PayPal founder and Tesla boss Elon Musk isn’t a man who thinks small – nor is he short of a few million dollars to chuck at any obstruction in his path. Which is why SpaceX – the company he founded in 2002 with a view to developing cheaper, faster, longer-distance space travel, and ultimately colonising Mars – has become the world’s leading private spaceflight provider.
The list of spaceflight ‘firsts’ that SpaceX has racked up over the course of the past 15 years is a long one. Among other achievements, it was the first private company to put a liquid-fuelled rocket into Earth orbit (Falcon 1, 2008); the first to send a spacecraft to the ISS
(Falcon 9, 2012); the first to put a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (Falcon 9, 2013), and the first to relaunch and land a ‘used’ orbital rocket (Falcon 9, 2017).
As you can see, the reusable Falcon 9 rocket has been the key to many of SpaceX’s successes. Long term, Musk’s eyes remain firmly fixed on the Red Planet, but in the meantime, let’s take a closer look at this 69.9m-tall behemoth, which has now racked up 38 successful flights and is fast becoming the go-to option for getting payloads and people into space…
1 IT’S REUSABLE
When SpaceX launched a communications satellite into orbit in March 2017 they made a little piece of space history. It was the first time an orbital rocket had be reused – it had already been to space and back in April 2016.
The Falcon 9’s first stage – the bit with most of the fuel and the main engines – is brought back to the ground and collected to fly again. This could be a gamechanger for space exploration because that’s the most expensive part of the rocket. Previously, each time you wanted to go to space you had to fork out hundreds of millions of dollars for a brand new rocket. Now the same one can be used multiple times.
SpaceX is offering its customers a discount of up to 30 per cent if they opt to fly their payload on a reused Falcon 9, cutting the cost of getting to space even further.
2 IT’S RELIABLE
The Falcon 9 rocket boasts a 95 per cent success rate.
There have been 41 launches since the first in 2010, and all but two achieved their stated goals. One failed to reach orbit, the other exploded on the launchpad during a pre-flight test.
This compares well to the rest of the rocket industry, where the average failure rate is also 5 per cent. NASA’s Space Shuttle, which ferried astronauts to and from orbit, had a success rate of 98.5 per cent, with the famous Challenger and Columbia disasters notable black marks. The Russian Soyuz rocket, which is currently the only way to get people to the International Space Station, has seen over 1,700 launches and has a 97 per cent success rate.
If SpaceX wants to start using its technology to send people to space, then perhaps it will have to boost its success rate a little to bring it in line with these other benchmarks.
3 IT COULD INSPIRE A GENERATION
NASA’s Apollo missions did a lot more than just land 12 astronauts on the Moon. A whole generation watched on as human beings ventured out onto a new world for the very first time. Those unprecedented steps fired up the imaginations of countless young people worldwide, many of them turning to careers in science, maths and engineering as a result.
But humans have languished in low Earth orbit ever since Apollo 17 departed from the lunar surface in 1972. Yes, we have the International Space Station, but don’t underestimate the power of seeing humans push new boundaries. If private space companies can return people to the Moon, or even send them to Mars, their exploits will be beamed around the world in an era now equipped with HD cameras, social media and 24/7 news channels. The inspirational effect of those missions would be unrivalled.
Who knows what this generation might be inspired to do next?
4 IT’LL KICK-START NEW INDUSTRIES
In the past, the huge costs of space launches meant only those with the broadest shoulders could afford the astronomical sums involved. That used to mean governments. But governments are funded by taxpayers, many of whom are sceptical about the merits of space exploration when they see more pressing concerns closer to home.
SpaceX is blazing a trail for the true commercialisation of space by proving that it can be done well for less. Now other companies are also springing up, looking for a slice of action. Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are already putting their money on the line.
The global space industry is growing rapidly, consistently outpacing even the Chinese economy. As a result, companies that were priced out of space before are beginning to think that it might be affordable after all. The fleets of satellites that these companies inexpensively put into orbit will help run innovative new technologies including autonomous vehicles and super-fast internet connections.
5 IT’S POWERFUL
The power behind the Falcon 9 is the Merlin engine, which is built in-house by SpaceX. Nine of these engines are clustered together in the first stage, while the second contains a single Merlin that’s modified to fire in the vacuum of space. The engines burn a mixture of rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen. On a typical launch, the first stage engines burn for 162 secs, and the second stage engine burns for 397 secs.
