factors (Civil Aviation Acts, Pan Am lobbied to protect its position as America’s major international airline) and technological advances (the advent of the Boeing B-314) were key factors in the expansion of commercial air travel. This is analogous to the current situation in space exploration in which NASA and a few contractors have had a monopoly over space flights for the past 40 years with the help of a handful of lawmakers allied with the major contractors. SpaceX and other pioneers, such as Scaled Composites, Bigelow Aerospace and others, are trying to break this monopoly and open space once and for all. Beyond profit and glory, these entrepreneurs understand that left in the hands of a few, space exploration will develop more slowly to the detriment of all.  Open and competitive space exploration will produce more and faster developments and successes. (source info)

Given the potential profit, dreamers and entrepreneurs will find a way into space and into making it a profitable business.  SpaceX has advertised on its website that its going rate for launching payloads into orbit is between $5,500/lb and $7,500/lb of payload  for (depending on the height of the orbit) for payloads of aprox. 10,000 lbs.  This is the best deal available today.  ESA (European Space Agency) currently has one heavy lifter in circulation, the Ariane 5 rocket.  ESA is struggling to find a market for this heavy lifter with a price tag of at least $8000/lb of payload for payloads of up to 15,000 lbs.   ESA’s previous rocket model, Ariane 4 (now retired), was closer to SpaceX’s 10,000 lbs capacity, but at a rate of approximately $9,300/lb of payload.  The Russian Space Agency also has a medium capacity launcher, the Soyuz.  While this spacecraft offers a relatively low rate of under $7,000/lb of payload, it can only carry up to 6,000lbs.  The limited capacity makes it a less attractive to many customers that require higher a capacity launcher.

SpaceX has further to go before the reality of cheap access into space is achieved and before they are able to establish a track record of reliability.  But, they are certainly poised for success. The speed at which SpaceX’s program has progressed is impressive even by optimistic standards. Once space is open and accessible, it is hard to imagine what the future will hold. We can easily foresee space hotels, private space stations, and private trips to the moon. But more fundamentally, access to space will bring about changes in our society that are hard to predict, as transatlantic flights did.

Beyond fast travel to a new frontier, I believe that open access to space has the potential to fundamentally change our nature. We will have adapt to the new environment of space. Technology will play an increasingly important role as our carbon based bodies will have to be retooled for the rigors of vacuum and long term microgravity.  We will look back at the period to come as the moment when we turned a page in our evolution and became a true space faring species. There is no turning back; a new space race has begun.