The powerful Merlin is one of the most efficient engines ever built. Having nine of them in the first stage also offers some built-in safety. On other rockets, if an engine fails during launch, the lost thrust can destroy the payload’s chance of successfully reaching orbit. But the Falcon 9 is designed so that two of the nine Merlin engines in the first stage can fail and the launch won’t be affected. The healthy engines can burn longer, picking up the slack to save the mission.
6 IT CAN LAND AT SEA
So far, all launches have taken place from one of three landbased launch sites. However, some landings have taken place out at sea. After five unsuccessful attempts, the first flawless landing on a floating drone ship came in April 2016. This is key because landing at sea requires less fuel than returning to the launch site, and expending less energy in the landing means there’s more energy available to reach a higher orbit. Touching down on water is also safer if anything goes wrong.
The two floating barges – Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The Instructions – are named after spaceships in the Iain M Banks novel The Player Of Games. The former is stationed in the Atlantic Ocean to pick up rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the latter in the Pacific to collect missions launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
7 IT’LL LAUNCH PEOPLE ONE DAY
SpaceX has already successfully used its re-usable Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the International Space Station – the first time that was done by a private company. Launched on top of the Falcon 9 rocket, its true purpose is to send people into space. Four windows will provide the lucky astronauts with a stunning view.
The next version of Dragon – Dragon 2 – will be launched on the new Falcon Heavy rocket, which will also be making its maiden flight. Elon Musk has even announced his intention to send two paying customers around the Moon in a Dragon 2 capsule and return them to the Earth. Remarkably, he says this will happen at the back end of 2018. Given that only one government has ever achieved this feat before, it would be some statement of intent.
8 IT’LL BOOST SPACE TOURISM
Even if two paying punters don’t end up getting sent around the Moon in a week-long mission, it’s easier to see SpaceX launching tourists into Earth orbit.
In the decades to come, travelling into space will become as common as getting on a plane. The first transAtlantic flights cost thousands of dollars in today’s money, but now the ocean can be crossed for a few hundred. Similarly, a successful launch of customers into orbit by a private company will generate even more competition and drive down the price for all of us.
Don’t be surprised if the children at school now are holidaying in space for a few days later in their lives. For the price of a round-theworld cruise or a top of the range car, they could be looking down on the rest of us from orbit as they float in a Dragon capsule.
9 IT COULD TAKE US TO MARS ONE DAY
It’s no secret that Elon Musk’s ultimate goal is to get people to Mars. However, that feat is leagues ahead of escorting astronauts into Earth orbit.
Musk’s vision involves SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). The aim is to eventually park up to 1,000 spaceships in Earth orbit, each with a crew of 100. They’ll await the optimal window to head for Mars and depart en masse. This happens every 26 months when the gap between the planets is narrowest. Musk’s publicly stated ambition is to get a million people to Mars within the next 50 to 100 years.
The Red Planet still presents significant hurdles, however. The radiation exposure on the six-month voyage would be unacceptably high, so the crew will need shielding. Slowing down sufficiently to land safely on Mars is a real challenge, too, as is keeping a crew supplied with enough food, water and energy for such a long journey.
10 THERE’S STILL A FEW KINKS TO IRON OUT
There’s a reason why many commentators baulked when Elon Musk announced his vision of a Moonshot. Space travel is still difficult, especially with heavy payloads beyond Earth orbit. NASA managed it in the 1960s and 70s, but only by throwing a huge amount of money at the problem.
In the years running up to the first Moon landing, NASA’s budget was over 4 per cent of US GDP – the largest economy in the world.
As a private company, SpaceX’s books are secret, so we don’t know how much money it’s pumping into space exploration or how likely it is that its efforts will ever be profitable. If all goes to schedule then SpaceX should deliver astronauts to the International Space Station next year, and a lot will depend on how that goes. Glitches could put back any subsequent human flights significantly, but it wouldn’t be the first time SpaceX has done something unprecedented.
SpaceX engineers inspect one of the Falcon 9’s interstage sections
prior to assembly
A Merlin engine being
prepared for testing. The Falcon X carries 10
of these engines
A Falcon 9 rocket touches down one of the two offshore landing platforms
Colin Stuart is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
His books include 13 Journeys Through Space And Time, Why Space Matters To Me and Physics In 100 Numbers